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22.03.15 Tanner (ed.), Medieval Elite Women and the Exercise of Power, 1100-1400

The Medieval Review

22.03.15 Tanner (ed.), Medieval Elite Women and the Exercise of Power, 1100-1400

Heather Tanner’s excellent edited collection takes the starting point of “How many ‘exceptional’ women in positions of authority does it take before powerful elite women become the rule?” (2). This volume, carefully crafted from a number of conference panels and its own conference in 2015, titled, appropriately, “Beyond Exceptionalism,” seeks to address this important question. Much of what the volume reacts against, in a historiographical sense, is JoAnn McNamara and Suzanne Wemple’s deeply influential 1973 article on female authority in the middle ages, which posits that women were pushed to the side during the process of the heightened administration of government in the middle ages. [1] The essays in Tanner’s collection, in fact, question the very core of what constituted governance in the middle ages, partly by querying what is meant by “soft” power and governance, where we frequently see women exercising influence and authority (11). However, the volume not only expands on and challenges ideas of “soft” power and authority, but also examines more traditionally “hard” powers enacted by women in military and political spheres. Ultimately, this should make readers not only question what constitutes governance, but challenge more fully why there is a traditionally historiographically-gendered separation of “hard” and “soft” powers--and what we even mean by these terms in the first place. Indeed, at the very heart of the volume is the need to explore, deconstruct and reconstruct the possibilities of what we should consider governance and power in the middle ages.

In exploring these ideas, most of the chapters should be considered case studies on the themes of the whole. RāGena C. DeAragon’s chapter examines female landholding and remarriages of widows in post-Conquest England, but also provides a particularly poignant discussion of historiography and the practice of history today (35-40). Linda E. Mitchell’s chapter considers the under-studied networks of the daughters of Isabella Marshall as “matrilinities,” a “sorority within politically engaged families” (64), while Kristen L. Geaman rewrites the influence of Anne of Bohemia, queen of Richard II, as an important factor in his reign, using the broadly accepted roles of queenship to exact political change through her “traditional duties” (68). Charlotte Cartwright’s study of Emma of Ivry as matron of the ducal Norman family in the eleventh century demonstrates the importance of maternal households, and Kathy M. Krause reconsiders female literary patronage as an act of political influence through Marie de Ponthieu’s commissions to sway opinion to the favour of Marie and her husband, Simon de Dammartin. Katrin E. Sjursen’s chapter examines women’s political roles beyond the traditional lifecycle ones, asking scholars to move beyond wife or widow, through the dynamic example of the fourteenth-century pirate and traitor Jeanne of Belleville. Tiffany A. Ziegler attempts to place female patronage into the urban places of Brussels through women’s donations to St John’s Hospital. Nina Verbanaz’ study of the Salian consorts demonstrates representations of co-rulership models in the eleventh and twelfth century, constructing their image as an “integral feature of the medieval governing fabric” (195). Christopher M. Kurpiewski’s examination of the Penitent Sisters of Speyer shows their political role in the midst of civic upheaval at the turn of the thirteenth century. Erin L. Jordan’s study of Alice and Constance of Antioch demonstrates areas of, and pathways to, rule for women in the Latin East. Miriam Shadis outlines the emergent political importance of queen-daughters in the early years of the Portuguese throne in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Two major strengths in the volume are its bookend chapters, the introduction co-authored by Tanner, Laura L. Gathagan, and Lois L. Huneycutt, and Theresa Earenfight’s closing chapter. Earenfight’s piece, which also somewhat acts as a conclusion to the volume, uses Catherine of Aragon as an example of a Foucault-centred discussion of resistance as power. This is a strongly-theorised chapter that demonstrates power as diverse and diffuse, active and passive. Earenfight--a leading figure in considering the office of queenship as a part of royal ruling structures--challenges us to consider new directions in studying gender and power with this convincing chapter. In their introduction, Tanner, Gathagan and Huneycutt--all masters in the field of examination and reconsideration of women’s authority in the central middle ages--write an introduction that is much more than a scaffold for the volume but is instead a lesson on deconstructing the McNamara-Wemple historiography. These bookends tie together what may otherwise be seen as a series of case studies on a theme, ranging from Crusader kingdoms to Portugal (though with a weight on France, England, and the Low Countries).

The fear is that more casual readers may pick up this book and read only the chapter that might seem specifically of interest to their time or place of research, rather than fully delve into the richness of these connected essays. Some further editorial intervention might have been useful to structure the works around themes that are developed in many of the chapters, such as explicit or implicit deconstructions of the “public” and “private” (Ziegler, Kurpiewski, Geaman, Krause), studies focusing on women in urban contexts and spaces (Ziegler, Kurpiewski), or power beyond lifecycle roles (Sjursen, Jordan, Cartwright, Earenfight). Another challenge to the volume is that power, authority and agency are not defined, either at the level of the volume itself, or more generally within individual chapters. Many of these terms are quite empty without specific refinement and definitions; Earenfight herself in this volume questions why scholars use “agency” as a different version of “power” to indicate subordination: “agency, influence, and autonomy,” she states, “mark the gendered gradations of power that subtly signal that an actor is subordinate” (277). Throughout the volume, “power” and “authority” tend to be used interchangeably, belying Earenfight’s assertation to query and clarify such terms. With such a task as the volume sets itself--to demonstrate that elite women’s authority was unexceptional--the book very reasonably might have been hindered by too narrow definitions, but a sense of working guidelines for what constituted authority and power would have been useful: something more theoretically tangible to tether the case studies to the whole.

But these are, very genuinely, minor quibbles with the overall volume. What this book represents is a significant attempt to break from received historiography and carve new ground for the study of women and power in the middle ages. It is a genuine intervention in historiography. The editors and authors are to be commended, and the volume read--not just a chapter that may be of casual interest, but the framing pieces that outline new directions for the field. With Profs. Tanner and Huneycutt now taking abstracts for “Beyond Exceptionalism II, c. 500-c. 1500,” a conference to be held at the John Rylands Library, Manchester, UK, in July 2022, we can only hope for a second volume furthering this discussion in the future.


The review author wishes to express her apologies to the volume editor and authors, and to The Medieval Review, for the multiple pandemic-related delays in delivering this review.


1. JoAnn McNamara and Suzanne Wemple, ‘The Power of Women through the Family in Medieval Europe: 500-1100,’ Feminist Studies 1:3/4 (1972), 126-41.