You are here

John Watkins: The Marriage of Nations

Professor examines the history of diplomatic marriages through a literary lens
June 20, 2017

Detail from cover of John Watkins' AFTER LAVINIA

Detail from cover of John Watkins' AFTER LAVINIA
Detail from cover of John Watkins' AFTER LAVINIA

What if, to resolve the Iraq War, George W. Bush's daughters had been married to Saddam Hussein's sons? "It's a completely grotesque suggestion," McKnight Distinguished University Professor John Watkins acknowledges. "Our world doesn't work like that." But for centuries diplomatic marriage was embraced to keep peace between nations. Watkins' new book asks how and why the practice became accepted in Europe—even as literary genres rose up to give voice to concerns about it, eventually shifting the moral values associated with those marriages.

Professor John Watkins
Professor John Watkins

After Lavinia: A Literary History of Premodern Marriage Diplomacy (Cornell University Press) is part of a new movement of diplomatic history that, as Watkins says, "looks at the events of European state relations less in terms of the hardcore politics and more in terms of the larger cultural implications." As proposed by Watkins in a frequently cited 2008 article "Toward a New Diplomatic History," these scholars examine a wider body of evidence—in this case asking: how are diplomatic activities portrayed in a period's art, music, and drama? What role does the production of art play in the forging of international relations? After Lavinia deals extensively with such writers as Virgil, Spenser, Shakespeare, Corneille, and Racine.

As Watkins explains below, exploring the rise and fall of medieval and early modern dynastic marriage, of "nations coming together in love," led him finally to discoveries about peace-keeping challenges in our modern world.

Would you describe the book's structure, its arc?

I trace how the meaning of diplomatic marriage changes as you go through various times in history. The first half is: why does this practice become so important by the European Renaissance? It seems to begin with the taking of hostages. Eventually the stories become associated with Christian conversion, so that the wife is no longer hostage but the bearer of Christianity to a pagan king. By the time of the Crusades, you get an explosion of these marriages. A lot of that is about using these marriages to unite Christendom against the Muslim enemy. The second half is: what goes wrong with this practice? What factors start breaking it apart?

"Some of the most famous marriages
in the history of France probably never
happened." - Professor John Watkins

This long history of marriage diplomacy is intimately linked to the history of literary genres. For example, once you start getting the regular patterning of such marriages, wham, you have an emergence of French Romances, medieval romances, that are often about stories of adultery and bad marriage. By the 12th century, the woman has to consent by law for the marriage to happen. Now in actual fact we have only one complete documentable case where a princess says, "No, I'm not marrying this jerk." What you do get is a surprising number of romances about women desperately wanting to be married to someone else. So I think that the literary texts give a voice to the imagined sufferings of the women in these marriages, in a way that a legal system doesn't really do.

How does your treatment of historical materials differ from that of traditional historians?

The chronicles that I use are typically treated by historians whose primary question is "How accurate is this material?" I'm less concerned with the overall accuracy of the account than with what it stands to teach us about attitudes toward marriage, legal and diplomatic relations between kingdoms, and the connections between these two seemingly different modes of human experience.

Some of the most famous marriages in the history of France probably never happened. Like the story of the time that Rollo the Viking invades what we now call Normandy—as in the "North men"—and has made it all the way to Paris. Finally, a peace treaty is cut between the king of France and Rollo the Viking that Rollo will marry the king's daughter and stick with Normandy and not take over the rest of France. As part of the ceremony he's supposed to kiss the king's foot, because he's receiving Normandy as a fiefdom. He takes the foot and raises it to his mouth, knocking the king onto the floor. It's a wonderful story. It almost certainly never happened, in part because there is no other record of the alleged daughter than Dudo's chronicle, which was written 100 years after the event, and Wace's, 60 years after that. Yet the story matters hugely for the way subsequent people both in France and Norman England talk about their histories.

What drew you to this topic?

I think it was writing about Elizabeth I [in the 2002 book Representing Elizabeth in Stuart England: Literature, History, and Sovereignty]. The strange thing, of course, about Elizabeth is that she doesn't marry. She's constantly negotiating and considering marriages, but never goes through with it. Working on a queen whose marital history was eccentric to say the least made me hyper aware of the complexities of these marriages and of their ties to literary cultural production.

What is your favorite story from the literature of dynastic marriages?

The story of Rosamund of the Gepids is the best. The Gepids are defeated by the Lombards, and the king of the Lombards forces the Gepid princess to marry him after killing her father. He then has her drink from her father's skull. She murders him. I once included this horrific story in a talk at the Newberry Library [in Chicago] complete with little skull goblets set around my podium.

What were the joys and challenges of this particular book?

I suddenly realized how long the story had to be. I had originally imagined it as a book about early modern Europe. But there were too many questions that could only have medieval answers.

I spent a lot of time at the Bibliothèque National, in Paris, which is one of the most amazing and eerie libraries you could ever use. It is hyper modern. It's one of the most sterile environments I've ever seen, for a library. When you're living in the heart of historical Paris, to leave all that gorgeous Belle Epoque architecture and descend into something that modern, to look at extremely old materials. . . there’s something wonderful about it.

The book shows how a one-time commonplace practice, that we may take for granted, is in fact a story with a start, an end, and many layers of meaning. What might we be taking for granted in modern times?

As the modern state system evolved from the 17th century on, diplomacy based itself on a rational model, not an emotional model. Gone were the days when you would have a sort of pretended love affair between your children to forge relations. With that is a loss of being able to talk about emotional things, in a diplomatic context. And I think that creates a problem for the modern world when you're up against questions like "Why do they hate us?" We still find ourselves needing a place for the emotions, a place for the arts, in the forging of state relations. Part of the loss of the old medieval marriage system was we forgot how to talk about the possibility of nations coming together in love, putting hatred aside; that vocabulary was so discredited that it now seems absurd, and yet . . . we're dealing now with so many irrational things.