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Essays in Medieval Studies 19 (2002) 44-60

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Gender in the World of William Marshal and Bertran de Born

William D. Paden
Northwestern University


In his book on William Marshal, who died in 1219 as regent of England, Georges Duby wrote that his principal source, the Anglo-Norman poem that narrates William's life, is precious to the historian because we know little about the secular, knightly mentality in which William Marshal lived. 1 Analyzing that mentality with his customary brilliance, Duby proposed that William and men like him lived by an ethic comprising four values: loyalty, prowess, generosity, and courtesy. 2 However, the first three of these values prove more interesting to Duby than the fourth, courtesy, or skill in pleasing other people in a social setting, which he passes over summarily. The apparent reason why Duby dismisses courtesy from his own narrative is his lack of interest in the role of women in his story.

Duby writes that the world of William Marshal was "a masculine world, and in it only males count." 3 This note rings strangely false within Duby's story as he tells it himself. William Marshal, who rose from modest beginnings as the fourth son of a minor nobleman, acquired vast wealth and the standing that went with it by marriage to Isabel de Clare. His wife brought him not only the castle of Striguil near Brighton on the English Channel, but also the title of earl of Pembroke in Wales, important holdings in Normandy, and about one quarter of Ireland. 4 William gained this brilliant marriage as a reward for long service to Henry II, including one occasion when he came to the rescue of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry's queen. Eleanor's gratitude was explicit, and must have been a factor in William's subsequent advancement. 5 Nor should we forget that Henry II became king of England through his mother Matilda, daughter of Henry I and granddaughter of William the Conqueror. Some historians accept Matilda's claim that she was rightful [End Page 44] queen of England in her own name during the years of anarchy (1135-1154) when she disputed the throne held by Stephen of Blois. 6 In any case Stephen agreed, after the death of his son, to pass the crown to his cousin Henry, Matilda's son. When Henry felt the need of a surname, he used FitzEmpress—son of the empress Matilda, so called because she had been the consort of the Roman Emperor before she married Henry's father. 7 He must have done so because his inheritance through her far outshone what he received from his father, Geoffrey, count of Anjou. 8 In the world of William Marshal women such as Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Isabel de Clare, however limited their power of initiative or agency, surely occupied an acknowledged and significant place.

Duby also exaggerates the undoubted importance of masculine concerns in William's world. Although he claims that the ceremony of dubbing as a knight "was considered the main event of all masculine existence," he concedes that the Histoire neither describes William's own dubbing nor mentions its date. 9 He claims, too, that the lineage of a saint or hero seemed indispensable, since, as the Histoire repeats, "from a good tree comes good fruit"; 10 but he concedes that the same Histoire tells little about William's lineage, naming his father and a maternal uncle but neither of his grandfathers. The poem also fails to mention his father's death, as Duby notes. 11 The Histoire does, however, provide a vivid detail regarding William's masculinity that Duby transmits while subtly enhancing its importance: "he was brown in both hair and complexion . . . and . . . his enfourcheure, his crotch, was very large." 12

Duby's shortcomings as an historian of gender have been pointed out before. It is not unfair, I think, to call his history of women in the twelfth century a history of misogyny written by a misogynist. 13 Nevertheless Duby's stature as...