Medieval women and power

I’m interrupting a chronological survey of my conference going this year to give you a thematic post: I went to roundtables on medieval women and power at both Kalamazoo and Leeds this year and got involved in subsequent discussions with Another Damned Medievalist about definitions of power. So this starts with some definitions, then talks about useful points I got from both panels and finishes by going back to problems about defining and conceptualising power. The panel at Kalamazoo consisted of Lois Huneycutt, Constance Berman, Kathy Krause, Ellie Woodacre and Marie Kelleher. The panel at Leeds was Theresa Earenfight, Joanna Huntington, Amy Livingstone, Therese Martin and Penelope Nash. (The panel at Leeds had a rather better temporal and geographical spread of research than that at Kalamazoo, which may reflect the availability of participants).

I think only two of the scholars who spoke at the roundtables attempted to define power. Marie Kelleher said her ad hoc definition of agency and power was that agency was the ability to take action that has the potential to affect one’s own destiny, and power was the ability to take action that has the potential to affect the destiny of others. Theresa Earenfight,meanwhile, described power as the application of some force to coerce others to do something. (I hope I wrote down all these quotes accurately).

As far as more general sociological definitions go, Christine Firer Hinze, in Comprehending power in Christian social ethics summarizes a lot of modelling of socio-political power as models either of ‘power over’ or ‘power to’. She, among a number of others, quotes Max Weber from Economy and Society (I, 1, 16A), who defines “Power (Macht” as “the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests.” (Another translation has “even against resistance” rather than “despite resistance”, showing that resistance is not a necessary part of the definition). In contrast Weber talks of “Domination (Herrschaft)” as “the probability that a command with a given specific content will be obeyed by a given group of persons.”

Michael Mann, in Sources of Social Power (I, p. 6) defines power “in its most general sense” as “the ability to pursue and attain goals through mastery of one’s environment”. He then wants to distinguish two forms of “social power” (which he doesn’t define): “distributive power” (the zero-sum game of A’s power over B, where A’s power diminishes as B’s power increases) and “collective power” where people cooperate to enhance their joint power over a third party or over nature. He sees four sources of social power (p. 2): ideological, economic, military and political relationships.

ADM also said that we needed to think more about medieval definitions of power. Since I’m not an expert on medieval political theory, I’ll just give a quick couple of comments. Isidore of Seville, in his Etymologiae X, p. 208: “Potens, rebus late patens: unde et potestas, quod pateat illi quaqua uelit, et nemo intercludat, nullus obsistere ualeat.” translated by Barney et al as “Powerful (potens),extending patere widely in one’s property; hence also “power” (potestas), because it extends for him in whatever direction he chooses, and no one closes him in, none can stand in his way.”) To Isidore, therefore, power is essentially about large land-holding. I also talk in general terms about Carolingian ideas of power in Morality and Masculinity in the Carolingan Empire. The most frequent contrast was between between potentes and the pauperes they oppress, where the pauperes are free small landowners, not the dependent poor. But there are occasional references to female potentes in terms of their household control. In other words, power generally is conceived of in terms of extensive landowning (the main source of wealth) and the manipulation of legal systems as well as direct control: there’s Weber’s Herrschaft, but also less explicit Macht as well.

As for the panelists, Lois Honeycutt was talking about the early development of the study of women and power, when “no-one was even sure that queenship was a thing”. She was arguing for a move beyond exceptionalism (seeing only exceptional women as holding power), and also asking how we might look beyond queenship. This was in terms of non-royal women, alternative routes to power and also looking beyond western Europe. She was saying she’d recently looked at Georgian and Armenian saints, who were seen as lionesses, not viragos.

Connie Berman was talking about “lady-lords” in thirteenth-century France, saying that a dip in women’s presence as lords after Eleanor of Aquitaine was only temporary, and giving as an example Matilda de Courtenay, the Countess of Nevers (d. 1257). She also mentioned in the discussion that abbesses might have more time for administrative duties than abbots, because they had fewer liturgical functions.

Kathy Krause spoke about the disconnect between the lordship of thirteenth-century women and romances from the same period showing heiresses as being exiled and powerless. But she has found a planctus (lament on death) for a countess of Boulogne probably Matilda II), which does talk about her as a lord, knighting knights and protecting ladies. Kathy was also the first of several panellists to mention Georges Duby, whose views on the disempowerment of medieval women in the high Middle Ages are still frequently referred to, however much they get debunked. (Amy Livingstone talked about playing Whack-a-Mole with his ideas).

Ellie Woodacre was talking about Theresa Earenfight’s ideas of power-sharing between queens and kings and the different possible templates. She was arguing for monarchy working best as a team (there were interesting echoes here of Elizabeth II’s reference to the British monarchy as “The Firm”) and also looking for continuities between the late medieval and early modern periods. Ellie also pointed out that attempts to exclude women from rule or transmission of inheritance rights (such as the use of Salic law in fifteenth-century France or John Knox’s complaints about the “regiment of women”) tend to come out of a specific context, rather than be just an generalised expression of misogyny.

Marie Kelleher, as well as giving the definitions of power and agency I mentioned above, was suggesting we should look beyond political power. She was particularly interested in what legal sources might be able to show us about women exercising both agency and power, pointing out that it enables us to see women at a lower social level. She stressed that women’s choices to litigate shows us that in a legal system where women are presumed to lack power, they could nevertheless use the courts to their advantage, e.g. by stressing their need for protection. Marie made the important point that women’s power need not offer more or better for women more generally, to which I’ll come back later.

At Leeds, Therese Martin was lamenting the fact that we still have to continue rehearsing the question “Do women have power?”,because (some) other medievalists still aren’t listening. She was one of several speakers worrying that we were just preaching to the choir and that historians of women were still ghettoised. (In the discussion afterwards, the Royal Studies Network was mentioned as an organisation that was managing to get such research into a wider context). Therese was also talking about her current project reassessing women as “makers” of art, a term which she felt got beyond the question of whether they were the creators or the patrons and reflected the medieval terminology of objects which say “X me fecit” more accurately.

Amy Livingstone wanted to get beyond the simple statementthat women had power and also the tendency to qualify a particular woman’s power by saying she ruled as a wife or with a husband. She also thought there was too much emphasis on titles, since some powerful men didn’t have titles.Amy is currently researching Countess Ermengard of Brittany and how she ruled with her father and sons as well as her husband. She was also arguing against the idea of a rupture in women’s power in around 1000 and for more continuity between the early medieval and high medieval periods.

Theresa Earenfight mentioned the “power of the mundane” and the importance of reading sources such as registers (at which point the early medievalists among us mentally swore at our lack of such sources). She was also arguing for looking comparatively beyond England, France and Germany (she’s currently working on Catherine of Aragon, who was caught between Spain and England), for thinking beyond kin ties to consider the importance of other relationships, such as friends, and for looking at alternative sites of power (such as material culture and the workplace).

Penny Nash said she wanted two major changes in studying women and power. One was looking beyond queens and empresses: she’s particularly interested in whether there were fewer options for countesses in the more structured world from the later eleventh century on.Was someone like Countess Matilda of Tuscany exceptional? She also wanted us to get beyond biography and lifecycle, since royal men don’t get talked about in those terms.

Finally Joanna Huntington, who works on British royal hagiography brought in gender, saying that “my sources in the twelfth century are all about the men”, and arguing that Turgot’s life of Queen Margaret of Scotland is showing Margaret as a model for rulers, not just queens, and that much of what we read in the narrative sources is a clerical conversation and “guys writing themselves into the story”. Joanna worried about being seen as a traitor to the feminist cause by working on masculinity; afterwards, she confirmed that she and I had both been influenced by the same article: Elizabeth A. Clark, “The Lady Vanishes: Dilemmas of a Feminist Historian after the “Linguistic Turn””, Church History, 67 (1998), 1-31, which worries at the question of how much we can recapture “real women” beneath their symbolic use in narrative sources predominantly written by men.

I enjoyed the sessions a lot, but I now want to go back to ADM’s comments about definitions of power. In terms of the definitions I quoted at the start, what the panellists’ research on is largely female Herrschaft in Weber’s terms; they almost all work on “lordly women” (queens, countesses, etc) and their focus is mostly on their exercise of political power (and less commonly ideological and military power). There was little discussion of economic power, apart from artistic patronage, mainly, I suspect, because it’s only in the late medieval period that you start seeing women (and men) who have substantial economic power without necessarily also possessing direct political power, while the focus of the panels was predominantly on the high Middle Ages.

What was lurking on the edges was other forms of power and influence, what we might call “non-Herrschaft Macht” in Weber’s terms. The best label I can come up with at the moment is “indirect power”; Theresa Earenfight was unhappy with the terms “influence” and I need to read up on the literature conceptualising that. Essentially, it’s the ability to get your own way without using command (or without the accepted right to command), and I think medieval women’s use of such indirect power is a far more difficult problem, especially,paradoxically, for feminist historians.

The first problem, obviously, is that of sources. It’s normally much harder to see and assess indirectly wielded power than direct power, because it leaves fewer traces in the records. Two years ago, Margaret McCarthy was raising an important point about how we could assess the influence of a (male) royal advisor (Hincmar of Rheims).If a king did something of which Hincmar approved, was that because of Hincmar’s influence, because of someone else’s influence,or because it was the most sensible course of action anyhow? On most occasions, we’ll only know about indirect power when narrative sources mention it, and such sources are particularly problematic for female indirect power,given both their bias and the possibility of references to women’s influence being symbolic (see the classic article: Kate Cooper, “Insinuations of Womanly Influence: An Aspect of the Christianization of the Roman Aristocracy”, The Journal of Roman Studies, 82 (1992), 150-164).

One of the most promising sources for such indirect power brings us back to Marie Kelleher’s point about the importance of legal sources. These can sometimes make clear the strategies that women use to exercise such indirect power: we can hope to see what women want and the extent to which they get it. I’m still quite pleased with the first article I ever got published: “‘Bound from Either Side’: The Limits of Power in Carolingian Marriage Disputes, 840-870”, Gender & History, 19 (2007), 467-482,which does attempt (in an undertheorised way) to do this with the very limited information we have from Carolingian “court records”.

But I think there’s a deeper problem about indirect power than this and that’s feminist discomfort about the methods used to obtain such indirect power. And here we touch on the difference between (politically) powerful men with no official position and (politically) powerful women who wield indirect power. Powerful men with no official position tend to be either the éminence grise with exceptional political skills or men with charismatic authority (whether it’s Benedict of Aniane or Rasputin).

In contrast, although there are a very few women who wield charismatic authority at premodern courts and centres of power (a few saints and some exceptional intellectuals), most women who wield indirect power are those with exceptionally intimate ties to rulers or other politically powerful men: wives, mothers, daughters and mistresses (there don’t seem to be many sisters, which is odd). And the main methods used by them to exercise such indirect power/influence are wheedling, nagging, the giving and withholding of sexual favours and the bearing of sons.

In other words, women’s gaining indirect power has traditionally involved both female manipulation of men and the reduction of their own selves to desirable and/or fruitful bodies. Substantial indirect political power is available in this way only to a small number of women who have such intimate connections to powerful men (female social climbers almost invariably have to go via the bedchamber, male social climbers have more options), although indirect power over a man and his dependents is potentially available to any woman intimate with him.

The problem is that gaining such indirect power normally comes at the price of substantial emotional harm both to women themselves and to male/female relationships more generally; indirect female power tends intrinsically towards the deceitful, if not actively toxic. In addition, anti-feminists have often claimed that such methods of power make women more powerful than men or that women don’t need formal rights because of their informal power. It’s difficult as a historian to talk about such possibilities of informal power without being seen as anti-feminist.

One additional important point is that in some particularly oppressive patriarchal societies, exceptional women may be able to gain unusually large amounts of indirect power by these indirect methods, more so even than typical queens (who are largely chosen for their dynastic connections). For example, the role of chief wife in a polygamous society or chief mistress in a monogamous one will usually be filled by a woman with particular beauty, exceptional force of character, and who has often been trained in forms of manipulation.

I think such intimate forms of indirect power don’t fit easily into existing frameworks of social power (although I need to read more of both Weber and Michael Mann), but scholars of medieval women and power do need to think more about them. This may be why lifecycle comes in so frequently to our discussions: it allows us to talk about the “power” of women’s bodies in more acceptable terms. We may need to go further, setting aside our qualms about such forms of intimate power in order to explore exactly how they were used over the centuries and their successes and failures as compared to more “lordly” forms of power held by medieval women.


5 thoughts on “Medieval women and power

    • Yes, feminism does potentially skew our interpretation of the evidence, but so does any view of the world. In particularly, anyone, whether they study history or not, can’t avoid having opinions on how men and women ought to relate to one another.

      More generally, the distinction isn’t between historians with biased ideologies and other historians: the distinction is between historians who acknowledge their own biases and blind-spots and those who don’t. Feminism may hinder us from seeing some forms of power, but it’s also helped several recent generations of historians to spot historical power imbalances that have been taken for granted in centuries of previous historical research.


  1. Apart from political power, it seems to me that is possible to present evidence of other expressions of medieval femenine social power. Ie, in my area of study (Gothia, start of C10th), I can trace a surplus of single femenine landowners vs. married ones (111%); the same cannot be said for surrounding areas (Burgundy/Aquitania) (~50%) in the same timeframe.
    Another point of interest can be the tensions between the resilience of local traditions and the changing ideological tendences of visible power.


    • Very interesting on the landholding statistics: I presume you got them from charters. How are you distinguishing between single and married women – is this naming patterns or based on explicit statements in the charters? One of the big problem with comparisons of this kind is always working out how much of a possible effect may actually just be due to different scribal practices between regions or institutions. I hope we can get some useful statistics on female landholding from the Charlemagne project database, but it will never go as far as the tenth century.

      What kind of local traditions are you able to see in your source material? That’s again a very interesting question, but often hard to pin down, since we have to rely on scraps of information.


      • There’s a full article (in catalan) with the details and data, and a blog post (also in catalan) to give an informal view. To resume:
        Yes, ‘singles’ means women that appears in charters mentioned as land owners without any masculine reference attached. I think it would be too much to suppose that they were not married, the evidence only shows that they acted and were recognized as individual legal/social actors.
        A prominent documental/notarial diference seems to be in the usage of confrontations: almost omnipresent in Gothia, rare outside.
        But the quantized period is small (894-914), so is difficult to know if we are looking at a fragment of a still picture or just an snapshot of a moving target.
        On the social tradition side, there’s also a local testamentary tradition of women being equal as men, in the legal sense, as propietaries, (hereu/pubilla in catalan), some authors say it existed since early medieval times, but I’ve been unable to locate the evidence by now (Dhuoda can be an example, but her high status can make a difference).
        Broadly speaking, one of the things that a quantitive analisys of charter data reveals, is that men appears for a lot of reasons, women no. The main reason for a woman to appear in local documents is because she was the legal (or socially recognized) owner of a piece of land (land that became under the control of some religious institution, and that’s why the evidence as reached our times).
        Very scarce and biassed data, indeed.
        Yet, in the limit of error margin estimation, the data even suggest a different social land usage pattern based on gender (ie: groups of women seems to appear more often than groups of men), but evidence is too short, and the scanned period too narrow. Surely a broader picture will help, and on that, I hope The Making of Charlemagne’e Europa project to be a major contribution.

        Are we heading to a european prosopographic database of early medieval Europa?


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