As it is Mothering Sunday in the UK let’s celebrate the Mothers of the Dark Ages! Over a thousand years ago women for the most part had two choices – they married and hoped for children or they entered the church. For those who married impending motherhood must have been a time of extreme emotions. On the one hand the hope of a child was a matter for celebration, but on the other was the very real possibility that they would die during or soon after the birth. Even for those who survived the birth, the joys of motherhood were by no means assured. Infant mortality was high and for a mother to lose one or more of her children in the early years was normal.
With no reliable fertility treatments available the failure to provide children could have serious consequences. Lothair, King of Middle Francia/Lotharingia spent many years trying to secure a divorce from his wife Teutburga, including accusing her of incest with her brother, because she was unable to bear children and his concubine, Waldrada could.
Records of motherhood from that period are few. In the cases of many of the early leaders we do not even know the names of their mothers. Some recorded examples are monsterous, such as the Empress Irene, who ruled as regent for her son. Her lust for power was so great that when her son came of age she had his eyes put out and he later died from his injuries, apparently triggering a solar eclipse and seventeen days of darkness as Heaven itself condemned the action! A jealous Frankish queen Fredegund allegedly tried to murder her daughter, by trapping her neck in the lid of a chest.
More praiseworthy examples might reflect the mother fighting for their offspring, such as the Empress Theophanu, who ruled as regent over the Holy Roman Empire, securing against opposition the rights of her three-year-old son Otto III. Queen Aacha of Northumbria saved her children including the eleven-year-old (future saint and founder of Lindisfarne Monastery) Oswald by taking them to Dal Riata after her brother killed her husband and took the throne of Northumberland.
For most of us today fighting either for or against our offspring for power over an empire is an alien concept. A more familiar example might be Osburgh the mother of Alfred of Wessex. Alfred himself recounted to his biographer the story of his mother reading to him and his brother and promising the beautifully illustrated book to the one who could memorise the tales. The gifting of treasured books and reading of stories is as much a part of motherhood for many of us as it was for Osburgh all those years ago and this story forges a very real link between those Dark Age mothers and mothers today.
Alfred’s mother (probably) died while he was young and we can never know how much Osburgh’s story-telling influenced him. But we do know that Alfred valued the ability to read very highly and he became one of the great champions of Dark Age literacy. So as we celebrate the mothers of today, take a moment to remember the mothers of the past. Their actions are mostly unrecorded, we often know virtually nothing about their lives, but their influence on history may be far greater than we think.