Stepmothers as Villains: The Dark Side of Medieval Motherhood
By Sarah Williams Clausen
Paper given at the 2011 Gregynog Medieval Colloquium
Introduction: Although there are examples of ‘good’ stepmothers from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, (St Margaret of Scotland and Adeliza of Louvain just to name afew), this paper will focus on those of evil repute, the women who provoked vehement disapproval from medieval chroniclers. I will primarily concentrate on William of Malmesbury’s portrayal of the Anglo-Saxon queen Ælfthryth. I have chosen to focus solely on the writings of Anglo-Norman chroniclers in this period, asI am curious to discover what viewpoints they held about these women and what this can tell us about the broader themes of female lordship, social stereotypes, and the family dynamic.
While some women received praise and accolades for wielding manly (virilis) power and authority by medieval chroniclers, others were marginalized for the same actions. It is important to examine this dichotomy to pinpoint distinguishing characteristics and determine why some women were successful in exercising female lordship while others were seen as unnatural and even monstrous.
Anglo-Norman writers seem to assign women to one of two extremes within the chronicles: on one side there are women who are presented as visions of perfection. With almost super-human ease, these women excel at marriage, motherhood, and religious devotion all of which are reflected in their physical beauty. These women do not seek power, but act admirably if they are required to wield it in the name of a husband, son or father.
At the other extreme lie women who represent the very worst qualities of the female sex. These women may also be physically beautiful, but this beauty does not reflect nobility of character. Rather, these women are temptresses, adulteresses who may even be accused of witchcraft and murder. These are women who crave power for personal gain rather than for familial glorification or the public good and who pursue it all cost. Both extremes are exaggerated examples and I would posit that the majority of Anglo-Norman noblewomen existed in a midway state between the two.