For a queen who ruled (albeit only very briefly) Castile at a turning point in the realm's troubled history and who brokered effectively her son's, Ferdinand III, ascent to the throne in 1217 (and to that of Leon in 1230), Berenguela has been seriously neglected by historians of medieval Castile. Daughter to a most cherished and effective Castilian king, Alfonso VIII (1158-1214), and to his consort Eleanor (the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the English queen), sister to a short-lived and younger king, Henry I (1214-17), to other queens (in France and other peninsular realms), and mother to the most successful Castilian late medieval ruler, the aforementioned Ferdinand III (1217- 1252), Berenguela's biography has always suffered by the considerable shadow cast on the period and on her family by her better known sister, Blanche of Castile, queen of France and mother to Louis IX or St. Louis.
This is inexcusable. If one were to compare the trajectory of both sisters and of their respective sons, Berenguela would have to be thought as the one guiding and helping her heir to the greatest success. Although Louis IX was inscribed into the list of saints shortly after his death (the result of fierce Capetian lobbying and pressure on the papacy) and Ferdinand did not receive such honor until the seventeenth century, Louis IX led two spectacularly failed crusades, while Ferdinand III's presided over the most significant Castilian territorial gains at the expense of Islam in the long history of Iberian warfare. His capture of Cordoba in 1236 and Seville in 1248 (campaigns that were also seen as Crusades) were only the high points of almost twenty-five years of signal military victories. Ferdinand III's successes have to be credit--in the same fashion as Blanche has garnered a great deal of praise for Louis IX's life--to Berenguela's political savvy and understanding of Castile's political reality, to her adroit negotiations to secure the Leonese throne for her son, and to her willingness to step aside for his benefit in 1217. But this is not a book about Ferdinand's glory and how it reflected on his mother. It is about the queen! Berenguela's political actions are at the center of Shadis' book, and her scholarship goes a long way towards addressing the academic neglect of Berenguela's life and deeds.
Professor Shadis' Berenguela of Castile is a valuable and significant contribution to our understanding of the role and place of royal women in politics (or, as she puts it, "female rulership"), of their significant political and cultural roles in medieval society, and of their ability to act as co-rulers or as queens on their own. Although most medievalists working on the kingdom of Castile know of Berenguela's unique role as queen and as mother of Ferdinand III, there are no modern studies of her reign and life until Shadis' book. As such, Berenguela of Castile is a pioneer work, dealing with a topic hitherto misunderstood or ignored by recent scholarship. Professor Shadis has made the critical (and correct, I should add) choice of not writing a biography of the Castilian queen. Instead, she has produced an insightful monograph in which the overlapping social, political, and cultural contexts are far more important than a simply narrative of Berenguela's life. Shadis' emphasis on the role of motherhood, lactancy, and fertility in providing royal women the possibility to wield political power places this study firmly in the field of gender history. Yet, her careful reading of the evidence and her sensitivity to the political nuances of the period also make this study a valuable contribution towards a social, cultural, and political history of the Castilian realm in the early thirteenth century. Her fine balance between the politics of motherhood, the politics of the realm, and the social and economic contexts in which both royal marriages and politics took place yields new insights into what it meant to be a queen in late medieval Castile and, by implication, Western Europe.
Thus, her book also fits perfectly into a most recent and welcome scholarly interest in the political life of women as rulers, either as outright queens (as Berenguela was before relinquishing her throne to her son), as consorts, co-rulers, or, as was often the case in the Crown of Aragon, as lieutenants general or vice-regents for their absent husbands. Several excellent monographs have already been published on the topic, exemplified by the works of Nuria Silleras- Fernández and Theresa Earenfight on late medieval queens in the Crown of Aragon. These works have therefore fostered a comprehensive new understanding of the role of women in medieval political life. But this is one of the first such efforts in English for Castile where, different from the eastern kingdoms, France, and other western European medieval realms, women could rule outright. I have already noted the scarcity of studies on Berenguela. Other Castilian queens do not fare better. Except for a few and dated biographies of María de Molina, and, of course, Isabella the Catholic, little else have been done. Urraca (1109-26), who ruled as a queen without a male consort for most of her reign, has elicited scholarly attention for her place in the turbulent politics of early twelfth century Iberia, but not as, Shadis formulates it, for her "female rulership." Thus, Berenguela of Castile engages the study of Castilian queens from a different perspective, providing a most needed corrective to our understanding of political power and rulership.
Focusing on the intersection of motherhood, rulership (or co- rulership), marriage, and the complex relationship of Berenguela and other royal women to power, Shadis uses Berenguela as a lens through which to examine the political role of women in general and, in particular, those of Leonor, Berenguela's mother, of Blanche, her sister and French queen, and some of her other sisters as queens and powerful ecclesiastical figures. Chapter 1 provides a brief study of Leonor of England's (Berenguela's mother) role as queen and mother. Of importance here are the familial ties that bound Leonor to the English court and that made Berenguela a part of the Angevin-Aquitainian connection. Here and elsewhere, Shadis emphasizes the role of marriage and motherhood and their relationship to political power. For most powerful women in the Middle Ages, except for those who followed a religious life, marriage was the only real alternative. But marriage alone seldom conferred power. The ability to produce heirs, preferably male heirs, was, as Shadis so adroitly points out, the very basis of their ability to intervene and control political affairs.
In chapter 2, "Documenting Authority: Marriage Agreements and the Making of a Queen," Shadis provides a close look at the economic, political and diplomatic reasons that led either to disappointment or success in the royal and princely marriage market. Promised in marriage to Conrad, one of the sons of the German emperor, Berenguela, who had been acknowledged as heir to the throne in the absence until then of a male heir, married instead her cousin Alfonso IX, king of Leon. Although the marriage was eventually declared invalid on issues of consanguinity, their child was accepted as legitimate, later to be the formidable Ferdinand III, king of both Castile and Leon. This is a superb chapter, rich in details and unraveling small pieces of the history of this particular marriage (and eventual separation), the mechanics of royal succession, and the political context of their union. Only a handful of experts in the particular field of Castilian dynastic politics have even glossed this information. Chapter 3 explores Berenguela's life as queen of Leon and mother to the new heir. Here, Berenguela's patronage of ecclesiastical establishments (St. Isidore in Leon and the Order of Santiago most notably) allow the queen to assert her authority. Important to this chapter is the relation between the queen and her towns, above all, those towns that have been granted to Leon as part of Berenguela's arras (the Castilian equivalent of a dowry). Far more significant is Shadis' sensitive treatment of the critical period between the young king (Berenguela's brother) Henry's death in 1217, her own claim to the throne, and the rapid relinquishing of her title as sole ruler to her son, Ferdinand.
Chapter 4 returns to a close discussion of some of the themes that run through the book: motherhood, Berenguela's--and some of the other females in her family--role as daughter, as queen, and the extent to which the possibility of ruling was imbedded in her ability to have heirs. Her last two chapters on Crusades and on Death, Grief, Memory, and Identity also provide a very insightful reading of the role of queens and other powerful royal women in the memorializations of power and in linking together the sacred with the daily tasks of ruling. In these chapters, Shadis shows considerable range, switching, as she does, from her careful reconstruction of the political context to a culturally and socially-inflicted analysis. This is a very good book, making a signal and most welcome contribution to the field.