Category Archives: Reviews

Interview with Lucy Pick

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.

Website Review: History of Royal Women

Bildschirmfoto 2017-11-18 um 09.35.50

The History of Royal Women Website is a community project run by a group of enthusiastic women from various countries and professional backgrounds. The website is well structured, lovingly designed and regularly updated.

Articles about royal women are sorted according to the kingdom they married into or, if they remained celibate, according to the kingdom they were born in. Most of the articles are biographic and offer a general overview of their subjects’ lives, but some discuss more specific topics. There is also a section called “special series” covering various topics or regions. A search button at the bottom of the page will lead a visitor to all articles concerning the royal woman he or she is looking for.

The section for “Places to visit” includes royal residences and burial places, travel guides and a helpful list of ongoing exhibitions worldwide focusing on royal women. There is also a strong focus on articles about television series and documentaries.

The home page features the more recent posts, the must reads and book reviews that cover everything from historical fiction to biographies to more scientific literature. There is also a Youtube channel attached to the website featuring mostly videos on sights and exhibitions.

Some of the articles posted are taken from various journals and newspapers covering a wide range of topics and time frames which shows the dedication of the website contributors.

Yet, the website could extend certain topics and establish perhaps a section for visual portrayals like Royal Women in art. Most of the articles display several paintings, mostly portraits but there is not much information on the artists and which museum or private collection they could be found in.

As stated above, much of the biographic information is rather general and can often be found on other websites as well. Many writers make references in their articles but often very few and some do not indicate their sources at all.

Those who are working on the topic, perhaps preparing a presentation, will find this website a good starting point for some overall information and useful links. Since the use of a limited number of sources often creates a one-sided picture, university students and scholars have to treat certain information with caution. Although the website is not primarily directed at scholars of history, it offers some interesting reading and perhaps a suggestion for an article. One might also find a shortcut to useful books, an exhibition nearby or a captivating documentary to watch.

It is an ambitious project with information on an impressive number of royal women and women close to royalty, for instance mistresses. The website’s strength lies in the variety of topics, in its visuality and in the commitment of the team. For the majority of the contributors, history is more a passion than their career and for anyone with the same passion in history, this website has much to offer, if not on a professional, then at least on a private level.


Guest Post by Rocío Martínez from Madrid

Exhibition: “The Portrait in the Royal Collections: from Juan de Flandes  to Antonio López”.

Royal Palace, Madrid. December 4th, 2014-April 19th, 2015.

In the Early Modern period, as many studies had recently shown us, the royal portraits were sometimes used as a substitute of the royal person itself, as a true embodiment of the royal power. This is a special meaning of the royal visual imagery that had been a little lost in an age dominated by image technology, but we can sense once again in the rooms of temporary exhibition of the Royal Palace of Madrid, where you can see more than a hundred of portraits of different royal people that dominated Europe for more than half a millennium.

In this great exhibition, people can see some of the most important pieces of the Spanish Royal Collections, dating from the XVth century to the present, because the last painting shown here, an image of the late king of Spain Juan Carlos I’s family, has been presented to the public for the first time ever in this Vladislaw IV Vasa, Marcin  Kober, 1596, Madrid, Monastery of the Descalzas Realesexhibition. With portraits that range from the painting that Roger van der Weyden made of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy to the contemporary representation of the king Juan Carlos I made by Dalí, through the works of authors as important as Jakob Seisenegger, Antonio Moro, Juan Pantoja de la Cruz.  Peter Paul  Rubens, Hyacinthe Rigaud, Jean Ranc o Joaquín Sorolla, among many others, this exhibition show together paintings and sculptures that allow us to see the evolution of the royal representation and the conception of the relationship between image and royal power from the first decades of the Early Modern Age to the present.

However, we must take into account that this exhibition isn’t exclusively focused on royal portraits. In fact, it tries to bring to light the most important examples of portraiture kept in the Spanish Royal Collections, so this exhibition Virgen of Mercy with the Reyes Católicos and their family, Diego de la Cruz, 1486, Burgos, Monastery of Santa María la Real de las Huelgas.shows some portraits that don’t represent royal people per se. But if we take into account that, of the 113 pieces shown in this exhibition, only seven of them represent people that aren’t usually considered as royals (even if they are members of the court closely linked to the royal family’s circle), we can consider this as an exhibition centered around the image of the royal family and the royal power through the centuries.

Even if it’s impossible for the people who know well the History of Art linked to the Spanish Monarchy to not miss the famous royal portraits that are shown at the Prado Museum and that aren’t in this exhibition, like the magnificent portraits made by Tiziano, the renowned royal representations made by Velázquez or the great Bourbon family paintings made by Van Loo or Goya,  this exhibition has the added charm of showing portraits of a extraordinary quality and significance that are usually kept in less known monuments and, as a result, are sometimes almost unfamiliar for the great public. In fact, some of these paintings  aren’t shown to the public in the places they are usually kept or are in places where they are difficult to see by the visitors; that’s why the possibility of enjoying some of the pieces shown in this exhibition can be considered as a real privilege. This is the case, for example, of the marvelous portraits of the little prince and princess Vasa of Poland (we will return to these portraits again later), kept in the magnificent convent of the Descalzas Reales of Madrid and are usually shown in a dark corridor where they are difficult to see Prince don Juan of Bourbon, Philip Alexius de Lászlo, 1927, Madrid, Royal Palaceand appreciate, so this exhibitions is probably the first time we can see these enchanting portraits in all their glory in years. Likewise, the interesting but mostly unknown engraving titled “The king’s lifting over the pavés in front of the Courts of Navarre”, made by Dionisio de Ollo, is usually out of the public view in its home in the Royal Library of the Royal Palace  itself. This way, works that are kept in spaces as unfairly unknown by the general public as the mentioned convent of the Descalzas Reales, the Encarnación, the Santa María of Las Huelgas of Burgos or the Royal Palace of El Pardo, for example, have the opportunity to be seen and enjoyed by a greater number of people of all nations. This exhibition presents to the great public paintings and sculptures of great quality and significance that will thrill even the most expert of royal historians.

That said, I think there are two main strengths in this exhibition that deserve to be taken into account. The first one is related to the numerous and delightful portraits of royal children that are shown in this exhibition. Unique in their genre, the young princes and princesses that are shown in this exhibition are represented with all the dignity and formality of their rank, but they still can Emperor Charles V, Jakob Seisenegger, 1530, Mallorca, Royal Palace of Almudainatransmit the kind of innocence and gentleness typical of their young age. Amongst all the children portraits shown here, there are several that stand out. The first ones are a pair of portraits with the image of the princes of Poland Anna Maria Vasa and Vladislaw IV, paintings that I have mentioned before in this review. This two young children, painted when they were three and one year old respectively, are dressed just as if they were adults, with rigid court clothes and heavy jewels, where only the velvet cushion in which the young prince stands (proof that he was so little that he can’t even stand securely on his own) and the tenderness of their young faces are the only things that betray the innocence of their ages. Next to them is another very singular portrait, in this case of young princess Anne of Austria, later queen of France, who was just several months old when it was painted. She appears sitting in a red cushion, as she couldn’t even stand yet, but this detail doesn’t take away even a bit of solemnity to the formal stance and regal expression of the young princess. In this case, what attracts the viewer’s attention the most is the great variety of protective charms and relics that cover her little body, a visual proof of part of the belief system of the Baroque, in which they were trying to protect royal babies from illnesses and premature death that they couldn’t explain and against they couldn’t fight with a mix of superstition and traditional religiosity that can be perfectly appreciated in this truly interesting portrait. Lastly, taking a leap of a hundred years, we change centuries and dynasties to see how some of the symbols traditionally used by the Habsburgs share space with elements linked to the new dynasty. In this last case are especially important those children portraits that represent several of Charles Antonio of Bourbon as Hercules, Giuseppe Bonito, 1750, Madrid, Royal Palace of El PardoCharles III’s sons as classic gods. Two of those children portraits are shown here, the portrait of prince Ferdinand of Bourbon as god Mars and the one of Charles Antonio of Bourbon as Hercules. These young children, painted as divine gods, reflect the continuity of important previous models though its simbology and presentation, still a little hieratic and way too formal for children portraits if we compare them with other portraits of little princes and princesses of that century, but we can perceive several characteristics of the change in perception that will transform these kind of representations, of a more familiar nature, without leaving behind the royal significance that must accompany the portraits of the members of a royal family. These are only some of the many marvelous children portraits shown in this exhibition, from the little effigies of the Reyes Católicos’ children that appear under the protective cloak of the Virgin of Mercy (1486) to the portrait of the grandfather of the reigning king of Spain don Juan of Bourbon as a teenager (1927).

The second of the main strengths that, in my opinion, have this exhibition is the possibility of perceive how the different royal portraits adapt to the political and representative necessities of every moment to transmit effectively the meaning that every monarch need to present in a determined instance, something that can be appreciated better when we can observe different works at the same time. This exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to unravel the political and ideological significance that these portraits transmitted to their contemporaries and to see the intent behind their creation. It was very different the purpose behind the conception of portraits like the ones made of the little Bourbon princes to let their grandfather know them and those paintings like “The Allegory of Philip  V and his family fighting against heresy, Felipe de Silva, 1710-1711, Madrid, Monastery of San Lorenzo El EscorialVirgin of Mercy”, kept in the monastery of Santa María of Las  Huelgas of Burgos, for example. In this painting, the presence of the Reyes Católicos and their children legitimize the position of the abbess Leonor of Mendoza, sister of the powerful, cardinal Mendoza (who, by the way, is also  present in this painting), that was designated for that position against the wishes of  the rest of the nuns after  the deposition of the previous abbess. We can also appreciate a strong underlying meaning in the portrait that Jakob Seisenegger made of the emperor Charles V, who was represented with court clothes because he wanted to present a conciliatory image of himself in front of his protestant subjects, as he still hoped to reach a lasting agreement with them. Lastly, I can also mention the painting called “Allegory of Philip V and his family fighting against heresy”, linked to the War of Spanish Succession, during which the Bourbon party attacked the supporters of the archduke Charles of Austria accusing him of permitting the entrance of heretics (English, Dutch and some Germans from protestant territories) in the Spanish Monarchy. He is presented here as the protector of Catholic Faith, but it also has another meaning. The order of St. Jerome that lived in the Monastery of Saint Lorenzo El Escorial needed to make Anna of Austria, Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, 1602, Madrid, Monastery of the Descalzas Reales.peace with the new king and to assure him of its unwavering loyalty, as the monks had had some disputes with Philip V during the war. One of the most interesting of these disputes, for example, was told by Fray Nicolás Jesús Belando. He wrote that once, when queen María Luisa Gabriela of Savoy had to get out of Madrid fairly quickly because the troops of the archduke Charles were nearing the capital, she arrived to the El Escorial and there, according to Fray Nicolás, “she found closed the gates of her own home” when the monks denied her entrance to the monastery and had to sleep in the street with her young son. These are only some examples that allow us to analyze and understand the different dimensions of the royal portraits and how they can transmit different messages depending on the political circumstances of the moment they were created.

Lastly, I must add that this exhibition has the ability of surprising us in every step. Without doubt, several of the portraits shown here still have secrets awaiting to be discovered, like the case of the strange portrait of king Charles IV Princess Anna Maria Vasa, Marcin Kober, 1596, Madrid, Monastery of the Descalzas Realesbackwards, made  by Juan Bauzil, almost  unique in its nature, whose meaning haven’t been unraveled yet.  In any case, those historians interested in the History of Monarchy have a date in Madrid this spring. If you can, don’t miss this exhibition. You won’t regret it.

You can obtain more information about the exhibition here: