Today’s popular myths suggest that Joan of Arc was unique among medieval women for leading armies. In truth, however, she is just one example of many female military leaders throughout the medieval era. Dr. Katrin Sjursen, assistant professor of historical studies at SIUE, is currently preparing a book that reevaluates the prevalence and duties of female lords in medieval France who were entrusted with crucial military responsibilities.
When Sjursen began exploring sources for her dissertation, she, like many history scholars, expected to find few examples of women in medieval France conducting warfare. Instead, she was amazed to find that at least 40 women in a 300-year period were involved in conducting military procedures in France’s northern region. A prevalent theory for why so many medieval female lords’ military contributions have been downplayed over the ages points to the gradual increase of power in the Roman Catholic Church. This claim, Sjursen said, is often traced to an influential premise by historian Megan McLaughlin. Dr. McLaughlin’s argument asserts that by the 11th century, criticism of women conducting warfare became so pervasive that it eventually led to the end of such activities in the 14th and 15th centuries.
McLaughlin believed that as the power of the Roman Catholic Church increased, it pressured women out of power with misogynistic reforms that decreased noble sovereignty and favored the oldest male children as primary royal and noble heirs.
Sjursen, however, points out the importance of context when interpreting history through medieval writers. McLaughlin, she said, looked only at chronicles, narratives concerned with convincing readers of what the author believed to be a greater truth, such as the importance of spiritual matters. “Thus,” Sjursen said, “she could only get at what medieval writers thought about these women rather than at what the women actually did.” These chronicles, she said, “chose whether to castigate or approve individual women based on the chroniclers’ own political position.” Dissatisfied with the subjective nature of these sources, Sjursen also examined the documents left behind by some of these female noble leaders, such as letters, charters, treaties and financial accounts, as well as annals, short written entries that only recorded changes of power, major war or unusual weather. These records, unlike chronicles, she said, “don’t castigate women commanders because they don’t castigate or approve anyone; there’s no space, and that’s not their purpose.”
According to Sjursen, there are additional ways in which recent scholarship has inaccurately depicted medieval women’s military lordships. Some historians, she said, have neglected the topic in pursuit of some other scholarly agenda, while others deny that female lords participated in warfare at all. In some instances, she said, selective uses of terminology have deprived women of their historical importance. For example, the adoption of a term such as “regent” to describe a medieval woman ruler implies a number of inaccuracies, such as the deferment of power to another male figure. In many instances, Sjursen said, using the word “ruler” instead would prove more accurate.
In her manuscript, Sjursen focuses on figures such as Blanche of Navarre, the Countess of Champagne, who is often mentioned as the regent to her son, Count Theobald IV of Champagne, but whom Sjursen instead refers to as a co-ruler. “While she was serving as Countess, charters were written to her by name, while her son was unnamed,” she said. “When she retired in 1222, her son still consulted with her on numerous occasions.” And at times during her retirement, King Louis IX and his mother Blanche of Castile preferred to deal with Theobald’s mother rather than him. Then there is the Empress Matilda, who fought for her right to inherit her father’s realm of England, which at that time also included parts of northern France. “Chronicles rarely reveal participation beyond isolated incidents of bravery, and modern studies rarely venture beyond these sources,” Sjursen said. “Her charters reveal how she managed the resources at her disposal to wage war and thereby demonstrate a much broader degree of women’s participation.”
Sjursen, through her exploration of medieval women rulers, and through an unprecendented number of primary texts, strives to bring us closer to a new, more empowered view of women’s history and their roles in the political and military cultures of their time. As a result, her project promises to bring its readers closer to people and events that would otherwise remain misunderstood.