Interview with Christopher Mielke

Christopher Mielke is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Al-Quds Bard College for Arts and Sciences in East Jerusalem. In 2017 he was awarded a PhD in Medieval Studies from Central European University receiving a “magna cum laude” for his dissertation “Every hyacinth the garden wears: the archaeology of medieval queens of Hungary, 1000-1395.” Prior to this, he had received an MA in Medieval Archaeology from the University of Reading in 2011 and an MA in History from the University of Maryland, College Park. From 2012 to 2017, he was the host, organizer, and lead correspondent for CEU Medieval Radio (www.medievalradio.org), having interviewed over 70 guests for the biweekly program “Past Perfect!” His article “From Her Head to Her Toes: Gender Bending Regalia in the Tomb of Constance of Aragon, Queen of Hungary and Sicily,” recently appeared in the Royal Studies Journal, Volume 5, Issue 2 (2018).

crown_of_constance_of_aragon_-_cathedral_of_palermo_-_italy_2015

The Crown of Constance of Aragon. In the public domain. © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

 

RSJ Blog: Hello, Chris, and thanks for talking with us! Your article on Constance’s crown was fascinating! For those of us who don’t know much about crowns, could you give us a primer on the difference between eastern/Byzantine crowns and western European crowns?

Chris: I’ll do my best! For the medieval period, royal crowns in the west tended to consist of open circlets. These circlets were usually a metal band across the brow that could be plain, studded with gemstones, or topped with decorative devices such as crosses or lilies. There are both male and female examples of this in the west. Crowns of Byzantine emperors tended to be enclosed, by contrast – there would be a circlet as a base with two bands meeting in the center.  That being said, imperial crowns do appear in the west, such as the eleventh century Reichskrone which has one band across a tall circlet. Crowns for Byzantine empresses tended to be an open band topped by triangular and circular pinnaces. These are general rules, and there are examples here and there which will contradict them no doubt, but for the thirteenth century these seem to be the main differences.

RSJ Blog: Since it seems this Byzantine-style crown was Constance’s, do you think she obtained it when she was queen of Hungary? Or were crowns of this type popular throughout the Mediterranean?

Chris: Byzantine style crowns did appear in Hungary in the 11th century (for instance the Holy Crown of Hungary) but it is very doubtful that the crown Constance was buried with came from there. By the time Constance became queen of Sicily, Byzantium’s influence in the Mediterranean was considerably reduced, but traditions die hard – there are Greek influences on other royal artifacts from this time period, such as in seals and coins. Medieval crowns in general very rarely survive in their original format, but artistic depictions of crowns from the Mediterranean world (particularly Sicily) show a strong Byzantine influence.

RSJ Blog: Why was Constance exhumed in 1491? Any hints why the people who completed that exhumation might have moved her crown?

Chris: I have no idea, in all honesty! The 1491 exhumation was done at the behest of the Vice-Regent of Sicily ruling on behalf of the King, Ferdinand II of Aragon. It could have had something to do with an Aragonese connection between the current King of Sicily and Constance’s roots, or the removal of the body could have been precipitated by something more practical, like the need for a repair. It was a grand spectacle in 1491 though, with all of the leading patricians and nobles of Sicily in attendance, and upon opening the tomb, the sight of the dazzling crown could have sparked a lot of curiosity. It is a magnificent piece and very unusual and my suggestion is that after they examined the crown, they did not wish to disturb the Queen’s body, which is why they might have later placed it in the wooden box at her feet.

RSJ Blog: Your article describes Déer’s theory as romantic. Is there any evidence left offering any clues to Constance’s and Frederick II’s marriage? Would Déer have had anything to base his romantic interpretation on (other than the crown’s placement)?

Chris: The marriage between the two was unusual for a few reasons. In the first place, the bride was at least ten or fifteen years older than the groom (who would have been about fourteen) and she had already lost a husband and a son. Frederick II had lost his mother very young as well, and many secondary historians have surmised that Constance filled an almost maternal role as his wife. Constance’s strong role in the government as regent of Sicily shows that he placed a great amount of trust in her; none of Frederick’s other wives seem to be so favored. Unfortunately, most of the details about their marriage that survive relate more to either financial or political issues, but those few details show that Frederick did rely on her in a singular manner.

RSJ Blog: Your footnotes hint that Constance’s son Henry (VII) lived an interesting life. Could you tell us more about him?

Chris: I’ll try! Henry (VII) was the eldest son of Frederick II and Constance, and he has been a difficult character to analyze. When he was in his early 20s, the younger Henry became involved in a series of wars with the other German princes and eventually against his father. By 1235, Henry had been bested by his father. He was stripped of his titles and imprisoned for the next seven years. In 1242, Henry fell off his horse – some contemporary chronicles suggested that it was a suicide. He was buried with full honors and his skeleton was exhumed in the late 1990s. An osteoarchaeological analysis revealed evidence of leprosy on his face and his feet. This raises the question as to whether or not Frederick II imprisoned his son due to acts of rebellion or whether it was the result of Henry’s illness – for symptoms of leprosy to be present on his skeleton shows that it was a very severe case which required isolation.

RSJ Blog: What are you working on now?

Chris: I have a few projects that I’m finalizing at the moment. I am in the process of publishing several interviews from my time as host of CEU Medieval Radio. I am also co-editing a volume focusing primarily on medieval women involved in the sex trade in Central and Eastern Europe. This article here on Constance was originally a part of my doctoral dissertation that never made it into the final version – but at the moment I am working on a manuscript of my dissertation to be made into a book.

Regarding work projects, I was fortunate enough to spend last year at Al-Quds Bard College in Jerusalem as a CEU Global Teaching Fellow. This year I am working at a museum in West Virginia called the Beverly Heritage Center as the Head of Programming. This year I am planning a total renovation of the exhibit we have up there in the original Randolph County Courthouse.

RSJ Blog: Thank you for talking with us!

 

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