6 pages The Performance of Political Motherhood


Catherine de Medicis and the Performance of Political Motherhood was written by Catherine Crawford and published in 2000 in the Sixteenth Century Journal. The main focus of the text in question is placed on the development of the idea of the “position of political prominence” that Catherine de Medicis acquired was due mainly to “her own initiative by presenting herself as a devoted wife, widow and mother as the basis of her political entitlement.”

Crawford argues that Catherine’s wise decision not to oppose the traditional place widowed queen mothers held in French dynasties during the coming of age of their sons was precisely the factor that contributed essentially to her entitlement of authority during the reign of her three sons who became kings. In other words, the article focuses on the period between the death of Henry II, Catherine’s husband and king of France and the queen’s actions aimed at securing her son’s rights to the throne and keeping it away from the dangers of the rivalries between the noble families; in addition, Crawford points out a rather insignificant account of the Venetian ambassador to the French court in 1551, Lorenzo Contarini, who claimed that Catherine offered to “retire to a convent or otherwise step aside to allow Henry to remarry of the king should wish it.” She was of course declined by her father-in-low, according to the ambassador. Crawford then argues that this way of making an entrance as the queen, or at lest the mere pretence that she did offer to step aside because of her lack of children at the time she was to become queen of France should attract the attention of those who are interested in distinguishing fact from fiction. Moreover, in Crawford’s vision, Contarini’s tale, true or false, seven years after it was supposed to have happened, raises questions regarding the very aim of telling such a story. The fact that the story had a true base or not becomes in Crawford’s view secondary since the very rumor that the queen acted like that was enough to create her an image of a woman who understood her place and put the interests of her country above her own. This will be the starting point for the development of her “carrier” and queen mother.

Even if Crawford emphasizes that Catherine de Medicis was by no means a rule breaker, she presents her like an innovator who, although acting in the long tradition of royal women at the French court, succeeded to make a way of her own in the political life without the support of any “adult king.”

However, the conditions for a queen mother who intended to claim entitlement to authority at the French court were at the time almost completely against such a move, as the author of the article points out. In support of this idea, Crawford goes back to the moment in French history when women were no longer able to claim the throne. She explains having chosen that moment to depart and not a period in history that allows one to come up with “precedents of female power” for the sake of avoiding a pointless consideration of extended periods in history long before Catherin’s time.

Crawford shows how, based on the successful effort of Philip V to dismiss any claim of his brother’s daughter to the throne in 1316 and continuing with the succession of Charles VI who came to the throne based on his precedent, France ended up in making “the exclusion of women” “a sort of national political characteristic.”

After revising the gradual and steady consolidation of what she called a national custom, between the early fourteenth century and the sixteenth century, Crawford indicates the moment Francis I turning to his mother for his trusted adult administrator as the turning point that recreated the opportunity for female members of the French royal family to have claims of political authority sort. The historian cites a fragment of one of Francis I letters that proves beyond a doubt that a new view on motherly royal love created the conditions for mother queens to be regarded as entitled and rightful guardians of their minor king sons. Further considerations of Louise of Savoy’s deeds after having been granted royal authority during her husband’s absence prove that Louise of Savoy, like later, Catherine de Medicis, perfectly understood the source of her power and acted in conformity to her duties as the most devoted mother of a king. However, the fact that her king son was an adult made limited to a great extent her role and made her position in his absence subject to challenges from different directions. The same situation was repeated in the case of Catherine’s regency while her husband, Henry II was absent on campaigns. On two occasions Catherine was appointed by the king head of a council of regency, her power within it varying from one case to another, but nevertheless, limited.

Crawford insists on the substantial role the two occasions to be head of a regency council had on the future authority the queen will exercise following her husband’s death.

Since her role in the period during the reign of Francis II was secondary, Crawford only mentions it as an episode in Catherine’s life and further focuses on the period during her second son’s reign, Charles IX. The author carefully points out how during the reign of her older son, Francis II, Catherine took great care in expressing her grief over the loss of the king, her husband, after having gone as far as making bold theatrical gestures like destroying the whole building where her husband died. Although she does not point the finger to the perfection of Catherine’s deliberate and well prepared means of creating the image of the perfect widow mother of kings, Crawford is clearly going toward the conclusion that the queen mastered the tools for her authority entitlement with perfection, until her death. The argumentation in favor of Catherine’s genius in building her claim for authority out of the masterfully plaid role of the traditional mother of kings is also based on the reminder of tradition. Women were primarily concerned about providing and raising heirs to the throne, but this also gave them the very source of leverage if they were able to play their cards cleverly. The author concludes that Catherine proved able to seize and use the opportunity entirely on her own. “Catherine could do this because she had gradually accumulated a sort of fund of good behavior. She ad repeatedly and in very public ways asserted that she was a good woman, and particularly a good wife, widow and mother.”

Despite religious wars and numerous opponents and enemies, Catherine results in a woman who acted on her own and succeeded to make turn around a helpless situation into one of the most important carriers of royal women in the history of France. Catherine Crawford’s image of Catherine de Medicis is intended as impartial and exclusively scientific. Her extended use of primary sources and her interpretation of the accounts of Catherine’s contemporaries are indeed making her enterprise of definitely taking the queen away from the romantic view of the nineteenth century a success. Questions arise, however when considering the hardship of the times Catherine struggled to exercise her authority at the highest level. Her flawless image of widow mother seems to be given the absolute power of opening doors no woman before her had succeeded. And yet, the author neglects to mention the allies Catherine must have made along her tumultuous life, or if she does mention them their presence in the story is only episodic. Her way of imposing her will alone, no matter how cleverly balanced in expression, could only succeed if she found powerful supporters. They are neglected entirely in the article.

The article Catherine de Medici: The Legend of the Wicked Italian Woman was written by N.M. Sutherland and published July, 1978. Published in a period where the primary sources were richer and the scientific methods of research made a huge progress, the article aims at finding the sources for the exaggerated image of the evil queen that culminated in the romantic exaggerations of the nineteenth century. Pointing out that the tendency to present Catherine as the evil presence on the political arena of France endured as far as the early twentieth century, Sutherland revises the historic accounts on her life, starting with the Histoire Ecclesiastique des Eglises Reformees de France.

It was only starting with the historic accounts of the seventeenth century that the negative aspects of Catherin’s life began to emerge, converging toward her legendary image of pure evil. but, as Sutherland explains, not even the seventeenth century can claim paternity for this legend. “It was in the second half of the eighteenth century that the picture really began to change. Bonnot de Mably in his Observations sue L’Histoire de France (Geneva, 1765)” described Catherine as an intriguer incapable of inspiring respect, and his account of her character was very dark, contrasting sharply with those of Daniel and Legendre.”

Catherine de Medicis and Her Florentine Friends was written by De Lamar Jensen and published in July 1978. Like the other two authors presented here, Jensen adopts the line of scientific objectivity in treating the image of Catherine de Medicis free of the controversies of the legend and based on reliable historic sources. Like Catherine Crowford, a few decades later, he will take the personality out of the extraordinary circumstances of mysterious circumstances and put her in the context of historic reality, much less spectacular, but also much more appropriate for a scientific attempt to restore her image and place her in the right lines of history. Jensen presents the much blamed Italian origins of the queen as having also plaid a positive role for the history of France: “When france needed money to help finance the costly civil wars, Catherine took great pains to remind Cosimo of their kinship, friendship and common goals, just as the grand duke did when he sought a French alternative to Spanish dominance.”

After having considered Catherine’s actions in the light of the objective historic accounts Jensen expresses his belief that despite all her detractors, Catherine was devoted to France completely, never letting her Italian ties come in the way of her actions.

Catherine de Medicis and the Performance of Political Motherhood”

Catherine Crawford. The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Autumn, 2000) pp.643-673

Catherine de Medici: The Legend of the Wicked Italian Woman.”

N.M. Sutherland. The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, France in the Sixteenth Century (Jul., 1978) pp. 45-56

Catherine de Medicis and Her Florentine Friends”

De Lamar Jensen. The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, France in the Sixteenth Century (Jul., 1978) pp. 57-74

Catherine Crawford, “Catherine de Medicis and the Performance of Political Motherhood,” the Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Autumn, 2000): 643

Catherine Crawford, “Catherine de Medicis and the Performance of Political Motherhood,” the Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Autumn, 2000): 644

Ibid: 645

Catherine Crawford, “Catherine de Medicis and the Performance of Political Motherhood,” the Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Autumn, 2000): 645

Catherine Crawford, “Catherine de Medicis and the Performance of Political Motherhood,” the Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Autumn, 2000): 655

N.M. Sutherland. “Catherine de Medici: The Legend of the Wicked Italian Woman.” The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, France in the Sixteenth Century (Jul., 1978):47-48

De Lamar Jensen. “Catherine de Medicis and Her Florentine Friends.” The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, France in the Sixteenth Century (Jul., 1978): 73

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