Seminary XXI: Jinty Nelson on Charlemagne’s mother

The Institute of Historical Research does seminars other than the Earlier Middle Ages one, of course, though you might not know it from this blog. One in particular that I have been known to trot along to is the London Society for Medieval Studies, but in recent terms they’ve been quite late medieval, so I haven’t gone. On 19th February however they had one of the seminar’s founders, no less a figure than Emeritus Professor Dame Janet Nelson, talking to the topic “Charlemagne Revisited”.

Statue of Bertrada of Laon in the basilica of Saint-Denis

What this actually meant however was that we got a paper about the various women around Charlemagne, the so-called ‘monstrous regiment’ whose rôles in court life were so important but so often forgotten. In particular she emphasised his mother Bertrada, pointing out that the Continuator of the Chronicle of Fredegar seems to pay great attention to her but that all this means is that we can briefly see her at full strength, as court-builder (frequently left to organise a new royal base while her husband Pepin was on campaign), receiver of diplomats (including Muslim ones; there was some debate about how the Muslims might have taken being received by a barbarian queen!) and even international peace envoy, most of these rôles before Pepin’s death too, in contradistinction to the idea that says medieval women only get to do anything once they’re widowed. She seems, also, to have remained at court until she died, so that her influence continued long after one might have expected. No retirement to a nunnery for Charlemagne’s mum!

The tomb of King Pepin II the Short of the Franks and Queen Bertrada in Saint-Denis

The other woman who came in for discussion, apart from the nameless Lombard Queen whom Jinty and Rosamond McKitterick don’t seem to agree about (and whom I hadn’t realised was probably at Pavia when Charlemagne captured it), was Hildegard, Charlemagne’s principal queen and mother of Louis the Pious. Hildegard was with Charlemagne when he captured Pavia and therefore perhaps the princess whom he’d repudiated so as to marry Hildegard; she also did a fair amount of building and organisation; and in the aftermath of the Lombard conquest she was associated, unusually, in a donation of land and a castle in one of the Alpine passes to Saint-Martin de Tours. This, Jinty suggests, was because that castle and the associated monastery were foundations of the ousted Lombard queen Ansa. Ansa is mentioned in the document with no title; Hildegard is Queen of the Lombards now, and they make sure this point has gone home by making her the new patron. Not only have we captured your city, deposed your husband and taken over your properties, we are now passing them on through another queen, your whole family is replaced in history by ours, sort of thing. As Jinty observed, almost like a deep secret, “they weren’t nice people, you know”. Jinty’s particular talent is to bring these people close enough, by appealing to their human qualities and the sort of family strife and ties that most of us feel we can relate to, that we can make this sort of observation with a historical basis. I’m glad she hasn’t let retirement slow her down at all. Much like Bertrada! Except nicer, obviously…


2 responses to “Seminary XXI: Jinty Nelson on Charlemagne’s mother

  1. Laura Minnick


    I’ve been reading this blog for a few months now but hadn’t yet scrabbled through the archives, and I found this link through a Google search on Dr Nelson.

    I’ve been banging my head against the wall of the disagreement between Drs Nelson and McKitterick regarding the existence (or not) of a marriage between Charles and a daughter of Desiderius. I tend to agree with Dr Nelson that there was one, however brief it might have been. However, I’m having a hard time finding where she (and her mother) might have gone after her father was deposed. (For my own edification and for a possible fiction project I’m collecting data for.) Do you think that Dr Nelson would be open to an email query? I never finished my graduate work and am not very confident about approaching her.


    Laura Minnick
    Portland, Oregon

    • I can’t imagine that Professor (not Dr, for correspondence purposes) Nelson would have any problem with you e-mailing her, though I understand that things are difficult for her right now so she may be some time replying. She is famously encouraging to everyone and if you can keep your enquiry specific I imagine she will be as helpful as she can.

      In the meantime, however, it may interest you to know that, I learnt three days ago, Carl Hammer also has a theory about the daughter of Desiderius, to wit that she went on to marry Duke Tassilo of Bavaria. I’m not sure what sources this is based on nor where he has said it (although his recent book From ducatus to regnum: ruling Bavaria under the Merovingians and early Carolingians seems likely), and apparently the chronology makes it really quite unlikely, but for fiction purposes it may be more enticing than any of the other theories (especially if the poor girl was pregnant when repudiated…)!

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