By Grethe Jacobsen
Less Favored – More Favored: Proceedings from a Conference on Gender in European Legal History, 12th – 19th Centuries (2004)
Introduction: Some ten years ago, the German historian Armin Wolf published an article on reigning queens, that is, queens ruling in their own right not as spouse or widow of a king in medieval Europe. Among the women, he dealt with, was the Danish queen Margrete whom he considered representative of a general European pattern according to which women could inherit the throne and under special circumstances remain there. Margrete, however, does not fit into this pattern. She was regent and for a brief period reigning queen of three countries with different traditions and legislation concerning royal succession. The legal foundation of her reign was not inheritance, but a combination of traditional regency for a minor king and exceptional regency for the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden in general. The career of Margrete was founded on a mixture of rules and practices for female exercise of power, which combined with her great political intelligence produced an unusual career. The history of Margrete illustrates well the legal conditions in which gender could offer women advantages as well as disadvantages.
Female regents were not unknown during the Middle Ages. During the period 1000-1500 several female rulers make their appearance, queens regnant as well as queen regents. The evidence, that Armin Wolf marshals, leads in my view to the conclusion that it is difficult to see a pattern concerning queens regnant, except that they appear most frequently in Spain, Portugal and Spanish-dominated parts of Italy. In contrast, they are the exception in Europe north of the Alps and the Pyrenees. Undoubtedly, the explanation for this is that in most of the Northern kingdoms the thrones could be gained through election only, not inheritance, as was the case in Denmark and Sweden throughout the Middle Ages. We do not, however, find in medieval legislation a rule specifically prohibiting female succession until the late Middle Ages, when such a rule, purported to be part of the ancient Salic law, appears in France.