Emma of Blois: Affective Politics and Emotional Patronage

Mickey Abel, University of North Texas, Mickey.Abel@unt.edu

The study of the emotions has opened revealing lines of inquiry for historians, particularly in assessing the actions of politically prominent women. Emma of Blois (950-1003), wife of William IV, Duke of Aquitaine (r. 963-993), and mother of William Le Grande (r. 993-1030) was an emotional woman—or so we are told by Peter of Maillezais, writing between 1067 and 1072. Peter chronicles the dramatic exploits of the newly-married Emma as she is miraculously inspired to found (970) and build Maillezais Abbey on an island in the Gulf of Picton (Charente-Poitou). Unfortunately, for the abbey’s progress, the Duke is caught in an affair with a neighboring Vicountess, to which Emma responds violently, confronting the Vicountess, leaving the Duke, and abandoning her Abbey project. 

Peter tells Emma’s story in terms of revenge (she founds a rival abbey in her homeland), compassion (she argues passionately in support of her monks) and cold-hearted shrewdness (she reconciles her marriage through political negotiation). Examining Emma’s architectural patronage through the lens of “emotional communities” as defined by Rosenwein (2007) and Perfetti (2005) allows us to question the modern erasure of Emma’s political role, while we re-contextualize her actions in relation to the socio-political agendas of the men—the fathers, brothers, sons, and abbots--that surrounded her, but importantly within the multi-generational legacy of Poitivin noble women.