On June 17, First Lady Melania Trump issued a rare statement on current policy through her spokesperson. That statement lamented the separation of refugee children from their parents by the Department of Homeland Security and declared that America should be “a country that governs with heart.” And when, on Wednesday, her husband reversed his policy, White House aides rushed to credit her intervention. “From the start Mrs. Trump has been encouraging the president to do all he can to keep families together,” one official told The Washington Post.
For Melania to emerge from her customary position on the sidelines to play a critical role in reversing a major policy initiative might seem a perplexing event. But for a historian of the Middle Ages, it is part of an instantly recognizable pattern.
A near-constant in late medieval kingship was the use of the queen as intercessor. Women were conventionally ascribed softer hearts, and subjects were encouraged to appeal to the queen for mercy. The template for this role was the Virgin Mary—the paragon of intercession among medieval Christians—who was believed to sit, enthroned in heaven, at the side of her son Christ, able and willing to make appeals to him on behalf of suffering or desperate devotees. Medieval art and medieval texts customarily liken queens to the Virgin Mary, especially in the role of intercessor.
The queen was called upon to play this role habitually during times of political crisis. For example, in 1450, after a popular revolt known as Cade’s Rebellion, King Henry VI sought to end a disastrous event in his reign initially by extending a pardon to its participants. But the pardons might have made him look weak. So, in the preamble to the text of the pardon, he claimed to have been moved to this gesture of clemency “among others, by the most humble and persistent supplications, prayers and requests of our most serene and beloved wife and consort the queen …” (as translated from Latin by scholar Helen Maurer). It was a handy excuse. The king got to keep his strong profile by insisting he had been moved to mercy by his wife.
This happened repeatedly throughout the late Middle Ages. Arguably the most famous example is the event from the Hundred Years’ War known as the Burghers of Calais. According to the medieval chronicler Jean Froissart, after the English forces had besieged the town of Calais for a year between 1346 and 1347, English King Edward III offered to lift the siege if the town sent him six of their citizens to be executed. At the last minute, Edward’s heavily pregnant Queen Philippa threw herself before the king and begged for mercy. Reportedly stirred by the heartbreaking sight of his distressed wife carrying their unborn child, the king relented and offered to spare the lives of the six men. Dozens more examples just like this—if not so cinematically dramatic—could be brought forward.
What does this have to do with President Trump? And how can it explain not only Melania’s rare public comment and reported private intervention on the current immigrant crisis but also the role of women in general in the Trump administration?
Forcibly separating immigrant children from their families and placing them into internment camps proved politically untenable. And as the president and his advisers found that their policy could not be maintained without political damage to them, Melania’s plaintive words became part of the apparatus for explaining a change in policy. Ivanka Trump was drafted into this role as well, as aides also leaked word that she had intervened with her father ahead of the reversal.
As the scholar Paul Strohm puts it in his book Hochon’s Arrow, “Queenly mediation was … a ‘sponsored’ activity, an activity that—for all its tacitly corrective and admonitory content—seems to have been entirely congenial to male monarchs and to the whole system of relations that maintained them on their thrones.” In other words, both Melania and Ivanka follow to a T the template of the medieval queen, whose job it was to support the monarch and provide cover for when he must—for political expedience—alter his positions.
Time and again commentators remark with undue optimism that the women in the White House—mostly Ivanka, but Melania as well—provide a “moderating” presence. Ivanka was acclaimed as responsible for preventing her father from overturning LGBTQ workplace protections, and yet only a month later he proceeded to strip transgender individuals of theirs regardless. Likewise, she was credited with the “more measured, less combative speech” Trump delivered to Congress in March 2017. And Melania’s “Be Best” anti-cyberbullying campaign offers a public riposte to the accusations that her husband is the perpetrator of the very bullying she has vowed to combat. Trump, many insist, couldn’t possibly carry out any malicious actions or implement any egregious policies because the women are there, right by his side, reminding him to care for the people.
Such attitudes are naive.
The women of Trump’s family are doing what medieval queens regularly did: They are helping him project an image of strength, even when he is forced to back down, by framing his many reversals as responses to their pleas and not admissions of political weakness. It’s a time-honored, convenient trope. Don’t be taken in.