The long tenth century provides plenty of stories of powerful women. Sometimes, we can get to know their lives fairly well. In other cases, they only leave scarce traces in written records. Queen Bertilla (c. 855−915) is one of the latter. For that reason, she is not the best known of the women that fill the histories of post-Carolingian Europe. And yet, her life has all the ingredients of an engaging biography. She was born in one of the most powerful families in Europe, the Supponids, who were based in northern Italy. Around 870-875 she married an ambitious magnate, Berengar of Friuli. Berengar (d. 924) became king of Italy immediately after the fall of the Carolingian empire (888), but during his long reign had to deal with plenty of competitors. Their marriage was long and, in many respect, successful: they had two daughters (but no sons), and for more than two decades Bertilla played an important role in her husband’s reign, promoting contacts with religious institutions in northern Italy and assisting him in dealing with his opponents. She died, between 912 and 915, of a mysterious and probably violent death.
Despite her influence in Italy, contemporary authors do not mention Bertilla: evidence about her life comes mainly from royal diplomas that record her role as intercessor in her husband’s grants to churches and monasteries. One important exception comes from an early tenth-century poem: the Gesta Berengarii Imperatoris, a panegyric written in honour of Berengar sometimes after 915. The poem was written to celebrate Berengar’s success obtaining the imperial title: its anonymous author was probably a member of the emperor’s circle. Bertilla is mentioned just one time in the 1,000 verse work: when the author describes the participation of her three brothers to Berengar’s military campaign in 889. In doing so, he hints at the fact that Bertilla had been lethally poisoned:
Likewise, Suppo’s sons, three lightning-flashes of war, banded together; they had been drawn into an alliance with the beloved king by his wife, who was quite faithful at that time, but was later going to die from poison, as she swallowed Circes’ venomous advice.
Who had wanted the queen’s murder? As with many such cases, the main suspect appears to be her husband. This would also explain the poet’s reticence to dwell too much on the matter. But this passage leaves more questions than it answers. Why did Berengar decide to get rid of his wife, to whom he had been married for around forty years, and who had powerful family and friends? Had she been unfaithful to him? The poet mentions Circe, the mythological sorceress that appears in the Odyssey. Was this a pseudonym? If so, who was the woman behind it and which part did she play in the queen’s death?
There are some tentative answers to these questions. One of the reasons why Bertilla died may be a crucial issue for many queens: fertility. She had not been able to give Berengar an heir, and the king may have felt the need to secure one in his quest to the imperial title. In fact he remarried in 915, shortly after Bertilla’s death, with a Byzantine princess called Anna. However, one wonders why he waited so long before trying to get rid of his wife and why he had decided to do so violently. Royal divorces at the time were not uncommon, although admittedly rather complex affairs. Or was the demise of Bertilla part of a wider political crisis, which had brought Berengar into conflict with her family? The Supponids had been his allies for many years, but things may have changed and allegiances shifted. Around 913 the king had eliminated one of Bertilla’s brothers, Boso, who is described in one of the king’s diplomas as a traitor. But this may have been a consequence, as much as a cause, of the queen’s murder. A third explanation is linked to the identity of the mysterious Circe, the woman who, according to the poem, corrupted Bertilla with her ‘venomous advice’. Scholars have identified her with Marchioness Bertha of Tuscany, one of the most powerful magnates of tenth-century Italy, and Berengar’s archenemies (the author of the Gesta Berengarii nicknamed her ‘Beast of the Tyrrhenian Sea’). Bertilla may have become close – perhaps a bit too close – to Bertha, who was among those working to remove Berengar from the throne.
All these hypotheses – which are by no means mutually exclusive – come with their own strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, no further evidence survives which could help to solve the puzzle. Nonetheless, the doubts surrounding her end make Bertilla’s story even more fascinating. For her life and death highlight the resources and challenges that aristocratic and royal women were confronted with. First, it shows the significance of the family they were born in, and the ability to make the most of their connections in order not only to marry well, but also to stay married (and, sometimes, alive). Second, it reveals the ambiguous value of motherhood: producing an heir was crucial, and inability to do so could put a woman in danger (even prove fatal in some cases), but did not necessarily constitute the end of a royal marriage. Finally, the way in which the poet reports Bertilla’s death is an example of how a woman could be subtly defamed, portraying her as deceitful and unreliable, faults that were associated with her gender. The author seems to suggest that Bertilla deserved her death, because she had listened to bad advice − even worse, bad advice coming from another woman.
In attempting to rewrite a controversial episode of his patron’s past and by dismissing Bertilla’s demise as a necessary evil, the poet has left us an intriguing testimony of the benefits and burdens that came with the tricky job of the queen. We will probably never know what happened to Bertilla, but her story is still very relevant to our knowledge of the long tenth century. For it tells us a great deal about how women could be remembered and, sometimes, forgotten, in the attempt to amend a rather uncomfortable family history.
Roberta Cimino (University of Nottingham) is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow working on fiscal estates in the Kingdom of Italy (c. 774-962). She is also completing a monograph on queens in Carolingian and post-Carolingian Italy.