What We Can Learn From History’s Maligned Women
Associate history professor is examining England’s first queen regnant.
March 29, 2023
March 29, 2023
History is filled with prominent, influential, and maligned women. From leading nations to painting masterpieces to writing great works of fiction, these women have helped shape society. However, some have legacies that need revisiting. One such individual, Queen Mary I of England, has had a renaissance as many scholars studied her life and short reign. Associate Professor of History and Director of Paideia Jessica S. Hower recently edited two books with her co-author Valerie Schutte, Mary I in Writing: Letters, Literature, and Representation and Writing Mary I: History, Historiography, and Fiction, which assess how Mary was represented in her own time and after her death.
Every historical figure is complicated, Mary, especially so. She is remembered maliciously with the moniker Bloody Mary, often confused for Mary Queen of Scots, and most notably is studied in comparison to her sister, Elizabeth I. However, Hower believes Mary and other Tudor women of the 16th century are fascinating subjects because they represent female kingship in a time of change. So much happened in the reformation and renaissance period, including an unprecedented number of queens, consorts, and regnant on the throne in the British Isles. This period also showcases a burst of new source material, both written texts and images.
“We can’t underestimate the power of being able to picture these women when we’re talking about them,” Hower says. “Once we know what these people looked like, a result of a boom in portraiture spearheaded by Hans Holbein and others, and have new, textual source material to access them, it makes them really interesting to study and a great basis for pop culture. We can dig deeper in a way that we can’t for other periods.”
Much of what we have come to know about women throughout history is mythologized. Whether it’s Marie Antoinette’s iconic phrase “Let them eat cake,” which was never said, or Mary’s nickname, Bloody Mary, these narratives were not crafted by their immediate contemporaries. Hower believes these misconceptions should not be revised or forgotten because they are significant, having lasted centuries and aiding present-day studies. Hower said unpacking manipulated and mythologized stories is how we uncover the compelling parts of history.
To fully understand maligned women, it is essential to study what was said and written about them by them, their peers, their supporters, and detractors in their lifetime and after their death. So why was Mary dubbed Bloody Mary? Mary sought to bring England back into the Roman Catholic fold on the heels of her protestant half-brother’s reign and did see to the deaths of many protestants, revered as martyrs by their co-religionists. However, she was not called “Bloody Mary” until the century after her death. By examining historical texts, we learn that Mary was arguably no more “bloody” than her brother nor her father before her. In fact, it could be argued that she wasn’t as “bloody” at all.
Though we have learned the untruths about maligned women, historians like Hower are not interested in revisionist history but rather in the importance of uncovering contemporary narratives and the falsehoods that have lasted. She hopes that Mary, her subject of study, can be appreciated for her significance and that she is worthy of study despite the reputation she has garnered.
“After an event takes place, as soon as it is written about or portrayed through art, the person who is creating that work is creating a narrative,” Hower remarks. “The more that we become aware of the story that is being constructed, the more we can pick it apart to understand where it comes from.”
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