Reviewed by:
Martínez, H. Salvador. Berenguela la Grande y su época (1180–1246) Colección crónicas y memorias. Madrid: Ediciones Polifemo, 2012. 892 pp. ISBN 978–84–96813–64–9.

Berenguela la Grande y su época is a biography of Berenguela of Castile (b. 1180–d. 1246), who ruled first as queen consort of León, and then as Regent of Castile on behalf of her minor brother, Enrique I, and finally as co-regent along with her son, Fernando III, King of Castile and León. In fact, Berenguela belonged to such a prestigious family line that, until very recently, a gaggle of her relatives, for example, her grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England, her sister, Blanche of Castile, Queen of France (Saint Louis’s mother), her son, Fernando III of Castile and Leon, a hero of the “Reconquest” and saint, and her grandson, Alfonso X, the most learned, if not most wise among Castilian Kings, seem at times to have all but monopolized the imagination of historians. Recently, however, Berenguela has found her deserved portion of fame. The book under review represents the fourth monograph in six years to have been devoted to the queen and regent; the predecessors include: Valentín de la Cruz’s Berenguela la Grande (Trea, 2006); Miriam Shadis’s Berenguela of Castile (1180– 1246) and Political Women in the High Middle Ages (Palgrave, 2009), and Janna Bianchini’s, The Queen’s Hand: Power and Authority in the Reign of Berenguela of Castile (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) –testimony to the vitality that the studies of medieval queenship (reginalidad medieval) have exhibited in the last decade or so.

Martínez has written in this historical genre before, with a biography of Berenguela’s illustrious grandson, Alfonso X The Learned (Polifemo, 2003) exactly a decade ago. He defines biography as “artefacto literario que el biográfo pone en manos del lector para que pueda imaginarse de la forma más aproximada [End Page 270] posible la realidad del personaje biografiado; no es ni un balcón abierto ni un espejo para contemplarlo…” (10). And this is precisely what he delivers: a literary artifact that explains and investigates Berenguela’s life, and that at times even recreates what she was probably thinking or feeling. As the saying goes “the devil is in the details”, and Martínez delivers the details, which is to say, he has written a very substantial biography that also analyzes Berenguela’s historical and cultural context, and reviews the sources at our disposal – sources that are quoted generously throughout the book.

For a Castilian queen who lived during the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries the historical sources that relate to Berenguela and her reign are by no means abundant – certainly not equal, should we compare them, for instance, to those available for the study of the queens of the Crown of Aragon in the late Middle Ages. However, Martínez’s research has been both rigorous and exhaustive, and he has used everything at his disposal. These include a set of fifty documents that are direct contemporary sources for her reign, together with the Diplomatarios of Alfonso VIII, Alfonso IX, Enrique I, and Fernando III. Apart from these administrative sources, his study is based primarily on historical literature– chronicles, which in Martínez’s view can be critically read as historical evidence. These include contemporary works by Lucas de Tuy (d. 1249), Rodrígo Jiménez de Rada (d. 1247), and Juan de Osma (d. 1246), along with Alfonso X’s later Estoria de España or Primera crónica general and the Crónica de los veinte reyes. Of these, Martínez depends on the Crónica latina de los reyes de Castilla (1223–1239) attributed to Juan de Osma as his principal source for constructing Berenguela’s biography.

The book is divided into twenty chapters, framed by an introduction and a conclusion, plus a chronology of events, a bibliography, and an index of names. There are also quite a few, most welcome color illustrations, including miniatures, burial tombs, maps, and even a picture of her modern sculpture in Madrid’s Parque del Retiro. The twenty chapters proceed chronologically through the subject’s life and career. He begins with her genealogy and family history. As the first-born child of Leonor Plantagenet and Alfonso VIII of Castile, Berenguela was, until the birth of her brother, the heiress of Castile. As an adolescent she was wed in 1197 on the initiative of her mother to Alfonso IX, King of León, the “alma negra de Castilla” (114) in order to cement a crucial alliance between the kingdoms. This marriage, however, would be annulled in [End Page 271] 1204 on the grounds of consanguinity, as had happened a generation earlier to Alfonso IX’s father, Alfonso VIII, when he was forced to separate from Teresa of Portugal. By this time, Berenguela and Alfonso had engendered five children together, the future Fernando III being their oldest son. The richness of detail with which Martínez approaches his subject can be seen, for instance, in his discussion of the “declaración de nulidad” that ended Berenguela’s marriage, and the resulting “disolución del matrimonio” –each of which merit a full chapter.

As a consequence, after having spent six years as queen-consort in the Kingdom of León (1198–1204), Berenguela was forced to return to her parents’ court in Castile, where she and her children started a new life. A decade later, the death of her father inaugurated the most important period of her life, at least from a political point of view. Beginning in 1214, she would rule for thirty-two years, either as regent of Castile on behalf of her brother Enrique I (1214–17), or as co-regent of Castile along with her son, Fernando III (1217–46). Berenguela’s role in the government of the kingdom and the challenges she faced are also dissected in great detail, and these chapters form the bulk of the book. Among these obstacles were the prejudices that women who aspired to or wielded power faced in this deeply patriarchal society. Nevertheless, Berenguela was active, playing a key role in securing the throne of León for Fernando III, and acting as a mediator between her son and his half-sisters, Sancha and Dulce (Chapter Eighteen). She also played a significant part in Fernando’s conquest of Córdoba, which is related in the penultimate chapter. The book concludes with her death at the Monastery of Las Huelgas (Burgos) on 8 November 1246, aged seventy-five. This is not to say that Martínez’s study is limited to political and dynastic narrative –other aspects of her life and career, including her role as mother and teacher, and an analysis of courtly life and culture, are also explored (Chapters Eight and Ten, respectively).

In conclusion, Martínez constructs a vivid and enthusiastic portrayal of Berenguela as queen in all her complexity. Among her shortcomings, he points to what may be qualified as the “overprotection” of her son Fernando, “el instinto materno y el cariño impulsaron a Berenguela a proteger en demasía a su hijo aún siendo ya un hombre adulto” (749). Overall, however, she is presented as an efficient ruler who took care of her kingdoms “velando por los reinos que ella había unido con el mismo celo que una leona vela por sus cachorros” (802), and as a protective and ambitious mother who had clear goals for her lineage. In closing, she is presented as a sort of “mujer perfecta de la Biblia” (802). [End Page 272]

Martínez exhibits an indisputable mastery over all of the sources at our disposal for the study of Berenguela, and he brings this to bear with a thoroughness that is likely unmatchable. Some readers may not agree fully with his interpretations, or his approach, and some may find wanting an engagement with the broader picture of Iberian, European and Mediterranean queenship, in order to better assess the extent to which Berenguela was, or was not, “exceptional.” But all will agree that this is an encyclopedic biography that will be of great interest to medievalists working not only on Castilian history, but also on queenship, medieval politics, monarchical power, and last but not least, gender.

Núria Silleras-Fernández
University of Colorado at Boulder

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