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September 2002 - Nr. 9


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Queen, Empress, Saint: Paderborn Celebrates 11th-Century Sovereign Kunigunde

   TWIG - Holy Roman empress Kunigunde is the star of a new exhibition at the Museum of the Kaiserpfalz in Paderborn (North-Rhine Westphalia), where historians are celebrating her role as the first female ruler to share sovereignty over the German-speaking world. A glittering display of Byzantine jewellery and illuminated manuscripts recall the rustic splendour of the early 11th century, when Kunigunde reigned beside her husband, Henry II, for more than 20 years. Historic documents from the period shed light on a historic figure with unusual political authority for a woman of her time.

It was in the Paderborn cathedral on August 10, one thousand years ago, that Kunigunde was crowned queen of Eastern Franconia, the medieval forerunner of Germany. According to a contemporary account, her husband’s family found the coronation meal too skimpy, staged a rowdy protest and turned the celebration into a brawl. But despite this inauspicious start, Kunigunde went on to govern the land with a steady hand alongside her husband, taking an active part in his rule and representing him in his absence as consors regni. In 1014 the royal pair traveled to Rome to be crowned emperor and empress by Pope Benedict VIII, and they continued to rule together until Henry’s death in 1024.

Kunigunde’s fame might have faded then, had she left the throne less quietly. But lacking an heir, she relinquished the imperial crown jewels to her elected successor, Konrad II, and on the first anniversary of her husband’s passing, she entered the Benedictine cloister she had founded near Kassel (Hessen), where she spent the rest of her life as a nun with no special privileges.

The empress’s piety swelled in the public imagination after her death in 1033. Admirers believed she was childless because she was chaste. She was said to have performed miracles and survived numerous ordeals. Accused of infidelity, one legend goes, she was challenged to walk barefoot over red-hot ploughshares to prove her innocence; she did so and came away unscathed. Henry II achieved sainthood in 1146 as a devoted servant of the church. Kunigunde was canonized in 1200 and ultimately drew an even larger following. The couple are buried in the cathedral of Bamberg (Bavaria), seat of the bishopric they founded in 1007.

One of the most unusual items on display at the Paderborn exhibit is a parchment printed with the Latin prayers spoken at Kunigunde’s coronation. No German translation of the prayers existed until this year. "That shows that no one has worked on this subject and that the 11th-century image of women needs to be reconsidered," says museum director Matthias Wemhoff. The church had to invent a new rite when it extended its benediction to queens as well as kings, drawing on the Old Testament examples of Esther, Judith, and Sarah to create a new image of women as bearers of power.

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