Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Friday, December 25, 2015

A Monstrous Regiment of Women in Charlemagne's Court

Charlemagne's Wives, "Wives," and Daughters (Charlemagne crowned "Emperor of the Romans," 25 December 800)

First, two acknowledgments. The title for this post, "A Monstrous Regiment of Women in Charlemagne's Court," owes an obvious debt to John Knox, from whom I have also taken the title of this blog. Over the years I have had a great deal of pleasure in reinterpreting, reusing, recycling, and subverting the title of his 1558 The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, a vitriolic attack on female sovereignty.

The title of this post is also drawn from Janet L. Nelson's wonderful essay, "Women at the Court of Charlemagne: A Case of Monstrous Regiment?" included in John Carmi Parsons's 1993 collection, Medieval Queenship.

From her tomb in Saint-Denis,
Bertrada of Laon,
the mother of Charlemagne
Those acknowledgments having been made, now on to the subject at hand, today's post. I suppose I could have titled it Charlemagne's wives, "wives," mistresses and/or concubines, and daughters, because Charlemagne had quite a few of each. 

Before going any further, though, I want to note his mother, Bertrada of Laon. If you learn anything at all of French history in school, you hear of Charlemagne's father, Pepin (and of his father, Charles Martel).

But I certainly don't remember hearing anything at all about Pepin's wife, not even so much as her name. (By the way, Charles Martel's wife was Rotrude of Trier.) 

For the record, Charlemagne's mother, Bertrada, was the daughter of Charibert of Laon and Giselle of Aquitaine. Although Bertrada "married" Pepin in 741 and gave birth to their first child, Charlemagne, in 743, Pepin was already married at the time, to a woman named Leutberga, who was the mother of Pepin's five children. After 743, however, Leutberga either decided to retire to a convent or was forced to do so. 

Even so, the marriage of Pepin and Bertrada was still not recognized--they were too closely related in order for their marriage to be legal. But for whatever reasons, the obstacle disappeared after 749, and Bertrada was recognized as Pepin's wife--although, as Nelson notes, political difficulties in 751 and 752 "may have driven [Pepin] briefly . . . to consider repudiating his wife Bertrada and marrying again."

The two, Pepin and Bertrada, were consecrated as king and queen of the Franks in 754, after which Pepin was "a model husband." Unlike his famous son, he had no concubines and no illegitimate children. Pepin and Bertrada worked together to strengthen their new dynasty--"encouraging" Pepin's brother and nephews to pursue monastic, rather than secular, vocations, and consolidating the claims of their own sons, in particular that of their oldest son, Charlemagne. (Some sources indicate that Pepin and Leutberga's children were all sent off to monasteries.)

After the death of Pepin in 768, his Frankish kingdom was divided between Charlemagne and his younger brother, Carloman, but Bertrada supported Charlemagne in opposing this division. The conflict between Charlemagne and his brother ended in 771, with Carloman's death. In the mean time, Charlemagne had "married" the Frankish noblewoman Himiltrude, probably before Pepin's death, and she gave birth to a son, also named Pepin, after his grandfather.

The quotation marks I put around "married" when I describe Himiltrude's relationship with Charlemagne reflect some degree of uncertainty about their bond. Contemporary chroniclers offer their own views. Charlemagne's biographer Einhard, in his Vita Karoli Magni, calls her a "concubine," while the Benedictine historian Paul the Deacon, in his history of the Lombards, notes that Himiltrude and Charlemagne's child was born "before legal marriage." Pope Stephen III, however, in a letter to Charlemagne, referred to Himiltrude as his legal wife, and you'd think that the pope would be clear about this--but since he is involved in a political dispute with Charlemagne, he made have had other reasons for his judgment. Modern historians are still divided, although Nelson assumes that Himiltrude was Charlemagne's legal wife. 

Bertrada wanted her son to marry a Lombard princess, however, and so, whether Himiltrude was Charlemagne's legal wife or not, she was repudiated. What happened to her isn't clear; after leading a revolt against Charlemagne in 792, Himiltrude's son, Pepin, ultimately found himself in that favorite repository for potential rivals, a monastery. (He had been sentenced to death, but Charlemagne commuted his son's sentence, having him exiled and tonsured instead.)

Bertrada traveled to Rome to meet with the pope and to ease his conflict with Charlemagne. On her way back to the Frankish court, she stopped in Lombardy and picked up Desiderata, the daughter of the king of the Lombards, in what Nelson describes as "a notable exercise in personal diplomacy." Desiderata was married to Charlemagne in 770, but just over a year later Charlemagne rejected her, much against his mother's wishes. Again, his marital decisions seem to have been driven by political expediency. (There is some question about whether Desiderata was really named Desiderata--in her chart labeled "Charlemagne's Women," Nelson just uses the symbol ♀.)

From 1499, an imagined representation 
of Hildegarde of Vinzgau, 
one of Charlemagne's wives
Charlemagne's choice for a new "bride" was Hildegarde of Vinzgau, the daughter of an Alaman nobleman. Over the course of the next twelve years, Hildegard gave birth to nine children, four sons and five daughters, dying shortly after the birth of the last of those daughters, named Hildegarde, in 783. (The baby seems also to have died.)

While he was married to Hildegarde, Charlemagne had at least two ongoing sexual relationships that produced children. His first known "concubine" (I hate that word, but I'll use it), a woman known as Gersuinda, probably dates to 773. Their daughter, Adaltrude, was born in 774. The second known "concubine" was Madelgard, who produced another daughter, Rhuodhaid, born in 775. 

Charlemagne married again about 784, this time to Fastrada, an East Frankish noblewoman. Einhard was not at all a fan of Fastrada, whom he regarded as beautiful but cruel--and, as Nelson indicates, Fastrada's cruelties "caused conspiracies and revolts," one of which was Pepin's 792 revolt against his father. Fastrada is known to have rendered a judgment in the case of a killing that had occurred in her Frankfurt residence, "holding court in a judicial . . . sense," and, in Nelson's words, "operating virtually as vicereine." Fastrada gave birth to two daughters, in 784 and 787, Theodrada and Hiltrude, and died in 794.

Charlemagne married another Alaman noblewoman, Luitgard, probably in 794. Although she had no children, her "domestic" role--taking care of royal correspondence, distributing spoils of war to "deserving" churchmen, performing acts of piety and devotion with her stepdaughters--was also "political and public."

After Luitgard's death in 800, Charlemagne had a series of concubines--his biographer Einhard provides the names of four women, Madelgard, Gervinda, Regina, and Adallinda. (Regina and Adallinda added two sons each to Charlemagne's total of eighteen children.)

From 1910, Sidney Harold Meteyard's
imagined scene of Charlemagne at
Fastrada's deathbed
So much for Charlemagne's wives and "wives." Notably, he had many daughters who reached adulthood, again listed by Einhard. Hildegarde's surviving daughters were Rotrude, Bertha, and Gisela. Fastrada's daughters were Theodrada and Hiltrude.

Three daughters were born to the women who were his concubines: Adaltrude (Gersuinda's daughter), Rhuodhaid (Madelgard's daughter), and a girl named Hruodhaid, probably born in 784 (her mother is unknown--in making his list, Charlemagne's biographer Einhard says the name of this woman "escapes me at the moment"). 

And after the death of his son Carloman, confusingly renamed Pepin, in 810, Charlemagne's granddaughters joined the court in Aachen: Adelheid, Atula, Gundrada, Berthraida, and Theoderada (Carloman/Pepin had married Bertha of Toulouse, and these daughters were their only children).

Charlemagne's daughters and granddaughters constitute a "veritable 'regiment' of women," as Nelson herself recalls Knox's phrase, using the term here loosely as a synomym for a unit or company. She then asks, "What did those women do at the court of Charlemagne?"

Among other things, they functioned as a kind of guard for the king--to get to Charlemagne, you had to pass through not only multiple doors, but through all these women. Well-educated, his daughters also participated fully in the cultural life of the court. They also participated in all the ritual and pageantry associated with the projection of royal power, including processions, feasts, and hunts. They traveled with Charlemagne, accompanying him on tours throughout his expanding territories. 

And, although Charlemagne's daughters had sexual partners and gave birth to children, none of them married. In explaining why they did not marry, Einhard says that Charlemagne loved his daughters so much that "he refused to give any of them in marriage . . . , saying that he could not be without their company." 

A sixteenth-century drawing of Hildegarde of Vinzgau
But Nelson describes something more than a father's loving attachment to his children. Charlemagne's many daughters remained unmarried as a matter of policy--the marriage of a daughter would have required lands and titles as a dowry, thereby reducing Charlemagne's territories and power. Equally, a daughter's husband and children would have been potential rivals to Charlemagne, challenging Carolingian succession. 

Unmarried, Charlemagne's daughters offered their father "political help within the household and the court." They were "channels" of patronage he could control, and sources of information he needed. They were capable and trusted advisers and supporters. 

They may have been powerful, but, in the end, they exercised no regiment--their power was informal and contingent. As daughters they were completely dependent on their father's authority. After Charlemagne's death in 814, they arranged his funeral and then disappeared. Or, rather, they were made to disappear. 

When Charlemagne's successor, his son Louis the Pious, arrived at the imperial court in Aachen, he found that, before he could begin to rule, he had to "chase out that whole female mob, which was very large"--in the words of Louis' biographer. The new king expelled and discredited his sisters and nieces, characterizing them as "whores," unable to deny themselves the satisfaction of "lustful heats of the palace," "seductions of pleasure," and "blandishments of fleshly desire." 

It's not clear what happened to all of Charlemagne's daughters and granddaughters--most of them just disappear, probably confined to monastic foundations. Here are the details, at least as I've been able to track them down:

Hildegarde's daughters: Rotrude may have died as early as 810, before her father, or as late as 839; after 814, Bertha was sent to a convent by her brother; Gisela died in 808, before her father.

Fastrada's daughters: at some date before 814, Theodrada became abbess of the monastery of Argenteuil, and she died after 844; Hiltrude died c. 800. 

Nothing is known about Adaltrude (Gersuinda's daughter); Rhuodhaid (Madelgard's daughter), seems to have become the abbess of Faremoutiers and died at some point after 800; Hruodhaid (whose mother is unknown), died after 800. 

The ultimate end of Charlemagne's granddaughters is not clear. The eldest, Adelaide of Lombardy, seems to have married Lambert of Nantes and died in 810. The others--Atula, Gundrada, Berthraida, and Theoderada--probably died before Charlemagne's own death in 814.

Modern stained glass, 1913, from the Church of  Saint-Jean-Baptiste,
Charlemagne with Theodrada of Argenteuil

(Lots to consider here, for those who want to think of "traditional" marriage as a god-given, unchanging institution . . . )

Update, December 2019: Janet Nelson's new biography of Charlemagne, King and Emperor, focuses on the man himself, obviously, but also examines his family connections, including the many women in his life.

Nelson talks about Charlemagne and her new biography on an episode of the BBC History Extra podcast, "Charlemagne: Medieval Empire Builder." To listen, click here.

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