Women at the Court of Charlemagne: A Case of Monstrous Regiment?

  • Janet L. Nelson


I begin with an image: the rape of Proserpina, as depicted on a late second-century Roman marble sarcophagus (fig. 4.1), now in the Cathedral Treasury at Aachen, and at Aachen, apparently, since the time of Charlemagne (Schramm and Mütherich 1981: no. 18 [at 120]; Schmitz-Cliever-Lepie 1986: 8). Pluto, god of the underworld, abducts Proserpina with the help of Minerva, goddess of wisdom. On the viewer’s right, Mercury, messenger of the gods, leads a quadriga, a four-horse chariot — symbol of triumphal rulership. Behind, on the viewer’s left, preceded by female attendants with baskets symbolizing plenty, comes Proserpina’s mother, Ceres, goddess of fruitfulness, in a chariot drawn by serpents.1 A brief gloss can be added. The Proserpina myth was borrowed by the Romans from the Greeks and was popular throughout Antiquity. Ceres (Demeter) was one of the twenty “select deities” who had care of the universe; her rites at Eleusis were one of the best-known cults of the ancient world, and there were Roman equivalents. Ceres was identified as the Great Mother, “procuring the emission of the seed of women,” which (according to ancient medical theory) joined with the male seed to produce the foetus. Proserpina was the special goddess of fertile seeds.
Figure 4.1.

A late Roman marble sarcophagus depicting the rape of Proserpina (Cathedral Treasury, Aachen).


Royal Family Fertile Seed Unmarried Daughter Sexual Appetite Female Attendant 
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Copyright information

© John Carmi Parsons 1998

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  • Janet L. Nelson

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