08 June 2020

How Europe’s aristocrats
were better at breeding horses
than at breeding themselves

Philip of Habsburg with Juana the Mad … illustrating a book review in ‘The Economist’

Patrick Comerford

Throughout the lockdown, I have missed going into coffee shop and bookshops, and I have missed some of my favourite publications that have been part of my regular reading, including the New Statesman and The Tablet.

I miss reading regular contributors to the New Statesman such as Rowan Williams, Jonathan Sacks and Lucy Winkett, three of the great intellectuals and most thoughtful theologians in the England today.

Thanks to the kindness of neighbours and parishioners in Askeaton, I have continued to red The Irish Times and the Guardian almost daily, and thanks to family members I have postal subscriptions to the Economist each week and Private Eye fortnightly.

These have been regular reading all my adult life, and I have come to appreciate them even more during this time of semi-cocooning as a way of keeping in touch with ‘real life out there.’

The latest edition of the Economist has yet to arrive in the post, but the previous edition arrived late, in the middle of last week, and I am getting extended value out of it, from cover to cover.

Apart from its news coverage and insightful analysis, I also enjoy the Economist for its obituaries and especially for its cultural section. In particular, the book reviews are pithy and witty, informative and enjoyable, so much so that in recent months I have bought a number of books online after reading a review in the Economist.

These books include Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey through the Twentieth Century (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2019).

The previous edition of the Economist includes a review of The Habsburgs by Martyn Rady, recently published by Allen Lane and soon to be published in the US by basic Books.

This is an interesting combination of politics, history and genealogy, for it is impossible to imagine Europe for more than five centuries without the Habsburgs, described in this review as being ‘mad, bad and dangerous to marry.’

I have learned in recent weeks, as I explored the exotic claims to titles and aristocratic ancestry by a variety by people – from Count Henry Jerome de Salis (1740-1810), who was a canon and a priest in the Diocesan of Limerick or the two contemporary but unrelated incumbents in this diocese who claimed separately to hold the ancient title of The O’Hanlon, to Sir James Fitzgerald who lived in Lichfield and had no entitlement to the Irish title of baronet he used – that all genealogical explorations need to begin with a sense of humour and large pinches of salt.

It is a point made in another way by the reviewer in the Economist who writes, ‘If you ever wondered why marrying your uncle is inadvisable, the Habsburgs can enlighten you … The result was less a family tree, branching and widening, that a convoluted web.’

But to give an idea of the pungent wit and approach of the anonymous reviewer, here is a selection of quotations from this book review to illustrate the engaging quality of many of the cultural features in the Economist:

‘Philip of Habsburg … counted among his ancestors such unpromising genetic material as Albert the Lame, Leopold the Fat and, in age that excelled in the honest epithet, Frederick of the Empty Pockets.’

‘[This] book is billed as “the definitive history” of the clan. Not, it must be said, a hotly contested title.’

‘Once the names of Europe’s most powerful families – the Bourbons and Battenbergs and Garibaldis – were known across the world. Today, beyond the biscuit tin, they are largely forgotten.’

‘It is one of the abiding puzzles of European history that its aristocrats, so good at breeding horses, should have been so bad at breeding themselves.’

‘A list of the territories ruled by Charles V in 1521 notes that he was “King in Germany, of Castile, Aragon, Leon …”; the text runs to13 further lines and still ends with a breezy “etc”.’

‘[T]he Spanish Inquisition … did its job so effectively that even tattoos were censored.’

‘Over [the entire 16th] century, the output of the printing presses in Lima and Mexico was limited to fewer than 200 titles, most unbearably dull.’

‘Leopold I … is often criticised for spending too much on opera and too little on architecture, but this is unfair.’

‘Dante popped a Habsburg in his Purgatory, Titian immortalised them and Velazquez painted them.’

And the reviewer concludes: ‘Pre-20th century Europe is unthinkable without the Habsburgs – as indeed is 20th-century Europe. For on June 28th 1914 a Habsburg named Archduke Franz Ferdinand got into an open-topped car and went for a drive in Sarajevo.’

The review alone makes me want to get back into the bookshops, and makes want to buy and read this book. And reviews like this make me thankful for the family members who renew my subscription to the Economist.

● Martyn Rady, The Habsburgs, Allen Lane; 416 pp, £30; to be published in the US by Basic Books in August; $32.

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