As Tolhurst explains in her Introduction, this book is an outgrowth of her earlier work on women in the Arthurian section of Geoffrey of Monmouth's chronicle. She argues that "Among medievalists, the contexts within which literature specialists study Geoffrey often preclude consideration of female figures" (7). To do so, however, is to ignore women who play important roles throughout Geoffrey's legendary account of early British history. Tolhurst makes a compelling argument that Geoffrey's inclusion of strong, memorable female individuals in his text is tied to his support for Empress Matilda in the civil struggles of the late 1130's in England. Employing a feminist-historicist approach allows Tolhurst to decode and interpret Geoffrey's rhetorical stance toward this thorny political issue. Just as Matilda was "an active participant" (11) in England's regnal history, so too are Geoffrey's women characters active in his version of legendary history.
The first chapter, "Re-reading Empress Matilda as a Female King," provides a comprehensive overview of Matilda's life and accomplishments, convincingly arguing that she adopted the hitherto male role of king. Tolhurst notes that Matilda is often relegated to the margins of discussions of the Norman era and its rulers, while in reality, she served ably for several months as monarch, not simply as a figurehead and genealogical link to the male line. This chapter's focused discussion of a transitional time in English history untangles many complex issues about the country's leadership, and showcases Matilda as an active, knowledgeable, and competent force, respected by supporters. It also sets up a basis from which to read Geoffrey of Monmouth's chronicle as a critique of civil war which features, as a viable alternative, exemplars of female leadership stretching well into the country's past.
The second chapter, "Geoffrey's History as Preparation for a Female King," lays out a reading that illuminates Henry I's grooming of his daughter Matilda for leadership by first focusing on the various surviving dedications which introduce Geoffrey's text. Tolhurst then examines the Prophecies of Merlin portion of Geoffrey's history, which he wrote prior to its inclusion in his chronicle. This little-studied narrative segment is, quite literally, central in Geoffrey's history, but is often overlooked; Tolhurst persuasively shows it to contain coded support for Matilda. The chapter goes on to detail how Geoffrey adapted his sources and included women who can be categorized as villains (albeit only twice), victims who eventually are heroic, mothers and co-creators of royal lines, and monarchs (or those who have the potential to be) in their own rights. In featuring the stories of Guendoloena, Cordeilla, and Marcia at an early point in his chronicle, Geoffrey "creates ancient precedents for female kingship and thereby makes it normative, rather than exceptional" (110). In his history, resistance to such leadership leads, from time to time in Britain, to civil discord and lawlessness. Tolhurst believes that Geoffrey's message to his twelfth-century audience is clear: "support the legitimate ruler, male or female, or prepare to lose dominion over the island to foreign powers that are always ready to exploit the political vulnerability that civil war creates" (129). Viewed this way, his chronicle can be seen not merely as fictional entertainment, but as a carefully constructed cautionary tale for his time.
To further support this reading, the third chapter, "Undermining and Degrading Female Kingship in the First Variant and Wace's roman de Brut," considers the depiction of women in these two texts which appeared not long after Geoffrey's, and which drew from his work. Tolhurst shows how the redactor of the First Variant Version overlaid religious values on Geoffrey's secular text, doing away with its feminist ideals. Wace, meanwhile, added moralizing passages to his narrative which, Tolhurst demonstrates, destabilize Geoffrey's neutral stance to the more nebulous women in the legendary history. Maintaining her historicist reading, Tolhurst suggests that Wace's ambivalent portrayal of women may be due to his view of Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom she sees as "both the most immediate and the most likely source of inspiration for the way in which Wace presents the queen consorts and female kings that appear in his translation of Geoffrey's history" (153).
Chapter 4, "Delegitimizing and Erasing Female Kingship in the 'Epistola Warino Britoni,' the Chronica majora, and Laȝamon's Brut," carries the contrasting of later adaptors of Geoffrey's history to considerations of Henry of Huntingdon, Matthew Paris, and Laȝamon's portrayal of women. Tolhurst sees all three writers' texts as misogynist, and demonstrates how they obliterate the characterizations which Geoffrey had established. In aligning his "Epistola Warino Britoni" to his own chronicle, Henry of Huntingdon "greatly distorts his source text" (190) while maintaining its overall arrangement and scope; ultimately, Henry relegates the few women he mentions to ancillary, inconsequential places. Matthew Paris, for his part, presents Geoffrey's female characters, but does so with a monastic bias, viewing them through the lenses of Mary and Eve stereotypes. In contrast, Laȝamon's "hypermasculine" (207) verse privileges violence and action, while simultaneously favoring "aggressively Christian and socially conservative values" (208). While he incorporates women into his text, they are depicted as weak, demonic, or carefully constricted within male standards.
Read in this chronological fashion, the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth and his commentators and adaptors reveal the changing views of women and female leadership in twelfth-century England, suggesting how central the question of the country's governance was to its residents. Tolhurst wraps up her book with a brief conclusion, in which she summarizes her arguments and suggests further avenues of study. As she demonstrates, careful reading of the non-Arthurian portions of these texts is both warranted and fruitful. Overall, this volume presents a nuanced consideration of the events which surrounded the composition of Geoffrey's seminal work, along with an illuminating exploration of the historiographical conversation it started among his fellow writers. This book is a pleasure to read, and will, I feel, become an essential part of chronicle, narratological, and feminist scholarship.