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
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