Every reader of TMR knows the commonplace that writing medieval biography is a hard challenge. When the subject of the biography is a woman, even one of high birth, the challenge is still more daunting. Linda Mitchell has tackled this problem with impressive success in offering a well-rounded (and well-researched) study of the life of Joan de Valence (ca. 1230-1307). Of course, Mitchell's heroine did her bit to help, she being one of the many granddaughters of William the Marshal and consequently one of the heirs to his vast (and much-disputed and much-divided) estate. Then, in the course of life, she was the long-time wife and ultimately the widow of William de Valence (d. 1296), half-brother of Henry III.
How do we know what we do know about Joan, born Joan de Muncheny? If a limited amount about her as an individual, a fair amount when we set her into the context of family, politics, and household. Beyond her invaluable household accounts from a few years in the 1290s, she figures with reasonable frequency in the records of government--law suits, privileges, disputes, grants and gifts. In such areas she is usually coupled with her husband, they both getting a hard time in the chronicles of the day. These, led by the influential work of Matthew Paris, leaned toward a depiction of a harsh and grasping couple and this reputation--quite possibly far from the mark--has carried over into such recent appraisals as that of the ODNB about William. And while a contemporary assessment of Joan's activities presents her as peevish, money-grabbing and weak, Mitchell argues it is "time to rehabilitate" her (3) and in this endeavor we have both detailed documentation and authorial sympathy. But whether she was a "nice" person or not, Joan de Valence was clearly a woman of great energy, resilience, and competence. Being close to a troubled and unimpressive Henry III at a time of rebellion, being mother of children whose many problems she shared, being left at home to manage complicated affairs, and then being left a widow to supervise a vast estate were all factors or events that emphasize her role as a capable manager who also happened to be one of the less litigious of the Marshal heirs.
Joan de Valence--her precise birth date and ultimately place of burial both being unknown--was married into the king's family when in her mid- or late teens. Much of what Mitchell presents about her years as a loyal and supportive wife and devoted mother is based on the convincing idea that she not only shared family issues and decisions with her husband but that she filled in for him--often no doubt falling back on her own initiative--during the long periods when he was away on service for his royal half-brother for all sorts of military, diplomatic, and administrative assignments. Hard information on Joan's exact role or share of joint enterprises is hard to pin down, resulting in a lot of "might have beens" that seem balanced and based on a reasonable inference. We see her as a devoted mother; working to arrange the children's marriages (and re-marriages, for her daughter Agnes) and standing by her daughter Joan whose husband had been murdered in the scramble for the throne of Scotland. As one of the Marshal heirs she stood with the clan in a common claim in a lawsuit of 1291--another chapter in the "inevitable ongoing litigation (70)"--being a joint party with Muncheny, Clare, Vescy, de Mohun, Rochechouard, Bohun, de Mortimer, la Zouche, and Hastings. Lots of kin, lots of inter-marriage, lots of dispute over the great estate.
When we turn to her household accounts Joan can be set into a familiar and well-documented setting, presenting another valuable case study to add to the work of Kate Mertes, Chris Woolgar, ffiona Swabey, and Margaret Wade Labarge, looking at some matrons who presided over great establishments. For the new widow it was "business as usual"--scores to feed, hiring a special baker for the holidays, distributing alms and left-overs to 25 paupers, making sure the supply of almonds and lampreys was replenished, and more of the same. The life of this particularly rich widow was made even more complicated by seasonal and regular moves from home base to home base, with Goodrich in Herefordshire her favorite, now "beautifully engineered for fortification and a beautifully designed enclave" (65). The household regularly went from Kent to the west country or the midlands, moving 80 miles in four days or even 130 miles in seven. Maps (164-67) help us track a trek that must have been a lot of work for a lot of underlings. Nor did Joan really slow down until the last days of her long and eventful life. Mitchell talks of a "familiar closeness" within the family, pointing to the woes of a mother called upon to design tombs for several children who still lie in Westminster Abbey. Genealogical tables of Joan's vast kingship network and maps of her estates--scattered across the kingdom and in Ireland (which she never visited)--emphasize both the importance of this woman and the diligence of her biographer. They are both well served in the study.