Last week, I was contacted by several friends and colleagues telling me that if you type #catherinedemedici on Twitter, a snake emoji automatically appears. Designed to sync with The Serpent Queen, the serpent now appears even with hashtags created in tweets years ago.

This new Catherine is now the old Catherine.

In a life lived through most of the 16th century, Catherine de’ Medici was Queen of France, mother of three kings and two queens, and mother-in-law of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Anyone with this degree and longevity of access to influence across Europe had to attract attention.

In The Serpent Queen, we get a smart and powerful Catherine (played by Liv Hill as a teenager and Samantha Morton as a woman in her 40s), seductive and dangerous, forged in the violence of her childhood and as an emotional response to rejection. . of her love by her husband Henri (Alex Heath as young Henri and Lee Ingleby as an adult).

This Catherine decides to govern with the help of black magic, determined to teach her enemies a lesson. She’s also upbeat, thinking “it feels good to be bad,” over a rock guitar backing track.

But do we really have a new interpretation? Here, a familiar tale of one of history’s favorite bad girls strikes again. And in the process, Catherine de Medici is again diminished.

It seems that the well-crafted propaganda of its own century – and the additions of those since – remains as compelling as ever.

A woman of power

Catherine was never the leader of France, but she knew politics at the highest level intimately.

She was an avid networker. Her remaining letters (about 6,000 survive) give us just an idea of ​​the enormous scope of the relationships she maintained over a long and well-guarded life.

His trajectory has been remarkable. The Medici were not a dynasty of royal blood, but she nonetheless became queen of France, served as regent to her husband, and was governess and advisor to her sons.

Her access to influence as a wife and mother, while conventional, was seen by politicians and commentators beyond the court as dangerous because she stood outside the formal mechanisms of power regulation.

Several versions of Catherine

Catherine was at the height of power when the kingdom of France was at war with himself. The French religious wars, which lasted from 1562 to 1598, opposed Catholics and Huguenots against each other, fighting for the soul of France.

Widowed in 1559, Catherine remained close to the throne as advisor to her three sons who had become kings.

Although Catholic, Catherine’s recommendations to her sons generally favored a middle course aimed at maintaining the integrity of the kingdom and the reputation of the dynasty she had married into.

The Medici were not a dynasty of royal blood, but Catherine nevertheless became queen of France.
Stan

This pleased a few of the ardent on either side, who took to the pen to respond, creating several versions of Catherine depending on their cause.

The sexualized tropes presented Catherine as a danger to men on both sides in this conflict. A versified pamphlet from 1575:

She undresses cocks, tears off their crests and testicles, a virago reigns over the French. An unbridled woman dines on the testicles of roosters, and as she devours this food, she smacks her lips and says: “Thus I castrate Gallic courage, thus I dismantle the French, thus I subdue them!”

This version of Catherine was eye-catching.

There was many versions of Katherine. Some were the versions she made with her allies for public consumption: versions made in art, ceremony, palaces and deeds.

Others had their own ideas about who Catherine was or which version of Catherine best suited their purposes. Not all of them had the same litter and not all of them reproduced until today.

Catherine knew the important issues for women. She had a strained and complex relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots, but she defended it to Elizabeth I’s courtier, Francis Walsingham, telling Walshingham she “knew very well how often people said things of a poor afflicted princess that did not always turn out to be true.”

After his death, dozens of Catherines took flight in novels. Alexandre Dumas’ Queen Margot (1845) has Catherine dissecting the brain of a chicken whose head she cut off with a single blow, for prophetic analysis. She conducts herself with a “sly smile”.

She fared somewhat better among nineteenth-century scholars. The eminent historian Jules Michelet, a Huguenot, nicknamed Catherine “the maggot of the tomb of Italy”.

This version of Catherine was also eye-catching.



Read more: Mary, Queen of Scots was a poet – and you should know it


Women in the public eye

Catherine’s treatment throughout history reflects our problematic relationship with women’s roles in public life. There have been a long story of hostility towards women in power and women in power.

The Serpent Queen traces Catherine’s life from the trials of her childhood through the beginning of what would become nearly 30 years as a central figure in her sons’ reign. Here we have an engaging Catherine with agency, narrated by Catherine herself. Its lines even echo speeches recorded by contemporary ambassadors.

Does Catherine finally have the last word?

This Catherine seems to ask for our sympathy. She looks at us and speaks to us directly, seemingly prompting our understanding of her decisions. “Tell me what you would have done differently?” she asks us.

But perhaps it’s our collusion in making a familiar version of Catherine that the series seeks to elicit.

Is this a new Catherine for new times, complex, contextualized, freed from the reputation of “bad girl” that has followed her through time? Or a lavish, dangerously attractive repeat of Catherine as the “bad girl”?

The Serpent Queen is now streaming on Stan.