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Q&A on Medieval Women, Material Culture, and Power: Matilda Plantagenet and Her Sisters

Which part of your research on the daughters of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine was particularly exciting?

Answer: It is always amazing to actually hold the material items we study because it helps to make tangible what happened in a distant past. One memorable occasion was when I lived in Spain and visited the cathedral archive in Toledo to study the seal of Queen Leonor of Castile. It is attached to a charter issued in 1179, in which she confirms and extends the endowment of the altar of St. Thomas Becket in Toledo Cathedral. It was just so cool to pick up this very old and rare item that held the impression of the queen. I had hoped to decipher the seal’s legend in order to see how Leonor presented herself and if she made any reference to herself as the daughter of Henry II. Unfortunately, most of its legend had disappeared; a reminder that these items that were supposed to be long-lasting signs of authority and self-representation, actually were fragile pieces, with many of them lost.

Your book deals with the ways in which the royal sisters – Matilda, Leonor, and Joanna – used material culture for the performance of their power. Could you tell us how your findings relate to the present?

First, in my book, I highlight the value of material culture for elite people to shape medieval life regardless of their sex. It is through these objects, rather than charter evidence, that history, from visual to social to cultural, can be told. This is because they are vivid reminders of the importance of communicating wealth, prestige, and power. Which brings me to the most compelling reason for writing about Matilda and her sisters; that is, to investigate the connections between women and power through the lens of material culture. This is still an under-developed approach in medieval studies with its continued focus on the written record. When taking into account material items, women showed up in many capacities and were able to work together with their husbands. This spousal collaboration should be viewed as something that was carefully planned and from which all participants benefited. This is not to say that all elite women had the same opportunities or were all-powerful, but the same could be said about men. We should not forget that medieval society was a patriarchal one. And to a large extent current European societies still are, something that hits you even harder after having studied medieval women. Nonetheless, the women in my book serve as reminders that there are multiple ways to be powerful. From this, we can draw inspiration when considering how women can set things into motion.

In your first chapter, you explain that the travels that the young brides-to-be – Matilda, Leonor, and Joanna – made to their future husbands’ lands served as stages to show off their power. Were these sisters at all prepared to exercise power?

Usually, we know most about women’s possibilities to wield power when their spouses were traveling long distances, such as on crusade, or after the death of their spouse. A booklet that Queen Leonor was to receive after the death of her husband, Alfonso VIII, offers some insight into the queen’s responsibilities. In it, the names of Alfonso’s creditors are mentioned. That the king bequeathed the booklet to Leonor indicates that he expected her to take care of his affairs in which she had also been involved during his lifetime. However, much less is known about how young girls were prepared for rulership. But there is little doubt that elite parents considered all of their children to be part of their ‘family politics’. This is only logical that they would receive training in what was expected of them. For example, Empress Matilda, grandmother of the three Plantagenet sisters, received some education in German, so that she would be able to communicate at the court of her husband, Emperor Henry V. In all likelihood, her granddaughter Matilda, whose marriage to Duke Henry the Lion of Saxony was negotiated in 1165 and celebrated in 1168, would have received similar training. Being able to speak German would make it easier for her to integrate at her husband’s court, which in turn, would give her an opportunity to become involved in her husband’s affairs.

Finally, given your focus on women in your book, it is likely to spark interest among medievalists working on women. Is there another kind of audience you wish to attract with your book?

My book explains how the study of artifacts can show the ways the Plantagenet sisters interacted with men and women in their European networks. Thus, I hope that it will also be of interest to those medievalists who focus on the written record rather than the material in their studies on rulership. My analysis of a wide range of objects – including written documents – hopefully, inspires medievalists to take into account artifacts – such as manuscripts or textiles – they encounter during their research. And it would be fantastic if this book stimulates them to be more aware of the presence of material items within the written sources, especially charters. This is one of the reasons I chose the term material culture rather than art or artworks because it allows for the inclusion of a broad range of objects. These objects, when studied together, can help us know more about how elite women and men shaped their own lives and those of others.

by Jitske Jasperse