Book Review: Queens and Queenship in Medieval Europe: Proceedings of a Conference Held at King’s College London, April 1995 by Anne J. Duggan

By Catherine Capel

This volume, edited by Anne J. Duggan, celebrates the diverse aspects which make up the foundations of queenship in the Middle Ages. It analyses them through thematic lenses identifying core aspects affecting the execution of power by queens and the construction of queenship. The essays in this collection come from the conference ‘Queens and Queenship in the Middle Ages’ in 1995, which aimed to draw comparisons between the constructions of monarchy in Europe and the Latin East from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries. The study of queenship is deeply complex, but Duggan’s volume highlights many of the arguments which have perpetuated the study of queens as agents of the monarchy.  

The collection of essays has been organised thematically to explore the theory prevalent to the study of queens and queenship. The thematic approach has highlighted similarities and differences between the ways in which queens from differing kingdoms and monarchical structures enacted authority. Furthermore, these themes provide a clear outline to some of the arguments which underpin queenship as an analytical branch of analysis.

The first section explores queens and empresses in western Europe, highlighting how they operated as machinations of government through familial relationships. Pauline Stafford and Valerie Wall emphasised how manuscripts were used to display familial connections and portray the position of power a queen held in relation to their male relatives in the Enconium Emmae Regina and Life of Saint Margaret. George Corklin’s assessment of the turbulent marriage between Ingeborg of Denmark and Philip I, King of France, and Volker Honemann’s examination of the relationship between Agnes, Queen of the Romans, and her stepdaughter Elizabeth of Hunagry explored how familial relationships could impact upon the visibility of a queen and their access to power, a theme still widely explored in recent queenship historiography. The correlation between the changing nature of kingdoms and queenship was shown by Steinar Imsen and Kurt-Ulrich Jaschke, outlining that the position Scandinavian and Romano-German queens held was impacted upon by access to resources.

The second section focuses on image and reality in the East, considering queenship as a separate model in comparison to the West. Liz James’ argument that the activities of emperors and empresses should be viewed as holding the same political significance in terms of monarchy, especially when considered through contemporary lenses instead of modern priorities, which supports recent arguments of studying the monarchy as a whole. The similarities between female rulership in the West and East are emphasised by Dion C. Smythe, highlighting key aspects of queenship that empresses engaged in, or did not, by analysing their presence in contemporary chronicles. Sarah Lambert also examined the representation of queens in contemporary sources, particularly William of Tyre, thinking about how queens were seen as necessary for succession, but their image was often manipulated by those around them.    

The theme of section three looks at the images of queenship. Each of the chapters in this section highlighted that these images of queenship reflected the expectations surrounding their behaviour. Mary Stroll and Diana Webb examined how popes, clergymen, and government officials used the image of Mary Regina to promote themselves and use her image to represent their specific ideals. Exploring Hungarian queens as scapegoats, Janos M. Bak outlines how the chronicle sources portrayed them as giving bad counsel and stepping outside of expectations to blame them for the pitfalls of the kingdom. Karen Pratt’s discussion of old French literature highlighted how key sources such as Christine de Pizan’s Cité des Dames and Gautier d’Arras’s Eracle use queenly examples to portray virtuous behaviour and form cautionary tales towards how queens should act.

The last section of this volume considered the connection between queenship and culture, identifying how queens acted as transports for culture across kingdoms. Paul Crossley’s examination of the church of St Elizabeth in Marburg identified how the design of the church was responsible for the spread of French-inspired Gothic architecture and used by popes, emperors, and her family to promote themselves and seek to portray themselves as influential in culture through her. The centrality of the Carolingian coronation ordines to queenly power is argued by Janet Nelson, highlighting how they laid out the roles and expectations of the queen as the partner of the king. John Carmi Parsons contribution as the last chapter is arguably fitting as he discusses the burials of queens and the design of their tombs. The iconography established connections between their marital and natural families and symbolised the importance of the burial of the queen as equal to that of the king for dynastic legacy.                   

Although the volume was published in 1997 and the field of queenship studies has advanced in certain areas, such as the rebuttal of exceptionalism as a descriptor of women wielding power, the arguments made in the essays by the contributors are still vital to the understanding of queenship theory. They set about in motion the re-evaluation of many medieval queens and challenged pre-existing ideas of how monarchy operated in the Middle Ages. They highlight themes and methodological approaches which are still at the heart of queenship studies. The chapters themselves provide an interesting and informative read that will enrich the knowledge of the reader.        

This volume provides multiple approaches to queenship in the Middle Ages, and the collection considers some of the main building blocks that have constructed the view historians have of queens and their place in medieval monarchy. Duggan’s introduction clearly outlines how the chapters have been brought together to show how these queens’ lives compare with one another, and how the chapters establish a wide spectrum through which female rule can be evaluated, moving past previously established stereotypes to demonstrate their importance to the political landscapes of the Middle Ages.

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