Queenship and Historiography

By Louise Gay

For centuries, sovereignty in the “Male Middle Ages” (as defined by Georges Duby) has been thought and written about from a male perspective. Perpetually presented as passive and submissive beings, queens were mainly considered as royal wombs rather than political actresses in the collective imagination. In consequence, the old historiography on queens focused on their roles as mothers and educators – preferably of male children in line to inherit the throne – overshadowing their active involvement in government, diplomacy, and war. Since the late 1960s, with the rise of feminist and women’s studies that aimed to place women back in history and discuss gendered roles in the past, queens have been largely reassessed as historical figures and queenship emerged as a field of study in its own right. Aspects of queenship such as maternity, piety, religious and artistic patronage, wealth, regency and many others have been thoroughly studied, and this has even allowed the publication of a few thematic syntheses. Although Western European queens have received sustained attention since the very beginning of this movement, the field of queenship studies is now expanding its horizon. Indeed, while Western scholars are starting to explore new areas, queenship as a topic of research is emerging in countries outside Europe and is investigated by their native researchers. This multiplication of case studies of women from different periods, places, and religions provides exciting new perspectives for the future.

However, a few historiographical issues remain for those hoping to study queenship. Generally speaking, the mentalities regarding powerful and/or high-status women have been slow to change. Projection of contemporary misogynist stereotypes, often rooted in the belief that women did not possess any kind of agency until the twentieth century, can still be found in academic works produced by non-specialists. As a result, women are frequently erased from narratives: many political studies and kings’ biographies comport none or few references to queens (e.g. Anne of Bohemia and Isabel de Valois get little mention in Richard II’s biographies or political works). Most often, queens are still conventionally portrayed as daughters, wives, and mothers of “greater” men; the underlying goal being to shed light on the history of their male counterparts. Such perspective can also be characterised by a psychologizing approach of the queens: citing a lack of sources, some historians havedeliberately presumedcertain reactions or behaviours (e.g. Régine Pernoud in the 1960-80s).Another relatively common practice about the representation of queenship is the use – and abuse – of the norm-exception schema. If a queen is politically active, she is most of times credited as exceptional in the sources. This norm-exception scheme is part of a process of differentiation which reaffirms the dominant values by proposing an individual and exceptional model as the only alternative. As such, it helped to deny a much more nuanced reality where many women managed to find power and agency. This “exceptionalism” in the sources has frequently misled researchers, considering in turn that the leading role played by certain queens fell within the anecdotal register without finding any place within the “great history” that has persistently been gendered male. Today, queenship specialists are calling for moving beyond the exceptionalist debate.

Meanwhile,popular history tends to represent queens associated to scandal, reemploying classic literary topoï such as the adulterous wife, the power-hungry queen (as well as its opposite, the frivolous queen), and the witch. The persistence of these myths, some centuries old, can pose another challenge for historians actively trying to distinguish the legend from the reality. From Cleopatra to Eleanor of Aquitaine through to Marie-Antoinette, controversial queens are quasi-inseparable from their harsh reputations frequently shaped by the judgment of later narratives. A similar observation stands for allegedly more consensual queens, their written stories usually being instrumental in the process of the production of dynastic, or even national, narratives. The case of Isabel la Católica of Castile, the “mother” of Spain’s political unification during the XVIth century, offers a good example of such instrumentalization. While the queen was presented as a model of virtue throughout centuries (in 1958, a request for canonization has even been made by the Spanish Church and Franco’s dictatorial regime), recent historiography has re-evaluated her political career, emphasizing her active role in the creation of the modern Inquisition, or in the expulsion and persecution of religious minorities. Thus, in all cases the reputation of a queen – whether coming from an old historiographical tradition or from popular literature – should be viewed with caution.

In addition to this general overview, queenship historiography has also been influenced and shaped by national (or regional) cultural specificities. Several factors can contribute to this effect: the existence or absence of a law forbidding women to inherit the throne (such as the Salic law in the French realm, or the Muslim political doctrine following the Arab conquests), the notoriety enjoyed by local queens (especially those who ruled in their own name), as well as contemporary republican legacies. Furthermore, as the reception of gender and women studies varied in different countries, queenship as an academic field has yet to be developed in some parts of the world to truly become a global movement.

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