24 March 2017
Herstory: Beyond Baby-Making - The Role of Carolingian Queens
By Kim Rendfeld
Although seldom mentioned in annals, queens in Carolingian era (eighth and ninth century Francia) had a much more important role than a casual 21st-century observer might think.
If the king did not already have heirs, the queen’s primary role was to produce healthy sons to inherit the realm, and some kings tried to divorce wives unable to bear children. My main characters’ inability to conceive becomes a point of contention in my first novel, The Cross and the Dragon. (Paradoxically, a Carolingian king would not want too many sons born in wedlock because each one of them would expect kingdom when his father died, and the realm would not pass to the next generation intact.)
Yet a queen’s responsibilities went beyond baby-making, and if the question of heirs was already settled, she could have tremendous influence.
The ninth-century treatise The Government of the Palace says the queen’s role is “to release the king from all domestic and palace cares, leaving him free to turn his mind to the state of his realm.”
This does not mean the queen is relegated to the role of housewife. In the Middle Ages, the personal and political were intertwined. The queen was the guardian of the treasury, and she controlled access to her husband. The courtier and scholar Alcuin wrote to the queen to find out where Charlemagne was spending the winter.
When houseguests were foreign dignitaries, royal hospitality was key to international relations. Hospitality was more than just showing good manners. Frankish royalty would want their guests to report to their own rulers that the palace was beautiful and sturdy, the baths were hot, the table was laden, the host well dressed, and the guards and servants well cared for. All signs of power, important to project even to one’s own allies whose support could shift.
Of course, this time period was hardly ideal for women. Girls as young as 12 or 13 were considered marriageable and their families chose their husbands. Among aristocrats, marriage was most often for political reasons. Canon law gave women the right to consent to a marriage at age 15 or 16, but that could be beaten or starved out of them.
However, the reason for Women’s History Month and for posts like these is that too often women are portrayed only as victims and not as full human beings who could influence events around them and contribute to their societies. Carolingian queens certainly did both.
Illustrations are from Costumes of All Nations (1882).
Women at the Court of Charlemagne, Janet Nelson
Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, Pierre Riché (translated by Jo Ann McNamara)
**An Excerpt from The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar**
"What are the furs the girl is holding?" Hildegard asked.
"Rabbit, my queen."
"Child, bring them to me. Oh, she holds them up without being asked. She is a good servant, Ragenard, and will fetch a good price should you want to sell her."
Sunwynn stood rigid and trembling. Leova swayed and steadied herself. She turned and fixed her gazed on Ragenard's face. For a moment, they locked eyes.
"Thank you, my lady queen," he said, "the girl is a good servant, and if you run your hand over the rabbit furs she is holding, you will find they are of the finest quality."
Fury rose from Leova's gorge, causing her hands to shake under the furs. Her child could be lost to her because of a Frank's whim!
Stroking the rabbit furs, Hildegard gazed at her husband across the room, smiled, and nodded as if to herself. "I want the rabbit furs, some leather, and the bolts of linen and wool. I'll pay two hundred dernier."
"My lady queen, they are worth more than that. Let the linen flow between your fingers; feel the fine texture of the wool. They are worth two hundred fifty dernier."
"I must be a good wife and spend my husband's treasure wisely. Two hundred twenty-five."
"You are a good wife and a good queen. Two hundred twenty-five it is." He bowed.
Relief washed through Leova. She barely noticed the clerk scribbling on the wax tablet. Sunwynn would stay with her—for now.
Kim Rendfeld is the author of two novels set in 8th century Francia: The Cross and the Dragon, a tale of love set amid wars and blood feuds, and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, about a peasant going to great lengths to protect her children. Her work in progress, Queen of the Darkest Hour, features Fastrada, Charlemagne’s influential fourth wife. Connect with Kim on her website (kimrendfeld.com), her blog (kimrendfeld.wordpress.com), Facebook (facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld), and Twitter (@kimrendfeld).