In honor of Women’s History Month, today, I’m posting about one of the medieval women I’ve been researching for my novel in progress. Relatively little is known of Beatrice of Burgundy (c. 1143-1184) compared to what is known of her husband. She was about thirteen years old when she married the German king and Roman Emperor Frederick “Barbarossa,” but she was no stranger to royal titles even at that age. She had become the Countess of Burgundy at five when her father died and somehow managed to keep the title despite her uncle trying to take it from her. Imagine that–becoming Countess at five and Holy Roman Empress at thirteen. Imagine what such a woman would be like, what she would be capable of.
In most of the allusions I’ve found to Beatrice, she is mentioned for the land she owned, her childbearing, or her beauty. In Alfred Haverkamp’s Medieval Germany (1992), she is indexed three times as “Beatrice, w of Emperor Frederick”: first, with a description of the properties she owned upon their marriage; second, with a description of what happened to those properties after her death; and third, with a list of the twelve children she bore him and the marriage negotiations Frederick completed on their behalf. In Umberto Eco’s speculative novel, Baudolino (2000), she appears as the protagonist’s beautiful and unattainable love interest. A Latin poem, Carmen de gestis Frederici I imperatoris in Lombardia (1162), compares Beatrice’s beauty and brilliance on her wedding day to Venus, Minerva, Juno, and the Virgin Mary. About six hundred years after the wedding, the event would capture the imagination of two Italian painters.
Eight-hundred years after her death, these images are all that survive of Beatrice in the popular imagination. Images that focus on her beauty, her possessions, and her wedding day. Images that view her as a tool for securing land, a lasting legacy, or sexual fulfillment.
The truth, of course, is that Beatrice of Burgundy was a conscious human being with thoughts and desires of her own. In the twelve children with whom she is so frequently credited, I see a determination to maintain her position where her predecessor failed; Frederick had annulled his childless marriage to his first wife. In reports that she traveled extensively with her husband and heavily involved herself in the culture and politics of court, I see a political mind. A miniature in a 14th century Venetian manuscript depicts her arguing with Pope Alexander alongside her husband. Long after the wedding, the Emperor was accused of being “under her influence.” Such a legacy is far less likely to be the product of chance or others’ designs than it is to be the product of her own carefully constructed political decisions. Although Beatrice has most often been depicted as a pawn in Frederick’s strategy game, it’s interesting to think about what she gained from their union. He may have obtained control of the county of Burgundy with their marriage, but she gained access to the world.