By Kristen Geaman
Medieval Feminist Forum, Vol.46 (2010)
Introduction: In 1347, Philippa of Hainault threw herself at the feet of her husband Edward III pleading for the lives of the burghers of Calais. The English had just conquered the city, and the king demanded the deaths of several prominent citizens in retribution for the city’s obstinate resistance. Impervious to the entreaties of his councilors to be merciful to the condemned men, the king could only be moved by Philippa’s pleas; her direct intercession saved the burghers’ lives. Or so the chroniclers Froissart and Jean le Bel recorded. Whether Philippa actually interceded so dramatically on behalf of the burghers is immaterial, for the account still powerfully illustrates the importance of intercession in the construction of queenship. Even if Philippa did not behave in that exact way, she was supposed to behave that way, and chroniclers did not have a difficult time believing that she would.
Historians of queenship continue to debate the nature of queenship in the central Middle Ages. An older narrative, heavily influenced by the work of Jo Ann McNamara and Suzanne Wemple, contended that queens were slowly pushed out of royal governance by the growth of bureaucratic kingship. Marion Facinger’s scholarship is a classic example. She argued that Capetian queens lost their official, public status (based on their declining appearances in charters) and were reduced to private individuals able to exert influence only through their personal relationships with their husbands. Facinger prioritized the queen as the king’s wife, which Miriam Shadis has argued was only part of the story. Queenship was also a “type of motherhood” which allowed queens such as Blanche of Castile to exert public power. Shadis does not completely reject Facinger’s work though; she agrees that medieval queens made fewer appearances in French royal charters, yet calls for Facinger’s work to be reconsidered and revised in order to account for queenship as motherhood and to include the study of rituals.
Other scholars dispute, rather than revise, the claim of decline, with some arguments claiming queenship simply underwent an alteration in form and style (but not power) and others maintaining that queenship was necessary to complement and complete effective kingship. While debate abounds, scholars who have focused on intercession usually depict the central Middle Ages as a time of decreasing formal powers for queens. For these scholars, intercession took on an increasingly prominent role, remaining an acceptable avenue of queenly influence because it stressed the feminine roles of mother and wife. Intercession was expected of queens, particularly since it played a variety of useful roles for the king. Intercession not only affirmed the gender hierarchy, it also allowed men to change their minds without appearing weak. In addition, female intercession could supply a “male lack” by exemplifying mercy in the face of a king’s stern justice. While intercession thus gave queens an acceptable avenue of power, it also promoted kings’ power by emphasizing their masculine strength that could only be mitigated by womanly pleas.