I have been fascinated with Gerberga of Saxony for almost a year now, blogging about her on and off every few months and attempting to add bits and pieces of information to the short roster of facts that exist about her. Instead of having miscellaneous posts strewn about, I am here attempting to consolidate them with all the information I have managed to gather up to now.
Despite accounts that she was an important woman in history, there appear to be few accounts of her exploits and even fewer biographical mentions, leaving the reasons for her infamy left to conjecture. The most prominent detail of her life, aside from her genealogy, is that she took to a nunnery after two marriages and twelve children. Superficially it is easy to understand her decision, and when examining what little is known of her life it becomes clear that her options were few, and the nunnery provided a solace she had most likely not yet encountered. However, records of her are few, and the ones that do exist are either muddled, or simply refer to her in terms of relationships (mother of, wife of, daughter of, sister of) with no evidence of her actual existence.
Part of the problem is her lack in presence within manuscripts, especially already digitized ones. Secondly, depending on the source, she operated with different names: Gerberga of Saxony, Gerberge de Saxone, Gerberga von Sachsen, among others. Not to mention several other female relatives (close and removed) who had very similar names and occupied adjacent territories (as her daughter will be shortly mentioned). Thus sifting through the data and figuring out who was actually being referenced can cause its own problems, so here I am discussing only those details about her that properly cross reference and that I feel I can cite with certainty (aside from my own opinions that I will at times interject – with ample notice).
Depending on which source you use she was born between 913 and 915, meaning she was somewhere between 44 and 46 when she became abbess of Soissons. By this point both her marriages had ended with the deaths of her husbands, and she was considered one of the most powerful women in what would now be considered Western Europe. Yet this assertion seems to rely greatly on the fact that her latest husband was King of France (Louis IV) and her oldest son by Louis, Lothair, at the age of 13 would be inheriting the title, leaving her as Regent.
However, what I could find of her actual involvement was that she was active in several defenses of land in 941 and 946, and accompanied Louis on multiple expeditions, most notably to Aquitaine in 944 and Burgundy in 949.
Prior to becoming Queen of France by virtue of marriage, she had been known as the Holy Roman Emperor’s sister (Otto the Great), and her marriage was forged due to the land disputes over Lorraine. The marriage not only pacified the Emperor’s quarrel with Louis, but further allowed Louis to lay claim on parts of the land, Lotheringia, which had belonged to her first husband, Gilbert, Duke of Lorraine.
After Louis’ death (due to falling off a horse), despite Gerberga having given birth to her latest son only about a year previously, at the age of approximately 40 she could probably bare no more children, making further marriages unnecessary, even if not entirely unlikely due to her influences. About six years later she became abbess. It appears she spent those 5-6 years in between Louis’ death and the nunnery perpetuating her lineage through her children as she watched them ascend various thrones throughout Europe, with Lothair achieving the highest title.
At this point that bibliographical references on her become blurred, often conflating her and her daughter, Gerberga of Lorraine. However, even during this obfuscation of facts her life remains further shrouded. Only speculations remain as to why she would abandon one of the most coveted positions, along with the luxuries it afforded, to become a Benedictine nun. Some argue that the nunnery provided her protection from having to marry a third time at the whim of others, which seems one of the most plausible reasons given, however there seems to be something else missing.
Lothair’s reign was tumultuous. Upon Lothair’s inheritance of the throne Gerberga gave Aquitaine and a large portion of Burgundy to her brother-in-law, Hugh the Great, in return for his support of Lothair’s rule. This, nevertheless, did not create peace in the land, and it appeared that everything Gerberga and her previous husbands had worked towards for nearly 30 years would disintegrate under his rule. By all accounts, Lothair ruled in name alone.
My conjecture (which remains solely that for lack of evidence) is that Gerberga abdicated her role as dowager queen in an attempt to maintain closeness with the church and consequently make use of her influence there to garner support for her son. There are records that Otto II and her met at least once during times of conflict. What was discussed, or what came of it for certain, is not known, but during these times Lothair, despite little support from other territories or even his own nobles, maintained power.
Nevertheless, while she most definitely used her title to obtain the position of abbess, and then possibly used that position for political gain, there seems to have been a deep rooted devotion that drove her there. The first indication of this is that she did in fact remain politically active for the remainder of her life, which she could have easily done regardless. The nunnery provided something else that was previously missing. This is the link between historical fact, biographical accounts (that in her case are sparse at best), and conclusions about her state of devotion – the link that is missing. The question of why she joined the nunnery remains rather unanswerable. Yet by all (read: two) accounts she was unwaveringly pious, dutifully practicing her vocation until death; towards the end of her life she commissioned Adso de Montier-en-Der to write Epistola Adsonis ad Gerbergam reginam de ortu et tempore antichristi (Letter to Queen Gerberga on the Place and Time of Antichrist).
For now this is all I have, but I think it would be interesting to trace the latter part of her life and study the balancing act between office and personal interests, not to mention fill in some of the gaps in her earlier life. Perhaps a project for another time.
Works referenced (not formatted or ordered):
La prehistoire des Capetiens – Christian Settipani
The Annals of Flodoard of Reims
The Carolingians – Pierre Riche
Die Verwandten der Ottonen und ihre Bedeutung in der Politik – Winfrid Glocker (trans.)
De Imperatoribus Romanis – Theodoric Amalgoth (trans.)
Germany in the Early Middle Ages – Timothy Reuter
Frankish Kingdoms Under the Carolingians – Addison Longman
Opera diplomatica et historica – Albert Le Mire (trans.)
The image above is the most reliable image of Gerberga of Saxony I could find- it can be found in the Chronica sancti Pantaleonis – however, I have been unable to verify this is absolutely the correct Gerberga.