Where Women Ruled…

The imperial abbey of Quedlinburg had an interesting history. The abbess was one of very few people to have a seat on the Imperial Council of the Holy Roman Empire until the empire’s dissolution in 1804. The church was founded in part to firm-up the Holy Roman Emperors’ control over the Harz Mountains and the Saxon frontier, and to provide a place where sisters and daughters of the upper nobility could serve the Church.

According to tradition, Henry of Saxony was hunting with falcons in the region when news came to him that the last Carolingian king of the Germans had named him as successor and heir. Henry, descended from a man named Otto, founded the Ottonian Dynasty, the first “German” kings of the Germans (complicated, and keep in mind, this is before Germany, France, and other places were clearly demarcated. The Carolingians weren’t “French” the way we think of them. But back to the story.) In thanks for the blessing of the imperial crown, and because he was fond of the region, Henry founded a convent at Quedlinburg. There was already a smaller monastery and church in the town, because this was a missionary outpost. Not everyone had converted in 922, when our story begins, and not everyone stayed Christian. Henry and later emperors had to keep troops posted at various locations to shoo the Saxons away from pagan worship sites in and around the Harz.

The troopers also guarded the silver, lead, copper, and iron mines of the region. The Abbey of Quedlinburg was part of that imperial presence, and although it lost some prominence in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, it remained a powerful property owner and political center. Only women of the upper nobility could become sisters at Quedlinburg.

Restored to Romanesque, the collegiate church in Quedlinburg.

Yes, the church and convent look like a fortress.

The windows you see are later additions, post Napoleon. The path is just as steep as it looks, and downright sporting if the cobbles are wet or icy.

What else would a cat do in a convent?

Looking from the abbey to the River Bode. The fancy house was part of a farming estate that belonged to the convent.

The Bode River, in the background, eroded down as the Harz were uplifted for the second time. Farther into the mountains, it has a very sharp valley that cuts through granite and other hard stones.

The town faded after the closing of the convent, then regained new life in the late 1800s. It also gained (now unwanted) fame under the Nazi regime as Himmler tried to build a cult of Henry the Fowler and the Ottonians. The only good thing was that he had the accretions stripped out of the church, restoring it to its Romanesque core. Not that it served as a Christian Church, since Himmler was far more about pagan revival and the cult of the Volk than medieval devotion and faith.

The museum in the convent has some very good information about the church and its history, although you need to be able to read German. They are not entirely fond of Americans, especially not of Texans, because the Americans liberated the city, and a GI took some of the church’s treasures with him when the city was turned over to the Brits and then the Soviets. Later, he did not want to just give the books and other things back, and the German government purchased them. Twice now I have resisted the temptation to inquire what the museum people think the Soviets would have done to the treasures. That would be uncharitable.

Every time I hear someone going on about women having no power in the middle ages and everyone being oppressed prior to 1920 (or the 1960s), I think about the abbesses of Quedlinburg.

5 thoughts on “Where Women Ruled…

    • No. She was on several of the smaller councils, but the electors were all men – 4 clerics and 3 lay lord, later more laity but still all male.

  1. Anybody that thinks women haven’t been in charge since day ONE are sadly mistaken! Thanks for the history lesson!

  2. Have you ever read the 1632 novels? After the first couple, the Abbess of Quedlinburg is involved. There are other (typically married) noble women who are ‘movers and shakers’ also.

    • I started the first one, but just couldn’t get into it. I think part of the problem was that I was researching and writing the Colplatschki books at the time, and was sort-of 30-Years-War-ed out.

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