The editors of this anthology have collected papers stemming from the 2005 exhibition and conference in Mechelen, Women of Distinction: Margaret of York and Margaret of Austria, which examined the era during which the two women held court in this city, either as dowager Duchess or as Regent. Both Margarets have been in the scholarly spotlight in recent years and to a certain extent this anthology depends on research that has been going on for several decades, including the catalogue of the exhibit of 2005. The active patronage and undeniable political power of the two Margarets have made them attractive subjects for scholars in many disciplines. Nonetheless, the essays touch on other women as actors or the audiences in the courts, including Isabella of Portugal, Juana of Castile, and her daughter, Mary of Hungary, and daughter-in-law, Anne of Bohemia and Hungary. The subtitle reflects the concepts of women’s “Presence” or visibility and their influence at court as themes that link the essays.
The anthology (published as part of Brepols’ valuable Burgundicaseries) includes 11 essays (8 in French, 3 in English) a foreword and a preface. 26 color plates captioned in English are appended after the Bibliography while black and white captions embedded in the essays are in the language of the essay. The essays are organized into four sections and follow a rough chronological order.
Part One, “Setting the Stage,” considers historiographical and theoretical issues surrounding the topic of women at the court. Bertrand Schnerb offers an historiographical overview of the questions that scholars have been asking about women at the Burgundian court; the essay summarizes some of the findings and sources of evidence. Among these topics are the identities and roles played by women, from dame d’honneur to laundress. In this same section, Thérèse de Hemptine’s essay characterizes the courts of the two Margarets as “a laboratory for research about the effects of gender on men and women’s behavior (15)” because powerful women dominated these courts. The author discusses some possible areas of study using gender as a category of analysis and concepts of masculinity and femininity as expressed at court.
Part Two, “Women at the Burgundian Court: The Fifteenth Century,” includes four essays. Monique Sommé adds to her important work on Isabella of Portugal with an essay that demonstrates how the Duchess used letters to exert her will and impact events. Mario Damen studies the role Margaret of York played as the Dowager ruler of the Isle of Voorne, using archival materials to enlighten us about Margaret’s activity in political and religious spheres. Two essays in the section concern Festive Entries (Blijde Inkomsten): an essay by Wim Hüsken offers an overview of these events, while Anne-Marie Legaré examines the tableaux vivants performed in honor of Juana of Castile at her festive entry into Brussels in 1496. Legaré interprets the messages this imagery addressed to the new Archduchess, unusually expressed through images of Amazons.
Margaret of Austria gets a section all to herself in Part Three, called “Margaret of Austria as Patron and Author.” The three essays here treat Margaret as a writer of poetry and a sponsor of humanism, as well as a patron of the visual arts. Catherine Müller rereads the Complainte de Marguerite d’Autriche through the conventions of courtly love poems of the Middle Ages. This essay appends a summary of the poem in prose. Henri Installé discusses several works by Cornelius Agrippa, whom Margaret patronized. The focus is on works that praise women or honor Margaret to clarify the humanist’s ideas about women. Marie-Francoise Poiret interprets one of the stained glass windows that Margaret commissioned for her church at Brou; the window depicts the story of Susanna, which the author gives a convincing iconographic and contextual reading.
The final section, “The Next Generation,” includes two essays: one on the retinue of Mary of Hungary and the other on pastimes at the court of Ferdinand I and his queen, Anna of Bohemia and Hungary. Jacqueline Kerkhoff clearly lays out the makeup of Mary’s court at key moments. She argues that Mary of Hungary resisted the Emperor’s directives when selecting members of her retinue, so the makeup of the court reflects her own wishes. The essay includes two appendices that compare the courts of Margaret of Austria and Mary of Hungary and identify the positions in each. Dagmar Eichberger’s final essay deals with a beautiful backgammon board and accompanying game pieces in Vienna that represent both historical and mythological figures. Her essay offers a reading of the lessons that both men and women could draw from the game.
The essays offer a variety of insights into the place of women at the Burgundian-Habsburg court – a place that Kerkhoff asserts was central to courtly display. This interdisciplinary collection showcases research in progress or material that is otherwise part of a larger project, so it offers a snapshot of current scholarly questions rather than definitive statements. The authors deploy a range of methods, including archival research, close readings of images or texts, and consideration of the audience and historical contexts of objects or iconographic projects. The essays are all well documented and clearly expressed, making this volume an important resource for scholars interested in courtly culture, women’s history, or culture in general of the Early Modern period.
Lake Forest College