Sarah Palin and Theutberga

I have been following the US election more closely than normal this year (mainly because one of my favorite blogs is Obsidian Wings), but in the past few days I’ve been particularly fascinated by the Sarah Palin story and the developing revelations around her. I even went so far as to read up on some of the (now disproved) rumours about her family life. Why did I break my normal dislike of gossip? There were lots of people (including many feminists) saying that other people’s private lives (and particularly other women’s private lives) were none of our business, but I still did it.

But the thing is…my own professional business at the moment is translating Hincmar’s text on a royal divorce, and all the lurid allegations that contains about Queen Theutberga’s sexual life. So the question arises: am I, as a historian, really any less of a muckraker than Andrew Sullivan? Or, conversely, do historians’ interest in private lives provide any suggestions as to why such modern day speculation might be justified?

I would say that the common arguments again modern-day gossip/prurience are generally sound. Indulging in this can encourage an unhealthy feeling of moral superiority/pride (I am better than those people) and such gossip is often full of double standards, particularly sexist double standards. It is often distressing to people to have their private lives discussed by others, and may worsen the family problems they are having. The consumption of gossip in the media encourages ever more intrusive reporting of those in the public eye and their families. My individual reading and commenting on rumours about Sarah Palin’s case, does not, I hope, add much to the strain on her family, but it does probably have some small detrimental effect, in a way that my investigation of Theutberga does not.

But it’s harder to argue that my own interest in Theutberga’s private life is in principle, completely different from an interest in Sarah Palin. If (by some fluke of time-travel) there were medical records or photographs available for me to explore whether Theutberga was really sterile or had had an abortion, as her opponents alleged, I would be looking at them, just as historians have tried to establish whether it was Crohn’s disease that afflicted King Alfred. And historians are interested in sexual scandals: does anyone think that scholars of the Tudor period study the relationship of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn purely as an insight into the development of the English Reformation? The only historian who thinks that Eleanor of Aquitaine’s official duties are more interesting than her private life is Jane Martindale. I am interested in Carolingian views on kingship and the relations between state and church, but if that was all I was interested in, I could study the case of Ebbo of Rheims just as easily as Theutberga’s.

Hincmar, in his introduction to De Divortio, explains why the case was so important to everybody (and it was allegedly being talked about throughout all three kingdoms, even in the women’s weaving sheds, suggesting that the appetite for gossip is a historical constant). Hincmar comments:

For, although this is a matter of a king and queen, namely man and wife…the case of all is generally affected, since marriage is called by the holy apostle ‘a great sacrament in Christ and the Church’, in which the salvation of all is believed to consist.

For him, the case mattered not only because it was about the rulers of the country, but also because it was about one of the universal basics of society, marriage. The parallels are interesting. In terms of power, Sarah Palin is a legitimate figure for a wide range of people to be interested in (more so than a sports star or a pop singer). Potentially, she could become the President of the United States and her decisions would then affect me and millions of non-Americans round the world. Similarly, questions about how people live their marital and family life and how they deal with problems within them (such as a baby with disabilities or an accidental pregnancy) have a universal interest. Most of us could imagine being in such a situation and wondering what decisions we would make.

Modern liberals, however, have increasingly argued that there should be a separation of personal (particularly sexual) and political morality. Politicians with lurid private lives (from Lloyd George and Winston Churchill to JFK and Bill Clinton) have nevertheless been excellent political leaders: poor personal judgement does not preclude good judgement in the national interest. This is in many ways a persuasive argument: attempts to force politicians out of office for sexual scandals often rely on deeply implausible arguments about misuse of public power. I personally don’t think that having an affair revealed, for example, should normally bar a politician (male or female) from running for political office or mean they should resign if in office. They should be judged instead on their political record.

Yet there is something oddly akin to medieval queenship in the Vice-Presidential role at the best of times. The Vice President is chosen personally by the President, not elected. He or she officially has a largely ceremonial role, with their practical power depending greatly on their personal relationship with the President and the characters of both. He or she cannot implement their own policies directly (unless this power is delegated to them), but can only lobby the President privately to encourage him or her to implement them. His or her only real power comes after the end of the President’s ‘reign’ or if the President is incapacitated.

Normally these parallels are hidden by the fact that the Vice President is an experienced politician himself/herself. John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin, however, exposes these issues. Sarah Palin has not been chosen for her political achievements or even her political potential (i.e. that she has exceptional political skills which she has not yet had time to develop). She has been chosen for her political image. Would she have been chosen if she had not been female AND good-looking AND had a large family AND been a keen hunter AND come from an iconic state? Almost certainly not. In that sense, whether her image corresponds to reality is relevant: whether all her children are her own is arguably no more off limits than whether she (hypothetically) had faked a picture of herself killing a moose. If you implicitly argue that your personal story is the key political statement about you, then you can’t object if those interested in politics then start to examine your life.

But the medieval queenship analogy also shows the other reason why Sarah Palin’s personal life is politically relevant. Bad behaviour by the queen wasn’t condemned by medieval moralists solely because it imperiled the succession, though that was important (which is why adultery by the queen was a common allegation). It was also significant because it showed the poor judgement of the king himself. Why had he chosen a woman whose character was not good or who encouraged him to wrong doing? Some commentators have picked up this about the VP pick as well: what does it say about John McCain that he chose someone rashly, apparently swayed by superficial appearances rather than true worth?

The separation of public and private morality is not a new idea (as is sometimes alleged); it is implicitly present already in some ninth century sources discussing Carolingian counts. But in some cases, even today, as this case shows, the dividing lines may be hard to draw. I think that makes discussions of Sarah Palin’s personal life, if not quite as respectable as examining Theutberga, at least more legitimate than most other contemporary gossip.


11 thoughts on “Sarah Palin and Theutberga

  1. I found when reading an article about Sarah Palin’s religious background that she’d already been advised by her pastor to model herself on Queen Esther when she became governor. Now I know that there aren’t that many female leaders in the Bible, but it’s still an interesting coincidence.

    As for Dick Cheny, he is obviously Queen Jezebel (1 Kings 16-21): leading King Ahab/George to worship false idols, threatening the prophets who speak the truth, sorting out violently those who thwart the king’s wishes to possess someone else’s property/oil. It is just unfortunate that he will probably not be trampled by horses and eaten up by dogs (2 Kings 30-37).


  2. Don’t place too much weight on the Queen Esther story. The “who knows if you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this’ theme is popular among fundamentalist (Assemblies of God in this case) preachers.
    Its applicability in this case is pretty parabolic. The Queen had no power with the King, apart from laying her life on the line, which she did, winning the King’s favour and saving the Jews from genocide.
    Her pastor is likely to have been telling her she would have the opportunity to save the members of her church from the depredations of liberal secularism. This assignment she appears to have taken seriously, as she would in the Executive Branch.


    • Thanks for that angle, felix, I hadn’t thought of that. I forget how US fundamentals tend to feel ‘persecuted’ by the secular state, because it’s just so ridiculous an idea. (UK Christians tend to feel (more accurately) only that they are being ‘mocked’ by secular society. The discussions of Esther in the UK tend to stress her personal bravery in approaching the king at all, more than the persecuted Jews aspect.

      But it’s a scary analogy in some ways, if you look at the end of the story of Esther. Because it’s not just Esther saving the Jews, but them then slaughtering thousands of their enemies. If they’re ‘persecuting’ you, you’re allowed to retaliate, and the more you hurt your enemies, the better. Bo loving your enemy or turning the other cheek here.


  3. Mmm. Odd, I’d forgotten all about the ending.But being reminded, I recall it as highly dramatized, sort of a bells crashing, trumpets flourishing and banners waving kind of thing. A great bloody triumph. Very much a sectarian ‘cleansing’.

    Apart from Divinely sanctioned brutality in the cultural genetic makeup, there’s cause for pause in the Theonomists.
    Strange and scary stuff. Being the first time I’ve consulted Wikipedia on these subjects, it’s particularly strange seeing familiar names showing up in this context. Schaeffer was a friend (though I knew He’d run off the rails, and a number of VanTil’s students were good friends.


    • Dominionism, from a brief look at the Wikipedia link, looks a fairly standard medieval viewpoint (certainly early medieval). Hincmar himself complained about rulers who didn’t align human laws with Christian laws and people who didn’t want to follow Christians. Here he is on husbands who murder adulterous wives:

      Let them defend themselves as much as they like, those of this sort, through the earthly laws if there are such or through human custom. But if they are Christian, let them know that on the day of Judgment, they will be judged not by Roman or Salian or Burgundian law, but by divine and apostolic law, although in the kingdom of Christ even those public laws should be Christian, fitting with and consonant to Christianity.

      Theonomy/Christian Reconstructionism, however, seems to me completely without historical precedent (as well as stark, staring bonkers). I cannot see how you can combine economic libertarianism with social authoritarianism in this way. All the past would-be theocracies I can think of have had some restrictive economic policies, even those that that did respect private property (unlike the Anabaptists). Catholicism had usury/Sunday working restrictions, the Evangelical revival in Britain of the C18 and C19 was anti-slavery and into improving factory conditions, Methodism had close links with the Liberal and Labour parties. When I was an Anglican Evangelical in the early 1980s, there were a lot of residual ‘Christian socialism’ and it was rare for Evangelical Christians to be enthused about Margaret Thatcher. I can only conclude that the US believes that not only a free market in religion, but a free market in heresy is a good thing.


      • Aye,’tis a strange thing altogether; I can only shake my head nor seek their company. I can speak at length of oddities I have known in the world of religious conviction, ranging from Russian Orthodox to charismatics and Jesus freaks, but I have never knowingly spoken with, say, a Rushdoony partisan, and can’t really bear to inquire too deeply of their theology; it is enough for me that Yahweh is their Master of War, and war is what they want. I have known a fair number who had read the scholarly stuff and generally spoke of it with a dismissive shrug, which now I think of it was a theologian’s shrug, saying it had no coherent theology worthy of the name.
        And there were the people I wrote of, at the Institute of Christian studies here, friends, who wrote of Christianity in their ideal world being a major player in the national life, with lots of self-identified Christian professionals, and a backdoor theonomy in which the Christian worldview comes to dominate. In fact I first came to Toronto as a fellow of the Institute for Christian Art.
        There is a common influence in Kuiper and Dooyeweerd; but those men looked to understand through openness; Rushdoony has run off into the woods screaming at shadows.

        Anyway, yet another efflorescence of the embattled tribe of the Chosen called to conquer the corrupt and evil world whose every purpose opposes God, Who is very very angry and has only a thimbleful of salvation to hand out. Where Jesus fits into their scheme of things I have no idea.


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