Image-ining Gender: ‘medieval sisters are doin’ it for themselves’ by Charlotte Crouch

(Arch. de la Côte-d’Or, P.S 440)

Opening a box in the archives and seeing a medieval seal like this one can be breathtaking. Finding this 733 year old seal certainly brightened a particularly rainy day in Dijon last year. This seal belonged to Margaret, countess of Tonnerre in Burgundy and for a time, queen of Sicily. Seals were attached to documents to authenticate their contents. This particular seal is still attached to a charter, issued by Margaret in 1287, regulating her portion of her uncle’s inheritance. It signalled the beginning of the end of a decade-long inheritance dispute after the duke of Burgundy’s heir died, leaving behind three daughters, one of whom was Margaret.

Her seal contains many signs of her status; her crown signifies her title of Queen of Sicily before her husband’s death; the heraldic shields either side of Margaret show her familial links to the French crown and the duchy of Burgundy and her titles circling the outside of the oval seal gave her the authority to make the decisions concerning her lands in the charter. Margaret’s seal was designed to identify her individually, but also to represent her status as an aristocratic woman and heiress.

As recently as last year, the editors of a new collection on aristocratic women lamented how little the work on women like Margaret has permeated the discourse concerning the aristocracy.[1] Unlike England at the time, the French aristocracy had far more flexibility and control over their own inheritance, which opened the door for aristocratic women to make politically consequential decisions concerning their own lands. Yet women are still too often seen as exceptional when they occupied positions of authority, and still seen as ‘a cipher’ in relation to their husbands or children.[2] The charter and Margaret’s seal can be used to further show the need to nuance this narrative. The context around this charter and the way Margaret chose to be depicted in her seal reveals the diversity of experience of aristocratic women.

There are many different layers that we must consider when researching medieval women. Hearing women’s voices can be particularly difficult considering that most of the written sources which have survived come to us through the voices of educated church men. Very few chronicles and literary sources can shed light on Margaret’s life, or indeed the lives of most medieval women. Yet when we begin to piece together different types of evidence, such as the many charters Margaret left behind, and her religious and artistic patronage, we can start to build a picture of Margaret’s own experiences.

Studying seals and how they change across women’s life cycles, for example, can be revealing.[3] By comparing Margaret’s two seals from before and after her husband’s death, we can see key differences in how she wished to be portrayed.

 Marguerite’s two seals, before and after her husband’s death[4]

Her seal during her marriage showed her wearing  expensive jewellery and clothing lined with ermine, befitting for the queen of Sicily. In her widowhood, and during her extensive programme of religious patronage, Margaret’s second seal removed such obvious displays of wealth.


The back of Margaret’s second seal, the counter-seal, contained Margaret’s family arms within a daisy; very possibly linking her name in French (Marguerite) to marguerite daisies. Her impressive religious patronage, including the foundation of an important religious hospital in her county of Tonnerre, perhaps continued to show her influence with marguerites dotted all over tiles and stained glass.[5] Some of her surviving charters were also decorated with red marguerites, suggesting that Margaret held an element of control over how she was represented, in both documents and material culture.

After her father’s death, Margaret was drawn into a decade long inheritance dispute with her two sisters, Yolande and Alice, concerning both their maternal and paternal inheritance. Yolande, as the oldest daughter, believed she was entitled to inherit all of her mother’s and father’s lands. Alice, as the youngest, believed that at least the maternal lands should be divided equally between the three sisters. Charters like the one pictured above depict the youngest sister, Alice, nominating representatives to make her case at different aristocratic courts, pleading that her sister Yolande was unfairly withholding lands. Eventually, the case was referred to the king’s court, where it was decided that the daughters would have a county from their maternal lands each, and the rest of the maternal inheritance would be split equally.

It was common for siblings to refer inheritance cases to courts and does not necessarily represent sour relations between the sisters. Their great-grandmother was reprimanded by the pope for engaging in violent action against her half-brother to defend her own inheritance but there is no evidence this sort of thing happened between the three sisters. Whilst Yolande would pursue a court case for her paternal inheritance for ten years, this charter describes Margaret declining her own share of her father’s inheritance and settling it outside of the court case. The charter marks the beginning of the end of the ten year long dispute in which all three sisters made decisions concerning their own inheritance. Yolande and Alice chose to vehemently defend their rights to their own lands, whilst Margaret appears to have taken a back seat in the negotiations; she did not send a representative for the earlier court case and decided to settle her paternal inheritance directly with her half-brother.

Out of the three sisters, Margaret does appear to have had a better relationship with her younger sister, Alice, who visited her whilst Margaret was on crusade with her husband. Indeed, without any heirs, Margaret decided to leave her own county of Tonnerre to Alice’s son.

The change in the way Margaret chose to be depicted in her seal reflects her changing priorities across her lifetime. The charter to which this seal was attached also describes her reaction to the inheritance dispute, which was different to that of her sisters. Whether or not the sisters got the results they had been hoping for, they all acted with different motivations and from different perspectives, a long way from the ‘ciphers’ of men or ‘exceptions’ they might still be labelled as today. Whilst Margaret’s seal is exceptionally beautiful, the charter she issued and the actions of the siblings were expected and completely unexceptional.

Charlotte Crouch recently completed her PhD at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter : @CharCrouch

[1] Ed. H. Tanner, Medieval Elite Women and the Exercise of Power, 1100-1400: Moving Beyond the Exceptionalist Debate (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019)

[2] Ed. Tanner, Medieval Elite Women, p. 1-2

[3] See, for example, E. Jordan, ‘Swords, Seals and Coins: Female Rulers and Instruments of Authority in Thirteenth-Century Flanders and Hainaut’ in ed. S. Solway, Medieval Coins and Seals: Constructing Identity, Signifying Power (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015) pp. 229- 246

[4]  M. P. Lillich, The Queen of Sicily and Gothic Stained Glass in Mussy and Tonnerre (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1998) p. 33

[5] See Lillich, The Queen of Sicily, esp. p.29-37 and p. 81


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