- Imperial Ladies of the Ottonian Dynasty: Women and Rule in Tenth-Century Germany by Phyllis G. Jestice
When Otto II died of malaria in Rome on December 7, 983, news did not reach Aachen until at least three weeks later. His three-year-old son had just been coronated as king, securing his legacy, and it was not until after the coronation that the assembled magnates learned of the emperor's death, cutting short the celebration, and throwing the Ottonian political world into turmoil. A boy king was never an ideal situation for early medieval political theorists, and poor kingship was often equated with those too young to rule: Vae enium terrae, cuius rex est puer et cuius principes mane comedunt (Ecclesiastes 10:16). The reality could expose the inherent fragility in the various columns of government, above all the relationship of royalty, aristocracy, and bishops. However, not only did the young Otto succeed to his father's throne, he was guided in his youth by his mother and grandmother, who provided a stable foundation of regency rule. This regency instantly presents the historian with a sense of female power and authority, and this is proving to be a popular avenue of scholarly research. There have been recent books by Simon MacLean (Ottonian Queenship, 2017) and Penelope Nash (Empress Adelheid and Countess Matilda, 2017), both of which have presented informed and persuasive interpretations of the female elite of this period. Phyllis G. Jestice's study of Adelheid and Theophanu, and through them the royal women of the Ottonian dynasty, falls into this wider pattern of looking again at female agency and authority in the tenth century and thinking about the individuals that shape the political discourse of queenship.
The introduction to the volume provides a rationale for the work and an awareness of some of the important sources. Jestice intends to show that "in the tenth century the German rulers relied most heavily not on bishops but on their royal kinswomen" (3). This could be seen as a Weibersystem, alongside or against a Reichskirchensystem. This supports the general view seen in scholarship of the strength of Ottonian queens in contrast to earlier rulers, and those of the Carolingian age. The introduction, however, needed to engage more readily with the dominant historiographical perspectives, in particular those more recent studies. Without this, it is unclear just how the embryonic argument will develop against and alongside those of MacLean and Nash. The introduction is followed by two chapters that are the weakest in the volume. Although the choice of topics in each makes sense (women, prestige marriage), there is a crucial lack of structure and direction and, thus, sections in each appear a touch too descriptive and narrative. In chapter 2 Jestice provides a general [End Page 395] overview of women in the period, and while there are useful observations made, this appears superficial and hurried. The discussion of Hrotsvit is good but undermined by a lack of consistent source analysis. At one point, Jestice mentions Dhuoda, one of the most famous female writers of the early Middle Ages, whose Liber Manualis displays not only her sorrow at her situation, but a level of education and erudition that paints an important image of the Carolingian renovatio. Jestice writes that "Dhuoda, who wrote a manual for her son, provided such a conventional account that it is hard to see a human woman behind it" (20). This is not the case. Dhuoda reimagined the strength of motherhood and her own role as educator of William, and other pueri at the court of the king. Chapter 3 looks to marriage and reaches a number of useful summative points regarding special prestige and the changing nature of marriage for the royal family. Again, however, this section needed a more rigorous methodological focus; in particular, when interrogating the contemporary writings and the attitudes that shaped them.
From chapter 4 onward the book improves. In part, this is because each of the topics chosen allows...