Comparing and contrasting the epitaphs for Hildegard and Fastrada, Charlemagne’s third and fourth wives, can lead some misreading between the lines.
When they died—Hildegard in 783 and Fastrada in 794—Charles treated them the same. He had them interred with honors within a church, the most desirable of hallowed ground. He donated land to the Church and paid for Masses on behalf of their souls, and he commissioned epitaphs. Paul the Deacon is loquacious in his praise for Hildegard. What Theodulf wrote for Fastrada is shorter:
“Here lie the glorious remains of Queen Fastrada, whom cold death snatched away in the bloom of life. Noble by birth, she was united in marriage to her mighty husband, and nobler still, she is now united to the King of Heaven. The better part of her soul, King Charles himself, she left behind, to whom a merciful God may grant long life.”
Theodulf was famous for a lengthy poem lauding the royal family, so scholars have speculated on whether the epitaph’s brevity means something.
Was Fastrada so awful that Theodulf had a hard time finding something nice to say about her and was being tactful? If Theodulf had also written Hildegard’s epitaph, I would give credence to that.
Instead, I’ll provide a little speculation of my own. It is possible Paul’s grief drove him to write verse upon verse while Theodulf’s impaired him. Having supervised an obit desk, I can attest that grief affects everyone differently. Theodulf’s later poem praising Charles’s family was crafted under different circumstances. We don’t know how long it took the poet to compose or how many revisions he made.
Theodulf’s attitude toward women comes into play as well. He did write “A Woman’s Wiles,” urging men not to be manipulated by their wives. But when he refers to the king as “the better part of her soul,” he likely is referring to Fastrada and Charles’s close relationship—the original meaning of “better half.”
Perhaps, we are complicating something simple. Theodulf might have been acknowledging the grief of a bereaved husband while trying to comfort him. He says Fastrada is “united with the King of Heaven” yet left her husband all too soon.