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Pick, Her Father’s Daughter: Gender, Power, and Religion in the Early Spanish Kingdoms (Bianchini)

  • 18 Jul 2018 8:57 AM
    Message # 6387192
    Janna Bianchini (Administrator)

    Pick, Lucy K. Her Father’s Daughter: Gender, Power, and Religion in the Early Spanish Kingdoms. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017, xiii+274 pp., 16 ill. ISBN 978-1-5017-1432-0. $65.

    Reviewed by Janna Bianchini

    University of Maryland, College Park

    In Her Father’s Daughter, Pick investigates the symbolic and practical roles occupied by the royal daughters (infantas) of early medieval León-Castile (to c. 1100).  These women have been the subject of considerable interest over the last decade or so, because of their remarkable wealth and corresponding prominence during the reigns of their fathers and brothers.  Pick’s achievement is to synthesize the evidence we have for early medieval infantas into a compelling argument about the character of monarchy and the nature of female power, using an impressively vast range of sources that stretches over several centuries.

    Pick argues that the undeniable influence of royal daughters and sisters in León-Castile requires a reconceptualization of monarchy, in which “The king held power and exerted agency because he was enmeshed in political structures that combined to place him at the apex and because he was in a particular position in a whole series of networks of people” (p. 246).  Key elements in those networks were the members of his family, which included his sisters and daughters.  In chapter 1, Pick discusses the role of women in Visigothic inheritance law and in the Visigothic succession.  Both of these things served, in ideology if not in practice, as the source for legal and royal norms in the Christian kingdoms of western Iberia after the Islamic conquest.  But Pick argues that royal succession in the kingdom of Asturias was far more deeply influenced by older matrilineal traditions than by Visigothic precedent.  One example is Adosinda, the sister of Fruela I, who became queen of Asturias alongside her husband Silo within a few decades of the conquest—even though her brother, Fruela I, had living children. In 785, Adosinda, now widowed, was consecrated to religious life.  Pick identifies her consecration as the beginning of a centuries-long tradition in which the royal daughters of Asturias, and subsequently of León and León-Castile, became consecrated virgins, unmarried but deeply involved in the reigns of their male relatives.

    These women were not, however, nuns or abbesses; they were neither cloistered nor bound to a single religious community, and they had not taken traditional monastic vows.  In chapter 2, Pick introduces the individual women who are most clearly evident in narrative and documentary sources, and traces the patristic and liturgical precedents for their spiritual status.  She also identifies several Iberian hagiographical traditions in which royalty and virginity were closely associated—and in which virginity was also bound together with martyrdom, and its attendant spiritual authority.  One of these hagiographies is that of San Pelayo, a tenth-century virgin boy martyred in Córdoba after resisting the advances of the caliph ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III.  San Pelayo’s body was subsequently translated to the city of León at the behest of Elvira Ramírez, one of medieval Iberia’s most prominent virgin infantas.  The monastery that held Pelayo’s relics, renamed in his honor, became a focal point of the large networks of properties associated with Leonese infantas.

    Chapter 3 moves from a consideration of the infantas’ spiritual power to a reconstruction of their terrestrial power, based not only in their landed wealth but also in the networks of patronage and alliance built through and around those possessions.  Pick gives particular attention to the gendered nature of these networks.  She argues that royal and noble women’s connections to each other were essential not only to their own power, but also to the functioning of Iberian monarchy and lordship as a whole.  Through astute analysis of diplomatics, the liturgical language employed in charters, and reconstructed genealogies that give weight to the maternal as well as the paternal line (just as medieval people did), she illuminates the complex political and devotional maneuvers behind the infantas’ public acts.

    As consecrated virgins who were also lords of royal monasteries, early medieval infantas played crucial roles as custodians of the dead and guardians of memory. Chapter 4 is a study both of royal burial sites (generally located in monasteries held by the infantas) and of the extant material objects that royal women commissioned.  These range from devotional items like chalices and reliquaries to books.  Contrary to Geary’s assertion that the Cluniac reform diminished the role of women in preserving family memory, Pick argues that, at least in Iberia, the advent of Cluniac practice supplemented but did not replace older forms of memorial maintained by infantas and their non-Cluniac monastic houses.

    In conclusion, Pick offers some hypotheses for why the position of Leonese-Castilian infantas did change in the twelfth century.  She also locates points of comparison among the women of other European dynasties, particularly the Ottonians, as a counter to the shopworn argument of “Iberian exceptionalism.”  But she argues most strongly for, first, a reassessment of kingship along the lines of what others have called plural (or corporate) monarchy; and, second, an understanding of elite women’s power as not only well documented but also normative, rather than exceptional.

    This is a groundbreaking book in several senses.  First, it is a badly needed longitudinal study of Asturian, Leonese, and Leonese-Castilian infantas in the early Middle Ages, which I hope will bring these important women to wider scholarly attention.  Second, it addresses both the spiritual and the temporal dimensions of power with an admirable evenhandedness, which is rarely found especially in studies of women.  Finally, it draws together a vast body of evidence—diplomatic, narrative, material, genealogical, codicological, liturgical, even artistic—into a single cogent argument.  Pick even makes extensive use of the anthropologist Annette Weiner’s theory of “keeping while giving” to explain the social and political valuation not only of the virgin infantas themselves, but also of their core monastic properties. This wide-ranging erudition makes Her Father’s Daughternot only a significant intervention in its own right, but also a master class in historical method. It will be a valuable addition to graduate courses on methodology, aside from its importance for scholars of power, monarchy, and gender.

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