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Recently on the MedFem Listserv, the valuable online forum of the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship, discussion was piqued by the question of whether we’re ‘done’ with the history of medieval queenship by now. I think most people ended by agreeing that the answer is ‘no’, even if some individual queens sometimes seem to be getting all the attention;[1] the usefulness of studying exceptional individuals for understanding the role of women generally in society at large may be small; and the value of looking at less well-known queens, not to mention non-royal women, certainly shouldn’t be denied. Theresa Earenfight has begun to address this through her recently established blog, Queens in the Middle Ages, which will be a great place to watch for more developments if you’re interested. Theresa recently posted:

royal women were highly visible to their contemporaries. Their lives were recounted in chronicles, the management of their estates and households recorded in fiscal documents, their letters collected in archives, and their religious and artistic patronage remembered in the books, buildings, and works of art they sponsored and treasured. Yet later scholars put kings at the center of the history of medieval Europe and ignored most queens, dismissed them as unimportant, forgot their actions, and obscured their lives…

This is certainly the case for a particular episode of English, French and indeed wider European history from the late thirteenth century. I’ve talked briefly about this before, and I’ll be waxing eloquent on the topic in Winchester in July, since my paper has just been accepted for the Kings & Queens conference, so I won’t go into loads of detail here. But suffice to say, the more I looked into the contextual background of three letters from Edward I to queens of France, the more horrified I became at the almost complete silence of historians on the involvement of these women in diplomatic efforts to avoid an Anglo-French war in the 1290s. They are almost completely invisible in the diplomatic historiography. Some works mention the presence of Marie of Brabant and Jeanne of Navarre at a meeting with Edward’s brother, Edmund of Lancaster, at which (depending on whose account you read) Edmund was duped into agreeing to a ‘secret’ peace pact with Philip IV, or did some duping of his own which resulted in Philip’s animosity. And that’s about it. No further comment or analysis. Not even a flicker of a pause in which to wonder why these queens were involved in negotiations, how they may have been involved in setting up or facilitating the occasion, or what their response to its failure might have been. No reflection on what the royal men considered to be the role of these women in diplomacy, or whether they sought it, or expected it, or resented it. No curiosity over how normal or extraordinary this kind of activity was. No mention of the subsequent correspondence from Edward to Marie, Jeanne, and Marguerite of Provence, even though two of these letters have been in print since Champollion-Figeac’s two-volume collection Lettres des Rois, Reines et Autres Personages des Cours de France et d’Angleterre depuis Louis VII jusqu’à Henri IV, Tirées des Archives de Londres appeared in 1839, and all three are noted in the Calendar of the Close Rolls, Edward I, Vol. III: 1288—1296, first printed in 1904.[2] What this means is that despite having had the resources to hand for at least one hundred and seventy-four years it simply hadn’t occurred to anyone to ask these questions, even though the presence and influence of the three queens was not invisible to their contemporaries. I’d say that shows we aren’t done yet.

On the upside, it means there are still plenty of opportunities to add to the story of thirteenth-century diplomacy. That, at least, makes me smile.

[1] Eleanor of Aquitaine, I’m looking at YOU!
[1] J. J. Champollion-Figeac, ed., Lettres des Rois, Reines et Autres Personages des Cours de France et d’Angleterre Depuis Louis VII Jusqu’à Henri IV, Tirées des Archives de Londres. 2 vols, Collection de Documents Inédits de l’Histoire de France (Paris: Imprimerie Royale, 1839-47); Calendar of the Close Rolls Preserved in the Public Record Office. 61 vols (London: HMSO, 1900-1963). Point of trivia – Jacques Joseph Champollion-Figeac was the elder brother of Jean-François Champollion, famous for translating the Rosetta Stone, one of the other iconic British Museum posters of my childhood previously discussed here. I guess I was always doomed to be an Egyptologist or a Medievalist…!

I’ve just finished teaching a unit in first year history on Medieval Europe – although there are still essays trickling in for assessment. This has been a quite lovely experience, I must say. (Especially given the dire predictions of some colleagues about the low standards in written composition and general comprehension among today’s youth.  Personally, I blame society.) I’ve been spoilt with a great bunch of students, almost all of whom seemed genuinely happy to be in class. However, for all their engagement and enthusiasm, there was one thing in particular that bothered me about their grasp of the course material.


Now, it may not have escaped your notice that I am, myself, female. I’m on the record as saying that I’m basically glad I don’t live in 13th-Century England, because of the opportunities modernity offers me, in particular to be a scholar and a relatively independent person. I regard many of the attitudes towards women in the past as distasteful, and unconscionable in the present. But I also recognise that (a) history is not a long but simple story of the emancipation of women from male control; (b) some attitudes towards men in the past were also pretty lousy; (c) gender was only one factor – a factor, sure, even an important one, but still only one of a complex set of factors – in determining how good or bad you had it in the medieval world; and (d) women, as much as men, constituted the societies that held and expressed gendered attitudes.

I wish my students could see it that way. I’ve just finished reading a batch of research essays on the topic of gender roles in high medieval Europe, and there was a depressing sameness to them. Most assured me that women were uniformly detested and oppressed. Several failed to mention men at all (except in connection with oppressing women), even through the set question specifically concerned gender roles, and not the treatment of women. The (largely un-articulated) definition of oppression seemed to include involvement in arranged marriages (somewhat conveniently – or disrespectfully – forgetting that marriage, like the tango, takes two); the existence of the story of Eve (equally conveniently overlooking the many Biblical heroines); the fact that as wives they had and were expected to have children (as if women themselves were somehow immune to and separate from notions of lineage and status); and lack of participation in the workforce. In these terms, a number of essays concluded, at least the peasant ‘woman on the street’ was relatively equal to the man, even if they were all kneeling in the shit together. (And the great thing about endemic malnutrition and working as a wet-nurse is you don’t have as many children!) To be fair, this general impression is one they might easily have obtained from the assigned readings, about which I hope to make some recommendations for future years.

Now, I am not about to argue that, au contraire, medieval women had it easy, or that the imagery of the ultimate temptress wasn’t sometimes, or even often, used against them. But I do want to make a stand for some nuance; some complication; some questioning of this rather bland and unimaginative view of medieval women. In the first place, I object to the assumption that women then wanted the same things as women now, in middle-class, 21st-Century Australia (in fact, while we’re on the topic, do all 21st-Century, middle-class, Australian women even want the same things?). I also object to the implicit objectification of women in the view that society (often, explicitly, ‘The Church’ in the essays I’ve just marked) did this to them, as if they were completely passive instruments, utterly lacking in agency. They may have had limited opportunities to express their desires and decisions outside the social structures and assumptions in which they were embedded, but so do we, and so did contemporary men, by and large. Significantly, those structures and assumptions were/are also gendered, and so the ways and means in which men’s and women’s options were/are limited are not identical.

I shall have more to say on this over the coming weeks, in which I hope to bring together a number of examples of women in 13th-Century England, not so much to show how amazing, exceptional or admirable they were, but to show how complex their lives were, how much gender was only (an integrated) part of their many social roles, and how agency is actually everywhere if you only think of turning over a historical rock or two.

For now, I’ll close by asking: Have you come across this kind of uncritical approach to gender (or other topics) among undergraduate history students? How did you address it?

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I teach and research at the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the School of Philosophical, Historial and International Studies, Monash University (Australia). Views expressed here are my own and not representative of the CMRS, SOPHIS or Monash.

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