Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Marcella of Rome: Pious Noblewoman, Nun, and Saint

Marcella of Rome (feast day, 31 January)

Born into fashionable Roman society in 325, Marcella devoted herself to a life of chastity, prayer, and service when her young husband died just seven months after their marriage. (Most of what we know about Marcella comes from Jerome, whose letter to Principia, on the occasion of Marcella's death, gives a fairly detailed account of her life.)

On her unusual dedication--for a woman--to crafting and living a monastic life, Jerome writes, "In those days no highborn lady at Rome had made profession of the monastic life, or had ventured--so strange and ignominious and degrading did it then seem--publicly to call herself a nun. . . . Nor was she ashamed to profess a life which she had thus learned to be pleasing to Christ."

After his arrival in Rome, Jerome was not much interested in meeting with, or in teaching, Marcella. But, he explains, 
she pleaded so earnestly, both in season and out of season . . . as the apostle says, that at last her perseverance overcame my reluctance. And, as in those days my name was held in some renown as that of a student of the scriptures, she never came to see me that she did not ask me some question concerning them, nor would she at once acquiesce in my explanations but on the contrary would dispute them; not, however, for argument's sake but to learn the answers to those objections which might, as she saw, be made to my statements. How much virtue and ability, how much holiness and purity I found in her I am afraid to say; both lest I may exceed the bounds of men's belief and lest I may increase your sorrow by reminding you of the blessings that you have lost. This much only will I say, that whatever in me was the fruit of long study and as such made by constant meditation a part of my nature, this she tasted, this she learned and made her own.
Jerome narrates the circumstances of Marcella's death in 410, during the invasion of Alaric the Goth, to Principia (I'm not quite sure why, because Principia herself was there--maybe because Jerome thought his second-hand account was superior to a woman's eyewitness knowledge of events?):
Meantime, as was natural in a scene of such confusion, one of the bloodstained victors found his way into Marcella's house. Now be it mine to say what I have heard, to relate what holy men have seen; for there were some such present and they say that you too were with her in the hour of danger. When the soldiers entered she is said to have received them without any look of alarm; and when they asked her for gold she pointed to her coarse dress to show them that she had no buried treasure. However they would not believe in her self-chosen poverty, but scourged her and beat her with cudgels. She is said to have felt no pain but to have thrown herself at their feet and to have pleaded with tears for you, that you might not be taken from her, or owing to your youth have to endure what she as an old woman had no occasion to fear. Christ softened their hard hearts and even among bloodstained swords natural affection asserted its rights. The barbarians conveyed both you and her to the basilica of the apostle Paul, that you might find there either a place of safety or, if not that, at least a tomb.
Hereupon Marcella is said to have burst into great joy and to have thanked God for having kept you unharmed in answer to her prayer. She said she was thankful too that the taking of the city had found her poor, not made her so, that she was no[t] in want of daily bread, that Christ satisfied her needs so that she no longer felt hunger, that she was able to say in word and in deed: naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there: the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;blessed be the name of the Lord.
After a few days she fell asleep in the Lord; but to the last her powers remained unimpaired. You she made the heir of her poverty, or rather the poor through you. When she closed her eyes, it was in your arms; when she breathed her last breath, your lips received it; you shed tears but she smiled conscious of having led a good life and hoping for her reward hereafter.
If she were born in 325, Marcella would have been in her mid-eighties when she died.

A highly romanticized image of Marcella of Rome's
confrontation with the Goths

Friday, January 30, 2015

Barbara Tuchman, Pulitzer-Winning Historian

Barbara Tuchman (born 30 January 1912)

Historian Barbara Tuchman won the Pulitzer prize twice, first for The Guns of August (1963), which focussed on the first month of World War I, and then again in 1972 for Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911–45. Given the centenary of the first world war, The Guns of August is a timely read. And, in our current time of ongoing, endless war-making, you might consider The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984), recently reissued in a new paperback edition.

Barbara Tuchman in 1984
My favorite Tuchman history remains A Distant Mirror: Life in the Calamitous Fourteenth Century (1978). The central metaphor, of the mirror, is the way Tuchman develops her argument that the wars, plagues, climate upsets, religious conflicts, and social tensions of the late fourteenth century are reflected in those of the late twentieth (or the early twenty-first, for that matter).

If you are a reader of medieval and Renaissance historical fiction, you will love Tuchman's book (the paperback edition won the National Book Award for History in 1980)--Tuchman is not writing a scholarly history for academic readers. She writes to be read widely and enjoyed—without sacrificing thorough knowledge and careful research.

Tuchman died in 1989.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Germaine Greer, Feminist Icon

Germaine Greer (born 29 January 1939)

Today is the birthday of irrepressible feminist powerhouse Germaine Greer. Greer's The Female Eunuch, published in 1970, contributed significantly to the Second Wave feminist movement and remains a crucial work for women today--not least for Greer's claim that women have no idea how much men hate them because women have been taught so effectively to hate themselves.

"Women have very little idea of how much men hate them," she begins in a section of the book labelled "Loathing and Disgust." She continues, "Men do not themselves know the depth of their hatred," and her analysis of street harassment, domestic violence, and sexual assault sounds as if it was written yesterday instead of more than forty years ago. It's important to note that Greer does not let women off the hook for their ignorance, self-loathing, and complicity. If you haven't read it--or if you haven't read it in a while--now is the time

Greer's The Obstacle Race: The Fortune of Women Painters and Their Work (1979) is a crucial treatment of the difficulties women artists have faced throughout history--it is a source I've relied on quite frequently here in my postings on women artists. And I particularly like Greer's 2007 biography of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's Wife. From the introduction: 
Until our own time, history focussed on man the achiever; the higher the achiever the more likely it was that the woman who slept in his bed would be judged unworthy of his company. Her husband's fans recoiled from the notion that she might have made a significant contribution towards his achievement of greatness. 
She continues, "No one has ever undertaken a systematic review" of the life of Anne Hathaway--or her potential contributions to Shakespeare's life and work--"while every opportunity to caricature and revile her has been exploited to risible lengths." (For more on Anne Hathaway, click here.)

And here is from Greer's 2013 CNN essay, "Guilt Poisons Women":
Women live lives of continual apology. They are born and raised to take the blame for other people's behavior. If they are treated without respect, they tell themselves that they have failed to earn respect. If their husbands do not fancy them, it is because they are unattractive. Dirt and disorder in the family home is their fault, though they created none of it.
For Greer and her significance, "What Germain Greer and The Female Eunuch Mean to Me," here is an assessment offered by "six influential feminists" on the occasion of her seventy-fifty birthday in 2014.

Greer in 1970,
just after the publication of The Female Eunuch

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Zora Neale Hurston: Her Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston (died 28 January 1960)

By the time of her death, much of Zora Neale Hurston's work had been forgotten, including her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). In 1973, the novelist Alice Walker went in search of Hurston's grave; Walker's 1975 article, "Looking for Zora," published in the March 1975 issue of Ms., triggered a a new wave of interest in Hurston and her work.

Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891, the family relocating to Florida when she was a small child. As a young woman, she attended Howard University before transferring to Barnard College. During her time in New York, she became an important part of the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1929, she returned to Florida where she continued her writing and also undertook anthropological field research. With support from the Guggenheim Foundation, she expanded her work into Jamaica and Haiti in the 1930; in the 40s she was doing fieldwork in Honduras.

Zora Neale Hurston,
c. 1935-43
Hurston's life is complicated, her literary output notable, her political and anthropological work significant. There are so many online sites, biographies, and new editions of her books that I'll just link you to the homepage of the Zora Neale Hurston Trust, and you can take it from there . . .

(It's not easy to find Alice Walker's 1975 article, originally published in Ms., or at least it's not easy to find it online, but, for the moment, it's available here.)

Update, 28 January 2023: In January 2023, the PBS series, American Experience, broadcast a new documentary, Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space. For more information, including a biography, several articles, and digital shorts, click here. (An earlier PBS documentary, Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun, was included in the American Masters series.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Nellie Bly, a Groundbreaking Investigative Journalist

Elizabeth Jane Cochran ("Nellie Bly"), investigative reporter (died 27 January 1922)

Over the course of my long teaching career, I had many women students in my classes who were preparing themselves for a career in journalism. Few of them knew about any of their predecessors--not Nancy Dickerson or Nancy Maynard, much less Ida B. Wells or Margaret Fuller. Even fewer had ever heard the name of Nellie Bly.

Nellie Bly,
c. 1890
Born in 1864, Elizabeth Jane Cochrane first wrote for the Pittsburgh Dispatch. Her series of articles on the plight of female factory workers led her to New York--and an undercover investigative assignment in a "woman's lunatic asylum" for the New York World. She published a book recounting this harrowing experience, Ten Days in a Mad-House (1887).

Bly's next and most famous exploit was also undertaken for the tabloid, her seventy-two-day around-the-world trip inspired by Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. She left New York on 14 November 1889 and landed in San Francisco on 21 January 1890. She published Around the World in Seventy-Two Days (1890) shortly after her return.

She retired from journalism when she married in 1895. After the death of her husband, in 1904, Bly returned to reporting, covering the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913 and covering World War I while on the Eastern Front.

For a brief essay on Bly from the National Women's History Museum, click here. There are many biographies, but you might start with Sue Macy's Bylines: A Photobiography of Nellie Bly (with a foreward by Linda Ellerbee, herself a noteworthy model of journalistic accomplishment).

There is also a PBS documentary, Around the World in 72 Days, filmed as part of the American Experience series. This used to be freely available for viewing at the PBS website, but now you seem to need a subscription to view it--the video is posted on YouTube, however (probably illegally), although you should be able to find it there  if you are persistent).

Monday, January 26, 2015

Angela Davis: Activist, Academic, Author

Angela Davis (born 26 January 1944)

Angela Davis in an iconic 1969 photo

Today is the birthday of Angela Davis, political activist, university professor, advocate for prison reform, lecturer, and cultural critic. Angela Davis has retired from her teaching position at the University of California, Santa Cruz, but she continues her efforts to reform what she has identified as the “prison industrial complex.” 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Anne of Brittany: Twice Queen of France--But Always a Duchess

Anne of Brittany (born 25 January 1477)

Throughout history, many royal women accrued multiple titles by marriage--a rare few, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, to name perhaps the most famous example, achieved the highest possible status through serial marriages.* Eleanor was, first, queen of France--but after fifteen years, her marriage to Louis VII of France was annulled. Eleanor then married Henry II of England, becoming, second, queen of England. But no woman--or at least no woman I know of--had quite the same marital career as Anne of Brittany, who was queen of of France twice.

Anne of Brittany,
c. 1503-1508
The daughter of Francis II of Brittany, Anne became the duchess of Brittany, an independent duchy, in her own right after her father's death in 1488. Although her father had ensured Anne's succession by having her right recognized by the Estates of Brittany, his death resulted in a political crisis.

Three three powerful men sought to control Brittany by means of marriage to the new duchess: the French duke of Orléans (who was already married--but, oh well); Alain d'Albret, duke of Guyenne; and Maximilian of Austria, newly elected king of the Romans.

Although her father had been forced to agree that his daughter could not marry without approval of the French king, Anne acted without consulting France. Because an alliance with the Habsburg duke seemed to offer continued independence for Brittany, the young duchess married Maximilian by proxy in 1490.

But that was not the end of the matter. Anne of France, the powerful regent of France, pursued her own kind of "alliance" with Brittany; her army invaded, captured Nantes, then laid siege to Rennes, where Anne of Brittany had retreated. Although the young duchess could have abandoned Brittany and joined her husband Maximilian, she decided to instead to marry Anne of France's brother, Charles VIII, the king of France.

Under the circumstances, she did the best she could for Brittany. By the terms of the marriage contract, if Anne died before Charles, the province would become part of France; if Charles died first, Brittany would be returned to her to rule. But the contract did contain a clause that limited Anne's options: if Charles were to die without a male heir, Anne of Brittany was to required to "marry his successor and remit to him her duchy."

(This marriage, of Charles VIII to Anne of Brittany, is the reason that Margaret of Austriala petite reine, to whom Charles had been betrothed since 1483, was sent back home, her political usefulness no longer so useful.) 

Although Anne gave birth to four children during her marriage to Charles, including three boys, none of them survived. When Charles died in 1498, Anne was still only twenty-one years old. By the terms of her marriage contract, she was to marry his successor--but that was her old adversary and suitor, Louis of Orléans, now Louis XII. And he, unfortunately, was still married--to Jeanne of France, sister of the dead Charles VIII and of the formidable Anne of France. 

Despite all the complications, the twenty-two-year-long marriage of Louis XII and Jeanne of France was declared void on 17 December 1498--on the grounds of non-consummation. (Louis "rewarded" Jeanne with the gift of the title duchess of Berry; she earned a more enduring title for herself, Saint Jeanne of Valois, establishing a new religious order, the Order of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She died in 1505, her cause of canonization beginning in 1631. She was beatified in 1742 and canonized in 1950.)

Jan Mostaert's portrait of a lady,
"possibly" Anne of Brittany,
painted c. 1520
While Louis disentangled himself from his first wife, Anne returned to Brittany, where she was warmly welcomed. She convened the Estates, toured the duchy, and determined to regain political control. The terms of her marriage contract in 1498 were better than those of the 1491 contract; if her marriage to Louis failed to produce an heir for Brittany, the duchy was to pass to her Breton heirs.

Anne of Brittany became queen of France--for the second time--on 8 January 1499 when she married Louis. Over the next twelve years, she gave birth to six children, including four boys. Only two daughters survived, Claude (b. 1499) and Renée (b. 1510). 

Anne of Brittany died on 9 January 1514, just a few days short of her thirty-seventh birthday. Over the course of her life, she had been twice queen of France and, briefly, queen of Sicily and titular queen of Jerusalem. (Charles VIII had invaded Italy and claimed these titles in 1494.)

But she would be the last independent ruler of Brittany; despite Anne's lifetime of effort, neither of her daughters would inherit an independent Brittany, much less govern there. 

Realizing he would have no male heir, Louis arranged a marriage between his elder daughter, Claude, and the man who would inherit the French throne, Francis of Angoulême. Still trying to maintain Brittany's independence, Anne attempted to make sure her younger daughter, Renée, would become duchess of Brittany. She was not successful. After Anne's death, Claude became queen of France and duchess of a no-longer independent Brittany. Anne's younger daughter, Renée, married Ercole d'Este, duke of Ferrarra.

Anne of Brittany's daughter, Claude,
surrounded by her daughters--
and her husband's second wife

The above portrait was commissioned by Catherine de' Medici in 1550 and is included in her book of hours. Although there are doubts about the identity of the sitters, many believe that the central figure is Anne of Brittany's elder daughter, Claude, queen of France. Claude's daughter, Madeleine of France (b. 1520), on the top right, became queen of Scotland, very briefly, in 1537 (she died just six months after her marriage). There is some doubt about the small figure at the bottom right, below Madeleine--although it may be Claude's daughter Louise, who died at age two (in 1517), there is a more general agreement that this figure represents Claude's younger sister, Renée. The figure opposite, Charlotte, is Claude's daughter who died at age eight (in 1524). Claude's daughter Marguerite (b. 1523), above Charlotte, never knew her mother, who died just months after her birth. She was named duchess of Berry in her own right in 1550. She was married, at age thirty-six, to Emmanuel Philibert, duke of Savoy. The final figure, Eleanor of Austria, became the second wife of Francis I, marrying him in 1530. Interestingly, she was also a two-time queen, first of Portugal, then of France. After Francis I died, she got to retire. But that's another story . . .

*This post has been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).

Update: Thanks to Rozsa Gaston for the comment about the 1520 portrait I have used, above, for Anne of Brittany, by Jan Mostaert. The sitter is unknown--the portrait is "of a lady," with the further note, "possibly Anne of Brittany." The image is on Wikimedia Commons with this information: "Owned by the Collections of the Czartoryski Princes in Gołuchów (Division of the National Museum in Poznań), lost 1941." However, the portrait was auctioned by Sotheby's in 2001

About the history of the painting, the list of "Wartime Losses, Foreign Painting: Oil Paintings, Pastels, Watercolours Lost Between 1939-1945," prepared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Poland, notes that this painting was not simply "lost" in 1941 but looted from the "Collections of the Czartoryski Princes in Gołuchów." About the Mostaert painting, the registration notes: "In 1997 the painting was offered for sale by Sotheby's in New York. The Polish authorities intervened and the auction house withdrew it from sale. The owner’s heir filed a judicial claim to obtain its return. The proceedings dragged on, so the parties to the dispute opted for a settlement under which they jointly sold the painting. Now in a private collection." 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Edith Wharton, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Edith Wharton (born 24 January 1862)

Born to wealth and privilege, Edith Jones married Edward Wharton in 1885. The first years of their marriage were spent with the kind of social engagements and travel that filled the lives of the men and women of their class, though the travel ended after Edward Wharton began to manifest signs of mental disorders. Wharton divorced her husband in 1913. After her divorce, Edith Wharton moved to France, where she lived until her death there in 1937.

Edith Wharton,
photograph from c. 1889-90
Many of Wharton's early novels and stories, including The House of Mirth (1905) and Ethan Frome (1911), were written at The Mount, the large country house she designed and built and where she lived from 1902 to 1911. In addition to her fiction, Wharton was interested in and wrote about French and Italian architecture, landscape architecture, and design--her first book, in fact, was not a work of fiction but a manual of interior design, The Decoration of Houses (co-authored with architect Ogden Cogman), published in 1897: "arguably the most influential book ever published by an American on interior decoration and design." (For this quotation and on Wharton's less-well-known contributions to American art and design, see Julie Lasky's "Appreciating Edith Wharton's Other Career.")

But it is as a novelist that Wharton is most well-remembered today. From The Touchstone (1900) to The Buccaneers (1938), Wharton published twenty-one novels (a final novel, also published in 1938, was actually Wharton's first, written in the late 1870s) and thirteen short-story collections. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature three times: in 1927 (by a group of seven Yale professors), in 1928 (by William L. Phelps, one of those Yale professors), and again in 1930 (this time by Tor Hedberg, a member of the Swedish Academy). 

While she may not have won the Nobel, Wharton did become the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Literature, in 1921, for The Age of Innocence.

In addition to her design work and her writing, Wharton devoted herself to a variety of charitable endeavors, particularly in aid of refugees, while she was in France during WWI. This work is briefly summarized in her New York Times obituary:
When the World War broke out she was in Paris and she plunged at once into relief work, opening a room for skilled women of the quarter where she lived who were thrown out of employment by the closing of workrooms. She also fed and housed 600 Belgian refugee orphans. In recognition France awarded her the Cross of the Legion of Honor and Belgium made her a Chevalier of the Order of Leopold. Meanwhile she wrote stories and articles on the war. . . .
Wharton's wartime magazine articles, originally printed in Scribner's Magazine, were published in 1918 as Fighting France: From Dunkirk to Belfort.

The Mount,
photo by David Dashiell, 2006

The movies and TV miniseries made from Wharton's novels are fun, but why not read the books if you haven't yet? Many of Wharton's novels and short-story collections are available through Project Gutenberg; to access them, click here. (There are free Kindle versions as well.) There are several good biographies--you might like Hermione Lee's recent Edith Wharton or Shari Benstock's older, but still excellent, No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Margaret of Bavaria: Defending Burgundy for Her Husband and Son

Margaret of Bavaria (died 23 January 1424)

Born in 1363 and married in 1385, Margaret of Bavaria was regent of Burgundy twice, first ruling the on behalf of her husband, John "the Fearless" (John II, duke of Burgundy), and then for her son, the equally well-named Philip "the Good" (Philip III, duke of Burgundy).

Margaret's first period of regency extended from 1405 to 1419, while her husband was repeatedly away at war in France and returning to Burgundy only for brief periods. Although historian Richard Vaughan notes that Margaret "was never formally appointed John's lieutenant or governor in Burgundy," he concludes that it "must have been John the Fearless's intention, from the early years of his reign, to make use of his wife . . . in the government of his territories." Margaret's responsibilities in her husband's absence included the administration of the Burgundy and its (successful) military defense.

When John II was assassinated in 1419, Margaret's son Philip became duke of Burgundy. While he continued the fight in France, Margaret of Bavaria once again acted as regent; her second regency extended from 1419 until  her death in 1424. Although Burgundy had a capable council--and a president of that council--to act on the duke's behalf, Philip III turned to his mother when he left the duchy: "a single person with wide powers and responsibilities, particularly in military affairs, normally acted as [Burgundy's] head in the early part of Philip's reign. The dowager duchess, Margaret of Bavaria, fulfilled this role until her death. . . ."

Tomb of Margaret of Bavaria,
Dijon, Museum of Beaux-Arts
There is no full-length biography of Margaret of Bavaria, but there is a chapter on her regency, "Burgundy under Margaret of Bavaria," in Richard Vaughan's John the Fearless: The Growth of Burgundian Power. His Philip the Good: The Apogee of Burgundy adds a few details to her story.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Roe v. Wade Decision: A Woman's Choice

Roe v. Wade (decision issued, 22 January 1973)

Forty-two years ago today, seven members of the U.S. Supreme Court granted women some measure of control over their own bodies when it issued its decision in Roe v. Wade.

Forty-two years later, women's freedom and autonomy is still being attacked and undermined, their right to make their own medical decisions, their right to privacy, their right to bodily integrity, and even, depending on the situation, their right to life denied, threatened, and dismissed.

If you have any questions, doubts, or qualms, I recommend Katha Pollitt's Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights.

Update, 24 June 2022: Well, it's all over now. It was fun being a fully autonomous human being while it lasted.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Agnes of Rome: Saint and Martyr

Agnes of Rome (martyred 21 January 304)

Born about the year 291 in Rome, Agnes is revered as a saint and martyr. The date of her martyrdom is conventionally given as 21 January 304.

The tomb of Saint Agnes,
Chiesa Sant'Agnese fuori la mura, Rome
According to tradition, Agnes of Rome lived at the time of the Emperor Diocletian. Dedicating herself to chastity and refusing all suitors, Agnes was arrested and condemned after one of the disappointed young men she rejected reported her to Roman authorities. 

Accounts of her life and martyrdom vary: she may have been dragged naked through the streets or  forced into a brothel as ways of humiliating her for her dedication to virginity. Men who tried to rape her went blind, or they were struck dead--whether blind or dead, they were restored to life after her prayers.  

Once she had been sentenced, Agnes was led to a stake to be burned, but the wood refused to burn. Ultimately, an executioner drew his blade, either beheading her or stabbing her in the throat--again, stories differ. 

Today, you can visit the tomb of St. Agnes at the church of Saint Agnes Outside the Wall (Chiesa Sant'Agnese fuori la mura). A second shrine, preserving her skull, is in the church of St. Agnes in Agony (Sant'Agnese in Agone) in Rome's Piazza Navona. 

Sant'Agnese in Agone,
Piazza Navone, Rome

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Etta James, Queen of the Blues

Etta James (died 20 January 2012)

The great R&B singer Etta James was five days short of her seventy-fourth birthday when she died after a career that spanned nearly sixty years. (She recorded "Dance with Me, Eddy" in 1954.)

So, haul out the vinyl, stack up the CDs, or queue up your MP3s and remember Etta James today: "All I Could Do Was Cry," "Tell Mama," "I'd Rather Go Blind," "Love's Been Rough on Me," "Sugar on the Floor." And "At Last" will always belong to Etta.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Isabel of Austria: A Promising Queen Who Did Not Live Long Enough to Fulfill Her Promise

Isabel of Austria, queen and regent of Denmark (died 19 January 1526)

The daughter of Juana of Castile and Philip of Burgundy, Isabel of Austria lived a life quite different from that of her youngest sister Catherine of Spain, who was confined with her powerless mother in the convent of Tordesillas, as we have seen.* By contrast, Isabel was one of the Habsburg children raised in the Netherlands by the formidable regent, Margaret of Austria

Margaret of Austria was to arrange the marriages of her many Habsburg nieces to advance the empire's political strategies, Isabel's among them. In July of 1514, just a few days before her thirteenth birthday, the young Isabel was married by proxy to Christian II, king of Denmark and Norway, twenty-two years her senior, who had a rather frightening reputation as the "Nero of the North." 

Because of her youth, Isabel remained in the Netherlands for another year, finally arriving in Copenhagen in August 1515 to begin her married life as queen of Denmark. Upon her arrival, however, she found that the Danish king's court was dominated by his long-time mistress, Dyveke Sigbritsdatter, and her mother, Siegebritte Willems, who was the king's closest advisor--one historian has called Willems "the real ruler of Scandinavia."

Isabel of Austria, c. 1515
Isabel's awkward and isolated situation was a source of conflict between the Habsburg emperor Maximilian and Christian. Isabel's situation improved after Sigbritsdatter's death in 1517; Willems remained at court, however, and Isabel's first child, a son born in 1518, was placed in her care.

But by 1520, while her husband was in Sweden (Christian II was briefly king of Sweden), Isabel was able to act as regent, governing Denmark and Norway on his behalf. In 1523, Christian's Danish subjects rebelled, and he was deposed. Isabel fled to Mechelen with her husband, taking refuge there with Margaret of Austria. She died in 1526, not yet twenty-five years old.

Margaret of Austria refused to let Christian leave Mechelen with his children, his son and heir John, and two daughters, Dorothea and Christina. She "bought" them by offering him a yearly payment and kept them with her, influencing yet another generation of Habsburg heirs.

Isabel's two daughters would both become claimants to the throne of Denmark. Dorothea of Denmark would marry Frederick II of the Palatinate in 1535. Christina of Denmark was married first and briefly to Francesco Sforza, duke of Milan; after his death, she married Francis, duke of Bar and Lorraine in 1541. When Francis died in 1545, she was regent of Lorraine until 1552, when Lorraine was invaded by France, and she was forced to flee for her safety.

There is no full-length biography of Isabel of Austria. The best information comes from Jane de Iongh's Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, trans. M. D. Herter Norton (1953).

*This post has been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Isabella Jagiellon: A Queen Who Pursued Peace and Toleration

Isabella Jagiellon, queen of Hungary (born 18 January 1519)

Born in the same year as Catherine de' Medici, Isabella Jagellion, a Polish princess, was raised in Cracow, where she received an excellent education that included the study of Polish, Italian, Latin, and, as is evident from her life, a training in politics that she would need and that she would put to good use.*

Isabella Jagiellon, c. 1550
In 1539 Isabella Jagellion was married to the fifty-two-year-old king of Hungary, John Zápolya, who, like Isabella's father, was resisting the eastward expansion of the Holy Roman Empire. Zápolya had recently concluded a ten-year war with the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand I, the terms of which divided Hungary.

(In 1515, Ferdinand, then duke of Austria, had married the Jagiellon princess Anna, the older sister of King Louis II of Hungary and Bohemia. When Louis died, Ferdinand thought he should claim the kingdoms through the right of his wife.)

Under the terms of the treaty of Varda, the western section of Hungary was joined to the empire, with Ferdinand recognized as king of Hungary; the eastern portion was granted to Zápolya, recognized as king of Transylvania. If he died without an heir, Transylvania would become part of the empire.

But John Zápolya did not die without an heir. A year after his marriage to Isabella, she gave birth to a son, John Sigismund. After the child's birth, Zápolya formally rejected the treaty he had made with Ferdinand. Two weeks later he died, naming his wife as queen regent for his newborn son. In historian Roland Bainton's words, "Isabella took up the campaign for the infant." 

On hearing the news of Zápolya's death, Isabella's father, the Polish king, Sigismund I, sent a letter of advice to his daughter. "Do not allow yourself to be crushed by grief," he wrote. "The course of prudence is that reason should rule the emotions. It becomes a prince to bear with composure that which cannot be altered. To succumb to immoderate weeping is to contest the will of God, whose judgments are a great abyss." 

Isabella's mother, Bona Sforza, wrote as well, and she too advised Isabella not "to be mired in grief." "After the sorrow of the night comes the joy of the morning," she reminded her daughter.

Isabella seems to have followed her parents' advice about overcoming her grief, but during the course of the next few years, she faced a great deal of political turmoil. Immediately after her husband's death, one of the guardians he had named for his son usurped Isabella's authority, but by 1542 the Estates of Transylvania "confirmed Isabella as queen regent and recognized Sigismund as their prince." When the emperor laid siege to the castle of Olah where Isabella was residing, relief came to her from the Turkish sultan.

Suleiman I (the Great) with Isabella Jagiellon and her son
 John Sigismund, an image from c. 1550
After breaking the siege, the sultan asked to see Isabella's son. As recorded in a contemporary chronicle, "She was frightened and suggested to her advisers that she go alone with presents, or, if this would not do, that she take the boy."

Her advisers recommended that she should send her son to the sultan, as he had asked. Despite Isabella's concerns, the sultan returned the boy to her unharmed: "The queen thanked the Sultan for returning her son, begged to be taken under his protection, promised not to remarry and sent a present to his daughter." The sultan, for his part, "promised to do his best" for Isabella.

For the next five years, as David Daniel indicates, there was an "endemic triangular contest for hegemony" between the the Habsburg empire, the Turks, and Isabella.

But in 1547 the emperor and the sultan signed a truce, and Isabella was forced to retire with her son to the territory of Opole, assigned to her by the emperor. Isabella refused to give up; instead, she "began to prepare the way for a return to Transylvania," negotiating with the Turks and with opponents of the Habsburgs.

By 1555, she had "established a residence on the Polish-Hungary border"; by 1556, the Estates had "reaffirmed her sixteen-year-old son as their prince." The Habsburgs, Daniel notes, "did not regain control of Transylvania until the end of the eighteenth century."

From 1556 until her death on 20 September 1559, Isabella ruled as queen regent for her son, "actively" governing Transylvania. Like Catherine de' Medici, she extended a measure of religious toleration to her subjects, viewing this as a necessary concession to bring peace to the kingdom and strengthen her political influence and security.

Through her edict of 1558 she became, as Bainton notes, "the first ruler to issue an edict of universal toleration." Like Catherine de' Medici's 1562 edict of Saint Germain, Isabella Jagiellon's own act of toleration, passed forty years before the edict of Nantes, has not received nearly the recognition of Henry IV's, always praised in all our history textbooks.

While her own religious views can be debated, what is clear is that Isabella used her edict "to fulfill her dynastic and political responsibilities." As Daniel concludes, "She used the Reformation and its advocates as she saw fit, on her own terms, for her own reasons, to secure for her son the rightful inheritance of the father he never knew."

There is no complete biography of Isabella Jagiellon in English. I rely here on accounts by Roland Bainton, in his Women of the Reformation: From Spain to Scandinavian and David P. Daniel's "Piety, Politics, and Perversion: Noblewomen in Reformation Hungary," in Sherrin Marshall's Women in Reformation and Counter-Reformation Europe: Public and Private Worlds.

And a couple of additional notes: the Holy Roman emperor of Ferdinand I was the son of a woman we have mentioned before, Queen Juana of Castile, and about whom we will hear more as the year progresses. Ferdinand was also one of the Habsburg children reared by Margaret of Austria.

For Isabella Jagiellon's mother, Bona Sforza, click here. For more about Isabella's sister Anna Jagiellon, click here, and for her sister Catherine Jagiellon, click here.

*This post has been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).

Update, April 2022: For the HistoryExtra podcast episode "The Jagiellonians, the Dynasty that Shaped Central Europe," click here

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Barbara Jordan: An Unforgettable Voice

Barbara Jordan (died 17 January 1996)

Throughout the spring and summer of 1973, while I was supposed to be studying for my Ph.D. qualifying exams, I had my old black-and-white TV tuned in to the gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, better known as the Watergate Committee. Day after day, as I was supposed to be focusing on Sidney's Astrophil and Stella or Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, I was mesmerized by a series of remarkable characters filling the 13-inch screen balanced on an old trunk in the corner of my tiny, second-floor, single-room-with-shared-bath-and-kitchen rental on   Franklin Avenue in Seattle.

But it was not until the following summer that I witnessed the most memorable of the figures who emerged out of the mire of Watergate.

On 25 July 1974, testifying on the Constitutional basis of impeachment before the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Barbara Jordan (Democrat, Texas) spoke. Her voice was electrifying, her speech eloquent, her analysis impressive, her argument devastating, and my memory of the moment ineradicable.

Barbara Jordan at the Democratic National Convention,
July 1976

"Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, 'We, the people,'" she began. She continued:
It is a very eloquent beginning. But when the document was completed on the seventeenth of September 1787 I was not included in that “We, the people.” I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in “We, the people.”
Today, I am an inquisitor; I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.
You can listen to Jordan's speech, in its entirety, by clicking here. The speech is included in the anthology In Our Own Words: Extraordinary Speeches of the American Century.

Two years later, in July of 1976, Barbara Jordan delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, "Who Then Will Speak for the Common Good?" She began: 
Thank you ladies and gentlemen for a very warm reception.
It was one hundred and forty-four years ago that members of the Democratic Party first met in convention to select a Presidential candidate. Since that time, Democrats have continued to convene once every four years and draft a party platform and nominate a Presidential candidate. And our meeting this week is a continuation of that tradition. But there is something different about tonight. There is something special about tonight. What is different? What is special?
I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker.
(The entire speech is available on YouTube, with Walter Cronkite's observations, the crowd's enthusiastic welcome, and the audience reaction at the conclusion of the speech. To begin, start by clicking here. Jordan's "Who Then Will Speak for the Common Good?" is included in the Oxford University Press anthology, Words of a Century: The Top 100 American Speeches, 1900-1999)

Her declining health forced Barbara Jordan to retire from politics in 1976. If she had not suffered from the devastating effects of multiple sclerosis and, later, leukemia, I remain convinced she could have become the nation's first woman president, its first African-American president, and its first gay president.

Among all the other honors she has received, a first-class Barbara Jordan stamp was issued in 2011--it's a "Forever" stamp.

Today our collective memory is so short. What seems "forever" and "unforgettable" is all too often momentary and forgotten. And so today, on the anniversary of her death in 1996, take a moment to remember Barbara Jordan.

Update, 17 January 2018: With the ongoing crisis of government in Washington, and with frequent discussions of the way the depravity of the Trump administration exceeds that of Richard Nixon, discussions of impeachment fill the news. On occasion, as I listen to the news, I hear the voice again of Barbara Jordan--I would know it anywhere--and think about what might have been.

Update, 16 November 2018: A little behind in my TV viewing, I just finished the three-night, six-episode documentary on Watergate that premiered earlier this month on the History Channel. What a joy (and sorrow) to once again hear Barbara Jordan's opening statement at the House Impeachment hearing.

Update, 4 October 2019: It's great to know that Barbara Jordan is one of the "gutsy" women featured in Hillary and Chelsea Clinton's new The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience. I was listening to Rachel Maddow's interview with Clinton on Tuesday night as I was doing the dishes, and I heard Jordan's voice--it was unmistakable, even from a room a way. I had to sit down and take a deep breath . . . 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, an African President

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia (inaugurated 16 January 2006)

Born in Monrovia, Liberia in 1938, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first elected female head of state in Africa and is, notably, the first black woman elected to the office of president anywhere in the world.

In 2011, Johnson Sirleaf was one of three women awarded the Nobel Peace prize: "the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 is to be divided in three equal parts between Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee [a Liberian peace activist,] and Tawakkul Karman [a Yemeni journalist and politician] for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work. We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society."

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf with her Nobel diploma,
December 2011
About the nomination of Johnson Sirleaf, the Nobel committee wrote: "Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is Africa’s first democratically elected female president. Since her inauguration in 2006, she has contributed to securing peace in Liberia, to promoting economic and social development, and to strengthening the position of women."

There is a wealth of information about Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at the Nobel website, including a detailed biography, a video of her Nobel lecture, as well as a complete transcript of the text, an interview, and a photo gallery. You can access this material by clicking here.

During her years as president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has struggled with a series of enormous difficulties, including ongoing economic issues, the need for reconciliation within a country racked by decades of civil conflict, government corruption, and the contested issue of gay rights within Liberia. Most recently, the country she heads has been faced with the disaster of the Ebola epidemic. (For an interesting historical perspective on the relationship between the U.S. and Liberia, access the article in Slate by clicking here.)

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's memoir, This Child Will Be Great, was published in 2010.

For a thoughtful op-ed about the "backlash against women" in a continent where so many women, like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, are achieving political power, educational success, and economic advancement, you can read Sisonke Msimang's recent New York Times op-ed, "The Backlash against African Women," by clicking here.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Elizabeth Tudor, Queen at Last

Elizabeth Tudor, queen of England (crowned 15 January 1559)

There isn't much that needs saying about Elizabeth I of England--but today is the anniversary of her 1559 coronation. Here she is, painted in her coronation robes: 

Elizabeth Tudor, in her coronation robes

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Catherine of Spain: Daughter, Mother, Queen, Regent

Catherine of Spain, queen of Portugal (born 14 January 1507)

It would be hard to imagine a more inauspicious beginning--Catherine of Spain was the posthumous child of Philip of Burgundy and Juana of Castile. Although Juana had become queen regnant after the death of her mother, Isabella of Castile, in 1504, she was never able to exercise sovereignty--Juana the queen became Juana la loca, and she spent the last five decades of her life imprisoned in the convent of Tordesillas, near the city of Valladolid.

Catherine of Spain, queen of Portugal, in 1552
Born in Torquemada after her father's death in September 1506, Catherine would spend her early years confined in Tordesillas with her mother while Philip and Juana's other children were in the care of Philip's sister, a woman whom we have already met, Margaret of Austria.

Little is known about Catherine's life during this early period, though there is a record from 1514 indicating payment to a tutor, a Franciscan brother.

In 1516, after the death of Juana's father, Ferdinand of Aragon, the "queen's" eldest son, the Habsburg monarch Charles, dismissed Catherine's governess, replacing her with an appointment of his own; in 1517, when Charles paid a visit to his mother at Tordesillas, Catherine's presence is noted.

In 1518 and 1519, plague struck in Tordesillas, and Charles made plans to evacuate his mother and his sister if conditions required; in 1519 there is a record of a doctor attending to a minor illness Catherine experienced.

In 1520, resistance to Habsburg influence in Spain--and to Charles--resulted in a revolt, the Comuneros attempting to bolster their defiance by freeing Juana. For her part, Catherine expressed her resentment of household members Charles had installed to attend her and her mother, regarding them as spies and protesting their harsh treatment. One of Charles's correspondents, warning him of danger, claimed that Catherine was going to be driven to become a nun "or commit some other desperate act." These are the scant details of Catherine of Spain's early life.

In January 1525, the young princess, who had thus far spent her entire life confined with her mother, found herself on her way to Portugal, where she was to become the wife of King John III. It's hard to imagine that transition, but whatever the emotional or psychological difficulties may have been, Catherine performed her role as queen consort dutifully.

Married in February 1525, she gave birth to a son and heir a year later, in February 1526. Although this boy, Afonso, lived only a few short weeks, Catherine gave birth to eight more children in rapid succession. And despite the fact that only two would live to adulthood, the requisite son and heir, John Manuel, lived long enough to produce a son of his own, Sebastian, born in 1554. (Interestingly, like Catherine herself, Sebastian was a posthumous child, born two weeks after the death of his father.)

As queen consort, Catherine did more than produce a string of potential heirs, however; she played a significant role in Portugal and its government. Indeed, just before her son's soon-to-be bride arrived in Portugal for her marriage in 1553, the young woman received this assessment of the possibilities for a royal woman in the Iberian kingdom: "Although for kings I believe there are better realms than Portugal . . . I believe that for queens it is the best of all, because nowhere else do they enjoy so much authority in government or are so respected and obeyed." 

Catherine must also have found this to be the case. In her role as queen, she displayed intelligence, energy, and attention to detail. Ambassadors noted in their diplomatic reports that she was respected and well-informed about all matters. Indeed, the privy council met in her apartments and, as one observer noted, "nothing was done without her highness." 

When her husband, King John III of Portugal, died in 1557, Catherine of Spain became regent of Portugal for her grandson. During that period, she carried on as she had during her time as queen consort. After five and a half years, in December 1562, she announced her decision to retire. Although she continued to act as a guardian for her grandson, she seems to have been aggravated at the discontent and factions at court, threatening to return to Spain. She also dedicated her time and energy to the construction of a tomb for her husband. 

Whatever Catherine's experiences in the first eighteen years of her life--and whatever incapacities her mother may have suffered--Catherine of Spain emerged as a woman who could exert power and control when she was given the opportunity.

By the way, her daughter-in-law Joanna of Castile--the one who received that assessment of the role of queens in Portugal--was her brother Charles's daughter (and thus Catherine's niece). After the death of Prince John Manuel, Joanna left her son, Sebastian, and returned to Madrid. In Spain, she acted as regent for her brother, King Philip II of Spain. Although she wrote to her son and received portraits of him, she never saw him again.

A few details of Catherine of Spain's early life are scattered in Bethany Aram's Juana the Mad: Sovereignty & Dynasty in Renaissance Europe. The best, though still limited, account of her role as queen and regent is in William Monter's The Rise of Female Kings in Europe, 1300-1500.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Maria Sibylla Merian: Naturalist, Artist, Illustrator

Maria Sibylla Merian (died 13 January 1717)

Maria Sibylla Merrian,
about age 30
Born in 1647 in Frankfurt, Maria Sibylla Merian was the daughter of Matthaus Merian, a publisher and engraver; after her father's death, her mother married the painter Jacob Marrel, most well known for his still-life paintings. It was Marrel who seems to have trained and encouraged the young Merian. At age eighteen, Merian married one of her stepfather's pupils, the artist Johann Andreas Graff, and then moved with him to Nuremberg, where she helped to support her young family by teaching drawing and embroidery to young women. 

While living in Nuremberg, Merian published three volumes of botanical illustrations, known collectively as The New Book of Flowers (Neues Blumenbuch). Volume 1 was published in 1675, Volumes 2 and 3 in 1677. In 1679 she published a two-volume study of the metamorphosis of moths and butterflies, The Caterpillars' Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food, or, more simply, The Caterpillar Book (Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung). This publication, with its stunning illustrations, is the result of Merian's careful observations of silkworms, a study that had begun when she was just thirteen.

From The New Book of Flowers
After the death of her stepfather in 1681, Merian and her two daughters returned to her mother's home. From Frankfurt, she relocated with her mother and daughters to Friesland, where they lived with her brother in a religious community. By 1691 she was in Amsterdam, and there she set up a studio with her daughters, Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria. While in Amsterdam, she was offered the opportunity of travelling to Surinam.

In 1699, she left Amsterdam with her younger daughter, Dorothea Maria, for the Dutch colony, where she spent two years studying and sketching. The culminating achievement of her life, her drawings, paintings, and illustrations from her time spent in South America, The Insects of Surinam (Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium), was published in  Amsterdam in 1705.

There are many books about Maria Sibylla Merian in print--biographies, critical analyses, and facsimile reproductions of her work. But, for a wonderful and accessible introduction, I'd suggest looking at the J. Paul Getty Museum online exhibition by clicking here (the museum mounted a Merian exhibition, "Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science," in 2008).

There is also a feast of Merian illustrations available at Google Images. 

A Surinam Cayman

And a Google Doodle from 2 April 2013, in honor of Merian's 366th birthday!

Update: On 23 January 2017, the New York Times published JoAnna Klein's "A Pioneering Woman of Science Re-Emerges after 300 Years." The piece is an excellent survey of Merian's work and is accompanied by wonderful illustrations. To access the story, click here.

Also noted was an international conference on Merian, scheduled for 7-9 June 2017: "Changing the Nature of Science and Art: Intersections with Maria Sibylla Merian." For details, click here.

Finally, Merian's masterwork, The Insects of Surinam, has been republished in a glorious facsimile edition (click here).

Update, 12 January 2023: A helpful friend of the blog has just forwarded information about a recent  exhibition at the Mauritshuis, "In Full Bloom," featuring floral still-life paintings, including those by Merian. For information about the exhibition itself (February to June 2022), this link to the Mauritshuis is still working, and though it is too late now to see the paintings in person, there are a couple of great videos. You may also like this review of the exhibition from ArtNet.