How bad are Bad Carolingian Women?

Anyone doing any work on women’s history or gender history in most periods has to find an approach to the phenomenon of the sources’ description of the Bad Woman. This is the woman (normally royal in my period) who is an active force for evil, the cause of all that’s gone wrong in the country, the court, the royal family etc. I have been thinking again about the Carolingian Bad Women and coming to the conclusion: as far as evil goes, they’re really second-rate.

Who are the Carolingian bad women? There are really only three of them who play any kind of active role: Fastrada (Charlemagne’s fourth wife), Waldrada (Lothar II’s concubine) and Judith (Louis the Pious’ second wife). Einhard blames Fastrada’s cruelty for a couple of revolts against Charlemagne, but gives no details. Waldrada, the ‘other woman’ in Lothar II’s divorce case, gets accused of bewitching him (as well as counting as an adulteress). But these two aren’t women who really take the centre stage. The only woman who does is the Empress Judith. As Elizabeth Ward has shown (in a paper in Studies in Church History, 27), most criticisms of Judith are dependent on Agobard of Lyons and Paschasius Radbertus. These variously accuse Judith of adultery (with Bernard of Septimania), vague ideas of sorcery and corrupting the court and plotting the death of Judith’s husband Louis the Pious and his sons in order to take over the empire.

Leaving aside the plausibility of all these allegations, adultery and simply plotting murder are extremely tame things for a Bad Woman to do. Consider, after all, other classical and early medieval Bad Women. From the Roman and Byzantine world there are the lethal Roman empresses Livia and Messalina and the sexually insatiable Theodora of Procopius’ Secret Histories. Early medieval villainesses include the ruthless Merovingian queens Fredegund, Brunhilda and Balthild (the last one of the few saints accused of instigating the murder of bishops) as well as Liutprand of Cremona’s claims about the pornocracy of the tenth century papacy. Next to this, Judith’s alleged sins look very tame.

Why does the Carolingian world produce so few Bad Women? The most common feminist view of early medieval Bad Women has been that the sources show hostile responses by men (particularly clerics) to powerful women, who they therefore defame. On this view, there are no Carolingian Bad Women because there are no powerful Carolingian women, because they are being successfully repressed by the patriarchy. However, another take on the Bad Woman has recently emerged, by scholars such as Kate Cooper and Ross Balzaretti. This argues that in many cases representations of Bad Women are in fact being used to attack the powerful men who are their husbands/lovers or fathers (occasionally both). These men can’t control their women and are therefore not fit to rule. This use of women as symbols is very clear, for example, in the use of Cleopatra as a way to get at Mark Anthony. In this view the Carolingian lack of symbolic women doesn’t actually tell us much about the real role of women in the period, but more about the fact that conflicts between powerful men are being conducted in a different way. Bad Women aren’t needed, so they don’t appear in the sources in the same way.

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