Showing posts with label 10th century. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 10th century. Show all posts

Friday, February 15, 2019

Damn, Girl-Murasaki Shikibu, World's First Novelist

An extremely popular writer both in her lifetime and in the millenia since, Murasaki Shikibu is credited as writing the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji. A mysterious figure, Murasaki used her illicit knowledge of classical Chinese and Japanese literature not only redefine the genre she wrote in, but to create an artform that survives to this day.

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Murasaki
Like so many of the women we cover, it's unknown if Murasaki Shikibu is even this woman's real name. Probably born in 973 CE, Murasaki not only grew up in a time where the early lives of women weren't deemed worth recording, but in a society where it was considered impolite to use a person's real name. The name we know her by is taken from her father's profession, and the name of the central female character from her novel.

Murasaki was the daughter of Fujiwara no Tametoki, a scholar, and lowranking member of the dominant Fujiwara clan. Murasaki's grandfather and great grandfather had both been important poets, and education was highly valued in her family. Consequently, her brothers were both given brilliant educations in both Chinese and Japanese literature. It was uncommon for ladies to be educated this way, as the Chinese language was considered to be unladylike. However, Murasaki showed an eagerness and aptitude for learning, with some stories even saying that she would eavesdrop on her brothers lessons through a door. Recognizing her aptitude, or perhaps tired of her antics, Murasaki's father allowed her to be taught in Chinese language and literature, grousing that such a mind was wasted on a girl.

In 998 Murasaki married family friend (and literal family) Fujiwara no Nobutaka. He was about twenty years her senior, and already had a basketball team's worth of wives, and an American football team's worth of children. As was traditional, Murasaki continued to live with her father after her marriage. Nobutaka must have visited at least once, however, because in 999 Murasaki gave birth to a girl she named Kenshi. Nobutaka died a few years later in 1001 when a plague swept Kyoto.

Whether or not Murasaki's marriage was a happy one is an interesting question. Japanese tradition paints her as a loving wife and loyal widow, but her writing brings all of this into question. There are certain resemblances between the idyllic Genji and an exiled nobleman of Murasaki's acquaintance whom Murasaki was rumored to have a relationship with. It is questioned if some of the love poems written by Murasaki might be inspired by this nobleman, and if the image of her as a loyal widow might be the moralistic construct of a later era.

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Paintings capturing the moment Murasaki
conceived Genji on Lake Biwa were very
popular.
After her husband's death Murasaki joined the court of Empress Shoshi as a lady-in-waiting. At the time the worth of a Japanese noblewoman was measured not by her looks, but by her artistic abilities. Being able to write sensitive poems, having beautiful calligraphy, and skillfully matching colors for the elegant draping sleeves of a kimono, was how a lady attracted a man. The sign of a successful Empress was the ability to surround herself with the greatest creative minds, much like the salon of Europe. By the time of her arrival at court Murasaki was already an accomplished poet. She had, however, made no forays into prose.

It is, of course, likely, that Murasaki simply woke up one day and decided to write a series of stories about the amorous adventures of a handsome nobleman, but the popular legend is much more exciting. In an episode similar to the gathering of Romantics at Lake Geneva, the Empress Shoshi lamented that there were no good stories, that she was tired of the old romances, and would Murasaki please write a new one. Murasaki agreed, and retreated to a Buddhist temple on Lake Biwa. One night while looking at the moon and lamenting the death of her late husband Murasaki was struck by inspiration, and wrote two whole chapters of her work on the back of sacred Buddhist texts.¹

Genji was an instant hit. It was read by the Empress, and subsequently devoured by all the ladies of the court. This was unsurprising, as monogatari novels were as popular in Heian Japan as romance novels are today. Works like this were written in the fledgling kana, or written Japanese, and were thus accessible to women who were rarely taught Chinese kanji. What is surprising, is that men read Genji too. Empress Shoshi's father, Fujiwara no Michinaga, was an important court influencer, the real power behind the throne, and an avid Tale of Genji fanboy. From him the story circulated through the men of the court until noted male poets were congratulating Murasaki on her creation.

Murasaki, unfortunately, wasn't much for life at court. Conservative and introverted, Murasaki detested the inane frivolity and illicit love affairs that made up the daily schedule in the Heian court. She was often viewed as cold and aloof by her contemporaries, and had open rivalries with several other important female poets of the day. When Empress Shoshi left court after the death and abdication of her husband in 1011, Murasaki left with her.

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Also Murasaki
The end of Murasaki's life was quiet. She died some time between 1014 and 1031, either staying with Shoshi to the end, or retiring to a Buddhist convent. She left behind a daughter, and an enormously popular work twice the length of War and Peace.

The Tale of Genji is perhaps the most important piece of Japanese literature. Its glimpses into the life of aristocratic Heian Japan are not only precious from a historical perspective, but the slice of life narrative and overarcing character development make it a literary gem as well. Additionally, Genji was a major factor in the standardization of kana, and became required study for anyone hoping to become a scribe.

The novel was copied out hundreds of times, and when woodblock printing came around it was distributed even further beyond aristocratic circles. It experienced a huge resurgence in popularity during the Edo period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and owning a piece of Genji 'fanart' was considered the height of sophistication. This popularity continues to this day, with The Tale of Genji being translated over and over again, and being treated to reimaginings in a variety of mediums in and out of Japan.


¹This writing on the back of sacred texts wasn't seen as sacrilege like it would have been if written on a Bible, Torah, or Koran. Instead, this was used to justify reading The Tale of Genji to later audiences who had religious scruples about the content.

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Sources
A History of Japanese Literature by William George Aston
Beyond The Tale of Genji: Murasaki Shikibu as Icon and Exemplum in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Popular Japanese Texts for Women by Satoko Naito
Murasaki Shikibu: Japanese Courtier and Author
Murasaki Shikibu: the Brief Life of a Legendary Novelist
Murasaki Shikibu-Tales of Genji
Murasaki Shikibu-New World Encyclopedia
Murasaki Shikibu-Famous Inventors
World Changing Women-Murasaki Shikibu
Summary of The Tale of Genji
Tale of Genji
The Tale of Genji: Work by Murasaki
The Tale of Genji
Historical Background
Background of The Tale of Genji
The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari)
In Celebration of The Tale of Genji, the World's First Novel





Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Columbus Who? Let's Discuss Leif Erikson

It's a commonly held belief that Christopher Columbus 'discovered' America. This is wrong on so, so many levels. Firstly, the Americas were 'discovered' by the ancestors of modern Native Americans and First Nation peoples thousands of years before Columbus. Secondly, Christopher Columbus wasn't even the first white man to 'discover' America, because in the early 1000 CEs Viking explorer and Christian missionary Leif Erikson stepped foot on what is now Newfoundland, Canada.

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Leif Erikson
Leif Erikson, also known as 'Leif the Lucky' was the second son of the notorious King of Greenland, Erik the Red. It is unsure when exactly he was born, but, being the son of Erik the Red, it is most likely that he was born and raised in Greenland. Very little is known about Leif's childhood, but at the time of his majority he was described in the Greenland Saga as being:
"...tall and strong and very impressive in appearance. He was a shrewd man and always moderate in his behavior."
 What is certain is that in 1000 CE Leif set sail for Norway. He was blown off course somewhere in the Hebrides, and had a son with Thorgunna, the daughter of a local chieftain. When it came time for Leif to set sail again, Thorgunna asked to accompany him, but Leif refused. When Thorgunna told him that she was expecting a child, Leif refused to take responsibility for the child. Thorgunna, however, swore that she would send the child to Leif in Greenland as soon as she was old enough, and she followed through on that promise.

In Norway, Leif met with King Olaf Tryggvason, who had been converted to Catholicism. Olaf soon converted Leif as well, and tasked him with spreading Christianity back in Greenland. With this charge, Leif went sailing back to Greenland.

Here is where accounts diverge. The Saga of Erik the Red claims that on his way back from Norway Leif was blown off course yet again, and saw the shores of North America. According to the Saga of Erik the Red, Leif never actually set foot on North America, but left it to his younger brother, Thorvald. However, the much more reliable Greenland Saga says that Leif was back in Greenland when he heard tale of a new land in the west from Bjarni Herjolfsson.

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L'anse aux Meadows is the only confirmed Viking settlement
in North America
Bjarni Herjolfsson had seen the coasts of what we now know as the east coast of Canada, but hadn't landed to explore. The people of Erik's court mocked of him for not having landed, and soon Leif was determined to do what Bjarni had not. Sometime in late summer or early fall, Leif set off for the lands to the west with a new ship and a crew of 35.

Leif had originally asked his father, Erik, to lead the expedition. Erik had demurred, saying that he was getting to be too old for that sort of nonsense, but Leif insisted. According to Leif, Erik had the most luck in the family, and luck was needed for this sort of expedition. Erik reluctantly agreed, but on the day that the voyage was to have left Erik was thrown from his horse, and broke his leg.This left Leif the leader of the expedition, and off they went.

Leif's crew first landed in what is most likely modern Labrador. Leif named it Helluland, and essentially called it a wasteland. He was unimpressed by it's glaciers and lack of plant life, and so set off again.

This next time they landed in a place they called Markland. It was a flat and wooded area, most likely in modern Nova Scotia. However, Leif wasn't ready to settle down, and he hurried his crew back to their ships.

They sailed north again, and docked on a large island. It was here that they decided to settle for the winter. The land was fertile and green, and when Leif sent out exploration parties one of them came back with a vine of grapes, leading Leif to name the place Vinland.

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Statue of Erikson in Chicago, USA
Leif and his crew stayed the winter, harvesting wood and grapes to take back with them. When spring came they sailed back towards Greenland, laden with cargo. On their way home Leif and his crew rescued a group of shipwrecked people on a reef. It was his discovery of these people that earned him the title 'the lucky'.

It is about here where the record of Leif Erikson ends. He is known to have died in 1025, and rumored to have succeeded his father Erik as chief after Erik's death, but the adventures of Leif Erikson seem to have ended after he came back from Vinland.

For many years Leif was forgotten about. His claims about having discovered a land were difficult to prove, and historians squabbled over where it could have been. However, in 1960 the remnants of a Viking settlement was found in L'anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, leading many to believe that Newfoundland is the country referred to as Vinland. Leif Erikson was later awarded his own holiday, and to this day Leif Erikson Day is celebrated (well, mostly ignored.) every October 9.

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Sources
Greenlander's Saga
The Saga of Erik the Red
Leif Eriksson
Leif Erikson (11th Century)
Leif Eriksson Explorer
Leif Erikson the Lucky
L'anse aux Meadows National Historic Site
The Norse Discovery of America
Vinland Sagas

Friday, May 4, 2018

Damn, Girl-Sigrid the Haughty? More Like Sigrid the Petty and Bloodthirsty

Influential in four countries, Queen of both Sweden and Denmark, mother of two great kings, and instrumental in one of the greatest sea battles of the Viking age, Queen Sigrid the Haughty is most known for setting two potential suitors on fire. Much about Sigrid's life is unknown, and even if she was a real person, a legend, or a combination of several different Viking queens is up for debate. However, the myths around Sigrid are epic in proportion, and if a girl ever made you say 'damn!', it was certainly her.

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Sigrid and her second husband, Sweyn
Sigrid was born in the mid 900s most likely in Poland, but also possibly in Pomerania (modern Czechia) or Denmark. One of the solid facts about Sigrid was that she married King Eric the Victorious of Sweden, and it was written by medieval chroniclers that Eric the Victorious married the daughter of King Mieszko I of Poland and Doubravka of Bohemia (also modern Czechia). Whatever her origins, Sigrid definitely married Eric the Victorious, and they had at least one child, a boy named Olaf, who would succeed his father.

In Sigrid's late twenties or early thirties she was widowed, leaving her as regent for her son Olaf. Beautiful and wealthy, Sigrid was an attractive marriage prospect. Much like Penelope of Homer's Odyssey, suitors came out of the woodwork to compete for Sigrid's hand, including Sigrid's foster brother, Harald Grenske, a minor king in Vestland.

Unlike fair Penelope, Sigrid was not down to deal with suitors tramping around her house disrespecting her, especially if those suitors did not have the fortune or title to match her own. To demonstrate her distaste, she invited Harald, as well as a Russian prince named Vissavald to a great feast. About halfway through, she locked the doors of the meadhall, and set it on fire with Harald and Vissavald still inside. She reportedly stabbed anyone who tried to escape.

Related image
Most of what we know about Sigrid comes from the Icelandic
Sagas
Unlike in the case of Elizabeth Bathory, another famous blood soaked woman, setting a group of rude noblemen on fire was completely respectable. Viking society was harsh, and as the regent of Sweden (keep in mind, this is the WHOLE of Sweden, not just a small part. Sigrid was the overlady, the queen of queens.), Sigrid needed to show that she would not be disrespected. Most of the suitors got the message.

Unfortunately, King Olaf Trygvasson of Norway didn't quite get the message. He came courting, and failed epicly. He praised her beauty and wit, then belittled her manner. He informed her that if she wanted to marry him (keep in mind, there is no record of Sigrid wanting to marry him), she would have to convert to Christianity, something that was completely unthinkable to the deeply devout pagan Sigrid.

When Sigrid gave Olaf his marching orders, he snapped. He called her ugly, saying that he would never want to marry such an old woman anyways. He slapped her on the face--a fatal mistake on his part. According to legend, Sigrid informed Olaf that his blow may 'some day be thy death'.

Several years after her first husband's death, Sigrid remarried, this time to Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark. This united Sweden and Denmark, and Sigrid and Sweyn had two sons, the most famous of whom was known as Canute.


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Sigrid's son, Canute, would later conquer
England
Sigrid didn't forget insults, especially not from the King of Norway. The Icelandic sagas say that she convinced Sweyn, who was already feuding with Norway, to take to the sea against Olaf. Sweyn, combined the Sigrid's Swedish forces, cornered Olaf and the Norwegian navy, thoroughly defeating them at what would later be named The Battle of Skold. Olaf didn't survive the battle. He either jumped off, or was thrown off the side of his ship and sank, dragged down by the weight of his armor.

From here, the details of Sigrid's life get even murkier. From all reports, her marriage to Sweyn wasn't very happy, and the pair split. Sigrid went back to Poland to assist her brother, King Bolesław. With her help, Bolesław was able to make Poland thrive, and they were both well loved by the people. Sigrid could have stayed happy and content in Poland, but when her son Canute conquered England in 1016 she jumped on a ship to join him. Though the details of her life in England are unknown, she likely died, and was buried there.

Many historians dismiss Sigrid as a myth. There are very few surviving historical records from that period, and most of her history was recorded in the Icelandic sagas, written many years after her death. However, mentions of the men she was close to, namely her father and husbands, help establish her existence, if not quite her deeds.

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Sources
The Viking Tale of Svein Forkbeard and Sigrid the Haughty
Sigrid the Haughty
Sigrid the Haughty: Queen Consort of Four Countries and Owner of a Forceful Personality
Sigrid the Haughty (D. before 1013)

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Baghdad House of Wisdom

When Rome fell Europe was thrust into the so named 'Dark Ages'. However, while the Europeans were scrabbling around, getting the plague and fighting each other over buckets, West Asia was was enjoying a golden age.

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Scholars of the House of Wisdom
This golden age spread across all the Islamic nations, from India to the Arabs living in what is now Andalusia, Spain, and at the center of it all was Baghdad, the wealthy cultural capital of the Islamic world.  It was a magnificent city, but the most magnificent part of it was it's House of Wisdom--a large library which also served as a sort of university.


The House of Wisdom was founded in the early 800s by Caliph al-Ma'mun, a highly educated man with an intense interest in science, mathematics, and medicine. There had been many large private libraries prior to this, but al-Ma'mun took things one step further. He had his private library collected under one roof, and made available to scholars--male and female, Muslim and non-Muslim--from around the world. Successive Caliphs followed in this tradition by acquiring more and more books, and expanding on the House. At the time of its destruction, the House of Wisdom not only had an enormous library, but a hospital and an observatory as well.

The library at the House of Knowledge was enormous, and was made even more enormous by several large ticket purchases. During the reign of al-Ma'mun, the entire library of the Kingdom of Sicily was acquired. al-Ma'mun, a scholar himself, had heard of the great library in Sicily, and wrote to the Sicilian King, asking for its contents. The Sicilian library had several classical works about science and mathematics, and all Ma'mun was eager to get his hands on them. The Sicilian king consulted with his advisers, who told him that those books hadn't done the ancients any good, and the Sicilian king gave al-Ma'mun his library, a library which, according to legend, took more than 400 camels to transport.
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Map of Baghdad during its Golden Age
The translation of texts from Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit into Arabic was highly encouraged. So much encouraged that the Caliph al-Ma'mun offered to pay scholars the weight of a completely translated book in gold. Because of this, scholars translated the works of Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Plato into Arabic, preserving these works for future scholars, and giving scholars to opportunity to comment and study them.

Another notable translation that came from the House of Wisdom, was the translation of several Indian texts about mathematics. This was particularly important because, as you might know, it was Indian mathematicians who invented the concept of zero. In addition to zero, scholars also discovered that Indians used ten separate symbols, or combinations of those symbols, to represent numbers, not letters of the alphabet like the Romans and Arabs up to that point had. This led to experimentation on the part of Arab mathematician, and ultimately resulted in the Arabic Numeral system--the system we use today.

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An astrolabe
Completely reinventing mathematics wasn't the only major scientific advancement made at the House of Wisdom. The astrolabe--a tool used for navigating the ocean--was invented there, as well as the discipline of chemistry. Additionally, the world's first general hospital--the forerunner to today's modern hospital--was built in Baghdad. There scholars from around the world studied medicine, making advancements in surgery, epidemiology, and physiology.

Much like the Library of Alexandria, the House of Wisdom met an unfortunate and bloody end. In 1258 the Mongols invaded Iraq. They sacked Baghdad, putting the Caliph and his family to the sword. In an act that makes any book loving person furious, they dumped the books from the House of Wisdom into the Tigris river, letting thousands of years of precious knowledge be washed away. Then, to make things even worse, they killed all the scholars. It is said that for years after this the muddy brown waters of the Tigris ran black from ink and red from blood.

More on Similar Topics




Sources
Baghdad: Libraries and House of Wisdom
The Abbasids' House of Wisdom in Baghdad
The House of Wisdom: Baghdad's Intellectual Powerhouse
The House of Wisdom, One of the Greatest Libraries in History
House of Wisdom

Monday, November 6, 2017

Erik the Red and His Green Land

Erik the Red was a larger than life dude who knew how to leave a mark. He got kicked out of Iceland, and settled a previously uninhabited¹ island. In the world's first documented PR stunt, he named the icy wasteland 'Greenland' to entice people to move there, then proceeded to name every geographical feature he came across after himself. Erik was one hell of a dude.
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Erik the Red. What a handsome dude. Look at that
mustache. Hipsters kill for mustaches that
glorious.

Erik was born in Norway, but moved to Iceland after his father, Thorvald, was exiled for 'manslaughter' (read as 'probably murder'). He was called 'The Red' because of his fiery hair, beard, and temper. Also red was the color of the blood on his hands after he continued the family tradition of murder.

While living in the north of Iceland, Erik's thralls inadvertently created a landslide which destroyed the neighboring house. Erik's neighbor was, understandably, irritated. Less understandably, said neighbor decided to kill Erik's thralls. This aggravated Erik, who murdered his neighbor in return. Because of this, in 980 Erik and his family were banished.

Next, Erik moved to the island of Oxney, and picked up the pieces. He restarted his homestead, and all was going well, until he had more troubles with his neighbors. In about 982 Erik lent his setstokkr to his neighbor. Setstokkr were large, rune inscribed beams that held particular religious significance. It was pretty cool of Erik to loan them to his neighbor, but unfortunately his neighbor was rather uncool, and didn't give them back. In retaliation, Erik killed him², and was once again banished. This time he was banished from the entirety of Iceland for three years. Erik was left with two choices. He could sail back to Norway, or he could go somewhere else. Erik chose the latter.

Now, Erik wasn't totally sailing blind. Other vikings had been around the coasts of Greenland before, though none had ever gone ashore. Erik knew that Greenland was out there, so he packed his family in his longship and went. He spent several months navigating around the southern tip of Greenland. He went ashore at Tunulliarfik, and spent the two years after that exploring the country, and naming everything in sight after himself.

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Tunulliarfik fjord, where Erik came ashore
In 985 Erik's exile was up, and he was firmly of the opinion that his new home would be a pretty dope place to start a colony. He named the place 'Greenland' to attract settlers, and sailed back to Iceland. Erik was fairly successful, and managed to convince some 400 people to make the move. 25 ships set out from Iceland in 985, and within a few months, 14 had arrived on Greenland's shores (the rest having wrecked or turned back to Iceland.) They settled in two groups--the Eastern Settlement and the Western Settlement, with Erik elected leader of the Eastern Settlement. Erik died about 15 years later after a fall from his horse.



¹By Europeans
²Quite frankly, after the number of pens, pencils, bowls, and spoons I've lost to a neighbor, I do not consider this an overreaction on Erik's part.

More on Similar Topics




Sources
Erik the Red-Biography
Erik the Red-Britannica
Erik the Red-Maritime Museum

Friday, July 14, 2017

Damn, Girl-Holy Roman Empress Theophano

Holy Roman Empress Theophano (sometimes spelled Theophanu or Theophania), was a Byzantine princess, who has the singular honor of having introduced the fork to Northern Europe. But beyond her taste in cutlery Theophano was also a wise and beloved Empress who helped bring Byzantine culture to the Germans.

Image result for empress theophano holy roman empireTheophano was a Byzantine princess, but she hadn't been 'born in the purple', meaning that she had been born before her father was Emperor. Because of this, she didn't have quite as high of a status as the other princesses, a situation that came in very handy for her uncle John Tzimiskes, when it was his turn to be Emperor.

See, at this time There were a couple of very powerful empires--the Holy Roman, and the Byzantine. Then there was the Italian peninsula, which was a hot mess. The south belonged to the Byzantines, the north to the Germans, and the Arabs kept attacking the entire thing from their home base in Italy. Out of the two empires the Holy Roman was weaker, so it was no surprise when Otto I decided to try for a marriage alliance between the two states.

Admittedly, John Tzimiskes wasn't super keen to ally with the Germans. He did need their militaristic support, but in his mind the Byzantines were waaaaayy better than the Germans, and he couldn't let the Holy Roman Empire think that they stood on equal grounds, so instead of sending a princes who was 'born in the purple' as requested, he sent Theophano.

Otto I wasn't happy that he hadn't gotten the 'born in the purple' princess he'd requested, but Theophano brought most of southern Italy with her as a dowry, so Otto got over that complaint really quickly, and  Theophano married Otto II. Otto I didn't have too much time to feel bitter, because he died shortly before their wedding, leaving Theophano with only one in law to deal with, the iron willed Adelaide of Italy.

While the Germans like Theophano, many of them thought her odd. The Byzantine empire was known for its luxurious, decadent ways, and Theophano was a product of that 'decadence'. She talked too much, she bathed every day, and, strangest of all, she used a two pronged utensil to bring food to her mouth (aka a fork), instead of eating with her hands like everyone else.

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Theophano and Otto II being crowned
and blessed by Jesus Christ.
Weird foreignness aside, Theophano was an excellent empress. Much like her mother-in-law Adelaide, Theophano lucked out, and was good friends with Otto II. They jointly ruled their empire for about ten years, waging war against the neighboring French, and protecting their lands from Arabs and internal dissent. They had five children together, four of whom survived to adulthood. Then, in 983, Otto died.

Fortunately, Theophano had popped out another Otto, and so Otto III took the throne. Unfortunately, Otto III was only three years old at the time, so Theophano assumed the regency. She and her mother-in-law Adelaide combined forces to rule the empire, and kept the whole thing together. During her regency she repelled another French attack, appointed public and church officials, and ruled Italy, all while maintaining a close relationship with her son. She so influenced Otto III that after her death in 991 he basically ran the Holy Roman Empire in the ground trying to make it more like the beloved Byzantine Empire that his mother spoke so fondly of.


After her death Adelaide took over as regent for Otto III, and, because Adelaide didn't particularly like Theophano, she refused to have annual services read on the date of Theophano's death. A smear campaign against her started soon after, and so Theophano wasn't fondly remembered in Germany. She was, and is, however, remembered in modern Turkey, the land of her birth, where she is remembered as a wise and capable leader.


More on Similar Topics



Sources
Theophano of Byzantium
Theophano, Empress and Regent
Theophano, Holy Roman Empress
The Princess Theophano