Anxiety and Approbation in Twelfth-Century Chronicler’s Writings on Queenly Leadership and Aggression

Friday, January 2, 2015: 3:50 PM
Midtown Suite (New York Hilton)
Christine Senecal, Shippensburg University
This paper seeks to illuminate the various ways that medieval chroniclers confronted the qualities of leadership and aggression in three twelfth-century queens.  Recent work on medieval queenship has emphasized that, during the long twelfth century, an unusually high number of female political leaders exercised authority in ways that could overlap kingly responsibilities.  This research has emphasized the way some medieval writers acknowledged an appropriate time and place for women in aggressive positions such as military duties.  My paper will argue that this picture is more complicated.  An examination of the ways queenly behavior was gendered as masculine or feminine by chroniclers who wrote about three contemporary powerful women – the “Empress” Matilda of England (r. 1135-1154), Urraca of León-Castile (d. 1126), and Melisende of Jerusalem (r. 1131-1153) – demonstrates that queenly participation in leadership roles in fact was met with a certain amount of anxiety, even when chroniclers took a positive assessment of their subjects.  “Viragos” these women might have been, that is, good women leaders, but chroniclers’ use of Latin vocabulary, deliberate selection of anecdotes about queenly actions, and the ways in which they gendered these actions reflects a restless discomfort with women in aggressive positions of political power.  While some historians might see the early twelfth century as an unusual moment of opportunity for medieval queens, an examination of writings concerning Matilda, Urraca, and Melisende reveals that women leaders who took on leadership roles generated underlying anxiety along with approbation.  Regardless of the degree to which these women leaders engaged in warfare, observers at the time were primarily interested in supporting a conception of militarism as a masculine endeavor.