In recent research, I came across another example an eighth century woman who tried to influence the events around her and protect her child. Chiltrude, daughter of the mayor of the palace, the most powerful man in Francia, caused a scandal when she defied her family’s wishes, ran off with the duke of Bavaria, and bore his son before the year ended.
She will someday have her own post, maybe her own novel if I can pull it together. But today I want use her as an example to discuss something else: why we need Women’s History Month.
In too many minds, women’s history starts with the Suffragettes in the 19th century or even the feminist movement in the 1960s. Of course, I am grateful for the Suffragettes and the feminists, but I worry that women of the past are seen merely as victims rather than full human beings who contributed to their societies – and tried to decide their own fates.
I turn to eighth century Francia because that is the period I’ve been studying for several years. True, arranged marriages for brides as young as 12 or 13 make this era less than ideal, and men did try to divorce unfruitful wives. But that is only part of the reality.
Women had responsibilities beyond wife and mother. The queen’s role, for example, was “to release the king from all domestic and palace cares, leaving him free to turn his mind to the state of his realm,” according to the ninth-century treatise The Government of the Palace. In an age when the personal and political were intertwined, the queen was the guardian of the treasury, and she controlled access to her husband. When houseguests were foreign dignitaries, royal hospitality was key to international relations. So, she was something of a treasurer, chief of staff, and diplomat.
Readers of this blog will know Chiltrude is not the only example of a brave woman who took charge. Here are a few others I’ve encountered in research:
Queen Bertrada was King Pepin’s full partner as they seized the kingdom of Francia in a bloodless coup. After he died, she became a diplomat whose most important mission was peace within her own country. Charles (today called Charlemagne) and Carloman each inherited half the kingdom, and Bertrada needed to keep the rivalry between her sons, ages 17 and 20, from escalating to civil war.
- Gerberga, Carloman’s widow, was not about to let her toddling sons lose their kingdom without a fight after Charles seized his late brother’s lands. Likely a teenager, Gerberga took the risky journey of crossing the Alps with two little boys in tow and sought the aid of Desiderius, the Lombard king furious over Charles’s divorce from his daughter. (Royal relations were complicated.)
- Showing a special courage, Sts. Lioba, Thecla, Walburga, and other nuns answered Saint Boniface’s call to strengthen the church on the Continent. They left the security of their abbey of Wimbourne in today’s England to undertake a dangerous journey and live among strangers in a far-away land.
The reason we need Women’s History Month is that it provides context. The intent is not to denigrate the achievements of men but rather provide a complete picture of the past.