Fiona Downie

title.none: Sutherland, Five Euphemias (Downie)

identifier.other: baj9928.0102.002 01.02.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Fiona Downie, University of Melbourn,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Sutherland, Elizabeth. Five Euphemias: Women in Medieval Scotland 1200-1420. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Pp. 7, 282. $35.00. ISBN: 0-312-22284-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.02.02

Sutherland, Elizabeth. Five Euphemias: Women in Medieval Scotland 1200-1420. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Pp. 7, 282. $35.00. ISBN: 0-312-22284-X.

Reviewed by:

Fiona Downie
University of Melbourn

Despite the flourishing interest in the history of medieval women, little attention has yet been paid to the history of medieval women in Scotland. A number of essays on Scottish medieval women appeared in the 1990's but Elizabeth Sutherland's Five Euphemias: Women in Medieval Scotland, 1200-1420 is, as far as I am aware, the first full-length book on the subject. It is unfortunate, therefore, that a book of such significance should be so flawed.

The book describes the lives of five Scottish women of noble birth, all of whom were called Euphemia. The individual story of each Euphemia is told in order, and the biographies are linked in the book by a number of 'Interludes', in which the events of the intervening years are outlined. In fairness to Sutherland, and as she herself admits, the limited nature of the contemporary sources makes it extraordinarily difficult to successfully write the story of the five Euphemias "as fact [rather] than fiction". [11] It may also have been overly ambitious to suggest that five well-born women from the same region could act as "symbols of their age" and to structure an exploration of "what it was like to be a woman in medieval Scotland" around their individual stories. [11] Rather than using the limited information about five women to illustrate the lives of the majority, a study of the majority may have illuminated the lives of the few. There are a number of passages in the book which could have been developed into a reasonable account of the world in which Scottish medieval women lived. These include discussion of clerical views of women [53], marriage practices [68-71, 77-8], the contrast between wife as subject and wife as her husband's lieutenant [78-9], pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood [79-85], medieval gardens [152-5], patronage and fashion [158-61], chivalry [179- 82] and medicine [221-3]. A reorganisation of these passages into a thematic structure and a wider reading of scholarship on medieval women and medieval women of power--Henrietta Leyser's Medieval Women, A Social History of Women in England 450- 1500 and Jeremy Goldberg's Women in Medieval English Society are the only such texts listed in the bibliography- -would have enabled Sutherland to illustrate the different and sometimes conflicting identities of medieval women.

These identities are not fully realised within or across the five biographies. To overcome the lack of information necessary to flesh out these individual life stories, Sutherland creates a sometimes bizarre mix of Celtic practices, contemporary sources, Leyser's Medieval Women, a considerable amount of medieval Scottish political history (better told elsewhere) and unfounded speculation. This latter is a particular problem, especially when speculation becomes reified as fact. Writing of the marriage of Euphemia, Countess of Ross, to Alexander Stewart, Sutherland speculates that Alexander "must have made himself attractive to the widow" Euphemia and "must have used all his Stewart charm to woo her". [198] In addition, "[i]t may have been his involvement with and commitment to Gaeldom that appealed to Euphemia". [200] By the end of the chapter, however, Sutherland declares that Euphemia "was undoubtedly attracted to his flamboyant personality and his identification with a Gaeldom disregarded by her first husband". [204] The second Euphemia "emerges as a charming manipulator" [121] only if the reader accepts Sutherland's speculations that Euphemia amused, charmed and persuaded Edward I to treat her husband and children well [111], that she "may have used all her wiles to persuade" her husband [115], that she "urged" her husband [116], that she "whisper[ed] in his ear", that she "charm[ed]" him. [117]

Much of this speculation is presumably intended to make the five Euphemias come alive for the reader, to make their thoughts, hopes and actions familiar to a modern audience. The intention is a good one, but its execution diverts attention from the considerably more significant details of what it meant to be a woman in medieval Scotland. The unsubstantiated role of "charming manipulator" obscures the second Euphemia's important role as defender of her family and estates during the Anglo-Scottish Wars. Euphemia maintained her family's estates during her husband's captivity, sent messages of advice and loyalty to Edward I, and despatched her son at the head of a group of townsmen to relieve the English garrison at Castle Urquhart. Sutherland states in her 'Acknowledgements' that she has "tried to demonstrate how a woman was on the one hand a possession first of her father then of her husband and finally of her eldest son, yet, at the same time, a figure of power and influence within the politics of her castle". [11] While she achieves the first to some degree, she fails to portray adequately her five Euphemias as women of power. We see them as daughters, sisters, wives and mothers but only catch tantalising glimpses of the women of influence. The coronation of the third Euphemia, for example, provided Sutherland with an opportunity to discuss the way in which the ceremony was based on, and commented upon, medieval views of gender and power. This opportunity is missed. Sutherland writes: "For some reason Euphemia was not crowned with Robert. Her own ceremony took place at Scone some months later. She was about forty- eight years old and Robert ageing at fifty-five. His energy and good looks were fast deteriorating and he was beginning to suffer from a serious eye complaints." The remainder of the paragraph discusses the nature of this complaint and its effect on Robert II's ability to "control his children and his unruly nobles". [157] This is typical of much of the book: the female subjects of the study, the five Euphemias, are mentioned in passing before the main, masculinised narrative returns to the deeds of their husbands, fathers and sons. In this particular case, moreover, the important question of why Euphemia should have been crowned after her husband, or even whether Scottish queens were normally crowned with their husbands, is not addressed. I would suggest that the delay was caused by succession politics. Euphemia's coronation occurred before the passing of an entail determining the order of succession and was part of a broader strategy to prevent her sons from her first marriage displacing their step-brothers in the order of succession. The relationship between the influence of the queen/mother and the authority of the king/son is not discussed at this point or elsewhere.

Some of Sutherland's speculation regarding the five Euphemias and the men they encounter comes straight from the world of romantic fiction. Sutherland speculates that the second Euphemia "genuinely admired" Edward I "for he had all the qualities to attract a woman". [112] The third Euphemia "may have fallen in love" with the future Robert II because he was (in Bower's words) "beautiful beyond the sons of men, stalwart and tall, accessible to all, modest, liberal, cheerful and honest". He had "all the Stewart charm" and enjoyed the company of women. [149] The fourth Euphemia may have admired the crusading career and coat of arms of her husband, Walter Leslie. Sutherland elaborates: "Perhaps like [Chaucer's] Squire he whistled and sang, danced and jousted, wrote poetry and made hot love to her. Let us hope so, but the clues are not encouraging." [189] Not only are the claims unsubstantiated and the language repetitive, the recurrent theme of powerful women overwhelmed by potent men seriously undermines any attempt to portray them as women of power. Is it not possible that these women sought political advantage or were forced by necessity to act in the way they did? Sutherland herself admits that the fourth Euphemia "would have been conditioned" to overlook any flaws in her husband's character [189] and that marriage was a "career" for young women [134] but does not fully develop this theme. In resorting to the language of attraction and charm, Sutherland not only underestimates her female subjects but also misses the significance of some of the events she describes. In her "Afterword", Sutherland misrepresents the submission of Alexander, Lord of the Isles, to James I in 1429: "Always attractive to women, he owed his future to Queen Joan, who pleaded to the king for his life." [239] Sutherland's source for this story is not given--the lack of proper footnotes is another major flaw in the work--but this statement is at odds with Bower's (contemporary) version and with modern scholarship on intercession. Bower makes it quite clear that it was not the queen alone but "the queen and the more important lords of the kingdom" who interceded for Alexander. The king needed to achieve some kind of reconciliation with Alexander without losing face, and the queen and lords provided him with the means to do so. Far from the spontaneous act of a smitten queen, the act of intercession to which Alexander "owed his future" was a choreographed statement of the king's power and mercy.

And one final criticism: this book is in need of a good editor. Sentences such as "Hence his nickname 'Toom Tabard', empty surcoat, though this is also thought to symbolise his alleged inadequacy as a leader, and there is contemporary evidence that the style Toom Tabard was applied to Balliol during his lifetime" [96] should never have made it into print. "Robert, orphaned of his mother when he was born by Caesarian section when she died in childbirth after a riding accident, and of his father at the age of eleven, had been raised as heir to his grandfather for the first eight years of his life" [136] is not much better.

In spite of all of these flaws, Sutherland has drawn attention to the neglected history of medieval Scottish women. She has recognised that the story of these women is worth telling, and the publication of this story is indicative of its widespread interest. It is to be hoped that scholars of medieval Scottish history will note this interest and utilise their skills to analyse and explore the complex story of women in medieval Scotland.