The best books about premodern women of power and influence: unexceptional but plenty to see

Who am I?

When I was a child, I was forever drawing pictures of princesses in elaborate medieval and early modern dress. I devoured history books—especially those containing artworks that helped me visualize the people whose names rang out from their pages. Inexplicably, I was passionate about France and French language and culture from my primary school years. Then, in my early twenties, I stumbled onto Umberto Eco’s, The Name of the Rose, which appeared in English translation around 1983. History has been, and remains, my passion (as do whodunits). I have been passionately obsessed with in my research for over two decades—uncovering the truth that lies beneath the spin and the ashes.  


I wrote...

Yolande of Aragon (1381-1442) Family and Power: The Reverse of the Tapestry

By Zita Eva Rohr,

Book cover of Yolande of Aragon (1381-1442) Family and Power: The Reverse of the Tapestry

What is my book about?

Yolande of Aragon is one of the most intriguing of late medieval queens who contrived to be everywhere and nowhere simultaneously; operating seamlessly from backstage and front of house. She was shrewd, focused, and intelligent—a grey eminence whose political and diplomatic agency secured the throne of France for her son-in-law, Charles VII, and the survival of her marital house. Rohr's work is a long-anticipated and much-needed scholarly assessment of an incredibly powerful and influential figure of fifteenth-century history who just happened to be a queen.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Power, Piety, and Patronage in Late Medieval Queenship: Maria de Luna

Zita Eva Rohr Why did I love this book?

This book appeared just as I was on the point of completing my doctoral thesis. It helped me to understand the importance of examining a queen and/or elite premodern woman’s networks—familial, political, diplomatic, friendship and how these networks underpinned her use of both soft and indeed hard power. When the document trail goes cold in the archives, looking more closely at female networks and how they played out is a great way of overcoming gaps and erasures—both deliberate and accidental. It remains a durable and very influential study and a bonus for non-Ibericists as it is in English.

By Nuria Silleras-Fernandez,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Power, Piety, and Patronage in Late Medieval Queenship as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Based on an exhaustive and varied study of predominantly unpublished archival material as well as a variety of literary and non-literary sources, this book investigates the relation between patronage, piety and politics in the life and career of one Late Medieval Spain's most intriguing female personalities, Maria De Luna.


Book cover of The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power

Zita Eva Rohr Why did I love this book?

Carole Levin’s magisterial work has now appeared in its second edition, a testament to its importance. Carole explores the myriad ways the unmarried, childless Elizabeth represented herself and the ways members of her court, foreign ambassadors, and subjects represented and responded to her as a public figure. Like her recently deceased successor, Elizabeth II, Elizabeth Tudor understood that she had to be seen to be believed. She fashioned herself into both the Virgin Queen and the mother of her people. Carole interrogates the gender constructions, role expectations, and beliefs about sexuality that influenced her public persona and the way she was perceived as a female Protestant ruler and points us to paths along which can travel to investigate other female monarchs regardless of time period and on a global scale.

By Carole Levin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Heart and Stomach of a King as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In her famous speech to rouse the English troops staking out Tilbury at the mouth of the Thames during the Spanish Armada's campaign, Queen Elizabeth I is said to have proclaimed, "I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king." Whether or not the transcription is accurate, the persistent attribution of this provocative statement to England's most studied and celebrated queen illustrates some of the contradictions and cultural anxieties that dominated the collective consciousness of England during a reign that lasted from 1558 until 1603.
In The Heart…


Book cover of Catherine of Aragon: Infanta of Spain, Queen of England

Zita Eva Rohr Why did I love this book?

Theresa starts our journey into the past life of Catherine of Aragon, whom many regard very mistakenly as a victim, with a pair of shoes, a painting, a rosary, a fur-trimmed baby blanket. She shows us how each of these things took meaning from the ways Catherine experienced and perceived them. Upon these traces and fragments, her portrait of Catherine emerges, and we glimpse her life lived five centuries ago. Engagingly written by Theresa in her clear and elegant prose, her cultural and emotional biography of Catherine truly brings us closer to understanding her life from her own perspective.

By Theresa Earenfight,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Catherine of Aragon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Catherine of Aragon is an elusive subject.

Despite her status as a Spanish infanta, Princess of Wales, and Queen of England, few of her personal letters have survived, and she is obscured in the contemporary royal histories. In this evocative biography, Theresa Earenfight presents an intimate and engaging portrait of Catherine told through the objects that she left behind.

A pair of shoes, a painting, a rosary, a fur-trimmed baby blanket-each of these things took meaning from the ways Catherine experienced and perceived them. Through an examination of the inventories listing the few possessions Catherine owned at her death, Earenfight…


Book cover of The Creation of the French Royal Mistress: From Agnès Sorel to Madame Du Barry

Zita Eva Rohr Why did I love this book?

With this excellent and seamlessly co-authored study, Christine and Tracy have Adams delve into the creation of the post of the royal significant other—an often-overlooked category of premodern female power and influence. They move beyond the salacious to an intellectual understanding of the complementarity of gendered premodern political power.

By Tracy Adams, Tracy Adams, Christine Adams

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Creation of the French Royal Mistress as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Kings throughout medieval and early modern Europe had extraconjugal sexual partners. Only in France, however, did the royal mistress become a quasi-institutionalized political position. This study explores the emergence and development of the position of French royal mistress through detailed portraits of nine of its most significant incumbents: Agnes Sorel, Anne de Pisseleu d'Heilly, Diane de Poitiers, Gabrielle d'Estrees, Francoise Louise de La Baume Le Blanc, Francoise Athenais de Rochechouart de Mortemart, Francoise d'Aubigne, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, and Jeanne Becu.

Beginning in the fifteenth century, key structures converged to create a space at court for the royal mistress. The first was…


Book cover of Queenship and the Women of Westeros: Female Agency and Advice in Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire

Zita Eva Rohr Why did I love this book?

I recommend this book not on the basis of my co-editorship with Lisa but rather on the basis that the essays contained in it speak to the unexceptionality of premodern female power and influence in both the fantasy fiction world and in historiography and how these sometimes reflect one another—without forcing the issue. The germ of the idea for the essay collection came with the screening of the sixth series HBO television cultural phenomenon when all of a sudden the female characters started to emerge as leaders and belligerents in the quest for the Iron Throne and all that that entailed. 

By Zita Eva Rohr (editor), Lisa Benz (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Queenship and the Women of Westeros as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Is the world of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and HBO's Game of Thrones really medieval? How accurately does it reflect the real Middle Ages? Historians have been addressing these questions since the book and television series exploded into a cultural phenomenon. For scholars of medieval and early modern women, they offer a unique vantage point from which to study the intersections of elite women and popular understandings of the premodern world. This volume is a wide-ranging study of those intersections. Focusing on female agency and the role of advice, it finds a wealth of…


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The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


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