Wondrous Wednesday: Keeping it in the family

This one is actually two days late because I wanted to be more timely with the dog story from Monday, and if the Duke and Duchess could wait almost 900 years, they could wait two more days. (Besides, this would have been my father’s birthday, so it’s still an appropriate date in that regard.)

This past Monday was the 868th anniversary of an event that, without which, I wouldn’t be here — or at least not here as exactly the same person.

May 18, 1152, the Duke of Normandy, Henry Curtmantle (also known as Henry FitzEmpress and Henry Plantagenet), married the  Duchess of Aquitaine, Eleanor of the House of Poitiers, recent Queen Consort of France.

She was one of the wealthiest and most influential women in Europe, a leader in the Second Crusade, and considered the most eligible bachelorette at the time her marriage to Louis VII of France was annulled.

Strategically, this marriage gave the Duke control of Normandy, Anjou, and Aquitaine in France, and, when he ascended to the throne as King Henry II two years later, made her Queen Consort of England.

They eventually had five sons, three of whom became the King of England, but I’ll come back to them in a moment. Overall, their marriage wasn’t the most loving, and Eleanor did spend some time locked in a tower at her husband’s behest.

There’s an amazing film worth looking up, The Lion in Winter, which stars Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole at the height of their powers as the Queen and King, along with early appearances by Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton, and Nigel Terry, who would go on to play King Arthur in Excalibur. It’s worth a look. Here’s the original trailer, but keep in mind that it’s from the late 60s, when all film trailers were cheesy as hell.

As for their sons, Henry the Young King was actually crowned while his father was alive but never given any real power, and died in the summer of 1183 — which is the year that the movie above takes place. Out of the three left, Richard, Geoffrey, and John, Geoffrey died before he could become king.

Meanwhile, Richard is known as Richard the Lionheart, although he spent little time actually ruling in England — perhaps as few as six months. The rest of that time, he was off fighting in the Crusades or being held captive for ransom.

He was succeeded by the youngest brother, John Lackland, perhaps most famous for being perennially cast as the bad guy in Robin Hood reboots, signing things over to the barons with the Magna Carta, and being vilified in a Shakespeare play that didn’t treat his mother Eleanor so well either.

And yes, there’s a reason that England has never had a King John II and it would be him.

But when he wasn’t spending his time being not such a great king, he was nailing every woman in sight, including one named Agatha Ferrers, a daughter of the Earl of Derby, and from that relationship sprang a single strand in the elaborate chains of DNA that twisted their ways down through almost nine hundred years of history until I was born with a little bit of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and all of their ancestors before in me.

I’m working off of memory here because I’ve apparently added so much information across most of my father’s side of the family now that trying to run a relationship calculation between myself and Henry and Eleanor causes an error that crashes the program, but I think that they were something like my 36th great-grandparents.

Now, if the number of direct ancestors strictly doubles in each generation — two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on — then 36 generations back, we would each have a total of 68,719,476,734 ancestors. That’s 68 as in billion, as in nearly ten times the current population of the planet.

Keep in mind, though, that this is the total of all ancestors over time. When it comes to just great-grandparents of the 36th remove, then you have only half that number, 34,359,738,368.

That’s still a lot, and it leaves a very tiny scrap of DNA from each ancestor at that level in you.

Or does it?

See, there’s one interesting phenomenon that a lot of people would like to ignore or claim doesn’t exist, but it’s been a lot more common through history almost down to the modern age than everyone likes to admit. I’ll get to the phenomenon in a moment, but the result is something called pedigree collapse.

In a normal progression, if you start with an individual of the generation labeled as n=1, their parents as n=2, and so on, then at each level, the number of expected ancestors will simply be two to the power of one less than the generation; 2(n-1).

21= 2 parents; 22 = 4 grandparents; 23 = 8 great-grandparents, and so on.

But there’s an obvious problem here. As we go back in time, the available population shrinks. It’s all fine until about 1300, but at that point, available human population drops to 360 million while necessary ancestors per individual doubles to over 536 million.

And that’s not even doing the complicated math of figuring out how big the numbers explode if the only people who share the exact same common ancestors are siblings. And there’s the rub. Or the dirty truth.

The only way around this, as mentioned, is pedigree collapse, and the only way around that is what a lot of modern people in the west would get skeeved out about and call “incest.”

But it’s been happening for centuries, especially via cousin marriage.

First cousins, for example, share one set of grandparents by definition, because their parents are siblings, so they are related. If first cousins marry, they suddenly turn two sets of grandparents into one and halve the number of common ancestors immediately.

The same happens with more distant cousins, of course, but the point is that we could not have happened as a species without it. And if the idea of incest to even closer degrees grosses you out, FFS don’t look into the world of dog or horse breeding, and especially don’t look up the family tree of the Habsburgs. Keep in mind, though, that they were diddling much closer relatives than cousins.

But, really, throughout history, because people didn’t really travel all that far from their home villages if they were commoners, marriage options were limited. Such arrangements also limited the need for dowries — what, Bill is going to expect his brother Jack to buy his daughter’s hand for his son with some goats? Nah. Keep it in the family.

Oddly enough, the same mechanism was going on with royalty, except on a grander scale, and it was all about land, power, and real estate. So the Prince of West Nobbington was the brother of the Duke of South Fartberg, but they both needed to ally against the Earl of Greater Twatfrumple. Hey — they’ve got kids of about the same age and plug-n-play genitalia under the norms of the time. So what if they’re cousins? Make them marry, combine the lands, and suddenly the Grand Principality of Nobbingfart is powerful enough to make Twatfrumple not so great.

That is European history in a nutshell.

Sometimes, it leads to extremes, like the above noted and severely inbred Habsburgs. Most of the time though, not. And, by the way, the genetic dangers of first cousin marriages are exaggerated. However, for any direct ancestors or descendants, aunts/uncles and niblings, full or half-siblings, or combinations between said groups, then no. Just… no. Don’t even think it.

Step-whatevers… you’re not related, so it all depends on circumstances otherwise. But first cousins and more distant have been having at it since forever. That’s been the norm, not the exception.

If you only think it happens in backwoods places in the U.S., think again. Franklin Delano Roosevelt married his cousin Eleanor (maiden name, Roosevelt), and they were no hicks. He was from a wealthy family, and elected president of the U.S. an unprecedented (and unrepeated) four times.

This trimming the tree on the way down has been absolutely necessary, and even in the most apparently incest-free for generations of families, it can lead to some oddities. Again, my software isn’t letting me check it right now, but I do remember at one point I did a couple of relationship calculations to find out, for example, that Queen Elizabeth II and I are varying degrees of very distant cousins on multiple levels about half a dozen times and, technically, I’m even related to my own father about eight ways, although most of those are, again, in the distant past.

Ultimately, of course, since we all go back to the same common ancestors, human and prior, we’re all related anyway, and we all share DNA with each other. Technically, any two humans hooking up are committing incest. It all depends on how close you want to set the limit.

Image source: Funerary effigies of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, public doman

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