09.02.07, Silleras-Fernandez, Power, Piety, and Patronage

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Theresa Earenfight

The Medieval Review baj9928.0902.007


Silleras-Fernandez, Núria. Power, Piety, and Patronage in Late Medieval Queenship: Maria de Luna. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Pp. xx, 250. ISBN: 9781-403977595.

Reviewed by:
Theresa Earenfight
Seattle University

Maria de Luna (ca. 13581406), Countess of Luna, Duchess of Montblanc, Queen of the Crown of Aragon from 1396 to 1406, and Queen-lieutenant in 1396-7 and 1401, is unfamiliar to scholars whose work focuses on the realms north of the Pyrenees. She is unfamiliar even to many Spanish historians. In this neglect she is in good company. Until recently, most scholars knew about Urraca of León-Castilla, Isabel of Castile, Juana the Mad, and a few Habsburg queens and empresses, thanks to the work of Bernard Reilly, Therese Martin, Barbara Weissberger, Peggy Liss, Bethany Aram, Magdalena Sanchez, and Jane de Iongh and others. But queens who lived between 1109, when Urraca ascended to the throne of León in her own right, and 1474, when Isabel did likewise in Castile, toiled in historiographic obscurity compared to their English and French counterparts who claim a lot of shelf space in libraries and bookstores. Simply bringing Maria de Luna to light makes this book by Núria Silleras Fernandez a welcome addition to the field of queenship studies.

But Power, Piety, and Patronage in Late Medieval Queenship: Maria de Luna is more than just an introductory bow to a prodigiously talented woman. Silleras Fernandez organizes her study around a quartet of formal authority, family relations, religious patronage, and household and court as the basis for a theoretically sophisticated argument about the place of queenship in the institution of monarchy. This beautifully written and meticulously documented book takes up the vexing problem of monarchy for the rulers of the Crown of Aragon, a dispersed federative state in the western Mediterranean, where the "ideal of a monarchy as the authority of an all-powerful king was more theoretical than real...delegation of royal power and the duplication of royal personality was the only solution and yet there could be only one king" (2). The problem of how to govern this unruly realm was solved by kings in the early fourteenth century who created the office of the Lieutenant General and then assigned the task to a succession of competent and trustworthy queens. As a queen in the Crown of Aragon in the later Middle Ages, Maria de Luna's power may have been "limited and derivative" (37), but as queen-lieutenant for her husband, Martí I (r. 13961410), she forcefully and shrewdly wielded legitimate political authority and power. Martí's reign was a pivotal moment in the history of the Crown and governing alongside him as queen-lieutenant, Maria de Luna "did not challenge or undermine the image of the monarch but, rather, completed it" (4).

Scholars of queenship have devoted considerable attention lately to politically active queens, but one strength of this book is that it focuses on and balances both the feminine and masculine aspects of monarchy. As Silleras Fernandez notes, this is a study of the dynamics of monarchy where the queen's authority "derived from Martí's position as king" but her power "depended on the quality of their relationship" (94). Likewise, Martí's authority as king derived from his legitimate birth to a royal couple and the death of his brother without a legitimate heir to succeed him, but his successful exercise of power depended on his great good fortune to be married to a talented, loving, and dutiful woman. Silleras Fernandez draws on an impressive array of archival evidence to support her argument that Maria embodied both masculine and feminine aspects of monarchy. She was simultaneously a generous wife and mother, pious patron, diplomatic intercessor, and a tough-minded governing partner and shrewd, strategic lieutenant-general.

Born into one of the most prestigious noble families in the Crown of Aragon, Maria de Luna was the eldest daughter of Count Lope of Luna (d. 1360) and Brianda d'Agout and inherited her father's estates in toto. When she was four or five years old, she was brought to the royal court of her future husband, Martí, second son of Pere the Ceremonious and Elionor of Sicily where she was mentored by her mother-in-law, who wielded considerable authority in her husband's reign, and who served as Maria's model for a good and useful queen. At her marriage in 1372, she was endowed with considerable lands and the rights to lordship; this, coupled with her inheritance and generous grants of land added later by Martí, put husband and wife on par in terms of wealth and authority and set the tone of their marriage. Maria and Martí forged a genuine political partnership in the twenty-four years before the death of Martí's brother Joan in 1396 and their ascension as king and queen. Together they had four children, only one (Martí the Young) survived to adulthood. In 1385, Martí followed Catalo-Aragonese custom and named Maria his lieutenant in Valencia. Between 1392 and 1397, Maria was alone in Spain governing their estates while Martí was in Sicily, helping his son claim the kingdom he gained by marriage. She raised cash for the military campaigns by selling patrimonial lands and through careful fiscal management.

Silleras Fernandez's chapter on family is the tie that binds the whole reign, and the book, together. Over and over again, Maria put her family connections to good use whether in the service of her politics or her piety. The relational dynamics of monarchy are clearly evident in Silleras Fernandez's depiction of the interregnum, an important period in late medieval Spanish history long overshadowed by royal hijinks in Valois France and Plantagenet and Lancastrian England, but with a far more peaceful outcome. Martí was in Sicily when his brother died, leaving Maria in Spain "surrounded by seditious courtiers, rebellious subjects, and inconstant in-laws, and beset by pretenders" (50). With no male relatives to rely on, Maria ruled as queen by right, an act that could have been disastrous but was not because she was by nature shrewd, pragmatic, and dutiful rather than scheming and opportunistic. She adroitly protected her husband's claim, and her son's inheritance, by sequestering the queen-dowager who claimed (falsely) to be pregnant and mustering and directing an army in defense of the city of Valencia. Silleras Fernandez's discussion of the implications of Maria's legal argument for her husband's claims is particularly strong and adds weight to the work of Sarah Hanley and Craig Taylor on the Salic Law. She notes that Maria's argument that the Salic Law should apply successfully defanged the claims of her niece but put at risk her own authority as queen by right and any claims she had to be entitled to act for her husband (46-8). When her husband returned, the queen stepped out of the limelight but did not go into quiet retirement. With Martí, Maria was a genuine partner in governing the Crown of Aragon while directing her son, Martí the Young, as he ruled Sicily. They used the "complementary nature of their dispositions" (114) in their negotiations with the troublesome factions in Valencia: Martí took a tough stance, Maria used mild compassion, and when they needed something more, they called on churchmen such as the Dominican Vicent Ferrer to wield spiritual power.

Maria's short and busy reign--a mere ten years--makes this book a tightly coherent study that covers a lot of ground without getting bogged down in detail. It is an ideal introduction to Iberian queenship and monarchy for the newcomer that focuses on the acquisition of authority and power by birth, marriage, and official position and the exercise of that power through governance and religious and political patronage. Maria's reign allows Silleras Fernandez to present in a compact space a queen consort in the full range of her life and in the potential for power. Her thesis benefits from and builds on the work of anthropologists (culture of court and ceremony), sociologists (networks of power), gender studies (complementarity of femininity and masculinity), and political theory (the dynamics of power). Her discussion of Maria's thoughts on kingship in a letter to her son is part of a field of research that needs much more attention. There have been some studies of maternal advice to princes, such as Dhuoda, but as a whole, this is a genre that needs much more study and begs careful comparison to genres such as the mirror of princes literature and political treatises. This book is jam-packed with details that scholars will pore over for some time.

For the reader unfamiliar with Spanish medieval history, Silleras Fernandez carefully contextualizes Maria's reign in the wider history of political, social, economic, and religious history of late medieval Europe. This is particularly evident in her discussions of religion and patronage. Maria de Luna, an early and ardent supporter of the Observant Franciscan movement and kin of the anti-Pope Benedict XIII, was an important figure in Spain in the important papal conciliar and late medieval reform movements. She argued unsuccessfully on behalf of manumission for the semi-servile Catalan peasants, but her actions set the precedent for legal and moral arguments about servile tenure in the Catalan peasant revolts of the 1460s and in Isabel of Castile's argument against the practice of slavery in the Americas.

This book has much to say to a wide-ranging audience. Most obviously, historians of Spain will appreciate the careful attention to detail, the depth and range of archival sources and Spanish secondary scholarship. It is essential reading for those who study both medieval and early modern queens and feminist scholars interested in empirical and theoretical studies of women's agency and political authority. But it is not a book addressed solely to the specialist. Silleras Fernandez's conclusions about royal power and authority in the Middle Ages are important reading for political historians, especially those who study monarchy broadly and challenge the king- centered studies of royal power; military historians, especially those who study women in warfare; and generalists in search of new books for teaching both graduate and undergraduate students the complex nuances of the later Middle Ages.

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Author Biography

Theresa Earenfight

Seattle University