In our latest ‘Meet the Researchers’ slot, resident art historian Laura talks source material, ‘women’s history’, and the space between power struggles.
You’re the art historian on the project, so what sort of questions are you asking of the source material?
The American painter Edward Hopper supposedly said: ‘If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint’. I think it’s always a useful starting point to ask: what can this image suggest, or explain, or reveal, that a textual document cannot? For my project on Queen Philippa, we can look at official records of her property transactions and her gifts to servants and petitioners. But there are very few surviving household accounts that tell us what the queen actually did all day, or what she enjoyed on a cultural and intellectual level. Looking at the manuscripts she owned can give us an insight into Philippa’s wider interests, and a window into her more ‘private’, devotional and emotional world. We can consider Philippa as a thinking and feeling human being, as well assessing her on a public and political level as a queen of England, a wealthy and powerful landowner and a member of a pan-European aristocratic elite. The images found in Philippa’s manuscripts are not simply ‘illustrations’, but a unique form of historical evidence.
The role of women in history had quite a renaissance in different historical disciplines a while back. Do you think this trend is continuing?
‘Women’s history’ (formerly put in inverted commas) may have been a new and fashionable historical subject in the seventies, and it clearly developed alongside what was seen then as new and radical feminist theories.
If you don’t think that women matter, then of course,
their histories won’t matter to you either.
But these histories (and many others), are still
there to be explored
Decades later, the study of women is firmly established across the different disciplines that make up the arts and humanities. We cannot understand the past if we are only studying a small subsection of its population. This doesn’t only apply to women, of course. And privilege still matters. Philippa might do many similar things to other aristocrats, but as a queen, she is exceptional even in an elite context. And her life was very, very different to the lives of the vast majority of medieval women.
So how do you investigate Philippa’s life?
Getting a more complete social picture of the past can be difficult due to the nature of the surviving source material. Philippa’s husband, Edward III, for example, seems to go around doing lots of things: signing letters, giving orders, waging war and travelling about.
This leads to a lot more paperwork in his name, and a lot more historical sources to investigate. Similarly, just as journalists today are much more interested writing about the prime minister than an ordinary person, the historical chroniclers of the time were also focussed on what the king, rather than the queen, was doing. This can leave the impression that the queen was not really doing much at all, beyond having babies and perhaps making the occasional ceremonial appearance at court, giving out gifts and favours. Philippa was certainly doing things, but the vast majority of these activities were enacted, recorded and accounted for in her husband’s name. The result is that the only activities we seem to see Philippa doing are those distinctively female activities (such as childbirth) that cannot be credited to anyone else. So studying women’s history is in part a matter of looking at all the available historical sources from a different perspective- asking not just ‘what happened?’ but ‘whose viewpoint are we seeing here?’ And there remains a political aspect to it. If you don’t think that women matter, then of course, their histories won’t matter to you either. But these histories (and many others) are still there to be explored and investigated, even if the evidence for them may sometimes be more fragmentary than we’d like.
How would you explain the MALMECC project to interested members of the general public?
I would say that the MALMECC project is about exploring the world of medieval European courts as a whole.
If we were thinking about ‘culture’ at court, and perhaps considering art, books and music in turn, before assessing the court as a political institution or social environment, as researchers we would be completely missing the point of ‘life at court’ in the Middle Ages and beyond, which is the interplay and interactions between all these different elements.
To take a later example. The fifth wife of Henry VIII of England, Catherine Howard, may have started a romance with Thomas Culpeper around 1540. They attended the same court functions, such as the May Day tournaments, or when she gave out gifts and favours on Maundy Thursday. And as Culpeper had been a gentleman of the Privy Chamber since 1537, in close personal attendance on the king, there were other opportunities for them to meet, and lots of plausible reasons for him to be passing in and out of the queen’s chamber, receiving letters from her, or dealing with her servants. So the social and cultural life of the Tudor court cannot be separated from the political upheavals and faction fights it fostered. And as Henry VIII aged, the fates of his friends, wives and ministers depended more and more on the king’s mood. If the king had been up late feasting the night before, and was now feeling tired and irritable, who knows what might happen? This is why court culture can matter so much- there is more to it than the space in between the power struggles.
What’s the most exciting thing about the project for you?
For me, the musical aspect of the project is particularly new and exciting. While I’m a very interdisciplinary medievalist, this is not an area I’ve engaged with before. It’s proving to be a very interesting learning curve! Because art historians usually view manuscripts and artefacts in the silence of a library reading room or museum collections room, I also think it can be too easy to ignore the sonic dimensions and performative aspects of these objects. MALMECC ensures that these elements are at the centre of our analysis.
The second exciting element of the MALMECC project is its transnationalism. It’s easy to focus on Philippa simply as ‘the queen of England’, but much more valuable to think of her as a transnational courtly figure. Philippa remained in close touch with her natal family, and her continuing links with the Low Countries were crucial to Edward III’s diplomatic efforts throughout the Hundred Years’ War. Philippa gave birth to two of her children in the Low Countries (Lionel of Antwerp and John of Gaunt, or Ghent) and travelled abroad regularly with her husband. Thinking about her cultural patronage from this transnational perspective is especially useful.
What are your interests outside of academia?
I enjoy yoga, going for walks in the countryside and now I’m getting more settled in Oxford, I’m hoping to start riding horses again.
Banner image from British Library – MS Royal 2 B VII, f.47v