Poison, Power and Perception: A Biography of Mabel of Belleme (1030-1082)



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This dissertation is a biography of an eleventh-century Norman noblewoman named Mabel of Bellême. This study tells how the first lords of Bellême came to power in the ninth century, rose to be masters of the southern and western frontier of Normandy, and how implausible stories about Mabel came to be included in Orderic Vitalis’s twelfth century history of the Norman church. My thesis is that Mabel relied upon the Bellême power initially created in the ninth century by her great-grandfather, Yves, and consolidated Bellême force with Montgomery influence through marriage in c.1050. The Bellême process of fortifying the Norman frontier resulted from the construction of fortresses and churches that maximized influence over the fluid and ill-defined border region. These efforts not only made the region defensible but enabled Mabel and her family to isolate and take control of lands and fortifications held by adversaries along the frontier. Mabel’s actions were likely a combination of overwhelming power, ruthless aggression, and acts of terror- including poisoning of perceived enemies. Using these techniques Mabel came to control a vast region of southwestern Normandy and northeastern Maine. Her reputation and methods were so harsh that, years after her murder, a chronicle writer in St. Évroul embellished her reputation by alleging she envenomed a stranger’s child with her own breastmilk.
Mabel did not build her power ex novo. Rather, her ancestors had come to control the region generations earlier through a combination of ducal service and statecraft. Indeed Fulcuin (c.890-c.940), Yves de Creil (c.940-980), and Yves de Bellême (c.965- 1005), Mabel’s great-great- grandfather, great- grandfather and grandfather, respectively, played a substantial role in developing the resources that made Mabel’s success possible. Mabel’s father, William II of Bellême, created the fearsome and unpredictable nature of the Bellême that would become the hallmark of their legacy. Of equal importance, however, was timing and geography. The Bellême family was useful to the Norman dukes for holding a volatile frontier against Frankish and Maine aggressors, but, once established in the area, the Bellême became a virtually autonomous and obdurate rulers, annexing their neighbors and creating hostilities that threatened ducal power. Through a marriage alliance with the Norman duke’s kin, Mabel was able to pass her ancestral methods of aggressive state building to her heirs. Mabel’s methods were so embedded in her heirs that her son became the largest landholder in the Anglo-Norman world. He was also the most pernicious. The family power declined after several violent and costly rebellions and wars. Mabel’s family reputation, once synonymous with awesome and terrible power, was almost completely snuffed out by dukes and kings, eager to create grand narratives of their own might. The erasure of the Bellême was almost complete, save a twelfth-century chronicle of the Norman church, written by a monk born in Bellême -Montgomery English lands but exiled for an education in Normandy. His writings about Mabel are the only primary account of Mabel and her family’s actions. Through a close reading of his words, we catch glimpses of how Mabel may have used all types of power. We can also guess about Orderic’s worldviews, motivations, and interests. By telling Mabel’s story, this dissertation intends to reconstruct and recover the story of a powerful eleventh century Norman woman.



Mabel of Belleme, Belleme, Orderic Vitalis