The Medieval Review 10.06.10

Earenfight, Theresa. The King's Other Body: María of Castile and the Crown of Aragon. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. Pp. 242. 49.95 ISBN 978-0-8122-4185-3. .

Reviewed by:

Barbara Weissberger
University of Minnesota

This book is the first to deal entirely with the fascinating figure of Queen María of Castile (1415-1458). María served as lieutenant general of Catalunya for twenty-six years, while her husband Alfonso V, King of the Crown of Aragon, was in Italy, occupied with the conquest and governance of the kingdom of Naples. Late medieval Aragon and the reign of Alfonso V (1416-1458) in particular have been thoroughly studied by distinguished historians like Paul Freedman, Thomas Bisson, Jaime Vicens Vives, Jess Lalinde Abadía, and Alan Ryder. All of them, however, have downplayed or overlooked the role of María, assuming that it was secondary and passive. Earenfight's study thus gives credit overdue to María and her unusual position of power. The book is solidly grounded in painstaking archival work and familiarity with the relevant modern scholarship on late medieval Aragon. Its first goal, admirably achieved, is to demonstrate that unlike queen-consorts or queen-regents, María's queen-lieutenancy was defined by real and effective governance.

Lieutenancies and similar positions in Europe arose in the late twelfth century, with the development of political theories that distinguished between the person and the office of the king. In Aragon, queens had been lieutenants since the early fourteenth century, but María exercised the powers more fully than any of her predecessors. It was a role at which she clearly excelled. The study documents her political savvy, her flexibility, and her effectiveness in a crisis. Although her authority was delegated by the king (in Alfonsine documents she is termed alter nos, i.e., his alter ego), she wielded significant power. She convoked the powerful parliament (Corts) and headed a royal council (Consell) and law court (Audiència) separate from the king's. An astonishing ten thousand documents from her rulership exist in the royal archives, testifying to her involvement in a wide array of issues.

The second goal of Earenfight's study is more theoretical. Using María's lieutenancy as a test case, she calls for a theoretical reformulation of the standard historiographical views of gender in late medieval monarchy. The very real sovereign powers María wielded during the two periods of her queen-lieutenancy serve to challenge the traditional view of queens as subordinate to their spouses. The author instead posits queenship as a "discursive practice," an anthropological term used by Foucault and others to focus on not only representations but also a wide range of actions and interactions. María's active rulership, she argues, reveals that monarchy functions as a relational, dialectical partnership, and that its power is a dynamic and shifting set of force relations.

In the brief introductory chapter Earenfight discusses her sources--mostly unpublished archival documents--and theoretical orientation--postmodern theories of gender and power. Chapter two is primarily biographical. It focuses on María's Anglo-Castilian upbringing and preparation for queenship. Although similar in some ways, the Castilian and Aragonese laws and traditions regarding queens differed. Castile allowed for women to inherit and rule in their own right; Aragon did not. Equally important is that in the federative Crown of Aragon, royal authority was theoretically limited by a form of contractual government that came to be known as pactism. In Castile, no such limits on the monarch were mandated. The fact that María remained in Castile until she married undoubtedly affected her understanding of queenship and its possibilities. On the other hand, the tradition of queen-lieutenancy in Aragon had institutionalized the notion of queens as partners with their husbands. Her long marriage to Alfonso was, in fact, little more than a political partnership, due partly to Alfonso's prolonged absence from Aragon and María's failure to produce an heir to the throne.

The next two chapters deal with the two distinct periods of María's lieutenancy: from 1420 to 1423 and from 1436 to 1453. Chapter three deals with the earlier period. It also provides a useful overview of the history of the governmental lieutenancy in other European kingdoms and in Aragon, where the need for such a position responded largely to the Crown's possession of territories across the western Mediterranean. During her brief first term, María had to deal with the resistance of the parliamentary assemblies of Catalunya, the Corts and Diputació del General. The wealthiest of the Crown's realms and the one with the closest ties to Alfonso, Catalunya resented Alfonso's prolonged absence and resisted the delegation of his authority to María to convoke its governing bodies. It was an obstacle María would face repeatedly throughout her lieutenancy. Another persistent difficulty was that from 1432 to 1453 she shared the lieutenancy with Juan of Navarre, Alfonso's brother and heir to the Aragonese throne. Juan's bellicose nature and his repeated interference in Castilian affairs made both Alfonso and the Catalans distrust him, and was a thorn in the side of the more diplomatic and strategic María.

Chapter four deals with María's second, mature lieutenancy, beginning in 1436. In 1440, recognizing her skill at governance, Alfonso increased her control over finances, and then repeatedly prevailed upon her to raise much-needed funds for his Italian ventures. She was forced to undertake such unpopular initiatives as the recuperation of royal lands that had been alienated starting in the fourteenth century. Weaknesses in the Catalan economy and conflicts within the patrician oligarchy and bourgeois associations of Barcelona starting in the late 1440s only made matters worse. Earenfight ends the chapter with an iconographic analysis of a manuscript illumination painted during this time by Bernat Martorell showing the queen presiding over a session of the Consell de Cent of Barcelona, which she argues clearly indicates María's recognized sovereign authority.

The major crisis of María's lieutenancy is the subject of Chapter five. It was the struggle over the manumission of the remences, peasants tied to the land in an archaic and oppressive quasi-feudal system. The struggle among the remences, the nobility and urban landowners, and the crown was a contributing factor to the catastrophic civil war that took place between 1462 and 1472, years after the deaths of Alfonso and María. Earenfight reviews the history of the institution and then examines in detail the years between 1447 and 1453 when the issue polarized Catalan society. The tension was due not only to economic self-interest on the part of the nobles and the king, but also to differing views on who was entitled to decide such an important matter. María was in favor of ending the servile status of the remences, and saw their situation in moral terms as well as political ones. Earenfight considers her actions on their behalf one of the most enduring of her accomplishments as queen-lieutenant. Alfonso, on the other hand, wavered in his attitude toward the remences, repeatedly granting and revoking their manumission for political and financial reasons. María's frustration with Alfonso's policies and the deterioration of her health led finally to her resignation as queen-lieutenant in the summer of 1453. This unprecedented action illustrates both her highly-principled character and the limits on her power:

The office of the queen-lieutenancy in and of itself serves Earenfight's theoretical goal of redefining monarchy as a "malleable, permeable, elastic, and multivocal political institution..." (135). Using María's queen lieutenancy as a paradigmatic example of that definition is to this reader less convincing. Although the author contends that María wielded real power, what comes across most vividly are the multiple constraints placed on her authority: her husband's subordination of the interests of his Aragonese subjects to his Italian ambitions and financial needs, the fractiousness of her sometimes co-lieutenant Juan of Navarre, the ongoing resistance of the Corts, and the intractable problem of the remences. As regards gender, in her conclusion Earenfight maintains that there is no evidence of misogyny directed at María, and that "gender was an issue, but one so deeply embedded in culture and society that its presence is not apparent in the words preserved in registers" (133). One wishes that the author had allowed her readers to judge this for themselves by quoting María's own words. She frequently refers to the letters exchanged between María and Alfonso and the extensive chancery documents that María signed, but the queen-lieutenant is oddly silenced in this study about her.

It could well be that the reason there was no opposition to María's gender was because, regardless of whether the lieutenancy was occupied by a man or a woman, the office was structurally gendered feminine because of its subordination to and dependence on the king. As Earenfight observes of María: "She was the kings lieutenant, and powerful as that office was, it was always held at her husband's pleasure" (127). This is brought home by the poignant fact that in 1457 Alfonso tried to annul his forty-two year marriage to María. He had acquired a new young mistress who might provide him with the male heir María had never supplied. It is unclear whether María was aware of this last of many marital and political betrayals; she died the following year.

The office of the queen-lieutenancy survived one more generation. Juana Enriquez, wife of Juan of Navarre, occupied it from 1464 to 1468. In 1535, her great-grandson King Charles V transformed the lieutenancy into the viceroyalty. In that new form it was used to rule the vast Spanish empire in the New World.

Theresa Earenfight is to be commended for producing a well-researched, detailed picture of the Aragonese queen-lieutenancy and of the strong, effective leader who occupied the position at the culminating moment of its history. The book's emphasis on monarchy as a shared institution will be of particular interest to scholars of medieval Iberia, who have mostly studied the phenomenon in Castile. Scholars of European monarchy, traditionally focused on northern Europe, have much to learn from it as well.