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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, in my third book, Queen of the Darkest Hour, the king does not want too many sons born in wedlock because each one of them expects kingdom when his father dies.

Yet a queen’s responsibilities went beyond baby-making, and if the question of heirs was already settled, she could have tremendous influence.

Bertha Broadfoot, 1848, by Eugène Oudiné

Bertha Broadfoot, 1848, by Eugène Oudiné at Luxembourg Garden, Paris (copyrighted photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons).

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. Alcuin, an influential scholar, 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 this post 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.

Sources

Women at the Court of Charlemagne, Janet Nelson

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, Pierre Riche (translated by Jo Ann McNamara)

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