Transcript: Intro to Catherine de Medici: Why do we love to hate a woman in power?

Dr. Leah Redmond Chang

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Leah Redmond Chang

I’m Dr Leah Redmond Chang. And this is my Garden Talk.

Sophie Adelman

Hello and welcome to The Garden. I’m Sophie Adelman and I will be your guide for today’s Garden Talk now. Today I’m delighted to welcome to The Garden doctor layer Redmond chang who’s going to share her fascination for the renaissance and the story of Catherine de Medici with us today, Leah has always loved history and literature and taught French literature for a number of years at George Washington University and the University College London.

She is currently writing a book on the intertwined stories of four Renaissance Queens called Young Queens that we published next year. I’m sure we’re going to get a sneak peek of her insights for this book today. Leah, It’s great to have you here in The Garden today. Welcome.

Leah Redmond Chang

Thank you Sophie, it’s really a pleasure to be here.

Sophie Adelman

Fantastic. Well, before I hand over to you for your Garden Talk, I wanted to actually ask you about why Catherine de Medici story was so fascinating to you. Why do you spend so much time of your time understanding her life and the lives of her contemporaries?

Leah Redmond Chang

Well, um to be honest, I started in the renaissance studying women who were less known and after finishing with that, I really wanted to study someone big and there’s no one bigger in the renaissance than Catherine de Medici.

Sophie Adelman

Well, I think we’re going to hear more about Catherine during the talk. And so with that I’d like to hand over to you Leah for your Garden Talk. Rethinking Catherine de Medici. Why do we love to hate women in power?

Leah Redmond Chang

Thanks Sophie again, it I’m so happy to be here and to talk to you about one of my favorite renaissance queens. Catherine de Medici. Now, Catherine de Medici was the queen mother of France in the 16th century and she was the real power behind the throne for almost 30 years. Now, if you know anything about Catherine, you know, she comes with something of a bad reputation.

She’s known as the Black Queen. The word that comes to mind is machiavellian valiant. She’s known to be cunning, deceptive, duplicitous. She’s murderous. She’s a poisoner. And my favorite claim actually comes from a colleague of mine who grew up in France. And she told me that when she was a little girl, she learned in school that Catherine de Medici like to poison little babies and eat them for dinner. So this is obviously a bad girl and I love a bad girl. I really want to know how they get so bad.

And so that’s one of the reasons why I turned to studying Catherine de Medici. But as you can imagine, the more I read about her, the more I realized that this is a pretty one sided portrait, the Black Queen. She’s a far more complex person. So how does she get so vilified? Why does she become the Black Queen? Well, this question actually became more urgent for me in the run up to the 2016 presidential election in the us when Hillary Clinton was running for president. And if you remember Hillary clinton, the vitriol was like up to here.

She was made almost into a monster by the people who did not want to see her as a president. And I had a kind of light bulb moment. I asked myself, wait a minute. Is Hillary Clinton like the Catherine de Medici of the 21st century And is Catherine de Medici like the Hillary Clinton of the 16th century. So this is what I want to talk to you about today. Now, I know that Catherine is a complex person who worked and lived in a very complex time. She had successes and she had failures. She made many mistakes.

And this complexity is why I find her so remarkable. And yet over the centuries we let that complexity fall away. We veer towards the simplistic one sided portrait of Catherine de Medici like we do for many women in power. So I want to treat Catherine today as a kind of case study because I think from a bird’s eye view, about 500 years on, we can see how this flattening occurs and it can shed some insight, I think onto how women in power get flattened today and how they might be written into history in the future.

So to begin, I have to give you a little bit of a highlight reel of Catherine’s 1st 40 years, how she came to power who she was and I think you’ll see that she came to power almost by accident. So Catherine de Medici is descended from the Medici banking family of Florence on her father’s side and on her mother’s side she descends from a very noble French family. Her mother is in fact a French princess. Catherine is born in Florence and when she turns 14 she is married into France. She comes to France to marry in a political match, the second son of the French king and this son will eventually become the heir to the throne.

Well, once she gets to France, Catherine learns that it’s not the greatest thing to be an Italian in France. Italians are immigrants, they’re foreigners and France like many other kingdoms is a very xenophobic place. They think the Italians are more or less taking their jobs, but even worse for Catherine is the fact that she is a Medici because even though the Medici are filthy rich, they are incredibly influential and they practically own the Catholic church. They are not blue bloods, they are commoners.

And for Catherine it becomes clear that a certain swath of the French court thinks that she’s maybe a little bit less than maybe not entirely deserving of her French royal prince husband. Well, within a few years she runs into a bigger problem and the problem is with her own body. So you have to know that the most important thing about um a woman who is who is married into a royal family, who is slated to become the queen is that she has to bear children. She has to provide the heir and the spare for the dynasty.

And in France it is particularly important that she bears sons because in France a woman cannot rule on the throne, she cannot be a reigning queen, it has to be a man. So the queen has to bear sons. But Catherine isn’t bearing any children at all, no boys, no girls, nothing. It’s not even clear that she’s conceiving and this goes on for almost 10 years. It gets so bad that at some point she is almost sent back to Italy. And then 10 years on, it’s like a miracle happens, she conceives, she gives birth and it’s a baby boy.

So she comes from behind and in fact she does seem to be making up for something because over the next 12 years she gives birth to nine children in all. So sorry, 10 children at all. Um so she has completely fulfilled her duty as the queen. And she turns out to be a wonderful mother. She educates her children, she is very vigilant about their health, she’s very doting and she manages to keep seven out of 10 of them alive. This is a time when most families could expect a large percentage of their children to die before the age of seven, But Catherine gets seven out of 10 of her children, well into their teens and beyond.

So this is really an accomplishment and most of France recognizes her um very positively for for her accomplishments as queen. So you can kind of see how this is sort of an underdog dog story, a survivor survivor story. Catherine starts out as this barren immigrant and becomes this prolific queen and loving mother. And then the year 1559 arrives, she’s 40 years old, and that is the year that she will step into the political spotlight. Well, what happens? What happens is an accident, Her husband, the king is killed in a gruesome jousting accident and the throne falls, the crown falls onto her teenage son.

So this son is only 16 years old, and worse, he’s kind of an immature teenager. He’s really a boy, he’s not ready for the crown. This throws the kingdom into a lot of anxiety. So Catherine at this point has a choice. She could step back, which is what a lot of women in her position would have done, or she could step in. Now, her son asks for her help, he wants her by his side. And so Catherine leans in, she becomes the unofficial advisor to her son. It almost becomes a branding moment for Catherine.

What she does is, she wears, she puts on her mourning clothes all black from head to toe, but instead of taking it off after a few weeks, she keeps it on for the rest of her life, she always wears black, it becomes sort of, her signature look, the other thing she does is she insists on a title change. Usually the widow of the deceased king would be called the dowager Queen. But Catherine insists on being called the Queen Mother. So what is she doing? What she’s doing with her black clothes and her queen mother title is creating a very public figure.

She is showing the kingdom that she is the devoted widow of the deceased king. She will be a devoted and loving mother to her teenage son and she will be a devoted and loving mother to the entire kingdom until her son can grow up and be the strong king that France needs. Well, much of the kingdom goes along with this, they like this because France is very much in crisis, and what it kind of needs is a strong mom to hold its hand. So why is France in crisis? Well, let me back up and remind you of a little bit of history.

The 16th century, you may recall, was the age of the Protestant Reformation. This is when the Protestant church separates from the Catholic church and because it becomes its own religious entity. Now, this separation sends shockwaves throughout Europe, but no one suffers from it more than the kingdom of France. Now, France is a pretty Catholic country, the royal family is Catholic, Catherine is Catholic, but the numbers of Protestants are growing and they’re growing very strong. There is a lot of tension, there is a lot of polarization.

I’ve been trying to think of an example and I think if you think of the divisions that are sowed by say Brexit or the current US political climate, imagine that, but times 50 there’s already violence in the streets, people are calling each other names, they’re spitting at each other. There are lynchings and murders and priests who are beaten, churches are sacked. It is like a simmering pot and Catherine has to keep a lid on it. That is what she hopes to do with this queen mother figure what everyone fears and what Catherine fears is a full out civil war.

So Catherine is Catholic but it’s not clear if she has very deep religious conviction, what she really wants is peace in the kingdom, especially because her son is a teenager and he’s weak on the throne. So she starts pushing these policies of moderation and tolerance and compromise. It’s like she’s the mom with fighting children and she just wants them to stop fighting and get along well. It works for a while. Unfortunately it doesn’t work forever. So I’m going to very soon get to the year a little bit down the line when everything really changes for the worst for Catherine, but maybe you can already see how the odds are stacked against her here.

She is working in this very polarized time and she’s trying to hold the middle ground and that’s never popular when things are polarized. She’s also a woman very close to the throne and the French don’t like this. They don’t like the idea of a woman on the throne. They think that women are intellectually inferior. They think that women are morally inferior. It’s very unnatural for a woman to be in power in their minds. Now. Catherine isn’t on the throne, but she’s awfully close to it and people don’t love this idea, especially when she holds the spotlight for a little too long.

So here’s what happens. Her teenage son dies after only 17 months on the throne and the crown passes to her second son, who’s only 10. So this makes everyone in the kingdom panic and Catherine leans leans in even further. She decides now is the time to grab hold of the reins of power and serve as regent again for the sake of her son for the sake of her kingdom. Okay, They let her do it. And at first it’s okay because they want to avoid civil war. The problem is civil war does break out. Catherine makes peace and then it breaks out again.

So after a while people start to get frustrated with Catherine. Her policies of moderation don’t seem to be working because of the wars. Each side digs in Protestants and Catholics continue to hate each other with a fervor and more and more people are exhausted and frustrated. They are looking for somebody to blame and that person ends up being Catherine de Medici. So let’s get to the year 1572. That is the year where everything really changes for her. What’s going on? Well, Catherine is still on her peacekeeping mission and she decides that what the kingdom really needs is a royal wedding.

Yes, she’s going to marry her Catholic daughter to the chief prince of the Protestants. And so like a marriage, bring the two sides together. Well, she gets her wedding In August of 1572. The Protestants, thousands of them come to paris to celebrate the wedding and then a few days later an atrocity happens, the Protestants are massacred by roman Catholic mobs in the streets of Paris. This happens over several days and it’s called the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. This is the most famous painting of that massacre.

I wanted you to see the level of the violence, there was no control whatsoever. This was brutal. The victims were often the most innocent victims you can imagine. If you look at the painting, you can see there are babies, there are old men, women who are slaughtered. There are pregnant women who are eviscerated. The killing is brutal. People are slaughtered in the streets and then thrown in the seine people are hung from the markets in the market square, they’re thrown off of rooftops. And if you look closely at this painting towards the back towards the castle.

That’s the loop, you can see a pile of bodies stripped naked, already graying and hovering over that body, that that that that pile of bodies is the black clad figure of Catherine de Medici. Now that’s a very interesting detail to add to this painting because no one knew then and to this day, No one knows who ordered, if anyone ordered, this massacre. It doesn’t seem likely that the crown and Catherine would have ordered it For 12 years. She had been pursuing these policies of compromise and moderation.

So it seems kind of weird that she would just suddenly turn around and order the whole scale massacre of Protestants at her daughter’s wedding. No one knew then and no one knows now, but the Protestants and frankly anyone who is tired of Catherine’s policies of moderation decide that this is the time to strike. And the Protestants in particular have gotten very organized and they decide that they are going to blame Catherine for this massacre and for really all the problems in the kingdom. Well, how do they do it? They do it the same way we would do it today. They do it with fake news.

Now, this painting that I showed you is part of the fake news machine putting Catherine there in that painting and by the way this painting was done by a Protestant is the way of blaming her and look how he does it, he takes her branding right? The black clad figure of Catherine and he twists it so instead of the devoted loving mother, we get Catherine who looks more like an angel of death hovering over those bodies. Well, It’s just one painting, right? This isn’t the digital age, it can’t really circulate.

That’s true. But what can circulate is political pamphlets. Now we have facebook, we have social media as the engine of rumors and fake news and the renaissance had its own new technology, it had the printing press and the Protestant really know how to use the printing press. They start driving these political pamphlets into the kingdom and the objective of these of these pamphlets is to pillory Catherine and the way they do it is very similar to the way that this painting does it, they take her branding her loving mother and they twist it into a kind of perverse portrait of a corrupted mother.

In other words, they try to hit her at her core as a woman and as a mother. So do you remember that underdog story right? The the baron immigrant who makes good. Well they dredge all that up. That was stuff that Catherine preferred to forget but they dredge it up and they twist it for the reading public, they remind everyone that Catherine is in fact Italian and that she is an immigrant and as everyone knows that is the language that the pamphlet uses as everyone knows Italians, especially the florentines are known for their cunning and deceptivenous and especially the Medici because they were power hungry commoners.

They remind everyone that Catherine was barren for 10 years and wonder out loud, how is it that she suddenly becomes so fertile? Could it have been magic? The occult or maybe she was sleeping around. So there you have it. This portrait of kind of a witch, right? Or a slut? They charged Catherine with being a terrible mother, not a good mother. The pamphlets explained that the reason why her teenage son was so weak on the throne. The reason why he died so young, the reason why her 10 year old who now is a young man, still needs his mommy is because she spoiled them.

So instead of this vigilant loving mother, you get this picture of a corrupting mother, one who kind of feeds the worst instincts of her son. What these pamphlets are doing are isolating Catherine right? They are using the language of mothering and hate to really make her put her in the spotlight and make her this perverse rare figure who never should have been in France. She’s a usurper. She becomes a scapegoat. Now if you look at the language that’s used this mothering language of hate, anti immigrant misogynist.

In truth. This language wasn’t fresh, not in the 16th century went back at least to the bible probably beyond Catherine de Medici was hardly the first woman in power to experience this. But I think in some ways that is why it works. The way the pamphlets work is to take the true facts of Catherine spin them and make them match up a kind of phenotype of the evil queen that had been around since biblical times. Everyone who reads these pamphlets recognizes this figure from somewhere in their memory, fairy tales for instance, or stories they’ve heard or stories that they’ve read.

And so it becomes memorable in part because it is so extreme and also because it’s so familiar, there is kind of a perverse logic to it. And so it sticks. What is really fascinating to me is that Catherine is never able to take control of the narrative again. Not really. She tries, there are other pamphlets issued by the throne that praise her that talk about her as the good mother, but the good mother figure just isn’t as compelling, it seems as this evil vicious queen. It just can’t hold the popular imagination the way the Protestant political pamphlets can.

And so the Black Queen gets planted and it starts to stick. So I want to talk a little bit now about legacy. Why does it continue? Um this portrait of the Black Queen? It takes a little while to really kind of get planted in the historical firmament. Catherine dies in 1589 and at that point the kingdom is really polarized around her. Half the kingdom still loves her. They think that she is the only reason why France has survived at all as a kingdom. But the other half really hates her. But interestingly enough, not long after her death, the loving part starts to fade away and the hating part really takes over.

So why does this happen? I think it happens for a number of reasons, but I want to um specify a few here. The first is political expedience. So anyone looking to blame the French crown, whether those enemies are within the kingdom or international rivals now has a tool, they have that figure of the Black Queen and they can deploy it whenever it’s useful. And to the French, it actually is useful to have that black queen figure around because France at least in the 16th century doesn’t love the idea of hating their king.

Now this will change during the revolution, right? But in the 16th century, they don’t love this idea and they’re very uncomfortable with the idea that maybe the king and the crown ordered the massacre of French subjects. This way they get to blame the evil immigrant woman who never should have been around the throne and keep the status quo of the monarchy. But the other problem really has to do with the writing of history. So we have to remember that historians are human, right? They make mistakes all the time.

They bring their own agendas to the writing of history. They bring biases both conscious and unconscious. They make mistakes. They have trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction. I mean with all our resources today we still have a lot of trouble with that. Imagine If you’re a historian in the 17th and 18th centuries trying to make sense of these political pamphlets. So writing history is a little bit like this game that in the States we call telephone right where the kids are sitting around in a circle and the first kid turns to the neighbor and whisper something and that phrase or that sentence travels the circle.

And what’s really funny is how much it’s been worked. The sentence has been completely twisted and worked by the time it gets to the last child. Well that’s what happens with the writing of history too. And not just because of mistakes because sometimes historians want an evil villain in their stories, historians are first and foremost storytellers and everyone knows that a villain really sells. It’s also a great way to organize a narrative. Human beings think in categories. We like patterns. We like to put things in buckets.

So having a phenotype like the evil black queen like Catherine de Medici is a great way to organize a history. The thing is once this evil queen portrait takes off, once it’s there, Once it keeps getting used, it becomes almost the truth, right. Each successive generation of historian looks back at the preceding one and borrows its phenotypes for the sake of story. Well, now we’re about 500 years on and at least in the popular imagination the Black Queen is still very much there. That’s how you get these extreme comments like Catherine de Medici Medici poison little babies and ate them for dinner.

But I’m actually more interested in the smaller mistakes that are nonetheless very powerful. And so I’m gonna start to wrap up a little bit here by talking about an article that I read not so long ago. Um an example of a seemingly innocuous mistake. So the article that I read was about a French renaissance poet and the author quite understandably wants to situate that poet in the context of the religious wars in France and he wants to kind of get through the background pretty quickly. He wants to highlight the violence and the tension so he can get to his main topic, which is the poet.

So the article begins like this in 1572 Catherine de Medici ordered the slaughter of thousands of Protestants in what became known as the St Bartholomew’s day massacre. There you go. Now, it seems innocuous, it seems small. I don’t know how many historians have already made similar claims, right? No big deal except for the fact that I think the most powerful forms of history writing are actually in the margins this way they are in the backdrop because that kind of writing does not invite you to be critical about it.

It doesn’t want you to question it. It wants you just to accept it as fact. So you can move on to the other stuff now. Like I said, human beings, we like to think in patterns in buckets of categories and phenotype. So someone reads that article and they filed that information away and the next time they read anything about Catherine de Medici or see her in a movie or listen to a talk, they think, oh yeah, that’s that woman who killed thousands of Protestants. And so the cycle is perpetuated. So I think what Catherine does as a case study is she kind of gives us an example of the flattening in a way where we can see all the component parts.

We see the kind of polarization she lived through. We see all the noise, the vitriol, that’s very loud. There is a need for a simple narrative both in her time and in the writing of history beyond and there she is a woman in the middle who has been isolated and so is available for scapegoating. I think that these are these are sort of critical components that we can keep in mind as we watch what happens to political women today. And we should also keep them in mind as we think about how women will be written into history in the future.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about this because I’ve been watching how these political pamphlets in the 16th century have been rewritten into so called truth today. What you get is kind of a very flagrant bias that is slowly over century because of a lot of noise and interference rewritten into what’s almost unconscious bias. Parading as objective history. Well what is going to determine what are the dominant opinions in the future of say a Hillary clinton? Now, when I try to look up anything about Hillary clinton for instance, Benghazi right, the disaster in Benghazi in Benghazi, I was looking it up because I was thinking this is like the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre for her and it was so noisy.

There was so much vitriol. I couldn’t even get a sense of what objectively happened in Benghazi. So what’s going to determine how that event or how Hillary is written, say 200 years from now? Is it going to be the number of facebook likes up voting. Right. The renaissance technology had a huge say in how Catherine was written. Will technology be that determining factor in the writing of history tomorrow and who will be writing this history? Will it be people sifting through the archives or will it be written more by algorithm or ai. These are questions I think we have to think about.

The last thing I want to say is I think a lot about how we can resist if we can resist this flattening of women in history and women in power today? I think we can, but it will be a long journey? The first thing is we have to get more women in power because the more women that there are in these sort of visible leadership roles, the harder it is to essential eyes them, the harder it is to map them onto that phenotype that’s very strong, that’s existed for thousands of years. But the other thing that we have to do that is so close to my heart is we need to write feminist history.

We need to go back to the stories. We need to look again at the women who we think we know and put them back into their complex histories, paint them with a lot of nuance. That’s how we chip away at this flattening. And we owe it not only to the women in the past, but also for the women today who will be written as historical figures tomorrow. I will leave it at that. Thank you so much for listening and I’m happy to take your questions.

Sophie Adelman

Leah, thank you so much for that. You’ve definitely reframed Catherine for me. I had gone down the track of thinking that she was this bloodthirsty character and you’ve brought a lot of nuance into her the interpretation of her and that’s been picked up in some of the questions that we’ve got. So I’m gonna go straight to the first question which is from Laura? And Laura says, given the story seems more nuanced, why is Catherine be still being taught as this Machiavellian figure? And will that ever be rewritten? Can we ever rewrite that? History?

Leah Redmond Chang

Okay, Laura, thank you so much for that question.

Um, well, you know, I think um, scholars have really struggled for awhile, certainly in the 20th and 21st century with the rise of feminist scholarship, there has been this definite effort to um, to paint a fuller picture of Catherine. The problem goes back, I think to the same thing that the 16th century experienced, which is that it’s kind of easier to lay the blame on one person in this very flat way so that we can go on to other topics. The thing about the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre is that it’s kind of a um, a can of worms, right? Because we don’t know who ordered the massacre.

There’s so much explaining that has to go on and that becomes very difficult, especially if you have a curriculum, you have to teach in say three months time. So I think that’s one reason. Um, the other reason is that there’s just why I don’t know, we’d love to hate a Bad woman. I mean, you see it in um, in fairy tales, I think because there is something that is very structuring and resonating for us because we see it all the time. It’s in our nursery tales nursery rhymes are fairy tales, the figure of the evil stepmother.

This is all part of a phenotype. And so it becomes part of a good story.

Sophie Adelman

Well, it it was a very good story and maybe we can rewrite it with the feminist rewriting that you were talking about the feminist historians coming to the fore. Um Sophie has a question, not me. Another. Sophie has a question for you about how Catherine would have seen herself. You mentioned that the French at the time in her day would say that she was Italian. Now did she think that she was Italian Medici French? How would she have seen herself?

Leah Redmond Chang

So that is a very complex question.

I think it’s so interesting. There’s so much about Catherine that we don’t know and that’s really true of all historical figures, right? We really can’t get into their heads entirely. But there is a lot of evidence that Catherine really saw herself as French. So you remember that her her mother was a French princess and the Medici who were commoners were very, very proud of this marriage. And so uh one detail that I left out is that Catherine was an orphan. Her her parents died within a few, a few weeks of her her birth.

And so she’s raised in part by her Medici relatives. And I really think that they fore-grounded this exceptional marriage to a French princess. They kind of drilled it into Catherine um from the time she was a child. And we have evidence in her libraries that she was definitely tracing her French heritage that could be traced back all the way to the dukes of Auvergne. And um she was very, very proud of it. And certainly once she becomes queen mother, she dedicates herself entirely to the kingdom of France.

So um you know, I think that many scholars think that once she gets married, she sort of makes the shift into thinking of herself as France. But I’m not so sure that that didn’t start happening much longer before when she was a very young child.

Sophie Adelman

That actually leads nicely into the question from john about the Medici family and he wants to know why were they considered commoners when they had so much influence and power. Was it due to this marriage or was it due to trade?

Leah Redmond Chang

Oh, so the reason why they’re commoners is because there is literally no blue blood.

They are really striving to marry into the aristocratic and royal families of europe because they’ve they’ve they’ve had a tremendous amount of success, financial and um in terms of influence and their, even their their kingmakers, they have a lot of money. And so when a king or a prince needs some help, they go to the Medici. But what really counts in the renaissance is still very much blood, right? Its lineage and the Medici really struggled to make that leap into the aristocracy. So Catherine’s parents are married because the king of France at the time, really need to make a deal with the pope and the pope was a Medici.

And so in exchange for the pope’s help, the pope agrees to marry, um or I should say the French king agrees to marry one of his relatives, a French princess to the heir of the Medici fortune. And those people are Catherine’s parents.

Sophie Adelman

We have a question from Mike, Mike wants to know about how Catherine managed to retain her power for so long if she was so despised and distrusted at the time.

Leah Redmond Chang

So I love that question. Thank you so much for asking that I I struggle with this too. So To understand how she first gets power.

So, so first she is the unofficial advisor to her older son, the teenager. And then when the 10 year old comes along, she becomes regent. And it’s still remarkable to me how that happens. And a little bit like the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, we’re not really sure there’s a little bit of a room where it happens moments where the doors closed and we’re not allowed to see beyond. But Catherine somehow makes the case that anybody else who would advise or be the regent at the time is a bad choice either because they’re too Catholic or they’re too Protestant.

She’s still making the case that we kind of need someone in the middle and that she as the mother of the king is the best person to do this because she has no other objective than to serve her son, right? She makes the case that she doesn’t have any personal ambition. And kind of shockingly they do this, they give her the keys to the kingdom. But the question is, why does she stay? And I think in the traditional portrait Catherine is seen as this sort of power hungry person and I don’t want to say that that’s entirely wrong.

Again, she’s complex and you could kind of see that you know, maybe she got a taste of power and she kind of likes it. So she wants to hang on. But I think that in some ways, what I see for instance in the correspondence or in her relationships with her children is that Catherine is, she is desperate, she is desperate to restore peace in the kingdom. And she has a little bit of a controlling personality, right? She’s, she’s a little bit of that overbearing mother. And so she just gets to, you used to being able to be the one who moves the chess pieces and so she stays on and then her sons, particularly the 10 year old who grows up with her.

You know, it is so hard for me. He is so young for so long. He can’t imagine ruling without her. And so she continues on.

Sophie Adelman

That’s fascinating. I’m going to move on to the question of whether or not she did actually ordered the massacre. And Simon wants to know if she did order the massacre, why would she have done so and what would she have gained from doing So?

Leah Redmond Chang

Okay, well, so first of all I should say, I don’t think that she ordered it and I’ll explain that in a minute. I don’t think that she ordered it.

I think she might have ordered something that was a little bit less bad. Um Okay, if she did order it, what she would have gotten is perhaps an end to the wars, right? The idea is just get rid of the Protestants and then we can all move on as the Catholic country that we are supposed to be. The thing is it just doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit with the policies that she had already been pursuing and that by the way, she continues to pursue after the massacre. And it just, I mean, if you think about the PR it would have looked so bad, it doesn’t make sense that she would have done that.

But I think that what a lot of scholars accept is that there may have been a plot to eliminate the Protestant leadership at um the wedding. Now, I don’t want you to think that oh my gosh, that that means that she really was this tyrant because you have to understand that every king or queen at this moment in time at some point orders an assassination and the wars had gone on for so long. They were really just trying to end them. So there may have been, we’re still not sure. There may have been a smaller plot that suddenly just got completely out of control.

You have to understand that Paris, Paris in particular, where the wedding is is a very Catholic country city, excuse me, Very Catholic city. And so there were was so much hostility around this wedding. The tensions were running really high and I think there was a triggering event. There was one assassination and then it’s like the mob took over. I that personally, that’s my view of what happened.

Sophie Adelman

That’s a total rewrite of of how it’s been presented in history, but it definitely provides that other that alternative view that we should hold in our heads.

And that leads nicely to a final question that we’ve got um that’s about how you separate the fact from the fiction, especially when challenging such mainstream views when you’re in, when you’re doing your research. Because I assume that a lot of the historical evidence out there in the accounts are all on that. Catherine was bad point of view. How do you separate out the fact and fiction?

Leah Redmond Chang

So, you know, it’s a great question because sometimes it is exhausting, right? I mean, part of writing history like this is constantly going back over and over and over again.

And you do, you’ll find a new source and suddenly something that you thought was true looks a little different and you have to reevaluate. So it’s a very dynamic process and I think we have to be okay with trying as hard as we can to get it right. And then let’s say we published the book and we realize it’s not quite right. Just rewriting. It’s an ongoing, it’s an ongoing process. I really recently ran into a really great quote about how dynamic history is. I think we have to be courageous in the face of history and be willing to redo what we’ve already done.

Um, also primary sources, right? Going back to the original text, not always being reliant on what the historians have said ahead of you, but going back to the original sources and trying as hard as you can to get a very full picture and then also having the courage to say, I don’t know, or here we need to speculate and give a number of possibilities.

Sophie Adelman

I think I don’t know, is, you know, it’s it’s something that people don’t say enough. There’s too much, there seems to be so much confidence in an opinion and actually, sometimes we don’t know and we have to put those different routes out.

So it’s a, it’s a great call out for all of us as we’re considering both historical texts, but also other things that we see today. So Leah, thank you so much for joining us in The Garden. It was an absolute captivating talk and you’ve answered are quite tricky questions incredibly well. So thank you for sharing all your insights and knowledge. And I really hope you’ll join us back in in The Garden to talk more about the queens that you study. Maybe some of the other queens from the renaissance.

Leah Redmond Chang

Thank you so much for having me. It’s really been a pleasure

Sophie Adelman

In the meantime. Stay curious and we’ll see you at your next Garden gathering.

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