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19.06.02 Alio, Margaret, Queen of Sicily

19.06.02 Alio, Margaret, Queen of Sicily

Jacqueline Alio's "hard-sell" biographical notes inform us that she is an "accomplished medievalist" who has "published original, scholarly research as well as books and articles for a general readership," adding that she is "a popular lecturer" whose online articles have been "read by millions over the past decade" (vii-viii). The problem is, however, that we have no evidence of this and, if we are inclined to investigate further afield, we discover that she claims likewise to have been educated on both sides of the Atlantic without actually stating where, when, and to what extent. Diving more deeply into the scant trail of Alio's over-hyped credentials, she claims on social media to have studied at Cerritos College, Norwalk California, a public comprehensive community college whose notable alumni seem confined to a long list of male sports people rather than scholars in any field of endeavour. There is no evidence of Ms. Alio having completed a Masters dissertation, much less a Doctoral thesis, so her claims to scholarship seem rather thin and impossible to run to earth. The only works she has authored are online articles ("read by millions" [vii]); a chapter contribution on Jews of Palermo to Sicilian Genealogy and Heraldry (which "established a new Dewey catalogue subject category" in the British and New York Public Libraries [vii]); co-authoring with Louis Mendola The Peoples of Sicily: A Multicultural Legacy and Sicilian Food and Wine: A Cognoscente's Guide with Francesca Lombardo, and publishing to "critical acclaim" (viii)--of which we can find no trace in the usual places--Women of Sicily: Saints, Queens, and Rebels.

These might appear to be rather malefic and ill-natured observations to make regarding the self-proclaimed only Sicilian woman writing books in English about the women of medieval Sicily. We are indeed grateful for the appearance of such works in English. Yet, Alio seems blissfully unaware, or wilfully dismissive, of the weight and extent of current premodern multi-disciplinary queenship and gender research and indeed the un-exceptionality of premodern female political power, authority, and influence in any language--notwithstanding her justified claim to impressive polyglotism. A simple online catalogue search would have opened Alio's eyes to the state of past and present research in these fields. This is but one yawning lacuna in a work riddled with sometimes significant gaps and gaffes; another is a lack of supporting citations. While Alio's notes appear at first blush to be significant and detailed, instead of actual references to legitimate sources, they merely back-in additional authorial commentary and asides. This seems to point to Alio's lack of training in research methodology and, while this is not an issue for popular biography per se, her stated intention to produce a book that is both "generalist" and reflective of the author's original "academic" research, straddling "two worlds, the popular and the scholarly" (7), creates a problem for Alio's potential reader and indeed for this reviewer. Since Alio pretends that her biography of Margaret, queen of Sicily is the result of her original, scholarly research and that it has been peer-reviewed, it behoves us to approach her work with a careful and disinterested scholarly eye. This is even more imperative given that the reviewer was invited to assess Alio's book for a scholarly journal and its readership rather than for a newspaper or magazine literary supplement.

Having exposed the difficulties arising from the review of a book of this type and the over-egged claims and credentials of its author, what might the reviewer share with a prospective reader regarding Margaret, Queen of Sicily'sstrengths and weaknesses and Alio's potential contribution to our understanding of premodern royal women in positions of power and influence? While I applaud Alio's aims and earnest claims to scholarly substance, her book strikes one as being either deeply superficial or superficially deep, depending upon one's point of view. Particularly cringe-worthy is the author's Epilogue, wherein Alio imagines the teenaged Margaret Jiménez of Navarre in discussion with her "thirty-ish lady-in-waiting" as she prepares to leave her natal kingdom of Navarre for married life in Sicily (ix-x). This approach reminds the reviewer of HRH Princess Michael of Kent's rather awkward "historical works." Happily, by the time Marie-Christine got to Yolande of Aragon in her Queen of Four Kingdoms in 2014, her friend and literary mentor, Philippa Gregory, had advised HRH to identify her burgeoning output as historical novels rather than non-fiction historical biographies. Likewise, Alio's embarrassing and very jarring inclusions of largely irrelevant "Brainy Quotes" such as Diana, Princess of Wales's "being a princess isn't all it's cracked up to be" (ix) and Margaret Thatcher's, "if you want something said ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman" (203) to head each of her chapters detract from the not insubstantial value of her work. While Alio does very occasionally include an interesting observation made by an historical figure such as that of Anna Comnena (59), it just hangs in the air, the author failing to engage with it and denying her reader its source and context.

Alio's introduction tells us that "writing a biography is an exercise in responsibility and humility" (1)--if only!--and that her most difficult undertaking was "unearthing Margaret's "'self,' the spirit that made her what she was, and what, in historical memory, she still is" (1). Here, the reviewer believes, Alio enters into dangerous territory. Writing the biography of a prominent woman who lived in the twelfth century is a difficult enough enterprise without trying to second guess her sense of self or the nature of her spirit. The rest of her introduction is given over to the nature, benefits, and pitfalls of extant primary sources such as chronicles, annals, charters, and epistolary as well as post-incunable historical works. Following her introduction, Alio provides the reader with a wealth of helpful, user-friendly contextualizing source material: nineteen very useful maps, which take into account geographical and territorial holdings and transformations of the medieval kingdom of Sicily as well as its diverse ethno-religious delineations, followed by eight "imprints" (plates and images) of trilingual street signs, tombstones, manuscript images such as that of a folio of the (pre) 1153 Trilingual Harley Psalter (without its location, shelfmark reference, folio number, or digital access, which is, should the reader be interested, British Library (BL) Harley MS 5786, fol. 106v, ), early printed images and engravings--none of which, like Harley MS 5786, are actually referenced according to normal publishing conventions. In most instances, this is easily, if time-consumingly, rectified by a simple digital search, which in any event is the likely origin of most of these source materials. The last section of these visual sources contains thirty-six black and white photographs of locations and artefacts, which Alio believes to be relevant to Margaret's life and agency. Unfortunately, as in many parts of her book, the author is rather too present in these as well. A small detail perhaps, but more evidence of the reviewer's sense that this biography is as much about promoting Alio as it is about revealing Margaret to her reader.

The book is divided into twenty-three short chapters that fold together Margaret's back-story and origins; the polyglot and diverse ethno-religious character of the kingdom of Sicily; Margaret's chronology, a narrative of her life stages from teenaged Navarrese princess to respected Sicilian queen-mother; themes such as power, justice, and sovereignty; the political offices she fulfilled (queen-consort, queen-regent, and queen-mother); and important political players of her day such as Thomas Becket, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, and Benjamin of Tudela. In many cases, Alio's organization and chrono-thematic narrative operate quite well. The sections describing Margaret's origins, family ties, and the nature of her natal kingdom are quite handy to both scholar and general reader as are the translations of key documents Alio includes in her appendices. Some of Alio's claims, however, are unsustainable. Particularly revealing of her scant knowledge regarding premodern female influence and agency is her claim that "so rarely did a queen become a regent that the duty bore on the faintest outlines of a job description" (322). Did kingship include a job-description--apart from pledges made during coronation rituals? We now know that queens frequently fulfilled the functions of regency without actually being designated officially as regents and this phenomenon occurred in Europe and elsewhere throughout the long period we increasingly refer to as the premodern era. Rather than being designated officially as regent, which would have attracted the discontent of some of a minor king's male relatives and barons, queens-regent (for that is what they were) were the designated guardians and tutors of their heirs and their siblings. Another disturbing tic that might raise the hackles of any jobbing medievalist is Alio's repeated use of a term she misapprehends, the "knight errant." Rather than understanding that the figure of the knight errant is a trope of medieval chivalric literature, a character who wanders far afield to prove his courage and chivalric credentials by setting himself quests, she seems to believe that a knight errant was an actual knight determinedly travelling with the sole objective of adding to his assets and social status regardless of the consequences to others of his actions. One example of her misunderstanding of the term is to be found in her discussion of troublesome barons in Chapter 7, "Queen-Consort" viz. "generations after their arrival in Italy, some families still harboured resentment that the Hautevilles, once ordinary knights errant like themselves, had become kings" (126, my emphasis).

Although aspects of Alio's book are engaging and informative there is far too much narrative and very little solid analysis to be had overall. Chapter 6, "Motherhood" commences with a superfluous and unreferenced quote from Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy: "If you bungle raising your children, I don't think that whatever else you do matters much" (111). Apart from her determined confectioning of a Camelot myth around her assassinated husband's presidency, Jackie Kennedy has little in common with a twelfth-century medieval queen. More disturbing still is the lack of evidence and referencing of sources accompanying her detailed descriptions. Chapter 8, "Tragedy," commences with a rare relevant quote from Eleanor of Aquitaine, "grief is not too different from illness. In its flames it does not recognize lords nor fear its own peers. It does not respect or fear anybody, not even itself" (129). Alio gives no reference for this quote, which is preserved for us in Lena Wahlgren's doctoral thesis, "The Letter Collections of Peter of Blois: Studies in the Manuscript Tradition," published in 1993. [1] There is a pertinent reason for raising this issue, for had Alio bothered to excavate beyond her googled quote, she would have found that Peter of Blois encountered Eleanor of Aquitaine in Sicily in 1191 on his way back from the Acre, joining her court in England and penning letters on her behalf to secure the early release of her son Richard I from Leopold, Duke of Austria, who held him captive between 1192-93. [2] This historical context alone should have provided an opportunity to explore the intersecting lives of Margaret and Eleanor. The fact that Margaret's son William II was married to Eleanor's daughter Joan in 1177 should have provided an additional incentive for a thorough-going comparative analysis of the power and influence of these two prominent twelfth-century queens. Yet, Alio does not take up the challenge at this point, contenting herself instead in Chapter 21, "Mother-in-Law," with a disappointing "fluff-piece" concerning Eleanor's captivity in Winchester in 1176 (301-303) and Margaret's possible empathy for her but inability to act upon her "sister's" behalf.

Disappointing in many ways, yet yielding food for thought and considerable background information, Alio's book does not in the end deliver for its reader. A striking omission is that while Alio appears to provide sign-posts for further study and contemplation, her lack of accurate references to the mass of sources with which she claims to have engaged means that often the reader must take her claims on trust, unable to chase down ideas and themes of interest raised by her oftentimes engaging narrative. Likewise, her bibliography relies rather too much on matters concerning Sicily. Unfortunately, in stepping into the area of queenship studies, Alio should have acknowledged the wealth of material that has emerged in queenship research since the mid-1990s and demonstrated that she gleaned an understanding of the subtleties embedded within John Carmi Parsons's 1993 collection, Medieval Queenship, included in her bibliography. [3] In so many ways Alio's might have been a ground-breaking study of an important medieval queen, one who was quite typical rather than exceptional for her class and times. What Alio needed most was the firm guiding hand of a practised academic editor, willing to advise on much needed cuts and to defend their editorial ground. With Alio's next book, a 700-page tome, Queens of Sicily 1061-1266: The Queens Consort, Regent and Regnant of the Norman-Swabian Era of the Kingdom of Sicily, forthcoming from Trinacria Editions, one hopes that Alio will have devoted some of her laudable energy and passion towards an enhanced understanding of contemporary queenship research innovation.



1. Lena Wahlgren, The Letter Collections of Peter of Blois: Studies in the Manuscript Tradition (Gothenburg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1993), 144-6.

2. R. W. Southern, "Towards an Edition of Peter of Blois's Letter Collection," The English Historical Review CX, no. 438 (Sept. 1995): 932.

3. John Carmi Parsons, ed., Medieval Queenship (New York: St Martin's Press, 1993).