Dr. Lucy K. Pick’s book Her Father’s Daughter: Gender, Power, and Religion in the Early Spanish Kingdoms was the winner of the 2019 Royal Studies Journal and the University of Winchester Book Prize. Congratulations to Dr Pick for writing such a wonderful book and winning the prize. Her Father’s Daughter is the RSJ Blog’s Book of the Month for January 2020.
Her Father’s Daughter focuses on the royal daughters of the kingdom of León-Castilla and the ways in which their extensive personal property and status as consecrated virgins gave them power. These women were part of a corporate monarchy in which the king was one player in a network of power relationships. These royal daughters, who then became royal sisters to kings, were fiercely loyal to their natal families, although sometimes they used their power to benefit one brother at the expense of another. When it came to competing brothers, such as Sancho II, Alfonso VI, and García (sons of Fernando I), the support of their royal sisters Urraca and Elvira Fernández could make or break a monarch.
Chapter One, “Visigothic Inheritance, Asturian Monarchy,” lays the foundation. First, it explores Visigothic inheritance laws that required all daughters and sons to inherit equally from both parents. In the early medieval period in northern Spain, a more matrilineal system dominated (in contrast to Romanized, patrilineal succession systems elsewhere), which made women key players in the relationships of her husband, sons, and brothers. Pick argues that early Asturian royal succession reflects this matrilineal system: the founder, Pelayo, was king because he was his sister’s brother. Later Pelayo’s son was king because he was the brother of his sister (Ermesinda), but when Pelayo’s son died, Ermesinda’s husband became king rather than his nephews. Ermesinda’s husband, however, came from a patrilineal system, which then competed with the matrilineal succession practices. In 785, one of the royal daughters, Adosinda, became a consecrated virgin, and from then until c.1100, royal daughters generally did not marry. This did not leave the daughters powerless, however. In fact, refusing to marry off their daughters/sisters reflected a position of strength for the kings of León-Castilla. It emphasized their superior status because the kings would marry “down,” with local noblewomen, but would not reciprocate. This allowed the kings to have hostages for the good behavior of their nobles, but to not put themselves in the same vulnerable position. And rather like with the emirs of Al-Andalus, their ability “to keep their daughters back in the midst of the pressure to make a reciprocal exchange affirmed their authority and difference from their rivals” (Pick, 57). The king’s daughters retained their high rank, and their consecrated status gave them additional cache and power.
Chapter Two, “Virgins and Martyrs,” looks at the religious status of the royal daughters. Pick argues that these women were not abbesses of individual monasteries, but consecrated virgins who were dominae of numerous religious foundations. This status permitted them to wield the power of virginity (akin to martyrdom for women) without breaking any rules against claustration and poverty. Pick notes in this chapter that the reign of Alfonso VI saw the introduction of outside religious influences, especially from Cluny, which weakened the position of secular, consecrated virgins.
Chapter Three, “Networks of Property, Networks of Power,” examines a few cast studies of property transactions made by royal daughters/sisters. Pick argues that these property transfers were about creating relationships, just as much as they were about land changing hands. Pick does a masterful close reading of several charters to show how women such as Urraca (sister of Alfonso VI) built alliances with other elite women through the transfer of properties between these women and to monasteries. When Urraca had her allies confirm her gifts of property to a monastery, and then had her brother Alfonso VI do so as well, Urraca was binding her supporters into a relationship with Alfonso as well. Urraca’s property transfers were thus acts of power that did not need her brother’s approval, but had her brother sign on as a way to strengthen his hand. Since royal daughter’s inherited substantial property from both parents, as required by Visigothic law, these women were often in a position of their brothers needing them rather than the other way around. The substantial property independently held by royal sisters could be used to help their natal family form alliances and outmaneuver noble opponents.
Chapter 4, “Memory, Gift, and Death,” focuses on how royal daughters were instrumental in memorializing their families. Daughters would give gifts that remembered their families, such as properties to religious foundations in exchange for prayers. Royal women might also donate liturgical objects. This became increasingly common in León-Castilla as the influence of Cluny encouraged the saying of masses rather than just prayers. Given that masses needed to be conducted by men, this could limit the involvement of women in the commemoration of their families. By donating the liturgical vessels for the mass, women could remain involved and use this as a supplemental, rather than a replacement, to their duties as custodians of family memory.
The conclusion, “Looking Forward, Looking Beyond,” discusses how Alfonso VI changed things by marrying off his daughters to form alliances. This brought León-Castilla in line with other contemporary rulers, but it meant royal daughters would have a different relationship with their brothers. Pick’s conclusion also notes that León-Castilla was not unique in having royal women remain unmarried and fill religious roles; similar behavior appears in imperial Germany and early medieval England. However, this practice seems to have extended longer in León-Castilla, generating more records and making it easier for historians to track.
Pick’s book provides a fresh look at early medieval monarchy, emphasizing the corporate nature of medieval rule. She also explores an under-studied aspect of royal women’s power: the daughter and sister rather than the wife and mother. This excellent study will be influential for years to come and gives all scholars of monarchy insights to contemplate and carry into their own work.
Recently, the RSJ blog chatted with Dr Pick about her great book!
RSJ: How did you get the idea for the book?
Lucy: The first germ of an idea came in a class with my doctoral adviser, Jocelyn Hillgarth. I was studying the tenth-century monastic cartulary of Sahagún, and I was astounded to see how many women were involved in its documents. That was the origin of an article on royal daughter Elvira Ramírez who ruled for her nephew, my first foray into the subject. As I continued to study, I realized that powerful royal sisters and daughters were normal, not exceptional, and I realized I needed to examine them as a group, to understand why that might be the case.
RSJ: Your book makes extensive use of Spanish archives. Are there any you would particularly recommend as a starting place for beginning researchers? Any that are especially user friendly?
Lucy: I have experienced extraordinary kindness and generosity from Spanish archivists and librarians who have welcomed me as a foreigner studying their history, though it is true that ecclesiastical archives and libraries can be idiosyncratic, with shorter hours than state repositories like the Biblioteca Nacional and Archivo Histórico Nacional, both in Madrid. There is nothing like being handed a thousand-year-old manuscript, like Queen Sancha’s prayer book in the university library in Salamanca, or the copy of Isidore’s Etymologies she had made for her son in El Escorial. When I went to the archive in the cathedral of Túy to look at the original parchment of Urraca Fernández’s gift to that see the document I discuss at length in the book, I learned that the canon archivist was also the priest of the church outside the town that had been the cathedral built after Urraca’s gift. He took myself and my husband there to see it, and it was amazing to see the eleventh-century building. Most cathedrals that old were later rebuilt and rebuilt again, but when they decided to rebuild in Túy, they chose a different site, leaving this building intact. We even went down into the crypt where there were Roman-era rooftiles from the original dwelling. So I urge beginning researchers to be brave – you don’t know what you will discover, but it will be an adventure.
RSJ: We are fascinated by your wonderful examination of matrilineal succession, which is something you don’t hear about as much. How is matrilineal succession different from matriarchy? In a less patriarchal society, could matrilineal succession mean succession from mother to daughter rather than father to daughter’s husband or maternal uncle to nephew?
Lucy: Most matriarchies will be matrilineal, but not all matrilineal societies are matriarchal. Identifying matriarchy versus patriarchy is in part a subjective value judgement about how power works in a given society, while matrilineality and matrilocality (when the dwelling place of married couples is connected to the wife’s family rather than the husband’s) are determined by more objective criteria. I have learned a lot from the anthropologists, whose area of expertise this is. I know some identify, for instance, the BriBri people of Costa Rica and the Khasi of India as groups that are matrilineal, matrilocal and also matriarchal, and inheritance from mother to daughter places a role in this.
RSJ: Would unmarried royal women be able to exercise such power without being consecrated virgins? The consecration was probably necessary to ensure that outsiders believed that these women remained virgins?
Lucy: Consecration and the status of virginity that went along with it took them out of the marriage economy and have them a sacral status that enhanced their authority. One question is the status of the immensely powerful royal daughter Sancha Raimúndez who lived in the twelfth-century. I don’t think we have any evidence of her being consecrated, but she remained unmarried. Janna Bianchini is working on her right now, and we will have to wait and see what she discovers.
RSJ: In your research, were you able to form an opinion on why Urraca and Elvira supported their brother Alfonso VI over their other brothers? Were they supporting the brother most likely to win or might more personal issues have been at play? Do the documents even allow for such speculation? You have also written a historical fiction novel, Pilgrimage. What was different when writing a novel? Was anything similar?
Lucy: I’m going to answer these two questions together, because, as you’ll see, they fit together well. I think writing fiction has made me a better and more interesting writer. My fiction is heavily informed by my research, though it is liberating not to have to footnote everything and I can present hypotheses about how things were that I cannot put into academic writing. The main difference is that writing fiction makes you realize how many realities of everyday life academic historians don’t consider. The two genres do bleed into each other, however. While I was writing this book, I was also working on a novel about the epic hero El Cid and his wife, who lived at the time of Urraca and Alfonso VI until I decided I had to put off finishing the novel until the academic book was done because I was afraid of making things up. In the novel, Urraca’s preference for Alfonso VI is personal. In real life, I think we can say as a fact that the choice was made as much by their parents, who gave their eldest son the smaller and less well-situated kingdom of Castilla, and gave León, a larger kingdom with more opportunity to Alfonso, as by the two sisters. Was that simply because Sancho, the eldest, got his father’s inheritance, while Alfonso got his mother’s? Or was there some partiality involved? That’s why we need novelists.
RSJ: What are your current projects or plans? We look forward to more of your brilliant work!
Lucy: I did finish the novel, so I am looking for an agent and publisher for that. I am returning to earlier work on Jews and Christians, and researching an early Latin translation of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. And I am at the beginning of a big project on the lives of women saints and how they were used among communities of woman religious which will connect the Leonese court I describe in this book with Ottonian royal women and religious houses.