“’Knowing’ Women through Clerical Eyes: The Case of Thietmar of Merseburg”
Empress Theophanu (d. 991) served as unofficial regent of the German Empire during the minority of her son Otto III. She was clearly a woman of power. Yet it is difficult to fathom what she actually did during the period of her regency. Our primary sources, the lion’s share of which were penned by male clerics, often omit women, or limit themselves to passing mentions—even in the case of an empress. Particularly tantalizing are cases in which clerical chroniclers’ religious training appears to have shaped their treatment of females, and by extension, have shaped modern study of these figures.
This paper is intended as a case study of how to interpret and weigh clerical misogyny, through a close examination of how the major eleventh-century chronicler Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg presented Empress Theophanu to his audience. Thietmar’s back-handed praise, that “although a woman Theophanu ruled with the firmness of a man,” raises a series of assumptions—that in general contemporaries did not believe that women were fit to rule, that Theophanu was a rare exception, etc. But do these assumptions bear close scrutiny? From the larger context of Thietmar’s work, it becomes clear that he himself did not believe that women were unsuited to political roles, and that a surprising number of his misogynistic statements simply parrot back biblical and patristic catch phrases on women. This paper will attempt to show that Thietmar’s misogyny was more apparent than real, and that it is necessary to examine the entire context of a chronicle like his to understand an author’s views on gender.