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10.08.07, Heidecker, The Divorce of Lothar II

The Medieval Review

10.08.07, Heidecker, The Divorce of Lothar II

Lothar II's divorce of his Queen, Theutberga, is one of the more notorious events of late-Carolingian times, partly because it involved the loquacious, learned, Hincmar of Reims. The accusations that flew were themselves calculated to catch attention: Theutberga, some said, had committed incest with her brother, a cleric. Much about this scandal has never been clear. Karl Heidecker, University Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Groningen, attempts in this book to sort out the often confusing evidence about Lothar's divorce, and gives us a narrative of it, placed in the framework of both the power politics of the time, and of the development of Christian marriage. It is not so much that Heidecker tells us things previously unknown about Carolingian marriage, though he does correct previous scholars on many points, but that he skillfully draws on what is known to tell his story. The picture emerges of a disunified Church frustrated by the political machinations of the Carolingian world in its attempt to impose its own varying understandings of marriage on society. In the event the divorce becomes the center of a story of family dynamics and the often fragile relationships between the holders of high office, lay and clerical.

A Preface explains that this volume is a translation and revision of Kerk, huwelijk en politieke macht: De zaak Lotharius II (855- 869) , which should be referred to by scholars who want a more exhaustive treatment of some detailed material and sources omitted in order to make this translation more accessible to a wider readership. New material has also been added to the original version. An Introduction places the story within the framework of the development of monogamous, indissoluble, marriage and an uncertain law of marriage. This opened divorce to political pressures, and thus provides a window into the political machinations and manipulation of public opinion of the age. The influence of the case did not die with its participants, and Heidecker traces also its entrance into later political argument. Heidecker labels the case a "marital drama," and gives a brief description of it. He calls the various educated men who commented on it a "chorus" speaking with many voices. I do not find the device of treating Lothar's divorce as a drama particularly effective, but it also is not troublesome. There follow summaries of the Church's rules on marriage and the political and religious background. Heidecker refers to the usage of christianitas (5), Christendom, as confusing the ideas of "realm" and of "Church." Perhaps it would be better to say that Christendom referred to a sense of sharing in a common religion and culture. This could be a culture broader than that of a region or nation, without a governmental structure or center, other than the papacy as in some measure a symbol of Christian unity. Of course, as in the example given on p. 87, christianitas could also simply mean "Christianity."

Part I, "Preparing the Drama," is subdivided into two sections, the first of which is on "The Church's Regulations on Marriage from the Eighth to the Mid-Ninth Century." Here we move from an eighth-century situation in which the rules concerning divorce were unclear to a mid- ninth century situation in which there had been considerable clarification, with greater episcopal agreement on the rules of marriage. This, as the entire book, is bibliographically well informed and clearly written (or translated: I am no expert in Dutch, but when I first read the original Dutch, it seemed to me clearly expressed, as is the translation). There is a useful discussion of Pseudo Isidore. I do not think one gets as good an idea of the variety of marriage practices as from my "Marriage in Barbarian Kingdom and Christian Court: Fifth through Eleventh Centuries," Christian Marriage: A Historical Study , ed. Glenn W. Olsen (New York: Herder and Herder, 2001), 146-212, but then again on some matters Heidecker's treatment is superior. The second section describes the sources upon which our understanding of Lothar's divorce rests.

Part II, the remainder of the book, is titled "A Marital Drama in Six Acts." The first act/chapter treats Lothar's ascension to the throne and marriage to Theutberga. I would have either foresworn or given more precision to the idea that the anointing of Lothar II gave him a "semiclerical status (55)." Act two describes Lothar's subsequent unsuccessful attempt between 857 and 859 to divorce Theutberga. This involved the accusation that Theutberga had committed sodomy with her brother, Hucbert. Then, in Heidecker's words "On top of that, according to the wildest and most bizarre of the rumors, Theutberga supposedly aborted the fruit of that incestuous relationship (63)." Now, as it happens, a part of a chapter of a book on sodomy I have in press treats this incident, and a comment or two is in order. Today "sodomy" can mean a number of things, but likely it is most commonly understood to designate "anal intercourse." But on such an understanding, the accusations would not have been just wild and bizarre, but would have to mean that Theutberga had done something impossible, conceived a child as the result of anal intercourse. Heidecker says that though "even" ninth-century people would likely have understood that pregnancy from such an act was "unlikely," Hincmar considered it preposterous. I should have thought that, such being so, some thought and discussion should have been devoted to what this accusation could have meant. This whole Carolingian controversy over sodomia has the potential for upsetting Mark Jordan's account of The Invention of Sodomy , but Heidecker seems unaware of Jordan's book. In any case I would have thought that curiosity should have led Heidecker into exploration of the language people used of Theutberga's alleged act, and of its possible meaning, more than he pursues.

In act three, on Lothar's second attempt at divorce, Heidecker, as elsewhere, embraces a salutary skepticism in regard to our principal source for these events, Hincmar of Reims, whose views on marriage and divorce are given in some detail. In general I find Heidecker's reading convincing. Although Heidecker makes some good comments on "equality" in marriage in a ninth-century context, here and elsewhere he sometimes assumes an explanatory framework coming from our times: the verses in Ephesians on marriage are taken to evidence the privileged position of the man in marriage, but no comment is made on the implications of the teaching that the man is to the woman as Christ is to the Church, i.e., intended to pour himself out in self- sacrifice. As part of this we return to the charge of sodomy.

Act 4 is on "Lothar's Allies and His Marriage to Waldrada, 860-62." As elsewhere, occasionally the translations can be a little jarring: I suppose the biblical "better to marry than burn" lies behind "better to marry than to live in lechery (103)," but the biblical passage does not necessitate the presence of assent, while the use of "lechery" does. There is an especially useful presentation of the evolution of historical study of "Germanic concubinage."

In Act 5 "Pope Nicholas Intervenes and Theutberga Is Reinstated, 863- 67." Again from time to time one wishes for a bit more precision. The criteria for a lawful marriage are listed as "the bridal gift, the witnesses, the wedding ceremony, and the public nature of the wedding (152)," all of which Heidecker calls "secular." True enough, all of these criteria had a non-Christian source, but by the ninth century few could sort out where the various elements of marriage had come from, and, unless "secular" be defined further, were a mixture of traditions, "sacred" and "secular." The final act concerns a new pope, Adrian II, and Lothar's last battle. Here Heidecker treats Adrian's marriage rules and claims to power. Finally come Lothar's last attempt to preserve his realm, and his death. An Epilogue treats "Lothar's Reputation and His Descendants." The annalists and chroniclers who wrote after it were unanimous in judging Lothar's last attempt to put his marital affairs in order a failure, Hincmar seeing his death as a judgment of God.

Heidecker has been working all along to his conclusion, that the judgment of history--and of well-regarded historians such as Michel Rouche--in Lothar's case is erroneous. Heidecker sees reason of state as prevailing in Lothar's divorce. Here divorce had been used as a political tool to eliminate an opponent. I should be counted among the not completely persuaded, and find the argument, occurring at various points in the book, that because in comparable instances divorce was treated quite differently, power typically trumped principle, more a reflection of what humans are, and of the fact that things are hardly ever more than "roughly comparable." That said, Heidecker emphasizes the importance for the future of two ideas rooted in this period, that marriage rests on consent, that is the will of the individuals marrying, and that marriage is monogamous and in principle indissoluble.

There are six genealogical tables, a list of Carolingian rulers, and a map.