Sometimes, I wonder if medieval people were more in a hurry to live their lives, seeing as so many of them died at ages we would consider to be relatively young. Death, it would seem, sent its icy breath along their nape from the moment those medieval peeps were born. Obviously, Death is as present in our lives as it was in theirs—in the sense that we all die—but generally, in our time we prefer not to think about death at all. It is more an “if” approach than a “when” approach – somewhat ridiculous, seeing as there is no “if” about it. At some point, all of us die.
This last year has made us all much more aware of our mortality. The pandemic sweeping the world has left two million dead in its wake. It scares us, to consider dying before our time—and in our opinion, our time is far, far away in the future.
Medieval people lived in much closer proximity to death than we do. Almost all parents lost at least one child in infancy, no matter how rich they were. People sickened and died all the time, and then, of course, there was the added risk of dying in battle—or of the injuries sustained in battle.
In difference to us, though, medieval people were buttressed by their faith. To the devout of those times, death was merely a gate through which the soul passed. If you were good and repentant, you’d spend some years in purgatory before being whisked off to heaven. If you were bad, died unshriven or excommunicated, the eternal hellfires awaited you. Which, apparently, was not all that much of a deterrent as there seems to have been quite a few bad apples around back then as well—leading me to suspect that not everyone took the word of the Church as God’s truth. People who think, who read, have always doubted the existence of God and a hereafter—for the simple reason that it cannot be proven either way.
Wow: here I was, intending to write a post about a medieval woman who did not live past her fortieth year, and I end up with some “existentialism light”. So, how about we return to the woman in question.
In 1215, the king Andrew II of Hungary and his wife, Yolande de Courtenay, welcomed a daughter to this world. The queen of Hungary was the daughter of Peter de Courtenay who for a very short while was the emperor of the Latin Empire of Constantinople. Prior to being an emperor, Peter had been an avid crusader, both in the Holy Land and on French soil where he had taken part in the Albigensian crusade against the Cathars. Andrew of Hungary aspired to greater things, which was probably why he married Yolande, hoping to thereby have a claim on the title of emperor. He was also in need of a second wife, as his first, the rather ambitious Gertrude, had been brutaly assassinated, more or less torn to pieced by some of Andrew’s noblemen who detested her influence over the king. Poor Gertrude, one thinks.
Andrew may have aspired to being emperor, but truth be told he had problems ruling his own little corner of the earth and was in such a weak position he couldn’t even go after his first wife’s murderers. Still: that did not stop him from entering a new alliance via Yolande, who was proposed as his bride by her uncle (and at the time the emperor of that most impressive Latin Empire of Constantinople). At the age of fifteen, Yolande gave birth to our protagonist, who was named after her mother.
Little Yolande was raised in a very devout family. The Arpad dynasty has given the world quite a number of saints, among which are Yolande’s own half-sister and two of her nieces. King Andrew had himself been a crusader, and every single Arpad child grew up knowing that there was but one church, the Holy Roman one, and that all other faiths needed to be crushed.
So, when Yolande was sent off all the way across Europe with her retinue of one hundred people or so to wed Jaime of Aragon, she was a future queen with a warrior’s dedication to the Catholic cause. In her husband, she found a man who had been miraculously conceived and raised by the Templars and who was in many was as devout and educated. But Jaime was also raised in close proximity to people of other faiths—the Iberian Peninsula was home to both Catholics, Muslims and Jews, and in most larger cities the various faiths rubbed together in greater or lesser harmony, Many of Jaime’s subjects were Mudejares, Muslims who had been allowed to remain after the Aragonese crown had reconquered various Muslim taifa states. Just as many of his subjects were Mozarabes, Christians who had lived for so long under Muslim rule that they had absorbed Arab customs and dressed and ate mostly as Muslims did.
Yolande and Jaime were wed in Barcelona in September of 1235. This was not Jaime’s first wedding. He had recently succeeded in getting his first marriage, that to Leonor of Castile, a granddaughter to Henry II of England, annulled due to consanguinity. He’d only been thirteen when he was wed to her, she’d been thirty-one, so I imagine that was never a harmonious joining. But no matter his youth, Jaime had managed to sire a son with Leonor, a boy named Alfonso who at the time of Jaime’s wedding to Yolande was thirteen and the recognised heir to the Aragonese crown. This did not please Yolande. At all.
Other than Leonor, Yolande also had to handle the fact that Jaime was, since years back, involved in a relationship with Teresa, royal mistress extraordinaire. Except, of course, that Teresa had been terribly hurt when Jaime had chosen to arrange a second marriage with Yolande when he had, in fact, promised her that once he was free of Leonor he would wed her. Despite this, Jaime and Teresa would maintain an illicit relationship throughout his marriage to Yolande. I imagine Yolande knew and looked the other way, while dearly wanting to scratch someone’s eyes out.
When Jaime and Yolande wed, the king was all of twenty-seven. He had already proven himself a man of war, having recently reconquered Mallorca from the Moors and annexing the island to his ever-growing realm of Aragon. His was a sprawling kingdom, compromising most of the north-eastern part of the Iberian Peninsula and a sizeable chunk of Occitaine, with Perpignan as one of the kingdom’s larger cities. At Jaime’s court, people spoke Catalan and Langue d’Oc and French, a bustling international atmosphere further spiced up by the presence of various faiths—and a Hungarian queen.
But Jaime wanted more than Mallorca, all too aware of the fact that his Castilian neighbour, Fernando III, was making substantial inroads into Muslim territory and thereby expanding his kingdom.
“Too right,” Yolande said. “We need to bring the true word of God to everyone in Hispania!”
Err… Jaime was more into conquest than conversion. But he was happy to have such an enthusiastic supporter in his wife. By all accounts, he also considered Yolande an important advisor on a variety of subjects, finding in his second wife a queen and companion that helped him carry the burdens of kingship.
In 1236, Yolande gave birth to her first child. A girl, christened Violante (Yolande a la Catalán). In 1238, another little girl joined her eldest sister. The birth of little Constanza, however, was overshadowed by the Conquest of Valencia. In September of 1238, Zayyan ibn Mardanish, the last Muslim king of Valencia surrendered his kingdom to Jaime, and on the 9th of October the king and his lady wife entered the city in a magnificent procession. Where Yolande may have pushed for the expulsion of all Infidel who refused conversion, the king was much too aware of how dependent the economy of Valencia was on the skill of the Muslim workers, so after a token (!) expulsion of 50 000 Muslims, he allowed the rest to stay and hold to their faith, while inviting people from Aragon to settle in this the new addition to his little empire.
Yolande was given land of her own in Valencia, but much of her focus was on her growing family. In 1240 she gave birth to a son, Pedro. The boy who should be the self-evident heir to the throne in Yolande’s opinion. Unfortunately, his half-brother was very much alive and well, so Yolande now began dedicating a substantial part of her energy and intellect into securing an adequate inheritance for her children—specifically her sons. Over the coming years, she’d give Jaime three more boys and three more girls, bringing the total up to nine. When her last child was born, she was thirty-five. Very young, in this day and age. Borderline decrepit back then—especially after so many childbeds.
Yolande had prepared herself for the hereafter, being a benefactress of various religious houses. Not that I think she was expecting to die quite so soon after the birth of her little Sancho, but in 1251, Yolande sickened. She reviewed her previously prepared will, made her peace with God and died on October 9 of that same year. She was thirty-six, mother of nine (one of which she’d had to bury), sister to a saint, aunt to two other saints, daughter to a king, granddaughter of an emperor—and Queen of Aragon, Mallorca and Valencia, Countess of Barcelona and Urguell, Lady of Montpellier. None of that is reflected in her simple resting place, a plain stone sarcophagus adorned with three plain crosses and the royal arms of Aragon.
Yolande may not have lived all that long in our opinion. She definitely did not live long enough to see her two eldest sons become kings of Aragon and Mallorca respectively (half-brother Alfonso died). She never saw her eldest daughter crowned as Queen of Castile, her youngest become Queen of France. She would never see the day when both France, Castile and Aragon were ruled by her grandsons. But for a while she lived and ruled, a respected consort of Jaime the Conqueror, a woman who wielded more power than most. Was it enough? I hope so.