Theresa Earenfight is a professor of history at Seattle University. She is the author of The King’s Other Body: María of Castile and the Crown of Aragon (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009) and Queenship in Medieval Europe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). She is currently working on Catherine of Aragon and a database of royal pregnancies in Europe.
Kristen and Cathleen: Hi Theresa, thanks for doing this interview for our readers at the Royal Studies Journal Blog! First of all, could you tell us a bit more about how you became interested in medieval and early modern queenship?
Theresa: I loved the history of queens since middle school, especially those rousing popular biographies that I devoured like a genteel bodice ripper, but with real people, not fictional heroines. In grad school, I worked with Joe O’Callaghan, whose work on Spanish kings got me interested in monarchy, specifically the fifteenth century Crown of Aragon because of its fascinating federative character. Well, Alfonso V (1416-58) spent most of his time after 1432 conquering and governing the kingdom of Naples, which left the peninsular realms kingless. At first I thought, oh, it must be ruled by his brother or a high-ranking prelate. Wrong on both counts. I was actually surprised to find out first, that Queen Maria (sister of the king of Castile) was in fact running the realm and second, that she faced no serious pushback from the nobles and clerics in Spain. None. Not a peep of the sort of hostile criticism that contemporary French queens faced. That really surprised me, and I’ve been trying to figure out the dynamics of monarchy ever since.
Kristen and Cathleen: Currently you are working on an article comparing medieval attitudes about three queens: Maria of Castile, Isabel of Castile, and Catherine of Aragon. Have you found any interesting commonalities about what writers said about these queens, some who had children and some who did not?
Theresa: The cross-generational commonalities are striking, and I think it is due largely to the political culture of Castile where they were all raised. They were all educated similarly and they all read, or were exposed to, many of the same writers. Some of this literature is misogynistic (there is a strong “querela de mujeres” strand) but much of what they read, or at least what their libraries contained, was strongly supportive of women in monarchy. I think this shaped Maria of Castile first, who simply stepped into the breach when Alfonso moved to Naples and stayed there. Isabel was stewed in this, but she was not supposed to reign, and only after the death of her brothers did she seize the throne and negotiated a deal with Fernando making him king-consort, not king-regnant in Castile. That is important, for both her own sovereignty and that of her daughter, Catherine and Catherine’s daughter, Mary Tudor. I’m not sure how children play into this directly, but that is something definitely worth studying. The idea of a childless queen was very much a concern for Maria of Castile, but as far as I know, there was little commentary on this in her lifetime. Alfonso was chided often for leaving his peninsular realms “like a widow,” which is a fascinating criticism. Isabel, of course, used her maternal status skillfully, as Liz Lehfeldt has very convincingly shown. Catherine of Aragon is the most famous of the three for her six pregnancies and only two live births, a son who died soon after birth and, of course, a daughter Mary. I’ve been reading lately some excellent new work on the literature of the period relative to women by Núria Silleras-Fernández and Emily Francomano, so this part of my work is still very much in progress.
Kristen and Cathleen: You are currently writing a biography of Catherine of Aragon. How much of a role did her inability to have a son play in her divorce from Henry VIII?
Theresa: It was fundamental. Had their son, Henry, lived (he died a few months after his birth), I wager that their marriage would have survived. King Henry would probably still have had a number of affairs, but with a male heir, there would have been no reason for the divorce. So, I think that the English Reformation would have taken a rather different direction had the baby lived.
Kristen and Cathleen: Some medieval kings did not divorce their childless wives. Why was Henry VIII different?
Theresa: I think it’s both personal and bureaucratic. He was a spoiled man with advisors who gave him what he wanted. But it’s more than his corrosive personality. The Tudors had a serious legitimacy problem, starting with the Battle of Bosworth Field, and then getting worse with two pretenders (Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel), so Henry had a strong impulse to prove that the Tudors were blessed by God. First Cardinal Wolsey and then Thomas Cromwell worked to give Henry what he wanted, although Wolsey ultimately paid dearly for his failure. But the Protestant Reformation’s anti-papal rhetoric provided a legal foundation for Henry to divorce and he happily took the bait.
Kristen and Cathleen: In 2013, you presented some preliminary ideas on developing a database for royal genealogy, focusing on pregnancies and births – can you tell us a bit more about where this project is now?
Theresa: It is still in the development stage. I have been accumulating evidence for the database, but this is a much bigger project than I first envisioned and it needs an international team to do the research into genealogies, family histories, chronicles, and medical records (if they exist) to put all the facts together. My next step is to assemble that team of scholars to put our heads, and our sources, together to fill in the blanks. Eventually, the database will be open-source with an option for credentialed scholars to contribute.
Kristen and Cathleen: With this project, you are working on the border of queenship studies and medical history – can you tell us a bit about the sources you use, and if there are any special difficulties?
Theresa: The sources are very tricky. Even for an early modern queen like Catherine of Aragon, at a court as well documented as the Tudors, the sources for the history of medicine are sketchy. We have knowledge of the court physicians, but very little is said or known of Catherine’s pregnancies, and until recently some pregnancies were considered dubious. This is due, in part, to a secrecy about her later pregnancies and miscarriages. But it is also due to the way that the physicians and midwives at court kept, or did not keep, records. For Maria of Castile, I know when she had her first menstrual period only because she wrote to her mother telling her about it. Maria’s health has been the subject of speculation, but very little real study by someone with expertise in the history of medicine. And there is a lot of ignorance and misogyny embedded in the hypotheses, most of which blame her for “infertility” when, in fact, she and Alfonso lived apart for most of their marriage. Yes, he had three illegitimate children, but what some scholars call her infertility may well have been simply the absence of sexual intercourse.
Kristen and Cathleen: This summer, you raised also some interesting questions about periodization of queenship on your blog, https://theresaearenfight.com/ – could you please elaborate a bit on this? In what ways does it actually play a role, if we define something as early modern or medieval?
Theresa: I am still struggling with this question, even more so now that I’m working on Catherine of Aragon who straddles the conventional periodization of medieval and early modern. There seem to be so many ways that queens face similar challenges and opportunities across time—they are defined by their fathers or husbands, they are expected to bear children, they get beat up for the same sort of sexual issues, they are second choices in the hierarchy. But after 1600, it seems something really does change and I think it’s a new political world after the rise of secretaries. But then again, I wonder if it’s not all that different from the earlier conversations queenship scholars had about the 11th and 12th centuries and the thesis on how women fared with the rise of bureaucratic kingship. I wonder if in the early modern period, region and religion matter more than time periods, if as the Reformation took shape, those monarchies in Protestant realms differed in important ways from those of Catholic ones. There are several ways this question could be investigated. One thing we know very little about is royal women in the Islamic world. There are some studies, but Muslim women need to be studied comparatively. And this makes me want to change the question a bit, to consider regional differences in a Braudelian way, as in the Mediterranean or the North Atlantic. Elena Woodacre’s recent collection of essays on queens in the Mediterranean does this well, but that was just the beginning.
Kristen and Cathleen: At the moment, much of queenship studies are concentrated on medieval and early modern Europe – do you have any insights what goes on beyond these borders, e.g. within Extra-European queenship studies, or in regards to modern queenship?
Theresa: I think we need to look beyond Europe, especially Asia after 1300, when Marco Polo and other traders opened Europe up to another set of influences, and the Americas after the Columbian voyages. Cultural points of contact may well have shaped the practice of monarchy in Europe, but until we do that work, all we can do is speculate. The differences between Asia, the Americas, and Europe complicate comparisons, but the more we know about how royal women around the world exercised authority and power, the sharper and more focused our comparisons can be.
Kristen and Cathleen: Thank you so much! We look forward to your future work.