Original post 3/7/2006
So, why does a conservative guy have an interest in medieval women's history? It doesn't immediately fit the stereotype, does it? I suppose that a negative assumption could be made that a conservative is interested in medieval women's history because he probably enjoys reading and writing about a time when women were "in their place," so to speak. But that would be a bad assumption if the historian you're talking about is me. I just like the period and--simply put--medieval women are a bit of a mystery (much like all women I might add...). Also, I have two daughters and I guess I'm always on the lookout for good historical role models! What particularly intrigues me is the way that those of the ruling class used their power--either subtley or overtly--to throw their weight around. Anyway, seeing as how the next Carnivalesque is of the Ancient/Medieval sort and that--since it is Women's History Month--the theme of the aforementioned carnival is going to be Medieval Women's History, I thought I'd throw a couple recommendations out there for those unfamiliar with the topic and also write a bit about the power of medieval queens.
Where to start?
For those with an interest in both women and Medieval History, why not start with a woman who did excellent Medieval History (including some dealing with Medieval women): Eileen Power. Her Medieval People is a fine jumping off point for anyone interested in the period and her Medieval Women is a compendium of some of her work in that area.
For a more updated overview of the topic, I'd recommend A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life by Margaret Wade LaBarge. LaBarge has done a fine job of summarizing and also offers a valuable list of sources in both notes and a short but good bibliography. For a more focused study on the intellectual and religious aspects of the lives of medieval women, I'd recommend Elizabeth Petroff's Medieval Women's Visionary Literature. I've read these two books cover to cover, and though some of Petroff's work can be a bit dry for my taste, both are valuable works. Additionally, more popular books on Eleanor of Aquitaine or Heloise and Abelard are out there, though I've never read them (mostly because both are such well-covered topics). Finally, one cannot forget the work of Christine de Pizan, a magnificent woman of her time whose writings have spawned many a scholarly work.
LaBarge's chapter on Medieval Queens in Trumpet, which focused on the societal and political role of queens from the 12th to the 15th century, was one of my favorites in the book. As LaBarge explained, the queens of this era did not have the same amount of power as that wielded by their "mothers" during the Late Antiquity/Early Middle Ages (EMA). To generalize a bit, queens during the EMA were one of a small number of influential advisors at court and thus had a greater advisory role to the king. During the High Middle Ages of the 12th-15th century, royal courts had become more complex and the influx of new officials tended to reduce the role of the queen in governmental matters.
Also by this time, the Germanic traditions of either portioning the kingdom amongst heirs or selecting the ablest heir to rule from a pool of royal relatives had evolved--some would say devolved--to the more linear method of primogeniture. Thus, in the EMA, if a king died with heirs still too young to rule, the queen would often serve as regent and de facto ruler until the heir(s) came of age. It was she who was faced with staving off the attacks of royal uncles against her progeny. (See the Merovingians, for example). She was the safeguard for the hereditary desires of her king. The importance of her role in these matter was reduced by the predictiveness and general acceptance of the practice of primogeniture. The previously commonplace internecine warfare between royal uncles and the heir apparent became less common within a kingdom. As such, there was no need for a mother to serve as a safeguard for her blood. Their legitimacy as heirs was accepted.
Thus, the primary importance of the Queen shifted from being a royal consort who could wield power in her own right to being the vehicle through which the royal blood was continued. Her womb was her most valuable commodity. Yet, an individual queen’s actual power still depended on her relative strength of position as king’s consort and her own personal power, which both tended to be greater the smaller the size of the royal court. Not to be forgotten was the large part that wealth--whether it be traditional wealth in the form of land or treasure or political wealth (connections, connections!!!)--played in establishing her regal gravitas.
The attractiveness of a queenly candidate lay in the priorities of her suitor. For example, Henry I of England made a political decision to marry Edith (or Matilda) of Scotland. She was of Anglo-Saxon extract and the Norman Henry hoped a marriage to her would solidify his legitimacy to the throne. Then there is the case of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was rich due to her holdings in the duchy of Aquitaine and was an attractive prospect to both Louis VII of France and Henry II of England, both of whom she married. (Here's where I have to mention Lion in the Winter--the original, not the remake--as an excellent and entertaining medieval movie.)
Although primogeniture reduced the likelihood that a queen would be appointed as regent, this did not mean that such a situation was necessarily avoided. Eleanor of Aquitaine and her granddaughter Blanche of Castile are both examples of strong women who served as effective regents who ably ruled their respective kingdoms while waiting for the heir to mature.
Conversely, some queens, such as Isabella of Angouleme, were wisely prevented from being appointed regents by royal councils. It was Isabella, who, after being denied the regency of her son Henry III of England, returned to France and decided to replace her ten year old daughter as wife of Hugh Le Brun, count of La Marche. She used her cache as mother of the King of England to obtain lands and lordships for her offspring by Hugh, which leads one to doubt that she would have had held the good of the Kingdom of England paramount had she served as regent. Still others were unsuccessful regents and managed to lose the stewardship of the kingdom. An example of this would be Margaret of Anjou, queen during the English civil war between the Yorkists and Lancastrians. Margaret may have fought bravely against rebellion, but she was also arrogant and suffered from a lack of political realism. She eventually died without a crown and penniless. These examples show that queens did still play an important political role, for good or ill.
The two sisters from Provence, Eleanor and Marguerite, who married Louis IX of France and Henry III of England respectively, provide examples of women who exhibited both the good and bad characteristics of the medieval queen. They could be gracious and compassionate, but they also put great stock in wielding their own power and upholding their rights as individuals and queens. Both often worked tirelessly on behalf of their sons and husbands, but were also extremely partisan. Marguerite used her position to try to exact revenge upon her political enemy Charles of Anjou while Eleanor persuaded Henry III to give gifts to a bevy of her associates.
The careers of these women point to the often dichotomous nature of having a woman with a strong personality wielding significant power. A strong queen coupled with a strong king could be a dynamic duo of regal power for a kingdom; a sort of royal dream team. However, if a king was not strong enough as compared to his ambitious queen, he may have found that the good of the kingdom had been sacrificed for the good of the queen and her followers.
Finally, LaBarge also gave two examples of contemporary idealizations of the medieval queen. One was in the form of the chess allegory (De Ludo Scachorum or De Moribus Hominum ed de Officiis Nobilium Super Ludo Scaccorum), written by Jacobus de Cessolis around 1300; the other was that of Christine de Pizan as outlined in her A Medieval Women's Mirror of Honor: The Treasury of the City of Ladies, written around 1400. (In fact, LaBarge prompted me to attempt to do a comparison of my own between these two works, which perhaps I'll delve into another time). Regardless of which ideal was to be upheld as the more accurate in the abstract, both were often difficult to uphold in reality. As a result, we are left with this final impression: for good or bad, the impact made by a medieval queen upon her kingdom, while often defined by the particular political environment in which she found herself, was primarily a function of the strength of her personality.