By Pernille Arenfeldt
Less Favored – More Favored: Proceedings from a Conference on Gender in European Legal History, 12th – 19th Centuries, September 2004, edited by Grethe Jacobsen, Helle Vogt, Inger Dübeck, Heide Wunder (Copenhagen, The Royal Library, 2005)
Introduction: During the past ten to fifteen years the research interest in queens, female regents and consorts has grown rapidly. Continuing the approach advocated by gender and court historians alike, the analyses of women at the early modern courts have generally focused on informal forms of power. Although the increased emphasis on informal power has proved immensely productive in many respects, it has also resulted in oversimplifications and misleading analogies; for example, in one study the agency of the female consort is reduced to a function of her marital relation and another historian concludes that the position of the female consort resembled that of the maîtresse or the court favorite. These conclusions also represent a conceptual – and highly political – problem because power is defined as access to the ruler. This implies that the ruler and other decision-makers are viewed as the “real” authorities. Unwittingly, the narrow view of politics and authority that gender historians persistently have striven to challenge is thereby reconfirmed.
In this paper I will argue that the consort’s position differed fundamentally from that of the maîtresse and the favorite. An analysis of the consort’s role as intercessor or “appeal institution” in the early modern society will demonstrate that, in theory as well as in practice, the consort’s position was characterized by defined obligations and safeguarded rights.
The consort’s role as intercessor is well known but too often it is viewed simply as a result of her proximity to the ruler. The goal is here to bring attention to some of the other resources that constituted the foundation of the consort’s position. In doing so an effort has been made to move beyond the familiar distinction of power and authority (or informal and formal power) that has proved problematic when applied in studies of the pre-modern and early modern periods. While this dichotomy that has been highly productive in most areas of gender studies its application in a study of the female consort is accompanied by a risk of reducing the consort’s office to a derivation of her husband’s position. Hence, when “authority” and “power” occasionally are used below they should not be read as references to the Weberian definitions of the same terms.