Wielding the scepter together

30 Jun 2023

Historian Julia Burkhardt in an interview on ruling couples in the Middle Ages and modern power couples

Hate speech at the royal court, queens who exercised power and a heart for Henry VIII: Organized by historian Julia Burkhardt, an event entitled “Power couples: Ruling couples in pre-modern Europe” enriches the current Together@LMU diversity initiative. In this advanced, in-depth course, the Professor of Medieval History joins with students in exploring how international marriages were forged, how rulers worked together and, by no means least, how they perpetuated themselves as families in the 15th century.

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama wave to guests after their dance at Commander-in-Chief´s Inaugural Ball at the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama wave to guests after their dance at Commander-in-Chief's Inaugural Ball at the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013

© picture alliance / AP Photo | Jacquelyn Martin

What made certain medieval couples power couples?

Julia Burkhardt: In our course, we understand power couples as a reference to the political power of monarchs, princes and the nobility of either sex in the pre-modern period, but also along the lines of the style adopted – and public image generated – by modern power couples such as the Macrons and the Obamas. Power couples consciously present themselves as a couple or a family, and this allows them to cultivate a special political, social and/or cultural influence.

We look at power couples from Europe in the 15th century, a time when the weddings of princes, kings and emperors were often international affairs. We explore these constellations from three angles. First, why and how did they marry? What did their contemporaries write and think about them? Second, we discuss whether these couples formed a political, cultural or religious team engaging in shared actions. Third, we examine the public image of such couples and how they were perceived by later generations.

What reasons moved medieval rulers to get married?

First and foremost, they wanted to produce offspring to safeguard the future of their family line – a perhaps surprisingly simple reasons from a modern-day perspective. Beyond that, the choice of marital partner was also often an attempt to bring two countries or territorial dominions closer together and thereby strengthen existing dynasties. At the time, the family played an incredibly important role in society. At times, a marriage alone was enough to bring about and demonstrate peace between two warring parties, or at least to try to do so. Economic and political considerations likewise played a role, as, occasionally, did the desire for social advancement.

How did couples get together?

In the highest echelons of society, marriages came about not spontaneously but as the fruit of protracted negotiations. The two families or ‘governments’ (i.e. the parties to either regency) exchanged envoys who would hammer out the nuptial contracts. These regulated the bride’s dowry, her financial endowment by the husband, provisions for the children and the right of the original families to have a say.

That said, the negotiations also addressed practical life issues. The partners, who often lived far apart, had to be described to each other: Who is this king, who is that princess? How well educated are they? What do they look like? Sometimes, paintings of the bride-and-groom-to-be were commissioned to satisfy each other’s curiosity about the appearance of their future partner.

To what conclusions have you come so far about how these couples worked together?

Many of the couples we study did indeed complement each other or work in concert, such that it is reasonable to speak of a team sharing the same actions. One example is Sigismund of Luxembourg, who was both emperor and king over several realms (Hungary, the Holy Roman Empire and Bohemia). As King of Hungary and the Holy Roman Empire, he constantly traveled back and forth between his various realms, as was customary at the time. When he was away in Hungary, his wife Barbara von Cilli ruled as governor together with a crown council – an example of complementary action. Indeed, von Cilli participated actively in political life in her role as Roman, Hungarian and Bohemian queen.

A different kind of team was formed at the end of the 14th century by Isabella of Bavaria, a Wittelsbacher, and King Charles VI of France. Charles was at times unable to exercise his rule due to a mental illness. But the queen responded to this awkward situation by ruling together with a council on behalf of her husband.

What conclusions do you draw about the public image of these couples?

We study text sources, but also objects and images, including very recent finds. One find – in a field in the English Midland county of Warwickshire in 2019 – was spectacular indeed: an ornate gold pendant in the shape of a heart from the early 16th century. The symbols and inscriptions on the pendant suggest that it commemorates Henry VIII of England and his first wife, Katharina of Aragon. Henry is known to have been divorced multiple times and even to have had two of his wives executed. Our work across a broad base of sources opens up different perspectives and leads to varying results. For several couples we look at the exchange of precious gifts and at spiritual endowments, discussing them with a view to how dynasties saw themselves, the representation of royal courts and considerations of piety.

In contrast, later historiographic sources paint an unbelievably negative picture of Barbara von Cilli – a picture full of misogyny and hostility. What is remarkable is that these ‘black legends’, as researchers call them, never spill over onto her husband, Emperor Sigismund.

Indications of whether rulers were still remembered as couples by subsequent generations can be found in burial arrangements such as that of Elisabeth von Habsburg, who married King Casimir IV of Poland in the 15th century. When Casimir died after around 40 years of married life, he was buried in Krakow in the Holy Cross Chapel, which he and his wife had funded and where their offspring who had died in childhood were likewise buried. Shortly before her death, Elisabeth decreed that she, too, was to be buried in the same tomb. The couple thus made a clear statement to future generations: A family is buried here together.

Are there examples of couples where authentic love played a part?

Duchess Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian I, the later King and Emperor of the Romans from the House of Habsburg, are described as one of the greatest loving couples of the 15th century. Even their contemporaries reported the great affection that the two felt for each other. To what extent emotions in the early modern age can genuinely be studied as subjective feelings or perhaps as a contemporary reflection thereof has nevertheless been a topic of research for some years. In our course, we are interested above all in the question of how and why emotional ties were reported. In the case in point, one aspect may have been the desire to represent a thriving family and thereby uphold contemporary notions of virtue.

An added factor is that Mary of Burgundy died early as a result of a riding accident, and that myths quickly sprung up around her life. Later pictures of Maximilian still showed him with Mary, although he had long since married again. Was this motivated by emotional, political or dynastic considerations (Mary was the mother of Maximilian’s children)? All these questions are addressed in our course discussion.

Were there also couples with a particularly negative public image?

There were some spicy family constellations that did not really line up with the perceived virtues of the day. Beatrix of Aragon and the Hungarian King Matthias Hunyadi, also known as ‘Corvinus’, are one example. The king had a son by an earlier extramarital liaison. When Matthias and Beatrix themselves had no children, this prompted gossip that might today be labeled as ‘hate speech’. When the king later brought his illegitimate son to the royal court, Beatrix herself evidently spread certain rumors, saying was unable to bear children because she had been cursed by her husband’s former mistress.

In the long run, however, such matters did not necessarily harm people’s memory of the couple. For all the frictions and delicate family constellations, Beatrix and Matthias are portrayed in images and sculptures as the ideal couple. It is nevertheless important to know that the royal couple supported numerous artists, architects and scholars at Hungary’s royal court, which thus became one of the stand-out Renaissance centers of the day. Contemporary depictions of the royal couple primarily reflect this circumstance.

Julia Burkhardt is Professor of Medieval History at the LMU | © T. Hauzenberger

How does the ‘Power couples’ course fit in with LMU’s current diversity campaign, whose aim is to bring people at the university together, make room for different life concepts and thus encourage a shift of perspective?

The ‘shift of perspective’ – in tuition and in the work of students – is the key term here. Fortunately, it has already become established practice in historical research to analyze not only men but also women when studying the role of rulers. Based on these discussions and my research into political gender history, my course invites students to go beyond the one-dimensional portrayal of men and women in positions of domination in the pre-modern era. Instead, I want to join them in exploring shared actions and, by no means least, contemporary concepts of gender and roles. When studying female rulers and regents, you sometimes have to ask different questions than you would for their male counterparts and, in so doing, fine-tune the historical research methods. Whatever your take on the subject, this constitutes a shift of perspective from which we have much to learn in terms of both content and methodology.

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