Women of power
7/2/12

In a collective work (1) jointly edited by Éric Bousmar (Saint-Louis Fac. Brussels), Jonathan Dumont (ULg), Alain Marchandisse (ULg) and Bertrand Schnerb (Univ. Lille3), some thirty or so francophone and Anglo-Saxon historians have run a magnifying glass over thirty-seven case studies of ‘political women’ in the Late Middle Ages and on the eve of the Renaissance. Well beyond the oft-cited case of the inevitable Joan of Arc, these women, both through their political and military skills, made an impact on their contemporaries, including historians, and thanks to this left behind them precise documentary sources, to a greater or lesser extent, – narratives, diplomatic, bookkeeping records – enabling the nature of their power to be debated. Whether or not they chose to exercise it, and if they did so with only relative success, they are none the less ‘too little studied,’ according to Alain Marchandisse. This weighty tome of some 650 pages, soberly entitled Women of Power, Political Women in the Last Centuries of the Middle Ages and in the Early Renaissance, thus casts welcome light of the Queens and Princesses who were Catherine de Medici, Jacqueline of Bavaria and Isabella de Castile, amongst others.

COVER-Femmes-de-pouvoirIt would be doubly inexact to think that the Middle Ages were, wedged between an august Antiquity and a providential Renaissance, an exclusively dark and brutal slice of History, where, in the environment of powerful men, women silently contented themselves with giving birth for various thrones. ‘That is hardly the reality of things,’ declares Alain Marchandisse, FNRS Senior Research Associate at the University of Liège’s Research Department “Transitions” and teacher at the same University’s Department of Historical Science. ‘Medieval society is infinitely more complex and more refined than the essentially warlike one delivered up by the clichés of a certain Manichean popularisation. Far from the ‘Great Vacuum’ or the ‘Dark Ages’ that are generally cited, it was a society which was much more cultural and cultivated than we might think, and for that reason it is more endearing. A creative society which, in an environment of court, lived in music, poetry and theatre. As for the women, they really had a role to play within it.’ And Jonathan Dumont, a FNRS Postdoctoral Researcher at the ULg (Transitions), adds: ‘it was moreover driven by a real political philosophy.’

The development of female power

Surprising? It is true that, since the 14th century in particular, the ‘French model’ ruled out any possibility of seeing a women acceding to the throne of France. Nonetheless, on reading the present work of historical political science, the reality of power within the kingdom itself seems less binary. Women of Power, Political Women, which spills over from the Late Middle Ages into the Early Renaissance, in four thick sections examines from a comparative point of view the profiles of 37 emblematic women of power who particularly stood out through their repeated and deliberate interventions in the affairs of the State. ‘In part because the spirit of the times was favourable to such actions,’ explains Jonathan Dumont. ‘The more we approach the end of the Middle Ages and move towards a Catherine de Medici, the more the idea of a ‘political woman’ takes shape. Doubtless following on from what we could call the progressive depersonalisation of power and following on from the development of the idea according to which the body politic no longer belonged to a single man but to a group, to other reputed people gifted with the qualities necessary to embody power.’

(1) BOUSMAR Éric et al., Femmes de pouvoir, femmes politiques durant les derniers siècles du Moyen Âge et au cours de la première Renaissance, Bruxelles, De Boeck, Bibliothèque du Moyen Âge, n°28, 2012.

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