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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…!

The Call for Papers for Kings and Queens II sent me scurrying through my *large* database of potential letters for a neat little nugget I might be able to turn into a conference paper. As I have about 13,000 individual items from the SC 1 (Ancient Correspondence) series at TNA saved as photographs on my hard drive, I’m quite spoilt for choice! I’d initially considered the correspondence of Edward I with his first cousin-once removed, Philip IV of France, as a potential case study. This seemed like an appropriate and interesting proposal since their relationship started off rosily, but took a particularly nasty turn around 1294 when Philip decided to annexe Edward’s Gascon territory to the French crown, despite having given assurances in private diplomatic meetings that he wouldn’t.[1] Sadly (although perhaps, on reflection, not particularly surprisingly), none of the extant letters between the two monarchs date from this crucial period. They come from earlier (up to 1293) and later (from about 1303). There’s probably still much of interest to be had from them, but this set back put a damper on my initial idea.[2]

Kew, TNA, SC 1/13/28. Detail of a draft letter from Edward I to Marie of Brabant, dowager queen of France, 12 August 1295. Photo by Kathleen Neal.

What does survive from the crisis period, however, is a set of draft letters drawn up on a single day in the name of Edward I to no fewer than three queens of France: his aunt, Marguerite of Provence, widow of Louis IX; Marie of Brabant, widow of his cousin Philip III; and Jeanne of Navarre, queen consort of Philip IV. Interestingly, in the same breath, as it were, the king also wrote to his ally against Philip, Adolph of Nassau, the so-called King of the Romans, but this letter was the last to be drafted in the set: it’s fourth on the parchment sheet under Edward’s letters to the three queens. Is this perhaps an indicator of a hierarchy of significance in political communication in which the royal women of Edward’s network were more important to his diplomatic efforts? Possible, although perhaps not provable… Nevertheless, this tantalising find – or rather rediscovery, since I’ve passed my eyes across this letter before – has got me rather excited in the context of the conference theme. Read the rest of this entry »

Well, every humanities unit these days seems to have a week on gender, and here we are again. I’m going to get to a pleasing aspect of teaching the topic this time in a moment – but first let me get something off my chest…

A gender week.

Is it just me or are there problems with corralling gender into a corner of its own, and going off happily afterwards, dusting the hands, and saying “Right! Well at least that’s got *that* over with for another semester!”? I’ll allow that this is an issue most undergraduate students haven’t previously dealt with in the ways that academics tend to take for granted, and it’s complicated, so they need some careful guidance and signposting through the process. In that respect giving it some dedicated time and attention is clearly necessary and valuable, as was raised in the comments last time I talked about this matter. On the other hand, it seems to me that by so structuring it we risk perpetuating the marginalization of all things ‘gendered’: of confirming in young minds that women and femininity are peripheral concerns to History, and that men and masculinity can go on happily being the assumed centre while remaining essentially unexamined. I know there’s debate about this,[1] but I think I, for one, am becoming more determined in my view that what we need here is some integration, rather than reiteration of the battle lines. It appears that pedagogy hasn’t quite figured out the best way of achieving this yet. I can’t say that I currently I have any inspired answers to offer, merely a gripe.

So anyway, this semester I’m out of my comfort zone, teaching a unit on the (mostly Italian) Renaissance. Whodathunkit!? It’s quite fun, despite the risk of a nose bleed from straying so far forward in time.[2] For one thing, as a friend pointed out, teaching outside one’s own research specialty enables one to focus on teaching as a process. I try to practice active reflection on my teaching at any time, but there is an element of truth to this. Being less invested in the role of gate-keeper for the content of a specific discipline does free the mind to reflect on the structural aspects of how most effectively to convey any information, coach any skills, and so on. I have found myself taking a much more hands-off approach, allowing students to take a greater degree of control over the discussion, and to arrive at their own interpretations (which is not to say I don’t intervene if the conversation threatens to derail!).

Most of my students seem to have responded well to this responsibility/burden. They are rising to the challenge, and it’s a joy to see them develoing a better understanding of what being a tertiary student of history is about, and realising the raw potential of ideas themselves. Given that many of my students in this unit were also in my classes last semester, I can really see the development of their academic maturity since they arrived on campus, and I feel no small satisfaction and pride at their achievements. In some ways, one might say it’s all rather maternal!

Which brings me back to gender. This gender week – despite my reservations, above – has been one of those moments when the students’ increasing intellectual maturity and grasp of historical discipline has been born home to me. In conversations, I was glowing inside to hear students arguing that “maybe what this author meant by ‘love’ when discussing marriage was really what we might call ‘respect’?”, or that “maybe the ideals put forward for a marriageable woman in a text written for men contemplating matrimony weren’t a full or representative expression of women’s roles in marriage?”, or that – amazing! – “perhaps men were also constrained by social forces and norms over which their personal control was limited?”… These kinds of comments show me how far we’ve come since the essays in semester one. These are the moments that make teaching so much fun, and so darn satisfying.

Students, take note!

[1] See, for instance, Dyan Elliot, ‘The three ages of Joan Scott’, American Historical Review 113.5 (2008), 1390-1403.
[2] I wish I could take credit for this lovely and evocative metaphor, but in fact Joanna Huntingdon first brought it to my attention.

So, excuse me while I blather on about this. As I was saying, gender is a complex historical phenomenon, and part of a much bigger social matrix. In this post I want to talk about one example, Katherine Paynel, a widow in late 13th-century England, whose case helps, I think, to dispel a few mythical assumptions of the kind that students tend to make about the position of women in medieval society.

Katherine’s story hasn’t yet completely been unpicked – this is one of the projects sitting in my ‘to do’ tray at the moment, and will sadly remain on the back burner for a few months yet while I finish up my thesis. However, what we do know indicates that she was a woman of some independent means, and certainly a woman of character. Katherine was a tenant in chief of the king,[1] having jointly inherited the lands of her father, Adam de Periton, with her nephew, Robert, and sister, Isabel;[2] but she is known to us principally because a letter she sent to the chancellor, John Langton, c. 1292,[3] survives in The National Archives, Kew, as SC 1/27/113. In my rough translation,[4] it reads:

To her own very dear special friend in God, if he please, Sir John de Langton, chancellor of our lord king, his own liege and erstwhile mother,[5] if he please, Katherine Paynel, greetings and her blessing and [herself] always ready for your commandments. Dear lord and son, I have great joy in the heart from your advancement and may God be praised for the grace which he has given you that all men love you, and [for] that perserverance which ought to remain all your life; that is my prayer and it has been and will be as long as I live. As to that, dear lord, it is known to you, if it please you to remember, that since our first meeting I have had a difficult task to sustain and guide myself and my children with scarcely any aid. But, blessed be the Lord, they are agreeable enough to me, and humble, and each of my sons has some livelihood, and my daughter can take counsel with them when she desires. Dear lord, my younger son, Stephen Paynel, prays and requests me often that I send him to court in service or company where he can acquire sense and manners, so that he can recover the goods (pust aver recoverir) after me if he should be of service. And indeed, lord, I now have no sure aquaintance except, if it please, yours. Thus, I pray and request you, dear lord, for love of me and for all friendship that by your counsel and aid he may be entrusted to you yourself, lord, or to your bailiff. And I, lord, will work on his behalf for the costs in every way in my power, if by that he may support himself. Dear lord, concerning this prayer may you wish by your letter to tell me through this same bearer; and often, in all other matters, your pleasure; and concerning your state of body and health, which may God cause to be good and long. Lord, I commend you to God and His sweet mother.

Reading this letter in light of some of my complaints from the previous post, let me point out a few of the most salient points.

First, this letter constructs a gendered world in which men and women are both participating, actively yet differently. As a widow with children Katherine is in some ways the chief of her household: her children remain under her guidance to some degree, despite that they seem to be adults. They are ‘humble’ and agreeable to her; and she on her part ‘stuggles’ to sustain and guide them. Her sons’ role in life is clearly distinct from that of her daughter – the sons have livelihoods, while the daughter implicitly does not – and yet the daughter is not described as an empty or passive instrument. She can ‘take counsel’ with her brothers ‘when she desires’, and is thus recognised as a person who (a) has desires, and (b) has affairs in which she may require advice. Part of Katherine’s role as mother, which is clearly articulated here, is to establish and advance careers for her sons by whatever means open to her. One of those means is this letter. Read the rest of this entry »

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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