CARA/MAP Responses to Kim Phillip’s MAP/CARA Plenary Lecture

I am delighted to remind everyone that the MAA YouTube Channel remains active and that Kim Phillips’s MAP/CARA Plenary Lecture is available for all who would like to watch. In addition, Shirin Khanmohamadi and Tanya Stabler Miller have offered their thoughtful and incisive response to Prof. Phillips’s lecture linked here through the MAA blog. I encourage you to take the time to read and to continue to engage these compelling ideas. I also want to thank Profs. Khanmohamadi and Stabler Miller for taking the time to compose these texts during such a challenging moment. As medievalists, we know how powerful intellectual exchange and humanistic learning are in times of crisis and I am grateful for their commitment to both.

Let me also take this moment to ask CARA Affiliates to please submit their program updates to Lisa so that these can be added to the blog and we can continue to keep our medieval communities and virtual scholarly lives connected.

all best, and stay healthy,
Anne E. Lester, CARA Chair

Tanya Stabler Miller, Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois

In her plenary address, Phillips calls on historians to pay more attention to gender in histories of medieval European expansion, arguing that gender holds great potential for analyzing narratives of contact and conquest. By centering Francisca de Gazmira and other women in medieval colonial contexts, Phillips demonstrates their political significance in narratives of European expansion, the limits of their “agency,” and the toxic nature of conquest masculinities. As she rightly suggests, by examining narratives of conquest through a gendered lens, medievalists can deepen and expand their understanding of the ways that gender intersects with other forms of difference. Over the last twenty years, medievalists have increasingly turned their attention to heretics, Muslims, Jews and other marginalized groups within Western Europe. Medieval scholars have likewise paid more attention to sexuality, disability, and social class. Yet, much more work needs to be done to uncover how these identities and experiences intersect and overlap, particularly beyond Western Europe.

As Phillips points out, early modernists have applied gender to studies of European contact and conquest, deeply enriching our understanding of the ways in which European claims to dominance came to be expressed and reinforced (and thus naturalized) through gendered language and concepts. Modern historians have shown–particularly in colonial contexts–that gendered language and imagery were powerful means of constructing and enforcing relationships of domination and subordination. Yet, in spite of its great potential for expanding scholarly understandings of both the multiplicity and multivalence of gender identities and symbolism and the history of European expansion, medieval historians have been relatively slow to incorporate gender analysis in histories of expansion and conquest.

This relative neglect among medieval historians (particularly as compared to medieval literature specialists) is curious, although perhaps not surprising. For at least thirty years now, namely since the publication of Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, medieval historians have been aware of the importance of gender as an analytical category and its potential for transforming the field.[1] And historians of women and gender since Bynum have significantly expanded and complicated our knowledge and understanding of medieval monasticism, universities, medicine, heresy, poverty, urban politics, monarchy, and labor.[2] Yet, even the “global turn” in medieval studies has mainly produced studies focused on cross-cultural exchange without gender (or racial) consciousness. This may be attributed to what Sierra Lomuto has identified as the “field’s general resistance to the political, its discomfort with racial discourse, and its often self-imposed exile from critical theory.” Of course, Phillips herself cites a number of important studies by medieval scholars attuned to gender and race, mostly in literary studies. Still, as she says (and I certainly agree), “perhaps to be a feminist historian is always to want more.”

And, indeed, gendering the medieval expansion of Europe is critical for broadening scholarly understanding of expansion “before Columbus,” decolonizing medieval studies, and exposing the inconsistencies in medieval gender discourses when examining within the particularities of new contexts, audiences, and status groups. As Joan Scott notes in her response to the American Historical Review’s retrospective on her influential article, “Gender: A Useful Category for Historical Analysis,” the “language of gender” cannot be reduced to “some known quantity of masculine or feminine, male or female. It’s precisely the particular meanings that need to be teased out of the historical materials we examine.”[3] Gender is a question that must be answered through historical investigation into different periods and contexts.

Phillips helpfully identifies several ways medievalists can become more attuned to gender in discussions of European contact, conquest, and colonization. Her suggestions, which range from ways of reading narratives of encounter and conquest with an eye out for descriptions of bodies, sexualities, and gender roles to strategies for mining legal and social-historical sources for evidence of European subjugation. In this list, one can find numerous ways to incorporate gender into World History courses as well as avenues for new research. In all of these areas, we see attention to gendered language and imagery (in portrayals of conquest and expansion, for example) and sensitivity to the experiences of actual women, who were frequently victims of enslavement, rape, and other forms of violence and exploitation.

Phillips’ “auxiliary woman” in all of its various manifestations is of particular interest since this theme brings together the analytical potential of gendered narratives and symbolism while also drawing attention to the experiences of indigenous women. Francisca’s role as “auxiliary” reflected medieval European gender expectations that, ultimately, served the political interests of men. Indeed, as Phillips argues, the auxiliary woman is a necessary accomplice to the conqueror, particularly in narratives that seek to portray conquest as consensual, civilizing, and in the best interests of conquered peoples. This dialectic between collaborating woman and conquering man not only effaces the indigenous population the conqueror seeks to dominate, but, in representing the object of conquest as feminine, flattens out the conquered woman herself. She is merely aiding and abetting the conqueror, whose power over her is so complete that he need not utilize force. Like the allegorical personification of America as a nude woman in Jan van der Straet’s late sixteenth-century drawing of Vespucci’s discovery of America, the association between women and the lands into which European conquerors sought to expand reveal the cultural work of gender in these narratives and the ways in which real women—such as Francisca—dissolve into allegorical figures.[4]

The auxiliary woman also reflects the historical roles women played in medieval Europe. Medieval women were integral to territorial expansion through marriage and property rights. Meghan Moore has recently argued that cross-cultural marriage and “the reproductive hybridity it produced” was an important site of cultural exchange.[5] Politically, as several studies of medieval queenship have shown, mediation was one of the most important forms of influence noblewomen possessed. As Theresa Earenfight puts it “Queenly intercession was part of the masculine-feminine division of labor that often reinforced cultural stereotypes of women as fickle and men as obtrusive, paternal, proud and legalistic… intercession was seen as feminine pleading that made it permissible for a man to change his mind.”[6]

The “auxiliary woman” theme also raises important questions about female influence and agency. Francisca de Gazmira, “a bridge between worlds” was an effective mediator between Franciscan missionaries and her own people, who, in reality, were presented with few real choices (they could convert or be enslaved). Francisca herself had little choice but to collude with the Spanish conquistador De Ludo, since he had taken her children to ensure her cooperation. Still, the story of La Palma’s conversion boils down to Francisca’s persuasive powers, highlighting her supposed agency and “betrayal” of her people. Clearly, gendered discourses about women’s persuasive powers and disordered loyalties function not only to justify European domination of La Palma (where, in this narrative, the men were too foolish and weak to see through female treachery) but also to sanitize the brutal violence through which the conquest was actually accomplished.  To convert/conquer via women is to operationalize and weaponize long-standing associations between women, treachery, and persuasion.

Indeed, narratives of conquest focused on female collusion ultimately cast women as complicit in their own subjugation, a phenomenon Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe has termed “phantom agency.”[7] In a sense, this attribution of agency to the auxiliary woman confirms the appeal or superiority of the conqueror for whom she provides aid. Or, from the perspective of the conquered, this “phantom agency” mitigates responsibility for loss (as in the case of hostage queens of Ireland).[8] Ultimately, these tropes convey the belief that women can be used but they cannot be trusted.

The focus on female persuasion, alliance, or collusion with the conqueror in other contexts could also function to obscure the reality of military failures, a point that resonates with Philips’ subtitle “men washed up.” Failure in the Middle East and religious anxieties, as Sharon Kinoshita has argued, fueled fantasies of seducing Saracen princesses and humiliating Byzantine princesses.[9] European masculinity needed the figure of the amorous foreign women, whom they could either seduce to advance their political interests or reject to prove their superiority.

That Franciscan missionaries came to rely on a laywoman raises interesting, and perhaps familiar, questions about the relations between missionaries and indigenous laywomen—another instance perhaps of “men washed up.” Medieval historians have fruitfully examined the pastoral and sacerdotal partnerships between medieval clerics and laywomen (particularly beguines) in medieval Europe, demonstrating the ways in which clerics came to rely on charismatic holy women as “pastoral allies.” Francisca seems to have possessed a similar charisma and the success of her missionizing effort is portrayed as crucial not only to the Franciscan missionaries but to the military advance of the Spanish conquistadors.

Yet, Francisca’s position as an indigenous woman differs significantly, of course, from that of a western European beguine, demonstrating the need to examine this dynamic critically within the intersection of race and gender. Obviously, the gendered discourses and symbols familiar to medieval historians do not hold when we expand beyond Western Europe. As Sharon Farmer and Carol Pasternack argued in their introduction to their 2003 essay collection Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages, identity must be situated within what Patricia Hills Collins termed a “matrix of domination.”[10] A history of European expansion attuned to gender is one that examines the historical constructedness of  notions of masculinity and femininity within specific contexts and matrices of domination (such as race, ethnicity, religion, and class) and analyzes how these gendered discourses, expectations, and imagery reflects and reinforces broader discourses of power before the European voyages of discovery. Further, it must confront how these conceptions played out on the ground and how they affected the lives of indigenous men and women.


[1] Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

[2] For a detailed overview (from 2008) of the ways in which gender has transformed the field of medieval history, see Dyan Elliott, “The Three Ages of Joan Scott,” American Historical Review 113:5 (2008), 1390-1403.

[3] Joan W. Scott, “Unanswered Questions” American Historical Review 113 (2008): 1423.

[4] Louis Montrose, “The Work of Gender in the Discourse of Discovery,” Representations 33 (1991) 1-41 at 2.

[5] Meghan Moore, Exchanges in Exoticism: Cross-Cultural Marriage and the Making of the Mediterranean in Old French Literature (University of Toronto Press, 2014), 9.

[6] Theresa Earenfight, Queenship in Medieval Europe (Palgrave, 2013), 12.

[7] Katherine O’Brien O’Keefe, “Leaving Wilton: Gunhild and the Phantoms of Agency,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 106:2 (2007): 203-223.

[8] Lahney Preston-Matto, ‘Queens as Political Hostages in Pre-Norman Ireland: Derbforgaill and the Three Gormlaiths’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology 109, no. 2 (April 2010): 141–61.

[9] Sharon Kinoshita, Medieval Boundaries: Rethinking Difference in Old French Literature (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).

[10] Sharon Farmer, “Introduction,” Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages (University of Minnesota Press, 2003) ix.

Shirin Azizeh Khanmohamadi
CARA/MAP Plenary Response: “Inter-Imperial Women

First, many thanks to Anne Lester and John Ott for the honor of responding to this year’s CARA/MAP Plenary.

And I want to begin my response by thanking Kim Phillips for reminding us of the exigency and rich potentialities of investigating gender as we meet the challenge of teaching and researching a globally interconnected Middle Ages. Her talk also demonstrates the very real challenges of discerning female agency and representing womens’ roles in histories of conquest, given how readily native women like Derbforgaill and La Malinche can be retrospectively coopted into rhetorics of blame for conquest in later centuries.  For researchers, this poses the double risk of, on the one hand, papering over and silencing womens’ modes of resistance to colonization, and on the other, of whitewashing female allegiance and complicity with conquest. Allowing for complexity and duality seem of signal importance, and this entails, further, admission of ambiguities and even of our inability to know.

Kim Phillips importantly points, as well, to the need to attend to masculinity and its tropes, and proposes to reverse the trope of the conquering settler hero by writing, against its grain, of “men washed up,” men vulnerable and dependent on women and natives around them to succeed in their aims. A focus on failure can be a highly productive one, as we see in Anna Brickhouse’s recent The Unsettlement of America (2014), which traces the many long suppressed narratives of failed settlement experiments in the Americas along with the active agency of indigenous translators and writers in un-doing American settlement through strategic mis-translation and other strategies. Brickhouse’s narratives of “unsettlement” serve as a penetrating corrective to American colonial mythologies from the inevitability of conquest itself to the fantasy of inviting natives.

Kim Phillips’ use of 12th century Ireland and late medieval Canaries as case studies for medieval conquest narratives is apt as the Celtic periphery and the Canaries provide two of the clearest examples of premodern colonization by Latin Christians (and each has been tied to later colonization efforts in the new world).  The case for European colonial presence or hegemony in Asia in the premodern era is far weaker, as Kim Phillips and I have both argued (Phillips 2013; Khanmohamadi 2013; see also Abu-Lughod 1989); the continent instead hosted an array of Islamicate and Turkic empires and of course the vast Mongolian one, extending from eastern Europe to the Pacific ocean at its height in the 13th century.  Attention to premodern literary and historical narratives treating women who cross Latin-Islamicate or European-Asian borders to marry into foreign empires suggests these women could operate as agents of inter-imperial cross-fertilization, diplomacy, and self-fashioning without necessarily becoming agents of foreign conquest. I’ll analyze two such inter-imperial marriages and women here.

The first is the case of Bayalun Khatun, the Byzantine princess daughter of Andronikos III, and wife of Uzbek Khan, Qipchak ruler of the Golden Horde, in whose royal ordo or palace she comes into dramatic view for history in 1342 through the report of the Moroccan world traveler Ibn Battuta. Kim Phillips views her as an example of the auxiliary woman of the “Intermarriage plot, in which marriage between an invading / settler party and indigenous or non-Christian woman confirms or solidifies military conquest through legal affirmation, property acquisition, and formation of kinship bonds,” and to which “a woman’s agency is immaterial, her marital destiny…decided by male family members and prevailing legal systems.”  While Bayalun’s marriage to Uzbek Khan is certainly a diplomatic marriage, no doubt made by her male family members, the relation between the Byzantines and the Golden Horde to their north is best viewed as an inter-imperial contest for power rather than one of asymmetrical conquest (and Bayalun is no “native, non-Christian woman” of the land over which her husband rules: the Qipchak territories were never Byzantine realms).  Bayalun is at least the third recorded princess to have been married into Mongol royalty as part of a Byzantine marriage alliance strategy dating back to 1265 (with the marriage of Maria Palaiologina to the il-Khan Hulegu). While the Byzantines viewed these marriages as a vehicle for the extension of Orthodox Christian values and organizations into the Mongol realms, as well as an insurance policy for access to the lucrative Black Sea trade (Weller), the benefits of marriage alliance or inter-imperial marriage flowed reciprocally: the khans, too, knew that cooperation with the Byzantines meant open access to the Bosphorus for trade and ongoing diplomatic links with their Mamluk allies in Cairo (Dunn).

So, unsurprisingly, the marriage of Bayalun and Uzbek Khan served both Byzantine and Mongol interests.  But what of Bayalun herself? We know almost nothing about “Bayalun” beyond Ibn Battuta’s report, but we do get a rather clear portrait of her there.  We see a woman sensitive to the plight of those living, like herself, far from home – Ibn Battuta tells us that she is moved to tears at the story of his distance from his own homeland and asks him to call on her for support (IB 149). We also see a woman who enjoys significant imperial protections and resources and who doesn’t hesitate to use them to her advantage and in the interests of those she means to protect.  She is self-possessed: she asks for and receives permission from Uzbek to travel home to bear her child, and while pregnant leads an imperial train of, by Ibn Battuta’s count, 500 horsemen, 200 maidens, 400 carts, 2000 riding horses, 300 oxen, and 200 camels back to Constantinople, accompanied by an imperial escort of another 5000 troops and, of course, Ibn Battuta himself, traveling under her protection (IB 152).  Once on the border of Constantinople she is met by and comes under the protection of a second umbrella of imperial protections and privileges, now Byzantine ones, which she also puts to use, ensuring Ibn Battuta’s free passage as tourist and curious guest in that city under the emperor’s protection.  She appears to remain in Constantinople at length, though not permanently as Ibn Battuta surmises (historical records identify her in the Golden Horde years later). And of course there’s the indelible moment on which Ibn Battuta fixes his gaze and ours, in which, upon reaching the Byzantine side of the border the Khatun “left her mosque behind… and the prescription of the call to prayer” and begins to drink wine and eat pork, all while continuing to ensure the honorable treatment of Ibn Battuta and the Muslims in his company in their religious practice.

Without wishing to romanticize life as an imperial wife, one of four wives in this case, in the Golden Horde, we can see from the above that Bayalun exercises a good measure of control over her own life and the power to ameliorate the lives of those she brings under her protection.  While some of these privileges stem from her (doubly) royal rank, others derive from the distinctive status of women in the Mongol realm and more widely in nomadic Altaic societies, about which much has been written.  Bayalun, like Uzbek’s three other wives, rules her own ordo (camp or palace) or mahalla, realm. As Bruno de Nicola has written, the ordos of Mongol women were spaces of significant economic activity “in which property, cattle and people were accumulated and administered,” as well as of women’s political activity and decision-making (128). According to William of Rubruck’s report, when the khan visits the ordo of one of his wives, “the court is held there, and the gifts which are presented to the master are placed in the treasury of that wife.” Ibn Battuta confirms this picture, visiting and reporting on the courts of each of Uzbek’s wives separately, while also confirming Rubruck’s observation that the khatuns drove their own wagons once their ordo was on the move.  Mongol princesses, no less than princes, were awarded landed properties or appanages which they themselves taxed and, again, ruled (127-9). Ibn Battuta is more than once struck by the high status of Turkic-Mongol women, as is clear from his first description of Uzbek’s court, during his regular Friday ceremonial, in which he expresses amazement that Uzbek Khan reserved a place for his four khatuns on a level with himself (while placing other family members and his chief advisors below the throne), and further took care to greet and take the hand of his senior khatun when she entered the pavilion, seating himself only after she had taken her place (IB 148-9). These public honors accorded royal Mongol women clearly contrast with the customary roles of Arab and North African women familiar to Ibn Battuta; scholars have likewise contrasted the “casual” and “egalitarian” conditions for women in Turko-Mongol nomadic societies with the greater restrictions placed on women’s roles in Persianate city centers (Dale 51-2).  Bayalun’s lack of agency in the making of her marriage notwithstanding (a plight notably shared by many royal European women), we must consider the likelihood that Bayalun exercised more political and financial power and mobility as a khatun in the Golden Horde than she would have as a Byzantine princess or queen, for whom entry into public life was largely restricted to “the defense and preservation of the church and its orthodoxy” (Weller 180-2).

My second, briefer example will be of a converted Saracen princess conscripted into what Kim Phillips terms the “Romantic Passion” plot to “help her lover and bring about the downfall of her people.” The heroine in my story, the Galienne (or Galiana) of several enfance Charlemagne narratives appearing in a range of European vernaculars, appears to fit this bill: as told in the 12th century Old French epic fragment, Mainet, and in the early 14th century compilation L’Istoire le Roy Charlemaine, this Andalusian princess falls in love with the adolescent Charles after he takes refuge from abuse by his half-brothers at the French court in the Andalusian court of her father, the emir of Toledo.  Charles first proves his martial worth in wars fought for the Toledan emir, Galafre, who in turn rewards him by knighting him and offering him his daughter’s hand in marriage.  Charles eventually takes Galienne back to France as his queen, though she dies in childbirth soon thereafter; in Mainet, they abscond without family approval (after her brother Marsile intervenes to turn Galafre against Charles), while in L’Istoire they leave with Galafre’s approval and pledge of ongoing support.

The narratives present Charles’ Toledan years and Galienne herself as crucial to his formation as warrior, king, and ultimately, emperor.  As I’ve recently argued (and at greater length than time will allow me to do here), the enfance legend does not see Charles marry Galienne to aid in the conquest of her native Spain, the normative “romantic passion” plot, but rather to aid assumption of Charles’ rightful claim over his native France; the legend of Charles’ years in Toledo is less a crusading or conquest narrative than a case of French imperial self-fashioning through “prestigious association” with a more established and resourceful neighboring empire, the Andalusians (Khanmohamadi 2019).  Particularly in the L’Istoire version, which sees Charles marry Galienne with her father’s blessing, the benefits of inter-imperial association are made clear and are again reciprocal: Charles will gain the material and military aid he will need to resume sovereignty of France and pursue his imperial ambitions, while the emir Galafre will gain a way of exerting Andalusian soft power into France through his “inalienable” daughter (Weiner 1992).  Here, no less than the Byzantines had hoped would be true of their marriage alliances with the Mongols, foreign brides are shown to bear the potential of becoming effective vectors of influence and soft power within their adopted lands, which no doubt partly accounts for why Galienne dies soon after her arrival on French soil. The legend, then, works ambivalently to appropriate and then abort Islamicate imperial prestige to its own ends: telling the tale of Charles’ early cross-imperial training and formation, a translatio imperii from the Andalusians to the Carolingians in preparation for his rule as Holy Roman Emperor.

The “romantic passion” plot may be reshaped into something resembling the “intermarriage plot,” then—or rather, both can be put to variable political use in premodern narratives, and namely in the service of inter-imperial contest rather than the justification of conquest in spaces over which premodern Europeans did not exercise hegemony.

                                                Works Cited

Abu-Lughod, Janet. Before European Hegemony. Oxford UP, 1989.

Brickhouse, Anna. The Unsettlement of America. Oxford UP, 2014

Dale, Stephen, “Steppe Humanism,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 22.1 (1990):      37-58.

De Nicola, Bruno, “Ruling from tents: some remarks on women’s ordos in il-Khanid Iran,” in       Ferdowsi, the Mongols and the History of Iran, eds. Hillenbrand, Peacock and      Abdullaeva, pp. 126-136. IB Taurus, 2014.

Dunn, Ross. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta. University of California Press, 1985.

Girart d’Amiens. A Critical Edition of Girart d’Amiens’ L’Istoire Le Roy Charlemaine, 3   vols. Ed. D. Métraux. Edward Mellen Press, 2004.

Ibn Battuta. Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-54, trans and selected by H.A.R. Gibb.        Augustus Kelley Publishers, 1969.

Khanmohamadi, Shirin. In Light of Another’s Word. U of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Khanmohamadi, Shirin. “Charles in al-Andalus,” Digital Philology 8.1(2019): 14-28.

Mainet. Ed. G. Paris. Romania 4 (1875): 305-37.

Phillips, Kim. Before Orientalism. U of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Weiner, Annette. Inalienable Possessions. University of California Press, 1992.

Weller, AnnaLinden, “Marrying the Mongol Khans,” Scandinavian Journal of Byzantine   and      Modern Greek Studies 2 (2016): 177-200.

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