Of dentists and kings

I’ve been thinking lately about James Knight, a dentist in Fort Dodge, Iowa and the Iowa court’s unanimous decision to permit him to fire his assistant because she was too attractive. Lawyers tell me that the dentist’s action may be unfair but it is legal because attractiveness is not a protected class and therefore does not meet the criteria for gender discrimination. The court ruled that employers can fire employees they consider an ‘irresistible attraction,’ even if the employees have not engaged in flirtatious behavior or otherwise done anything wrong. To say that this is not about gender is ridiculous. It is most certainly about gender because it concerns the perception of attractiveness of a woman to a man, and his fear of the power of female sexuality. The dentist’s male anxiety over his inability to restrain himself in the presence of an attractive woman activated his fears of his wife’s anxiety, and all this is based on his fear that a dalliance would undo his marriage, a dalliance that his assistant never considered for even a moment. He feared rumors of a dalliance.

You may be wondering how a dental assistant and a queen are similar, but trust me, they are. Medieval men—kings, their advisers, their biographers—knew that the best way to weaken a woman was to damage her reputation, to label her as dangerously attractive, and to defame her. Defame is the dark side of fama, a richly evocative Latin word that can sound impartial, as in ‘report,’ ‘fame,’ ‘renown,’ or ‘tradition.’ To understand its use and power, it is good to recall that fama was personified by Greek and Roman writers as female, as a force that disrupts a settled order, diverts action onto a new track, distorts, as the active effect of rumor on what men do. Dr. Knight feared rumor, what Ovid in Metamprphosis called ‘the mutterings of a low voice, like the noise that comes from the waves of the sea, if you listen at a distance, or like the sound produced by the rolls of thunder when Jupiter has made the black clouds rattle’ (12: 49–52). Modern readers of medieval texts are mindful of the fact that many of the authors writing about queens were listening ‘at a distance.’ A queen knew that a king’s advisers feared her because of her physical proximity to the king. She was intimate in ways that they were not, and no matter how blameless her behavior, she could easily find herself defamed. What’s fascinating about Dr. Knight’s case is that he was not ‘listening at a distance’ but from the close quarters of the dental suite. He heard the ‘mutterings of a low voice,’ perhaps his own but bolstered by a wider culture that distrusts women, and this voice told him that his assistant was disruptive and dangerous simply because he found her attractive. He feared that her attractiveness threatened his ability to think clearly and he did what men have long done, he blamed her. Not for her actions, but for her attractiveness.

Rumor doesn’t care how attractive a woman is. What matters is that the object of the rumor is a woman. Rumor is potent because it is unbound by truth. When accusing a queen of adultery, a distressingly common storyline in medieval literature, most writers were rarely, if ever, close enough to know with certainty with whom the queen was having dinner, much less taking to bed. Some authors were close enough to the queen to know the details, but it is incumbent on the modern reader to separate that writer from one whose intention was to make ‘black clouds rattle,’ to make kings distrustful of a queen as powerful as the Carthaginian Queen Dido by planting the seeds of rumor.

Virgil knew exactly how rumor worked when, in his description of the defamation of Dido and Aeneas in Book 3 of the Aeneid, he described Fama’s flight over Carthage as slippery and dangerous, as it moves easily and swiftly over the vertical and horizontal axes of time and space. As a queen, Dido’s sexuality was feared. Like her, all queens faced rumor for their desirability, which could be seen to threaten the king’s ability to think rationally. The rumor of sexual infidelity established a link between a queen’s influence and bad government. It was unacceptable for anyone to exercise undue influence over the king, but a queen’s influence was different from that of other royal advisors and was treated in a gender-specific manner. A king was expected to rule his kingdom as a husband ruled his wife and, if a queen exerted what was perceived as undue influence over the king, this was a double challenge to natural order. By allowing the queen to influence his government, the king was not only less of a king, but also less of a man. Infidelity was regarded as a form of treason against the king that could have fatal consequences.

Rumor is a powerful rhetorical device, existing both inside and outside a text, simultaneously bound by time and free from it. Rumor is at home in all recorded ages of history. Modern readers reading works about queens written by men—chronicles, poems, treatises, plays—and viewing visual depictions of queens have learned to cast a skeptical eye on texts to discern actual actions from rumor or innuendo.

In the end it doesn’t matter how attractive a woman is. Physical beauty is beside the point, and in the Iowa case it may have been little more than a legal convenience, a clever way to deflect the blame from the dentist’s actions. The easiest way to for a man to get rid of his fear is to blame a woman. Dr. Knight’s actions are even more disturbing because not once did he allege that his assistant was adulterous. His fear of her made him mistrust his own fidelity to his wife. The case displays the way rumor actually works—it is the man, not the woman who looks weak. His anxieties exposed his own weak impulse control, and rather than deal with this like an adult, he fired the source of his anxiety.

What makes this case ridiculous—it would be laughable if it weren’t serious—is how easily it exposes the flimsy charade of ‘attractive’ as a legal defense.

Why Queens Matter

Jane Austen, in her famously witty ‘History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st, By a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian,’ written in 1791, opens with this description of King Henry IV:

“Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, after having prevailed on his cousin & predecessor Richard the 2d to resign it to him, & to retire for the rest of his Life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered. It is to be supposed that Henry was married, since he had certainly four sons, but it is not in my power to inform the Reader who was his wife. Be this as it may, he did not live for ever, but falling ill, his son the Prince of Wales came and took away the crown; whereupon, the King made a long speech, for which I must refer the Reader to Shakespeare’s Plays, & the Prince made a still longer. Things being thus settled between them the King died, & was succeeded by his son Henry who had previously beat Sir William Gascoigne.”

Austen’s tongue may have been in her cheek when she said that ‘it is not in my power to inform the Reader who was his wife’, but she clearly had her wits about her. She knew her history, and her historiography, too, when as a precocious fifteen-year-old she wrote this parody of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of England (1771). Her barb was aimed not only at Goldsmith, but also a long and illustrious line of historians who knew that queens must have been present but they could not remember exactly who they were.

Such forgetfulness is not confined to England. Until the 1980s, professional scholars did not consider queens worthy of serious study. The study of queens was something intelligent and often well-educated gentlewomen did, but they most often wrote biographies for female readers that were rarely, if ever, read by a university student, who was most likely male. Even the most well educated people could name only a few queens – Isabel of Castile (r. 1451–1504), Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603), Marie Antoinette (d. 1793), and Victoria (r. 1837–1901) – and they would not know that Henry IV had not just one but two wives. The first, Mary de Bohun, was the mother of his five, not four, sons (one died in infancy) and two daughters, too. She died before Henry came to the throne and so was never queen, but Henry’s second wife, Joan of Navarre, was. Neither Mary nor Joan were unknown to their contemporaries: Mary’s family was one of the oldest and most distinguished noble families in England, descendants of the Welsh king, Llywelyn the Great; Joan was the daughter of King Charles II of Navarre, the dowager duchess of Brittany, and had blood relations among the royal families of Spain and France.

Mary de Bohun, Joan of Navarre, and countless other queens and royal women were highly visible to their contemporaries. Their lives were recounted in chronicles, the management of their estates and households recorded in fiscal documents, their letters collected in archives, and their religious and artistic patronage remembered in the books, buildings, and works of art they sponsored and treasured. Yet later scholars put kings at the center of the history of medieval Europe and ignored most queens, dismissed them as unimportant, forgot their actions, and obscured their lives. History was told by men about kings, their governance, their advisers, and their exploits.

The purpose of this site is to pay attention to Jane Austen’s wisecrack and introduce medieval queens—some famous, some not—to a wider audience interested in the lives of women who held court at the apex of political life in the Middle Ages.

Do you want to know more about queens?

Queenship studies is a rapidly changing field and a bibliography in print cannot keep pace with the articles and books published. This site aims to provide you with an up-to-date overview of published works, either in print or digitally. They are works in progress and will be updated regularly.

The short bibliographies in Essential Reading tab are organized roughly by chronological period and focus on the most widely cited or influential works in English or, if in another language, by authors who routinely publish in English.

The much longer Comprehensive Bibliography lists all, or at least tries to list all the works published on queens and queenship.

Please send me an email with additions to the bibliographies, suggestions for ways to make this site more useful for everyone–casual readers of biographies about queens, undergraduate and graduate students, and scholars.

Touchstones

A touchstone is a very smooth, fine-grained, black, or dark-colored variety of quartz or jasper used for testing the quality of gold and silver alloys by the color of the streak produced by rubbing them upon the stone. In other words, it is something which serves to test or try the genuineness or value of anything. An acid test, a litmus test, a criterion. In As You Like It, Shakespeare has a character named Touchstone, “a wise fool,” who acts as a guide, putting everyone in the play to the “comic test.”  Touchstones are important because they allow us to test the value of our reading material and Friday night film choices to see whether they are made of gold or some base metal.

For me, a small-town girl in a house with few books who practically lived in the local Carnegie Library, two writers are my touchstones. One, Eleanor Alice Burford, wrote over 200 books that sold over 100 million copies. She wrote under eight pen names, but I knew her as Jean Plaidy. Her queenly subjects, the Norman, Plantagenet and Tudor queens, Catherine de Medici, Mary Stuart, Lucrezia Borgia, Isabel of Castile, and Victoria, were catnip. But then, when I was sixteen, I discovered Antonia Fraser’s biography of Mary, Queen of Scots. Fraser is that rare author who is lauded in the US and UK for both her scholarly work and her popular fiction. In addition to the biography of Mary Stuart, she has written, so far, a dozen books on both royal non-royal women in early modern England and France.

The biography of Mary Stuart was a revelation. I devoured that book. I was drawn to Mary, and not just the romantic drama of her life. Mary, in Fraser’s hands, grabbed me in a way no other historical figure had, at a time when I needed something hefty and erudite about a woman who simply defied expectations. I admit it, I relished the tempestuous drama and romance, but I loved the book’s hefty erudition. I was proud to read a serious book with endnotes and a bibliography and two genealogy tables, one in the front, one in the back. It did not contain paintings of pre-Raphaelite damsels—these were real portraits of people with imperfect noses. I wanted to know everything I could about her—her growing up and her marriages, of course, but also her tenacious fight for her crown and her life with her cousin Elizabeth I of England.

I didn’t know then that my search for answers about Mary would captivate my imagination and serve as the springboard for a PhD in medieval European history and teaching and research about women who never fail to fascinate me. I had no idea it would take me to Spain. When I think I’m done with a project, that I’ve gone as far as the sources will take me, I open another letter from a queen to her sister or an archbishop or a troublesome nobleman, and I’m once again caught up in the complex web of men, women, and power. No matter where I am—in an archive in Spain or the British Library—in my heart and head, I am in the Carnegie Library, with its dark cool stacks and the librarians who kept the catnip coming.