SEMINAR IV: High Merovingian Queenship (Michaelmas, Week 7)

This seminar looks at the position of the king's wife in Merovingian society and politics with an emphasis on the century between 550 and 650. This was a time when Merovingian politics was dominated by a series of powerful and sometimes quite notorious queens (i.e. – Fredegund, Brunhild and Balthild), all of whom used violence as a tool of their politics. Their actions and what the sources say about them raise a number of important questions about the development of the public institutions and the roles played by powerful women in Merovingian Gaul.

Mandatory Preparation

Students are asked to read the following documents and the related article:

  1. Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, vi.32 – the murder of Leudast, the former Count of Tours.
  2. Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, viii.28 – Fredegund sends assassins to kill King Childebert.
  3. Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, viii.31 – the Assassination of Bishop Praetextatus.
  4. Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, x.27 – Fredegund settles an argument.
  5. Gradowicz-Pancer, N., 'De-Gendering Female Violence: Merovingian Female Honour as an "Exchange of Violence"', Early Medieval Europe, 11 (2002), 1-18. Available online at Academic Search Complete.

And to come prepared with answers to the following discussion questions (for which some further reading may well be necessary):

  1. What was the basis and extent of the power that Merovingian queens enjoyed? What roles did they play in the government of their kingdoms and in the management of the royal court?
  2. What were the aspirations of these women? What were the dilemmas and obstacles which confronted them? How did they respond these problems?
  3. Is Gradowicz-Pancer right to suggest that the violence used by these queens needs to be understood chiefly as a function of their class, of their role as persons who were entitled and expected to use violence to vindicate their rights and status?
  4. Why, according to Gradowicz-Pancer, were royal women more likely to resort to retaliatory violence than the kings to whom they were married?
  5. What exactly is Gregory of Tours's attitude to the actions of Fredegund, and how is it to be explained?
  6. To what extent was the Church attempting to refashion the role of the king's wife in the earlier Merovingian period? If so, how, for what purposes and with what tangible results?

The extracts may be downloaded from the Hist213 LUVLE site.

Reading Strongly Recommended for All Students

  1. Nelson, J. L., 'Queens as Jezebels: Brunhild and Balthild in Merovingian History', in D. Baker (ed.), Medieval Women: Essays dedicated and presented to Professor Rosalind M. T. Hill, Studies in Church History: Subsidia 1 (Oxford, 1978), 31-77. PO7; rpt. in J. L. Nelson, Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe (London, 1986), pp. 1-48. MBS.*
  2. Stafford, P. A., 'Powerful Women in the Early Middle Ages: Queens and Abbesses', in P. Linehan and J. L. Nelson (eds), The Medieval World (London and New York, 2001), pp. 398-415. MB7.L. Two copies on short loan, one on popular loan.
  3. Wood, I. N., The Merovingian Kingdoms 450-751 (London, 1993), chp. 8 (and, if possible, relevant parts of 9 and 11). MSC.*

Other Reading:

Material on Women, Men and Gender in the Early Middle Ages (not just the Merovingian Period):

  • Bitel, L. M., Women in Early Medieval Europe, 400-1100 (Cambridge, 2002). MBM.
  • Brubaker, L., and J. M. H. Smith (eds), Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900 (Cambridge, 2004). MBD.H.
  • Clover, C.,'Regardless of Sex: Men, Women and Power in Early Northern Europe', Speculum, 68 (1993), 363-87. Journals L6. Available online at JSTOR.
  • Duggan, A. J. (ed.), Queens and Queenship in Medieval Europe (Woodbridge, 1997). Note esp. J. L. Nelson, 'Early Medieval Rites of Queen-Making and the Shaping of Medieval Queenship' (pp. 301-15). MBS.
  • MacLean, S., 'Queenship, Nunneries and Royal Widowhood in Carolingian Europe', Past and Present, 178 (2003), 3-38. JournalsL6. Online at Ingenta Select. Concerns the ninth and tenth centuries, but useful for comparisons.
  • McLaughlin, L., 'The Woman Warrior: Gender, Warfare and Society in Medieval Europe', Women's Studies, 17 (1990), 192-209. Journals KDQW6.
  • Nelson, J. L.,'Women and the Word in the Earlier Middle Ages', in W. J. Sheils and D. Wood (eds), Women in the Church, Studies in Church History 27 (Oxford, 1990), pp. 53-78. PO7. Rpt. in Janet L. Nelson, The Frankish World, 750-900 (London and Rio Grande, Ohio, 1996), pp. 199-221. MSD.
  • Nelson, J. L., 'Women at the Court of Charlemagne: A Case of a Monstrous Regiment?', in J. C. Parsons (ed.), Medieval Queenship (London, 1994), pp. 43-61. MBS7. Rpt. in J. L. Nelson, The Frankish World, 750-900 (London and Rio Grande, Ohio, 1996), pp. 223-42. MSD.
  • Smith, J. A., 'The Earliest Queenmaking Rites', Church History, 66 (1997), 18-35. Journals P6. Available online through Academic Search Premier.
  • Smith, J. M. H., Europe after Rome: A New Cultural History, 500-1000 (Oxford, 2005), chp. 4, 'Men and Women'. MBD.H.*
  • Stafford, P. A., 'Sons and Mothers: Family Politics in the Early Middle Ages', in D. Baker (ed.), Medieval Women: Essays dedicated and presented to Professor Rosalind M. T. Hill, Studies in Church History: Subsidia 1 (Oxford, 1978), pp. 79-100. PO7.
  • Stuard, S. M., 'Fashion's Captives: Medieval Women in French Historiography', in S. M. Stuard (ed.), Women in Medieval History and Historiography (Philadelphia, 1987), pp. 59-80 and 160-71. MBM7.

The usual textbooks have some material related to the topic of this seminar, but you will need to use the indices.

For other primary sources, see:

  • Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, may be accessed in a number of ways: the best is Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, trs. O. M. Dalton, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1927). MSC. The library also has the Penguin translation by Lewis Thorpe, but this one is better and has a commentary full of useful notes. But if both prove unobtainable, an earlier translation by Earnest Brehaut may also to be found online on the Medieval Sourcebook.
  • Gregory the Great, Letters, trs. J. R. C. Martyn, Mediaeval Sources in Translation 40, 3vols. (Toronto, 2004). PN.DL.G75. Includes letters relating to the Frankish Church during Brunhild's ascendancy.
  • 'The Life of Queen Balthild', which is translated into English in P. J. Fouracre and R. A. Gerberding, Late Merovingian France: History and Hagiography, 640-720, Manchester Medieval Sources Series (Manchester and New York, 1996), pp. 118-32 [MSC], and in J. A. McNamara and J. E. Halborg with E. G. Whatley (trs.), Sainted Women of the Dark Ages (Durham, NC, 1992), pp. 264-78 [PN.C]. (Note also the accounts of St Radegund by Venantius Fortunatus and Baudonivia, which are translated at ibid., pp. 60-105; the Life by Fortunatus has also been reproduced online within the Medieval Women website).

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