Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Ermengarde of Narbonne: "Into the Hands of a Woman"

Ermengarde of Narbonne, viscountess of Narbonne (letter to Raymond Trencaval, viscount of Beziers, 31 January 1163)

Most discussions of Ermengarde of Narbonne (1127/9-1197)) begin with a comparison to Eleanor of Aquitaine (c. 1122/4-1204), who was her almost exact contemporary. Both women inherited their titles when they were very young: Ermengarde became viscountess of Narbonne, of strategic importance in Languedoc, while Eleanor became duchess of Aquitaine, with its vast wealth and extensive territory. 

A small street memorial in Narbonne,
posted by Ilsa Andrag 
Both women exerted considerable political influence in the twelfth century, and both participated in the culture of troubadour poetry and "courtly love"--both women are patrons of the troubadour poets and both are cited by Andreas Capellanus in his treatise titled De Arte honeste et reprobatione inhonesti amantis (in English, The Book of the Art of Loving Nobly and the Reprobation of Dishonourable Love, more frequently referred to as The Art of Courtly Love). 

Capellanus claims that Eleanor, her daughter, Marie of Champagne, and Ermengarde were among the greatest ladies of France who had issued "various decisions in love cases" (to see one of the judgments Capellanus ascribes to Ermengarde, click here).

For whatever reason, Ermengarde of Narbonne is much less well known than Eleanor of Aquitaine--perhaps because she never became a queen of anywhere, much less queen of both France and then England. But in her own day, Ermengarde, viscountess of Narbonne was a powerful force, capable of ruling and defending her territory and widely recognized for "her legal and diplomatic skills."

Ermengarde was the daughter of Aymeric II of Narbonne and his first wife, Ermengarde of Servian.* When her father died in battle in 1134, he left two daughters, Ermengarde and her half-sister, Ermessinde. The elder of the two, but still only about five years old, Ermengarde was heir to her father's title and territory.

The county of Narbonne, located in the Occitan region of southern France, was placed--unfortunately--in the middle of the "Great Southern War," fought between the counts of Toulouse and the counts of Barcelona, along with their various allies, including the viscounts of Trencavel, the counts of Poitiers, Rodez, and Comminges, the lords of Montpellier, and the counts of Foix.

In the midst of this ongoing conflict, the two orphaned daughters of the viscount of Narbonne were highly prized objects of desire, not so much for their personal qualities (Ermengarde was just five, Ermessinde younger) but for their political significance. 

In 1139, Alphonse Jourdain, count of Toulouse, asserted his right to the guardianship of the two girls and seized control of the city of Narbonne with the support of the archbishop. Ermengarde and her sister seem to have taken refuge with his great rival, Raymond Berengar IV, count of Barcelona--whose father also happened to be Aymeric of Narbonne's half-brother. 

But in 1142, when Ermengarde had reached the age of consent (she was likely about thirteen years old), the count of Toulouse produced a marriage contract--it seems that Alphonse Jourdain's wife, Faydid of Uzès, had most conveniently (for him) died, or that she had been repudiated. And Ermengarde was somehow compelled to sign a marriage contract, dated 21 October 1142, though exactly how this happened isn't clear. Interestingly, the marriage contract ventriloquized Ermengarde's own voice:
Be it known to all present and future that I, Ermengarde, want you, Alphonse, for my husband and give myself to you as your wife. By the same donation I give you Narbonne entirely without fraud on the condition that we hold it jointly in our lifetimes and after our deaths it will belong to the children we have procreated. If we have none who survive us and you survive me, you shall have and possess Narbonne and all that goes with it as long as you shall live
Alphonse Jourdain's effort to secure Narbonne by forcing a marriage to Ermengarde resulted in an alliance against him--he was defeated in battle and imprisoned. The peace treaty he was forced to sign returned Narbonne to Ermengarde. The marriage to Ermengarde had evidently not been consummated because by 1143, she was married to a cousin, Bernard d'Anduze, viscount of Nîmes--described as "a widower with several children who . . . offended no one, and was not active in Narbonne."

For some fifty years, from the time of her marriage until 1194, Ermengarde ruled Narbonne in her own right with no mention of Bernard (who died in 1157). 

Coins issued by Ermengarde,
viscountess of Narbonne
She was also a constant presence in political disputes and conflicts in the Occitan. In 1148, she provided military support to Raymond Berengar in his siege of the city of Tortosa. In 1154, when Raymond I Trencavel was captured by Count Raymond V of Toulouse, he left his wife and children in the care of the count of Barcelona, but his son and his men to the care of Ermengarde of Narbonne. 

In 1157 she allied the county of Narbonne with Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II of England, and the count of Barcelona in an effort to seize Toulouse. She served as a mediator in Provence and in 1162 led a force to besiege the town of Les Baux. In 1176 she was a mediator between Raymond of Toulouse and Alfons of Aragon, in 1182, she supported Henry II against his rebelling sons, and a year later, she was at the siege of Puy-Saint-Front with Henry and three of his sons.

In addition to her relentless political and military activity, Ernengarde's court was renowned for its learning--she supported the work of lawyers and doctors, in addition to patronizing a number of the troubadour poets, including Raimon de Miraval, who noted her generosity, and Bernard de Ventadorn, who praised her as "my lady of Narbonne," whose deeds were all "true." The trobairitz Azalais de Porcairagues directed that her "song" be carried to Narbonne, "to her whom joy and youth guide."

Ermengarde also supported many religious institutions, in particular giving a large donation of land to the Abbey of Fontfroide, which had been founded in 1093 by her father, Viscount Aymeri II. By means of her donation, Fontfroide became one of the most powerful abbeys in Western Europe.

Without a child of her own, Ermengarde named her half-sister's son, Pedro Manrique de Lara, as her heir. Unfortunately, Pedro could not wait for Ermengarde's death to succeed her--he had claimed the title of viscount by 1192 and seems to have driven her into exile by 1194. In her last letter, dated 30 April 1196, a letter that took the form of a final testament, she asked that he fulfill the bequests she had made. "And if he does this," she writes, "may God almighty and merciful pardon him on my account for all the injuries, damages, violence, oppressions, vexations, privations, calamities, and all the evil things that I experienced because of him and his."

Ermengarde of Narbonne, countess of Narbonne, died in Rousillon, and as she had asked in the letter she wrote as she was approaching death, she was buried in the Templar commandery of Saint-Marie de Mas-Dieu, near Perpignan.

The ruins of the Templar commandery 
of Mas-Dieu
For further information, I recommend the biographical essay posted at Epistolae: Medieval Women's Latin Letters. You will also find a number of Ermengarde's letters there, including a letter to Raymond Trencavel, viscount of Beziers, dated 31 January 1163, the date of which has been used as the occasion of this post. 

There is also a letter there from Louis VII to Ermengarde, written in 1164--I've drawn a phrase from this letter for the  subtitle of my post. Addressing the "hesitation in [her] area to permit judicial power to women in matters of imperial law," the king assures her that "the custom of our kingdom is far more benign, allowing women, if the better sex is lacking, to succeed and administer their inheritance." Do not acquiesce, he commands. Rather, 
Sit therefore in judgment of cases, diligently examining matters with the zeal of him who created you a woman when he might have [made you] a man, and in his benignity gave the rule of the province of Narbonne into the hand of a woman. By our authority, no person is permitted to turn away from your jurisdiction because you are a woman.

*Although most online sources indicate that little is known about Aymeric II's first wife except for her name, Ermengarde, she has been identified as Ermengarde of Servian by the  medievalist Jacqueline Caille. For the most accessible information, click here or here. Although the elder Ermengarde may have died between 1126, when her name is last mentioned in a charter, and 1130, by which time Aymeric has a second wife, Ermessende, Caille speculates that Ermengarde of Servian may have been repudiated.