Over the summer, I read a LOT, but two books and one article have occupied a lot of space in my brain lately. They are all on rather different historical moments and problems, but they have changed the way I think about queenship. The interesting thing is, only one of these works has queenship as the main point.
The first was a new book by Simon Barton, Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines: Interfaith Relations and Social Power in Medieval Iberia. Barton “seeks to elucidate why interfaith sex mattered greatly to secular and religious lawmakers” (p. 4). To do this, he focuses on the Muslim-Christian relationship and links changing attitudes towards female sexual purity with the political and military events that tipped the balance of power. Barton ultimately argues that sex, or to be precise, protecting Christian women from having sex with Muslim men, a central feature of a masculine “national” political identity that developed in the later Middle Ages.
He is making an important point, but the book needs an extended and in-depth feminist critique. Barton shows how attitudes toward interfaith sex preserved the patriarchal hierarchies of power, but touches lightly on important feminist theories concerning the commodification of women and the way women are used to prop up patriarchal institutions and practices. He talks about dowries and women’s inherited lands and wealth, but needs to say more about the patriarchal culture that regarded women as means of exchange. He briefly discusses the double standard of sexual conduct that circumscribed Christian women’s agency, but does not consider reasons why. And this made me think about queens. Perhaps the highly militarized society privileged men so highly that women’s consent was deemed irrelevant? Barton spends considerable time on the history of the Voto de Santiago, the famous forgery that first told the story of the one hundred maidens paid in tribute to Muslim conquerors. He argues convincingly how and why this document sets in motion the discourse of women in need of protection and a pretext for war. Then, he shifts the perspective to women as wanton instigators of sex whose dishonorable behavior was akin to military surrender and thus cast women as enemies of the realm.
Barton admits that his sources largely reflect the views of the patriarchy, but his argument would have been much stronger had he connected the dots between medieval women who were, and all too often still are, treated as a means for masculine expressions of power and contemporary feminist theoretical work on the political, social, religious, and cultural norms that permitted and promoted the demeaning treatment of women. Scholarly work on queens is absent, too, which is problematic in a book filled with kings, sexuality, and an argument that masculinity was crucial to national identity. The missing link here is the gender dynamics of the reign Isabel and Fernando that was intimately intertwined with Jews and Muslims, military conquest and religion. He completely missed the mark by not engaging, for example, with Barbara Weissberger on the monarchy of Fernando and Isabel, particularly how Isabel was seen as the “Second Mary, sent by God to heal the wounds [the Muslims] inflicted on the body politic” (Weissberger, Isabel Rules xxiv–xxv).
Daisy Delogu’s book, Allegorical Bodies: Power and Gender in Late Medieval France, is a much stronger book in terms of theory, all sorts of it, mostly on gender and political theories on power. Working with the richly ambivalent political allegories written in response to the unstable reign of Charles VI (r. 1380–1422), her argument is that “metaphors of the body politic privilege the male body as a vehicle for the expression of conceptions about political unity and integrity, and occlude the space that real women occupied within the body politic as well as the power they exercised” (p. 7).
Delogu’s sophisticated analysis centers on the works of Eustace Deschamps, Jean Gerson, Alain Chartier, Jean Juvenal des Ursins, and Christine de Pizan. They described the realm of France during the 100 Years’ War in over-determined feminine roles: the courtly beloved, wounded, ill, damsel in distress, mother—all in need of a man to step in and take charge. So, Delogu argues that the problem the French had with a ruling queen was less that she was a woman and more that she might be married to a foreigner. This became a problem of “penetration of the French body politic by foreign elements” (p. 138) and this is a lot like what Barton describes as a Spanish concern for Christian women having sex with Muslim men.
Delogu takes up issues that scholars of queenship have struggled with in recent decades: “the simultaneous exclusion and celebration of women within the cultural and political imaginary. I now find, instead, that these are like two sides of the same coin, that the fabrication of Salic Law and of female allegories of the kingdom both work, though in different ways, to create a national identity founded in part upon the exclusion of women from royal rule, a masculine political subject, and the structures of authority, as well as to master, control, and delimit the parameters within which women may function. [. . .] France may bear a woman’s likeness, but the French have asserted themselves as a kingdom of masculine subjects, rule a roi très chrétien” (p. 178).
Delogu has done something important that has been sorely needed for a very long time: put queens into political theory. She shifts the discourse in ways that reveal the inadequacies of masculinist approaches that utterly fail to include women, elite or royal, from the discourse. Hers is a political theory regarding monarchy that takes gender theory very carefully into account and crafts a far more complex analysis that puts women front and center in the discourse on “nation” and “state.” She deliberately engages with women as fundamental to the political sphere, not exceptional or marginal. This work links feminist theory with questions of masculinity in terms of sexual impotency or military weakness.
But reading the essay by Louise Olga Fradenburg showed me how much these works rest on the foundations of important earlier work on gender and power. Her essay, “Troubled Times: Margaret Tudor and the Historians,” in the edited collection The Rose and the Thistle, also looks at gender and state formation in early sixteenth-century Scotland by examining the historiography of Margaret’s regency for her son, James IV. Fradenburg critiques “statist” historiographies that construct “an opposition between public and private interests, privileging the latter with respect to ethics and historical agency: certain interests are defined as public and represented as obstructive or even destructive to the history of the nation” (p. 38). Working my way through her argument that employs an impressive range of theories—not just feminist and gender, but also post-colonial, anthropological, sociological, literary—she reminded me to take very seriously standpoint epistemologies, particularly ones with a nationalist bent. We have been trained to query our sources for bias, but it was her focus on gender and nation-formation in the Tudor period that makes me associate her work on Scotland with Barton’s on Spain and Delogu’s on France.
What they all have in common is how nations are based on gendered assumptions and over-determined definitions of both masculinity and femininity. We still struggle with this today, whether it concerns the abduction of hundreds of girls by the Boko Haram in Africa and women captured by ISIS in Iraq or why it so darned hard to get a women elected President of the United States.
The title of this posting comes from Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, who was reported to have said, “I mistrust threads wrought by women’s fingers.” Reading this in 2015 makes me queasy as I ponder questions of continuity and change, but Barton, Delogu, and Fradenburg have helped us move the discourse on monarchy forward an inch or two in the direction of a richer, more nuanced, more complete sense of the past.