The (Deformed) Human Face of Incest?

During Tuesday’s seminar, we had a discussion on the fact that incest has been an universal taboo throughout history for all cultures except in respect to royalty. The idea of royal incest is simply baffling and incomprehensible to most people today. Why did societal morals condemn inbreeding among commoners while at the same time tolerating and in many cases encouraging royals and nobles to do the same? Despite the fact that they clearly knew, as shown by texts such as Oedipus Rex and the Bible, about the birth defects that could result from such unions?

There has been lots and lots of examples throughout history of the physical and intellectual side effects of inbreeding, the most familiar to Western readers are the Habsburgs. The last Habsburg king of Spain, Charles II’s jaw was so deformed that could not chew food properly and had a number of severe mental and physical disabilities in addition to infertility, which caused his line to finally come to an end. On the Austrian branch of the family, Emperor Ferdinand I suffered a host of problems including epilepsy (having up to 20 seizures a day), a speech impediment, and hydrocephalus and when faced with a revolution in 1848, famously remarked to his chief minister: “Are they allowed to do that?” Throughout this blog, I will be mostly examining their particular motives for inbreeding, though inbreeding was also common among many other royal houses throughout history, including the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt to which Cleopatra belonged as well as past Kings of Thailand and Korea.

The reason that inbreeding can cause so many negative characteristics is due to the fact that because the more similar the genetic information of both parents are, the more likely it is for negative genetic traits to be expressed and accentuated until they result in extreme examples like the Habsburg jaw. This greatly increases the chances for rare genetic disorders like hemophilia or schizophrenia to be passed onto their descendants.

The truth, as truths usually are, is a little more complicated than it may at first seem. There has been a good deal of contention over the topic of whether the incest taboo is a result of nature or nurture, whether it is an innate fear that we have or is it something taught to us by culture. Freud would no doubt tell you that this revulsion towards incest is an innate impulse which creates a sense of uncanny but it is also true that the definition of incestuous relationships differ from culture to culture, as well as from period to period.

Endogamy, marrying within one’s own social class or culture or religion in order maintain a distinct identity, has long been a common practice in a majority of societies across the world, royal intermarriage is just an extreme example of that. In many European countries, in order to ensure the elevated position of nobles and royals over commoners, laws were created demanding that people must not marry outside their social class.  In countries like Spain or Austria-Hungary, if the sovereign married a commoner, their children would be disqualified from inheriting the throne. And since according to the Great Chain of Being no one is equal in rank to a monarch except another monarch (not even the highest of nobility). Marrying one’s subject can severely upset the balance of order by causing the consort’s family to become overly ambitious and marrying a noble from one’s own country can cause rivalry between competing noble family. Marrying other royal families abroad is also an excellent way to increase diplomatic ties with another nation, with many important questions such as peace and war often resting on marriage alliances.

Marriage between different royal families was still problematic because this allowed the opportunity for dynastic lands to fall into the hands of rival royal houses; for example, the circumstance could arise where the king died without any issue and the next closest heir is the king of a rival kingdom. The Habsburgs were exceedingly good at this, inheriting huge swathes of territories by marrying into other noble and royal houses during the Middle Ages. This policy even gave rise to a motto: Bella gerant alii, tu, felix Austria, nube!”, meaning “Let others wage war, you happy Austria, marry!”  Soon the Habsburgs became so terrified that someone else would try to steal all they’ve gained through this same method that they eventually resorted to marrying among themselves.


The Poster Boy of Royal Incest, Charles II of Spain

During the course of my research, I discovered the rather surprising fact that despite the Habsburg’s  reputation for incest, they never really committed incest as it is universally recognizedWhile certain types of inbreeding, such as sister-brother or mother-son relationships, has always been condemned throughout history,  partnerships between blood relations such as cousin-cousin relationships and even avunculate (uncle-niece or less commonly aunt-nephew) relationships were prevalent among all sectors of society in the West until quite recently and is still common in many parts of the world today. In many small, isolated communities, a certain degree of inbreeding was often unavoidable if the population wanted to avoid extinction.

This demonstrates that the original conjecture that there was one set of expectations for inbreeding for royals and one for everyone is far from completely accurate. The reason that inbreeding among royals and the nobility was so common was not so much because of personal preference as much a result of political paranoia. It just came to be that the Habsburgs were often too suspicious of other royals (often for good reasons) to marry them and because they had a duty to ensure the continuance of the House at whatever cost, they had no choice except to engage in interdynasty marriage, whether they liked it or not. As the role of royalty, and consequently royal marriages, became less important on the political stage, the practice royal intermarriage also died out, as monarchs are for the first time in history free to marry for reasons love rather than political expediency.

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