Medieval Europe was inundated with strong rulers and dominant figures who made a difference in how the policies of certain countries were formed. We tend to focus on the male figures, from kings to lords and rebels, when we study medieval European history. Still, the women in their lives significantly influenced how their countries were governed. Although many women stood by the side of their husbands and didn’t make much of an impact on European history, some women chose to stand out from the crowd and make a name for themselves. Rebecca Holdorph has chosen to highlight a handful of these dynamic women throughout medieval Europe in her book, “Women in the Medieval Court: Consorts and Concubines.”
Thank you, Pen and Sword Books and Casemate Group, for sending me a copy of this book. I have seen quite a few people read this book, and since I am always interested in learning about new figures in medieval history, I knew I wanted to read this title.
To cover so many women over several centuries, Holdorph breaks her book down into four sections; noblewomen, consorts, reigning queens, and concubines. Each section starts with a cast of characters list, so the reader has a brief synopsis of each woman featured in the chapter. She then dives into the stories of the women in each section, showing how they were similar and how they differed in the roles that society gave them in life.
Holdorph covers many European countries from the 11th to the 15th century to give her audience a broad scope of what it meant to be a woman in power in medieval Europe. We are introduced to noblewomen like Anna Komnene, the author of the Alexiad, Marie of France, Alice de Lacy, and the Rose of Raby herself, Cecily Neville. While examining the lives of these noblewomen, Holdorph looks at how their public lives differed from their private lives. Next, she explores the lives of queen consorts, those who married a prince or a king and ruled beside their husbands; some of the women included in this chapter are Eleanor of Castile, Maria de Luna, Isabeau of Bavaria, and Margaret of Anjou. In this section, Holdorph explores how these women became queens and what the job of the queen consort meant for each woman.
The third section focuses on the women who were allowed, for a time, to rule their respective countries on their own; women like Urraca of Castile and Leon, Berenguela of Castile, and Margrete of Denmark. Holdorph explores how each queen came to power and how they ruled their kingdoms for a little bit. Finally, we are introduced to the mistresses of rulers, known in this book as concubines, who made an impact that ended up costing them their lives. The women featured in this section include Maria de Padilla, Alice Perrers, Katherine Swynford, and Agnes Sorel, to show what it meant to be a good mistress versus a bad mistress.
I enjoyed learning about new powerful women from European countries other than England and France during the medieval period. My one complaint is that I wish Holdorph would have written this book in chronological order. Since many of these stories in this book were relatively new to me, the jumping back and forth between centuries and stories added to my confusion. Holdorph would have made a more significant point if she had her miniature biographies in chronological order and then summarized her points at the end of each section.
Overall, I found this a decent book. Holdorph does have a passion for this subject of medieval queens, but I think there are some elements of this book that could be improved on to make it more understandable for her audience. Suppose you want a solid introduction to medieval European women who may be unfamiliar with many casual history fans. In that case, I recommend you read “Women in the Medieval Court: Consorts and Concubines” by Rebecca Holdorph.