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Women and Power in the Middle Ages: Political Aspects of Medieval Queenship

Women and Power in the Middle Ages: Political Aspects of Medieval Queenship

By Raphaela Averkorn

Political Systems and Definitions of Gender Roles, edited by Ann Katherine Isaacs (University of Pisa, 2001)

Synopsis: Examines the role and life of medieval queens, using examples from queens in Merovingian and Carolingian states, England, France, Castile and Aragon.  Concludes that in many countries medieval empresses and queens had the possibility of participating actively in politics. But this participation could be limited due to national practices and laws and changing times. In some countries princesses could inherit the kingdom and rule as queens, although in fact this was not very often the case because in general there were male heirs when the king died. More frequently queens were involved in politics as the wives of a king, or as a dowager queens and regents for their young sons. In those cases their power was in many cases quite important and their tasks theoretically often not limited, although in practice the queens had to find “their place” on the political stage.

Introduction: “Women and power in the Middle Ages” is a very broad field of research and often a quite complicated one, because we are not too well informed about medieval women. Some general works and several case studies have been published during the last decades, but nevertheless a lot of research work is still to be done.

In this text we shall focus on queens because if we were to discuss the political participation of all noblewomen, like duchesses, countesses and princesses, the topic would become much too broad. Sometimes those women had even more possibilities to participate actively in politics than queens and empresses.

First of all, we must examine the possible sources. Do they really inform us about the activities of medieval queens? If we take a closer look at chronicles (one of the most frequently used kinds of medieval sources), we notice that they are mainly written by men and they do not often mention women. Chronicles written by women are very rare. Very often queens are only mentioned in some of the so-called decisive moments of their lives or the life of their husband, the king. Chroniclers mention the royal wedding, the birth of the royal children (the names of the daughters are even often omitted), the death of the queen (quite often after giving birth to a child), the new marriage of the king and so on. Medieval noble women often appear to be reduced to performing one task alone: they had to produce children and naturally give birth to a male heir.

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