The Medieval Review 13.04.15

Bianchini, Janna. The Queen's Hand: Power and Authority in the Reign of Berenguela of Castile. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. Pp. xii, 350. $69.95. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4433-5 . . .

Reviewed by:

Teofilo F. Ruiz
University of California, Los Angeles

It is a pleasure indeed to have the opportunity to review Professor Bianchini's fine recent book for The Medieval Review's readership. The Queen's Hand (is this a tongue-in-cheek reference to The Game of Thrones series? Is Ferdinand III, Berenguela's Hand?) is an excellent and thorough book. It offers a new understanding into the manner in which Ferdinand III of Castile came to power, into the life of Berenguela, one of the most significant and intriguing Castilian medieval rulers, and into the workings of princely power in medieval Castile. It offers new perspectives on how to look at the history of women and, most of all, at the history of power. As such, it fits perfectly into some recent scholarly trends on these overlapping subject.

Over the last decade or so, there has been a great deal of attention paid to queenship and co-rulership in medieval Iberia and Europe. This has meant, most of all, a focus on the role of queens in political life. Most recent monographs have addressed the Crown of Aragon with little attention paid to Castilian queens (although there is an older hagiographical and biographical tradition--sometimes is difficult to distinguish between the two--that has examined the lives of Castilian queens, as well as an enduring interest in the life and policies of Isabella the Catholic). Three queens ruled outright in medieval Castile: Urraca in the early twelfth century (there is a detailed book on her reign by Bernard Reilly), Berenguela, the subject of Bianchini's book, and, of course, Isabella the Catholic, though a case could certainly be made for Maria de Molina in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century. Coincidentally, Miriam Shadis also published recently a book on Berenguela, though it deals with very different aspects of her life than those explored by Bianchini, and it is written in different thematic and methodological keys. It is also worth noting that the University of Pennsylvania Press has played a central role in promoting these new approaches to the history of women as rulers and the extent of their authority through its Middle Ages Series. The University of Pennsylvania Press' support for these enterprises have allowed for new approaches in our field.

Berenguela of Castile (1180-1246) was a remarkable political actor in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries kingdoms of León and Castile. Often eclipsed by her better known sister, Blanche of Castile, or by her formidable grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Berenguela was nonetheless a noted ruler in her own right. Her political savvy and understanding of how power works is depicted brilliantly in Bianchini's study. Although Bianchini has organized her book in chronological fashion; this is not a biography. Each of the seven chapters explore Berenguela's relationship to power at specific stages in her life. In Chapter one, we meet Berenguela as Infanta and heir to the throne of Castile. We learn of the network of patronage and lordly relations that were central to the art of ruling in Castilian kingship. With the birth of a male heir, Berenguela's succession to the throne of Castile was put aside. Instead, she was married to the heir and eventual king of León. Without abandoning her extensive network of patronage or her lordly clients in Castile, Berenguela had to develop new political ties as the new Queen of León. Chapter three traces the difficult years, 1204-1214, after her marriage was annulled at the insistence of the Church. Berenguela returned to the Castilian court as a former queen but also as mother of a possible heir to the Leonese kingdom. Chapter four focuses on her short stint (1214-1217) as regent for her brother Henry I, while the three concluding chapters examine her role as Queen of Castile, her adroit negotiations, leading to the ascent of her son Ferdinand III to the throne of León, and a final chapter on the least known--and thematically most significant section in Bianchini's presentation--part of her life, the period of co-rule with Ferdinand III from 1230 to the year of her death in 1246.

This is a book that it is difficult to place within a specific methodological category. Although it makes some gestures to a feminist rendering of the Queen's life, it is not a book on female rulers per se. Rather, she provides a chronological road map (this is also, as pointed out earlier, not a biography) of Berenguela's deployment of, and relations to, power and authority. We see the different stages in her political career. Early in her life, she is one of the princesses in the court of her father, Alfonso VIII, a venerated and very successful king, though only towards the end of his reign. Briefly she became the heir to the throne of Castile, and then Queen of León. After the annulment of her marriage to Alfonso XI, she became the heir and, after the death of the young king of Castile, Henry I (1214-1217), Queen of Castile. In Bianchini's formulation, she also served as co-ruler alongside her very formidable son, Ferdinand III. Traditional historiography (which in this case also partially includes me) has often dismissed Berenguela from any notice or from the idea that she played any significant role in the kingdom's political affairs once Ferdinand rose to the throne in 1217. Thus, Bianchini's restoration of Berenguela to the center of political life in the first half of the thirteenth century is a most important revision of, and contribution to, our understanding of the period.

By a careful and insightful reading and semantic analysis of the charters' language (as for example the charters' use of singular or plural registers), Bianchini shows quite convincingly the extent of Berenguela's participation in the government of the realm. Important in these strategies of ruling were the Queen's relations with the high nobility (both the Castilian and Leonese nobilities), her patronage of nobles and ecclesiastics, her control over property, and her complex relationship with her diverse and, often times, contentious and powerful clients. The Queen's piety and patronage of shrines also played a role in how she constructed and maintained her authority. Bianchini never exaggerates her claims. Her reading of the documentation and contemporary sources is properly cautious and intelligent. What she lets us see is the interweaving of property, patronage, and royal largesse in the construction of queenly power. Many years ago (1979) I mentioned that Berenguela had abdicated in favor of her son Ferdinand III; I am now convinced by Bianchini's argument that the transition from Berenguela to Ferdinand III was a complex, and hitherto not fully understood, sharing of power. That confirms Bianchini's arguments for a dual kingship. One more thing ought to be noted. At every step of her chronological depiction of the Queen's political role, Bianchini carefully and judiciously contextualizes the political setting in which Berenguela lived and acted.

This is an excellent book. Her arguments are presented in a clear and persuasive manner. Very much like her mentor at Harvard, Thomas Bisson, her main interest is on questions of power, made far more pertinent by having a queen and not a king as her case study. Very much like Bisson, she has also a fine ability to read documents with a sensitivity to small details that is rare now-a-days. Thus, her findings provide a nuanced view of what were the possibilities and limits of female rulership. More than that, her book restores Berenguela as one of the most influential and capable rulers of medieval Castile, something that the realm seldom had. As such, Berenguela and her sister Blanche, Queen of France and regent to her son, proved to be worthy heirs to their grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine, and both excellent examples of the influence and authority that women could exert in medieval Europe.