Tracy Adams (University of Auckland) and Glenn Rechtschaffen (University of Auckland)
Medieval Feminist Forum: 47, no. 1 (2011):5-31
This essay takes issue with a still common tendency to read contemporary criticisms of powerful women as straightforward evidence of their “unpopularity,” using as a cast study Isabeau of Bavaria (1371-1435), who was generally imagined to have suffered the scorn of her contemporaries. In part one of the essay we argue that the two sources that scholars have relied upon prove not that public opinion turned against Isabeau in 1405-1406, but only that her political enemy Jean of Burgundy was planting negative propaganda about her in hopes of damaging her reputation during those years. In part two we consider whether it is possible to speak at all of a queen’s reputation among the public during the early modern period. In part three we draw upon Claude Gauvard’s work on public opinion in early fifteenth-century France to suggest that when one gathers all the evidence, the image of Isabeau that emerges most consistently across different groups that might be seen to constitute the public is nothing like the negative one commonly assumed, but is that of a loving mother protecting her son, the heir to the throne.
Certain medieval and early modern queens are deemed “unpopular” in classrooms, documentaries, and even histories and conference presentations. However, recent scholar- ship reveals the hazards of accepting negative primary source accounts uncritically as evidence of contemporary notoriety. The notion of a jealous rivalry between a calculating Anne of Beaujeu, unofficial regent of France for her brother Charles VIII from 1484-1492, and a haughty, vindictive Anne of Brittany, queen of France, can be traced to one observation by Brantôme. As for Anne of Brittany’s supposed bad character, Didier Le Fur has followed it back to a single comment by Commynes: after the death of Anne’s three-year-old son, Commynes reports, King Charles VIII organized a festival to cheer the queen, who sat quietly with a sullen expression (she appeared “fâchée”).2 Once we recognize that Catherine de Médici owes her reputation for wickedness to Prot- estant pamphleteers, we need to nuance our view of her contemporary reputation. The same is true for Anne Boleyn, victim of a factional fight for power.