Italians and emperors

In January, I went to a couple of seminars on early medieval Italy, which reminded me not only how badly informed I am about its tenth and eleventh century Italian history, but also how difficult it is to interpret the sources for that period, at a time when the Holy Roman emperors were attempting to exercise control in the north of Italy against local resistance. First of all, at the IHR Early Medieval Seminar we had Rob Houghton from St Andrews on “The vocabulary of groups in eleventh-century Mantua”. Rob was focussing on two imperial charters for the Mantuans: Henry II’s charter from 1014 (MGH DD H II no. 278) and Henry III’s from 1055 (MGH DD H III, no 356).

The first of these grants privileges to the “arimanni” of Mantua, the second to the “arimanni” and “cives” of the city. Rob was arguing that this changing vocabulary cannot be taken as simply reflecting the social structures of the city, as those arguing over whether or not the communes were a uniquely Italian development have tended to think. Instead, they reflected imperial claims to power, while the two emperors were attempting to balance or even undermine the power of the Canossan family. Rob argued that both these charters were produced at times of relatively cool relations between the emperors and this family. The vocabulary of “arimanni” and “cives” don’t appear in other Mantua documents from the centuries before and after, only these ones. Instead, the purpose of this use of vocabulary was to link the emperors back to earlier rulers of Italy, drawing first on Lombard law traditions and then later also Roman law ones.

From lying charters (or at least unrealistic ones), a couple of weeks later one of Rob’s supervisors, Simon MacLean, was talking at CLANS (the Cambridge Late Antiquity Network Seminar) on “Otto I’s invasion of Italy and the writing of Ottonian queenship”.

Otto I’s wife Adelheid has been seen as the first “superqueen”, the particularly powerful queens visible in the late tenth century. She was the widow of Lothar, king of Italy when Otto married her, and there was a “founding myth” of how she miraculously escaped from the captivity imposed on her by Berengar II of Italy after Lothar’s death and was then rescued by Otto. This story is reported by Hrotsvita and also by Odilo of Cluny.

Simon said that Adelheid’s power has rarely been explained, but assumed to be either due to her personality or her wealth and prestige. But although she was certainly unusually rich (she got a huge dower in 937 when she married Lothar), she doesn’t look particularly influential early on; in 950, when Lothar died she was probably only 18, and had only been mentioned as queen in a couple of Italian charters. The dominant figure in Italy in the 940s is Berengar, who became king after Lothar’s death, but because we don’t have sources written from his side, he appears as a villain and also as less powerful than he actually was. Simon argued that although Berengar was persuaded to visit Otto in Saxony in 951 and Otto ritually humiliated there, making Berengar submit in public, Otto didn’t, in fact, control Italy after 952. Berengar held the real power and was, for example, able to depose Otto’s supporters from bishoprics.

In 961, however, Otto again attempted to gain control of Italy. Berengar had been ruling for almost ten years by then, and it was Otto who appeared as a usurper, which Simon argued did actually matter to would-be rulers in the early Middle Ages. As a result, Otto’s charters from the period reclassified Berengar from a client king to a rebel, and also developed the idea that Adalheid had been ruler of Italy and Berengar had usurped the throne from her. Adelheid’s power was thus a construction of the 960s, not the 950s, reflected in the vastly increased numbers of Otto’s charters which now referred to her and called her queen. But as Simon put it, Adelheid’s queenliness was an argument, not an objective fact.

This back projection then had further impacts on queenship in the second half of the tenth century. For example, because Adalheid was a cousin of Berengar’s queen Willa, writers such as Liutprand or Hrotsvit who wanted to support Otto and Adalheid couldn’t just use a contrast of lineages to laud them against their rivals; instead they had to create barriers artificially. For example, Hrostsvit claimed that Willa had tortured Adalheid when she was imprisoned. Queenship was moved to the centre of Ottonian discourse as a result of such short-term needs: queens became good to think with.

The contingency of queenship is a factor that’s often acknowledged by historians; far-reaching norms develop around queens as a response to immediate circumstances. What the combination of the two papers gave was a reminder of the extent to which this is also true of many other medieval political developments. Henry III’s charter describing the Mantuans as citizens was a response to a particular political situation, not simply a reflection of existing social practices. But it in turn influenced subsequent practice and political thought. This haphazard tendency for political theories to develop may have been particularly prevalent in Italy, which combined a large number of expert propagandists, newly developing legal expertise and particularly convoluted struggles for power. But studying other countries as well, we probably need to avoid too much teleology or abstraction when talking about medieval political developments.


6 thoughts on “Italians and emperors

  1. This is difficult to comment on as I have limited knowledge of the Italian early history. My interest, thus far, has been a bit further on, though Medieval, and particularly dominated by Caterina de Medici, a Queen of Florentine origins in France.

    Your comments on Queens has resonances. If I haven’t misinterpreted the underlying thought, it appears they have been useful for subjugation (a bit of male heroism/machismo)and as scapegoats for all ills. Women of that society, who rose above all of those obstacles by whatever means at their disposal, would have deserved an historical pedestal. Few got one, which I would suggest, endorses the point.

    This post offers a very interesting discussion.


    • Thanks for your response – I’m not surprised that my comments on queens have resonance, even if you don’t know the specific early medieval details. What researchers on queenship have tended to suggest is how much continuity there is in queens’ experience throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period.

      The underlying basis of a queen’s situation (the king’s choice of her as based on a combination of her family’s power and her personal appeal) and her success as being dependent on both her ability to win allies and to produce sons stay pretty much constant. And as a result, so do a lot of the ways in which (male) authors discuss queens: the idea that the evil things that a king does can be blamed on the bad influence of his (foreign) wife is an image from the Bible that remains a very convenent way of criticizing a male ruler indirectly for millennia. And the idea of the queen as needing rescuing/protecting feeds into a lot of ways to motivate male warriors/supporters, right down to Edmund Burke wanting to be chivalrous in supporting Marie Antoinette.

      If you’re interested in reading more about late medieval and early modern queenship, by the way, it might be worth looking at the website of Theresa Earenfight, who posts regularly on recent work on queenship and has a detailed bibliography.


      • Fascinating…and yes, yes, indeed. The Bible and its originators have a lot to answer for! Poor Marie Antoinette an obvious case in point.

        I’ll certainly browse the link you give, thanks.


  2. Seminar CLIV: John Blair’s Ford Lectures ITurning to the pile of unreported seminars, lectures and so on that I have for you leaves me keenly aware of how far behind I am but also of how much I don’t, in some sense, need to cover. The last seminar I went to in 2012 and the first in 2013&…


  3. Seminar CLIV: John Blair’s Ford Lectures ITurning to the pile of unreported seminars, lectures and so on that I have for you leaves me keenly aware of how far behind I am but also of how much I don’t, in some sense, need to cover. The last seminar I went to in 2012 and the first in 2013&…


  4. Seminar CLIV: John Blair’s Ford Lectures ITurning to the pile of unreported seminars, lectures and so on that I have for you leaves me keenly aware of how far behind I am but also of how much I don’t, in some sense, need to cover. The last seminar I went to in 2012 and the first in 2013&…


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