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Female Genealogies: Imagining Women's Power and the Foundation of England in the 14th Century

Emma O’Loughlin Bérat sprach nach ihrem Vortrag im Rahmen der Ringvorlesung „Transkulturelle Annäherungen an Phänomene von Macht und Herrschaft“ mit Achim Fischelmanns (Teilprojekt Öffentlichkeitsarbeit) über bildliche und literarische Darstellungen von Frauen im mittelalterlichen England; geführt wurde das Gespräch passend zur Vortragssprache auf Englisch.

Ringvorlesung_Bérat

Foto: © Achim Fischelmanns | SFB 1167

Emma, you are part of the sub-project „Feminine charisma. Figurations of ‚Macht‘ and ‚Herrschaft‘ in England and France 700–1500“ (main investigator: Irina A. Dumitrescu). Thinking of the texts you already dealt with: How does the concept of charisma help you to explore women’s power?

Studying the charisma of historical women and female characters in literature helps us to identify forms of women’s political power not necessarily associated with or limited to official or legal roles. Women in medieval Europe possessed power as the wives, mothers, daughters and sisters of rulers and other powerful men, but they also wielded power in more personal ways that might be considered charismatic, such as through seductive allure, spiritual authority and legendary genealogies. Medieval literature gives us many examples of such women, and helps us to understand how medieval people imagined women’s power. My particular research in our subproject focuses on the intersection between women’s genealogies, political power and charisma in literature and related materials.
 


In the first part of your talk, you showed us representations of royal women in a genealogical roll of the kings of England from the later 13th century similar to the one found on the poster for the next workshop of your sub-project. Could you tell us in a few words what is so special about these sources?

These two royal genealogical rolls show us so clearly that women were crucial to at least some conceptions of English royal and political identity in the later middle ages. In the roll I focused on in the talk (London, British Library, Royal 14 B V), over one quarter of the portraits in the genealogy depict women. That’s not equal to men, but it’s a substantial amount. The manuscript also gives us some idea of the many different ways women were understood to contribute to, and even shape, English dynastic history. For example, the roll includes several places where lineages come through multiple generations of women’s lines, but it also includes women who don’t have children or women who died very young. The roll even includes a caption about an ideal royal woman, Aethelflaed, who refused to have more than one child because of the agony of childbirth.
 


According to that roll, the two major lineages that feed into the English royal line, the Anglo-Saxon as well as the Anglo-Norman, come through women. How long can these lineages be traced back into history?

Yes, this roll makes a fascinating „mistake“ in making the Norman conqueror of England, William the Bastard, a bastard because he lacks a legitimate father rather than a legitimate mother. In this roll, it is William’s mother who transmits to him the blood of the Dukes of Normandy, though this was not historically true. However, the Anglo-Saxon royal line did actually survive through the Danish and Norman conquests of England thanks to a matrilineal lineage of two generations, and that female genealogy is depicted prominently in this roll. It was a fairly well known story in later medieval England that the royal Anglo-Saxon blood had come to Matilda II, queen of England and wife of Henry I, through her mother, Margaret, an Anglo-Saxon princess and the queen of Scotland.



In the second part of your talk, you spoke about three vernacular chronicles that not only include historical events, but also quasi-fictional stories and legends concerning the foundation of England. Are there similarities between these stories or do they offer completely different legends?

Like so many legends in medieval literature, there are quite a few overlaps between these stories. All three stories involve female protagonists responsible for founding, conquering or reconquering Britain in some way – in two of the stories, the women leaders give their own names to Britain. These stories also have similarities with legends featuring male leaders and conquerors of England. What I find particularly interesting in these fictional stories featuring strong female characters is how they draw women explicitly or implicitly into some of the most pressing political concerns of later medieval England, such as the relationship between Christianity and Islam, the deposition of kings, England’s relationship to Rome, and royal succession without a male heir.
 


The women in these stories appear to be rather violent. Albina and her sisters tried to murder their husbands and therefore had to leave their home country, Inge murders the British king and the other guests of a feast. Do the narrators comment on that?

The texts deal with the women’s violence in different ways, and even different versions of the Albina myth deal differently with the women’s violence. In some versions Albina and her sisters do succeed in murdering their husbands! Both the stories of Albina and Inge seem ambivalent about women’s violence. Inge and Albina are murderous in the ways they take power, but their violence achieves their dominion over England and Britain respectively. It’s also worth remembering that extreme violence is part of most foundation and conquest narratives, including those with male protagonists. The author of Inge’s story seems more interested in Inge’s ability to lead and save her people from starvation, and to conquer England strategically, than her violent actions or even her gender.
 


Thank you very much, Emma!

 


Weiter geht es in der Ringvorlesung am 29. Mai 2018 (18 Uhr c.t., Hauptgebäude der Universität Bonn, Hörsaal XIII) mit einem Vortrag von Prof. Dr. Ludwig Morenz (Ägyptologie) zum Thema „Pharao-fashioning. Von Herrschaftsinszenierung im ersten Territorialstaat der Weltgeschichte“.

(22.05.2018)

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