In 2022, it will be 700 years since King Stefan Uroš III Dečanski ascended the Serbian throne in 1322. It was not a simple succession, though: he had unsuccessfully rebelled against his father, King Stefan Uroš II Milutin in 1314, and, as punishment, he was blinded and exiled. He was thus believed no longer to be a candidate for the throne, but his vision was miraculously restored (it is now believed that he was not blinded completely, if at all) and he managed to conquer the throne after his father's death. This anniversary presents an occasion for a comparative overview of requirements for a ruler – or, from a different angle, circumstances that made a person unfit to take the throne or govern a country.
Our anniversary first brings physical disabilities to the fore. These could have impeded potential rulers from assuming the reins of power simply because they were presumed to prevent one from being an efficient ruler, particularly in the periods when a monarch was also a military leader, but also (as a result of ideas widespread in Christian Europe) because of the idealised perception of a monarch as God's chosen representative on Earth who had to embody perfection. There are, however, well-known examples that speak to the contrary, such as Béla II of Hungary, Enrico Dandolo or John of Bohemia. An even more sensitive subject is that of mental disabilities, which were viewed as an even greater hindrance to effective rulership. In some countries, an heir with serious mental health issues would be ex lege disqualified from inheriting, while in some places, particularly in the Modern era, an extensive regency was considered better than a squabble over the throne. The reactions of other political figures to a ruler whose mental health was visibly deteriorating, and thus to the fate of his or her reign, also make for an interesting subject.
The issue of gender must also be raised: while men were the default sovereigns in most countries of the world until well into the Modern Age, some countries accepted women on the throne when there was no suitable male heir; in some it was impossible and a more distant heir would be chosen. Finally, in some legal systems exceptional women did manage to rule, but had to go through a lot of effort to masculinize; their reign in order to be acceptable. Even in ancient Egypt, where women held a remarkably good legal position compared to the other polities of Antiquity, the first female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, dressed and talked like a man to legitimise her rule, and still her successor, Thutmose III, tried to wipe the account of her reign from the records afterwards.
A sovereign’s religion also played an important role. Whatever the dominant religion of the realm, the ruler was expected to be pious, and in some ancient societies was even deified: with such a position came strict standards of behaviour in accordance with religious doctrines. (Akhenaton’s failed attempt to change the ruling faith is widely known.) The need for the monarch (and often the royal consort and heir) to belong to the country’s ruling denomination became a given in the Middle Ages. However, as the Modern Age gradually brought religious freedom and pluralism, as well as a rise in atheism, such provisions began to face criticism – yet they still persist in many modern monarchies. Finally, ethnic background or nationality also plays an increasing role in modern societies, where it is set as a requirement for the ruler to belong to the nation being governed.
Just as all of these issues could present an obstacle to a person’s claim to rulership, so could most of them, too, serve as cause for one’s overthrow. A ruler who suffered a crippling injury or a debilitating illness, who converted to a different religion or was revealed to be a heretic, for example, could, and indeed frequently was deposed. The reasons behind this act, their legality and legitimacy could also be valuable subjects of research. Perhaps more intangible, but by no means less important for a potential ruler’s prospects for success, was his or her charisma. The uncharismatic candidate for power who otherwise fulfilled all formal requirements for rulership might nonetheless have been deemed less qualified than a ‘disabled’ rival who possessed that certain je ne sais quoi which appealed to his or her subjects. In this light, ‘qualified’ and ‘competent’ were not interchangeable criteria in judging one’s fitness to rule.
A final consideration in evaluating a candidate’s fitness for assuming the reins of power concerns how we as scholars attempt to discern contemporaneous criteria for exploring this question. Rules and requirements for exercising sovereignty were, especially in pre-modern societies, often unwritten, and instead relied on oral traditions – whether longstanding or recently invented – and precedents and examples were set by predecessors. The absence of formal, constitutional prerequisites for rulers does not mean that they did not exist in other forms. Evaluating fitness to rule throughout time therefore requires taking account of the broader political order, of ‘constitutions’ both written and unwritten.
We believe a comparative and multidisciplinary approach to these questions could yieldthe best results, and therefore we invite scholars from all fields of sciences and humanities(including, but not limited to, legal history, political science, theology, art history, medical history etc.) to submit their abstracts. We welcome papers dealing with all countries and historical periods, from Antiquity to the Modern Age, regardless of whether they focus on an individual legal system or adopt a comparative approach, whether they are of a broader scope or case-studies, etc.
> The conference language is English. Applications containing an abstract of 200 to 500 words and a short CV should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org by the 31 st of December 2021.
> Participants will be notified if their applications have been accepted by the end of January at the latest.
> For more information, please inquire at the same address or consult the conference webpage (http://wp2008.ius.bg.ac.rs/un-fit-to-rule/) and Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/un.fit.to.rule.2022/).
It is our desire to host the conference live at the University of Belgrade Faculty of Law and we hope that the current progress of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic will allow that. However, a final decision will be made within a reasonable time before the conference. Even if the conference is held live, remote participation via video link will be possible. A book of abstracts will be published as an e-book (with ISBN) before the conference. An edited volume of peer-reviewed conference proceedings will be published after the conference; details will be available to the participants in due course.