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I am not intentionally trying, in the last while, to read books with titles so long that I can't get them into an LJ subject line. It just seems to happen that way. Anyhow, the full title of this book is Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York. Which is misleading and inaccurate, because the book actually starts with Matilda of Flanders (wife of William the Conqueror) and goes from there to the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.

There is a fair quantity of ground to cover, with that; the book is something of a brick and yet feels, at times, distressingly condensed. It is at its best dealing with the queens who have not been as marked by history or explored by other historians, such as Adeliza of Louvain (the second queen of Henry I) or Berengaria of Navarre (who tends to get lost in the general mythmaking around her husband, Richard the Lionheart). It is worst at-- well, I feel I should not complain too harshly at a historian who cannot adequately explain the Wars of the Roses in the less than two hundred pages Hilton allots herself, but the problem seems to be that Hilton assumes everyone knows everything about the really famous bits already, such that she does not actually have to provide any context for them. It does not work that way. Hilton is a writer who is capable of handling her material-- she proves that when she manages to cause the reader to remember the differences between Matilda of Flanders, Matilda of Scotland, the Empress Matilda, and Matilda of Boulogne. (I swear there were entire generations of medieval politics where everybody had variations on like maybe two names.) But she seriously falls down on the latter Plantagenets, rise of Houses of York and Lancaster, etc. and it is just not a readily comprehensible read.

In addition, she has a possibly natural tendency to want to disagree with previous historians, and to want to point out overlooked competencies and deflate overemphasized reputations. I actually believe her that Matilda of Boulogne (queen to Stephen) has been overlooked, given the sheer factual list of things the woman accomplished, but Hilton seems insistent on denying that Eleanor of Aquitaine ever did anything important, which is patently silly.

And she argues so vehemently against anyone, ever having been homosexual, including, oh, you know, Richard Coeur de Lion and Edward II, that her insistence that she's only saying this because no one can really know at this distance anyway and what's important is their contemporary reputations starts feeling a lot like that chapter out of Joanna Russ's How To Suppress Women's Writing-- you know, the one titled "She Isn't, She Wasn't, She Didn't, And Why Do You Keep On Bringing It Up?" And she insists on taking, for some reason I cannot fathom, only the evidence of pregnancy or publicized attempts at pregnancy as evidence of a royal couple liking one another, which again is flatly silly as several royal marriages that were to all appearances fairly poisonous had lots of children and likewise the reverse.

Factually, it's fine. It's very well-cited. It needs better appurtenances-- the family trees should have been located in more appropriate places so a reader could actually refer to them against the text, and the map gets major, major points deducted for not including Hainaut-- but I am willing to take her word on events, dates, etc., because they are carefully proven against primaries. I really do recommend the chapters on any Queen of England you've completely never heard of.

It's just that her interpretations are so unconvincing that they throw me into doubt about her primary thesis, which is that queenship in England began as a role with a great deal of real legal and political power and then declined over time into a role with primarily ceremonial and symbolic power, until, of course, Elizabeth I. I would be willing to believe this thesis. But not the way Hilton tells it. Which is a problem.

Really the whole thing just makes me want to go read Froissart, whom Hilton quotes at length, mostly disparagingly, but in a way that makes him sound so appealingly obviously biased. This book is an exercise in sorting what to trust, which makes it tiring.


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March 2017

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