Category Archives: HST 3154

The erased history of Queen Waldrada

Today is the anniversary of the death of Queen Waldrada, 9 April.

Now, let me be the first to admit that hers is hardly a household name. At the time of writing, she does not even have an English Wikipedia page, a sure sign of the historical B-list (she does have a short one in German, and an inaccurate one in French). But her passage into obscurity was considerably pre-internet. Though we know the day of her death, no one recorded the year (presumably around 900). And in one document concerning her, some later medieval scribe even took the trouble literally to write her out of history, erasing her name and replacing it with a made-up ‘Rotrude’.

unaque dilectissimae nobis [Waldradae] Rotrududę dirigens missos deprecans
unaque dilectissimae nobis [Waldradae] Rotrududę dirigens missos deprecans
Yet in her own time, Waldrada was a powerful woman, who led an exciting and eventful life. The concubine of a Frankish king, Lothar II, she became his wife in 862, and participated for a while in the full theatre of medieval queenship. But in 863 the pope forbade the marriage, and forced them to separate. Even so, he thought that she was still holding the reins of power, and accused her of plotting the death of her rival, the king’s ‘other’ wife Theutberga. In the face of this papal onslaught (which included excommunication), King Lothar stuck by Waldrada so doggedly that some observers concluded that she was practising witchcraft, capable of inflaming him to lust merely by showing him enchanted clothing.

Though Waldrada ended her life peacefully in a convent high up in the Vosges above the Rhine, her children too led adventurous lives. One (Hugh) led a major rebellion before he was blinded, ending his life as a reluctant monk; another (Gisela) married a Viking, and witnessed her Scandinavian husband’s assassination, before becoming an abbess; a third (Berta) started a royal dynasty in Italy and (possibly) corresponded with the caliphs of Baghdad.

What, then, does it take to get a Wikipedia page? Why is Waldrada so little remembered today? It’s not a lack of sources as such. Waldrada was at the heart of continental politics in the 860s, and was much discussed by contemporaries like Hincmar of Rheims. Though we don’t have anything that she herself wrote, and despite efforts like those of the scribe mentioned above to remove traces of her, we have plenty of information about her role and activities (including this letter written to her by a pope).

At one level, the issue is simply that Waldrada was a woman. Despite decades of research, women are still less commemorated than men on public historical fora – one of the reasons for the emergence of various internet ‘edit-a-thons’ to give people like Waldrada the recognition they deserve.

But there’s a bigger problem too, one that’s more specific to Waldrada. Largely because of Lothar II’s failed efforts to have Waldrada publicly acknowledged as his queen, their kingdom, Lotharingia, died with him in 869. That failure was in fact a crucial factor in the emergence and stabilisation of the kingdoms to the west and the east: what would eventually become the kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. The territory that had lain in-between, Lotharingia, became a ‘shadow kingdom’: remembered when it was helpful for political purposes – Lorraine has a claim to be the premier European battlefield – and forgotten when it was not.[1]

Waldrada’s kingdom, Lotharingia (in blue)
Waldrada’s kingdom, Lotharingia (in blue)

Paradoxically, then, the very thing which made Queen Waldrada notorious in her day – her perceived relevance to royal politics – condemned her to obscurity thereafter. She lost her ‘relevance’ back in 869, along with her husband and the kingdom they had ruled together. As a result, no modern country claims to be the political heir of Lotharingia: so there were no 19th-century institutions whose task it was to order and represent Lotharingian history. And modern knowledge about the Middle Ages is based on 19th-century historical research to a degree that’s surprising (including Wikipedia –  in fact especially Wikipedia: just see how many entries are based on out-of-copyright encyclopedias).

Like Lotharingia itself, then, Queen Waldrada has slipped between the cracks, and is largely forgotten today. It’s hardly novel to point out that commemoration is a political act, since choices have to be made (we can’t remember everybody and everything, least until someone finds a way of automating commemoration). But it’s worth considering the extent to which modern public commemorative activity, whether in museums, on Wikipedia, or indeed as ‘On this day in history’ blogs, is silently reproducing the political agendas of the past, whether medieval or Victorian. So on this day, spare a thought for Waldrada – or even better, go and write her a Wikipedia entry.

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Charles West will be giving a talk about the case of Waldrada and Lothar II to the University of the Third Age, at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield, Friday 17th April 2015, 10.30am. With Rachel Stone, he is translating a key source for the text, Hincmar of Rheims’s De Divortio, for Manchester University Press, due for publication in July 2016.

A version of this post was also published on History Matters

[1] See the useful article by Simon MacLean, ‘Shadow Kingdom: Lotharingia and the Frankish World, C.850–C.1050’, History Compass 11:6 (2013), 443-457 (£)

Image credits
Cover:Stuttgart Psalter http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psautier_de_Stuttgart
Marburger Lichtbildarchiv http://lba.hist.uni-marburg.de/lba/
Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Pr%C3%BCm

Frankly speaking, can you kill your wife? Or, why typos cost lives.

In 860, an archbishop of Rheims called Hincmar was asked whether a king, Lothar II, could divorce his wife, Theutberga, and marry someone else. Hincmar wrote an extremely long treatise in reply, which Rachel Stone and I have been steadily translating for the last few years for Manchester University Press, that dealt with all the aspects of the case.  Amongst these was a hint from the king that if the answer was no, then he might choose what we would call the ‘Henry VIII solution’ – have Theutberga executed, then remarry.

Hincmar tackled this hint by quoting St Augustine of Hippo.  The law of the Roman Empire and of the Old Testament both permitted a husband to execute his adulterous wife, while Christian morals taught that a husband could not marry again while his wife was still alive.  It would obviously be best for a husband neither to kill his wife nor to marry again while she was alive: but if necessary, he could do what was permitted, which was execution. If he didn’t, then he could not remarry.

That all seems perfectly clear. The only problem is that this isn’t quite what Augustine said. Augustine thought in paragraphs, not sentences, and Hincmar ended his quotation before Augustine had concluded that in fact, it would be better to marry again than to spill blood, no matter what the law said (see below for the full Augustine text).

What’s more, in the bit that Hincmar does quote, there’s a slight but significant change in the text: the Latin ‘si licet’ (= if it is permitted) has become ‘scilicet’ (=that is to say, certainly). Augustine had reservations about the secular law’s permission to execute, a tone of doubt – “If it is permitted”. Hincmar’s version of Augustine had neither doubt nor reservation. (See the picture above for the text).

This tiny textual variant isn’t common in the transmission of Augustine’s work. It might be scribal error, but it does seem a rather convenient one. Wherever this extra letter ‘c’ came from, the Frankish prelate was evidently a little more relaxed about uxoricide than the African bishop had been. Hincmar had a different attitude to how Christian law and ‘secular’ law could fit together, which wasn’t too great for Theutberga.

In the end, though, the queen escaped execution. What happened next? Well, you’ll have to wait till the book’s out… 

Hincmar, De Divortio, Extract
‘As Saint Augustine says (…), “Finally I ask of you, whether it is licit for a Christian husband, according either to the old law of God or by Roman laws, to kill an adulteress. That is to say [Augustine: If it is permitted], it is better that he should restrain himself from both, that is the permitted punishment for she who has sinned, and from an illicit marriage while she is alive.  But if he insists on choosing one, it is better for him to do what is allowed, so that the adulteress may be punished, than to do that which is not allowed, that while she is alive he commits adultery. But if, as is truly said, it is not allowed for a Christian man to kill his adulterous wife, but only to send her away…”

Hincmar continues: ‘…it is on this condition, that he may either live in continence or be reconciled to her, since if while she is alive he marries another, he too will without doubt be guilty of adultery’.

Original Augustine continues: ‘… who is so mad who would say to him, Do what is not permitted, so that what is not permitted to you will be permissible? For since both things are illicit according to the law of Christ, that is to kill an adulterous wife or to marry someone else while she is still alive, both should be refrained from, rather than doing the illicit for the illicit. But if he must do what is not allowed, let him commit adultery and not murder, so that he shall marry someone else while his wife is still alive and not shed human blood. Yet if two things are nefarious, he ought not to perpetrate one for the sake of the other, but avoid both’.