Book Reviews - Autumn 2021

Holding the Reigns

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Four queens condemned to live in interesting times

By Ingrid Rowland | September 7, 2021
From left: Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart, Mary Tudor, and Catherine de’ Medici (Wikimedia Commons)
From left: Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart, Mary Tudor, and Catherine de’ Medici (Wikimedia Commons)

When Women Ruled the World: Making the Renaissance in Europe by Maureen Quilligan; Liveright, 320 pp., $29.95

Maureen Quilligan begins her provocative new book with a tirade: in 1558, the Scottish reformer John Knox published The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, in which he declared, “To promote a Woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city is: A. Repugnant to nature. B. Contumely to GOD. C. The subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.” (The seething italics are his.) Quilligan’s response to this rant reveals why she is such a good historian. She notes that the tract has “done history a real service” by pointing out how many women wielded sovereign authority in Knox’s day. He is not wrong, she continues, to see these queens, regents, and consorts as an army—they did indeed form a regiment, a close-knit group that acted, overtly and covertly, on each other’s behalf. Unfortunately for Knox, another queen was added to their number a few months after he wrote his diatribe: Elizabeth I of England, who promptly banned the misogynistic Scotsman from English lands. Knox would try to ingratiate himself by protesting that his Blast was directed at Catholic, not Protestant, queens, but Elizabeth rejected the sectarian ploy. God’s order, to her mind, distinguished monarchs, both male and female, from other mortals, Catholic or Protestant or in between.

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