Isabella Smeets talks with Christina Figlus about her thesis, "Our emperor and empresse."
Isabella Smeets (IS): First, I was wondering what inspired you to write about Elizabeth I? Did you always have an interest in Elizabeth I or English history in general? Were you always interested in looking at gender identity throughout history?
Christina Figlus (CF): I have always been interested in English history. I've also always been interested more broadly in women throughout history and in particular, women rulers in European history. I have a fairly traditional interest in political “great men” history, but I am also interested in understanding how women fit into that picture, because I think history over the past 200 years since the Victorian period has been very focused on downplaying the role that women played in history. So I've always been interested in learning more about the real power that women exercised, and how they did so. Elizabeth herself came a little bit later. I think everyone's a little bit interested in her just because she is such a fascinating figure and such an enigma. I would say she’s the most famous monarch in European history. She had such a long reign and was such an interesting person because she didn't marry. This meant that her particular position was very different from that of most other women who held power throughout European history. I don't know as much about the subject outside of Europe because I've always studied European history, but she's very, very unique in that tradition. I originally thought about writing on the Second World War because I'm also very passionate about the history of the two world wars and the interwar period. I ended up picking Elizabeth because of how popular 19th and 20th century history theses are. Those are some of the most popular subjects to write about at Yale for European history, and part of the reason I picked Elizabeth is because I wanted to do something a little different. Something a little more challenging too because we didn't have all the resources at Yale, easily accessible the way you might for World War Two or World War One history thesis. I wanted that extra challenge and wanted to do something that would stand out a bit more, a subject where I felt I could really make a unique contribution.
(IS): I was also wondering how you went about conducting your research and your writing process in general. How did you make use of Yale’s extensive research resources throughout your process?
(CF): I actually started a lot earlier than a lot of people do. I think most people start thinking about their thesis topic sometime during their junior year, however, I started thinking about it towards the end of my sophomore year. I ended up using my international summer award and got to go to Cambridge. While I was there, I decided I wanted to take advantage of being in Cambridge and having access to a group of scholars who are much more likely to have studied Elizabeth I. Yale itself doesn't have many medieval Early Modern English historians, and I think the last one retired in 2019. I worked with the Yale center for British Art at the end of my junior year and the beginning of my senior year. The Yale center for British Art was an incredible resource. I also won a Jonathan Edwards Paskus-Mellon grant to do further research in the UK, again, this time actually looking at sources because the material is old enough that very little of it is located outside the UK, the art pieces especially. I think there are a couple manuscripts that Harvard acquired that I was interested in, but for the most part, the sources I needed were not available in the US, or for that matter, online. My thesis was actually very interdisciplinary, too, and I think most history papers should be. I looked not only at written sources, which are very typical, but I also looked at a wealth of art history and material sources. I found that those were invaluable to understanding the representation of Elizabeth in various media. The art, the coinage, and pamphlets were really important, and most of that was located in the UK. I was able to visit, with my Paskus-Mellon grant, a couple art galleries and their archives. I went to the National Gallery National Portrait Gallery in London, which was really, really great. My advisor at the Yale center for British Art, Lisa Ford put me in touch with some of the curators. So I actually got to go to the archives, go to the research areas rooms, and talk to the people who are the experts in Elizabethan portraiture. I got to interview them and get the most up to date research and scholarly perspectives on these paintings. Unfortunately, we don't have a lot of information about a lot of paintings of Elizabeth, and these paintings were key sources in my paper. I also went to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool which had one particular piece I was interested in, as well as some really interesting provenance documentation. Lastly, I was also able to look at some really important manuscripts in the British Library. Honestly, this trip to England I was able to take because of the JE Paskus-Mellon Grant was the most important part of my research process. I found pieces of information and artifacts I’d never even imagined existed, and they completely revolutionized my paper.
(IS): That is really impressive and really interesting how you managed to get all those sources together! You mentioned before how Elizabeth I is one of the most popular monarchs, you can think of, and I was wondering if the preexisting scholarship on her ever felt overwhelming? Though from what you just told me, that you've taken advantage of that preexisting scholarship by talking to experts.
(CF): I think, especially at the beginning, it was really daunting. For a thesis you always want to write something new. It doesn't have to be monumental or groundbreaking, but you do want to find something unique to say because otherwise, why are you writing if you don't have something new to add to the conversation? Elizabeth II being one of the oldest and most popular historical subjects did make it kind of daunting at the beginning, but I also think the fact that there is so much work actually means that there are a lot of opportunities to offer up new perspectives. Most of that work is not modern, since in the modern period, in the last twenty, thirty years, interest in Elizabeth I has declined. That means that a lot of perspectives on Elizabeth from the existing work tend to be old fashioned. The first biography I ever read of Elizabeth I was by JE Neale, published in 1934. It's the most famous biography ever written about Elizabeth, it’s even considered a classic. Neale writes about the all-important question of why Elizabeth didn't marry or have children, and according to Neale, all women have a biological need to marry and have children. So he reasons that she clearly must have desperately wanted to marry because there's no way that a woman could not want to be married and have children. He reasons that she must have been really sad because she was denied marriage and children due to politics. A lot of the older scholarship actually includes this perspective; it has this very mid-20th century misogynistic perspective on Elizabeth and on the culture of the period. In my opinion, women in the early modern period in England had a lot more freedom in some instances than they did over the last 200 years of modern history. History as we know it, as a subject, didn't exist in a formal way until the last 200 years, so these ideas of misogyny were often superimposed on the past. A lot of the scholarship on Elizabeth and on other powerful women throughout European history focuses on these ideas about what women want and what they are capable of. I felt that given our evolving perspectives on sex and gender, there was something new to say, something to add to the conversation around Elizabeth I. In some ways, I think we have a better understanding of how people in the 16th century understood sex and gender now than we did fifty or a hundred years ago because of how our own perspectives have evolved.
(IS): Speaking of Elizabeth I’s prevalence in high school and university curriculums across the country, do you think there are any misconceptions about Elizabeth I that the general public holds? Before you mentioned some misogynistic views that were commonly held, and I was wondering if there were any other misconceptions that you think we should get rid of?
(CF): I think that there are a lot of other misconceptions. Obviously, misogyny is a big one, but I think there's a general misunderstanding of how monarchy functioned. We, as Americans, don't have a monarchy, and even, in modern Britain, the monarchy doesn't perform the same function as it used to. People talk about Elizabeth, as if she were a person, when in fact, I don't think she was a person. She was much, much more than what we define as an individual. That's one of the points I try to make in my thesis: that she was pretty much a living incarnation of the divine. She wasn't quite a living god because Christianity doesn't allow for that, but she was as close as you can get in Christianity to a living deity. She didn't have to follow the normal rules of a person's life. So when people talk about her being a woman and having children, they're talking about a human woman, and to me that is not the right way to understand Elizabeth and her life. We're talking about someone who is imbued with the spirit of God, with the Holy Spirit - (because in practice, European monarchy is based on the idea that anointing imbues the monarch’s body with the monarchical soul, a part of the Holy Spirit). She is a metaphorical descendant of Jesus Christ, and someone who contains within their body the entire nation of England. All the people of England, and the whole concept of the nation (its political and spiritual aspects) is contained within that body. I think it's easy to reduce many early modern historical figures to people who look, think, and behave just like us, but there is a fundamental difference in that she didn’t think like us. Even if we, as twenty first century students living in a democracy, don't believe that Elizabeth was actually the mystical descendant of Christ, she and most of her subjects did believe exactly that. So I think that's a very important thing to keep in mind. There are also a lot of preconceived notions we have about gender and sexuality that don't apply historically in the same ways. Now we’re starting to challenge them little bit, but in the last 50 years or so we have had very clearly defined gender roles that correspond to a person's biological sex. That was not necessarily the case historically; these concepts didn’t function in the same way. The way we think about them now doesn't make sense to impose on the past. A good example here is how we usually define women based on their biological sex, but in the sixteenth century, being a woman had less to do with her biological sex, and more to do with the role she played in society. We also have this very modern idea that religion is not necessarily the most important thing in our lives; that you can choose whether or not to be religious, choose which religion to be part of, or even choose whether or not to believe there’s a God. That was not part of the psyche of someone who lived in the 1500s. In the 1500s it was an undeniable fact that God existed, and there was only one way to be religious. There was only one correct way to exist as a member of society, and that was to go to church every Sunday, be a good Christian, and believe that if your crops fail that was because you were a bad person and your family going hungry was God’s punishment for your sins. That was the way that you thought about your life; religion was such a monumental part of people's lives. I think we now have a hard time conceiving of that because that's not the way that we live, we have very different justifications for why and how things happen.
(IS): Definitely, that’s a very important point to make. Do you think that Elizabeth I should be more focused on in history curriculums across the country, despite being an English monarch?
(CF): Yes, I actually think we should be focusing on her. I think we should be focusing on her for a number of reasons. One, I think she was really influential. She was very important in terms of European history, but I also think she's an incredibly important figure in terms of women's history, and we need to study more women’s history and intersectional history more broadly. I think we have to make an effort to look at women historical figures. I talked about her being both male and female in my thesis, and neither: a sexless sort of person who exists above these concepts of gender and sexuality. I just think that studying her is an interesting way of engaging with these concepts and also a way of challenging our own preconceived notions, which in my mind is an essential part of education.
(IS): You give many compelling reasons on why we should definitely be focusing on her. I was also wondering about the development of the argument in your paper. In your introduction you proclaim that “Creating this image of Elizabeth as a semi-divine monarch filled an emotional and spiritual gap for an English population in transition from Catholicism to Anglicanism.” Did you begin your research with this idea or did this idea arise from your research?
(CF): I definitely did not begin with this in mind. I am one of those people who, when I’m writing, I can start out with one idea, and as I work through my research and even as I write and think through the idea, it changes. I often go back and completely rewrite my introduction because it turns out that I've decided to argue something different than what I originally set out to argue. I didn't actually come up with the final argument I used in my paper until I had finished all of my research and was halfway through writing the thing when suddenly I realized “oh my god, this is my argument.” It was sort of like the pieces clicked into place, and I had this really great argument that encompassed everything I’d been working on for the better part of a year. I had always been interested in Elizabeth's contemporaries and how the Queen herself understood her identity, and I was curious about the sheer volume of divine imagery that played into this understanding. I started out thinking about how Elizabeth was at different times portrayed as a man, a King or as a woman, a Queen. I was going to focus on that gender identity, but after all this reading I started to see all these biblical allusions. I started looking into them a bit, and this was honestly pretty late in the writing process, in January or February, a month before my full draft was due. Before we left Yale for quarantine I read this one quote in a letter about Elizabeth around the time of her accession and I noticed it looked familiar. So, I typed it into a website called bible gateway, which is just an open access version of every English language bible translation. You can search by phrase or word, and it will locate all the passages in the bible that contain it. I searched for that particular phrase and found it was an exact quote from the book of Revelation, referencing the second coming of Christ. This English Lord was using the same quote that in the Bible is used to refer to Christ to describe Elizabeth. I thought that was just crazy, and amazing, and that's sort of when it clicked for me. I thought, wow, people are talking about Elizabeth as if she were partially divine, as if she were a saint or a Christ figure. And that's how it came together.
(IS): That’s an incredible moment where it all clicked for you! Also, I was wondering about your thesis advisor, Carlos Eire. What was his role in the shaping of your thesis? How did you get connected with him?
(CF): I had a bit of an interesting time getting connected with thesis advisors. I actually started out my project with a different advisor, Dr. Lisa Ford, who was a historian of Tudor history at the Yale center for British Art. We worked together my whole first semester through December, which was when the majority of my research took place. Then at the end of December, I got an email saying that she was leaving Yale, and I would have to find a new advisor. She was the last person at Yale who studied any Early Modern English history or even late medieval English history. Yale has a definitive focus on American and modern European history, and they unfortunately don't have a lot of faculty who work in the early modern and late medieval periods. So I ended up looking for someone who was a historian of the Early Modern period because I needed help thinking through these difficult ideas about how people interacted with religion, which requires a fundamentally different understanding of how the world worked in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I had a couple different options and Professor Eire, who is a scholar of Catholic and reformation history seemed like a really good choice, even though he is a continental European and not a British historian. Thankfully he was willing to take on someone who was already halfway through a thesis project. He was very, very kind; he absolutely was not obligated to do that. I knew his background in religious history would be a really good asset to my research and writing process. The part of my thesis I was struggling with at the time had to do with these religious concepts of the Holy Trinity, how sainthood works, the cult of the Virgin Mary, and the Immaculate Conception. These concepts are mystical and hard to grasp. He was wonderful because he spent a lot of time sitting with me in his office and talking through these concepts of how one single body can contain the body of Christ and also the body of the English people; how Elizabeth can be mother, father and son all at once, and how all of this could fit together into some grander picture of the origins of her power. And then, how she was able to access so much of it in such a male dominated world without the more traditional methods through which women accessed power, as wives and mothers to Kings.
(IS): Moving away from your thesis, what was your favorite part of being a History major at Yale? Did you go into Yale knowing that you wanted to be a history major?
(CF): I'd always been interested in history, but I came to Yale thinking I would major in political science or EP & E. Then I took my first political science class, and frankly I hated it. It was a fine class; it just really wasn't for me. I also thought about economics, but I learned later that Yale’s program focused on microeconomics. I was more interested in economic policy and trade theory but not sufficiently interested in math and microeconomic theory to become an economics major. I fell into the history major almost by accident; I realized at the end of my freshman year that I had taken four history classes, which constituted almost half of the major requirements. I thought, well, if, if these are the classes I like to take, I might as well make a degree out of it. I took classes I was interested in, and I most certainly took full advantage of shopping for classes -- I would continuously adjust my schedule until the day it was due. And I loved being a history major, so I know I made the right decision. In my opinion, the best part of the history major at Yale is the degree of choice it offers. As a history major at Yale, it's really important to take advantage of all the different offerings. It's really easy to focus on American history or modern history, but we have so many phenomenal professors who teach on so many varied historical subjects, even ones that might not seem as interesting or useful to a first year or sophomore coming into the major. One of my favorite professors while I was at Yale was Paul Freedman. I took two of his classes, and he teaches early and late medieval history as well as the history of food. His courses were some of the most fun and fascinating and fun classes that I encountered, even though the subject matter was not what I think is typically most interesting to a Yale student. There is so much value in these courses, and professors like Professor Freedman are such incredible teachers. I think it’s a shame more people don’t take advantage of them as a resource. The other great part of being a history major is the thesis itself. It is a pretty unique program. I can’t speak for the nature of other thesis programs at Yale, but the history thesis is really quite a serious research undertaking (if you choose to complete the two-term thesis). I didn't realize this until I was almost done writing it, but the history thesis provides the opportunity for a research paper that goes above and beyond the typical standard of undergraduate work. It really is an incredible opportunity: to write an actual piece of academic research. And for me personally, it was such a rewarding process and so much fun.
(IS): Definitely! Writing a piece of research like that is such an important piece of groundwork for whatever you choose to do after graduation. Speaking of the great classes that you took, was there one that particularly stood out or a favorite class or history seminar that you took?
(CF): Picking one is so hard! I think that my favorite class at Yale would have been a seminar I took my final semester with Jennifer Allen called Memory & History in Modern Europe. That said, the last half of that semester was online, so I don't think I was able to enjoy it in full. So I would say, aside from that, my other favorite class was Timothy Snyder's lecture, Eastern Europe before 1914. I just really thought he was an incredibly engaging lecturer. I grew up in Eastern Europe, too, so seeing this big class taught about the very history I grew up with was really interesting. It was really challenging, though, especially for a first semester freshman. The readings in that class were really, really difficult, which was a bit scary, but also fun because I was really invested in the course and took the time to fully read and engage with them.
(IS): Looking to the future, does your thesis lead into your postgraduate work? If so, how?
(CF): It does not lean into my post graduate work at all. I think I'm interested in going back to school eventually and getting a further degree in history. Whether or not that will be on Early Modern English history or whether I'm going to pursue the interest I have in 19th and 20th century European history remains to be seen, but I'm working as a management consultant, starting in January. So my thesis has no relation to my current postgraduate life in any way, but I really do hope to pursue it more in the future.
(IS): Lastly, I was wondering, what advice you would give to prospective history majors at Yale?
(CF): Go to office hours with professors. I think that everybody says that, but in the history major, it's a little different than in a few other subjects. In a number of other subjects you attend office hours for help with problem sets or other homework, but I would recommend history majors just go and talk to their history professors. They have so much knowledge to convey, vastly more knowledge than can ever come across in a lecture or seminar they’re giving. They are really interesting people to talk to in part because they have such an interesting way of relating to the present. We study the past and a lot of the time, I think people want to ask, ‘why is this thing that you're interested in from 600 years ago important?’Why is Elizabeth important? In some ways we struggle to tell people why they should care about somebody who lived and died 500 years ago, and you could go your whole life without ever hearing about it. And truth be told, I think historians are sometimes interested in these things just for the sake of themselves, and that makes for a lot of really interesting conversations. Some of my favorite moments at Yale were sitting in a Professor's office and talking about things that weren't even related to our class. I had a professor give me recommendations for detective novels that were only tangentially related to history, and it wasn’t even the history we were studying. The relationships you form can be really wonderful, too, and most professors at Yale are happy to mentor students, not just in the pursuit of historical research, but life in general. As a student you have access to such wonderful and intelligent people who honestly care about you and your success; I think all students should take advantage of that. Of course, I understand how much more difficult it must be to form relationships like these during COVID, where classes and office hours are all virtual – I myself am having some difficulty navigating a fully virtual workplace. That said, if you miss in-person interactions with professors, and I know I do, I think they miss interacting with their students too.