||[Sep. 22nd, 2016|11:04 am]
The Empress, The Queen, and the Nun: Women and Power at the Court of Philip III of Spain by Magdalena Sanchez
Alternately infuriating and fascinating, an academic re-examination of the historical view of the roles of Empress Maria, Philip III's aunt and grandmother, Queen Margaret of Austria, Philip III's wife, queen, and cousin, and Margaret of the Cross, Maria's daughter who took vows as a nun, possibly as an alternative to having to marry her cousin Philip II and possibly out of sincere devotion to the Faith. The trio were the most visible and notable Habsburg women at the court of Philip III, and I mention all their family relationships to highlight what Sanchez does repeatedly, that family and politics were intertwined deeply for the Habsburgs and this reality enlisted the Habsburg women as powerful political agents on behalf of the House of Austria, in spite of a significant literature composed by the Habsburgs' allies that suggested that these women were pious Catholic women who did not engage in politics but only served their nations as wives, mothers, holy women, charitable givers, and other positive stereotypes of early modern femininity.
The main reason the book is annoying to read is that Sanchez demolishes this anti-feminist Habsburg propaganda literature fairly quickly and extremely effectively and then spends the rest of the book repeating herself. Not just repeating her arguments- repeating her facts.
Sanchez shows how power in Philip III's Spain was driven by two things only- access to the King and access to his privado, or personal favorite, who for most of the period discussed in the book was the (infamous) Duke of Lerma. The privado served as a sort of informal chief minister, capable of speaking in the King's voice within certain limits. And while in official political settings, the King and the Duke of Lerma moved in exclusively male circles meeting with the Council of State, various ad hoc committees, and diplomatic envoys from other nations, the reality of the King's court was much broader and included significant room for female access to the King. As a devout Catholic, much of the King's day often involved religious activities such as attending masses, giving money to poor people, and visiting convents and monasteries. And those activities were often undertaken with his wife, and often led to interacting with other royal women, including his aunt and cousin, who lived in the Descalzas Real convent that was adjacent to the royal place in Madrid.
Sanchez lays out the evidence for this reality, that King Philip was constantly talking to and being influenced by his female relatives, and that the serious players at court were aware of this and that they moved within spheres of influence including those whose agendas were set by Empress Maria and Queen Margaret of Austria. She draws from the memoirs and letters of male diplomats at court who knew that if they wanted to advance the Austrian Habsburg agenda, their first call wasn't to Lerma but to Empress Maria. She talks about how these womens' agendas began with protecting the interests of their Habsburg relatives in Central Europe but expanded outward from there to encompass other personal political agendas- rewarding trusted allies, establishing legacy-making institutions, providing for the poor and needy. She uncovers the way Lerma tried to gain influence over Queen Margaret by planting his relatives as ladies in waiting to the Queen, and how Queen Margarget kept suborning his spies and forcing him to install new spies, and how the Queen's allies were able to use the Queen's sudden death as a political tool against Lerma because of the seeds of doubt in Lerma's loyalty that the Queen skillfully planted during her lifetime. She highlights how Lerma's desire for an isolationist public policy, a Spain-First policy involving negotiated peace with England and other traditional rivals in order to build the wealth of Spain and consolidate a century's gains against the Moors, warred with Philip III's ties and obligations to support his Austrian Habsburg relatives in their wars against Protestants and Muslims to the East and North.
The first three chapters or so were great, but as I got deeper and deeper into the book these details just got rehashed again and again in new variations. Chapters 4-6 barely had any new ideas or facts the first three chapters don't have. I got more and more desperate for any kind of new argument or perspective.
And then we got one, and it was even more infuriating- a final chapter on the melancholy and illness of Empress Maria, and how it was a political tool wielded to influence Philip III and the Duke of Lerma. Basically this chapter reduced its discussion of melancholy to "Empress Maria pretended to be sick in order to manipulate men."
Sanchez doesn't have much evidence of this beyond outcomes- sometimes when Empress Maria claimed melancholy, she ended up achieving some political objective, or sometimes just a thing that one might suppose was a political objective, like getting more visits from King Philip III. She has no letters between Empress Maria and her political allies where Empress Maria says that she's going to feign melancholy. Nonetheless she tries to argue that her melancholy wasn't a disease afflicting her but a pose used to communicate displeasure.
This makes me so angry because I have science!feels about humor medicine. Which is kind of ridiculous, I know. On the one hand, humor theory is completely wrong. The body has far more than four fluids whose regulation is necessary for the operation of the body, these fluids have no connection to the four elements, except in very rare cases these fluids do not get out of balance in a way where draining or infusing one of the fluids is going to help a person medically... As a medical theory with any relation to a realistic description of the body's processes, humor medicine is mostly bunk. As a medical theory offering any useful advice toward treatment, humor medicine is completely bunk.
But as a symptomology, that is less true. Here's what I mean by that: We know depression is a illness caused by brain chemistry problems. This did not start being the case when scientists disxcovered the faulty neurological processes, it was always a human condition that some people had. Likewise, the flu existed before we discovered the microbe. And it was doctors in the Galenic/Hippocratic tradition who treated them, and recorded the symptoms in their records. The science was fake, in other words, but the symptoms were real. They were using humor medicine to treat people who actually had the flu. And to treat people who actually had schizophrenia, and people who actually had depression.
It's not very clear how to map 'melancholy' onto the modern diseases of clinical depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizophenia, etc... Probably it included all of them to some degree, and brain tumors, as well as other physical ailments that caused mental struggles, and probably it also included some things that modern science would not call disorders of any kind. Sanchez notes that Queen Margaret reported periods of melancholy after her pregnancies- we would today likely call that post-partum depression.
It seems... really toxic to me to treat melancholy, since it is a fake disease created by unsystematic doctors compositing various symptoms together under the false theory of humor medicine, as reflecting fake symptoms. Even today we as a culture are bad at treating depression as a real disease. I certainly am not proposing to diagnose Empress Maria as suffering from clinical depression from across five centuries- not only am I unqualified to diagnose anyone with any mental illness, but the facts in the historical record are ambiguous and mental illness seems to me to at least partially encode culture, so diagnosing a 16th century woman with clinical depression is meaningless. But I'm proposing that we ought to assume that when people claimed the symptoms of melancholy in the 16th century, they were claiming symptoms of a disease that they were legitimately suffering from, unless we actually have evidence to the contrary.
In any case, I read this book so that I could learn more about Philip III's Spain, toward eventually writing a Pirate Rabbi novel. It was definitely helpful in that regard... The impressions I held of the Duke of Lerma and Catalina de la Cerda and which informed "Chasing Pirates" and "If We Were All Wise Men" seem to me to have been inaccurate in some respects, and I would have written those stories differently had I written them with knowledge of this book. It also gave me a closer and deeper sense of how Catholicism informed the court, which is essential knowledge to a story about Jews navigating the court. In the end, it was a valuable read.
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