Why Macbeth Believed in Tanistry Rather than Primogeniture

    Contrary to Shakespeare's vilification, Macbeth did not usurp the Scottish
throne.  Duncan did.  First in line for the succession was Lady Macbeth; second
was Duncan; third was Macbeth.
    Like most European nations of the tenth century, Scotland did not yet
follow rules of primogeniture (succession by the first-born son).  Instead, they
used the tribal system of succession known in Gaelic as tanistry.  Under
tanistry, a king was succeeded by his oldest brother, then the next brother,
followed by the sons of the first brother, the sons of the second, the sons of
the third, the grandsons of the first brother, the grandsons of the second, and
so on until the system breaks down.  For a tribe, this system had the advantage
of always providing a mature male heir.  If a royal cousin grew impatient to
rule, he could always take his people and move off to a new area.
    But as nations began to be defined geographically, such peaceable
dissension became impossible.  Tanistry produced a rapid succession of old
men; and royal cousins became so numerous that all could not hope to rule
unless they speeded up the succession by foul play.  In places like Ireland and
Russia, the system deteriorated into chaos. But Scotland wisely limited each
branch of the royal family to one king per generation; each group could be sure
of getting its turn....

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