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Today is the anniversary of the death of Queen Waldrada.

Now, let me be the first to admit that hers is hardly a household name. At the time of writing, she does not even have an English Wikipedia page, a sure sign of the historical B-list (she does have a short one in German, and an inaccurate one in French). But her passage into obscurity was considerably pre-internet. Though we know the day of her death, no one recorded the year (presumably around 900). In one of the sources on her, some later medieval scribe even took the trouble literally to write her out of history, erasing her name and replacing it with a made-up ‘Rotrude’.

unaque dilectissimae nobis [Waldradae] Rotrududę dirigens missos deprecans
unaque dilectissimae nobis [Waldradae] Rotrududę dirigens missos deprecans
Yet in her own time, Waldrada was a powerful woman, who led an exciting and eventful life. The concubine of a Frankish king, Lothar II, she became his wife in 862, and participated for a while in the full theatre of medieval queenship. But in 863 the pope forbade the marriage, and forced them to separate. Despite this, the pope continued to believe that she was still holding the reins of power, and accused her of plotting the death of her rival, the king’s ‘other’ wife. In the face of this papal onslaught (which included excommunication), King Lothar stuck by Waldrada so doggedly that some observers concluded that she was practising witchcraft, capable of inflaming him to lust merely by showing him enchanted clothing.

Though Waldrada ended her life peacefully in a convent high up in the Vosges above the Rhine, her children too led adventurous lives. One (Hugh) led a major rebellion before he was blinded, ending his life as a reluctant monk; another (Gisela) married a Viking, and witnessed her Scandinavian husband’s assassination, before becoming an abbess; a third (Berta) started a royal dynasty in Italy.

What, then, does it take to get a Wikipedia page? Why is Waldrada so little remembered today? It’s not a lack of sources as such. Waldrada was at the heart of continental politics in the 860s, and was much discussed by contemporaries like Hincmar of Rheims. Though we don’t have anything that she herself wrote, and despite efforts like those of the scribe mentioned above to remove traces of her, we have plenty of information about her role and activities.

At one level, the issue is simply that Waldrada was a woman. Despite decades of research, women are still less commemorated than men on public historical fora – one of the reasons behind the emergence of various internet ‘edit-a-thons’ to give people like Waldrada the recognition they deserve.

But there’s a bigger problem too, one that’s more specific to Waldrada. Largely because of Lothar II’s failed efforts to have Waldrada publicly acknowledged as his queen, their kingdom, Lotharingia, died with him in 869. That failure was in fact a crucial factor in the emergence and stabilisation of the kingdoms to the west and the east: what would eventually become the kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. The territory that had lain in-between, Lotharingia, became a ‘shadow kingdom’: remembered only when it was helpful for political purposes – for example, the Valois Duke Charles the Bold’s attempts to reconstitute it in the 15th century – and forgotten when it was not.[1]

Waldrada’s kingdom, Lotharingia (in blue)
Waldrada’s kingdom, Lotharingia (in blue)

Paradoxically, then, the very thing which made Queen Waldrada notorious in her day – her perceived influence on royal politics – condemned her to obscurity thereafter. She lost her ‘relevance’ back in 869, along with her husband and the kingdom they had ruled together. As a result, no modern country claims to be the political heir of Lotharingia, and so there were no 19th-century institutions whose task it was to order and represent Lotharingian history. And modern knowledge about the Middle Ages is based on 19th-century historical research to a surprising degree (including, maybe especially, Wikipedia: just see how many entries are based on out-of-copyright encyclopedias).

Like Lotharingia itself, then, Waldrada has slipped between the cracks, and is largely forgotten today. It’s hardly novel to point out that commemoration is a political act, since choices have to be made (we can’t remember everybody and everything, least until someone finds a way of automating commemoration). But it’s worth considering the extent to which modern public commemorative activity, whether in museums, on Wikipedia, or indeed as ‘On this day in history’ blogs, is silently reproducing the political agendas of the past, whether medieval or Victorian. So on this day, spare a thought for Waldrada – or even better, go and write her a Wikipedia entry.

Charles West will be giving a talk about the case of Waldrada and Lothar II to the University of the Third Age, at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield, Friday 17th April, 10.30am. His translation (written with Dr Rachel Stone) of a key text for the case, Hincmar of Rheims’s On the Divorce of King Lothar II and Queen Theutberga, is forthcoming with Manchester University Press.

[1] See the useful article by Simon MacLean, ‘Shadow Kingdom: Lotharingia and the Frankish World, C.850–C.1050’, History Compass 11:6 (2013), 443-457 (£)

Image credits
Cover image: The Stuttgart Psalter (http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psautier_de_Stuttgart)
Map: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Pr%C3%BCm
Detail of charter: Marberger Lichtbildarchiv Älterer Originalurkunden, http://lba.hist.uni-marburg.de/lba/

Tags : Lothar IILotharingiamarriageWaldradaWikipedia
Charles West

The author Charles West

7 Comments

  1. “… before becoming an abbess …” Actually in our more “democratically-minded” era few are aware that the higher tiers of church offices were reserved for nobility, e.g. often the third or even second sons of a noble family who could not inherit their estate as it went to the first-born exclusively, “chose” a career in the church, from bishop onward (or abbott/abbess etc.). However, the post of abbess would certainly not go to a woman incapable of leading and managing a monastery or order. But as to why she has no Wikipedia page as yet: Wikipedia is not an erudite encyclopedia or journal. Rather, in many areas, it follows common knowledge. If no one of Wikipedia’s authors has the subject “on radar” then nothing will ever get written. Which also shows up in which areas are over- or underrepresented or in which subjects you have more discussions or less. Some articles are written by one person and challenged by none while others see fifty authors, each deleting each other’s progress on flimsy grounds. So if you don’t write the article or a high school teacher decides to pick up from here and make writing this article a home assignment, she will have to wait until all other subjects are “exhausted”.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Maureen. You’re right about the importance of nobility in the Middle Ages. The leaders of the church often came from the most distinguished families (though that’s not always the case).

    And you’re right about Wikipedia, too! I’m confident that an article about Waldrada will appear in English, though, eventually.

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