Eleanor of Aquitaine is often portrayed as one of the most powerful queens in history. Wife, mother and counsellor of kings, crusader, landowner, patron of the arts, her power eventually grew so great – at least in the eyes of one royal husband, Henry II of England – that he chose to lock her up. But what if Eleanor wasn’t exceonal? What if, in the manner and the degree to which she exerted power, she was very much in line with royal women throughout history?
That suggestion is not original. It has been raised by a persistent if minority chorus of academics – mainly feminist archaeologists such as Joyce Marcus and Joan Gero – for decades, but the problem has always been identifying a norm for queenly power. In a recently published paper, the political anthropologist Paula Sabloff of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico attempts to do just that, by comparing the roles and political clout of royal women in eight premodern societies spanning five continents and more than 4,000 years.
The Santa Fe Institute is dedicated to the study of complexity and it is adept at processing large quantities of data to that end. In the past decade, its researchers have turned their attention to human history, asking if our interpretation of the historical record can be improved by pooling data about the past and using statistical analysis to identify patterns in them. This approach might be called “big history”, analogous to big data – though the term big history has been used in other ways as well, and some of its advocates have written about it on