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  • Perilous Performances: Gender and Regency in Early Modern France
  • Barbara Gaehtgens
    Translated by Sheila J. Rabin
Katherine Crawford . Perilous Performances: Gender and Regency in Early Modern France. Harvard Historical Studies 145. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2004. xii + 297 pp. index. illus. $49.95. ISBN: 0-674-01541-X.

It is noteworthy that French history books rarely write about female regencies. Even more, in representative works of the new French history the periods of regency are either completely ignored or registered under the name of the significant political figure who was chancellor or prime minister to the queen: L'Hôpital for Catherine de Medici, Richelieu for Marie de Medici, or Mazarin for Anne of Austria.

Women and queens were, according to Salic law, basically excluded from the succession to the throne, and likewise, from rule. Only at the death of a king did the opportunity to exercise power and authority present itself in unanticipated ways as widows and mothers of underage kings. These regencies are considered epochs of political instability in which wars of religion, family quarrels, power struggles, and frondes call the stability and continuity of the French state into question. The dictum "woe to thee o land whose king is a child" refers to this circumstance.

Essentially the theme of conflict reinforced that now the state was guided by women, whose role in the court and the society traditionally followed other norms than that of full ruling power of the established regnant queen. The step from female marginality to the center of political power required from the regents new persuasive strategies, "performances," according to Crawford — which enabled them to succeed against the straight traditional male monarchy. To this model belongs an emphatic politics of peace and marriage with the public display of maternal love for the child king and the accent on the family as opposed to the king as the highest representative of the state. Especially important was the new connection with the French parlement — on the one hand, the injection of the lit de justice by the regent over the young king allowed him to appear as a minor in need of protection; on the other, it put him forth as a law-giving authority.

Why were these new "performances," which took place at large ceremonial and constitutional events, dangerous? The author tries in the four chapters of her book to put forth the thesis that under the new necessary order, changing strategies of female regency slowly but solidly corroded the state and its legislative and executive institutions. For it made clear, according to Crawford, that the plenary power of rule also existed apart from those masculine-determined corporate bodies. Power and authority could at times also be practiced without a king capable of ruling. And a state could manifestly outlive a king. This experience, which every new regency again confirmed and broadened, slowly led, according to Crawford, to the dissolution of the Ancien Régime, and, finally to revolution.

In the next three chapters she successfully seeks to establish where, during the reigns of the three regents between 1560 and 1660 who each profited from the political achievements of their predecessors, each had yet to fight. All three regents politically used the familiarly defined picture of a true widow and concerned [End Page 182] mother. Moreover, they tried to screen their time-limited rule on behalf of the king so that it was not clear when the regency ended and when the reign of the king began. That led to an undermining of the idea of monarchical continuity. They sought to hinder the political front through ambiguity and dissimulation and always hid their true power. At the same time, according to Crawford, they maintained control over their pictorial representation. Only Marie de Medici had her confrontation with Richelieu, who in opposition to her pushed through a defined male concept of rule for Louis XIII so that she had no effect on her contemporaries. She did not succeed in making her regency appear successful.

Surprisingly, but entirely logically, Crawford describes in the fourth chapter the regency of Philip of Orléans for the young Louis XV. He, according to her thesis...


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pp. 182-183
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Archived 2009
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