The Importance of Being Foreign: Noble Wives and Female Ancestors as Illegitimate Insiders and Legitimate Outsiders

Tom Chadwick

The Echternach Codex Aureus Book Cover, produced in Trier c. 983-991, perhaps 985-7. Donated by Empress Theophanu and Otto III to the Abbey of Echternach; the donors can be seen represented in the golden reliefs on the bottom right. Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg. © T. Chadwick

December 1, 2021 | Tom Chadwick | HI Research Blog

We may not be surprised to find that much of the ethnic discourse of the European central Middle Ages was deprecative, pointing out the flaws and negative traits of foreigners and Others in order to reinforce the ethnic and political superiority of ‘us’. Shaped by the literary disdain for the barbaric Other in Roman and late antique texts, medieval authors of the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries continued to provide pejorative descriptions of different gentes, including the barbaric and piratical Northmen, such as those by Frankish authors like Richer of Saint-Rémi; the effeminate weakness of the Greeks, as described by southern-Italian authors like Amatus of Montecassino and Geoffrey Malaterra; or the habitual wildness of the Franks and Germans according to the English monk William of Malmesbury. Of course, not all medieval ethnic discourse was inherently negative: authors could easily demonstrate and manufacture pride in an ancestral past regardless of origin, focusing on a once-barbaric gens or on significantly heroic ancestors. Furthermore, ‘foreignness’ was a quality actively sought by numerous aristocratic families through the institution of marriage in the shape of ‘foreign brides’, noble daughters who, while widely recognised as part of this practice, are rarely examined thoroughly in terms of their Otherness and the value placed upon it.

During the course of the early and central Middle Ages marriage was to develop into a fundamental pillar of political and religious society. It was a sacrament jealously protected by the church and essential to the legitimate continuation of noble families through their offspring, whilst also providing political and financial benefits. Endogamous marriages between local families and their vassals within the same ethnic groups were common throughout the Middle Ages, and brought their own benefits in strengthening ties of friendship and loyalty. However, exogamous marriages outside the political and ethnic group brought unique benefits of their own concerning prestige, legitimacy and, not least, the support of the church which, since the ninth century, had prohibited marriages within seven degrees of ancestry. The aristocracy may not have always been able, or willing, to follow these rules, but, from around the tenth century, they increasingly recognised the powerful role a foreign bride could play in their own political ambitions.

Perhaps the most significant benefit for aristocratic groups was the status of the women involved, daughters of kings and emperors who were sought by rulers of other nations as matches of equal rank to convey prestige and honour on their new family. The practice was to become increasingly popular among much of the central medieval upper aristocracy from the tenth century on. The wives of the Ottonian Emperors were all foreign brides from significant families, Henry II’s wife Cunigunde of Luxembourg could trace her ancestry back to Charlemagne but the most far-travelled was the Greek princess and niece of Emperor John I Tzimiskes, Theophanu, who married Otto II. From the beginning of the twelfth century the Kings of England practiced exogamy exclusively until Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville in 1464, the first Englishwoman since Matilda, Henry I’s first wife.

Such matches made powerful political connections and became central in legitimising a ruler’s position and honour. A low-born partner could be a millstone to political ambition. According to Richer of Saint-Rémi, after the death of Louis V in 987, the rank of Duke Charles of Lotharingia’s wife, the daughter of a minor noble, was considered a satisfactory argument by nobles and clergy alike to favour Hugh Capet for the kingship. It is no surprise that we often see noblemen repudiating wives in favour of more illustrious foreign brides on the occasion of an unforeseen rise in status. For instance, after inheriting the throne of England in 1199, John I annulled his previous marriage to the Anglo-Norman Isabella, daughter of the Earl of Gloucester, in favour of the French Isabella of Angoulême, who claimed descent from Louis VI of France. Though the consanguineous marriage had been criticised by Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury at the time, it was only once he was king that John used the fact that he and his wife were both great grandchildren of Henry I to secure a divorce. When he was merely the youngest son of Henry II, an endogamous marriage bringing the lands of Gloucester within the sphere of royal control was a sensible move; as a king only an exogamous marriage would suffice.

The value of foreign brides was linked to their status and the prestige they could confer on their new families and husbands, but were other specifically ethnic benefits also sought by those marrying foreign brides? The twelfth-century chronicler Cosmas of Prague certainly thought so when he told the story of his Slavic hero Břetislav I, an illegitimate son of Duke Oldřich of Bohemia, abducting a German princess named Judith. Cosmas writes that Břetislav chose to abduct the beautiful Judith because he ‘preferred to act as a man rather than bow the neck in supplication. For he considered the innate conceit of the Germans and how with swollen pride they always despised the Slavs and their language.’1  The powerful ethnic comparisons serve to justify Břetislav’s masculine bravado in abducting Judith but, aside from showing the Germans up for their arrogance, it also secures him a wife whose value lies in her Germanness as well as her status. Cosmas even added that Judith’s mother was superior to her father; perhaps he felt that German princesses were inherently more worthy than their princes.

Nor did the value of such exogamous matches, dramatic or mundane as they might be in origin, fade once the marriage was complete. The status of foreign brides could continue to be useful well after their marriage and even after their death; ancestors who had been foreign brides could carry significant ethnic weight as progenitors of contemporary subjects. William of Malmesbury writes of Robert of Gloucester’s characteristic Norman military ability, Flemish good looks and French nobility, which directly refers to his grandparents the Norman William the Conqueror and the Fleming Matilda who both also had Frankish ancestors, though the nobler link was Matilda’s maternal connection to Robert II of France. Adam of Bremen reports how in a letter to the Greek Emperor Constantine IX, Emperor Henry III described his pride in his Greek stock, being descended from Empress Theophanu, and that ‘for this reason it was not surprising that he loved the Greeks, whom he wished to imitate also in dress and deportment’.2  Putting aside whether Henry actually emulated Greek culture in his day-to-day life, the sentiment demonstrates how useful a diplomatic tool a connection to an ancestral foreign bride could be. If the sumptuous book cover of the Echternach Codex Aureus is any indication, in its combination of classical, Carolingian and Byzantine styles, Theophanu’s ethnic influence was intended to be remembered.

The ethnicities of these foreign brides were fundamentally malleable, selected and deployed for various legitimising purposes. They needed to be to allow these external women to integrate into their new homes. The ability to conform to the identities and customs of their new families and subjects was essential to a new wife’s success but their value also lay in their difference, both in the immediate sense of the prestige they conveyed to their husbands but also that which they could convey to their descendants. The reality was a tricky balance, with malleable identities moulded by the various and distinct agendas of the political actors involved and the authors who wrote about them.

Certainly, a significant measure of conforming was necessary to achieve a suitable level of integration into a new gens both politically and ethnically. One of the clearest indicators for such attempts can be found in changes to foreign brides’ names upon their marriage. Though the match was cut short by her early death in 949, Liudprand of Cremona tells us that Bertha, the daughter of Hugh of Arles, had her name altered to Eudochia after her marriage to Emperor Romanos II.3  The Goseck Chronicler even goes so far as to explain that the sister of Count Palatine Frederick II, who married Count Adalbert of Sommerschenburg, changed her name from Hilaria to Ouda because ‘the Teutonic language does not easily pronounce Latin words’.4  Language differences provided a stark ethnic boundary between peoples; knowledge of the language of one’s new home and family, and thus the ability to communicate effectively in political and personal matters affecting familial cohesion, was an essential part of the integration process. However, not all difference was deliberately stamped out: while foreign brides would have needed to learn their husbands’ language to communicate effectively, the monk Ekkehard IV’s anecdote of Otto I surprising his court one morning by addressing them in Romance, his wife Adelheid’s language, demonstrates that this could be a two-way street.5  Furthermore, many foreign brides maintained close ties with their origins. The aforementioned Queen Matilda devoted a lot of time and energy to the memorialisation of her mother, St Margaret, and her connection to the English royal line through the commissioning of a Life, a royal genealogy and William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum.

The curious case of the Italian Emma, daughter of Adelheid and granddaughter of both King Rudolph of Burgundy and Hugh of Arles, demonstrates that effective relocation and integration did not prevent some noblewomen from becoming a successful foreign bride a second time in an entirely new locale. Emma was thrust into politics from a young age when her mother became the target of Berengar II, then Marquis of Ivrea, with the pair escaping across a stormy lake in 951 and Adelheid marrying Emperor Otto I the following year. Emma was wed to Lothaire IV, king of France, in the 960s but was widowed in 986 apparently reappearing towards the end of the tenth century as duchess of Bohemia. She was once again widowed in 999 but remained involved in key socio-political matters, such as the minting of coins and receiving dedications like that within Gumpold of Mantua’s Vita Wenceslavi. Emma’s life and career had taken her from Italian origins to the courts of the German emperor, the French king and the duchy of Bohemia where she had thrived: here was a noblewoman who knew how to adapt and integrate.

Negative portrayals of foreign brides by insiders as ‘interlopers’ demonstrate that being too different certainly had its problems. Critics of foreign wives could be very vocal in their complaints of the lacking moral qualities of these women and their entourages who accompanied them from their home. Protesting in the strongest terms about the consanguineous nuptials of Emperor Henry III and Agnes of Poitou, Abbot Siegfried of Gorze linked the flaws of Agnes and her followers directly to the marriage’s immorality.6 The chronicler Rodulfus Glaber similarly complained about the immoral followers of Queen Constance of Arles, the third wife of Robert II of France, denouncing their poor character, strange manners, clothes, and hairstyles, typical medieval markers of ethnic difference.7  However, criticisms like these did not stop noblemen from seeking foreign brides because of the benefits of prestige that they could bring. Henrietta Leyser has even suggested that foreign brides could act as a criticism buffer for their husbands, much like the topos of evil counsellors. Of course, such patterns where also intimately bound up with misogynistic rhetoric concerning the gendered identity of foreign brides, such as when the Polish chronicler Master Vincentius blamed the German influence of Agnes von Babenburg and her ‘femineam truculentiam’ for the weakness of her Piast husband, Władysław II.8

Foreign brides had to make a significant effort to fit in with their new homes, families and people, but they were actively sought after as sources of prestige and legitimacy because of their status as ‘Other’. Their successes or failures in integration were uncertain and debateable but their value lay in their ability to be, or perhaps their utility at being, both insider and outsider. Political actors and authors of history were able to select, adapt and discard aspects of identity that suited their particular purposes, including those of foreign brides and female ancestors, but we should remember that female political actors, and foreign brides themselves, also had the capacity to manipulate identities. My project, Agency and Ancestry: Women, Memory and Ethnic Identity in the German and Norman Realms (c.900-1250), for which I am based at the IMAFO and funded by The Leverhulme Trust, explores the ethnic identities of individual noblewomen and female ancestors, considering their place in our broader understanding of medieval ethnic discourse. Whether there were unique and recognised medieval methods for distinguishing between different ethnic women as foreign brides and ancestors, it is evident that their ethnic identities and the implied distinctions were often considered by authors, political actors and noblewomen themselves as decidedly important.




1 Cosmas of Prague, The Chronicle of the Czechs, ed. János M. Bak, Pavlína Rychterová, trans. Petra Mutlová, Martyn C. Rady & Libor Švanda, introduction Jan Hasil & Irene van Renswoude (Central European University Press, 2020) p. 137.

2 Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, MGH SS rer. Germ. 2, ed. B. Schmeidler (1917) III. xxxii; translation from Adam of Bremen, History of the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, trans. Francis J. Tschan, (Columbia University Press, 1959) 3. xxxii (31) p. 140.

3 Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis, MGH SS 3, ed. G. H. Pertz (1839) V. 20; translated in The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona, Medieval Texts in Translation, trans. Paolo Squatriti (Catholic University of America Press, 2007) p. 184.

4 Chronicon Gozecense, MGH SS 10, ed. R. Köpke (1852) I. 21.

5 Ekkehard IV, Casus sancti Galli, ed. Hans F. Haefele (Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1980) (132) 254.

6 W. Von Giesebrecht, Geschichte der deutschen Kaiserzeit, 2: Blüthe des Kaiserthums, 5th edn (Leipzig, 1885) pp. 714-18.

7 Rodulfi Glabri Historiarum Libri Quinque, The Five Books of the Histories of Rodulfus Glaber, ed. & trans. John France, & Eiusdem Auctoris Vita Domni Willelmi Abbatis, The Life of St William by the Same Author, ed. Neithard Bulst, trans. John France & Paul Reynolds (Clarendon, 1989) pp. 164-167.

8 Magistri Vincentii dict Kadłubek Chronica Polonorum, ed. Maria Plezia (Polska Akademia Umiejętności, 1994) 120.


Further Reading:

Charvát, Petr, The Emergence of the Bohemian State (Brill, 2010)

Greer, Sarah, ‘All in the family: creating a Carolingian genealogy in the eleventh century’ in Using and Not Using the Past after the Carolingian Empire, c. 900-c.1050, eds. Sarah Greer, Alice Hicklin, Stefan Esders (Routledge, 2019) pp. 166-188

Jestice, Phyllis G., Imperial Ladies of the Ottonian Dynasty: Women and Rule in Tenth-Century Germany (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018)

Leyser, Henrietta, A Social History of Women in England 450-1500 (St. Martin’s Press, 1995)

Mühle, Eduard, ‘The real and perceived influence of minority groups in Poland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries’ in Minority Influences in Medieval Society, ed. Nora Berend (Routledge, 2021) pp. 111-126

Rüdinger, Jan, Der König und seine Frauen: Polygynie und politische Kultur in Europa (9.-13. Jahrhundert) (De Gruyter, 2015)

Van Houts, Elisabeth, Memory and Gender in Medieval Europe, 900-1200 (University of Toronto Press, 1999)


Agency and Ancestry: Women, Memory and Ethnic Identity
                 in the German and Norman Realms (c.900-1250)




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