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22.05.20 Graham-Goering, Princely Power in Late Medieval France

22.05.20 Graham-Goering, Princely Power in Late Medieval France

Jeanne de Penthièvre’s contested succession to the duchy of Brittany in 1341 and the associated political consequences for England and France are the subject of Erika Graham-Goering’s deeply contextualized analysis of princely authority. The author’s expert descriptions of legal documents disguise the unquestionable difficulty inherent in their transcription and interpretation; a photograph of one such document, showing an astonishing triple-tier array of appended wax seals, highlights both the scholarly fascination and the challenge (235). This interpretative case-study is based in part on a skillful compilation of legal documents, co-authored by Graham-Goering, Michael Jones, and Bertrand Yeurc’h in 2019. [1] In this volume, Graham-Goering succeeds in marshaling difficult source material in an examination of Jeanne de Penthièvre’s princely power and shared spousal authority.

In placing her subject within recent historiography, the author acknowledges relevant ideas that developed in earlier studies of queenship, princely nobility, and group identities, as well as concepts of power, governance and gender roles in hierarchical society. The theory of spousal co-lordship (coseigneurie), which has received relatively little scholarly attention, underscores the partnership of the ruling couple, Jeanne de Penthièvre (c. 1325-84) and Charles de Blois (d. 1364), nephew of King Philippe IV of France. Despite the sparse scholarly literature related to spousal actions and communications, Graham-Goering suggests that “co-lordship can enhance our understanding of the shared power of ruling couples, particularly princely couples below the level of the monarchy, by grounding them more comprehensively within contemporary modes of power-sharing across the aristocracy” (18). Her focused study approaches broad issues of group identity among the elite (noble and royal) and discusses societal differences, including issues of gender and status.

In the first chapter, we are treated to an important review of Jeanne’s career--the author’s well-chosen term--that expands previous historiography to encompass her longer political activity and presents more documentary and literary evidence than previously discussed in the scholarly literature. Lineage, marriage, property, and legal process play their customary roles in the war over succession rights to the duchy of Brittany (1341-65). Jeanne’s different roles during the war are examined for her individual as well as joint decision-making, particularly after English troops captured her husband on the battlefield, leading her to become primary negotiator and administrative overseer in Brittany. Her husband’s death in 1364 and, consequently, her direct familial relationship to the French monarchy, triggered reconciliatory treaties in favor of the contender, Jean de Montfort. The treaty settlements, however, were slow in paying compensation, and Jeanne had difficulty meeting outstanding war debts secured with property as collateral. During her later years, Jeanne made various, often favorable, political and financial maneuvers, which even led to an about-face alliance with her previous archrival, Jean de Montfort, against the French monarch: after Jean de Montfort’s brief exile to England, Jeanne stepped up in the court of law, supported by Breton nobles, against the king’s desire to control the duchy. Montfort’s return and the king’s sudden death brought about renewed agreements, allowing Montfort to re-assume the ducal title. Graham-Goering emphasizes Jeanne’s multiple roles to create a complex and nuanced biography.

A discussion of the oft-used conceptual terms of “power” and “authority” in Chapter 2 leads the author to conclude that the terms are frequently inadequate and inaccurate in describing the broader and more fluid dynamics that can be glimpsed in Jeanne de Penthièvre’s actions. This well-considered discussion sets up the next three chapters (3-5) that study and assess Jeanne’s roles, especially her spousal co-rule, with regard to material, political, and military challenges. The author concedes that extant documents cannot reliably define all of the actions and practices of seigneurial power, such as the influence of personality, but contemporary records regarding landed transactions, taxation, and financial loans illuminate numerous aspects of the joint leadership of Jeanne and her husband. The couple shared administration of Jeanne’s extensive property and inheritance in Brittany, Limoges, and Mayenne, the management of which was complicated by implied homage as well as by the material and financial consequences of war. Charles, however, retained separate responsibilities, such as the issuance of coinage and the management of his own inherited lands in Guise and Blois. The visibility of the couple’s shared power in their broad network of relationships then comes under detailed scrutiny, studied methodologically for its quantitative as well as descriptive aspects. The historical composition and lengthy careers of councilors under Jeanne’s administration point to her influence, particularly during her husband’s captivity; the author also draws a parallel to other women who assumed provisional administrative power and responsibilities, namely, two queens of England: Isabella of France (r. 1308-27) and Philippa of Hainault (r. 1328-69). The management of judicial and military responsibilities was traditionally held by the lord, but in Jeanne’s case, she participated in the exercise of jurisdiction in the Breton court system and in certain diplomatic negotiations as circumstances required. Rather than being the sole privilege of men, the author concludes from the evidence that local priorities often prevailed in these matters.

The legal context for the succession debate in 1341 is highlighted in chapter 6, in which the uses and customs (royal vs. Breton) applied in the arguments of both sides are discussed in detail, together with alternative understandings of princely power and status within societal groupings. Those arguments corresponded more to their context and dynamic strategy than individual principles, concludes the author, signaling the reversal of positions when the succession debate recurred in 1379.

Moving from the study of “authority” to the concept of “legitimacy” in chapter 7, Graham-Goering looks at the exercise of princely power in Jeanne’s lifetime, viewed through changes and continuities of princely legitimacy. Heredity, however, remained the most powerful influence, as can be glimpsed in documents and chronicles. Also discussed is the exercise of ducal privileges related to regional customs and princely recognition by the Breton assembly, which supported Jeanne as duchess (as can be shown by the document discussed above, sealed by clergy, nobility, and bourgeoisie). The chapter continues with a study of Jeanne’s seals; the author believes that her second, grander, seal with its four heraldic arms and inscription identifying her authority as duchess of Brittany, was likely introduced during wartime, in the early 1350s. Even after Jean de Montfort resumed the ducal title, Jeanne offered no homage and even claimed certain princely powers as her own, such as the régale (income received during a bishopric’s vacancy).

This case-study underscores the importance of context and the dynamic conditions that influenced power-sharing. Graham-Goering’s reflections highlight both the collaborative and individual spousal responsibilities of Jeanne de Penthièvre and Charles de Blois. Instead of a standard model or interrelated binary axes--royal/noble, male/female, individual/collective--as frequently offered in historical studies, her analysis shows its variability, concluding that “princely power resists static definition because it was a series of processes rather than a thing, nor were its negotiation, construction, and practice ever finalized or complete” (259).

Graham-Goering demonstrates how the diversity and depth of documentary and literary material can be harnessed interpretatively and astutely to elucidate the microcosm of history. New slants on the re-examination of definitions and relationships help to show the collaborative forms of lordship. The author’s perspective also leads to new questions and considerations regarding coinage, homage, management of land and property, and finances. In all, her expert study and insightful reflections underscore the changing political and social conditions in the fourteenth century that permitted evolving and shifting power-sharing in the duchy of Brittany.



1. Erika Graham-Goering, Michael Jones, and Bertrand Yeurc’h, with the collaboration of Philippe Charon, Aux origines de la guerre de succession de Bretagne (Documents 1341-1342), Collection ‘Sources médiévales d'histoire de Bretagne,’ 9 (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2019).