Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile by Julie Sarpy
Who was Joanna of Flanders and how did I stumble upon her?
Joanna of Flanders, Countess de Montfort and Duchess of Brittany, abruptly vanished from public life after 1343 amidst the Breton Wars of Succession during the Hundred Years’ War. As wife of the late Duke John de Montfort, Joanna’s rightful place was in Brittany as regent of the duchy for their five-year-old son and heir John of Brittany. Despite her fame for the defense of Hennebont in 1342 during her husband’s imprisonment, she along with her children had accompanied Edward III of England to Britain in February 1343 and seemingly never departed. She resided in England in Tickell Castle, Yorkshire, in comfortable obscurity until her death around 1374. What happened to her and why? Her extended absence should have provoked more suspicion, but it did not. Nevertheless, as one delves deeper into her story the answers to those two questions belie the core complexities of medieval social structures, the care of the vulnerable, and the custody of women.
My new book Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile seeks to uncover the mysterious circumstances of Joanna of Flanders’ untimely sequester in England. For certain, Edward III orchestrated her relocation from London to Yorkshire in the summer of 1344. He likely engineered her indefinite detention, following the untimely death of her husband in September 1345 to prevent Joanna’s interference with his plans for conquering Brittany. Joanna of Flanders’ conservatorship stands out for its rariety, a non-judicial fiduciary guardianship of an adult foreign-born noblewoman and widow with no English dower. Joanna’s case offers modern historical scholarship a window into the medieval cosmology of incompetency and legal jurisdiction and a chance to reappraise when protection becomes forced incarceration. Even if Joanna were mad, her indefinite confinement without adjudication was illegal.
I would have to say that the mystery of Joanna of Flanders drew me to her. I have always been fascinated by Fourteenth-Century England. What can I say? Plague and warfare are my passions. I can’t get enough of reading about the Black Death and particularly the Edwardian Phase of the Hundred Years War. I came across Joanna of Flanders doing some research on medieval captivity and confinement. I read a passage about her success at Hennebont and her presumed madness, against the backdrop of the late Middle Ages I was hooked. Her story intrinsically intrigued and compelled me to learn more.
Although the basis for Joanna of Flanders’ detention through royal prerogative wardship was invalid, her confinement was not out of bounds. In fact, the constraint of aristocratic women during the Middle Ages was not atypical. As patriarchy was the cornerstone of medieval society, medieval women were subject to the protection and custody of fathers and lords until marriage and their husbands after that. Thus it was not extraordinary for these men to periodically confine them, but social arrangements were more complex and hardly one-dimensional. Despite the advantages of station and rank, medieval noblewomen remained sexual and reproductive pawns of men where their power was tethered to the female life cycle. This manifest itself most blatantly in the system of feudal land tenure that sought to protect widows, wards, the incompetent, and anyone else considered incapable in administrating their estates.
Historic scholarship on Joanna of Flanders is limited. Undoubtedly, chronicler Jean Froissart shaped initial impressions and took a favorable view of Joanna. From his privileged position as scholar and historiographer to Queen Philippa and King Edward III, he observed and recorded events first-hand. He professed Joanna to have the “heart of a lion” and he alluded stated that she orchestrated her husband’s expedient acclamation as Duke of Brittany in late May 1341. Froissart contended that she returned France to fight for Brittany and frequently traveled back forth, although no corroborating evidence exists.
Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile is divided into two parts, with the first devoted to introducing Joanna of Flanders, her family and the mechanics of feudal protection worked. Particularly during the Breton Civil War and the Hundred Years’ War. Besides warfare, the classical and medieval cosmologies of religion, medicine, women, and the law shaped the realities of Joanna’s life. Accordingly, the book’s first half draws attention to the politics of madness and the use of insanity as a political tool from its earliest legal foundations in Jewish and Roman law to its application in feudal society as custodia and garde.
In its second half this study analyzes the consequences of Joanna of Flanders’ confinement. The omission of Joanna of Flanders competency determination is the lynchpin for Joanna’s unlawful detention. Comparative analysis of other noblewomen’s custody, in wardship and as political hostages, reveals Joanna’s confinement to be even more strange, not for the confinement itself, but for its lack of justification. All guardianships were adjudicated and administrated publicly; Joanna’s was not. As historian Gerda Lerner stated, “We can best express the complexity of women’s various levels of dependency and freedom by comparing each woman with her brother and considering how the sister’s and brother’s lives and opportunities would differ.” Joanna’s life took place against the backdrop of Hundred Years’ War and the political interests and machinations of kings of England and France and all of Europe irreparably shaped her life.
Julie Sarpy's new book Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile is available for purchase now.