In Jon is time as I undirstond
Was interdited alle Engelond
He was fulle wrothe and gryme
For prestis wuld not sing bi for him
In his time was lost moche lond triwh
Of Gascoyne, Bretayn and of Normandy
In his time was grete durthe
xii pens an halfe peny lofe was wurth.
Verses on the Kings of England to Henry VI [A]
Surveying the reign of King John (1199–1216) over 200 years after its conclusion, the English monk and poet John Lydgate could not be clearer on what made his subject a bad king. John – infamous for provoking England’s churchmen and barons to compose the Magna Carta – had brought his kingdom under papal interdict, lost his ancestral lands in Gascony, Brittany and Normandy, and prices of everyday goods rose exponentially.
Secular power – especially royal power – is a perennial concern of medieval historians and has its roots firmly in contemporary texts that dealt with history, politics, religion, and daily life. Lydgate was already part of a long tradition, which continues to the present. This chapter explores some ways in which we can approach particular sources that illuminate how secular power was practiced, focusing on the central Middle Ages (c. 1100–1215) in Western Europe, especially but not exclusively with reference to England and some of the lands which make up modern France, as well as the Latin crusader states. This period incorporates what historians have considered to be important changes in the nature of secular power, particularly the rise of a new kind of lordship and the bureaucratisation of government. The main set of sources historians have used to explore the period are dynastic chronicles and biographies, which are familiar to most students of medieval history. Here, we will focus on two other kinds of source: charters and similar acts (simply put, documents by which grants were transacted and disputes settled), which are much more alien than chronicle narratives, but which historians increasingly interrogate for their valuable perspectives on a variety of themes; and letters to and from elite women, which offer unique insights into the expectations and limitations surrounding such figures.
Overview: historiography, debates and sources
The post-medieval study of royal power has a long history, and here we can only address English-language historiography. In England, the medieval tradition of chronicle writing and the recycling of medieval texts continued into the sixteenth century, often with specific reference to the reigns of individual kings (Gransden, 1982, vol. 2). It was the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, which witnessed the flourishing of royal historiography, culminating in increasing numbers of professional historians engaged in serious study of the anatomy of royal power, with reference to a variety of sources beyond narrative chronicles (Vincent, 2007).
It was Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies (1957) that stirred up one of the most enduring currents of thought in relation to medieval kingship. Like Marc Bloch’s work on the ‘royal touch’ (1924), Kantorowicz’s meticulous exploration of the ‘political theology’ of kingship in the Middle Ages illuminated the important relationship between kings and the divine in the practice of power from the early medieval period onwards. Kings were not just associated with the divine, they embodied it, and through Christ’s grace they enacted God’s will. From the eleventh century onwards, however, power wielded by God’s grace (Dei gratia) was not solely the preserve of royalty: the more powerful magnates of France, at least, also claimed this special position (Koziol, 1992).
From the latter decades of the twentieth century to the present day, historians have engaged with an astonishingly wide variety of approaches to thinking about medieval secular power, with reference to a vast number of primary sources. Royal power remains central, with a large number of biographical and dynastic studies utilising comprehensive approaches to questions of power as well as studies of entire dynasties. Attention has also turned to nuancing our understanding of specific themes connected to kingship, as diverse as processes of conquest (Drell, 2002), empire and hegemony (Bates, 2013), the theory and practice of war, including rebellion against kings (Strickland, 2005; Weiler, 2007), the power and influence of the aristocracy (Green, 1997), and ideas of justice (Weiler, 2009).
Such themes are increasingly being explored with reference to non-royal dynasties of counts and dukes on the Continent, and aristocratic families in England. As well as a large number of studies dealing with specific regions and individuals (Everard, 2000; Hagger, 2017), much recent work also engages with the concept of lordship as a central component of power relations in the period (Barton, 2004; Baxter, 2007). Such an emphasis partly reflects the debate over the nature of the decline of the Carolingian dynasty in France, and its effect on secular power, both royal and non-royal. Taking up an earlier argument (Duby, 1980), from the 1990s onwards historians have argued over what the decline of strong royal authority and the appearance in the tenth and eleventh centuries of fragmented rule contested by a weak Capetian dynasty, a multiplicity of ‘territorial princes’ and lesser lords, meant for society (Bisson et al, 2009). Thomas Bisson in particular has argued that such figures rose to prominence through the exercise of arbitrary violence, heralding a new kind of ‘feudalism’ (in the sense of lord–vassal relations) which privileged personal, affective relationships in place of laws and administrative structures, and that this only began to change towards the end of the twelfth century (Bisson, 2009), in tandem with what historians have called the ‘Twelfth Century Renaissance’ (Haskins, 1927; Cotts, 2013). Interpretations of the ‘Feudal Revolution’ remain contested, as indeed does the term ‘feudal’ itself (Brown, 1974), but it is clear that the central Middle Ages witnessed important changes in the nature of secular power. After a long period of turbulence, the twelfth century ushered in a measure of stability both in England and on the Continent, even if it was only temporary.
The study of female power has become a prominent part of research in recent decades, with elite women now being viewed both in their own right and within important family structures. The ideology and practice of queenship has been a particularly fruitful area of research (Carmi Parsons, 1994; Stafford, 1997; 1998). Other historians have developed the concept of female lordship, which while recognising the limitations and differing social ideas imposed on medieval women also convincingly argues for the ordinariness of women exercising authority in matters of rule, both alongside their husbands and as regents or widows (LoPrete, 2007). A complex understanding of the impact that Biblical and monastic ideals of femininity and female behaviour had upon the depictions, both positive and negative, of powerful women in contemporary documents has also emerged (Johns, 2003).
Traditionally, chronicles [B] have formed the basis of research connected with secular power. Narrative texts tracing the history of nations or principalities, often with reference to specific ruling dynasties, were a popular genre throughout the medieval period (Griffiths, 2012). Some of these texts can be considered ‘official’ royal historiographies or biographies, such as The Deeds of Louis the Fat written by the French churchman, Suger of Saint-Denis, in praise of his patron King Louis VI, or the English cleric Roger of Howden’s gesta (‘deeds’) and chronicle of the Anglo-Norman king-dukes Henry II and Richard I, written while in royal service with frequent recourse to official courtly documents and correspondence. Other chroniclers such as the Anglo-Norman monks Orderic Vitalis and William of Malmesbury had courtly connections even while living as cloistered monks, and their works are typical of the popularity of chronicles as a form of monastic history writing, with emphasis on how secular matters impinged upon the activities of their own monasteries. Chroniclers often dedicated their works to figures in secular power, but even when they did not, their writings frequently assumed an advisory or admonitory stance, providing guidance and commentary on matters of rule and political culture.
Throughout the later twentieth century, however, historians increasingly turned to a very wide variety of source material, and new approaches to both traditional and non-traditional sources have informed much recent historiography. In particular, medieval historians have become finely attuned to textual approaches to documents, and have stepped out of strict typological boundaries. This is in large part due to the ‘Linguistic Turn’, which essentially saw historians engage with the idea that the extant textual evidence is always a mediation of the past: in other words, the text creates and reflects a particular world, and can never be an unproblematic mirror on what it purports to describe. This highly critical attention to language has led to fruitful new avenues of research, particularly in relation to the lived experience of power. This has been further informed by approaches drawn from sociology and anthropology, such as Performance Theory. A good example of this is the emergence of the history of emotions (Rosenwein, 2001). Anger, for instance, far from being spontaneous or irrational, was deployed in a highly strategic way by rulers and the writers who reported (or invented) their outbursts; justified anger properly performed was an essential and acceptable part of lay authority (White, 1998). Likewise, the study of rituals takes a similar approach and has been especially rewarding for decoding social norms, especially those related to the exercise of power (Althoff, 2002; Buc, 2009; Koziol, 1992).
It is possible to turn to a whole host of texts and other kinds of evidence when thinking about secular power, even when the connection may not be immediately obvious. Indeed, it is desirable to look to texts which are not overtly normative – that is, texts which do not seek (as many chronicles do) to prescribe how rulers ought to behave, but rather responded to how rulers behaved in practice. In addition to the sources discussed below, texts including political and philosophical tracts, universal chronicles and annals, saints’ lives (hagiographies), obituaries, and poems are all relevant and useful artefacts of medieval political culture, especially if we consider the voices of those viewing and participating in power to be as important as the perspectives of those who held it. Texts such as hagiographies can provide commentaries on power from a monastic perspective, for example, while others such as political tracts were often central components of contemporary political debate. Buildings including castles and churches, and objects such as weaponry, holy relics, tombs, books, clothing and statues, can reveal much about the organisation and representation of power in different settings.
Sources: selection and interpretation
For the medievalist, the range and variety of sources of the kind outlined above can be daunting; conversely, the relative absence of sources of certain genres or in certain periods or places can be frustrating. Problems of assembling bodies of sources can also be considerably compounded by language: in the central Middle Ages, most texts were composed in Latin, and many are still not available in translation, with the exception of chronicles. Fortunately, new editions and translations of texts are appearing all the time, and the advent of digital humanities has seen a number of initiatives to make medieval texts available online, including large numbers of French manuscripts at the Bibliothèque nationale and archives départementales, as well as older collections such as English Historical Documents. Original charter texts are appearing in print and, increasingly, online, including collections from England, Scotland, and France, and are complemented by digital resources on matters such as law. Students at a more advanced stage – certainly postgraduates, but also final-year undergraduates – should consider archival research to view medieval texts in their original formats, which in their paratextual details (such as layout, illuminations and illustrations, binding, penmanship, and arrangement with other texts) can contribute a good deal to our overall understanding of a text’s significance. With these caveats regarding selection in mind, this section will outline the main features of our two key kinds of source – charters, and letters to and from women – as well as some ways historians have interpreted them and how they can be used critically alongside one another to explore the central themes of medieval secular power. First, though, it is necessary to consider how chronicles and associated texts have informed our understanding of power, before moving on to consider how this can be considerably augmented by our other sources.
Dynastic chronicles and biographies
The central Middle Ages were the heyday of chronicle writing in Western Europe, and the contribution that dynastic chronicles and biographies have made to the study of secular power is immediately clear. Appearing as self-contained literary and historical works, they have been the most accessible sources for historians to select, with clear links to individual rulers, dynasties, and regions. Their authors’ interests are often explicitly spelt out. One of the most celebrated biographies of the Middle Ages, the ninth-century courtier Einhard’s influential Life of Charlemagne, for instance, opens with an intent not to ‘allow the splendid life of this most excellent king, the greatest of all the men in his time, and his remarkable deeds, which people now alive can scarcely equal, to be swallowed up by the shadows of forgetfulness’ (Dutton, 1998, p.15).
Chroniclers, following earlier medieval traditions, effectively sought to understand contemporary events within a framework of Christian chronology, eschatology and salvation (Wood, 2015), tracing history in ‘universal chronicles’ from Old Testament events onwards. The more contemporary sections of many chronicles in fact focus on local, regional, or national events. As such, separating history from theology is difficult, and to a certain degree not desirable given the world-view of the chroniclers themselves.
This complexity of form and purpose underlies dynastic histories and the closely linked genre of biography, both of which explicitly dealt with secular power, balancing history (historia) with deeds (gesta). They seem to have grown out of genealogies and were especially popular from c. 1000 onwards, perhaps reflecting new ways of thinking about families and a desire to memorialise histories which were otherwise easily lost. Members of noble and royal families would sometimes commission these texts [C]; in other cases, a figure close to the family may have instigated the commission or had the work dedicated to them. In either scenario, monks in abbeys connected with the family in question were pre-eminent in the production of dynastic chronicles (Shopkow, 2003). It is important to note that dynastic histories, like chronicles more generally, were not static texts: authors and continuators added to the work, updating and expanding it, often decades after its original composition. Such details raise important questions of the relationship between the subject, the subject’s family and other networks, and the author(s) of the text.
In spite of the particular circumstances of each chronicle, as a corpus these texts have allowed historians to recover much important information directly connected to ruling practices and how they evolved over time. Particular themes and tropes (topoi) recur, and particular qualities are attached to secular rulers and their power. Justice and peace loom very large (Weiler, 2009), such as in Orderic Vitalis’ appraisal of the Anglo-Norman king Henry I, who ‘shrewdly kept down illustrious counts and castellans and bold tyrants to prevent seditious uprisings, but always cared for and protected men of peace and monks and the humble people’ (Chibnall, 1980, vol. 6, p.99). In contrast, rulers who did not work to preserve peace could be subject to the criticism of chroniclers’ pens, as in the cases of Count Fulk IV ‘le Réchin’ of Anjou, or King Stephen of England (King and Potter, 1998; Paul, 2015). In appraising the actions and characters of rulers, chronicles provide a useful but nonetheless partial and often partisan view of secular power.
Any text that provides a different perspective to the often heavily freighted moralising or partisan tone of the chronicle tradition is welcome, and charters and similar acts issued in the name of rulers make up an extremely valuable set of sources. At the most basic level, a charter is a document which recorded a transaction, usually a grant of land, resources or privileges from a donor (often an elite layperson, particularly kings or lords) to a beneficiary (most commonly a monastery or other kind of church in our period). Charters could also deal with sales and leases, the resolution of disputes, normally over property or rights, or agreements between two parties (often in the form of a chirograph, a two-part document which was cut in two for each party to retain). In the central Middle Ages, rulers utilised the services of scribes to produce these charters and other acts such as judicial records, but also relied heavily in many cases on those benefitting from the charters themselves to produce written records; indeed, beneficiaries sought out these documents by petitioning rulers (Bates, 1998). Some of these records survive in their original form; in other cases, many are only known through later copies made by recipients, normally collected together in codices known as cartularies. With the exception of some clauses in Old English which describe land boundaries or translate the body of the text, the language of medieval charters was Latin [D].
As written expressions of royal or lordly will, as well as records of petitioning, negotiation, and settlement, charters provide a unique but complicated insight into secular power. On one hand, they were highly functional documents which arose from administrative expedients and which were shaped by practical literacy (Clanchy, 2013). On the other, even before the lavish imperial diplomas of the Carolingians, they had been repositories of condensed ideas about rulership, as well as preserving details of disputes, grants and negotiations, the relationships between rulers and their counsellors and subjects, and where rulers and their courts travelled and dispensed power (Bates, 1997).
Letters, especially to and from women
Letters make up a prominent part of the body of extant medieval sources, but need to be regarded differently from modern letters. Whereas our conception of ‘the letter’ emphasises the private, the personal and, in many cases, the informal, medieval letter writers composed texts destined for public consumption, dealing with a single subject and based on strict sets of rules governing form. Most letters of the central Middle Ages are known to us by their inclusion in letter-collections known as ‘formularies’. The best guide to medieval letters is still Giles Constable’s Letters and Letter Collections (1976), which provides essential points to consider when dealing with this kind of material.
Although evidence of ‘everyday life’ is easier to find in the later Middle Ages than in the earlier period, such material is increasingly coming to light for the earlier Middle Ages (Carlin and Crouch, 2013). Many of the miscellaneous surviving letters of the central Middle Ages have been transmitted to us via ‘formularies’, collections which provided models of multiple different kinds of letters. The production of formularies became popular after 1100, first in northern Italy then in France (Carlin and Crouch, 2013, 3–5). Substantial letter collections survive for a number of prominent medieval ecclesiastics, many of which are the subjects of studies in their own right, including archbishops such as Thomas Becket (Duggan, 2000).
Letters to and from high-ranking women – queens, duchesses, countesses and abbesses – have attracted particular attention as a set of sources, for they provide a valuable insight into the lives of these powerful women. Most prominent are those of the nuns Heloise (Radice, 2013) and Hildegarde of Bingen (Baird and Ehrman, 2004). The Epistolae project has collected hundreds of letters to and from medieval women, both lay and religious, and it is clear that correspondence covered a multiplicity of subjects. It is important to note that letters sent to women (normally by men) far outstrip the correspondence the women themselves sent.
Epistolae demonstrates that many of the letters sent to women concerned matters of power, rule, and politics. This makes them an ideal source for exploring both how women participated in this elite world, and how those connected with such matters sought to exert their influence. What follows provides some suggestions for how to marshal the evidence provided by both charters and letters in order to work towards a nuanced understanding of dimensions of the medieval world, in this case what constituted and characterised secular power. This reflects some, but by no means all, of the approaches which are current among medievalists, and is intended to be a starting point for further thinking on using sources such as these.
This final section will focus primarily on two documents: first, a charter issued by King John in favour of the emerging town of Liverpool [E]; and, second, a letter that Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, sent to Melisende, queen of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, in the 1140s [F]. By focusing on these two texts and comparing them with other documents in the same genre, it is possible to explore the points outlined above and to illuminate the ways in which these kinds of sources fit into developing a picture of the nature of medieval secular power. As a way forward, this is an extremely useful approach to take as a counterbalance to any analysis of chronicle evidence.
King John’s short charter of 28 August 1207 [E] belies its importance: this small piece of parchment effectively created the borough of Liverpool, ‘distinguished from most other boroughs by the fact that it owes its foundation absolutely to an exercise of the royal will’ (VCH Lancs iv, 1–4). John’s reign was a key period of urban expansion, and Liverpool’s creation was paralleled by the rise and enfranchisement of other boroughs including King’s Lynn, Great Yarmouth, and Stafford. This document can be interrogated from a number of perspectives – not just the history of urban development and trade in the thirteenth century, both of which were notable in the north (Britnell, 1996) – including secular power, specifically that possessed by John at the mid-point of his reign.
Attention to the language and form of the charter reveals contemporary conceptions of royal power deeply rooted in both medieval ideologies of rule and the specific concerns of the Plantagenet dynasty and John’s court. Like his father Henry II and brother Richard, John was described as rex Dei gratia (‘king by the grace of God’). We might expect this style to have been consistently used in royal documents, but in fact it was not employed regularly by the Plantagenet kings until 1172–73, a shift which historians have argued was stimulated by Henry’s change in approach to rule after the murder of Thomas Becket, in which he was implicated and which had enormous potential to weaken his authority (Vincent, 2002). Nevertheless, it was an expression of the divine which had extremely long roots both in England and on the Continent, where over preceding centuries rulers had used a vast array of often highly superlative titles. John’s majesty, like that of his ancestors, was further embodied in his seal, which would have been appended to the ‘tail’ at the bottom of the parchment.
In addition to titles relating to his ancestral lands, which were scattered across northern and western France, it is significant that John’s charter includes the title ‘lord of Ireland’ (dominus Hibernie). Ireland had been the object of Plantagenet expansion since the late 1160s, when Henry II began the process of conquest, trying to establish overlordship above Ireland’s native kings (Warren, 2000, pp.187–206). Stephen Church has drawn attention to John’s use of the title dominus in Ireland, arguing that it was concocted by John’s father Henry II in the 1170s as a means of effectively circumventing the complex problems of establishing dominion over a disparate group of regional princes (Church, forthcoming). Here, dominus reflected very specific and novel political uncertainties, just as it did when used by Henry I’s daughter, the Empress Matilda, who used the title ‘Lady of the English’ (domina Anglorum) during her brief period of English authority while King Stephen was in captivity in 1141 (Chibnall, 1991).
Other aspects of the act’s form are just as important. A single individual, Simon of Pattishall, acted as witness. As a sheriff and justice who rose in royal service in the 1190s collecting taxes on behalf of the king, Simon typifies the increasingly professionalised kind of person we can find in service to the English crown in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries (Turner, 1977). Probing the lists of witnesses usually included in charters by cross-referencing them with other acts and evidence from chronicles can provide important insights into those present at the royal court, and allows us to think about the different atmospheres of power surrounding rulers: these lists could be short, as in this case, or they could reflect great ceremonial occasions which brought together high-ranking laymen and ecclesiastics, often on significant feast days. Location was also important. The charter itself was issued at the royal palace of Winchester. Having this kind of information can, for example, facilitate reconstruction of a ruler’s itinerary, or a sense of the key places of power, both important questions in an era of personal, itinerant rule.
This act is testament to the impact that bureaucratisation since the mid to late twelfth century had upon the ways the king communicated his will to the political community of England and his (increasingly diminished) overseas territories. Both the standardisation of the king’s titles and the appearance of a single witness provide striking contrasts to earlier practices which saw elaborate ways of describing kings and large numbers of witnesses and signatories to acts, which were clearly issued in ritualised circumstances on occasions such as feast days or assemblies (Insley, 2012; Roach, 2011). In both England and elsewhere, the king’s charters and other acts had shrunk from the elaborate diplomas of the Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon courts to something more mundane and routine. This was paralleled in the increasing oversight the king’s own scribes had in the production of documents: from the reign of Henry I onwards, a courtly style gave royal acts a distinctive appearance (Bishop, 1961), a development which continued under John and which lends acts such as the charter for Liverpool a sense of systematic bureaucracy and authenticity.
Although this charter was undoubtedly more bureaucratised than its counterparts over preceding decades and centuries, it is not simplistic in its communication of ideas of good kingship. Royal virtues were not signalled simply by titles. In its content, it is clear that John was keen to be seen to foster urban expansion by creating a new borough and inviting (under protection) local men to populate it. Such gifts and enfranchisements had long been an essential element of rule. In 1077, for example, John’s ancestor William the Conqueror issued a lengthy confirmation of the estates and privileges of the Norman ducal abbey of Saint-Étienne of Caen, composed by the beneficiary, and which meditates upon the need to atone for sin. A century later, William of Scotland granted land to Saint Andrews cathedral priory, in an act which elegantly articulates the idea of the transfer of property as a perpetual gift to God, his saint and those who serve him.
John’s royal persona was therefore composed of both appearance and action. Engaging with a single charter in a detailed way – attending to the traditions and contexts underlying an apparently simple act – is an excellent way into thinking about some of the key issues of John’s reign. Such an analysis might well be fruitfully contrasted with the presentation of John in chronicles and medieval historiography. This is a particularly important point in the case of men like John, who has a very strongly negative popular image, which requires considerable critical analysis if we are to unpick it.
At first sight, Bernard of Clairvaux’s letter to Melisende, queen of Jerusalem [F], after the death of her husband King Fulk in 1143, bears little relation to John’s act, written over 60 years later. Both, however, are rich sources of information that directly illuminate the nature of medieval secular authority. In this case, it provides information on how contemporaries perceived and sought to influence female authority, differing ideas of male and female power, and east–west networks during the crusading period. In many ways, Bernard’s letter provides an ideal counterpart to John’s charter when it comes to thinking about secular power. They neatly encapsulate the two sides of the story of authority: one is an official act, published by the writing office of a male ruler; the other is an external source, a piece of advice offered by a man of considerable ecclesiastical authority to a female ruler in a vulnerable position.
Melisende had ruled the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem alongside her husband Fulk of Anjou since 1131, and upon Fulk’s death in 1143 assumed the role of regent during the minority of the couple’s son, Baldwin. The challenges of her reign were considerable: the kingdom of Jerusalem was a relatively new entity, built by western elites after the success of the First Crusade at the turn of the twelfth century; Melisende’s father, Baldwin II, was forced to actively seek a suitable husband for his daughter in the 1120s in order to protect his fragile kingdom from fragmenting after his death. Indeed, the turbulence of the region in the mid-1140s led directly to a second crusade (Phillips, 2007). Alongside this, Fulk’s untimely death and Melisende’s vulnerability as a female ruler alongside her young son saw a period of extreme uncertainty descend over the region, culminating in a coup to remove her from power in the early 1150s (Mayer, 1972). Under these circumstances, Bernard’s letter is a valuable insight into Melisende’s power. Alongside other sources, including a magnificent psalter commissioned by Melisende [G], it also allows us to extrapolate wider contemporary ideas of appropriate modes of female rule, how those differed from masculine models, and how they could be put into practice.
Let us first consider the text’s authorship. Bernard of Clairvaux was the head of the influential Cistercian order of monks, who possessed a widespread and fashionable network of religious houses, and his letter [F] explicitly attests to the role of ecclesiastics in secular matters, specifically in terms of counsel. It is significant that this extended to the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, only relatively recently created and a focal point for Western European piety. It is clear that Bernard sought to assist Melisende in the difficult task of picking up the reins of rule in the troubled circumstances of 1143–44. In doing so, he states that her role is God-given, in spite of the turmoil surrounding her. Here we can see the logic and conviction which lay behind the very different expression of the divine in John’s charter for Liverpool: both rulers, in the tasks they faced, administered their will by God’s grace rather than what Bernard identifies as the worldly trappings of power. Indeed, we can discern Bernard’s recourse to this important pillar of secular power in the text of the earliest surviving charter Melisende and her son Baldwin issued, in which they confirmed a gift made earlier by Fulk to the lepers of St Lazarus. Here, it may be Baldwin who was ‘by the grace of God fourth king of the Latins of the city of Jerusalem’, but it was Melisende who acted alongside him to authorise her late husband’s act and ensure continuity of possession for an important local institution.
Bernard advises Melisende to ‘put your hand to strong things and show a man in a woman, doing what is to be done in the spirit of counsel and fortitude. You must dispose all things so prudently and moderately that all who see them will think you a king rather than a queen from your acts’. His anticipation of her imagined reply acknowledges that ‘“These are great things, beyond my strength and my knowledge. These are the deeds of men, while I am a woman, weak of body, unstable of heart, not prudent of counsel, not accustomed to affairs.”’ This advice falls within a significant body of contemporary letters advising women who needed to take the reins of power. Bernard was part of an influential group of high-ranking ecclesiastics who exhorted women like Melisende to attend to their duties, whether through supporting or obeying their husbands, attending to the matter of ruling themselves, or intervening in perceived injustices perpetrated by ruling male kin. Along with chronicles, these letters make it clear that female ruling power arose under specific circumstances and usually centred on a supporting role (Johns, 2003, pp.18–19). Indeed, while Melisende is titled queen, a look at her own charters indicates that her queenly authority lay alongside that of her young son as king, rather than standing alone.
In offering such an overtly gendered characterisation of ruling power, the letter encapsulates a crucial tension in contemporary attitudes. The specific notion of a woman acting as a man (Latin: vir) was embodied in the virago, a contentious figure (LoPrete, 2005). While in Melisende’s case male qualities were desirable, they could also be used to construct a transgressive framework to apply to women deemed to have disrupted the male arena of power, such as Petronella, countess of Leicester, ‘a woman with a man’s spirit’ who one contemporary writer castigated for advising her husband so poorly that he lost a battle (Johns, 2003, pp.20–21). Conversely, women with political agency such as Bertrada of Montfort, erstwhile countess of Anjou and queen of France, were also criticised on the grounds of their overt sexuality (Duby, 1983, pp.3–21). Indeed, as the chronicler historian William of Tyre reports, Melisende’s own sexual conduct was called into question during a turbulent period in the royal court in the 1130s (Mayer, 1972) [H].
On one level, this letter [F] and others like it can be used to highlight the experience of female power. By analysing the rhetoric of Bernard’s letter within the framework of contemporary ideas of female action, however, it is possible to gain a deeper insight into secular power. This approach allows us to move beyond a simplistic assessment of female power as either unacceptable or unusual; instead, it demonstrates that women did exercise authority, but within a markedly different framework to that of their male counterparts. The characteristics of female rule may have been different, but the concerns were the same, and there was a clearly problematic area – the intersection of feminine attributions with normally masculine tasks – which contemporaries struggled to deal with in the course of political life. Like John’s charter, this letter provides an insight into Melisende’s rule which could easily be overlooked if we focused solely on chronicle accounts of her activities, which consciously focus on scandal and intrigue as a means by which a woman disrupted the masculine world of power in the turbulent world of the crusader states. Engaging with sources within this kind of critical–analytical framework allows us, in our work on power, gender and politics, to suggest that women played important roles in a world still popularly perceived as wholly male.
This chapter has only scratched the surface of how we might utilise and interpret the vast quantity of charters and letters which survive from the central Middle Ages in western Europe, in connection with reflections on the nature of secular power. The discussion is intended to serve as a starting point for further exploration of similar sources and questions. Far from being dry texts – even though they may appear formulaic – it is clear that the carefully considered substance of these documents is an expression of a multiplicity of traditions which cut to the heart of contemporary thinking about power. Power in the hands of men and women, if it was legitimate, was to be circumscribed and supported by Christian models of rulership, ideals of peace, and justice, counsel, and consent. The rules binding men and women differed, as did local traditions, but there are clear commonalities which provide an important commentary on the medieval experience of secular power.
The critical analysis of sources in this chapter has focused on language, models, traditions, and contexts. Gender has been foregrounded as a framework for analysis; this could be developed further, as could examination of the sources with an eye to ritual, performativity and other concepts which have guided historical enquiry in recent decades. Such an approach is an invaluable one for medieval material, which is usually sparse and which requires engagement with contemporary ideas and practices often radically different from those of the present day. Subjecting such material to this kind of commentary – one based on close textual analysis – is arguably the key building block of medieval history. Interrogating even the most minute or apparently inconsequential aspects of a source can be surprisingly fruitful: understanding the small details of medieval life leads to a rich and measured picture of its broader strokes.
Althoff, G., 2002. The variability of rituals in the Middle Ages. In: G. Althoff, J. Fried and P. J. Geary, eds, Medieval Concepts of the Past. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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