Relatively few surviving works from the Middle Ages were written by women. One of them is a monastic chronicle known as the Annals of Quedlinburg, created in the early eleventh century. A look into this work reveals some interesting insights into the writer and her abbey.
When Quedlinburg Abbey was founded in the year 936, it was designed to be a powerhouse. The primary force behind this was Queen Mathilda, wife of Henry the Fowler, King of East Francia. Plans were just underway to form this abbey in 936, when Henry died and was buried at Quedlinburg. She then established Quedlinburg Abbey, populating it with women from the German nobility.
For the next hundred years this abbey would be an important political and religious centre for the Kingdom of East Francia and then the Holy Roman Empire and its ruling dynasty, the Ottonians. Indeed, the abbesses of Quedlinburg were the daughters of Ottonian kings, one of which even served as regent for the empire at times. The abbey gained dozens of estates and land holdings, further increasing its wealth and power.
Between the years 1008 and 1030 someone decided to write a history centred around Quedlinburg Abbey. They did not record their names in these annals, but historians very confidently believe that it must have been written by a nun who started living at Quedlinburg by at least 993. The Annals of Quedlinburg begins with the Biblical stories of Adam and Noah, and goes through various ancient events. This early section comes from works like Jerome, Isidore, and Bede.
Starting in the year 702, the work turns into a year-by-year account, with often very brief entries. By the time of the abbey’s founding in 936, the annals start to become longer, but it is not until the 980s that this work starts devoting multiple pages to recounting the religious and political history of this region and of the abbey itself.
One interesting part of this work is that often reveals the importance of women in the affairs of the empire, including that of the abbesses. It is something that is often not included in other contemporary histories when written by male authors. For example, the author talks about the key role that Abbess Matilda (966 – 999) had during one important ecclesiastical meeting:
I am afraid that neither in writing nor with words it would be possible to express what kind of a person she was in the last years of her life, when there was an assembly in Partenopolis and she was surrounded by the congregation of bishops together with Duke Berngard, multitude of dukes, the entire Senate in nation, and also the legates of all the nations gathered there, how wonderful she was, and with what tremendous sense she paid tribute to everyone, and what respect – greater than towards the others – she showed to the bishops, and with what skills he admonished all the nobles, judges and those who were to take care of the state strengthening and consolidation of civil liberties (personal rights) with what gentleness she comforted the pious, with what severity she threatened the guilty, and with what industriousness she protected and supported the development of the fatherland…
Politics often dominate the annals, with the writer being very supportive of the Ottonian Dynasty – not surprising since they were the main backers of the abbey. Military events are common throughout the work, focusing on what was happening in northern Europe, such as Viking raids, or the conflict between Emperor Henry II (1004-1024) and Boleslav I of Poland (992–1025). The chronicler is firmly supportive of Henry and recounts his campaigns in a positive way. Her most extensive account of a battle is given for the year 1015, when the emperor faced the Polish duke. She writes how the Germans forced their opponents to flee:
…900 men fell by the sword and even Boleslav himself fled into hiding away from him. The emperor enjoyed himself inside his soul as many of his vassals stayed alive except for Hodol, the famous youth, as not being a combative warrior due to lack of strength, he died gloriously not being afraid of death together with a few but brave men. Mesco, the son of Boleslav, as it was said, with tears picked up his body and having carefully put everything together as it should be (for a knight), gave back the body to his men so they took it back to his land.
However, she further explains how the imperial army was later caught in an ambush because they were unfamiliar with the territory. The author was clearly well-informed about what was happening in the empire and their often endemic wars with their neighbours.
We can also read about churches and monasteries being built, the comings and goings of important people, or when bad weather was affecting crops. The annals sometimes includes strange events. On February 4th, 1025, for instance, the sun “filled the middle part of the sky with astonishing brightness of its light, and then it seemed that it shone in the triple form.” Another entry from 995 tells of the birth of a child with severe deformities, while for 1012 the author describes an unusual death:
That year in Franconia near Cologne, a certain man received horrible punishment having received cruel death, as in fairly bizarre and unclear way he was bitten to death by mice and ended his life.
The Annals even tells us about life among the nuns. In 1008, for example, we read about one of their members named Bertalis, who decides to make a pilgrimage to Rome. She left on January 6th, perhaps leading a group of fellow sisters, crossing over the Alps and reaching the city, where she prayed at the tomb of Saint Peter before returning back to Quedlinburg.
In one poignant section, the chronicler tells of how four of her sisters died in one night. The winter of 1020 was apparently severe, colder and longer than usual, which led to many people’s deaths:
The winter was followed by never experienced earlier eradication and mortality which devastated almost the entire globe by sudden death in the blink of an eye suddenly took those healthy and people fairly certain of their prosperity, being joyful during meals. Among those common and fearsome losses our metropolis by God’s judgment, which is never unjust, was affected by a severe wound up to the heart when within one hour four of our sisters departed this world – an anchoress who through service to Christ called herself see Sisu, the following two – Otteluda, the daughter of Margrave Dietrich, and Tidan, the dignity of the house exceeding the purity of morals, as well as Hennikin, who being of short height and low statues, but being notable for her beautiful inborn markings. And before them with the coming of the dawn of Great Friday, Lucia had been taken to the haven of eternal peace by God’s mercy, a pious servant of the poor, having covered the ocean of this world, calling in the port of blessed rest. That was how they were included in the grace of God.
With the passing of the Ottonian Dynasty in 1024, the abbey lost its position as one of the centres of power in the Holy Roman Empire. It would remain wealthy and influential for the rest of the Middle Ages, eventually coming to an end in the year 1802. Quedlinburg Abbey is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
You can read an English translation of the Annals of Quedlinburg in Annales Sacri Romani Imperii, by Grzegorz Kazimierz Walkowski (Roczniki Rzesky, 2014). See also Queenship and sanctity: The lives of Mathilda and The epitaph of Adelheid, translated by Sean Gilsdorf (Catholic University of America Press, 2004)
Top Image: A 16th-century copy of the Annals of Quedlinburg – Wikimedia Commons