Queens of Jerusalem: The Women Who Dared to Rule

Image of Queens of Jerusalem: The Women Who Dared to Rule
Release Date: 
February 1, 2022
Pegasus Books
Reviewed by: 

“an evocative picture . . . an important addition to medieval and women’s history.”

Katherine Pangonis tries to fill the voids in the historical record where women in power have been taken out of medieval history. Focusing on the 12th century, a time of crusades when European powers fought to rule Jerusalem, Pangonis has a rich historical field to work with, this being a period when women ruled as regents, queens, and as forces with power even if they didn’t have official authority. Using many primary sources that are well cited, she paints on evocative picture of a world with shifting allegiances in a region facing constant battles from an array of enemies.

It’s clear that Pangonis knows her history and can lay out facts and figures to support her reading of events. What’s trickier is the tightrope she walks of being true to historical context while being acutely sensitive to contemporary tastes. This is a book for the general public, not historians, so she feels compelled to forestall objections that could arise if modern values are placed on ancient times:

“The terms ‘misogynistic’ and ‘patriarchal’ are both essential for modern considerations of the presentation and treatment of women, and it is tempting to use these terms liberally when describing the lives of the female rulers of Outremer. However, when applied to the medieval world these terms can sound jarringly anachronistic. For this reason I will use them sparingly.”

Still, she does use them, especially when presenting primary sources (mostly male writers, of course), which is just as disturbing as she warns it could be. This constant awareness yanks the reader out of the history so that the narrative isn’t as seamless as it could be, jerked as we are by constant reminders of unfair sexism. Pangonis quotes from a remarkable letter from Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, to Queen Melisande after she ascends to the throne and her husband’s death leaves her to rule alone. It’s a surprising letter precisely because the abbot encourages Melisande to have faith in her ability to rule. Instead of letting the words speak for themselves, the author feels the need to suggest the letter may appear “condescending.” Given that it was written in the 1100s, it has exactly the opposite effect, but this historian has one ear cocked for contemporary criticism and gives in to it all too often.

Her contemporary lens also makes her describe and judge the kings and princes in the book, the consorts of the featured women, as good or bad husbands by ridiculously modern standards:

“Prince Bohemond was her [Alice’s] equal in every way, but problems arose between them because he failed to recognize this. All the qualities that caused chroniclers to catch their breath at the advent of this young man and lavish praise upon him, were the very qualities that would make him a less-than-ideal husband.”

If readers expect royalty to marry out of love, then they should head for the historical romance aisle, not the nonfiction section where this book belongs. Perhaps Pangonis is right to assume that the average reader needs her constant nudges and reminders. We are living in prickly times, after all. But the women in this history are as remarkable as she describes precisely because of when they lived. And we don’t really care how loving their marriages were. What’s interesting is how they ruled, the power they wielded, and the choices they made. After all, would a historian begin the description of a king’s tenure with the emotional state of his marriage? An introductory chapter laying out the ground rules of history and historical context could have obviated the need for the jerking around that happens throughout the book. Still, the basic history here is solid and intriguing, an important addition to medieval and women’s history.