Historian's new project takes a deeper look at queenly slander

Crown and sword on table lit by candle

Most historians have chosen to ignore a certain early English queen, because all historical accounts of her life are full of salacious stories about sex and scandal, stories that are so dramatic they are obviously untrue.

Which is exactly why UO historian Martha Bayless believes she is worth studying.

Bayless is working on a new research project about the history of accusations against powerful women, including Queen Eadburh, an eighth-century queen of England and the subject of much historical slander. Her project will analyze how those historical narratives have shaped cultural conversations about powerful women today.

Bayless points to Queen Eadburh as an early example of a trend that has plagued women for centuries and continues to be prevalent in modern narratives about women in power.

“I hope to recover Queen Eadburh as a serious person in history,” Bayless said, “and use her story to help show early patterns of accusation against women, patterns that remain in force today.”

Bayless explains that Eadburh’s story is in keeping with the same legends that have surrounded powerful women for centuries, where they are often portrayed as sneaky, conniving, scandalously ambitious, sexually misbehaving and big fans of using poison as a weapon.

In historical accounts, Queen Eadburh was painted as the anti-heroine in a three-part story about her many misconducts. In the first section, she was accused of having an affair with a member of her husband’s court and poisoning her husband, the king. She then fled to France, where she took refuge with Charlemagne, and was again vilified for her sexual greed and behavior. And finally, she was rumored to become an abbess of a monastery in Italy, where she, again, had an affair, this time with a priest.

Women like Marie Antoinette and Joan of Arc are other examples that Bayless cites of female targets, but she said there are so many to choose from it’s hard to highlight just a few.

Bayless points out that powerful men can get away with a lot. For instance, very little was made of the fact that while Eadburh became an outcast for her rumored promiscuity, Charlemagne had at least 10 wives and mistresses and yet was known as one of the famous “Nine Worthies" of history. But women’s sexuality is often centered in accounts of their lives, even when it is fabricated.

“There are so many stories where women are just there to provide the salacious sex element,” Bayless said. She hopes her research helps people interrogate the way society talks about women.

“It’s useful for us to have more awareness of the fact that women are rarely in public discourse without sexuality playing into the conversation.”

If a woman is disliked, the first offense against her is often an accusation of sexual misconduct, Bayless explains. And because scandalous stories are so interesting, they are often shared, amplified and replicated throughout history with little regard for accuracy.

“There’s a saying about how ‘a lie can get halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on,’” Bayless said.

She hopes her research will help illuminate the historical roots of the tropes, stories and sensationalisms that continue to surround powerful women.

Bayless plans to write both an academic article and one for the broader public, to cultivate a greater awareness of society’s tendency to discuss women in that way. She received support from the Oregon Humanities Center for the project.

“It can be really useful to see just how long some patterns have been happening,” Bayless said. “I hope this research helps people reflect on how modern women are depicted.”

By Emily Halnon, University Communications