By Gabby Storey
The life and career of Blanche of Castile, queen of France, rivals that of her illustrious grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine: perhaps no surprise to Eleanor, who in 1200 selected Blanche to marry the heir to the French throne, Louis (later Louis VIII). Grant’s thorough and captivating biography of Blanche (2016) is long awaited: the last major work on her was Elie Berger’s 1895 biography Histoire de Blanche de Castille, Reine de France. Given Blanche’s long political career as consort, regent, and queen mother, her adeptness for political negotiation, and her greatness as a ruler for her son, Louis IX, it is surprising that there was such a gap between Berger’s and Grant’s works.
Content aside, the most striking feature of Grant’s biography is its structure, particularly as intended for a wider audience. The biography is divided into two parts, the first considering a biographical narrative of Blanche’s life, the second more thematically structured. This inevitably leads to crossover in material between the two sections, and for those used to reading a richer detailed biography, may initially feel short-changed in the first section, craving the finer detail which comes in the second part of the book. The divisions will be helpful to obtain Grant’s analysis and opinion on specific aspects of Blanche’s life and political career, but otherwise a more concise volume may have been appropriate.
Grant’s introduction to the biography situates Blanche at the nexus of a discussion that has concerned historians in recent decades: that of women, power, and exceptionalism. Recent work since Grant’s biography was published has demonstrated that women who held power were not exceptional. However, Grant proposes that instead of considering Blanche as a queen, we instead look at her as a ruler, and consider how Blanche functioned as a ruling member of the elite (3). It may be satisfying to consider Blanche on a par with other rulers, regardless of gender, and her abilities as a co-ruler with both Louis VIII and Louis IX can be taken into account when thinking more widely about the balances between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power, and that rulers of any gender utilise both forms of power. However, she cannot be entirely disassociated from the role of queen, or her gender, as Grant notes that motherhood was intrinsic. Blanche often had to tread the balance between male members of the court who had their own interests at stake, though she did have overwhelming support for her regency upon Louis VIII’s death. Chapter 11 of the book considers rulership and power in more detail, and Grant’s pushback against typologies of power being gendered is one that scholars of women and royal studies alike should consider.
The first section of the book demonstrates Grant’s depth and breadth of knowledge of Capetian France. Given the reign of Louis IX is so often seen as a critical era for the transformation of medieval France, it can be difficult to disentangle Blanche from it. What Grant does is situate Blanche amongst her contemporaries, bringing all the political players to the stage and demonstrating her intimate knowledge of the contemporary chronicles and other documentary records including household accounts. A dazzling tale is spun, bringing the reader into Blanche’s daily life as the events of the thirteenth century unfold. Those completely unfamiliar with thirteenth-century France may be well-served with more context, however for those with a passing interest or more in Capetian France or queenship, the first section serves its purpose well in providing an overview of Blanche’s life.
The second section continues this richness of detail, wherein Grant explores Blanche’s family and friendships (chapter 7), religion and piety (chapters 8 and 9), court culture (chapter 10), legitimacy and authority (chapter 11), and her position as ruler and counsellor (chapter 12). It is here that the source material is brought to life, with a dialogue formed between Grant and the material. Unlike many other monarchical biographies published by Yale, Grant has chosen to highlight the voices and material of Blanche’s contemporaries rather than employ historical debate more fully in the majority of the text, with historians largely relegated to the footnotes. Grant’s familiarity and knowledge shine through, in a witty and conversational manner, transporting the reader through the intricacies and activities of Blanche’s life, with particular attention paid to the religious patronage and piety of both Blanche and Louis IX, who was later canonised.
Despite the crossover due to structure, this is a deeply informative and enjoyable biography of Blanche of Castile, a woman who was long overdue a just, detailed, and scholarly examination of her life. Given the length of the book, it is far more than a biography: it is a rich discussion of Capetian France and the political dynamics at the time. The length, structure, and depth of the volume present a dilemma: on the one hand, those looking for an informed, witty, and detailed biography of Blanche will find one in Grant’s work. However, Blanche’s tale is somewhat lost at times under this depth of contextual detail. Overall, readers looking for a queenly biography, or a history of Western Europe through the lens of Blanche of Castile, will be satisfied by the lively and rewarding book penned by Grant.