On Women Rulers in “Book of the Courtier”

Baldassare Castiglione (1478 – 1529) was born in Mantua to an aristocratic family.  He served as a diplomat in many of the courts of the Italian princes, but it was in Urbino that the conversations and background work were completed for his classic book on courtly etiquette.  It has left for posterity a remarkable first-hand commentary on Renaissance manners and society.  ‘The Book of the Courtier’ demonstrates the enduring truth that while manners and customs may change, human nature stays the same.  Enjoy this paraphrase of an excerpt on women rulers:

“The Magnifico said: ‘You can study any period in history to see the merits of women alongside those of men, and it will become clear to you that they have always been every bit as capable as men.  Ignore for the moment the most ancient times and consider that when the Goths controlled Italy, one of their greatest rulers was a wise queen by the name of Amalasontha.  The Lombards also had a remarkable queen in Theodolinda, and of course the Byzantine Empire had the formidable Theodora.  There have been many women rulers of enormous ability, for example, the Countess Matilda, who we should ask Count Ludovico to tell us about.  After all, she was a member of his family.’

“The Count declined because he did not think it would be right for a man to wax lyrical about his own family.

“And so the Magnifico went on: ‘Think of all the outstanding women in history who came from this prestigious house of Montefeltro.  And how many others came from the houses of Gonzaga, Este, and Pio?  Even if you want to refer only to the current era, we will have no trouble in finding excellent examples, because they are all around us.  But I am not going take advantage of the many able women present, because that might give someone the opportunity to claim you agree with me merely out of courtesy.

“’Let’s leave Italy for a moment, and acknowledge that our own era has witnessed the greatness of Queen Anne of France.  Compare her in terms of justice, mercy, generosity, and virtue, with the kings, Charles and Louis, to both of whom she was married, and she is seen as their equal in every way.  Think of Madonna Margarita, the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, who has always displayed exemplary wisdom and justice in the government of her realm.  Then, if we put to one side all the others, I ask you, Lord Gaspar, if you can name a single male ruler in this era or any other who might be favourably compared with Queen Isabella of Spain.’

“The Lord Gaspar suggested her husband, King Ferdinand.

“The Magnifico conceded: ‘I can hardly refute that – after all, the queen did consider him as an estimable consort, and obviously loved and honoured him.  Still, in my opinion, the prestige he gained by marrying her was as valuable as the Kingdom of Castile itself.’  Gaspar disagreed and argued that Queen Isabella’s fame rested on her husband’s achievements.

“But the Magnifico persisted: ‘The entire population of Spain – the nobility and the commoners, male and female, rich and poor – could hardly be mistaken at the same time, and all agree that there has simply never been a ruler of such integrity, wisdom, holiness, and generosity of spirit as Queen Isabella.  Even though her fame is such across the whole of Europe as to be considered legendary, the fact is that the very people who lived with her and saw what she achieved for themselves, all insist that her reputation rested on her own character and actions.

“’One only has to review her achievements to be satisfied that this is true.  For example, it is common knowledge that on her accession most of Castile was controlled by the great nobles, yet she quickly wrested control from them, and was still able to command their ongoing loyalty.’”

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Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas. Subscribe to my Substack HERE.

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