Anyone interested in Kate Middleton’s much-anticipated pregnancy need only search for “bump alert” and will find out that the baby of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge is due in July. This is good news for the royal family, and not just because a new baby can bring so much joy. There was a royal sigh heard ‘round the world when the news broke a few months ago and especially now that the Duchess is past her troubles with morning sickness and the tragic events that unfolded after the unofficial announcement (http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/07/nurse-who-took-prank-call-about-kate-middleton-is-found-dead/). At long last, after hints at a royal pregnancy in 2009 and 2010, hints of a miscarriage, and then speculation of twins, we can rest assured that the royal family in England is fertile.
Whew. That was close.
A queen’s ability to conceive and bear a healthy child has always been a public event, particularly so for a modern queen-in-waiting like Kate Middleton, a twitter-worthy woman who seems to take all this in stride. But she could relax, a bit, because she could take advantage of advances in medicine and technology to determine the source of “the problem” and take steps to resolve it. This, too, would have been public. I imagine that she must have pondered the potentially catastrophic political and social consequences that her medieval counterparts experienced. I have a hunch that she was reminded regularly of this by loved ones and some not so loving. We think she’s lucky to live now instead of the Middle Ages, when a queen who did not have children could suffer dire consequences. I doubt, however, that she would have ended up like Giovanna I of Naples, queen consort of Majorca and titular queen of Jerusalem and Sicily. Giovanna inherited her realms from her grandfather in 1343 and reigned alone through four marriages. Childless, she was deposed and murdered in 1382 by her adopted heir.
Lineage matters to kings and queens. Royal maternity is the matrix of future kings. Medieval or modern, a queen consort’s primary duty is to bear legitimate healthy children, preferably but not exclusively boys.
In the Middle Ages, before the advent of the constitutional monarchy, the pregnant queen was the guarantor of the realm’s survival and integrity and so of peace and control. The marital debt of sexual relations was understood as a cultural imperative in a patriarchal society. In some medieval realms, this was inscribed in the queen’s coronation oath. Alcuin, writing in 793, noted that “the king’s virtue equals the welfare of the whole people, victory by the army, good weather, fertility, male offspring, and health.” Medieval society allowed greater political leeway to a royal mother than a wife, because although there were limits on her relationship with her husband, there were fewer controls on her relationship with her son. There was a “positive value of marriage and motherhood” seen in other models of motherhood: St. Elizabeth, and Old Testament matriarchs Sarah and Hannah. By the later Middle Ages, maternity was practically fetishized with childbirth as the “bastion of female solidarity, communion, and omnipotence,” marriage cassone in Italy, majolica wares given to pregnant women, and the production of a legitimate heir was seen as both a conjugal and a civic responsibility.
As I follow the fate of the Duke and Duchess, I have been thinking a lot about the flip side of maternity, childlessness. I prefer “childless” to the more commonly used terms like “sterile,” “barren,” or the less loaded term “infertile” because without solid knowledge of a medieval woman’s medical history it is impossible to know the causes of her childlessness. It may have been choice as much as chance, a desire for a queen to remain a virgin or have a chaste marriage. On the other hand, it’s also possible that her “choice” may have been a way to turn childlessness to political advantage. I’m thinking of Edith, queen of Edward the Confessor, but this applies to many other queens.
I’ve been working lately on a project that I’ve nicknamed “Mapping the Fruitless Womb” to document the maternal history of medieval queens. I’ve discovered that anyone seeking a complete genealogy or maternal history of a queen, however, will need to scour the chronicle sources for evidence of miscarriages, stillbirths and children who died in infancy. It is not at all clear how many queens were childless, or even had difficulty conceiving, because so little work has been done on childlessness. Much more work is needed on reconstructing the entire genealogy of a royal family to better understand the causes of childlessness. When a queen did not have children, was it a miscarriage or early infant death? Was it illness or infertility?
In what promises to be a fruitful scholarly exchange, historians of medicine have begun to study chronicles, letters and medical reports to determine medieval medical knowledge of fertility, impotency and sexual health. One of the best studies of the maternal history of a queen was written by a historian of medicine, Michael McVaugh, on Blanca of Anjou, wife of Jaume II of the Crown of Aragon, who died in 1310 after giving birth to her tenth child (Medicine before the Plague: Practitioners and Their Patients in the Crown of Aragon, 1285–1345 (Cambridge University Press, 1993). We know that childlessness was devastating for a queen, and that childless queens and empresses often visited local shrines to pray to the saint for divine assistance in getting pregnant. They no doubt spent time at convents and abbeys, whose records may contain details of their stay and any donations or gifts they made. It is also worth paying attention to sisters, nieces and cousins who may have benefited from the queen’s largesse as a dowry, either for marriage or entrance into a convent, or other gifts.
In July, let’s all celebrate the birth of a new royal baby while keeping in mind that a queen-consort is so much more than simply a mother.