Love Story or Western? Ducal marriage in Normandy

By Fraser McNair

Fraser is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of History. His thesis is entitled ‘The development of territorial principalities between the Loire and the Scheldt, 893-99′.

Ah, Valentine’s Day. You know, while the day has some bad press, I personally appreciate the opportunity to indulge in some soppiness and sentimentality. And what could be more soppy and sentimental than medieval property grants?

Around the year 1000, Richard the Good, Duke of Normandy, married Judith of Rennes, sister of Duke Geoffrey of Brittany. The dower charter – that is, the document listing the property given by Richard to Judith when they got married – survives, and is interesting for several reasons, two of which I’d like to discuss below.

The first is where these properties are. The charter splits them into three groups: one around Lisieux; one in the Cinglais, a small, forested region just south of Caen; the third in the north of the Cotentin peninsula, around Cherbourg. All of these places, but particularly the Cotentin, were outside the tenth-century heartland of ducal power, which was around Rouen in the east.

The Cotentin peninsula had only recently and shakily come under Norman control. Richard the Good’s mother, Gunnor, was instrumental in tying it more closely to the ducal court: she was from a prominent Cotentin family, and seems herself to have been a figure of particular significance in the peninsula.

At the time this charter was issued, Gunnor was still alive, and would be until 1031. It is possible that she was involved in the grant of the Cotentin lands – that they were originally her dowry is the most plausible explanation for how they ended up under ducal control in the first place. Tenth-century noblewomen had their own networks of power and could join these networks to those of their husbands – and pass them down. This grant to Judith looks as though Richard, and perhaps Gunnor, were trying to work Judith into Gunnor’s western networks, possibly so she could take Gunnor’s place after her death – although in the event Gunnor would outlive Judith by almost a quarter of a century.

Whatever the political calculations behind this charter, it is not presented as a dryly political document. Almost half the text is taken up with a series of Biblical quotations justifying marriage, followed by Richard giving his putative reasons for marrying Judith. And what reasons! ‘I, Richard, desiring to have God-fearing children, fell in love with you, O sweetest betrothed and dearest wife Judith, and asked your relatives and kinsmen for you…’ What is interesting here is that no matter what amount of shrewd political thought went into arranging this marriage, it was supposed to look like a love match.

This seems to have been more generally expected. The lack of early medieval love letters has often been noted, but one of the few which has survived comes from a ninth- or tenth-century manuscript containing a probably-earlier collection of model documents. One of the model documents in this collection was a ‘letter to a betrothed’, and it’s a very sweet document: ‘when I lay down, you are in my heart, and when I dream, I dream always of you’. On the one hand, it is, in the most literal sense, formulaic: this is not personal sentiment. (As a side note, sending it as a Valentine’s Day card may not be received well, and yes, I do speak from experience…) On the other hand, the mere fact that this kind of language was included in a model from which other letters to beloveds were to be written does indicate that courtship in early medieval times was expected to include at least a concession to sentiment. So when Richard and Gunnor were setting up Judith with a power base in western Normandy, it had to be expressed in terms of a husband’s love for his wife.

To what extent was this just formula? Only Richard and Judith knew, and we can’t ask them. The unbridgeable gap between public pronouncement and personal feeling, always a problem for much of the medieval period, is rarely more frustrating than when dealing with the tension between love and power.


Further reading

M. Haggar, ‘How the west was won: the Norman dukes and the Cotentin,c. 987–c. 1087’, Journal of Medieval History, 38 (2012), 20–55.

M. Garrison, ‘Send More Socks: On Mentality and the Preservation Context of Early Medieval Letters’ in New Approaches to Medieval Communication, ed. M. Mostert, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 1 (Turnhout: 1999), pp. 69-100.

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