Book Review: Queenship in Medieval France, 1300-1500 by Murielle Gaude-Ferragu

By Louise Gay

Translated from French to English by Angela Krieger, this book by Murielle Gaude-Ferragu (original publication in 2014) sheds a welcome light on the last medieval queens of France from the early fourteenth to the end of the fifteenth centuries. It focuses mainly on Valois queenship, exploring through nine thematic chapters (grouped in three distinctive parts) the power held by these women at a time when the French monarchy excluded the possibility of crowning a regnant queen. Whereas previous historiography overlooked Valois queens for being “simple” consorts, Gaude-Ferragu argues they played an essential role in the monarchy throughout the nearly two centuries of crises it faced. Her aim is to define late medieval queenship in France, outlining the queen’s functions and expectations.

The book’s chronological framework covers the change of dynasty from the Capetians (987-1328) to the Valois (1328-1515), the “rediscovery” of Salic law, the Hundred Years war, and the Franco-Burgundy wars. Thus, it also constitutes a work of political history, showing for the first time a female perspective on these major events that shaped the French crown through to modern state.

              The first part of the book explores the traditional analytical frameworks of marriage and maternity. Strictly selected for political reasons, the future queen reinforces the status of her royal in-laws; whether by extending their land base with her dowry, securing an alliance with her lineage, or bringing the prestige of her blood. The case study of the queen’s coronation gives the author the opportunity to approach a flourishing topic in queenship studies: the many analogies between late medieval queens and their celestial model, the Virgin Mary, which will be discussed in more detail in the next sections.

              Dedicated to the queen’s “profession”, the second part looks at a queen’s political power within the public sphere. After going back to the circumstances which led to the exclusion of women from the royal succession, Gaude-Ferragu shows that nevertheless, queens were not discarded from politics. Modelled after the activities ascribed to the Virgin Mary, the specific tasks expected of queens were most often carried out through the action of intercession. As advocates of the people, they exercised their right to pardon and assist the king by performing missions of mediation with various third parties. Their promotion of peace also made them valuable diplomatic assets for the Crown, especially during familial conflicts.

As for governing, the queen acts as a lord for her personal lands – inherited or given as a dower. But her prerogatives can go even further in the case of a regency or a lieutenancy, an innovation from the fourteenth century. While depicting these episodes, the author is careful to avoid the traps which some previous historians fell into. Indeed, the image of the regencies of Jeanne II of Burgundy and Isabelle of Bavaria have been tarnished by both their political opponents and later narratives hostiles towards female power. The shaping of their negative historiographical posterity is therefore carefully analysed, which provides the reader with the tools to grasp the problems around the queen’s reputation and her subsequent portrayal in chronicle accounts.

The queen took part in public rituals and ceremonies (e.g. royal entrances, Maundy Thursdays) as another body of the monarchy. Her obsequies are also developed by the author, whose PhD thesis focused on the funerals of princes in medieval France. Now buried in the royal necropolis of Saint-Denis (formerly reserved for kings only), the queen rests for eternity with her husband in a dual burial.

The book’s third and last part highlights the queen’s devotional and cultural roles. Elements of her material environment, such as her Hôtel or her private trésor, are presented to showcase how the prestige of the queen is connected to the quality of her estates. The importance of her religious and artistic patronage contributes to assert her status and glorify the monarchy, as well as her exercise of caritas – charity – being both a theological virtue and a political duty equally shared by the royal couple.

              Providing a long-awaited synthesis, Murielle Gaude-Ferragu delivers a study that will introduce general readers to queenship and enrich the knowledge of specialists. Her re-evaluation of late medieval French queens, along with the work of Anne-Hélène Allirot, finally brings these powerful women out of oblivion and marks a renewal in French historiography after decades of disregard towards queenship studies.

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