HL90 AN: God Save the Queen! Ruling Women from Rome to the Renaissance

We’ve got lots of great HL90s to check out this spring, including Sean Gilsdorf’s “God Save the Queen! Ruling Women from Rome to the Renaissance”!

Tell us about your class!

Like the title suggests, this is a class about women who wielded power many centuries ago, and the complicated ways that their gender complicated but sometimes also enabled their exercise of authority. Over the course of the semester, we travel through more than a millennium of European and Mediterranean history meeting fascinating women—historical ones like the Byzantine empress Theodora and the German queen Mathilda as well as fictional ones like Guinevere and Nestan-Darejan.

What’s something surprising students might not know about this topic?

The degree of freedom and authority that medieval women could exercise, provided that they were rich and well-connected enough. It’s very true that queens almost always were less powerful than kings, particularly if they were married to the latter. Then again, since everyone was less powerful than the king, it’s helpful to compare our queens to everyone else—and when we do, we discover how much sway they could have.

Do you have any activities or assignments you’re excited to share with students?

In addition to reading lots of fascinating texts, the students will be working throughout the semester with medieval material culture—manuscripts as well as other objects owned by queens, used by them, or dedicated to them. I’m excited to see how the students connect this “thread” of the class to the reading and discussions in our regular meetings.

What does your class help us understand about the present?

The feminist movements of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries all have critiqued, and sought to remedy, the persistent tendency to identify “power” and “the political” as essentially masculine domains. “God Save the Queen” helps us to understand the roots of these sexist assumptions, but just as importantly it also reveals how flawed and historically inaccurate they are!

Can you give us a sneak preview of anything you’ll be doing?

On the first day of class, we’ll be talking about this…

For more information on the class, you can see the syllabus on Canvas!

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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