Queenship, Piety, and Maternity in Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts

About the Project

This project explores the contradictory expectations of royal women in the Middle Ages: to be sexually pure on the one hand, and to bare male offspring that would continue the royal bloodline on the other. The study uses facsimiles -- or scholarly reproductions -- of three manuscripts owned by queens of the Capetian dynasty (which ruled France in the 10th through 14th centuries). Each queen had something at stake in both maintaining her purity and securing her bloodline; my research revolves around how these women interacted with their books, as well as what ideological purposes the images within them may serve.

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Ingeborg Psalter

This book belonged Ingeborg of Denmark, whose husband, Phillip II of France, attempted to divorce her almost immediately after their marriage in 1193. Their relationship was tumultuous up until Phillip's death in 1213, and Ingeborg never provided him with an heir. The manuscript itself contains a calendar of the Catholic feast days, a series of full-page illuminations (painted decorations or illustrations) featuring scenes from both the Hebrew and Greek Bibles, [1] and the text of the psalms. Psalters became increasingly common in the high and late Middle Ages, as a way for the laity to practice religion outside the church.

On this page, Christ, having risen from the tomb, shows St. Thomas his wounds to expel his doubt over the resurrection. Thomas reaches out as if to touch the opening; here, we get a sense of the centrality of the body in medieval Christianity. Theologians in the 12th century likened the wound in Christ's side to the womb, a holy opening in which one might find spiritual refuge. The Cistercian order in particular favored this maternal imagery as a way to emphasize the humanity and tenderness of Christ. [2] The image of the side wound would become especially prevalent in the later Middle Ages, in books meant for the laity, but also in the writings of nuns. [3] In the Ingeborg Psalter, the illuminator has rendered the wound with black pigments that create a sense of depth, furthering the idea of the wound as a space for the faithful to enter. Christ becomes a mother figure, to whom Ingeborg might have related as a woman; yet the insistence upon the sacredness of maternity, present throughout the manuscript, must also have amplified the pressure she felt to produce an heir for Phillip.

1. I use the terms "Hebrew Bible" and "Greek Bible" where others might use "Old Testament" and "New Testament." I avoid the latter terms because they reinforce a Christian-centric worldview, in which Chritianity is "new" and Judaism is "old."

2. Bynum, Caroline Walker. “Jesus as Mother and Abbot as Mother: Some Themes in Twelfth-Century Cistercian Writing,” in Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1982.

3. Olson, Vibeke. “Penetrating the Void: Picturing the Wound in Christ’s Side as a Performative Space,” in Wounds and Wound Repair in Medieval Culture, edited by Larissa Tracy, 311-339. Leiden: BRILL, 2015.

Biblia de San Luis

This bible moralisée, or moralized bible, was commissioned by Blanche of Castile for her son, Luis IX of France, during her regency (1226-1234). Moralized bibles were intended to teach young people proper Christian values, and in Louis' case, as a future king, his education had special importance in French society. [1]

The book does not contain the full text of the bible; rather, it is divided into paired typologies, showing events from the Hebrew bible that supposedly foreshadow events in the Greek bible. This pair contains a simplified version of Genesis 2:21 ("Then the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon Adam: and when he was fast asleep, he took one of his ribs, and filled up flesh for it") with an accompanying illumination. Below, the commentary likens the creation of Eve from Adam's rib to the creation of the Church. The illumination shows God pulling Ecclesia, the allegorical figure of the Christian Church, from Jesus' side wound. Here, the likening of the side wound to the womb becomes more explicit as Christ "gives birth" to the church. Christ again appears as a mother, and as the mother of the central institution of the Christian world. Motherhood, then, gains some agency in its ability to create powerful things -- something to which Blanche must have related as the mother of France's future king.

Yet it is also important to note the role that this birth scene plays in the rhetoric of the Biblia de San Luis. Paired with the creation of Eve, the scene asserts that the events of the Hebrew Bible were natural precursors to those in the Greek Bible -- that the crucifixion and the birth of the Church were part of an ultimate plan beginning with, and foreshadowed by, the Creation. Jewish worldviews, then, become obsolete as the Hebrew bible is forced into direct conversation with the Greek Bible.

1. Louis would also be sainted after his death, hence the moniker "San Luis" in the name of the book.

929333FA-DFEF-4FC8-9BB3-5267F3F58EA0.jpeg The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, Queen of France

Photograph: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hours of Jeanne d'Évreux

Jeanne d'Evreux married her cousin, Charles IV of France, in 1324, when she was 14 years old. Scholars have suggested that this book of hours was Charles' wedding gift to his new wife. Books of hours, like psalters, belonged to laypeople and allowed them to perform spirituality outside the church; this book thus served as a devotional tool, but perhaps also as part of Jeanne's education as a new queen. [1]

Jeanne's book of hours contains a calendar, the Hours of the Virgin -- a set of prayers that the devotee offered to the Virgin Mary eight times a day [2] -- the Hours of Saint Louis, the Seven Penitential Psalms, and the Litany. Most of the elements in the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux are typical of the genre, but as private devotional texts, books of hours' contents often varied greatly from owner to owner. The presence of the Hours of Saint Louis makes the Jeanne's book unique; Louis was her and her husband's shared ancestor, as well as an example of charitable behavior for Jeanne to follow, as illuminations show him feeding the hungry and caring for the sick. [3]

This Crucifixion scene accompanies text from the Hours of the Virgin, and is juxtaposed by the Adoration of the Magi on the next page. This image is much busier than those in the other manuscripts, with a greater sense of depth and a reserved use of color. Figures frame and bring our attention to the image of Christ on the cross, where red pigment brings his gushing wounds to life. The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux also stands apart from the other manuscripts in terms of scale -- this tiny volume fits comfortably in the palm of the hand, and Kathleen Clare Lang has suggested that the manuscript's size attests to the personal and intimate experience of its devotional use. [4]

1. Holladay, Joan A. “The Education of Jeanne D'Evreux: Personal Piety and Dynastic Salvation in Her Book of Hours at the Cloisters.” Art History 17, no. 4 (December 1994): 585–611. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8365.1994.tb00597.x. pp. 601-603.

2. See Wieck, Roger S. "Hours of the Virgin" in Painted Prayers: the Book of Hours in Medieval and Renaissance Art. New York: George Braziller, 1997: 51-85.

3. Holladay, 598.

4. "The Hours of Jeanne d'Evrex: An Analysis of Size." MA diss. San Jose State University, 2001.

About the Creator

Charlie Taylor is a second-year student as of Spring 2021, majoring in History of Art & Architecture and Classics and minoring in French.


Special thanks to my HAA faculty mentor, Shirin Fozi, and my librarian mentor, Kate Joranson, for guiding me through the development and execution of this project. I would also like to thank Jeanann Haas, Megan Massanelli, and Clare Withers at ULS for their continued support in providing remote access to the materials.

Gender in Illuminated Manuscripts