By Sally-Ann Jones
Brangelina? Nicole’s weight? Posh pregnant again? This is the kind of gossip that absorbs many in the community. Gossip equally juicy enlivens the conversation of Winthrop Professor Susan Broomhall and Dr Jacqueline Van Gent – but it doesn’t concern today’s celebrities.
Instead, it’s about the high-born women of an early modern dynasty, the House of Nassau Orange, the powerful family influential throughout Europe and the colonies from the 1580s to the late 18th century – and the ancestors of the present Dutch royal family.
Their gossip would be along the lines of: what did Brabantina say about pregnancy to her sister Flandrina? And what was behind that comment Belgica made to Antwerpiana?
Friends Winthrop Professor Broomhall and Dr Van Gent were supervised by Emeritus Professor Trish Crawford – the first woman in the then History Department to have been appointed Professor. It is little more than a year since her death and her legacy continues in her two students who carry on her passion for feminist history.
They are using their grant of more than $450,000 from the Australian Research Council to undertake extensive research into the house of Nassau-Orange. Their grant funds a postdoctoral fellow, Dr Susie Protschky, at Monash University and also provides travel support for Professor Michaela Hohkamp from the University of Berlin to collaborate in the project.
Males from the family are well-known to historians. But if Professor Broomhall and Dr Van Gent have their way, the Nassau-Orange women will come to be regarded as a key source of the power that changed the world.
Their light-hearted accounts of the women’s thousands of letters belie the years of hard work reading and deciphering them. Scattered in museums and collections throughout Europe and written in old German and French, often with poor spelling and little punctuation, each letter took days to decode. In some cases, the researchers had to read each word aloud several times to guess its meaning because the spelling was so unusual.
Professor Broomall and Dr Van Gent are also interested in accounts of the diplomatic gifts of marmalade the women made as they strove to maintain the family in the public eye, so successfully that after the period of Republican government in the Napoleonic era, the Nassau were the obvious choice for the new nation’s royal family.
“We’re looking at the way the women, who wrote the most letters – and made the marmalade – produced and used power,” Professor Broomhall said.
“This was a great dynastic family and despite their differences, including language and religion, there was too much at stake to allow the family ties to break down,” Dr Van Gent said. “The letters maintained the ties and show a fascinating mix of social distance and intimacy through their frequency, the emotion revealed and the ways in which the writer addresses her various readers.”
“Through their correspondence – up to one letter a week over 30 or 40 years amongst the 13 siblings of the founder of the house, William the Silent – the women were the glue that held the family together,” Professor Broomhall said. “The male line kept dying out and the widows were able to maintain the presence of the family until the next generation of males was ready to take over.”
“They did this through strategic political alliances and also through propaganda that included visual imagery such as big flattering portraits hung in public places, architecture, tiles, porcelain, castles, gardens, furniture and coins – and of course the colour orange and the image of the orange tree which, although it might lose a limb, continues to flower and to fruit,” Dr Van Gent said.
“We tend to think of visual branding as a new phenomenon but these women were skilled in its application.”