The Political Agency of Royal Women: A Comparative Analysis of Eight Premodern States According to Societal Rules and Roles

Abstract

Comparative analysis of women rulers and main wives of kings in eight premodern states around the globe reveals similar patterns of political agency, or the opportunity and ability to take political action. Queen rulers, regents, and main wives substituting for their husbands in their absence made policy, but they had somewhat less political agency than male rulers. Main wives’ political agency took the forms of influencing policy and people’s behavior (sometimes through their role as patron to others), interceding between their kin and their husbands, advocating for one party or the other, spying, and conspiring. Therefore, women’s political agency ought to be part of any political study. This study builds on the anthropological/archaeological study of agency by drawing attention to royal women’s political agency and showing how the analysis of structural rules and the roles of kings, queen rulers, and main wives illuminates the societal structure in which agency is embedded. By analyzing premodern societies this way, we learn that there is remarkable similarity of agency behaviors among royal women in the eight sample societies, even though the societies emerged independently of one another.

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Acknowledgments

This project was initiated under the John Templeton Foundation grant to the Santa Fe Institute (“The Principles of Complexity: Revealing the Hidden Sources of Order among the Prodigies of Nature and Culture,” Grant No. 15705). With this support, a new database on eight premodern states was developed under the guidance of leading archaeologists Jeremy Sabloff, Henry Wright, Timothy Kohler, and Charles Stanish. Researchers Robert Weiner, Kong Fai Cheong, and Jonah Nonomaque, as well as citizen scientists Jeffrey Cohen, George J. Haddad, Jack M. Jackson, and Shelley Waxman helped develop the original database. This database was then checked by Laurel Bestock, Gary Feinman, Michael Galaty, Abigail Holeman, Peter Peregrine, Patrick Kirch, Gideon Shelach-Lavi, Adam D. Smith, Michael E. Smith, Charles Stanish, Stephen Tinney, and John Ware. Following this process, I tripled literature search to find answers to questions about royal women’s roles and behaviors in their societies. Therefore, the errors are my own. When constructing the tables and attempting to place the data in statistical format, I consulted several colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute: Aaron Clauset, Mimi Kohl, Cris Moore, and Van Savage. It was Michael Lachmann who finally convinced me that statistical analysis of this particular database was fruitless and Laura Fortunato who recommended the format used in the tables presented here. My special thanks go to Jeremy Sabloff. I could not have written this without his support, his love, and his library.

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Sabloff, P.L.W. The Political Agency of Royal Women: A Comparative Analysis of Eight Premodern States According to Societal Rules and Roles. J Archaeol Res 28, 53–97 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10814-019-09131-y

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Keywords

  • Agency
  • Political agency
  • Premodern state
  • Royal women
  • Women’s agency
  • Patron–client relations