14.02.20, Earenfight, Queenship in Medieval Europe

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Mary Dockray-Miller

The Medieval Review 14.02.20

Earenfight, Theresa. Queenship in Medieval Europe. Queenship and Power. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Pp. xi, 356. ISBN: 978-0-230-27646-8.

Reviewed by:
Mary Dockray-Miller
Lesley University

The first textbook in the "Queenship and Power" series from Palgrave MacMillan, Earenfight's latest book will work well in the graduate classroom but specialists will also find it a useful starting point when venturing out of their usual disciplinary purviews. The volume is marred by some errors and a lot of bad copyediting; these blemishes should be removed in future printings as the core argument of the text is substantial, interesting, and provocative. The book's considerable chronological (300-1500 CE) and geographic (Scandinavia to the Mediterranean to Britain to the Kievan Rus') breadth leaves Earenfight open to accusations of superficiality, but as a textbook Queenship makes no pretense of providing in-depth analysis; rather, Earenfight presents her main thesis and then numerous short case studies as illustrations, with plenty of bibliography and direction for further inquiry.

That thesis, clearly marked as such in the Introduction, is "that a distinct and coherent form of European queenship, based on Christian notions of monarchy, began to take shape about 300 CE. By 1500, the religious and political framework for the institution of medieval European queenship had emerged as a coherent phenomenon from Byzantium to Scandinavia....[queenship] was relatively stable across time and space in its central core of family, dynasty, and patriarchal rule" (15). Earenfight is careful not to wedge her exemplars into a pre- existing box, however; she is clear about regional and chronological variations as the institution of queenship solidified throughout the Middle Ages.

In the Introduction, Earenfight presents an excellent overview of the very sparse pre-1980 historiography of queenship, documenting the field's usual neglect of queens (as scholars were trained to organize history in periods defined by kings and male dynasties). She then provides a literature review of the relatively new field of queenship studies, emphasizing the ways that current scholarship has shown that, when studying queens, the concepts of "public" and "private" exist not in opposition to each other but on a continuum. Throughout, she also stresses the seeming paradox that Christianity legitimized queens through its strengthening of monogamous marriage even as it constrained queens through its largely antifeminist theology.

The Introduction also discusses use of sources, both textual and material, in any analysis of queenship, thus modeling theoretical and procedural methodologies for the graduate students who will form the bulk of the textbook's readers. Earenfight astutely critiques a variety of historical methodologies and their relationship to queenship studies, noting, for example, that many extant genealogical charts are incomplete or confusing because they do not include women.

The textbook divides the Middle Ages into five chronologically-based chapters, which sometimes overlap in ways that can be redundant for readers of the entire text rather than simply one chapter (as, for example, in the nearly identical descriptions of Salic Law on pages 160 and 190). Each chapter begins with historical context and overview before describing (in geographical divisions) the representative queens of that time period.

Earenfight makes it clear that her selection of these representative queens does not purport to be exhaustive or "to signify the relative importance of a particular queen" (28), but rather that each queen illustrates a facet of queenship in her era or her region. The sheer number of queens discussed or mentioned is impressive; Earenfight includes many of the usual suspects (e.g. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabelle of France, Melisende of Jerusalem) as well as more obscure figures (e.g. Balthild, Empress Irene of Byzantium, Maria of Antioch). Each chapter ends with a "For Further Research" section, a fruitful and interesting way to indicate to students that historical research is an ongoing process, not a finalized product; intrepid graduate students should find term paper or dissertation topics in these parts of the textbook.

While Earenfight has thus produced an excellent resource for graduate students, the usual undergraduate probably needs more direction and contextualization than the book provides. Before they could find this book user-friendly, typical undergraduate students would need many references explained or fleshed out; for example, most undergraduates would need background information or reminders about the identities and significance of Queen Edith's father (113), Simon de Montfort (143), or Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser (148).

Chapter 1 (300-700 CE) sketches the use of both the Virgin Mary and Helena (mother of Constantine) as role models for the emerging position of queen in a European world that was "a political and cultural hybrid of three powerful traditions--Roman, barbarian, Christian" (39). Chapter 2 (700-1100 CE) details the ways in which "the royal family became a more stable institution rooted in the permanency of reformed Christian laws on marriage" (84). In this period, queens first ensured the dynasty through childbirth, and then educated the children and helped to arrange their marriages to further diplomatic and political alliance. Through patronage, queens also forged ties with the church and with other nobles. By this period, monarchy was "constrained by both law and custom in ways that protected queens from arbitrary repudiation or divorce" (121).

In Chapter 3, focused on the years 1100-1350, Earenfight shows how knowledge of queens' kin relationships helps to make sense of states' relationships. Throughout Europe, "the power of the queen as sister or aunt ranged widely across a political, cultural, religious and economic spectrum that could be anything from high-level peace negotiations to the simple smoothing out of tensions within the family" (125). In addition, a queen's "[m]arriage, coronation, maternity and memorials formed a four-step process that legitimized a dynasty" (130). Earenfight demonstrates the ways that these queenly endeavors crucially enabled the international exchange of culture and education; she also provides descriptions and examples of a number of official roles of queens-consort, queens-regnant, queens-regent, and queens-lieutenant.

In Chapter 4, focused on the later medieval period, Earenfight departs from her previous organization to include an extremely worthwhile section on Christine de Pizan as a (female) political theorist who wrote about queenship, emphasizing the need for queens to make peace in contrast to the male propensity to make war (192-194). Chapter 5 takes some steps towards the early modern period, with its much more extensive sources and much more well-known queens, illustrating the ways that early modern queenship in Europe had its roots in the medieval period. The early modern queen exemplified "female exclusion from direct inheritance and ruling, and inclusion in the vital interests of the royal family as mediator or regent" (251), even as queens regnant like Mary and Elizabeth Tudor did inherit and did exercise royal sovereignty.

Oddly enough for a scholar whose other work has focused on Spain, [1] Earenfight throughout elides the Muslim women who could have provided a religious diversity and multicultural contemporaneity to her text. The Muslim women of Al-Andalus are mentioned briefly on page 80 and again on page 115; however, Earenfight seems to have decided (but not overtly acknowledged) that engaging with expressions of royal female power in Islamic Iberia is beyond the scope of her study. The book's argument does, to some extent, rely on the integral relationship between Christianity and the growth of European queenship, and so does not engage with the very interesting question of how queenship could function in medieval, European, yet non-Christian cultures.

This textbook unfortunately contains some errors that should be remedied in later editions. For example, Wealhtheow, the name of the Danish queen in Beowulf, does not mean "Norman slave" (112); it means "foreign slave." Earenfight makes this error in her discussion of Helen Damico's work on Emma of Normandy (queen to Æthelred and to Cnut, both kings of England), although Damico becomes "D'Amico" here and in the general bibliography. Judith of Flanders gave a deluxe gospel book to Empress Agnes, not to Matilda of Tuscany (128). Matilda of Scotland commissioned a translation of the Voyage of St Brendan into Anglo-Norman, not into Anglo-Saxon (128) (although Earenfight refers to the Anglo-Norman translation on page 133).

Related to the factual errors is the unacceptable number of copyediting problems that riddle the text. Some of these are largely aesthetic: "queens were vital to the success of a king as his wife and as the mother of his children" (7); "In this, royal women may well have been crucial in who ruled" (69). Others actually impede comprehension: Berenguela of Castile "was in a dangerous position, poised precariously between her former husband--who could easily claim the crown as Enrique's closest male relative, the powerful Lara family--who had been making trouble for a decade, and trying to protect her son, Fernando, then sixteen" (165). Many of the sentences read as if they were compressed by an editor who did not have a thorough understanding of the material at hand. Other ungainly parts seems like remnants of unfinished cutting and pasting; Chapter 2 ends incoherently with the bizarrely ungrammatical statement that "Other women were active in the memory-making: Matilda's vita of her mother, Matilda of Scotland" (122).

This sort of awkward prose and bad editing needs to disappear from the "Queenship and Power" series if the editors want their new textbook venture to succeed. The core of Earenfight's textbook provides focused analysis of the theoretical issues as well as excellent evidence in the form of the brief vignettes about individual queens. Stakeholders from all disciplines of medieval studies should be encouraged that "queenship" is now a viable textbook topic in its own right. We also need to insist that the textbooks we assign to our students are models of lucid prose as they simultaneously present cogent and engaging analyses of crucial issues in the discipline.



1. Theresa Earenfight, The King's Other Body: María of Castile and The Crown of Aragon. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010; Queenship and Political Power in Medieval and Early Modern Spain. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.

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Author Biography

Mary Dockray-Miller

Lesley University