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  • Chapter 4:Translation, Self-Representation, and Statecraft: Lady Margaret Beaufort and Caxton's Blanchardyn and Eglantine (1489)
  • Anne Clark Bartlett

Fifteenth-century England is justly famous, even infamous, for the composition, patronage, and translation of what I'd like to classify thematically as "the literature of statecraft": guides for the education and conduct of kings and princes, chivalric manuals and romances, and treatises on the martial arts.1 Moreover, although women have long been identified as readers of medieval romance and occasionally—as in the case of Christine de Pizan—as translators of handbooks on war and governance, female readers have rarely been seen as important audiences for this material on secular governance.2 Yet records of book ownership and patronage indicate that royal, noble, and gentry women owned, commissioned, and bequeathed works such as Vegetius's The Epitome of Military Science, the De Regimine principum, and the pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum Secretorum, all guides for the education of princes that circulated widely in various redactions, adaptations, and translations, throughout and beyond the Middle Ages and achieved their most celebrated expression as Machiavelli's The Prince.3 Medieval women read, commissioned, and taught their children from this material: manuals of knighthood, chivalric romances, and numerous versions of the Troy histories, which were widely used as a reference point for contemporary political events.4 Some of the women associated with these texts include: Mary and Eleanor Bohun, Elizabeth de Burgh, Clemencia of Hungary, Margaret of Anjou, Elizabeth Peche, Alice Chaucer, Joan Neville, Marguerite of Burgundy, Mary Hastings Hungerford, Anne Colville, Anne Scrope, Elizabeth Berkeley, and Anne Paston.5 In Women, Reading, and Piety in Late Medieval England, Mary Erler notes that "no comprehensive effort has yet been mounted to trace the survival of secular texts owned by women . . . [and] it is difficult to see how such a study would proceed."6 This essay, part of a larger study of women and discourses of governance in late medieval England, suggests that a [End Page 53] history of women's secular reading practices should begin with a reexamination of female participation in courtly culture, where, as Hilda Smith argues, "women fared better . . . than in more strictly academic . . . institutions."7 Women's participation in courtly culture can be seen as both direct and diffuse. If medieval households, both elite and humble, functioned for their inhabitants and communities as religious centers, they also worked as what we might call "micro-polities," in which governance of a variety of sorts took place. Some of this governance was performed by women. To explore this phenomenon, we should read historical accounts of courtly women alongside the more commonly studied representations of stylized courtly ladies in medieval literature. Women practiced imitatio reginae with the kinds of fervor that animated their performance of imitatio virginis.8

The extent to which medieval texts on secular governance were consulted by female readers has only just begun to receive scholarly attention. Charles F. Briggs locates sixty copies of Giles of Rome's De Regimine principum with late medieval English provenance, and argues that they reveal an audience "that was both large and diverse in terms of education, social status, gender, and profession."9 The De Regimine principum itself supports this assessment, explaining that "although this book is entitled 'On the Education of Princes,' nevertheless the entire population can be educated by it; for despite the fact that not just anyone can be a king or prince, each person should nevertheless make great efforts to be such a one as would be worthy to rule a kingdom or principality."10 This is much the same advice given by Christine de Pizan, who insists that courtly women must be able to govern wisely. Her Treasure of the City of Ladies (written in 1405 and dedicated to Marguerite of Burgundy) advises that a noble woman "ought to be well-informed about . . . legal aspects and local customs . . . [and] have the heart of a man . . . that is, she ought to know how to use weapons and be familiar with everything that pertains to them, so that she may be ready to command her men if the need arises. She should know how to launch an attack and how to...


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