Queenship, Nunneries and Royal Widowhood in Carolingian Europe

Carolingian Queen - ivory chess piece
Carolingian Queen  - ivory chess piece
Carolingian Queen – ivory chess piece

Queenship, Nunneries and Royal Widowhood in Carolingian Europe

Simon MacLean

Past & Present: vol 178 , no. 1 , pp. 3-38.


Sometime during the last decade of the ninth century, Archbishop Fulk of Rheims composed a harshly-worded letter of admonition to the former empress Richildis, the second wife of the late Carolingian ruler Charles the Bald (843– 77). The archbishop had heard some worrying stories concerning her lifestyle, and felt it incumbent upon him to warn her against the damage she was doing to her chances of eternal life by surrounding herself with associates engaged in „anger, brawling, dissensions, burnings, murders, debauchery, dispossession of the poor and plundering of churches.‟ He urged her instead to show consideration for the health of her soul by living with piety and sobriety, and by performing good works to make up for the fact that virginity, the highest state to which a Christian woman could aspire, was now beyond her.

We would be wrong to read this letter as representing the views of an impartial onlooker. There was not a black and white principle at stake: Fulk was hardly untarnished by the stain of „brawling‟ and „dissension‟ himself, as shown by his involvement in a particularly murky and violent factional struggle which ultimately led to his assassination. Moreover, from what we know about her later life, it is unlikely that Richildis was really behaving as badly as he thought. The archbishop of Rheims was one of the most prominent of the churchmen of the Carolingian world who, sponsored by the ruling dynasty, had been engaged since the mid-eighth century in an earnest and ambitious project to reform society according to their interpretation of Christian principles.

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