‘Just once, one would like to break out of our disciplinary straightjacket and say simply that this most misunderstood of kings loved his first wife. But we cannot.’
Geoffrey Koziol, The Politics of Memory, p. 518.
It is startling how little we know about Charles the Simple’s first wife, Frederuna. As I said last week, we know they were married in 907. Her dowry charter describes her as being of noble blood; we know she had a brother named Bovo who eventually became the bishop of Châlons-sur-Marne, and a cousin named Berengar who became bishop of Cambrai. Berengar (but not Bovo) is described as being ‘from across the Rhine’ (i.e. East Frankish), but historians often assume Frederuna herself was Lotharingian. Her parents are unknown. Charles’ dowry for her calls her his consors regni, but as a queen she was not a major figure in Charles’ court. Compared to the roles played by Charles’ mother Queen Adelaide and Charles’ daughter- and granddaughter-in-law Queens Gerberga and Emma, Frederuna is conspicuous by her absence in Charles’ diplomas – indeed, she’s only actually called queen (regina) once, after her death, so it’s possible she was never actually crowned.
Frederuna is much more visible to us dead than alive. After her death in or around 917, Charles began to endow a programme of commemorative masses on a grand scale. This was a truly massive programme, all aimed at propagating his wife’s memory – there just isn’t a comparison to be made with any other requests for commemoration Charles made in his whole reign. No other Carolingian king devoted so much effort in commemorating their dead wives. This is particularly relevant because Charles soon afterwards married again, and his new wife, Eadgifu is never mentioned – only Frederuna. This seeming concern for his first wife sets Charles apart from his grandfather and namesake Charles the Bald, who once ordered commemorative masses for his wives with the rather arresting formula ‘[let them pray] for Ermengard, who’s dead; and Richildis, who isn’t’.
Historians have been at something of a loss to understand Charles’ drive to ensure that Frederuna was remembered. Often, it is taken as part of Charles’ strategy to bolster his rule in Lotharingia. This is, frankly, a bit silly. As I said, we don’t know anything about Frederuna’s family, so these arguments assume something of a circular quality: we know, it is argued, that Frederuna’s family was powerful because Charles commemorated her so much, and that Charles commemorated her so much because her family was powerful.
This argument, however, has the merit of avoiding questions about emotions that medieval historians are not comfortable asking. This discomfort is for very good reasons. After the quotation with which I opened the post, Geoffrey Koziol goes on to point out that the vocabulary of love and affection in these diplomas is heavily political. Take ‘friendship’ (amiticia), for instance. In 922, Charles made a treaty with the East Frankish king Henry the Fowler promising to ‘be a friend to this man, my friend, Henry, King of the East, as a friend rightfully ought to be towards his friend’. Does this mean Charles liked him? Of course not, no more than a modern leader talking about the ‘great friendship between our two countries’ indicates that two rulers really do have warm personal bonds. Similarly, just because Charles calls Frederuna his ‘beloved wife’ doesn’t actually mean he loved her.
At the same time, because the sources we have to study medieval individuals are accounts of them by others and documents largely for public consumption, trying to gain a handle on ‘who they were’ is a barely-possible goal. One historian, Timothy Reuter, once characterised early medieval rulers as ‘black boxes’ – we see the outputs, we can get some notion of the inputs, but what happened in their heads to turn one into the other is lost.
But. This is one case where being methodologically strict makes our history demonstrably less correct. It may be true to say that we can’t know what emotions Charlemagne, for instance, actually felt; but he had emotions and made decisions based partly on them. If we take individual’s emotions – and consequently personalities – out of the equation entirely, we are sticking more closely to what is proveable but straying further away from what is accurate.
In this case, to stay within our disciplinary straightjacket is, simply, to get things wrong. In 917, Charles issued a diploma for Saint-Denis in Paris. It’s preserved in the original, and has one distinctly unusual feature.
Diplomas are supposed to represent visually the majesty of the ruler, and consequently they’re usually neat, impressive looking documents. In this case, though, something’s different. The prayer clause in this document specifies that the monks are to have a feast on Charles’ birthday, another on the day of his coronation, and another after he dies. Above this, in a neat non-diplomatic hand (possibly Charles’ own? I’d like to think so, but that’s more than likely just romantic dreaming), is specified that there should be another feast on Frederuna’s death. This visual intrusion – the word Frederune collides messily with the ligature of the et below it – detracts from the otherwise imposing appearance of the diploma. It seems rather that it was added in after the diploma had been written up because it was simply that important to Charles that it be in there, and never mind any oddities in the diploma’s appearance.
If we say that Charles commemorated Frederuna because she mattered to him personally, is this certain? Certainly not. But that doesn’t actually make it different from other aspects of medieval history. As the tagline of this blog has it, non sic gesta scias sed cuncta geri potuisse – it didn’t happen this way, but it could have done. When it comes to assigning motivations for Charles’ actions, politics is as conjectural as love. This is not to say that either is pure speculation – both have evidential support, but not certainty.
An important distinction, though, is that politics is less revealing than emotion. Each historian creates their own Middle Ages. My Middle Ages is not Geoffrey Koziol’s Middle Ages. Consequently, when it comes to filling in the gaps, each historian puts a portion of themselves into the world they create. This is one thing when it comes to dealing with tax policy or territorial ambition, but when it comes to dealing with love, hate, or forgiveness, the personal element is more fundamental and more idiosyncratic to the historian themselves. Putting emotion into the Middle Ages runs the very real risk of showing more of yourself to the world than you intend, of losing control of your own image.
Again, I’m not saying that history of any sort is a matter of unfettered self-expression; simply making the point – almost expressing the truism – that you can’t take the historian out of the history. The solution, which is a method rather than an answer, though, is the same as any other problem of this sort in history: a return to the sources, to make the argument to which the evidence leads you as well and as honestly as you can, even acknowledging that you yourself are consciously or unconsciously filling the gaps. A leap of this sort may be made darkly, but it need not be made blindly.
A leap, though, must be made, because otherwise we are actively leaving out a crucial element in understanding the past. In this case, without thinking about Charles’ emotions, we can’t understand his programme of commemoration. Not politics, not Lotharingia, not placating his in-laws: Charles commemorated Frederuna because he loved her and he missed her.
(1) Available online at: http://www.mgh.de/bibliothek/virtueller-lesesaal/ddkar/06/?p=XX