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  • After Lavinia: A Literary History of Premodern Marriage Diplomacy by John Watkins
  • Amanda Walling (bio)
After Lavinia: A Literary History of Premodern Marriage Diplomacy. By John Watkins. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017. xii + 274 pp. Hardcover $59.95.

Scholars of the European medieval and early modern periods have long grappled with the incalculable influence of Virgil’s Aeneid on later discussions of empire, national identity, and the uses of the past. John Watkins takes a less-studied aspect of the Aeneid as the starting point for a fascinating interdisciplinary study of marriage diplomacy from the post-Roman period through the seventeenth century. For Watkins, Aeneas’s betrothal to the Latin princess Lavinia—which both triggers a bloody war and eventually unites the Trojans and Latins into a single nation—initiates a literary and political discourse of marriage, nation-building, diplomacy, gender, and cultural difference that resonates for over a millennium. He draws upon chronicle histories, medieval romances, diplomatic records, international society theory, pastoral verse, political pamphlets, and early modern drama to develop an ambitious and nuanced argument about the changing ideology of political marriages. Watkins’s study builds upon a rich body of interdisciplinary literary, historical, and political scholarship on premodern eras, particularly concerning the cultural constructions of queenship and the intersections of diplomatic and literary cultures; it also draws on international relations theory to examine the broader ramifications of his argument about “the place of marriage in the formation, maintenance, and disintegration of a premodern European diplomatic society” (4). [End Page e-13]

The book’s first two chapters are primarily focused on chronicles of particular ethnic groups from soon after the fall of the western Roman empire through the eighth century. Watkins is especially sensitive to the methodological challenges of considering these texts as both literary works and historical sources for poorly documented eras. Chapter 1 shows how chroniclers of the Ostrogoths and Lombards use stories of intermarriage to narrate the history of groups subsequently absorbed into the Byzantine and Carolingian empires, evoking both the more optimistic and the darker connotations of Virgil’s account of ethnogenesis. The second chapter turns to chronicles of the Franks and Anglo-Saxons that describe how royal marriages facilitated the conversion of pagan and Arian rulers to Trinitarian Christianity. Here, Watkins draws upon a modified version of the international society theory developed by Hedley Bull and Adam Watson to argue that these kingdoms formed a common “diplomatic society” thanks to their Roman-derived legal conventions, their reliance on clerics as an international diplomatic corps, and their strategic use of royal intermarriage.

In Chapter 3, Watkins argues that the dominant paradigm of marriage diplomacy shifted from proselytizing and empire building to peacemaking between belligerent nations. As the Church began to promote the idea of a pax Christiana, foreign queens were portrayed as saintly intercessors for peace and as types of the Virgin Mary. If chronicles idealized these peacemaking marriages, however, the emerging genre of romance explored the inner lives of women whose personal desires might be sacrificed to political necessity. Authors such as Wace and Chrétien de Troyes evoke Virgil’s passionate Dido more than his silent Lavinia, probing the damage done by unhappy marriages and imagining a political and personal ideal of marriages bolstered by romantic passion.

The book’s last three chapters trace how the ideology of marriage diplomacy declined over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Watkins cites three forces that particularly diminished the influence and popularity of such marriages: the loss of an ideal of international Christian community after the Reformation, the rise of a print culture that exposed political and religious controversies to a wider public, and the gradual centralization of monarchical power in bureaucratic governments. In this context, foreign consorts came to be viewed with suspicion, and the political influence of queens was curtailed. Chapter 4 contrasts two important diplomatic moments: the 1559 Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis, which sealed peace negotiations between France, Spain, and England with two intermarriages, and the 1579–1581 discussions of a possible French marriage for Elizabeth I. Watkins examines the responses to each treaty in the popular press, from celebratory epithalamia to dangerous [End Page e-14] critique, noting...


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