Heather Tanner on Lordship and Governance by the Inheriting Countesses of Boulogne 1160-1260

If you go by  Lena Dunham’s Birdy and Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s The Last Duel, most folks view the medieval woman as a poster child of oppression– forced to marry at a very young age, never allowed a voice or self-determination, and certainly forbidden to govern. Scholars of medieval history agree that misogyny and patriarchy circumscribed women’s lives. Despite this, there’s a strong consensus that elite women, noble and royal, did wield power in the early medieval period (c. 500 – c. 1000), but that their high medieval (c. 1000-c. 1300) counterparts were effectively silenced and effaced from governance by institutional and legal changes by the thirteenth century. But were they?

This project was inspired by the thirteenth-century Roman de Silence about a noble heiress, raised as a boy because the bad king Ewan forbade women from inheriting, who became the greatest knight and jongleur in England and France. I was intrigued not only by the plot but also that it was written in the Picard dialect, as Picardy and its northern neighbours had a series of women who inherited counties and other lordships. I was struck by the author’s use of gender imagery in exploring the nature of lordship. Turning from fiction to the historical sources, I began my study of inheriting countesses in northern France of the mid-twelfth to mid-thirteenth century. I focused on the county of Boulogne and the neighboring counties of Flanders, Ponthieu, and Vermandois (a.k.a Picardy and Flanders, home of the hero(ine) Silence). 

What I found was that countesses governed with full authority and power within their inherited lands. As lords, they confirmed grants, presided over law courts, swore homage, provided military service, collected taxes and tolls, and oversaw municipalities. They acted alone and in partnership with their husbands. These countesses’ husbands could govern in their wives’ lands but needed to do so with the acknowledged and explicit consent of the countess who was the legitimate/legal lord of the lands. In the counts’ inherited lands, their wives governed in their absence but were included in their husbands’ acts primarily when it enhanced dynastic goals.  

In the politics of the realm and between kingdoms, elite women intervened, as diplomats and gatherers of intelligence, but were not portrayed by the medieval chroniclers as the main players. The growth of bureaucracy, at least in northern France, had no discernable effect on women’s exercise of power. The extension of royal power circumscribed all noble lordship, but not significantly more so for female lords into the mid-thirteenth century. While the legal concept of coverture (when a wife’s legal ability was assumed by her husband) was known in France in the late twelfth century, it was not routinely invoked or enforced until the later thirteenth-century. Married women therefore did not lose their legal agency or power.

Like their elite male contemporaries, noblewomen drew upon networks of kin and family to maintain and enhance their authority and exercise of power. These indirect sources of power, often gendered female but routinely used by medieval men, derived from familial ties—natal and marital. Through patronage of monastic houses and artists, countesses commemorated their family status, honour, and renown and enhanced their influence. The use of seals, coins, and heraldry promoted and proudly displayed their lineage. Intercession fostered cooperation among those under the countesses’ rule as well as with neighboring elite. Elite women’s literary, artistic, and religious patronage contributed to their family’s status through commemorative donations and performative largesse, courtoisie, and piety. Although these activities are usually considered private, women’s patronage of art and material objects also served political goals. The countesses of Boulogne fostered the family’s reputation as deeply pious, successful crusaders, and illustrious descendants of Charlemagne. We can see this in the statues, gisants (recumbent figures on tombs), stained glass, seals, coins, castles, and literature that they commissioned.

As I pursued this research, I was fascinated to find that noble men and women used the same means of lordship and governance. Women did not just wield indirect power or influence in the central Middle Ages. While men were privileged – they were considered the superior in the lordly couple, expected holders of public office – medieval people valued family and social hierarchy above gender. As a result, women inherited property and office (ladyship, countship, queenship) and they governed directly and with their spouses. Gender expectations gave a greater role to count-consorts than to countess-consorts, and circumscribed expressions of lordly anger and arrogance. But no one was surprised or outraged by elite women ruling their own lands or serving as regent-guardian of their husbands’ (or children’s) lands.

My hope is that this book encourages other medieval scholars to see if similar patterns of lordship and governance emerge in the high and late medieval regions they study. Even more broadly, I hope this work continues the efforts of my colleagues and myself to change the master narrative of medieval political history – where women’s roles are routinely examined, included, and taught as part of power and governance. 

Available now!

Browse By Month