Private Bodies and the Body Politic in the Divorce Case of Lothar II
By Stuart Airlie
Past and Present, No. 161 (1998)
Introduction: ‘A princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and, as such, it rivets mankind’. Thus, Walter Bagehot in 1867 provided advance justification for our own society’s prurient interest in royal marriages, though he might have been surprised at the depths, in every sense of the word, of that interest. Ten centuries previously, in 860, Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims said much the same thing as Bagehot, though in rather different language: ‘This case touches all Christians. It is concerned with a king and a queen, that is, a Christian man and a Christian woman, and with the law of marriage given by God in paradise to our first parents, strengthened by the Church and confirmed by God through human and divine laws’.
The case to which Archbishop Hincmar was referring is the celebrated attempt by King Lothar II (855-69), a great-grandson of Charlemagne, to divorce his queen, Theutberga, and to legitimate his union with his true love, Waldrada. The king and queen, as a man and a woman, were the descendants of Adam and Eve, and the bishops, as successors of the Apostles, were their appointed judges and guide. The domestic history of a Carolingian king and queen was therefore public; for this particular king and queen, marriage was part of sacred history.
The divorce case of Lothar II was a key political issue in the Carolingian world in the 850s and 860s. Four kings, two popes and a host of bishops and secular aristocrats were caught up in its ramifications. The details of the case were lurid, even sensational: the queen was accused of having committed incest with her brother, Hubert; this incest was alleged to have taken the form of sodomite intercourse which resulted in pregnancy, with the queen aborting the foetus.
The case was notorious: King Lothar found that its details were being discussed in Burgundy and Italy; the archbishop of Rheims found that it was being discussed even at the lower levels of society. If the case was important for contemporaries, it remains so for us, as it casts a searching light on a whole range of topics in early medieval political culture. A full consideration of this complex case cannot be undertaken here.
Specifically, this article will focus on what the case reveals about the representation of Christian royalty and, turning as it does on the relationship between a king and a queen, about the role of gender therein. After establishing a historical context for the case, we shall examine how contemporary concepts of good rulership and of gender worked for Lothar II; then we shall see how the same concepts ultimately rebounded upon him.