Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Theophanu, Empress and Regent

Theophanu, Holy Roman empress (crowned on 14 April 972)


There is so much unknown about the Byzantine noblewoman Theophanu (sometimes known as "Theophania")--not her parentage, not the date of her birth, nor even the exact reason why she was married to Otto II, Holy Roman emperor (he had expected another princess, someone "born to the purple" [porphyrogenita"]). We know that she was crowned empress on 14 April 972.

Theophanu,
St. Dionysius Church,
Eschwege, Hesse, Germany
Theophanu was well-educated and capable, traveling with her husband, interested--and participating--in the government of the empire, and generally scandalizing many in the Saxon court (she talked, she bathed, and she used a fork!).

She produced an heir, another Otto, for her husband and three daughters, Sophia, Adelaide, and Matilda (another baby, a twin girl to Otto, died at birth). But Theophanu's husband, Otto II, died in 983.

Since the new emperor, Otto III, was just three years old, Theophanu became Empress Regent. In her efforts, she was supported by her husband's mother, Adelaide of Italy. Despite their differences, the two women worked together. Theophanu governed until her death in 991, after which the sixty-year-old Adelaide took over the role as regent.

A number of letters to Theophanu can be found at the Epistolae: Medieval Women's Latin Letters website. (There is also a brief biography.) There is a full-length biography as well, Adelbert Davids's The Empress Theophano: Byzantium and the West at the Turn of the First Millennium--even used copies are quite expensive, so Interlibrary Loan? 

As a bonus for the day (!!), you can also find a more extensive biography of Adelaide of Italy, as well as letters to and from her, at the same site, Epistolae: Medieval Women's Latin Letters. (Adelaide was canonized as a saint in 1097.)

Theophanu's eldest daughter, Sophia (b. 975), became abbess of the royal abbey of Gandersheim, which she ruled as princess-abbess from 1001 to 1039 and where she became known as a "kingmaker" (working with her sister to ensure the election of Henry II as king of the Romans).

Theophanu's daughter Adelaide (b. 977) became abbess of Quedlinburg, which she ruled from 999 until her death in 1045. Along with her sister, the Abbess Sophia, she was influential in politics. After her elder sister's death, Adelaide eventually became abbess of Gandersheim.

Theophanu's third daughter, Matilda (b. 979), was educated at the abbey of Essen by a cousin, Mathilde, the abbess of Essen, a fascinating and influential woman in her own right . . . But, to get back to Theophanu and her family, Matilda was the only one of Theophanu's three daughters to marry. After some serious family conflicts about whether the girl should leave the abbey, Matilda married Ezzo, count palatine of Lotharingia, thus embarking on a secular life as countess palatine (I love that title! I want that title!). She had ten children, but died relatively young, in her mid-forties.