Women, office and role

The last of the IHR Earlier Medieval Seminars for this term has already been blogged on, so here belatedly is the penultimate one, Charlotte Cartwright from Liverpool on ‘Before she was Queen: Matilda of Flanders as Countess of Normandy’. This was a very charter-heavy look at the activity of William the Conqueror’s wife before she became Queen of England, aiming to use her activities and titles to look for indications of female office-holding. Matilda is most frequently called ‘countess’ (comitissa) in the charters that mention her. What is the meaning of this and of the titles ‘count’ (comes) and ‘duke’ (dux) used of her husband? Charlotte was trying to use the 200+ surviving Norman ducal charters from before 1066 to explore this (almost all eleventh century).

She started off looking at charters mentioning earlier dukes’ wives, from before 1020. There are four women mentioned, all of whom sometimes get called countess, but not consistently. Charlotte has been trying to find patterns for the use (particular roles of the woman as donor or signer, monastic foundations they have particularly close ties to etc), but the evidence is limited and there doesn’t seem much consistency. She was arguing that comitissa was a title showing status, but not the only way of showing status: describing a woman as someone’s wife or daughter could also be used. In contrast, Richard II, at the same time, was almost always called count in the charter, and quite often ‘count of the Normans’ or ‘count by the grace of God’. However some close male relatives of Richard also get called count some, but not all of the time, but without any territorial designation. Charlotte argued that in this situation, ‘count’ looks more like a sign of individual status than an office, in a way rather parallel to how ‘comitissa’ is used.

We then went forward 20+ years to Matilda’s appearance in the charters after 1049/50 (there are no duke’s wives mentioned in charters in between). Matilda appears in around one-third of William’s charters, which is comparable to the most prominent men (and more than her sons). When she signs charters the title of comitissa is consistently used, but not always when she has other roles in charters. For example, she’s called comitissa when she’s a sole donor, but not when she’s a co-donor. This is starting to look more like an idea of countess as an office.

There are also shifts in male title usage in the period. Some of William’s relatives who are called count are consistently associated with an area of land and have their title used more consistently. For William himself, there’s a wide range of titles, some rather extravagant (he sometimes gets called princeps, for example). He gets quasi regal titles, while Matilda doesn’t, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that comitissa doesn’t have a quasi-regal meaning.

Charlotte ended by suggesting possible parallels to how Capetian queens appear in charters (unfortunately, we haven’t got the carters edited for other regions) , and suggested that queenship was less an office than a range of possibilities. She saw In Matilda the similar beginnings of a perception and definition of the role of count’s wife.

I feel that this contrast of role and office may be the most useful way to approach looking at the problem of queenship, ‘countess-ship’ etc. It also suggests ways that you can combine Charlotte’s approach, focusing on titles and charters, with other approaches. While Charlotte’s paper was very stimulating on its own, it runs into several possible objections. One is about who is deciding on such titles, if charters are being written by recipients (and we got into some discussion of that). The other, broader objection, is just to say that isn’t this all just semantics, anyhow? This goes along with the broader problem of how you distinguish office for men, and when/whether there is such a concept among the medieval nobility.

I would see office as being primarily a matter of tasks/functions to be carried out. This is what allows the separation out of someone?s personal qualities from their effectiveness: an individual is not the same as their duties. Sellers? and Yeatman?s classic statement that someone could be a ‘good man but a bad king’ would make perfect sense to medieval people. After all, it’s near to some of the judgements made about Louis the Pious and Charles the Fat. On the other hand, consider an alternative statement: ‘she was a good woman, but a bad queen’. Can you imagine any medieval author saying the equivalent of that?

I would say that queenship was a role: the behaviour is inseparable from the personality of the queen, and the ‘part’ of queen can be played in numerous different ways. It’s clear that by the Carolingian period, if not before, there is a generally shared view of what a good king and a good count ought to be like. It’s there in narrative sources, mirrors for princes, capitularies, etc. And I suspect that most of what is expected then would still have been expected in the fifteenth century. You might get minor shifts in how pious a ruler is expected to be, or how financially prudent, but the overall thrust is remarkably consistent.

On the other hand, whenever researchers start doing collective biographies of queens, countesses, etc, what stands out is how different they all are in their behaviour. One queen will have an active political role, the next will be a pious near-recluse, etc. There is no one right way to do it, and therefore no reason to write mirrors for queens, who need only the general advice given to all wives. I’m not sure that queenship in the Middle Ages ever really becomes an office. (In contrast, if you want a clear sense of female office, look at Chaucer’s treatment of the Prioress, which skewers how, although not wicked, she is behaving inappropriately for her office).

I think, though, that there’s an even wider point here, that may feed into further discussions of the history of patriarchy. I don?t think that it’s just coincidence that a lot of powerful medieval women are nevertheless in these ill-defined roles, and that these roles don?t become offices. It’s much easier in that case to avoid setting precedents. If Matilda of Flanders is repeatedly associated with William the Conqueror’s charters, that is one thing: if the queen is repeatedly associated with the king’s charters, that has different implications. Avoiding queen or countess becoming an office meant that the reset button could constantly be set: a woman did not automatically acquire the power her predecessor had held. Instead she had to renegotiate that power individually (in a way that kings/counts etc increasingly did not need to) and this limited the overall advance of women. In fact it’s arguable that such patterns are still visible in the modern world; the phenomenon of the woman who is responsible for sustaining an organisation, but has no official role, or only a relatively lowly one, is still visible (see, for example, the vicar’s wife). Status is all too often transitory for women; it may be best when an offer of power is made to get it in writing (whether or not in a charter).


3 thoughts on “Women, office and role

  1. This is, as ever when you touch such questions, very sharp, and now I wish I had been at the paper. I think that for the tenth and eleventh centuries what you say about the vagueness of office for women is probably on the mark, although the counter-example of Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona hangs ever before us. (Not that her office was very well-defined: just, bloody irremovable. If you don’t know of her, there’s an article by Patricia Humphrey in Theresa M. Vann (ed.), Queens, Regents and Potentates, Women of Power I (Cambridge 1993), though I haven’t seen it so couldn’t tell you how up to date it was and Felice Lifshitz didn’t like it.) However, I do wonder whether this isn’t mainly because of a certain vagueness in the office of men. Kingship is, I agree, something with qualities that all can agree on in a way that queenship isn’t, but as to what the actual rôle of a king in the developing state is, this can be argued, mainly I guess because some kind of a tax system is recovering and so functionaries and officers are becoming important again in a way that they haven’t been for a long while.

    But if you go back to the ninth century, it seems to me that although again it’s not defined in terms of personal qualities in the way that it is for the king, for Hincmar of Reims in the De ordine palatii the queen has a number of quite distinct functions in the running of the court, and she is clearly fairly essential to its operation, whoever she is; it might not even be the king’s wife, I’d hazard, it could be his mother or his aunt, as long as someone’s doing that job. Do we think those functions passed away with the passing of the Empire and its elaborate court operation (and if so, what happens in Ottonian Germany where we mostly seem to know about queens as memorial-makers but where there are some powerful regencies held by them?) or do we think, rather, that Hincmar is unusual in mentioning the important work that women do at all and it’s actually always there one way or another? Obviously the equilibrium must be maintained! heaven forfend things should ever have been better or worse. But I wonder.

    Also: “One queen will have an active political role, the next will be a pious near-recluse, etc.” Compare, perhaps, the way Abbot Suger of St-Denis presents Louis VI and Louis VII of France? I’m not sure that this kind of write-up is exclusive to women, and it may be a framework we ought to be seeing through, as with the court invisibility.

    On a less dogmatic note, this bit really interested me:

    However some close male relatives of Richard also get called count some, but not all of the time, but without any territorial designation. Charlotte argued that in this situation, ‘count’ looks more like a sign of individual status than an office, in a way rather parallel to how ‘comitissa’ is used.

    I’ve got one of these fellows in my stuff, and I’m pretty sure he’s a bastard or in some other way embarrassing (though I’m less sure, given Catalan comital marriage practice, why bastardy should be embarrassing). He’s probably worth a blog-post. Thankyou for the idea.


  2. Good stuff and very interesting! Thanks for writing it up! I have to say, I’m excited that some of these women are being studied these days, Emma, the Matildas, Eleanor, etc are fascinating figures in their own right. Thank you again.

    Regarding one of Jonathan’s points about Hincmar’s “queen”: you know, I can’t help but think of Wealhtheow and Hild from Beowulf, and some of the women Greg of Tours mentions whose names escape me at the moment (Radegund?); these sound and act in much the way that Hincmar states.


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