Friday, December 09, 2016

The Habsburg Genealogical Implosion

Long after the end of its scions’ sovereignty, the Habsburg Dynasty remains famous for the grandeur and elegance of its imperial capitals, Madrid and Vienna in particular, and the tangled genealogy of its monarchs. Inbreeding narrowed the family’s cultural horizons and gave some members congenital physical defects as well. Ferdinand I of Austria, whose most memorable sentence was “I am the emperor and I want dumplings,” suffered from hydrocephaly and severe epilepsy. His parents were double first cousins and probably bequeathed their royal son more than his fair share of recessive genes. The Habsburg palme d’or in royal inbreeding and disability probably belongs to Ferdinand’s ancestor, Carlos II of Spain (1661-1700). Carlos’s maladies included vertigo, seizures, and an overdeveloped jaw that interfered with eating and talking. He probably also suffered from depression, impotence (he died without issue), and a learning disability – certainly he never received much formal education. Like Ferdinand’s, Carlos’s family tree had too few forks; where most people have 32 great-great-great grandparents, King C only had fourteen. His contemporaries thought him not so much inbred as “bewitched,” the sobriquet they pinned on him when his back was turned.

Before dismissing Carlos as a useless idiot, however, let the reader note that his defects did not prevent him from moral reasoning or from making significant decisions. The last Spanish Habsburg’s most consequential decision was one he took when writing his will, wherein he left his throne to Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV. France’s political rivals, including England, the Netherlands, and the Holy Roman Empire, formed an alliance to prevent unification of the French and Spanish crowns. The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) ensued. Less opprobriously, Carlos’s mother bequeathed him a passionate hatred of Native American enslavement, and as king he issued two proclamations, in 1676 and 1679, that banned Indian slavery throughout Spanish America. His governors honored the ban primarily in the breach, but Carlos’s instructions did force officials to develop legal fictions and workarounds if they wanted to preserve slavery de facto. Let us give Bewitched Carlos credit for doing as much as any distant monarch could do to emancipate his subjects. (Andres Resendez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America [Houghton-Mifflin, 2016], 137, 145-146.)

Let me apologize, too, for not giving poor Ferdinand the credit he deserves. Despite his disabilities and speech defects, King Ferd could communicate perfectly well in writing, and after his abdication he became a competent businessman; his successes in that field put him ahead of several American presidents. His physical disabilities, such as they were, did not prevent him from becoming an active sportsman or living a good long life – Ferdinand held on until the age of 82, something neither of my parents managed. Let us dine on dumplings in his honor.

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