Miriam Shadis

title.none: Parsons, Medieval Queenship

identifier.other: baj9928.9405.004 94.05.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Miriam Shadis

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Parsons, John Carmi, ed. Medieval Queenship. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993. Pp. viii + 264; 18 black-and-white illustrations, genealogical charts. $49.95.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.05.04

Parsons, John Carmi, ed. Medieval Queenship. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993. Pp. viii + 264; 18 black-and-white illustrations, genealogical charts. $49.95.

Reviewed by:

Miriam Shadis

Including the introduction by its editor John Parsons, titled "Family, Sex, and Power: The Rhythms of Medieval Queenship," this collection contains the following essays: "Roles and Functions of Queens in 'Arp'adian and Angevin Hungary (1000-1386 A.D.) (János M. Bak); "Queenship in Medieval Denmark" (Inge Skovgaard-Peterson with Nanna Damsholt), "Women at the Court of Charlemagne: A Case of Monstrous Regiment?" (Janet L. Nelson), "Mothers, Daughters, Marriage, Power: Some Plantagenet Evidence, 1150-1500" (John Carmi Parsons), "Queens-Dowager and Queens-Regent in Tenth-Century Léon and Navarre" (Roger Collins), "Capetian Women and the Regency: The Genesis of a Vocation" (André Poulet), "The King's Mother and Royal Prerogative in Early-Sixteenth-Century France (Elizabeth McCartney), "The Portrayal of Royal Women in England, Mid-Tenth to Mid-Twelfth Centuries" (Pauline Stafford), "Reigning Queens in Medieval Europe: When, Where, and Why" (Armin Wolf), and "Female Succession and the Language of Power in the Writings of Twelfth-Century Churchmen" (Lois Huneycutt). As their titles indicate, the essays in this volume explore the varieties of experience and interpretation of medieval queenship in Europe from the ninth to the sixteenth centuries.

There is a certain dissonance among the essays collected in this volume. The traditional, descriptive approaches of the first two essays on Hungarian and Danish queenship, and the essay on hereditary queenship are informative, but lack the theoretical and conceptually challenging interpretations of queenship offered by the other essays. These essays show that women could be queens (or at least, queenly) by reason of their positions as mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, or aunts; that fertility, or conversely, virginity could be their strongest asset, and strongly suggest that well known, contemporary sources deserve re-evaluation with the tools available to modern historians of women. Ultimately they call for a closer look at current understandings of the specifically female office of queenship, a look which I believe will provoke reconsideration of medieval politics in general.

Because queens in medieval Hungary and Denmark are the least known, Parsons has chosen to start off the volume with the essays by Bak and by Skovgaard-Peterson and Damsholt. As fairly straightforward narratives of the experiences of royal women in Hungary and Denmark, the essays are similar to Wolf's "Reigning Queens," which identifies those twelve women in Europe between 1350 and 1450 who claimed to inherit a variety of realms (and thus in at least one instance is redundant with the above; compare the discussions of Margarethe I of Denmark). Wolf's essay provokes the question "What is a queen?," for he applies the most limited definition of queenship in identifying the women in his study as queens. Wolf's essay is next to last in the volume, and seems oddly out-of-place; placed earlier it might offer a working definiton of queenship against which the other essays could be tested. The essay is rather brief, and bears all the indications of being an unrevised conference paper. This is unfortunate as readers will want to know more, especially about the queens who came before his carefully delineated period. Furthermore, Wolf does not offer much in the way of gender analysis, something which I think most readers will want to explore, and with which other essays (especially Huneycutt, Parsons, and Poulet) engage.

The order of the essays is somewhat puzzling; they are neither strictly chronological nor grouped together according to kingdom, nor according to theme. Skovgaard-Peterson's, Bak's, and Wolf's essays complement one another as they are straight-forward discussions of queens (however defined as consorts, heiresses, or regents) in Denmark, Hungary, and Europe at large respectively. Huneycutt and Stafford present interesting essays on the interpretation of contemporary sources regarding the legitimacy and sources of queenly power, and queen's own influence on the writing of contemporary history; as lessons in interpretation, it strikes me that these might be read first as a historiographical exercise. The essays by Parsons, Poulet, McCartney and Collins engage with the most interesting problems, and probably not coincidentally, deal with the kinds of queenship that was perhaps the most acceptable to medieval powerbrokers, the most dependent upon the personal abilities and qualities of individual women, and the least definable: the roles of royal women as mothers and/or regents. Collins' essay is also important in highlighting the differences among queens, related to the different political contexts in which they lived.

The unwritten consensus of the authors is that royal women were generally accepted as transmitters of family power — especially when they themselves had been denied access to that power, as in the Visigothic tradition of requiring dowager queens to enter the cloister (from whence they still might guide their sons), or under Salic Law in France. Poulet's essay on the development of Capetian regency is based on his supposition that medieval queens were like other medieval women in that their role was defined relative to the roles of men (pointed out also by Huneycutt, as a contemporary conception of writers such as John of Salisbury or Bernard of Clairvaux). Poulet does not consider explicitly, however, how women's roles were defined by pregnancy and childbirth — experiences often essential to queenship. I take issue with his definition of a queen as an archetypal medieval woman, differing only in the prestige of her office, for that very prestige brought her into a different realm of health, fecundity, foreigness (discussed by Bak and Parsons), and political influence. Poulet's position that royal women were no different from other medieval women is essential to his thesis that out of this domestic and legal confinement they were able to develop a calling as regents. I am uncomfortable with this broad generalization about medieval women, but overall Poulet's efforts to explain the operation of gender in society are important to understanding medieval queens as women. Poulet's work thus exemplifies the need for future work on queenship. His interpretation, to be effective, needs comparison: do other European dynasties handle gender in the same way as the Capetians? McCartney's essay on Louise of Savoy continues to map out the development of female regency in France; both authors show how royal mothers such as Blanche of Castile and Louise made a political space for themselves in the government of France as regents for their royal sons.

Parsons, who has an advantage as the collection editor and thus could refer to other essays in the volume (something from which the other writers might have benefited), proposes that women in the Plantagenet family exercised significant influence over the matrimonial fate of their daughters, and that this influence not only demonstrated the value of daughters, but also a level of "self-realization" drawn from mothers' own experiences as daughters. Furthermore he proposes a "multicultural perspective" on the part of these queens, with which some readers will doubtless quibble as a too modern construct, but which I found convincing as a paradigm for accessing queenly mentalité. Nelson's essay on the women at the court of Charlemagne discusses explicitly the problems faced by royal women in a polygynous society, and stretches in a very useful way the limits of interpreting or identifying the office and role of queenship when she suggests that Charlemagne's daughters might be seen as a type of collective queen, negotiating the family politics of competition between Charlemagne and his sons. Ultimately, she finds, that the "crowd of girls" (one kind of regiment) only held an ancillary, dependent power, and were thus no regiment at all (in John Knox's infamous sense of rulership). So, while Nelson provokes a reconsideration of the definition of queenship, she also recognizes along with Poulet and Parsons the degree to which women in power colluded, of necessity, with the patriarchy under which they lived. These essays serve as an important contrast to Wolf's in that they challenge his (not unreasonably) narrow definition of queenship, something with which (perhaps like feudalism), scholars should be prepared to grapple.

Medieval Queenship is a nicely produced volume, with some interesting and well explicated black-and-white reproductions of medieval architectural elements and illuminations. Unfortunately, the cost in cloth will be prohibitive to students, who would be most likely to find these studies useful. I found the method of citation (both in-text and end-notes) distracting; the compiled bibiliography of both printed primary and secondary sources, however, is thorough and helpful in and of itself. The volume is indexed. Overall this book will be of interest to both historians of medieval politics and of medieval women. Specialists in medieval women's history will be interested in the number of individual (and some, 'til now, quite obscure) women presented here, and will want to read the essays to test various applications of feminist theory (regarding reproduction, or the question of public and private spheres, for example). Specialists in medieval political history who have not thought about gender will be enlightened by the careful considerations of the scholars here, and will be challenged to rethink the management of power and authority within royal circles. Those who have been studying queenship for some time may not find any earth-shattering or ground-breaking perspectives on the institution itself, but may make use of the essays which cover areas outside their own, either chronologically or geographically. The volume will be most useful, however, to students who are beginning to combine the fields of gender and political history, and who should be especially careful to note the ways in which the authors exploit their sources. _Medieval Queenship_ succeeds in collecting an interesting variety of essays about European medieval queens, and points out very clearly the need for further study of gender and rulership in the Middle Ages.