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Forged by Blood, Fellowship and Political Affinity – Female Networks, Kinships and Power in the Middle Ages

An international workshop hosted by Irina Dumitrescu and Emma Bérat focused on relationships between medieval women, and how these relationships helped to construct power in pre-modern Europe, Iran and Ethiopia. Recent research has highlighted medieval women’s power through their relations to men, but less is known about the political influence women wielded through their relationships to other women. This workshop drew attention to many stories of women’s networks and to different approaches we can use to locate such networks and their influence.

Workshop_Between Women_Bildausschnitt

Picture: © Detail from the Genealogical roll of the kings of England of the genealogical line from Stephen to John and his descendants. British Library Board, Royal 14 B VI., fol. 6r

 

The workshop was interdisciplinary and transcultural. Scholars from the fields of art history, literature, history and religious studies examined women’s kinships through biological, religious, political, imaginary and historical kinships. They drew on sources from Britain, Central Asia, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Iberia, Iran, spanning the sixth to the seventeenth centuries.

On May 31st 2018, after a welcome by Irina Dumitrescu and Emma Bérat (Subproject “Feminine charisma. Figurations of Macht and Herrschaft in England and France, 700–1500”, University of Bonn), Lucy Pick (University of Chicago) opened the conference with an exploration of women’s secular and spiritual relationships in eleventh-century León as evinced by charters and other documents. She explored ways of visually depicting women’s networks, including the uses and limitations of computer-generated diagrams. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Fordham University) examined francophone books and texts owned and commissioned by women of the St Pol family in France and England. Wogan-Browne argued that these manuscript collections trace a tradition of women moving across cultural borders, from their fathers’ to their husbands’ homes, and promoting the transfer of cultural capital.

In the afternoon session, Jitske Jasperse (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) highlighted the material wealth that accompanied women’s royal diplomatic marriages as performances of power. She examined the magnificent entourages of the daughters of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine as they travelled to their husbands’ lands. Rebecca Hardie (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen) shifted the focus to biological sisters, using a range of literary and documentary sources from Anglo-Saxon England to highlight how biological sororal relations underpinned women’s religious leadership. Alyssa Gabbay (University of North Carolina at Greensboro) turned to Safavid Iran to explore how women leaders, religious and political, were aligned, in imaginary genealogy, with Fatima al Zahra, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Gabbay examined the legendary female kinships surrounding Fatima’s birth, and highlighted how poets, centuries later, evoked Fatima to legitimise other female leaders.

On the second day, Karen Dempsey (University of Reading) emphasised the incomplete picture that results from leaving women’s relations out of castle studies. Dempsey showed how Isabel de Warenne was involved in the production of material culture at Castle Acre, Norfolk, and drew on the ancestral memory of her grandmother Gundrada, a Flemish noblewoman, in her production. Through careful and incisive study of visual and literary sources from the fifteenth-century French court, Elizabeth L’Estrange (University of Birmingham) revealed the complex political networks (literary communities) women established through their writing, ownership and commissioning of books.

In the afternoon session, Margaux Herman (CEFF-Addis Ababa/IMAF-Paris) discussed the complex political strategies underpinning the royal marriages, and the power of royal wives, in the Christian Ethiopia in the 15th and 16th centuries as the monarchy shifted from a polygamous to monogamous system. She explored the power wielded by queen mothers and regents. Christopher Baswell (Barnard College/Columbia University) drew attention to the pervasive, yet understudied, depictions of disabled and eccentric bodies in medieval images and texts. Examining a book of saints’ lives owned by a women’s convent, Baswell highlighted the female care communities that gather around such bodies.

The workshop underscored the rich range of women’s networks, and the many different ways we, as scholars, can study and represent them. Several presentations discussing women’s journeys for marriage or healing highlighted the need to consider women’s networks as mobile and mutable. Repeatedly the presentations and the ensuing discussions moved between considerations of women’s broad networks – factual relationships to other figures, ancestral and contemporary – and their intimate relations and experiences. We found that exploring political networks requires considering emotion, affection, embodiment, and materiality. It was often through material display that women’s familial and ancestral relations were celebrated and used to evoke awe. Many of the presentations highlighted the important role charisma played in representations of women’s networks, as medieval artists and writers sought to attach women to authoritative ancestors or to depict a particular group of women as collectively charismatic.

 

(17.07.2018)

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