Going Global—New Directions for Queenship Studies

By Ellie Woodacre

Queenship studies is a thriving academic discipline and wider interest in queenship is also reflected in a plethora of books on queens in the mainstream press as well as movies, tv series and novels about queens in popular culture. Biographical studies of the lives on individual queens or collective biographies of groups of queens have long been a mainstay of the field. Indeed, as I’ve argued elsewhere, these biographies which stem back to the middle ages, are arguably the point of origin for queenship studies itself and are still vital to the field today, as Routledge’s Lives of Royal Women series demonstrates. Many themes have been explored by queenship specialists–the political activity and agency of queens, their religious and cultural patronage, their familial and court networks, and the ways in which queens ‘self-fashioned’ their image are just a few examples of areas which have attracted considerable interest from scholars. In terms of period and place however, the focus has long been on medieval and early modern Europe—this has been the ‘comfort zone’ for both queenship and royal studies. While this has resulted in some fantastic scholarship on European queens and there are still individual women as well as areas of Europe which are understudied, a new trend is emerging to look at queenship globally, across all time, place, cultures and religions.

So, what are the benefits of ‘going global’ with queenship studies? In the first instance, just bringing the fascinating lives of royal women from different periods, places and cultures who may be little known beyond specialists in those regions and eras is incredibly valuable in terms of increasing our understanding of queenship. However, refocusing the lens of queenship to take a global perspective yields perhaps its most important insights when we take a comparative look across the longue durée. When we begin to look at queenship in this global, comparative perspective, two perhaps surprising elements quickly come into view. The first is that the expectations of queens and royal women and ideals of queenship across time, place and religion are remarkably similar. As the premier woman of the realm, queens were expected to demonstrate and embody the ideals of womanhood itself—to be ‘practically perfect in every way’ in Mary Poppins-esque fashion. For example, no matter what her religion might be, she was expected to be pious and royal women modelled this across the globe through performative piety including taking part in religious services and ceremonial as well as patronizing religious orders and institutions. The second element which in itself demonstrates the need to look at queenship globally, is that our well-studied model of medieval and early modern European monarchy, based on monogamous, Christian values, is by far the exception to the norm. It is far more common for royal women across time, place and cultures to be living in a polygamous court framework. Again, while there are many similarities in the expectations and experiences of European royal women and their counterparts around the world, this one central difference does have a major impact on how queenship operates. In particular, this can be seen in a shift of emphasis—when the king has one wife, she is the queen and the supreme woman in the realm but when the king has many wives it is often his mother who is pre-eminent in his court. The king’s mother—whether she is the Dowager Empress, Valide Sultan or Maigira, is often in charge of the heart of the court, such as the Inner Palace or Enderûn and could even be the king’s official co-ruler as in the case of the Swazi queen mother or Indlovukati.

This discussion of the various titles of royal women brings up one of the challenges of working on queenship in a global sense—the difficulty of nomenclature. There is no doubt that using terms like queen and queenship which are reflective of European monarchical structures is less than ideal and could be not only awkward and inaccurate but even culturally insensitive. Even in English, given that the term ‘queen’ comes from the Old English cwen which was used to designate the king’s wife, we have to use a series of qualifiers such as regnant, regent and dowager to clearly identify the role of queens and the power they exercised. The term ‘queen’ does not easily translate into scenarios where there was a large group of women at the royal court who had different formal relationships with the ruler—from his own female relatives to his wives, consorts and concubines. For example, in China there was an elaborate system of ranks and grades for women who were part of the imperial harem from the Empress to the lowliest concubine or palace maid. Each of these women had particular titles which reflected their rank such as ‘One of Pure Deportment’ or ‘One of Cultivated Countenance’.  In this scenario, we can’t just look at the Empress as the queenly counterpart as all of these women are vital to understanding queenship in the context of the Imperial court. For example, consorts and concubines could also bear the heir to the throne and thus shared the queenly imperative for fertility and dynastic continuity. They could also be raised to the Empress’ position by the ruler on the death of deposition of the current Empress or be installed as Dowager Empress by their sons during the next reign. The solution to this conundrum regarding nomenclature for royal women is a difficult one. I think that when referring to royal women in particular cultures it is best, whenever feasible, to use the title or terminology specific to that court or monarchy. However, there are times when a blanket term is needed to refer to the pre-eminent royal woman across more than one realm, culture or even continent and in these cases ‘queen’ can fill that gap if used with consideration of the variation across different monarchies. Likewise, queenship, reginalidad or even Königintum can be used as a concept or theoretical framework to analyse the position, experience and activities of royal women in different periods and places, even if the term was originally developed in the context of premodern Europe.

The most exciting thing about the field of queenship studies is how active it is and how we continue to expand our understanding of the lives of royal women and the exercise of the queen’s office through the constantly evolving scholarship. This new trend to look at queenship globally is only one of the many innovative developments in the field at present-other movements to look out for are examinations of the economic power and activity of royal women which was highlighted by the recent ‘Monarchy and Money’ conference organized by Cathleen Sarti and Charlotte Backerra and geographical modelling as demonstrated by the MUNARQAS project led by Diana Pelaz Flores and Ángela Muñoz Fernández. We must keep pushing the boundaries of our ‘comfort zones’ and our scholarship to continually move the field of queenship studies forward—there are endless facets of queenship and so many fascinating women’s lives to analyze and explore!

For more information on the ideas highlighted or mentioned in this post see:


MUNARQAS project website: https://munarqas.com/

Lives of Royal Women series: https://www.routledge.com/Lives-of-Royal-Women/book-series/LORW

Publications where I’ve expanded on the themes mentioned above:

Queens and Queenship (Bradford: ARC Humanities Press, forthcoming 2021). This short monograph looks at queenship globally from the ancient world to nearly the present day, in a comparative, thematic way.

A Companion to Global Queenship (Bradford: ARC Medieval Press, 2018). NOTE: an expanded version of my introduction to this volume is available on Bloomsbury’s Encyclopaedia of the Global Middle Ages: https://www.bloomsburymedievalstudies.com/encyclopedia-chapter?docid=b-9781350990005&tocid=b-9781350990005-009-11608

These two pieces look at the origins of queenship studies and new directions in the field:

  • ‘Recent research and new trajectories in queenship studies: The political, social, cultural and religious aspects of the queen´s role’, in Ángela Muñoz Fernández and Jordi Luengo Lopez eds., Creencias y disidencias. Experiencias políticas, sociales, culturales y religiosas en la Historia de las mujeres (Madrid: Editorial Comares, 2020), pp. 41-63.
  • ‘Well represented or missing in action? Queens, queenship and Mary Hays’ in Gina Luria Walker ed., The Invention of Female Biography (London: Routledge, 2017), pp. 21-36.

Other publications on global royal women:

Anne Walthall ed., Servants of the Dynasty: Palace Women in World History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

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