My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
It’s hard for me to tell how much is filling in the blanks and how much is lifted directly from sources without having access to them, but the footnotes suggest that Castor exhausted what was available, and given her area of expertise, I’m inclined to trust her ability to comprehensively read extant sources. It would be nice to have more archeological evidence included as a counterpoint, but she worked well with what she had, as far as I can tell. (I minored in Classics, wrong era and location!)
The book has a strongly narrative format, and while there are a number of large time skips from one powerful woman to the next, Castor draws enough parallels that the narrative doesn’t feel too disjointed. Of course, the focus on England helps—she is an English historian, and England, unlike the other dominant European powers, allowed women to rule during the time period discussed. Either way, I think there is enough of a thesis to keep it cohesive, even with wildly differing cirumstances in play.
Knowing this is revisionist history, designed to counterpoint centuries of vilification of women in power (it’s apparently “unnatural” to see a woman in charge), I do think she takes it too far on a couple of occasions. In particular, Henry VI’s wife, Isabel, was pretty disastrous in office, and Castor’s attempt to rationalize her behavior is less than successful because it takes on the tone of an apology. For context, I hear this woman is the inspiration for George R. R. Martin’s Cersei Lannister.
If men can be good or bad rulers, women can, too. Castor may have been simply explaining the circumstances, as she does for all of the women in this book, but I think she glosses over the straightforward point that Isabel was in her own way as incompetent as her husband, at least when it came to managing an entire country. Yes, we want to know why she was incompetent, but there is no justification for some of her actions.
I think she does also tiptoe over the fact that there isn’t always a lot of evidence to substantiate her revision. I always look at the footnotes, and there are chunks of time where there seems to be only one source for hte information. And, of course, that source does tend to be misogynistically biased, and Castor corrects for that—but should she always? Don’t women sometimes have stereotypically female flaws? Of course, it’s no less than challenging to extract a story from sometimes obscure periods of history, in particular when the topic concerns a woman ruler, but a stronger sense of when she’s speculating and when a divergence in sources suggests her interpretation is more accurate would have been nice.
I liked the majority of the text. Social history isn’t my usual cup of tea, and more of the surrounding politics would have provided nice contextualization, but Castor’s exploration of how these women transcended—or, sometimes, were overcome by—circumstance is worth a look, not least because history has this unfortunate habit of only delivering us the names of the rulers who held power in name. Strong-minded medieval women navigated the system more successfully than we give them credit for; it’s worth approaching the complexity of medieval balances of power in this revisionist light.