La compétition au féminin : le Moyen Âge central/ Women’s competition: central middle ages.

Seminar organized by Jan Rüdiger et Maximiliane Berger from 4 to 9 March, 2024.


Justine AUDEBRAND (LaMOP / Université de Poitiers, UFR SHA – Paris / Poitiers, France), Martin AURELL (Université de Poitiers – Poitiers, France), Maximiliane BERGER (Universität Basel, Departement Geschichte – Basel, Suisse), Justine CUDORGE (Université de Reims Champagne-Ardenne – Reims, France), Daniel FÖLLER (Goethe-Unversität Frankfurt, Historisches Seminar – Frankfurt a. M., Allemagne), Michael GRÜNBART (University of Münster / Institute of Byzantine studies – Münster, Allemagne), Sylvie JOYE (MSHS Poitiers – Université de Lorraine – Nancy, France), Valérie MUHMENTHALER (Universität Basel – Bâle, Suisse), Jan RÜDIGER (Universität Basel, Departement Geschichte – Bâle, Suisse), Maria TRANTER (Universität Basel, Departement Geschichte – Bâle, Suisse)


A marked gender binomy: men wielding power over victimised women – a frequent trope in medieval sources and modern scholarship alike (Maciejowski or Crusader Bible, mid-13th c., New York, Morgan Library M.638, fol.34v, detail)

À quel point le Moyen Âge était-il masculin ? Aujourd’hui, la recherche historique a libéré de nombreuses femmes médiévales de l’invisibilité que leur imposaient nombre de nos sources, mais la question reste ouverte. Lors de ce séminaire, un groupe de médiévistes d’Europe francophone et germanophone a porté un regard neuf sur le vieux problème de l’évaluation des déséquilibres médiévaux entre les sexes à travers le prisme des processus de compétition : la compétition au féminin.


How male were the Middle Ages? By now, historical research has freed many medieval women from the invisibility imposed on them by many of our sources, but the question is still open. In this seminar, a group of medievalists from French- and German-speaking Europe had a fresh look at the old problem of assessing medieval gender imbalances through the lens of processes of competition: la compétition au féminin.


Are the Middle Ages still male? Both professional history and popular imagination thought so thirty years ago. Since then, gender and women’s history have brought to light – indeed, often rather emphasised – the lives of hundreds of women who exercised agency in the personal, economic, and political domain, and quite a few who exercised considerable power. But tendencies to regard them as the female exception to the male rule stubbornly cling on, and it can be hard to disentangle whether that is due more to medieval or to modern societal norms. That is not to say that there are no good reasons for arguing that our Middle Ages are to some degree necessarily shaped by a male gaze: The modes and milieux of production of medieval written sources tend to privilege misogynist views and narrations without women. But letting these asymmetries predetermine our views of specifically medieval gender imbalances in society more generally – of gender imbalances among people rather than on pages – is potentially as fallacious as it is hard to avoid.

For our seminar at the Fondation des Treilles, held in sun-drenched early spring (4th–9th March 2024), Prof. Jan Rüdiger and Dr Maximiliane Berger (both Basel) united a group of medievalists of various stripes and from universities in France, Germany, and Switzerland, half of whom are senior scholars, to tackle this knotty problem from a fresh angle. The group’s expertises range from the fifth to the fifteenth century, and from the Rhomaian (‘Byzantine’) Empire via Scandinavia and the Anglo-Norman polities to Catalonia. Not all of us would describe ourselves as women’s or gender historians, which made our discussions more diverse, and spurred us to delve into problems not only of history, but of how we write history. Nevertheless, during this week we came together to explore a common approach to the challenge of assessing the gendering of medieval power and resource imbalances: By looking at processes of competition – compétition au féminin / competition among, for, and about women –, we renounced an a priori gendered pitting of women as women against other women as women, or men as men. We understood competition to mean several parties’ vying for scarce resources of any kind, acting in comparison with, but not directly against each other (this would mark the boundary between competition and conflict). Any competitive process’s outcome is determined comparatively, and thus to a degree collectively. In this way, competition can create or disrupt social order. In how far any action taken in processes of competition, or any competitor as competitor, was gendered, and in what ways, or whether issues of sex or gender were in evidence at all, remained to be investigated in each case.

We began with analyses of probably the most prominent and profitable constellation of medieval women (and men) competing, where crowns were at stake. Martin Aurell (Poitiers) and Michael Grünbart (Münster) led our discussions on the different ways women’s contributions to lordship in the Rhomaian Empire and in France remain visible today. Eleanor of Aquitaine’s involvement in strategic decisions on the Second Crusade has to be excavated from beneath narrations of the French ruling couple’s troubles, but was her involvement itself a (gendered) problem at the time? Should the long series of Rhomaian empresses and their public images on coins be couched in terms of gynocracy, or of symbiotic ruling partnerships with others, often men, around them? The case studies provided by Justine Audebrand (Poitiers) and Teresa Steffenino (Basel) served to further complicate the problem, showing Hadwig of Swabia and Petronilla of Aragon exercising lordship as people of female sex but, depending on context and counterparts, diverse male or female gendering. If these examples threw our modern temptation to depict rule by women as ‘female rulership’ in particularly stark relief, the cases of competition discussed by Maximiliane Berger and Maria Tranter (both Basel) evidenced the challenge of framing, and making visible to modern eyes, the presence of medieval women in un-gendered contexts of crusade and sanctity without, however, introducing modern gendering of these situations through the female backdoor. Competitions among women were placed centre stage by Jan Rüdiger, Justine Cudorge (Reims), and Sylvie Joye (Université de Lorraine). Relationships between women in contexts of Merovingian polygyny, and the structure of beauty contests in 12th-century Arthurian literature, which involved much male palaver and prowess, could be read as female competition for male attention – or they could be read as women shaping cultural techniques that made men resources. But could women really do it all? Daniel Föller (Basel/Bochum) showed recent trends of celebrating Viking valkyries may be jumping one conclusion too far, from women participating alongside men in elite cognition to women doing everything they could (but maybe chose not to) do.

After grappling with gendering and gendered problems in the languages of our medieval sources for a week, both during our designated work sessions and during the delicious meals that nourished our brains and soothed our souls, we concurred that another aspect of language will be central to our future research into the problem of medieval-to-modern gender imbalances as well: The way we write history around these question, and which invariably has to be designed to respond to present debates and to shape what we regard as our medieval evidence base. Here, we discussed, for example, de-gendering our own texts, the concept of individuals and families as carriers of empire as distinct from concepts of male or female rule, which are gendered by definition, or how we might use images to illustrate female presences in only potentially female or male competitive situations – so that women, while not necessarily being gendered, are as implicitly just there in our histories as they are often not there in those of our medieval colleagues.

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
ldiebold (6 mai 2024). La compétition au féminin : le Moyen Âge central/ Women’s competition: central middle ages. Les carnets de la Fondation des Treilles. Consulté le 22 juillet 2024 à l’adresse

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