Proterius’s daughter wasn’t like Charlemagne toward Bertrada

Charlemagne has been revered as the “Father of Europe {Pater Europae}.” With battles among elite eunuchs crippling the eastern part of the Roman Empire, Pope Leo III in the year 800 crowned Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor. With his reverence for his mother Bertrada, Charlemagne showed mothers’ preeminence in relation to their children. The wealthy Roman father Proterius in contrast could only weep as his daughter openly defied him to marry one of his servants.

By her diplomatic initiative about the year 770, Charlemagne’s mother Bertrada arranged for him to marry Desiderata, the daughter of King Desiderius of Lombardy. Bertrada even brought Desiderata from Lombardy to Charlemagne at his imperial capital Aachen.[1] Such forceful motherly action isn’t unusual. Mothers historically have regulated children’s moral development, where children receive formal schooling, whom children marry, and sons’ behavior in violence against men. By the thirteenth century, Bertrada’s ability to walk all over her children and others was recognized in an epithet joined to her name: “Bertrada with big feet {Berte aus grands piés},” “Queen with the foot of a goose {Regina pede aucae}.”[2]

19th-century image of Bertrada holding her son Charlemagne

Charlemagne’s decision to divorce Desiderata after a year of marriage created tension in relation to his mother Bertrada. His divorce underscored her influence in bringing about the marriage and his normal reverence for her:

Charlemagne’s mother Bertrada lived with him to an old age in great honor. He treated her with the highest reverence. No discord of any kind ever arose between them, except concerning his divorce of King Desiderius’s daughter, whom he had married at her urging.

{ Mater quoque eius Berhtrada in magno apud eum honore consenuit. Colebat enim eam cum summa reverentia, ita ut nulla umquam invicem sit exorta discordia, praeter in divortio filiae Desiderii regis, quam illa suadente acceperat. }[3]

A parent inducing a child to marry a specific person is more controlling than merely dissuading the child from marrying a particular person. Even more controlling would be to have a child stay in a marriage to a spouse whom the child didn’t want to marry and whom didn’t turn out to be a satisfactory spouse. Bertrada failed at that high level of control. She nonetheless quarreled with her son Charlemagne about his divorce. She didn’t apologize to him for coercing him into an unsatisfactory marriage.

The father Proterius of Caesarea had a much different relationship with his daughter than Bertrada did with her son Charlemagne. After Proterius’s servant made a pact with the devil for Proterius’s daughter’s love, the devil inflamed her with lust for the servant. The daughter cried out to her father that she must unite sexually with his servant:

Take pity,
father, upon your wretched daughter!
I will die now, my father,
if I’m not united with this young man.
Don’t, father dear,
don’t delay
while you can still save me.
If you delay,
you won’t have your child,
but on the day of judgment
as if for killing me,
pains and torments
of punishment you will endure.

{ Miserere,
misere, pater, filie!
Moriar, mi pater, modo,
si non iungar tali puero.
Noli pater kare,
noli tardare,
dum potes me salvare.
Si moraris,
natam tuam non habebis,
sed in die iudicii
quasi pro peremta
poenas et tormenta
tu subibis supplicii. }[4]

Proterius wept in response to his daughter’s outrageous demand and threat. He pleaded with her:

Child, alas, who has blinded you?
Child, who has bewitched you?
I dedicated you to Christ.
I didn’t betroth you to a fornicator.
Allow me, my daughter,
permit me now
to accomplish what I wish.
If you consent
to my direction, the time will come
when you will rejoice greatly
that you did not fulfill
the wicked desire
that you now insanely exhibit.

{ Nata, heu quis te cecavit?
Nata, quis te fascinavit?
Ego Christo dedicavi,
non te mecho destinavi.
Patere, mi filia,
sine me modo
perficere quod volo.
Si consentis
mihi, tempus adveniet,
quando multum letaberis,
pravam quod non
voluntatem perfeceris,
male sana quam nunc geris. }

The daughter adamantly refused to heed her father’s plea. She issued him an ultimatum:

My father, either you fulfill my desire, or soon you will see me dying.

{ Pater mi, aut fac desiderium meum, aut post modicum morientem videbis me. }[5]

That’s terribly coercive. Most fathers love their daughters beyond their own lives. Few fathers have enough strength to tell their adult daughters, “Take responsibility for your own life!”

Proterius wasn’t able to resist his daughter’s demand. Daughters dominate fathers:

The father therefore with much reluctance fulfilled her desire. He was overwhelmed with immeasurable sadness, having believed his friends’ counsels urging him to carry out her will or she would kill herself. Advised to realize the desire of the young woman, the believing father wouldn’t hand her over to destructive death. So he conducted a marriage between his own daughter and her desired young man, and he gave all his property to them.

{ Pater ergo in magna defectione factus, ac inmensurabilitate tristitiae absortus et amicorum consiliis credulus, hortantium ei deferre voluntatem eius aut se ipsam exponere. Credens pater, praecepit fieri desiderium puellae ne exitiali se traderet morti. Et adduxit quaesitum puerum ac propriam filiam, dansque eis omnem substantiam suam }

Even more so than men for women, fathers typically will do anything to please their daughters.[6] But this father couldn’t refrain from poetically telling his daughter the truth:

Go, now a truly wretched one.
You will suffer much some day
because at this time you didn’t listen
to your father.

{ Vade, vere iam misera
olim multum dolitura,
patrem quia non es modo
auditura. }[7]

That of course is exactly what happened. She in horror discovered that she had married a man who had made a pact with the devil.

What can a woman do when she has married a man in league with the devil? Proterius’s daughter prayed for help to the man now known as Saint Basil the Great:

Have mercy on me, have mercy, holy one of God, have mercy, disciple of my Lord. I have gone to the side of demons. Have mercy on me, a wretched one, who didn’t obey her own father.

{ Miserere mihi, miserere sancte Dei, miserere mei discipule Domini, que cuae cum daemonibus causam egi. Miserere mihi miserae, proprium patrem non obaudiente. }[8]

Saint Basil of course helped her. He wrestled with the devil, recovered her husband, and thus enabled them to have a marriage with a propitious, shared foundation in reverence for God.

Proterius’s daughter related to her father much like Perpetua related to her own father in third-century Roman Carthage. Far too few daughters treat their fathers like Charlemagne treated his mother Bertrada. The salvific mother was a central figure in medieval Europe. Fathers, and men more generally, were less socially valued. Castration culture continually threatens the seminal blessing that men bear.

Throughout history, high-born women have been far more advantaged than the vast majority of men. Even apart from social class, mothers have commonly been more privileged in relation to children than fathers. Mothers benefit from fundamental gender inequality in parental knowledge. Moreover, mothers commonly have the opportunity to spend more time with their children, thus strengthening the mother-child bond. Official child custody decisions throughout history have been strongly biased towards mothers. Despite the rise of various forms of market-based day-care, men in court decisions today still face egregious sex discrimination in allocating in-person child custody and monetary child support. Fathers today need to hear Proterius’s daughter belatedly appreciating her father.

** * * *

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[1] When the king of the Franks Pepin the Short died in 768, the kingship was split between Bertrada’s and his two sons, Charlemagne and his younger brother Carloman I. Bertrada favored Charlemagne as king. To strengthen his position relative to that of Carloman, Betrada independently traveled to Italy and arranged the marriage to Desiderata. Here’s more on this maternal marital diplomacy. The name Desiderata might be a misreading. Her name might actually be Gerperga.

By the twelfth century, canon law required the freely given consent of both parties to have a valid marriage. In practice, interpersonal choices always depend on the volitional stances of others, particularly mothers.

[2] These epithets for Bertrada come from Adenet Le Roi’s romance Bertrada with Big Feet {Berte aus grands piés}. Adenet Le Roi wrote this romance about 1273.

Some mothers were less successful than Bertrada in arranging their children’s marriages. For example, a mother in a thirteenth-century Germanic land urged her daughter to marry a son of the head tenant farmer rather than a knight. The daughter refused:

Now you’re setting that peasant on me!
But I think I can handle a proud knight.
What good would it be for me to have a peasant as my husband
who cannot
love me the way I wish.
I think he’ll have to do without me.

{ Nu giuzzet mir den mayer an di versen!
ia trow ich einem stolczen ritter w2ol gehersen.
zwiu sol ein gebower mir ze man,
der enchan
mich nah minem willen niht getrouten.
ich wæn, er min ein muz gestan. }

Neidhart von Reuental, Riedegg Manuscript 53 (R530), “Listen, how the birds all sing {Losa, wie di vogel alle donent},” stanza 7, Middle High German text and English translation (modified slightly) from Starkey & Wenzel (2016) p. 209. Here’s a variant version of this poem (Neidhart, Sommerlied 7), and another. Conflict between mothers and daughters sometimes progresses to domestic violence.

[3] Einhard, Life of Charles the Great {Vita Karoli Magni} 2.18, Latin text from MGH SS rer. Germ. 25, my English translation, benefiting from those of Grant (1907) and Noble (2009). Bertrada died in 786. Id. p. 38. Subsequent quotes from Einhard’s Vita Karoli Magni are similarly sourced. Here’s a brief review of Einhard’s biography.

Einhard noted of Charlemagne:

At his mother’s urging, he married the daughter of Desiderius, King of the Lombards. For an unknown reason, after a year of marriage he divorced her.

{ cum matris hortatu filiam Desiderii regis Langobardorum duxisset uxorem, incertum qua de causa, post annum eam repudiavit }

Einhard, Vita Karoli Magni, 2.18. According to Notker, Charlemagne divorced Desiderata because she was “bedridden and incapable of having children {clinica et ad propagandam prolem inhabilis}.” The Monk of Saint Gall {Monachus Sangallensis}, identified as Notker the Stammerer, {Notcerus Balbulus}, Deeds of Charles the Great {Gesta Karoli Magni} 2.17, Latin text from Jaffé (1967), p. 691, English translation from Noble (2009) p. 111. Id. notes: “No other source reports these details, and they are probably not to be trusted.”

[4] Cambridge Songs {Carmina cantabrigiensia} 30A, “Whoever has been besieged of old {Quisquis dolosis antiqui},” vv. 3a.2-14, Latin text (editorial marks elided, and consonantal u written as v for ease of reading) and English translation (modified) from Ziolkowski (1994). The subsequent quote above is similarly from “Quisquis dolosis antiqui,” vv. 3b.2-14.

[5] BHL 1023 (earliest known Latin translation of the pseudo-Amphilochian life of Basil), chapter 11, “About the denial of Christ in writing {De negante christum scripto},” Latin text from Corona (2006), my English translation. The subsequent quote above is similarly from “De negante christum scripto.”

[6] Charlemagne promoted his daughters’ personal development:

He determined that his children should be formally educated first in liberal studies, his sons and daughters both, just as he himself made his own effort.

{ Liberos suos ita censuit instituendos, ut tam filii quam filiae primo liberalibus studiis, quibus et ipse operam dabat, erudirentur. }

Einhard, Vita Karoli Magni, 2.19. Charlemagne kept his daughters close to him, but didn’t constrain their behavior:

Although his daughters were very beautiful and by him much beloved, strange to say, he never wished to give any of them in marriage, neither to one of his own Franks nor to a foreigner. But he kept them all with him in the palace up to the time of his death. He said that he could not forgo their companionship. And because of this he experienced blows of bad fortune, although he was otherwise happy. He simply pretended as if no suspicion of immorality had ever arisen and that no rumors had ever circulated.

{ Quae cum pulcherrimae essent et ab eo plurimum diligerentur, mirum dictu, quod nullam earum cuiquam aut suorum aut exterorum nuptum dare voluit, sed omnes secum usque ad obitum suum in domo sua retinuit, dicens se earum contubernio carere non posse. Ac propter hoc, licet alias felix, adversae fortunae malignitatem expertus est. Quod tamen ita dissimulavit, acsi de eis nulla umquam alicuius probri suspicio exorta vel fama dispersa fuisset }

Id. Charlemagne’s daughter Rotrude and Count Rorgo of Maine had a non-marital son named Louis. Without marrying, Charlemagne’s daughter Bertha lived openly at court with the poet Angilbert. Noble (2009) p. 39, n. 74. The ninth-century Visio Wettini depicted bestial violence against Charlemagne’s genitals as punishment for his “filthy lust {libidinis turpis}.” See note 14 in my post on Charlemagne’s paladin Oliver.

Charlemagne’s daughters formed a politically powerful group in Charlemagne’s palace. De Jong (2018), Nelson (1993). Upon succeeding Charlemagne as emperor, Louis the Pious dispersed the sisters:

The emperor ordered the whole female crowd — which was very large — to be excluded from the palace, except for a very few whom he indicated were suitable for royal service. Each of the other sisters withdrew to the properties that they had received from their father.

{ imperator omnem coetum – qui permaximus erat – femineum palatio excludi iudicavit praeter paucissimas, quas famulatio regali congruas iudicavit. Sororum autem queque in sua, que a patre acceperat, concessit }

The Astronomer, Life of Emperor Louis {Vita Hludowici imperatoris} c. 23, Latin text from Pertz (1929) p. 619, English translation (modified slightly) from Noble (2009) p. 248.

A law about discipline at the Aachen palace {Capitulare de disciplina palatti Aquisgranesis} (probably issued about 820) sought to punish persons among whom “would be found lurking an unknown man or a whore {igrotum hominem vel meretricem latitantem invenire possit}.” Latin text from MGH Capit. 1, Capitularia regum Francorum, no. 146, English translation (modified) from Nelson (2001) p. 238. On atonement during the reign of Louis the Pious, De Jong (2011).

[7] “Quisquis dolosis antiqui,” vv. 4a.11-14, Latin text (editorial marks elided) and English translation (modified) from Ziolkowski (1994). The father’s words in BHL 1023 (pseudo-Amphilochian life of Basil) are slightly less pointed:

Farewell, my daughter, truly wretched one, for you will cry much, repenting very soon when you have nothing to help you.

{ vale filia, vere misera, multum enim planges poenitens in novissimo quando nihil habes proficere }

Sourced as previously.

[8] BHL 1023 (pseudo-Amphilochian life of Basil), chapter 11, “About the denial of Christ in writing {De negante christum scripto},” Latin text from Corona (2006), my English translation.

[image] Bertrada holding up a small figure of her son King Charlemagne. Nineteenth-century sculpture by Eugène André Oudiné. Currently in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris, France. Source image thanks to Jastrow and Wikimedia Commons.


Corona, Gabriella. 2006. Aelfric’s Life of Saint Basil the Great: Background and Context. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer.

De Jong, Mayke. 2011. The Penitential State: authority and atonement in the age of Louis the Pious, 814-840. 2nd Edition (1st ed., 2009). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

De Jong, Mayke. 2018. “Einhard, the Astronomer, and Charlemagne’s Daughters.” Pp. 551-565 in Grosse, Rolf, and Michel Sot, eds. Charlemagne: les temps, les espaces, les hommes: construction et déconstruction d’un règne. Turnhout: Brepols.

Grant, A. J., trans. 1907. Early Lives of Charlemagne by Eginhard and the Monk of St Gall. London: Chatto. Alternate presentation, and another.

Jaffé, Philipp, ed. 1867. Bibliotheca rerum Germanicarum. Vol. 4: Monumenta Carolina. Berolini: apud Weidmannos.

Nelson, Janet L. 1993. “Women at the court of Charlemagne: a case of monstrous regiment?” Ch. 4 (pp. 43-62) in Parsons, John Carmi, ed. Medieval Queenship. New York: St. Martins Press.

Nelson, Janet L. 2001. “Aachen as a place of power.” Pp. 217-239 in Mayke de Jong, Frans Theuws, and Carine van Rhijn, eds. Topographies of power in the early Middle Ages. Leiden: Brill.

Noble, Thomas F. X, trans. 2009. Charlemagne and Louis the Pious: the lives by Einhard, Notker, Ermoldus, Thegan, and the Astronomer. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Pertz, Georg Heinrich, ed. 1829. Monumenta Germaniae Historica: inde ab anno Christi quingentesimo usque ad annum millesimum et quingentesimum. Scriptores rerum Sangallensium. Annalium et chronicorum aevi Caroli continuatio. Historiae aevi Carolini. 2. Stuttgart: Hiersemann.

Starkey, Kathryn and Edith Wenzel. 2016. Neidhart: selected songs from the Riedegg Manuscript (Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, mgf 1062). Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1994. The Cambridge Songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland. Introduction.

2 thoughts on “Proterius’s daughter wasn’t like Charlemagne toward Bertrada”

  1. Bertrade of Laon was known as “Berte aus grands piés” and “Regina pede aucae” either because she had a clubfoot or because of legends around the Germanic goddess, Perchta or Berchta, whose name is related to Bertrada’s.

    No folklorist or historian has ever tried to claim that it referred to her supposedly domineering nature, as you do. The idiom of “walking all over someone” is an English one (a language that Adenes Le Roi did not know) and what’s more, even in English, this idiom dates only to 1851.

    You really ought to do research instead of making assumptions.

    1. Thanks for your detailed comment.

      The idiom of “walking over someone” in the sense of dominating him has long been attested. See, e.g. Genesis 3:15 (“And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”); Psalm 108:13 (“Through God we shall do valiantly: for he it is that shall tread down our enemies.”); Luke 10:19 (“Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.”); Pslam 110:1, Matthew 22:44 (“The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool.”) etc., with the King James Version (1611) given for the ancient biblical texts.

      Explicitly stating the domineering nature of Charlemagne’s mother Bertrade of Laon probably wouldn’t be a status-enhancing action for courtiers in the court of Charlemagne. Some shrewd courtiers probably invented rationalizations for why some persons called her “Regina pede aucae.” That seems at least a plausible account to me.

      purple motes provides pioneering research and analysis. I appreciate you recognizing in the issue of Bertrade of Laon’s epithet the innovative work that I make freely available to everyone worldwide!

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