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Global Queenship and Powerful Women of the Middle Ages

Bloomsbury Medieval Studies provides numerous ways with which to explore the fascinating topic of queenship from a global perspective: from articles and book chapters that place this concept in its historical and cultural contexts, to case studies of specific powerful women of the period and depictions of queens in works of art.

Reliquary pendant with Queen Margaret of Sicily blessed by Bishop Reginald of Bath
Reliquary pendant with Queen Margaret of Sicily (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The lives of royal women

The study of queenship brings together the biographical study of the lives of royal women with an analysis of their agency and activity. Queenship scholars draw on a number of different disciplines including history, literature studies, art history, politics, gender studies, archaeology, and religious studies in order to thoroughly scrutinize the wide variety of evidence from the lives of royal women.

Read a thematic overview of Global Queenship from the Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages.

Queen Tamar of Geogria: part of the 12th-13th-century Vardzia Monastery mural
Part of the 12th-13th-century Vardzia Monastery mural (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Tamar the Great

Tamar the Great (born ca. 1160, r. 1184–1213) ruled the medieval kingdom of Georgia at the height of its political power and cultural influence. Tamar has been neglected in historical works outside of Georgia, particularly in western languages, but scholars have recently begun to investigate her reign, examine her alongside other monarchs and speculate about the factors that enabled her success.

Find out about Tamar the Great and her historical context and significance in this Core Case Study from the Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages.

Image taken from An 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes.
Empress Wu (Wu Zetian) (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Wu Zetian

Before Wu Zetian’s reign (690–705) no woman had ever dared to present herself as emperor. She was the first, and last, woman who not only played a patriarchal role, but who convinced her vassals that she deserved the “Mandate of Heaven” (tianming 天命).

Read more about Tang Empress Wu Zetian in this Core Case Study from the Encylopedia of the Global Middle Ages.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1124-1204) reconciling her sons Richard I, Coeur de Lion, King of England 1189-1199, and his heir John, King of England 1199-1216.
Eleanor of Aquitaine (1124-1204) Colour-printed wood engraving by Jafnes Doyle (1822-1892). (Photo via Getty Images)

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine (d. 1204) was one of the most powerful queens in medieval Europe as well as a noteworthy patron of the arts. Her spectacular life was marked with momentous events and renown, through which she navigated the complex terrain of going on crusade, dealing with divorce and remarriage, negotiating conflict with her second husband that would result in her imprisonment, and correspondence with key contemporary figures such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Abbot Suger.

Explore the life of Eleanor of Aquitane within the context of Medieval women and their artistic representation in Medieval visual culture.

Billon Jital coin in circulation during Razia Sultana’s reign
Billon jital coin in circulation during Razia Sultana’s reign over the Sultanate of Delhi (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Razia Sultana

The most notable amongst all of the royal women of the Sultanate of Delhi was the regnant queen Razia (1236–1240), who adopted the gender-neutral title of Sultan. Razia has a unique position in the history of India, as both the only regnant queen of Medieval India and woman to sit on the throne of Delhi.

Learn more about Razia Sultana in this Core Case Study from the Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages.

Stained glass panel depicting Saint Kunigunde, queen and wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II
Stained glass panel with Queen Kunigunde (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Queen Kunigunde, Holy Roman Empress

Queen Kunigunde, wife of Holy Roman Emperor Henry II, is depicted in stained glass with a halo, crown and holding a sceptre. She is reported to have been politically active, taking part in Imperial councils and advising her husband. She was eventually canonized as Saint Kunigunde by Pope Innocent III in March 1200.

View this museum object, part of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Medieval collection, in closer detail.

Homepage image – left: Isabella of Angouleme, Eleanor of Aquitaine (13th century), fresco, Chapel of St Radegund, Chinon, Centre, France. Detail. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Homepage image – right: Tului with Queen Sorgaqtani, Rashid al-Din "Djami al-Tawarikh", 14th century (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)