Skip to main content

Queens, Empresses and Khatuns: Women and Power, 300-1300


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 5
  • Convenor and tutor: Elina Screen
  • Assessment: two 2000-word essays (25% each), a 48-hour online examination (50%) and 60% attendance

Module description

From the colourful and controversial, to the conventional and saintly, queens, empresses and khatuns were at the heart of medieval society. Their access to religious, political and social power gave them considerable influence and authority, but also made them highly vulnerable to criticism in a world that was deeply suspicious of powerful women and often saw their influence as dangerous and unnatural. These gender expectations echo through our sources, which often package powerful women as saints, mothers or whores. We will draw on stimulating recent historiography on gender and sexuality to unpack medieval gender ideologies, and explore the tensions between medieval ideals and realities through close reading of primary sources each week.

The module opens with the powerful but vulnerable royal women of the late Roman empire, Byzantium and early medieval Francia from 300-1000. In the second semester we turn our attention to Britain and address queenship in late Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman and Angevin worlds. In the final part of the course we return to Byzantium and cross Eurasia to explore the lives of the Mongol khatuns. Exploring the careers of these royal women opens up social and religious developments, from new understandings of marriage to changing ideals of sanctity. Their lives also give us an excellent access point into the workings of political power, and we will use queenship as a lens to compare the structures and workings of very different medieval states over time and space. We will be thinking hard about the challenges and opportunities of the evidence, from histories to letters and saints’ lives, and experience the excitement (and sometimes frustrations) of building up a picture from incomplete and sometimes conflicting evidence. We’ll also engage with the methodologies and debates of gender history.

No previous knowledge of the medieval period is needed to enjoy the module.

Indicative module syllabus

  • Saints and sinners: empresses in late Antiquity and Byzantium
  • Good queens, bad queens and an ugly divorce: Frankish royal women, 500-1000
  • Queens in Britain from Ælfthryth to Eleanor of Aquitaine
  • Opportunities and risks: princesses and khatuns, 1000-1300

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • understand major themes in relation to political, religious, economic and social bases of power, and medieval gender norms and their impact on representations and critiques of royal women
  • evaluate continuity and change in queenship across different local, regional and cultural contexts over time
  • engage critically with historians’ major interpretations of the subject
  • interpret primary sources critically and relate them to secondary sources
  • identify the methodological challenges of working with primary sources of different genres.