We get very close now to both a resolution of the UK’s higher education industrial dispute and, more importantly right here and now, to the end of my backlogged content from 2019, neither of which seemed very likely even a short while ago, but in both cases, as the old and bitter calypso goes, “we ent arrive as yet”. So another thought from the tail end of that year, when I was working my way through an essay volume on crisis among medieval élites and ran into a paper about literacy in the lay aristocracy of the early Middle Ages.1 You may, as did I think, that that is not much to do with the theme of the volume, and indeed my notes say that this paper was in fact, “an unsorted list of evidence of classical works in libraries of élite persons”, so what it was doing in the volume is anyone’s guess. But! it did contain a few interesting facts and not least, a fact about a woman called Adelaide (and some others). You have to go a long way back with this blog to know that that’s a theme here, but in my documents from what’s now Catalonia it can sometimes seem that every second woman bears that name, and this is an affliction – or a blessing! as long as you’re not a prosopographer – that other areas of tenth-century Europe share. So with sharing in mind, I thought I’d put it before you, because it is a good little bit of history.
You see, one of the classical works listed in the paper is a manuscript of the comedies of Terence which is now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and which its cataloguers believe was made in late-10th or 11th-century Germany.2 That’s odd, because the author of the paper, Claudia Villa, asserts that it claims notes of use by Ottonian princesses, which would seem to put it earlier.3 But, thanks to the good offices of the Digital Bodleian, we can see it too:
This is right at the end of the text of Terence, and immediately below it we have a line added in a different hand, reading (says the Bodleian’s transcription – but it looks 99% right to me), “Adelheit Heilwich Matthilt curiales adulescentulæ unum par sunt amicitiae”, or in English, roughly, “Adelaide, Hedwig and Matilda, young courtiers, are one through friendship.” The scribe’s grammar arguably wasn’t perfect, and I could fairly easily see Hedwich rather than Heilwich in the below, though we’ll come back to that, but the meaning seems pretty clear.
So who were these young ladies? Ottonian princesses? Well, King Otto II of the Germans had three daughters, of whom two were called Adelaide and Matilda. Adelaide would run the abbey of Quedlinburg from 999, Gernrode from 1014 and Gandersheim from 1039, and died only in 1044; she was probably born around 974, so would have been an adolescens in the 980s I guess.4 Matilda, her sister, was for a while a nun in Essen but then married Ezzo Count Palatine of Lotharingia; she was born in 979 and died in 1025, by which time she’d had ten children!5 But what about Hedwig? The Bodleian suggests Duchess Hedwig of Swabia, daughter of Duke Henry of Bavaria, himself brother of King and Emperor Otto I, making Hedwig the princesses’ first cousin once removed. The argument is that they all studied together in the same nunnery of Gandersheim which Adelaide would eventually run and that the manuscript was annotated there, which is kind of sweet as well as being a useful step in its history we don’t otherwise have.
But Duchess Hedwig died in 994, so there are problems with this identification.6 Firstly, that would make an eleventh-century date for the manuscript quite impossible; it couldn’t have been written after Hedwig could have written or been referred to in it. Secondly, though, when Hedwig died, aged in her fifties, Adelaide might have been twenty and Matilda was fifteen. I’m not saying they weren’t friends, but if they were it wasn’t their shared adolescence that bound them all together! So where did the Bodleian and then Villa get this idea? And it turns out the answer is circular: the Bodleian’s source is an earlier work by Villa.7 By 2006, she was being a bit less specific and now perhaps we see why.
So then what? Not Ottonians, not princesses? After all, they don’t say they’re princesses, they say they’re courtiers. Apart from anything else, that rather implies they were at court, not at a nunnery (though in the Ottonian world, those things could coincide).8 But! There may still be an answer, because the Wikipedia page for the Matilda we’ve already mentioned, as of the date of writing, says that among her ten children were daughters by the names of, no less, Adelaide (to become Abbess of Nijvel), Heylwig (to become Abbess of Neuss) and Matilda (to become Abbess of Dietkirchen and Vilich). (Please note, Helwig not Hedwig…) The only trouble is that this is Wikipedia, because none of that is explicitly sourced. The only source for the whole page is a family tree in a book by Peter Wilson which is partly visible on Google Books and whose index contains no references for these ladies, and out of whose limited preview I cannot get them to come up in searches.9 Even the German version of the page has nothing to offer here. So I don’t know where that information has come from. I should say that I don’t doubt it, necessarily; one webpage that the German version cites has a bibliography of 24 different German or Latin books and I’m sure that data is in one or more of them. And if so, these girls would have been adolescing together around the second decade of the eleventh century. Of course, when I got to that point, I suddenly had a feeling that I’d just followed the intellectual steps of whoever put that Bodleian catalogue entry together, because they seem to have included all the information to undermine their own cite of that early work of Villa’s without actually coming out to say it must be wrong…
But this doesn’t, any of it, take away the basic point. It may not have been Gandersheim in the late tenth century; it may not have been a nunnery at all (though if it was, Brauweiler, above, founded by Momma Matilda and Ezzo, seems the most likely). But somewhere in the probably-early-eleventh century, three young noblewomen, sisters if both I and Wikipedia are right, formed some kind of pact of friendship together, and because they inscribed it in a schoolbook of Latin drama we know about it. We don’t – I mean, I don’t – know what became of that friendship or that pact, whether separation and time broke them apart or whether monastic isolation perhaps made it even more important, as we might see if we only had their letters; but we do know that they had a moment of solidarity one day and wrote in this manuscript. And that, it seems to me, is worth the reading of an otherwise questionably relevant paper in an essay volume I probably didn’t really need to read all of. Maybe I didn’t; but what doing so got me is Adelaide, Helwig and Matilda, one through friendship.
1. Claudia Villa, “Lo stato dell’alfabetizzazione e il grado di istruzione tra le aristocrazie laiche” in François Bougard, Laurent Feller and Régine Le Jan (edd.), Les élites au haut moyen âge : crises et renouvellements, Haut Moyen Âge 1 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 127–142.
2. Terence, “Comedies”, parchment codex (Germany, late-tenth to mid-eleventh century), Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS Auct. F 6 27, online here.
3. Villa, “Lo stato dell’alfabetizzazione”, p. 128.
4. Thietmar of Merseburg, Chronicon, IV.10, accessed for today in Ottonian Germany: the Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg, transl. David Warner (Manchester 2001), pp. 157-158.
5. I have to admit that I looked this up on Wikipedia, and the English one isn’t much use but German Wikipedia cites an article on Matilda in the Lexikon des Mittelalters by Gerd Althoff, and that might do for me. I can’t look it up today, however, because of the digital picket! So let’s hope there is in fact a source.
6. Karl Schmid, “Hadwig” in Neue deutsche Biographie Vol. VII (Berlin 1966, p. 419, a reference which again I admit I got from German Wikipedia but which is handily digitised here. Unfortunately Mathilda isn’t in the same work!
7. Claudia Villa, La «lectura Terentii», Studi sul Petrarca 17 (Vatican City 1984), 2 vols, I, pp. 103ff, they say.
8. Classically discussed at length in John William Bernhardt, Itinerant Kingship and Royal Monasteries in Early Medieval Germany c. 936-1075, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 21 (Cambridge 1993).
9. Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire (Cambridge MA 2016), p. xvii (non vidi).
“Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.”
Terence’s comedies seem to have been remarkably popular in the Ottonian Empire. Besides Hrotsvitha writing her Terentian plays, Notker Labeo translated Terence’s comedies into Old High German (sadly the actual translations themselves are lost). Lay literacy and interest in Classical reception in early medieval (and later medieval, going back to my undergraduate days) Europe is one of my biggest fascinations.