Saturday, April 1, 2017

The name Constance

These days people name their children all sorts of different things:  a family member's name, the name of a character in a favorite book or show, a name picked out of a baby book, the name of a celebrity or sports star, some made-up word that sounds good.

Medieval people on the other hand chose names quite deliberately to create a connection, usually with a family member, or sometimes for a lord one wished to honor (which is why we speak of "Tom, Dick, and Harry" as "everyman" names, because they became very common in late twelfth-century England, honoring the saint Thomas Becket and the kings Richard I and Henry I).  This was true of both male and female names.  Today I want to discuss a particular female name in the Middle Ages, Constance, an excellent name.

Its origin is Roman.  The ancient Romans, at least among the aristocracy, had had male and female variants of the same name, so Julius and Julia, or Claudius and Claudia.  Constance (Constantia) was a variant of Constantine.

It was not used in the West in the early Middle Ages, however.  The story gets interesting around the year 900 with the emperor Louis, nicknamed "the Blind."  From his nickname you can tell his story is not going to end well, but before he was blinded by his enemies he had a son, whom he named Charles-Constantine.  The Charles was for Charlemagne, from whom Louis's mother was descended, and the Constantine for the original fourth-century emperor of that name--Louis's wife was Byzantine and claimed descent from Constantine.  Louis wanted his son's name to indicate unmistakably that the boy was born to be an emperor.

It didn't work out that way.  But Charles-Constantine had descendants among the counts of Provence, and among them were women named Constance for him (the male version was probably too audacious to use).  One of these women married King Robert II of France around the year 1000 and became queen.  From then on, the name had royal overtones.

One of the French princesses named Constance married the king of Sicily.  And among her descendants was the famous Constance, queen of Sicily (ruled 1194-1198).  She was a daughter of the king of Sicily by his third wife and was not intended to become queen, because she had plenty of brothers and nephews.  In fact, she did not marry until she was 30, old by medieval standards.

But when she did marry it was a great dynastic union.  She married Henry VI, son and heir of Frederick Barbarossa.  The Holy Roman emperors (kings of Germany) had long considered themselves rightful kings of Italy, and a union with Sicily sent a clear message, especially since the kingdom of Sicily included not just the island but also much of Calabria (the foot part of Italy's boot).  Henry and Constance were crowned emperor and empress in 1190, after Frederick Barbarossa's death.

But Constance did not become queen of Sicily until 1194, after the death of the last of her nephews.  In that year she and Henry finally had a son, the future Frederick II.  She was about to turn forty, so, the story goes, she made sure to give birth very publicly, in a tent in the town piazza, so that no one would be able to say that the baby wasn't really hers.  She made the bishop comes and watch.  She also nursed baby Frederick II in public, to make sure there were no doubters.

When she died in 1198, she commended her child, heir to Sicily and (at least potentially) to Germany (where his uncle was ruling), to the new pope, Innocent III.  Little Frederick grew up telling "Uncle Innocent" that he would be a good and faithful friend of the papacy.  Innocent died before discovering how mistaken he was to trust him.

But that's a story for another day.

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