Lois Huneycutt send a conference report on “Beyond Exceptionalism” at Ohio State University, Mansfield from 18-19 September 2015.
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Now, on to Lois’ report:
In some ways, “Beyond Exceptionalism” was a continuation of a conversation begun three years ago at Kalamazoo. Around the lunch table, several of us who have been working with powerful medieval women for decades expressed our frustration at continuing to hear papers and read articles that characterized a powerful woman as an “exception” to the “rule” that medieval women do not exercise public power. Surely, we decided, it was time to move “beyond exceptionalism” and accept that it was more normal than not for elite women to be in positions of authority and to exercise public power. Amy Livingstone took the lead in organizing a series of roundtable discussions about women and power at the International Medieval Congresses at Leeds and Kalamazoo in 2014 and 2015; the first two of which centered on the central medieval period, while the last looked at the earlier Middle Ages. These discussions, sponsored by the Haskins Society and Medieval Prosopography, helped inspire Heather Tanner, Associate Professor of History at the Ohio State University, Mansfield, to organize this conference.
The small size of the conference, limited to about two dozen participants, allowed all papers to be heard in plenary session. Several of the papers at the conference dealt with women in urban settings, such as Tiffany Ziegler’s look at the sisters and patrons of the hospital of St John in Brussels or Christopher Kurpiewski’s study of the Penitent Sisters of Speyer in the thirteenth century. Caitlyn McLoughlin argued that social and cultural power was also exercised outside the court and family and examined Capgrave’s “Life of St Catherine” to show the way a text could shape and reflect perceptions of that power. Most of the papers dealt with the careers of countesses or the forms of power exercised by other elite women in Catalonia (Jeff Bowman), Norman and Angevin Britain (RaGena DeAragon, Linda Mitchell, and Alexis Miller), Flanders (Els De Paermentier), Ponthieu (Kathy Krause), Brittany (Amy Livingstone and Katrin E. Sjursen), and Hesse (Nadine Rudolph).
Discussions among attendees
All of the papers were sophisticated and informative, but I suspect that readers of this blog will be most interested in the papers that dealt specifically with queens and queenship.
Theresa Earenfight and Miriam Shadis were the invited, featured speakers. Miriam’s paper, delivered on Friday, examined the earliest Portuguese queens, especially Theresa of Portugal (d. 1130) and her female descendants through the thirteenth century. Unusually, we learned, the daughters of Portuguese monarchs were referred to as “queens” and participated in royal governance in the early years of the new nation. Theresa’s Saturday paper, “Standpoint Epistemology and the Problem of Exceptional Medieval Queens” posited that the reason we continue to see medieval queens as exceptional is related to the fact that both medieval and modern political theorists tend to ignore queens and other women when they talk about “questions of tyranny, queenship, civil society, consiliarism, urban corporatism and republicanism, and the earliest examples of popular politics,” ignoring the examples of women exercising power that stared them in the face. Theresa used the example of Catherine of Aragon (d. 1536) and her activities to demonstrate that even very obvious public roles like regencies and judicial actions by women are often overlooked in master narratives.
Heather Tanner’s contribution echoed Theresa’s in that she called for greater study of female lords in light of developing administration of kingdoms and counties, particularly in the period after 1250 or so when, according to the McNamara/Wemple thesis, they are no longer supposed to be doing so.
Lois Huneycutt’s paper took the conference to the South Caucausus and the reign of Tamar the Great of Georgia (d. 1213). Arguing that even the most successful of medieval women had to operate within a climate of residual misogyny, Lois showed how Tamar systematically manipulated existing royal imagery to a female context, and also bolstered her authority by linking herself to the language and visual imagery of Georgia’s national saint, Nino. Erin Jordan’s paper drew on her recent work on the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and examined the reign of Constance of Antioch, who served as Princess Regnant in the Principality from 1131-1160. The idea of a woman ruler was not necessarily problematic in the Latin East, so Constance was in some ways completely unexceptional, except that she had to deal with her mother’s reluctance to allow her to come to the throne, military exigencies, plans to marry her to a Muslim prince, and two tumultuous marriages. Kristen Gaimen’s presentation on Anne of Bohemia (d. 1399) questioned the idea that “success” at queenship necessarily involved producing an heir, and examined the reasons for Anne’s unquestioned popularity in England, which she attributed to skillful patronage and successful intercession. And finally, Nina Verbanaz investigated the roles of the Salian empress consorts in creating dynastic roles and legacies, primarily through their foundation, patronage, and continued relation with Speyer Cathedral. Speyer became a dynastic mausoleum for both male and female members of the dynasty, and the rites and rituals performed for family members served to further their memories and strengthen the dynasty.
The conference ended with a stimulating round table discussion which included all the presenters as well as Laura Gathagan and Charlotte Cartwright, who had each chaired a session. Unlike previous public round table discussions that many members of this group had participated in, this one made no attempt to define slippery concepts like power, authority, and autonomy; we simply seemed to accept that whatever it was, women shared in it and exercised it. There was a lot of reference to foundational work by scholars not present at the conference, including (but not limited to) Kimberly LoPrete, Constance Bouchard, John Carmi Parsons, Nuria Silleras-Fernandez, and Charlotte Newman Goldy. The name Georges Duby did come up once. The group included a good mix of senior and emerging scholars, and toward the end of the discussion we formulated “calls to action.” On the scholarly side, we all lamented the lack of even a good textbook that covered later medieval Europe, much less an up to date study of political theory that incorporates the findings of the last thirty years. We also agreed that, while the conference had been an utterly invigorating experience, we had spent the weekend preaching to the proverbial choir. We challenged ourselves, particularly the privileged tenured among us, to take our abstracts and our papers to new, less comfortable venues, and present our work in military history conferences, political theory conferences, and other places where queenship and medieval women’s public power might not routinely be discussed. All of the attendees warmly thanked Heather for her work in organizing the conference. Plans for a proceedings volume are currently underway.