Sunday, September 27, 2009

Happy Birthday, Ermentrude of Orléans!

Born this day in 823, she would become the wife of Charles the Bald, who was Holy Roman Emperor as well as king of an area either referred to as West Francia or France, and the mother of nine children including Louis the Stammerer, another king of either West Francia or France, depending on who's telling the story. (Why did 9th and 10th century Europe produce so many rulers with names which sound like insults: Charles the Bald, Louis the Stammerer, Charles the Fat and so forth? And were these rulers actually ever so called to their faces or within their hearing? I would think they were only so called beginning some time after their deaths, but I don't know. And as if the whole thing weren't already perplexing enough, it has been suggested by some historians that Charles the Bald may in fact have been unusually hairy, and his nickname applied ironically.)

"Ermentrude of Orléans," that's a very interesting name to me: "of Orléans" sounds very French, but "Ermentrude" sounds very German. Not that it's at all unusual, down to the present day, for thoroughly French people to have German names, but I wonder how thoroughly French Ermentrude was. She and her husband Charles were distant cousins, both descended from Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne. Charlemagne had created the largest empire in western Europe between the decline of western portion of the ancient Roman Empire, and the short-lived empire of Napoleon. Charlemagne's territories extended from the Pyrenees in the west to Croatia in the east, from the southern edge of Denmark in the north to Italy south of Rome. But Charlemagne saw to it that the area he had unified would be divided again upon his death, dividing it among several sons who quickly fell to fighting each other.

Charlemagne's native language was German. In fact, the origin of the German language as distinguished from other Germanic languages is often, and I think quite sensibly, dated from the reign of Charlemagne, because the first known written German was produced in his reign and with his very powerful official blessing. For whatever reason, however, Charlemagne's Germanic tribe, the Franks, ended up giving its name, not to the central, German section of his empire, but to the western part we now know as France. This territory had already long been a distinct country, with its own language developing from a mix of Latin and other elements, but it had been called Gaul since several hundred years before Christ.

So, Ermentrude was descended from Germanic nobility, but lived all of her life in Gaul, and became Queen of Gaul. Or France. Or western Francia. I have no idea what the country was called in Ermentrude's day. I strongly suspect that it was called all sort of different things by different groups. How did Ermentrude refer to her country? And did she speak French, or German? Again, it's very hard to say. Women of the early middle ages are mentioned very sparingly in the historical accounts of the time, and when they're mentioned usually not much more is said than that they were married to so and so and that these were their children. Perhaps both Charles and Ermentrude spoke German in a land where most people spoke something else, as continued to be the case for centuries to come with German rulers in territories to the east of Germany proper, where slavic languages and Hungarian and Romanian were spoken, as late Franz Joseph, still emperor of Austria-Hungary at the beginning of World War I. Perhaps Charles and Ermentrude spoke the native French of the land they ruled. Perhaps their primary language was neither French not German, but Latin. Latin certainly was the primary written language all over western Europe, and kings and queens would have to be able to speak it at least a little, and comprehend spoken Latin. Almost all of the written records of Ermentrude's world are in Latin, and while Old French, or the ancestors of French, again depending upon who's telling the story, may have been spreading quite widely already, very little of it has survived, and the Latin chroniclers don't seem to have appreciated how much the occasional mention of developments in the written vernacular would've meant to historians today.

Nobody seems to know very much about Ermentrude, other than her ancestry and who she married and what children she bore, and that she seemed to have liked to make embroidery and to support churches and abbeys. A lot of aristocratic women of her age seem to have liked to sew and support religious institutions, which is hardly surprising when you consider that they were allowed to do very little else between pregnancies. Perhaps the religious activity allowed her to become more literate than were most men of her class, aside from the younger sons who became monks, priests and bishops. (Literacy was monopolized by the Catholic Church. If you read something which was written in the early middle ages in western Europe, it was almost certainly written by a monk or priest, or very occasionally by a nun.) Perhaps she had a very adventurous spirit, and widened her reading from prayer-books and psalters to the classics of Latin, or even Greek antiquity. Maybe she would have had to do such reading on the sly, queen or not, and wouldn't dare to leave written evidence of it.

Who knows. All we can do is guess. Perhaps someday, somehow, we'll be able to learn a little bit more about Ermentrude of Orléans. Again, happy birthday!

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