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The death of the ruler poses a significant threat to the stability of any polity. Arranging for a peaceful and orderly succession has been a formidable challenge in most historical societies, and it continues to be a test that modern authoritarian regimes regularly face and often fail. Moments of succession often turn violent, unleashing civil and/or international wars. In a new book on European monarchies in the period AD 1000-1800, Professor Jørgen Møller leverage the natural death of rulers to identify exogenous variation in successions.

Professor Møller will discuss how civil wars were more likely in the wake of natural deaths than in normal years. Likewise, he shows that the natural deaths of rulers were associated with an increased risk of being attacked by external rivals, possibly taking advantage of weakness in the regime, or using the succession as a pretext for realising other political aims. His work shows that the risk of succession wars was lower in states practicing primogeniture – the eldest-son-taking-the-throne – than in states practicing elective monarchy or agnatic seniority (brother inheritance). Primogeniture presented a reasonable compromise that in “normal” circumstances allowed for an orderly transfer of power while minimising threats to the incumbent ruler. Today, representative democracy does the same, but in a very different way where frequent rotations in power and guarantees against the misuse of power are used to lessen the stakes of leadership succession.

About the speaker

Jørgen Møller is professor of political science at Aarhus University. He works on historical and contemporary patterns of democracy, authoritarianism and regime change. He combines both qualitative and quantitative evidence to answer a wide range of research questions about the origins and nature of political regimes.

Professor Møller will present research from his co-authored new book, The Politics of Succession: Forging Stable Monarchies in Europe, AD 1000-1800 (Oxford University Press, 2022). The book addresses one of the big questions of social science: what happens when the ruler of a polity dies or is dethroned? It is the first book to use large-N data to systematically map and analyse the importance of succession in European state-formation from a historical perspective. The presentation will focus in particular on the impact of succession of patterns of war and peace.

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