The best books on women who ruled in early modern Europe

Anne J. Cruz and Mihoko Suzuki Author Of The Rule of Women in Early Modern Europe
By Anne J. Cruz and Mihoko Suzuki

Who are we?

Mihoko and Anne first met at the University of Miami, where Mihoko was a specialist in early modern England and Anne, in early modern Spain. Sharing their interests in gender studies, literature, and history, and combining their expertise, they team-taught a popular course on early modern women writers. Anne’s publications range from studies of women in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, female rogues, and religious women to early modern Habsburg queens. Mihoko has published on the figure of Helen of Troy in classical and Renaissance epic; and women and politics in early modern Europe, especially in the context of the many civil wars that upended the political and social order of the period.

We wrote...

The Rule of Women in Early Modern Europe

By Anne J. Cruz and Mihoko Suzuki (editor),

Book cover of The Rule of Women in Early Modern Europe

What is our book about?

This collection of essays by feminist scholars focuses on several examples of powerful women across late medieval and early modern Europe, a period that saw an upsurge of women rulers. Our introduction discusses the traditional opposition to women in positions of power and the debates that ensued about women’s ability to exercise the so-called manly qualities necessary for good government. Starting with the medieval French author Cristine de Pizan’s endorsement of Isabeau of Bavaria and continuing with essays that examine the methods through which women rulers established their power as they dealt with members of their court and family, and their representations in women’s writings. By comparing the various women rulers of this exceptional historical period, the collection highlights the singular challenges women faced when assuming and exercising power.

The books we picked & why

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Isabel Rules: Constructing Queenship, Wielding Power

By Barbara F. Weissberger,

Book cover of Isabel Rules: Constructing Queenship, Wielding Power

Why this book?

Through her marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon, Isabel of Castile united the two most powerful kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula, becoming the first early Renaissance queen to rule in her own right. As mother to five daughters and one son, the formidable ruler provided them with an unparalleled education and procured their marriages to the reigning dynasties of Europe. Much of what is known about Isabel, however, has relied on medieval chronicles and her own image-making as a legitimate heir, devoted wife, and pious ruler. Examining how this public image was created, Barbara Weissberger demonstrates the strategies adopted by both her supporters and her detractors when negotiating the challenges posed by her gender and her political program for converting all non-Catholics to Catholicism.

While her followers viewed her as a virtuous and submissive queen, her detractors imagined her as a rapacious vixen, whose illicit power threatened gender norms, creating anxiety about the nature of male and female sexuality. Researching a wide variety of medieval texts and the queen’s own strategies as a virtuous consort, Weissberger’s innovative book explains why these two opposing views have persisted throughout centuries and have even come to serve modern political ends.  

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

By Carole Levin,

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

Why this book?

On the eve of the attack by the Spanish Armada, Elizabeth I, dressed in armor, is said to have addressed her troops at Tilbury: “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” This fascinating cultural biography by Carole Levin, one of the Virgin Queen’s most prominent scholars, focuses on Elizabeth’s self-representation as well as how she was perceived by her subjects; Levin bases her investigation on a wide variety of sources, including recorded dreams about Elizabeth and trial records concerning those who slandered the queen.

Though largely beloved by her subjects, ambivalence toward the female sovereign who refused to marry and provide an heir can be gleaned from the persistent rumors about her supposed sexual relationships and illegitimate children. Shining a light on “the struggles and contradictions for a woman in a position of power,” Levin’s fascinating account of Elizabeth, the first woman who ruled England in her own right, and whose reign lasted forty-five years, speaks to our still present concerns with the intersection of gender and politics.  

Mary Queen of Scots: An Illustrated Life

By Susan Doran,

Book cover of Mary Queen of Scots: An Illustrated Life

Why this book?

In many ways the opposite of her cousin Elizabeth I whom she sought to replace as queen of England, the thrice-married Mary Queen of Scots ruled Scotland for only six years before she was deposed; she then was imprisoned in England for almost twenty years before she was executed for plotting to overthrow Elizabeth. Susan Doran’s richly illustrated biography, which includes portraits of the queen, images of letters by her and by Elizabeth, and sketches of her trial and execution by eyewitnesses, brings to life this enigmatic figure concerning whom many questions remain unresolved: Were the “Casket Letters” written by her to her lover Bothwell or were they forgeries? Was she complicit in the murder of her second husband? Did she join English Catholics in a conspiracy to assassinate Elizabeth? Doran judiciously weighs the evidence on these controversies and concludes that Mary’s lack of political judgment was largely responsible for her tragic fate that has captured the imagination of later generations.

Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France

By Leonie Frieda,

Book cover of Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France

Why this book?

Catherine de Medici has been reviled as an evil and power-hungry queen mother of three French kings, and as the architect of the St. Bartholomew’s Day’s Massacre—the most infamous episode in the decades-long French Wars of Religion. She was even slanderously accused of murdering another queen by sending her poisoned gloves, in keeping with her “Machiavellian” Italian extraction. Leonie Frieda’s biography corrects the “Black Legend” of Catherine and provides a vivid portrait of the complex woman who wielded unprecedented power as queen regent in France, where Salic Law prohibited women from exercising sovereignty in their own right, as did her contemporary Elizabeth I. She shows that from her husband Henri II’s unexpected death in a gruesome accident through the reigns of her sons, who unfortunately did not inherit their mother’s ability, Catherine displayed “intelligence, courage, and an indefatigable spirit” in exercising political power and acting as an exceptional patron of the arts. 

Christina, Queen of Sweden: The Restless Life of a European Eccentric

By Veronica Buckley,

Book cover of Christina, Queen of Sweden: The Restless Life of a European Eccentric

Why this book?

Christina of Sweden, known today primarily through Greta Garbo’s portrayal of her in the 1933 film, became queen at age six when her father was killed in battle; she received the education of a prince, including the study of statecraft, for which she read the Latin biography of Elizabeth I. Initially deemed a boy at birth, Christina’s habit of crossdressing, her refusal to marry, and her romantic attachments to both women and men bespeak her ambiguous sexuality. Veronica Buckley’s biography does justice to this idiosyncratic and controversial figure who abdicated her throne, converted to Catholicism, and moved to Rome. Although she took Alexander the Great as her model and sought to rule Naples and Poland-Lithuania after her abdication, she revealingly recorded in her memoirs her thoughts concerning the predicament she faced as a female sovereign: “Women should never be rulers... Women who rule make themselves ridiculous one way or the other... I myself am no exception.” 

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