Embodying dynasties: tombs, bodies and politics in the tenth century

Hello! I’m Sarah Greer, one of the postdoctoral research fellows working on After Empire: Using and Not Using the Past in the Tenth Century.

One strand of my research interests is in how burial sites were used in the tenth century. More specifically, I’m interested in royal mausolea – that is, the monasteries and cathedrals where kings, queens and their family were buried – and how these places worked as sites of historical memory after the collapse of the Carolingian Empire in 888.

Now, what does that actually mean? Well, the links between burial sites and memory are fairly obvious. When you visit a tomb, especially one of a powerful ruler, you’re interacting with history. The bodies of dead kings, emperors, queens and royal sons and daughters can all evoke memories of their dynasty, their rise, rule, and fall. When you have mausolea with multiple royal burials, like Westminster Abbey or the Basilica of St Denis in Paris, then that echo of the past is even more powerful. Royal burial sites are embodiments of their dynasties (pun very much intended).

The convent of Quedlinburg, burial place of King Henry I and Queen Mathilda. Photo credit Sarah Greer 2015.

We know that the choice of a burial site was of great importance to early medieval royals. Kings and emperors could pick out the church that they wanted to use for their own resting place, and some Carolingian rulers even picked out spectacular Late Antique sarcophagi as their tombs which survive down to us today (an example of this is third-century Roman sarcophagus decorated with the Rape of Proserpina, which is thought to have served as Charlemagne’s tomb, now in the Cathedral Treasury of Aachen). The bodies of royals could be transported over considerable distances to reach the place they had chosen for their burial site. Being buried with the rest of your family, or choosing to set up a new burial centre in a new location sent signals about your identity as a member of a dynasty and as a ruler.

What I’m interested in though, is how these royal burial centres worked once the dynasties that they housed had fallen from power. In the tenth century, we see the rise of a new political order in Western Europe emerging from the break-down of the Carolingian Empire in 888. Leaders had risen from different regions within the former empire, all trying to claim their own right to rule. How did people from these new dynasties interacted with the burial sites of older dynasties within their new kingdoms. Did they try to use these sites to boost their own credentials as their successors? Or were the places that contained long-dead kings and queens passed over in the rise of new families to power?

To do this, we can think about how history was narrated at these royal mausolea. Through looking at the narrative sources that were linked to these sites, we can see which figures were highlighted and which were overlooked. Just how people in the tenth century were interacting with the past at these places is a fascinating question which I’m looking forward to working on in the future.