The Boundaries of Women's Power: Gender and the Discourse of Political Friendship in Twelfth-Century England



The discourse of friendship was an integral part of political language and interaction in twelfth-century England. Because the qualities that made a good political friendship – loyalty, wise counsel and generosity, among others – corresponded so closely to the criteria for successful lordship, historians often used the quality of a king's friendship as a signifier for the quality of his rule. Yet their treatment of women's political friendship was markedly different. The discourse of friendship therefore provides a window into the larger struggle over the representation of gender and rulership in twelfth-century historical writing in England, reflecting chroniclers’ anxiety about female sovereignty. Twelfth-century historians depicted women's participation in political friendship as acceptable only within certain circumscribed boundaries that corresponded to the sanctioned political roles for women in general. Otherwise, chroniclers attempted to efface the existence of women's political friendship, sometimes describing the same situations in different language depending on whether the main participant was male or female. Chroniclers also represented women as arbiters of friendship, showing men how better to conduct their relationships either through direct instruction or counter-example. In both cases women reinforced male friendship, either by being excluded from it, or by demonstrating the correct way to carry it out.