Powerful Women in the Early Middle Ages: Queens and Abbesses

Authored by: Pauline Stafford

The Medieval World

Print publication date:  October  2001
Online publication date:  September  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415181518
eBook ISBN: 9781315016207
Adobe ISBN: 9781136500053


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In 999, on the eve of the first millennium, a mother and daughter died: the dowager Empress Adelaide and her daughter Mathilda, abbess of Quedlinburg in Saxony. The chronicler of the nunnery of Quedlinburg recorded their deaths with a great panegyric praising them and their rule. The pope had died in the same year, and the emperor, stated the chronicler, was more affected by grief than could be believed. The three pillars of the Church had gone – the apostolic lord, the empress, and the imperial abbess. This celebration of powerful women is not the familiar picture of Europe at the end of the first millennium, but it is not a misleading one. A group of women played key roles in the last decades of the tenth century: Adelaide’s daughter-in-law, Empress Theophano, wife and widow of Emperor Otto II and mother of his only and infant son, Otto III; Adelaide’s own daughter from her first marriage, Emma queen of the West Franks, wife and widow of Adelaide’s own nephew King Lothar; Beatrice, duchess of Lotharingia, Adelaide’s niece; that same Beatrice’s sister-in-law, Adelaide’s namesake, the wife of Hugh Capet, another of Adelaide’s nephews; Mathilda of Burgundy, Adelaide’s sister-in-law, mother of the wife of Hugh Capet’s son. In 986, much of north-western Europe was ruled by the women members of this extended family. They ruled as regents for under-age males. They and their female relatives seem even to have met together in 985 to debate and mediate the important questions of succession and dynastic interrelations which dominated the politics of the day. Adelaide, widow of Otto I and mother and grandmother of Otto II and Otto III respectively, and Mathilda, her daughter by Otto, were part of what was in every sense apparently a regiment of powerful women.

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