Theutberga and acceptable motivations

I’ve just been reading Karl Heidecker’s book, The Divorce of Lothar II: Christian Marriage and Political Power in the Carolingian World. I won’t say much about it at the moment, because I’m supposed to be doing a review of it for English Historical Review. But it has got me thinking again about one of the problems I raised in the previous post: how can we/I discover Theutberga, Lothar II’s discarded wife, and say something sensible about her?

It’s possible to have arguments about the motivation of different characters within the story, and Karl has his own views about what’s driving many of the key protagonists: Lothar himself, Hincmar, Pope Nicholas I, Charles the Bald. Yet he doesn’t really say much about Theutberga, even though it’s arguably her whose actions are hardest to explain. Why did she resist Lothar’s attempts to send her to a convent in 860, and attempt to regain her position as queen? And why did she then agree to the divorce in 866, after she’d been reinstated at Lothar’s side? Karl doesn’t discuss the first question, and only briefly mentions (p 171) how Theutberga ‘had apparently had enough of being used as a pawn in her kinsmen’s dynastic maneuvering’, and thus agreed to the divorce.

Part of the problem is that in the kind of political history that Karl’s writing, with an emphasis on how particular actions serve predominantly material interests, some motives are easier to discuss than others. It’s quite hard to break out of a traditional framework of political history in which there are rational political decisions (predominantly made by men) and emotional decisions (predominantly made by women, or by men under the influence of women). If we are going to talk about the realities of medieval kingship in a way that encompasses both the personal and political, as we need to, we have to find some language to use that isn’t either Roger Collins or Jean Plaidy.

One way of approaching this is by stressing the political nature of women’s actions: Jinty Nelson, for example, has shown how Carolingian queens such as Bertrada and Fastrada were deeply politically engaged , even if using different tactics from that of their husbands or spouses. But the power politics are less easy to see in this case. What did Theutberga gain by trying to hold onto her position? When your husband has twice in three years tried to get rid of you by alleging that you have slept with your brother, it’s a fairly big hint that He’s Just Not That Into You. If she wasn’t able to have a child with Lothar, she was probably going to end up relegated to a convent anyhow at some point, after his death. Why did she want to hang onto a position that was always going to be fraught?

One possible approach is to think of this in terms of honour. This is what Jane Bishop, ‘Bishops as marital advisors in the ninth century’, in Julius Kirshner and Suzanne Fonay Wemple (eds.), Women of the medieval world: essays in honor of John H. Mundy, Oxford: Blackwell, 1985, pp. 53-84 argues: that Theutberga wasn’t prepared to be regarded as guilty of incest, but she was prepared to agree (in 866) that she was barren and that Lothar had already been married to Waldradra when she married him. This is a possible answer, but it would help if we had more studies of Carolingian norms of honour to calibrate this with: how much more shameful was it to have been raped by one’s own brother than to be unable to have children (or to have been married successively to a father and his son, as Judith of Flanders had been)?

Alternatively, we can start treating the sexual and emotional behaviour of kings as normal, rather than aberrant. It wasn’t just that Lothar wanted to get rid of Theutberga: he wanted to marry Waldrada, and only Waldrada. Underlying many discussions of medieval and early modern rulers is a very old assumption: that men will, practically speaking, sleep with any woman if necessary. That politically-motivated marriages are not a problem for kings, because they can always have mistresses on the side. That if a king is only interested in one woman, it is because he has been bewitched by a sorceress.

I think we need to try and find ways to explore the kinds of reactions and emotions, I’ve mentioned, but crucially, without imagining them. We probably need to be tentative: say that these might be the reasons for people’s behaviour, say what evidence, if any, we have for our arguments. I don’t know whether in the end it will get us closer to a truth about the divorce of Lothar and Theutberga, but I think ignoring such aspects is going to produce a rather attenuated picture.


2 thoughts on “Theutberga and acceptable motivations

  1. Very interesting post, thanks. Having lived in different cultures myself and found it very illuminating in the way different peoples approach problems that are common to other cultures too, it has set me thinking about what the spiritual, moral, emotional culture was like in the 900s? How much can one piece together that sort of evidence? I sometimes find people making facile assumptions about other societies because they are not able to think outside their own cultural frame of reference.


  2. the kind of political history that Karl’s writing, with an emphasis on how particular actions serve predominantly material interests

    FYI, I talked to Karl about his book at the Zoo and, if I recall rightly, he mentioned that the original Dutch thesis version has a lot of theology in it that he was asked to cut for English publication. So the emphasis may say more about perceived anglophone academic interests than about Karl.

    One possible approach is to think of this in terms of honour.

    Not your period, I know, but Knut Görich is doing really interesting stuff along these lines for Frederick Barbarossa; see his Die Ehre Friedrich Barbarossas. Kommunikation, Konflikt und politisches Handeln im 12. Jahrhundert (Darmstadt, 2001) and the forthcoming biography.


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