Emergence and Power — Four 13th-Century Sisters Who Became Queens

“[S]ome systems … are very sensitive to their starting conditions,
so that a tiny difference in the initial push you give them
causes a big difference in where they end up, and there is
feedback, so that what a system does affects its own behavior.”
— John Gribbin, Deep Simplicity


Emergence is the occurrence of genuinely new and novel qualities that are unique to a system and thus separate from its components.

Emergence can be a tricky concept, but it is an extremely useful model to explore. It allows us to understand why some things are greater than the sum of their parts. It demonstrates that power can arise from components that on their own are relatively powerless.

A school of fish is a perfect example. If you studied the movement of one fish, you would have no appreciation for the shape and behavior that 10,000 of them together will produce. Essentially, the complex behavior they exhibit as a group is more than the physical motion of each individual fish.

Understanding that organisms, including humans, can self-organize into systems that have properties that are unique to the collective is a lens through which you can better understand the behaviors of large organizations such as a bureaucracy, political system, or a marketplace.

Western Europe in the 13th century was almost dysfunctional. The borders of England, France, and Germany were not what we’d recognize today, and most rulers spent their time (and money) constantly reorganizing the geopolitical boundaries. Peace treaties were seasonal and monarchs would go into enormous debt to finance various exploits designed to take, or take back, land. Taxes were a certainty. Not so much who you’d be paying them to.

Women of the royalty and nobility were a huge component of these ‘raising funds for invasion’ schemes. Maybe beauty mattered, and there is some evidence that Kings and Queens did occasionally love each other. But money mattered more. High-class women came with dowries of lands and goods, which helped fund the ongoing conquests.

So women didn’t get to choose whom they were going to marry. It was like Monopoly trading – I’ll give you Pacific Avenue for St. Charles and Ventor and free rent for the next five rolls.

In 1230 four sisters lived in Provence, then part of the Holy Roman Empire (now part of France). Their father was a Count, which made them nobility, but not royalty. They didn’t have loads of money, but they were pretty. They had good marriage prospects, but not amazing ones. They should not have all ended up as Queens. And yet, that’s what happened.

Nancy Goldstone, in her book Four Queens, explains the geopolitical maneuverings that brought about this extraordinary set of circumstances.

Marguerite, the eldest, was the first to marry. She was chosen by the Dowager Queen of France, Blanche de Castile, for her eldest son Louis IX. Provence’s neighbor Toulouse was acting up, violating his treaty with France and the Dowager wanted friends in the region. A storm was brewing with England, and she knew France couldn’t handle a war on two fronts. So Marguerite, pretty, but of inferior rank, was chosen, as long as her family could provide a dowry of 10000 silver marks (needed for, among other things, dealing with the English). They couldn’t, so they pledged some Provence real estate which was good enough for all parties and the deal was done.

Eleanor was next, the second eldest of the sisters. She married Henry III, the King of England. Eleanor was even a less obvious choice than Marguerite. Henry III was broke, and what little liquid assets the Provence family had all went to Marguerite’s marriage. Goldstone argues that it is the first marriage that made all the difference for the second.

Marguerite’s marriage to the King of France had elevated the position of all the sisters. Plus, Henry was sick of losing to France and so sought Eleanor out. If Blanche “had selected a daughter of the count of Provence to be the wife of her eldest son [which] carried weight with Henry. … There must be something to it.” Essentially the King of England wanted what the King of France had.

The third daughter, Sanchia, was the unfortunate victim of her older sisters’ success. Also unhelpful was that she was rumored to be the most beautiful of the four. She was propositioned by Henry’s brother, Richard, the Earl of Cornwall and the richest man in England. They married, and Goldstone shows how her family connections helped him eventually buy the title of King of Germany, then part of the Holy Roman Empire (allegiances changed before Richard could be crowned Emperor.)

Finally, there was Beatrice. Because he had no sons, the father of the four sisters chose his estate, the rule of Provence, to be passed down to his youngest daughter Beatrice upon his death. When he died, she was still single and therefore had the best dowry to offer. Perhaps due to a dearth of available kings, she married the King of France’s youngest brother, Charles. Goldstone notes that they were well matched in terms of ambition. Their political and military endeavors eventually gave them the title of King and Queen of Sicily.

The key concept of emergence that is at play here is that components of a system self-organize to produce a state of affairs that is neither obvious nor predictable if you focus on the capabilities of the components themselves. The coming together produces capabilities that are new.

The internet encyclopedia of philosophy explains it this way:

Effects are resultant if they can be calculated by the mere addition or subtraction of causes operating together, as with the weight of an object, when one can calculate its weight merely by adding the weights of the parts that make it up. Effects are emergent if they cannot be thus calculated because they are qualitatively novel compared to the causes from which they emerge.

The power that each sister wielded in each marriage, if we generally consider how much power an individual woman would have had in a royal relationship, does not add up to explain their immense influence over the events of the mid-13th century.

Goldstone writes that “almost nothing of significance that occurred in western Europe during the period in which they lived was not influenced by the actions of this family. It is impossible to fully understand the underlying political motivations of the thirteenth century without them.”

The thing about emergent phenomenon is you can’t point to the components and say, ‘oh yeah, it’s because of this and that’. Like the school of fish, you can’t say, ‘they’re moving this way because of fish number 8 and number 63’. You can only look at the behavior of the school as a whole. And this whole has, for example, a power to evade predators that the individual doesn’t have.

So too with the sisters from Provence. Looking at the influence Marguerite developed over her husband or the fact that Eleanor and Henry ended up respecting each and thus worked as a team is not enough to explain what they could achieve. It wasn’t Sanchia alone who got Richard a crown, and Beatrice’s money didn’t directly buy Sicily. The sisters were, in varying degrees, determined, smart, pious, ambitious, and beautiful. And they all had sons. But although these things may have played a part, you can’t point to any of them and say it was the deciding factor in the influence they had. The reach of the collective was more than adding up the reach of each individual. A higher degree of power emerged, and one that couldn’t have been predicted.

Goldstone tells of the reaction of the family when one of the Queens’ uncles was captured in battle. “The news of his capture spread quickly to the courts of Europe and the family took immediate action. In England, Henry and Eleanor shut down trade with northern Italy, and forcibly detained all merchants and citizens from Asti and Turin who happened to be visiting at the time. In France, Marguerite had Louis follow suit, an action that resulted in hundreds of arrests. She then demanded a payment of ten thousand pounds, in addition to the release of her relative, as a condition of freedom. Beatrice of Savoy, the sisters’ mother (in a bit of a power struggle with her youngest daughter over lands in Provence), ordered her soldiers to close the roads between Switzerland and Provence and took numerous prisoners. Sanchia even persuaded Richard to do his part by forwarding the money needed to underwrite a rescue attempt. Faced with the poverty brought on by the imposition of what were, in effect, international economic sanctions, the citizens of Asti realized their mistake, and let Uncle Thomas go.”

If Marguerite was the only one of the sisters who was a Queen, would the King of England and his brother have actively participated in the rescue of an ally of the King of France? Likely not, given the history between the two countries, which, both before and after, was characterized more by war than cooperation.

The sisters didn’t always work together, but this supports the explanation of emergence, which occurs due to interconnectivity and complex causal relations, not from any organized, external control factor. The power the sisters had was not conscientiously developed and wielded, it was more a force that influenced behavior and outcomes for an entire continent for over 30 years.