Popular culture

“We must change the way women are viewed in history” – The New Indian Express

Express press service

How was your book Queens of Jerusalem: The Women Who Dared To Rule born?
I particularly enjoy telling the story of the Crusades from a woman’s perspective as it is something that is often left out of history. My interests as a historian are to focus on the medieval world of the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean regions and the interactions between East and West during this period.

I traveled to the holy city of Jerusalem and other parts of the Middle East regions to “peel off” the layers of history. It was very important to me to stand up and look at the current “landscape” where these women would have stood, to travel to the exact places they would have been and try to put myself in their shoes.

As a female historian, tell us more about how you relate to these women in telling their stories.
As a young woman researching history, one encounters tremendous amounts of misogyny, not only academically, but also because popular culture around the Crusades and Jerusalem is riddled with hypermasculinity, fantasy romanticism, colonialism and orientalism. It’s hard to use the term misogyny because it’s a modern term that didn’t exist at that time, but there was always a negative attitude implicit in the writing and the view of women in positions of power and in the royalty at that time that you have to look beyond when writing. It is a retelling of history.

How does your background influence your work?
Interestingly, I myself have a mixed ancestry. I grew up in London, with British, American and Armenian roots. I currently live in the Languedoc region of France. I did an MA in Literature and History from Oxford University and UCL. I worked in communications for a year before I started writing full time.

What is striking in your portrayal of these women is that you did not try to flatter them. Instead, you presented them as human characters with their flaws. Tell us about that.

It is not the job of the “feminist historian” to turn every female figure decried or rejected by history into heroines. Rather, it is about presenting relevant evidence and analysis to give readers the best understanding. Unfortunately, it is true that Alice has been criticized enough.

Is it a cliché followed by historians and journalists to portray one woman as the good girl and the other as the bad girl?
In most cases, yes. If we look at modern English royalty, there is this tendency to create good girl and bad girl binaries, as in the case of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle. Therefore, in the case of Melisende and Alice, it was the same approach. Also, Melisende was able to retain her power but Alice could not. Alice was portrayed as a “bad mother” and as “promiscuous”, which is a typical trope. Melisende, admittedly, is my favorite of the four royal women.

Tell us about your second book Storied Cities: The Forgotten Capitals of the Mediterranean. In my next book, the intention is to show the world that women have been in power for centuries. It is important to carve out a place in history. In a way, we have to rehabilitate the way we look at women. In the Middle Ages, women did not just sit at home, but went out and behaved in positions of power and it is important to demonstrate this in history.

Does the way forward for you continue to be women’s history?
After the forgotten cities of the Mediterranean, I try to write about the women of the Ottoman Empire, the slave queens of the harem and the way in which they played their relationship with power… how they became queens. I love their rags to riches stories!

Queens of Jerusalem: the women who dared to reign
By: Katherine Pangonis
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Pages: 313
Price: Rs 699