- “A Mooder He Hath, but Fader Hath He Noon” Constructions of Genealogy in the Clerk’s Tale and the Man of Law’s Tale
In the early fourteenth century the kingdoms of England and France were in conflict over the issue of women’s power to transmit heritable rule in their own right. The disposition of France’s throne hung in the balance. In 1316, Philip of Poitiers, brother of the reigning king Louis X and future Philip V of France, set out to disinherit his infant niece, Jeanne, of the French throne, setting the stage for eventual conflict with England. 1 From 987, with the establishment of the Capetian monarchy, until the death of Louis X in 1316, no French king had failed before to provide a son who survived his father’s death. The question of female eligibility for the throne had thus never been broached, giving Philip an opportunity to argue for the exclusion of women from succession, yet no clear precedent upon which to base that argument. In the absence of precedent, Philip cast about for a way to invalidate Jeanne’s claim to the throne.
As an infant female, and quite possibly illegitimate due to her mother’s well-known indiscretions, Jeanne presented French aristocrats with a somewhat unappealing candidate for the throne, yet Louis X had publicly acknowledged her as his legitimate child. 2 Philip was left in a peculiar bind. Prominent medical discourses based in Aristotelian biology supported his [End Page 25] claim by suggesting that only men could inherit and transmit bloodlines. As a daughter, Jeanne would then be ineligible to claim a birthright to her father’s throne through blood, and even if she herself inherited by right of her relation to her father, her own children would carry the blood of her husband, effectively spelling the end of the Capetian royal line. As Louis’s brother, Philip thus would be a much better choice for the throne; as a man, he could both carry and transmit the Capetian bloodline to his own heirs. However, Philip could not employ this argument without difficulty, as he had previously petitioned Louis X to allow his own patrimony to pass to his daughter in the case that his sons died, appealing to “reason and natural law” to support the right of daughters to inherit in the absence of brothers. 3 Through negotiation and outright bribery, Philip eventually succeeded in disinheriting Jeanne, and French lawmakers passed, without elaboration, a law which stated that a woman could not rule France in her own name. 4
Women’s ambivalent status in relation to genealogy—their disputed ability to carry and transmit the patriline—returned dramatically to plague France in the 1337 claim of Edward III to the throne of France through his mother, Isabelle, the last surviving child of Philip IV. So long successful in producing male heirs to the throne, the kings of the Capetian line failed to do so twice more in the span of twelve years. In the second instance, however, a direct male descendent of the primary Capet line did exist. Awkwardly for the French, this descendant was the current king of England. The English based their claim to the French throne on the assumption that a woman could in fact transmit her father’s bloodline to her son. If this model of genealogy was accepted, then Edward III of England (reigned 1327–77), the only direct grandson of Philip IV of France, became the clear rightful heir to the throne of France after each of his three maternal uncles died heirless. 5 In 1337, nine years after the last of these uncles, Charles the Fair, had died, Edward III claimed the throne on behalf of his mother’s right, challenging the legitimacy of Philip VI’s rulership. 6 For their part, the French understandably wished no part of an English king ruling France, and thus they claimed that a woman [End Page 26] was not only ineligible to claim the right of the crown for herself but also could not transmit the claim to the French throne to her children. 7 With this justification, the French had chosen Charles the...