Recent scholarship has increasingly realized that our previous assessment of medieval women in their roles as queens or royal concubines requires an extensive revision. It is certainly true that in fourteenth-century France women were excluded from assuming the royal throne, but this does not mean that they were hence blocked from exerting any political influence. In her doctoral dissertation, accepted by the University of Marburg, Germany, in 2010, now available in print, Christine Juliane Henzler offers a highly detailed study on the wives and concubines of the Kings Charles VII and Louis XI, arguing, based on a thorough examination of the vast corpus of historical records, that those women enjoyed a considerable degree of independence and also power as consorts. Specifically, Henzler examines the records of the following women: Mary of Anjou, Agnès Sorel, Antoinette de Maignelais, Margaret of Scotland (or Margaret Stewart), and Charlotte of Savoy. All of them have already been the subject of intensive discussions and were treated in numerous literary works since the nineteenth century (if not earlier), but most publications on them rely on outdated concepts and faulty readings (if any) of the historical documents.
The political conditions for queens were normally quite good, as Henzler observes, since they held huge properties, could become active as the king's advisor or as intermediary, and they enjoyed high respect both at court and in the country at large. The concubines also fared well, but their position was certainly not as strong and influential as the queen/s, and despite the large gifts by the kings, the queens owed consistently much more than them.
This monograph is based on a very solid historical investigation of the relevant sources, which allows the author to trace the lives and social circumstances of each of these five women. After the biographies, Henzler discusses their social role, then their personal courts and personnel, their economic and financial situations, and their political influence. Subsequently she turns to the ordinary conditions in those women's everyday lives, whether pertaining to their travels, the court festivals, art patronage, religious practice, sickness and death. The truly pleasant feature of this analysis consists of the author's painstaking efforts to present all the relevant previous research and to contrast their often faulty findings with what she could unearth in her archival research.
Although these women were not allowed to govern by themselves, they exerted the power to serve as the king's representative or as queen mother for an underage son. Louis XI was quite aware about this situation and tried his best to nib in the bud his wife's attempts to act politically all by herself, which indicates how far she actually tried to go and how much she could have achieved. Since these queens normally originated from abroad, they were particularly well positioned to serve as cultural and political diplomats and could thus ease many different conflicts or misunderstandings on the international stage without being the rulers.
Henzler operates in a refreshing manner without any specific theory, unless we accept her approach to material culture and to the history of everyday life as the underlying theoretical model. She does not draw from feminism or gender concepts in the narrow sense, yet her entire study is certainly sustained by her global interest in gender issues. At the same time, as a result of her thorough investigation of the relevant sources, she is very clear about the limitations of her own claims because it would be impossible to find evidence for political or social equality for those women after all. Nevertheless, she can convincingly conclude that those noble ladies, each in her own domain and under her own circumstances, knew how to develop and maintain her influence and power, either at her own court right next to her husband (as his wife) or lover (as his concubine).
In the course of her studies, the author also sheds important light on a wide range of major or minor historical events in fifteenth-century France. In this context she also touches on the old question whether Joan of Arc might have been a manipulated figure in the political maneuvers by Mary of Anjou and her mother Yolanda of Aragon. Despite many claims by previous scholars, Henzler demonstrates that the opposite was the case, but then she drops the issue altogether and does not return to the really important question whether Joan was later (ab)used by these two women for their political purposes (125-127). Similarly, Henzler mostly dismisses all speculations as to the murder by poison of Agnès Sorel in February 1450 since the evidence for such a claim proves to be too weak and speculative to be upheld (140-143). Finally, as to Charlotte of Savoy, the author confirms that she operated very successfully as intermediary between Louis XI and many of his domestic or foreign opponents, thus gaining great respect among her people as a much appreciated queen mother ("Landesmutter," 183). There is a slight tendency by Henzler to present an overly optimistic picture regarding these noble ladies, but she consistently bases her arguments on documentary evidence. We only could disagree with her slightly here and there with regards to her interpretations, although I think that we can trust her overall argument without much hesitation.
In the appendix the author provides most valuable itineraries for all women dealt with here, followed by the bibliography, which first lists the large number of primary sources and then the secondary sources. The volume concludes with a list of the illustrations, but an index is sorely missing.