I’ve been reading Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000, and found some wonderful women, most of whom I’ve not previously encountered.
Some of the earliest he’s able to introduce are the Frankish aristocrats of the Merovingian period.
“The few women in the Merovingian period who made surviving wills without the participation of a male relative (because they were widows all consecrated nuns, like Erminethrudis or Ermintrude in Paris around 600 and Burgundofara in Faremoutiers in 634) also possessed much less land than the aristocratic norm; autonomous female actors were, once again, in a relatively fragile situation. Aristocratic women could nonetheless choose to consecrate themselves to virginity and found monasteries, as numerous saints lives tell. These lives tend to stress the opposition of the fathers to such a choice (as opposed to one of marriage the vantage of the family), and the support of their mothers. As Regine Le Jan notes, this has to be a topos, a narrative cliche: in reality, such female monasteries were very much part of family strategies, and women like Burgundofara of Faremoutiers or Gertrude of Nivelles, and the monasteries they founded, prospered and faltered as the families (respectively the Faronids/Agilofings and the Pippinids) prospered and faltered.”
Queens could also, with luck and talent, play a prominent role, for the Merovingians and associated dynasties. Brunhild (Brunhilda) and Fredegund both add periods as queen-regent, but Wickham says “had periods of considerable marginality when their sons were small. They were not respected as much as kings, and when they resorted to violence to make the point they were as often met not so much by fear as by resentment; every powerful queen had at least one hostile chronicler. Royal wives during the husband’s lifetimes have less power; for one thing, Merovingian kings frequently had several wives and concubines at once, who manouevred for the succession of their own sons. But the importance of Merovingian legitimacy was by now so great that royal mothers were allowed a substantial political space, even when the children were growing; nor were social origins a great matter (Brunhild was a princess, but a Visigoth; Fredegund was of non-aristocratic birth.” (p. 116)
Plectrude, widow of Pippin II, Wickham explains, had discernible influence during his lifetime, and when he died in 714, with the two sons dead, she became reaching regent for a young grandson, Theodoald, and she imprisoned her only family rival, her stepson Charles Martel, at once. But he escaped during a revolt, and won the resulting civil war. But, Wickham says, ” there was at least the political space for her to make the attempt, and Carolingian-period historians, writing under the rule of Charles’ descendants, treated her with considerable respect.” (p. 197)
But being prominent was always risky. Charlemagne’s daughters who ran his palace in his last years, were accused of fornication in 814; Judith, wife of Lious the Pious, was accused of adultery; Lothar II accused his wife Theutberga of sodomy and incest; Charles the Fat his wife Richgard with adultery with his principal councillor; Arnulf’s wife Uota was also accused of adultery. Wickham says: “it would be wrong to see these accusations as signs that the political role of queens was under threat: it was their high profile, not their weakness, that exposed them to criticism.” (p. 408)
Nonetheless, Theutberga certainly had a torrid time. Marriage law was getting harder to circumvent in the ninth century, so to get rid of his wife Lothar II “came up with the claim that Thuetberga had had anal sex with her brother Hubert, had become pregnant as a result (impossibly, of course: his supporters invoked witchcraft), and had aborted the fetus: incest, sodomy and infanticide all at once. Theutberga proved their innocence in an ordeal in 858, but Lothar staged a show trial at a council in Aachen in 860, where she was forced to confess her guilt and retire to a monastery. [but] … Lothar never got his marriage dissolved, and died of fever in age from 869 in Italy” where he was trying to persuade the Pope. (p. 421) (Almost makes Henry VIII look not so bad!)
The Carolingian intellectual turn was also, to at least some degree, open to women. Perhaps the most prominent name is Dhuoda. Wickham says: “has bought the whole Carolingian package: not only had she read the Bible, some church fathers and some Christian Latin literature, but she could manipulate it with sophistication”. (p. 510)
And then there’s the astonishing standout of the Saxon playwright Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (d. 975), influenced by Terence. Her patron was Abbess Gerberga.
Over in the East we meet the anti-iconoclastEirene (Irene), who made herself Empress by force, “the only woman in Roman history to do so (or in European history before Elizabeth of Russia in 1741)” – the widow of Leo IV, 797, after several years of partial retirement, she organised coup against his son, Constantine VI, for whom she had previously been regent, deposed and blinded him. Wickham says: “she had managed to get together a substantial coalition in 797, inside the imperial bureaucracy and parts of the tagmata, and also had the support of the most rigourist clerics and monks around Platon of Sakkoudion and his nephew Theodore, to whom she gave the Stoudios monastery. These people were happy with the female ruler, as not all religious extremists are, and she is worth pausing for a moment to look at why… empresses like Pulcheria, Verina, Thoedora, Sophia were influential in the Eastern Empire from the fifth century; they were part of the imperial hierarchy in their own right, even if subordinate to emperors… Unlike in the Frankish political system, they not only gained power as regents for the young children, and indeed Pulcheria and Theodora were childless by their husbands … They could have considerable influence over emperors even if the latter were major protagonists, as with Theodora’s husband Justinian, and could rule in all but name if they were not, as with Pulcheria’s brother Theodosius II. This clearly did not change with the transformations of the seventh century. Martina failed to ride the politics of capital in 641, but there was still institutional role and a moral space for a determined emperess… [for] Eirene … the image of a pious female being given a chance at power in order to right wrong belief went back to Pulcheria, and was a resonant one.” (p. 271-2)
Turning to the Abbasids, we can say is that political influence for women tended to be restricted to the mothers of caliphs or designated future caliphs. “But it has to be said that Abbasid political practice gave less scope to female protagonist than either the Frankish or the Byzantine tradition. The complicated and ever-developing ceremonial of the Abbasid caliphate, which must have matched that of the 10th-century Byzantines, had rather less space for women as public players; but it is above all the case next succession rules focused on choosing appropriate candidates for caliph meant that child caliphs, for whom mothers could act as regents, were less common than royal minors were in Byzantium or Francia. The first was not until al-Muqtadir (908-32), whose reign was indeed dominated by his formidable mother, a Byzantine ex-slave called Shaghab (“troublesome”)… Shaghab (d. 933) is not handled in a consistently hostile way by the sources, despite a general suspicion of female power, magnified by the disasters of her son’s reign; she followed Zubayda in making public displays of charity on a large scale, a recognisable Abbasid gendered female role, thanks to her vast wealth, and this allowed at least some writers to depict her neutrally. Shaghab established a parallel bureaucratic hierarchy of male secretaries and female stewardesses which exercised direct power in these decades. It is important, however, to recognise that such offices were already normal in the female areas of the palaces. Queens, chief mistresses and caliphal mothers had long been wealthy, and needed administrators to run their affairs; if, on rare occasions, such as under Shaghab, please took over caliphal politics to, they had all the qualifications to do so.” (p. 329)
In the 10th-century Carolingian successor states, Wickham says that women seemed to have become a more recognised, less controversial political force. “Otto III used his aunt Matilda of Quedlinburg (d. 999) as a regent in the north when he went to Italy in 998. And … we begin to find quite a few active duccess-mothers and marquise-mothers as well: powerful dealers in their deceased husband’s families, like Bertha (d. 926), regent of Tuscany for her son Guy after 915, or Hadwig, widow of Hugh the Great, politically active in 956-60, or her daughter Beatrice, who ran Upper Lotharingia after her husband’s death in 978.” (p. 450)
Some of the women are nameless, but they must have led truly astonishing lives. Commenting on the development of pilgrimage to Rome, particularly in the seventh and eighth centuries, Wickham notes that Boniface of Mainz said in 747 that in many cities of Italy in Gaul all of the prostitutes were English. (p. 175)