Skip to content

Response to Review no. 54

The reviewer of Eleanor of Provence must at times have been troubled by a justified assumption that the author herself had read many books which made frequent use of the terms ‘gender’ ‘female lifecycle’, ‘female networking’, ‘peaceweavers’ and the like. Was the reviewer then faced with a casual neglect of the correct terminology or an actual failure to grasp concepts? Either way, clearly all was not well. Two criticisms of my book stand out. ‘Perhaps the most puzzling feature of Howell’s book is the absence of any discussion of gender and its influence on queenship’, she writes, and she rightly refers me to the works of Pauline Stafford and John Parsons. I must re-assure her that I have in fact read much of the work of both these-scholars, with close attention, with appreciation, and I trust with profit to my own reflections. Indeed, my personal debt to John Parsons for sharing his incomparable knowledge of thirteenth-century queens is acknowledged in my Preface. The reviewer also notes that ‘female networking … is never rendered fully explicit nor examined for its own sake. This is a strange and serious shortcoming’. So be it; she will certainly not be alone in that opinion. But there is another point of view.

The enrichment of our understanding of the part played by women of power in the Middle Ages, through substantial writing over the last few decades is beyond dispute. Some of this work, both in biographies and monographs, is of a high standard of scholarship combined with an original and imaginative approach. Even so, perhaps the very rapidity with which our picture has changed has brought its own problems. The key phrases mentioned above are in danger of being regarded by some scholars as the indispensable terminology of an already hallowed and immutable historiographical tradition. It is sometimes expected that the ideology of queenship should now always be discussed within established parameters, using a set range of concepts and a set terminology.

With this I would take serious issue. It is a view which is both rigid and inhibiting. If we reach too automatically for the familiar terms in the current ideology we are in danger of missing other connections, other patterns, other forms and above all of missing that vital principle of particularity – the distinctive quality of an event, a situation, a personal relationship – which it must always be a prime concern of the historian to detect. A set of readily accessible terms and concepts can deter one from the ultimate effort of penetration of the evidence.

A basically ideological approach can occasionally lead one to assume the existence of relevant evidence, whether it is there or not. The reviewer suggests that ‘a discussion of contemporaries’ reactions to Eleanor’s appointment as regent, and the information this reveals about their perceptions regarding the boundaries of queenship, would also have been useful here’. Yes indeed, if there had been any such evidence, but it so happens that there is none.

To illustrate my critical view of the over-use of some current terms, may I examine two to which the reviewer has drawn particular attention: ‘female networking ‘ and ‘gender’. First, female networking, which is felt to require specific discussion. The reviewer cited as one example the relationship between Queen Eleanor and her sister Margaret queen of France. This close supportive friendship between the two sisters was very important politically over a long period of time, as I hope I made clear, but it is not in my view helpfully identified as a network, let alone ‘an informal feminine avenue to power’, of which neither woman in fact had need. This distorts their aim and the nature of their relationship, which was openly acknowledged and well understood. It was used to advantage on many occasions by Henry III, who himself had a close collaborative relationship with Queen Margaret, and it was paralleled by the equally close, although different collaboration of Eleanor of Provence with her uncle Peter of Savoy, or with the king’s clerk John Mansel. Another glimpse of a network is thought to be caught in the negotiations between the queen, Amice dowager countess of Devon, and Isabella de Forz over arrangements for the marriage of the Lord Edmund to the heiress Aveline de Forz. This again is a strange ‘network’ since Isabella and Amice were mutually hostile on so many issues, both personal and political, and I imagine that what was afoot was some hard bargaining. A third example is the presence in Paris in 1254 of Beatrice of Savoy and her four daughters. It is suggested that I here fail to develop ‘the insight which it provides into the role of royal and aristocratic women as both symbols and agents for reconciliation, as peaceweavers who crossed cultural and political divides’. Let us be cautious. Certainly Eleanor and Margaret wanted improved relations between their husbands, but again we must be wary of seeing female networks. This was essentially a family grouping, with Thomas of Savoy also in a prominent role. If there was a pre-eminent ‘peaceweaver’ at Paris in 1254 it was Louis IX, and one of his trickiest problems was to cope with the sharp antagonism of Beatrice of Savoy towards her son in law Charles of Anjou. She was one of this ‘network; another was her daughter Beatrice, who it seems remained loyal to her husband in his many clashes with her mother. The conception of ‘female networking’ was no doubt a striking and illuminating metaphor in its initial application, but it seems frankly unhistorical to apply it too widely. If one sees a network wherever two or more women are spotted together, the term loses all significance. Peter Coss has very recently given a timely warning against seeing purely female networks in every nook and cranny (The Lady in Medieval England, 1000-1500,169-73), and has stressed the mixed character of many cultural and religious groupings of the later Middle Ages. His implicit plea for greater openness in approaching the evidence is one which I would whole-heartedly endorse. The one genuine network which I felt I detected in the life of Eleanor of Provence was the informal group of aristocratic women whose religious life around 1250 may have owed much to the spiritual direction of the Franciscan Thomas of Hales (with helpful book-lending by Matthew Paris). However, their aim was not power; it was salvation (not gender-specific as far as we know).

What then of my failure to discuss gender in its relation to queenship? I do not use the word itself, partly because I believe that it has suffered greatly from overuse. That does not mean that I under-rate its significance. Clearly gender distinctions are deeply implicated in many of the facets of queenship which the reviewer mentions, and to which I give detailed attention, the distinction between kingship and queenship itself for example, the ultimate control of the queen’s resources by her husband, and the distinctive relations of king and queen with the community. Again, my whole investigation of Eleanor of Provence’s life depends on the basic process of a woman’s lifecycle, but it is entirely possible to discuss marriage, child-bearing, marital relations and widowhood without labouring the point that all this stems from the plain fact of ‘gender’.

I open my book with the marriage of Eleanor of Provence to Henry III on 14 January 1236, and describe it as the most significant single event of her life. Admittedly the context in which I have chosen to place it is not a discussion of gender as an abstract construct, but I doubt whether any reader could have missed the point. The reviewer suggests that I should have followed an approach ‘which would have allowed me to consider more fully what Eleanor of Provence’s life and career reveal about the experience of being female in thirteenth-century England’. With respect, I must explain that what I was trying to penetrate was some glimmering of the experience of Eleanor of Provence herself, a woman, a mother, and a queen. That experience was very far from being typical. She played a key role in a period of political turmoil in England and the background to her life was one of the most remarkable and creative periods of Western European history. Her experience was unique and the setting rich and complex. Let us not lose sight of either the complexity or the particularity.

I could have written a very different book about Eleanor of Provence, but my aim above all was to place this remarkable woman in the context of mainstream thirteenth-century political and cultural history, and for this I made certain decisions over style and method which I realised would be controversial but which I believe to be academically valid.

On two other points I must make very brief comment. The explanation for the brevity of the final chapter, of which I am very conscious, is given in the Preface. Finally, I wrote that it was conceivable that Eleanor held back from the bloody slaughter that would have followed an invasion in 1264, not that she was ‘anxious’ to avoid it; I am afraid that is too strong, and the point is of some importance.