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Queens and empresses 300-1000


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor and tutor: Elina Screen
  • Assessment: a 5000-word essay (100%)

Module description

‘May I never be separated from this purple, and may I not live that day on which those who meet me shall not address me as mistress!’ Empress Theodora, as reported by Procopius

Queens and empresses like Theodora possessed significant authority in late Antiquity and the early middle ages, but their position was also highly vulnerable. In a world in which the legitimate exercise of power was framed as exclusively male, powerful women were always open to attack: their power was easily depicted as dangerous and unnatural, with critiques often directed at their sexual morality. But medieval gender ideologies also offered some limited spaces for female agency, for example religious authority and the role of mother could offer routes to religious, political and social power. The careers of these powerful women and their shifting bases of power illuminate the key structures of power in late Antiquity and the early middle ages.

The module will explore the workings of power in this period and address some key moments in political history, c.300-1000. We will use the rich and colourful primary sources to probe how powerful women were packaged as saints, whores or model mothers, undertaking the close reading of key primary sources from different genres such as history, polemic and saint’s lives each week, to develop our understanding of the contingent but significant authority achieved by these women. We will also draw on recent theoretical and methodological studies on gender and sexuality to help explore the tensions between medieval gender expectations and lived realities, and how our primary sources deploy gender norms and gendered language.

Indicative module syllabus

  • Introduction: medieval and modern constructions of gender
  • The Empress Theodora: gendered critiques in sixth-century Byzantium
  • Queen Radegund: using sanctity in sixth-century Francia
  • Sources of power: Merovingian queens and Byzantine empresses compared
  • Keeping it in the family: Carolingian mothers, wives and daughters
  • Lothar II and Theutberga’s divorce: sexual critiques backfire
  • Queen Matilda: motherhood in tenth-century Germany
  • Liudprand of Cremona: sexual critiques in tenth-century Italy
  • Queen Emma of England: seeking agency through writing history

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will have:

  • studied primary sources, including the genres of hagiography, letters and histories, and further developed skills of close reading and source analysis
  • studied secondary literature, including theoretical and methodological work on gender
  • gained familiarity with relevant historiographical debates
  • developed skills of synthesis, source criticism and comprehension.