Book Review: The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe by Sharon L. Jansen

By Johanna Strong

Sharon L. Jansen’s The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe is a foundational work in the field of queenship studies and stands in a long series of responses and allusions to John Knox’s infamous First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558). Where Knox argued that women were inherently unable to rule and so should be barred from political power, Jansen highlights early modern Europe as a centre of female power, a complex “network[…] of related women and patterns of connections between them” (page 4). Instead of focusing on individual remarkable women, Jansen “explore[s] the relationships among women whose lives occupy a place in and perpetuate a continuing, though largely unrecogni[s]ed[,] tradition of political rule” (5-6).

As a result, The Monstrous Regiment of Women is an “exploratory and suggestive” work (6), framed as a series of mini-biographies of successors to four main precedents of early modern European queenship (more on them below), with the foundational examples of queenship broken into four categories: queens regnant, queens manquant (or, queens who may have been), queens regent who failed to conform to societal expectations, and queens regent who successfully fulfilled contemporary norms. Though the work started as a smaller project with only a handful of women, Jansen notes that she quickly realised that many royal family trees highlighted only men, excluding the women necessary not only for rulership but for dynastic succession (2-3).

In her genealogical charts, therefore, Jansen chose to highlight women, often at the exclusion of male relations; wherever she could, Jansen “put [her] women on top. [She] eliminated every son [she] could, including Henry VIII’s long-desired Edward, as ‘issue’ with which [Jansen] was not concerned, an ‘irrelevant branch’ which [she] could prune” (5). This format admittedly results in a female-orientated work but, at points in the explanation of these charts, nevertheless feels vengeful towards previous patriarchal and traditional genealogies – though well-deserved in the admittedly-biased eyes of this female reviewer! – rather than revisionist.

Jansen’s Monstrous Regiment begins with biographies of Isabella of Castile (1451-1504), Margaret Beaufort (1443-1509), Caterina Sforza (1462-1509), and Anne of France (1461-1522), precedents for subsequent queens regnant, queens manquant, queens regent who worked outside contemporary social norms, and queens regent who fulfilled societal expectations, respectively. Throughout, Jansen emphasises the connections between these four queens, not only through familial ties, but also how each woman exploited gendered expectations by performing their expected ‘submissive’ role while simultaneously being the real power behind the throne. Following the examination of the interconnectedness of these precedent-setting queens, Jansen explores their successors in each of the geographic areas: the Iberian peninsula (including Margaret of Austria and Mary of Austria, and referring to the medieval Berenguela of Castile), England (including Margaret Tudor, Katherine of Aragon, Mary I, Elizabeth I, and Mary Queen of Scots, and referencing the previous queenship of the Empress Matilda and Margaret of Anjou), the Italian territories (including Isabelle d’Este, and Lucrezia Borgia), and France (including Marie de’ Medici, Louise of Savoy, Marguerite of Angoulême, Jeanne d’Albret, and Catherine de’ Medici).

While the geographic division is understandable, a separation based on the each of the four categories of queenship would have further nuanced the work, emphasising the interfamilial relationships, a topic which Dr Gabrielle Storey will bring to light in her upcoming monograph. Further, since the work serves as an overarching biography of each queen, subheadings would have rendered the chapters easier to reference without having to search through paragraphs for a specific queen. Though Jansen provides a thorough author’s note explaining the Anglicisation of certain names and the choice of title to accompany each queen’s given name, this method has the potential to obscure these queens’ legacies by not providing the different monikers which different audiences would recognise. For example, in the author’s note, Jansen refers to Anne of France rather than to Anne of Beaujeu, an example where a chart detailing the other names by which queens were known would have been helpful for the reader.

Although the field of queenship studies has greatly evolved over the past few decades, Jansen’s The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe is a foundational work for the understanding of queenship theory for both academics and students. Tracing queenship from its early modern European precedents through to the successors of these example-setting queens, Jansen’s biographies detail the complexity of royal families and the large extent to which the sixteenth century was dominated by female rule. It remains a foundational work in which early modern Europe’s queens are gathered in one place, providing a succinct overview of early modern European queenship, whether the reader is an academic or simply interested in the topic.

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