The Problem of Older Brothers

This blog post may be a bit less convoluted than some, because it’s a rant about one general assumption found in earlier medieval scholarship which is so wide-spread that I’ve never even seen it verbalised, but you can find implicit pretty much everywhere: that when there are brothers the most important brother is the oldest.

The most obvious example of this are the three sons of Richard the Justiciar: Ralph of Burgundy, Hugh the Black and Boso of Vitry. Ralph of Burgundy became king, and if you read around you’ll find most historians making the assumption that he was the oldest brother of the three. Yet he’s only attested in 916, whereas Hugh the Black is attested sixteen years earlier, in a royal diploma of Louis the Blind dating from 900 where he’s already a count and clearly important enough to be sent on expeditions to see the king of Provence. Ralph might be the oldest brother, but it’s not proven!

Even more the case of King Odo. It is generally assumed that Odo is older than his brother Robert of Neustria, and again it might be the case. The two siblings were certainly of a similar age. But again, there is as far as I know no specific reference to Odo being older than Robert. In fact, if it is true that Robert was a count near Liège whilst Odo was still hanging around on the family farm in Worms, that might suggest the opposite.

Sometimes, you can prove traditional ideas of who’s older. Arnulf the Great of Flanders, who used to be one of my big hopes for being demonstrably-if-not-provably a ‘younger but more important brother’, actually turned out to be the opposite: re-reading Folcuin of Saint-Bertin’s history of his abbey, I found a reference to Arnulf being maior natu – older – than his brother Adalolf. It’s a shame not to be able to back up my point here, but it is at least a reminder of how rare statements this explicit are.

witger
Still not important enough to be mentioned explicitly in Witger’s genealogy: Saint-Omer, BM ms 776, fol. 33v (source)

Why might this matter? The answer has to do with how succession worked in the early middle ages. We know, I think – and certainly I’ve argued – that norms of succession are extremely flexible, more so than they’re given credit for, and this is part of that. The assumption that the personal who eventually gets the high office must be the older child seems to me to be unconscious, reflex-level part projection of post-twelfth century(-ish) rules of succession-by-the-eldest-male onto a period where that may not have been the case. Ralph is a good example, actually – he might have been a good candidate for king because of his age, sure; but it’s remarkable that both is brothers appear to have been rather more parti pris in the recent and extremely controversial civil war than he was… Age may have been completely irrelevant here. The point is, that unless we recognise this assumption as an assumption, there’ll always be that barrier to our understanding of succession in the earlier middle ages.

(I am, for the record, an older brother myself, so there’s no personal dog in this fight…)

3 thoughts on “The Problem of Older Brothers

  1. Great post! Just to check, am I right in substituting ‘no’ for ‘now’ in ‘But again, there is as far as I know now specific reference to Odo being older than Robert’? I found the paragraph a little confusing otherwise.

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    1. …I dunno what you mean, it’s been ‘no’ all along…

      Someone asked me once how I update this thing so regularly. One part of the answer is the time I save by not proof-reading…

      Like

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