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A barren wife

· St Cunegunda recounted by Sylvie Barnay ·

A royal couple in the year 1000: Cunegunda and Henry II. Their encounter may have been due to urges of the heart and love, but it was primarily the result of the marital strategies of the great aristocratic houses of Germany. The young man, whose futurepromised high office, was not, however, destined to reign. He was in fact the heir of a younger and fractious branch of the house of Saxony. His marriage to Cunegunda, daughter of Siegfried of Luxembourg, a member of the d’Ardenne family, which took placebetween 996 and 1000 did not appear to be an important one. However the death of the young Otto III in January 1002 changed the destiny of the spouses. In the absence of male heirs, the choice of a new sovereign fell to the princes of the kingdom. With the support of the episcopate, Henry was elected on June 7, 1002 and consecrated. He found himself “head of the Church” – caput ecclesiae – “governor of God’s Churches” – rector ecclesiarum Dei, according to the theology of the Carolingian sovereignty. Henry II was at the helm of Christianity, entrusted with steering the people to salvation. On 14 January 1014, in Rome, he was crowned Emperor by the Pope. At his side Cunegunda, consecrated queen on 10 August 1002 at Paderborn, was crowned Empress. They had both been able to conduct a decisive ecclesiastical policy showing their will to accompany the Church in its desire for reform and renewal.

Cunegunda, a detail from the tomb of Henry II by Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531) in Bamberg Cathedral

According to the mediaeval sources, the spouses loved each other but their union remained barren: a situation that in the Middle Ages entailed the repudiation of the unfortunate and unhappy woman. Henry refused to repudiate her to take another wife. Having no children, he solemnly made Christ his sole direct heir on the occasion of the establishment of the Diocese of Bamberg in 1007. In contrast with the most common attitudes, his behaviour, in conformity from all points of view with the ecclesiastical prescriptions, earned him the admiration of the Christian world. Henry II died in 1024 and Cunegunda, who had withdrawn to the women’s monastery of Kaufungen near Kassel, died in 1033.

The sanctification of the imperial couple thus became the work of the Church of Bamberg for which in his lifetime Henry II had founded collegiates and abbeys. The creation of their hagiographic image, destined to become a model of life to be imitated, occurred just at the time when the so-called “Gregorian” reform refuted the notion of sacred monarchy and contested royal intervention in the appointment of bishops or in the administration of ecclesiastical goods. Thus the question became purely political: the promoters of the cause for canonization and their opponents fought each other with the weapons of gossip. The Black Legend, supported by the likes of Cardinal Umberto di Silva Candida, for example, did not hesitate to accuse Henry II of theft of Church property, seeing in his sins the reason for the barenness of the imperial couple. The White Legend on the contrary defended the legitimacy of the sanctification: “He lived not as an emperor but as a spiritual being”. The 19th century was to define spiritual union as “the marriage of St Joseph”, resuming the tradition born in the 11th century of the chastity of spouses. The monks of the Abbey of Montecassino, a pro-imperial environment, were the origin of the account that was to be taken up at Bamberg to bear witness to the chastity of spouses in matrimony, as reported by the chronicler Frutolf from Michelsberg just after the year 1100. The process of canonization ratified the Legend as recounted in Vita sanctii Heinrici: “He did not have nor did he expect children by way of the flesh, since it is known with all certainty that he never knew Cunegunda, whom he appeared to have as his wife but whom he loved as a sister”. A miracle soon proved this, according to the principle of ordeals that regulatedjustice in the 11th century: accused of adultery, Queen Cunegunda, constrained to the torture of walking over scorching metal ploughshares, walked over them without being burnt. The Vita Sanctae Cunegondis makes chastity one of the main foundations of her elevation to sainthood. In the 17 th century critical erudition was soon to transform the literary paradox that has it roots in the biblical text of the burning bush that burned without being consumed to indicate the divine holiness in a wonder that prunes from it every spiritual meaning. In 1786, the philosopher and mathematician Leibniz was to write: “I was surprised to note these words ‘for the salvation of the queen and of the royal lineage’. They seemed to me to be quite the opposite of the common opinion that has us believe he had preserved his virginity with his holy wife Cunegunda”.

So it was that the canonization of the Emperor Henry II and of his wife Cunegunda was in the end part of the change in mentalities that emerged following the Gregorian Reform. It was certainly proper for an Emperor of the year 1000 to perpetuate his lineage. Rather than the idea of an unconsummated marriage, the most likely hypothesis is that of Cunegunda’s barrenness. But Henry II blamed his contemporaries for his incredible refusal to repudiate a barren wife and for making Christ his only heir. In this way he founded a dynastic attitude of respect for the ecclesiastical matrimonial norms. While the theory of the Christian monarch radically changed its nature, in particular reducing the monarch’s function to that of a servant of the spiritual sphere – since after 1050 the Roman See had regained its independence – the conjugal model of Henry II and his wife was to advance the completion of the cause.

In the face of a secular monarchy accused by Gregorian clerics of being in sin, he became on the contrary a model of a virtuous king who was able to continue proclaiming a form of holiness that was more powerful than any theory.

A lecturer at the University of Lorraine, Sylvie Barnay is the author of various monographs. Among them are Le Ciel sur la Terre. Les apparitions de la Vierge au Moyen Âge (Cerf, 1999), La Vierge, femme au visage divin (Gallimard, 2000), Les saints, des êtres de chair et de ciel (Gallimard, 2004), La parole habitée. Les grandes voix du prophétisme (Points Sagesse, 2012). For us she wrote St Joan of Arc (May 2012).

 Sylvie Barnay




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 19, 2019