“She was a beautiful English princess who married one of Europe’s most powerful monarchs and dazzled subjects with her charity and charm.”
Thus did AP reporter Raphael G. Satter start a widely-reproduced story in January that the LA Daily News headline writer reduced to “Lady Di of the 10th Century“. (The Huffington Post more soberly titled it “Princess Eadgyth Body: Experts May Have Found Bones of English Princess“.)
The actual archaeology, which has fueled a new wave of articles this week, is exemplary of new approaches that are letting us understand more about the specific experiences of people in the past from their skeletal remains. As I described it in Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives, these osteobiographical approaches are increasingly allowing us to understand
the way that people of different sexes lived, aged, and died. Bioarchaeologists turn to traces left in the human skeleton to provide a source of information about differences between the sexes in nutrition, in disease, and in habitual work.
Through the work of archaeologists at the University of Bristol and the University of Mainz we now have the results of a wide array of new analyses of the bones recovered wrapped in silk in a lead coffin marked with the name of Eadgyth excavated in Magdeburg Cathedral in Germany. As reported in Britain’s Telegraph:
- “One of the femurs showed evidence that the individual was a frequent horse rider, pointing to a noble heritage.”
- “Isotope analysis of the bones suggested that she enjoyed a high protein diet, including a large quantity of fish, again implying a high status aristocratic lady.”
- Using strontium isotope analysis, “It was possible to ‘triangulate’ the location of the first 14 years of Eadgyth’s life, which pin point the chalk regions of southern Britain” but were quite variable within that region until the age of nine, when historical documents say the princess and her mother were sent to live in a monastery after her parents’ divorce.
But for me, the most interesting thing about the coverage is the (perhaps predictable) disconnect between the imagery that the media use to make modern readers see this study as important, and the likely character of the life Princess Eadgyth actually lived.
How is Eadgyth the “Princess Di” of her time?
The comparison came up in the original coverage in January, when the skeletal remains were discovered but before the application of scientific techniques to confirm that the coffin did not contain mixed bones or those of others, as commonly happened with the movement of royal remains around Europe.
Archaeologist Mark Horton of Bristol used the comparison as a way to communicate to reporters why the general public should care about this study:
“She was a very, very popular person,”… “She was sort of the Diana of her day if you like — pretty and full of good works.”
This is a typical use of analogy from the known to the unknown, a process of tacking back and forth that archaeologists become accustomed to doing in teaching undergraduates and in talking to skeptical press.
What makes this story so great, though, is that the reporter made questioning that analogy part of his story, asking Simon Keynes, a professor of Anglo-Saxon history at the University of Cambridge, to comment on it:
Keynes groaned when asked whether Eadgyth could be compared to Diana, whose marriage to Prince Charles in 1981 captured the world’s imagination.
But then he read from the chronicle of Hroswitha of Gandersheim, a contemporary of the princess, who said Eadgyth was “resplendent with a wondrous charm of queenly bearing.”
Then followed a particularly florid passage in which the German nun writes: “Public opinion by unanimous decision rated her the best of all women who existed at that time.”
Keynes came around.
“Now I remind myself of that, what can I say?” he said. “She certainly fulfilled for them the function that the Princess of Wales fulfilled for many Britons.”
What did Hroswitha and her contemporaries think made someone “the best of all women” in the 10th century? Surely not being the kind of fairy tale princess-image into which Diana Spencer was fitted. Beauty in the modern sense and queenly bearing in the early medieval sense are not the same thing. The interesting question in teaching this example would be how we might begin to understand what these concepts meant to the 10th century audience.
A great place to begin would be with Hroswitha of Gandersheim herself. Identified as “Germany’s first literary writer”, Hroswitha took vows of chastity and obedience but not poverty when entering Gandersheim’s female religious community. There, she wrote “a heroic poem in honor of the Emperor of Otho I…. a history of the Gandersheim monastery and a series of plays and a number of poems.”
Hroswitha presented a philosophy of life in her work that commented centrally on the options women had to live a good life. In her play Gallicanus she “addresses women’s power and choice over their own lives”:
The play under the guise of the ancient setting addresses the contemporary [medieval] question of arranged political marriage, and the power of women to live “lives of choice” rather than “family arrangement”. And it is clear that the life of ‘consecrated virginity’, be it lived in family or in the monastery is argued as a worthwhile option for women who do not want the bonds of marriage.
For Hroswitha, to be the “best of women” was something quite distinct from “dazzling” with “charm”: and with all due respect to Princess Diana, it seems unlikely that her life, projected back ten centuries, would have aroused that comment from this early philosopher.
What did Eadgyth do to earn praise from Hroswitha? As aptly summarize on Wikipedia,
when she turns up in the records it is generally in connection with gifts to the state’s favoured monasteries or memorials to female holy women and saints.
So instead of the image of a young, beautiful girl admired for her looks, we need to substitute one of a royal patron admired for her piety.
Not the Princess Di of her time; but all the more interesting for what she tells us about how women’s lives and what they are judged for has changed.
A version of this post was originally published at Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives.