Mythologies- Barthes on… Royal Families

In Barthes’ essay The ‘Blue Blood’ Cruise, he seeks to display a disparity in culture between the working class and the royal family. The disparity is so much greater than even that between the working class and the super-rich that we struggle to imagine them living out their lives in the same way as us. This shows that the gap is greater than that which he displayed in The Writer on Holiday.

He draws our attention to a spectacle in the news at the time of his writing. The public were starved of stories about the royal family and craved to read something about them. A royal cruise was announced, and the theme? The coronation of Queen Elizabeth! It appealed to the sentimentalities and interests of the public wonderfully. By catching the public’s eye, they were immediately back in favour.

Although it caught the hearts of the masses, something about it presented its self as humorous. The image of a king or queen living and behaving like Joe public amused people greatly. That was the cultural disparity. It had all the workings of a Shakespearean comedy, the mistaken identities; the joke being delivered merely by its being acknowledged by people. Such was the shock that they lived the lives of the everyman upon the Royal cruise that newspaper headlines read “Kings shave themselves!” as if something so natural to the public was unnatural to royalty. Indeed, many people would chuckle to fancy the English Queen popping to Tesco for a microwave curry meal.

Their status wasn’t merely that of the celebrity, but that of the God-human. Kings were of course established and understood to be holy in essence. There was divinity within the very blood of kings and queens. Although people sarcastically say ‘us mere mortals’, there is a truth to that in the historical character of the royal ancestry. They are purebred and we are mongrels, to use the words Barthes employs.

The Royal family have of course been secularised now. They have saved their social status as God-people by calling to this ancestry. Although they have lost this status as holy, they have retained the lineage. They were bred through many generations to be our superiors. Whatever they do or do not do with their lives, we can never be as great as them, it’s simply not in our blood! This factor has maintained their places in golden thrones, in rich silks, eating the most expensive foods by brigades of the greatest chefs, whilst the working classes eat their baked beans and their chips and their stews in their rented homes. To employ the idea that they are superior by blood is also to employ that we are inferior by blood, such things exist as relative values, determined by counterpoints.

In playing the farce of living the lives of the mongrels, there was always the risk that the comedy of cultural incongruity would reduce their status. Has that happened today? Some would say so. People still maintain an adoration for their Royal families. Maybe this is rightly so. Their very existence maintains the vibrancy of the backbones of many nation’s histories. The histories of our ancestors could be argued to live through them; people think of nations in the pursuit of conquest, divine rights bestowed by popes, the creation of nations… Others prefer to believe a history where their ancestors are traced through workhouses, worker’s guilds, and prisons. Either view seems equally as valid, however it is certainly true to say that their status maintains an aspect of history. It makes real the details of textbooks.

What we can say, history aside, is that the cultural position of royalty does seem to have changed by degree. Once upon a time, the lives of royal families were veritably sacred, but we now live in an age where royal weddings are given exclusive coverage to magazines like Hello!, and newspapers discuss the bottoms of other royals! Culturally, the working society has reached a point where the status of the royal families has been separated from their history, and they instead begin to maintain their position through the lives of the celebrity instead.

It is worth noting that the secularisation of the royal family came not only from without, but within as well. Prince Harry once said that he felt so disillusioned about being royal that he “wanted out”. If somebody felt that they had divine bloodlines, it seems rational to assume they wouldn’t be disillusioned. One doesn’t become disillusioned with themselves, but with their relational identity in the world. It also speaks volume as to how far they themselves, or at least Harry, feel that lineage and celebrity image justify a person’s social value.

The takeaway we have from this essay is that even the strongest symbols, such as that of royal status, are still transient. They are also contingent on other factors. Once people lived more secular lives, the status of Royalty was forever to decline. Never, of course, to be gone, but still to recede. We also see that humour can arise when life seems not to make sense. We have an expected idea of other people and things in the world, and when they don’t function the way we expect them to, life feels out of balance. As we slowly dethrone the name of the royals, our blood seems a little bit less muddy.

This post is in series, to read the others CLICK HERE.

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