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Empress Theophanu, Sanctity, and Memory in Early Medieval Saxony

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 March 2015

Laura Wangerin*
University of Wisconsin–Madison


The Empress Theophanu, wife of Otto II and regent for her son Otto III, was by all accounts a woman skilled at maneuvering through the complicated world of Ottonian politics. When she died in 991 CE, around the age of thirty, she had accomplished much: after arriving in Italy from Constantinople in 972 at around the age of twelve, she became Otto II's queen and was crowned empress of the Western Empire. During her lifetime, she was among the wealthiest women in Europe and one of the continent's most powerful people. After her husband's death, she secured the succession of her son, Otto III, and actively ruled as regent, successfully navigating the dangerous political world of the Western Roman Empire. Her activities included building churches, placing her daughters in positions of power in key nunneries, issuing acts as imperator and imperatrix, receiving ambassadors, waging war and negotiating peace—essentially doing everything expected of a male emperor with the exception of personally engaging in battle. Thietmar of Merseburg, writing around 1013, praises her rule as regent, stating that she held the kingdom for her son “in a manly fashion,” clearly intending this as a compliment. And yet, after her death and the premature death of her son a few years later, Theophanu seems to disappear from the historical record. Despite the great number of contemporary sources in which she figured during her lifetime and immediately after her death, including charters and donations, letters, chronicles, and annals, we know almost nothing about her. The few sources that do mention her in the period following her death have little good to say about her. Why did this woman fall into disfavor?

Copyright © Central European History Society of the American Historical Association 2015 

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1 There has been some debate over whether the proper transliteration of her name from the Greek Θεoφανω should be Theophano or Theophanu. See, e.g., Henrich, Günther Steffen, “Theophanu oder Theophano? Zur Geschichte eines ‘gespaltenen’ griechischen Frauennamensuffixes,” in Kaiserin Theophanu. Begegnung des Ostens und Westens um die Wende des ersten Jahrtausends, ed. von Euw, Anton and Schreiner, Peter (Cologne: Druckerei Locher GmbH, 1991), 8999Google Scholar. For the sake of consistency, I will use Theophanu, except when the alternate form is used in quoted sources.

2 On the idea that Theophanu was about twelve years old when she married Otto II, i.e., the youngest age at which a girl could marry, see Wolf, Gunther, “Nochmals zur Frage: Wer war Theophanu?”, Byzantinische Zeitschrift 81 (1988): 273CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Herrin, Judith, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008), 208Google Scholar; Stafford, Pauline, Queens, Concubines, and Dowagers: The King's Wife in the Early Middle Ages (London: Batsford Academic and Educational, 1983), 1Google Scholar. Besides numerous acts in which she was named as a cosponsor with Otto II or Otto III, Theophanu issued two acts in her own name, both in 990 (see Monumenta Germaniae Historica [MGH], Diplomata regum et imperatorum Germaniae, 2, 876–77).

4 Stafford, Queens, Concubines, and Dowagers, 30; Thietmar Merseburgensis Episcopi, Chronicon, ed. Holtzmann, Robert, MGH Scriptores rerum germanicarum in usum scholarum [SRG], 9, (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1935)Google Scholar, IV.10.

5 For a discussion of Cunegunde with regard to issues of sanctity and an ideology of queenship, see Erkens, Franz-Reiner, “Consortium regni-consecratio-sanctitas. Aspekte des Königinnentums im ottonisch-salischen Reich,” in Kunigunde - consors regni. Vortragsreihe zum tausendjährigen Jubiläum der Krönung Kunigundes in Paderborn (1002–2002), ed. Dick, Stefanie, Jarnut, Jörg, and Wemhoff, Mattias (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2004), 7182Google Scholar.

6 Thietmar, Chronicon, IV.10. For more on the development and character of the fama sanctitatis of the Ottonians, see Corbet, Patrick, Les saints ottoniens: Sainteté dynastique, sainteté royale et sainteté féminine autour de l'an Mil (Sigmaringen: Jan Thorbecke Verlag, 1986)Google Scholar.

7 Kazhdan, A.P. and Epstein, Ann Wharton, Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), 177Google Scholar.

8 Shepard, Jonathan, “Marriages Towards the Millennium,” in Byzantium in the Year 1000, ed. Magdalino, Paul, et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 21Google Scholar.

9 Leyser, Karl notes that “in the tenth and early eleventh centuries, it would be difficult and rather purblind not to notice the surprising number of matrons who outlived their husbands, sometimes by several decades and sometimes more than one, their brothers, and even their sons.” See his Rule and Conflict in an Early Medieval Society: Ottonian Saxony (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), 5255Google Scholar.

10 Leyser, Karl, “Theophanu Divina Gratia Imperatrix Augusta: Western and Eastern Emperorship in the Later Tenth Century,” in The Empress Theophano: Byzantium and the West at the Turn of the First Millennium, ed. Davids, Adelbert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 18Google Scholar.

11 Warner, David A., ed., Ottonian Germany: The Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2001), 103CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Thietmar, Chronicon, II.15.

12 Widukind of Corvey, Widukindi Monachi Corbiensis Rerum gestarum saxonicarum libri tres, ed. Hirsch, Paul, MGH SRG 60 (Hanover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1935)Google Scholar, III.73.

13 The Annales Hildesheimensis (“Ottoni imperatori iuniori venit imperatrix Romam de Constantinopoli”) and the Lamberti Annales (“Ottoni iuniori imperatori missa est Theophanu ab imperatore de Graecia”) are vague about her origins, whereas the Annales Weissemburgenses declare her to be the daughter of the Byzantine emperor (“Domno Ottoni iuniori imperatori missa est filia imperatoris de Grecia”); see Annales Hildesheimenses, Quedlinburgenses, Weissemburgenses, et Lamberti Pars Prior, in MGH Scriptores [SS], 3, ed. Georgius Heinricus Pertz (Hanover: Impensis Bibliopolii Hahniani, 1839), 62–63.

14 Gemblacensis, Sigerbertus, Chronica, in MGH SS 6, ed. Pertz, G. H. (Hanover: Impensis Bibliopolii Hahniani, 1844), 351Google Scholar; and Gemblacensis, Sigerbertus, Vita Deoderici Episcopi Mettensis, in MGH SS 4, ed. Pertz, G. H. (Hanover: Impensis Bibliopolii Hahniani, 1841), 470Google Scholar.

15 Gunther Wolf, “Wer War Theophanu?,” 385.

16 Judith Herrin, “Theophano: Considerations on the Education of a Byzantine Princess,” in Davids, The Empress Theophano, 80.

17 Ibid., 79.


18 Herrin, Byzantium, 207.

19 Leyser, “Theophanu,” 18.

20 Shepard, “Marriages,” 3.

21 Kazhdan and Epstein, Change in Byzantine Culture, 177, referencing Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De administrando imperio, ed. Moravcsik, G. and Jenkins, R.J.H. (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1966), 13:107–94Google Scholar. While Kazhdan and Epstein acknowledge that these marriages did occasionally occur, they also note that “there were, nevertheless, strong feelings against such alliances” (p. 177 n. 41).

22 Kazhdan and Epstein, Change in Byzantine Culture, 178.

23 Ibid., 177.


24 Shepard, “Marriages,” 15.

25 Ibid., 3, 14.


26 Ibid., 14.


27 Herrin, Byzantium, 208. The Heiratsurkunde specifies that Theophanu, as her marriage dower, received from Otto II properties that had belonged to Mathilda, his grandmother, including Boppard, Herford, Thiel, Tilleda, and Nordhausen, as well as Istria, Pescara, Walacher, and Wichelen (including the abbey of Nivelles); see Schulze, Hans K., Die Heiratsurkunde der Kaiserin Theophanu. Die griechische Kaiserin und das römisch-deutsche Reich 972–991 (Hanover: Verlag Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 2007), 92Google Scholar.

28 MacLean, Simon, ed. and trans., History and Politics in Late Carolingian and Ottonian Europe: The Chronicle of Regino of Prüm and Adalbert of Magdeburg (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2009), 235CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Adalbert of Magdeburg, Continuator Reginonis, Anno 919, in Reginonis Abbatis Prumiensis Chronicon cum Continuatione Treverensi, ed. Kurze, F., MGH SRG 50 (Hanover: Impensis Bibliopolii, 1890), 156Google Scholar.

29 MacLean, History and Politics, 236; Adalbert of Magdeburg, Anno 920, 156.

30 MacLean, History and Politics, 241; Adalbert of Magdeburg, Anno 936, 159.

31 Kantorowicz, Ernst, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 65Google Scholar.

32 But Leyser also emphasizes the importance of not viewing this new sacrosanctity as anything other than the “diversified, growing and changing phenomenon” that it was. See Leyser, Rule and Conflict, 84, 105.

33 Widukind, I.26.

34 Ibid. Sverre Bagge notes that this emphasis on election, which Widukind associated with Otto as well—despite the elaborate description of his coronation—emphasized these kings “as charismatic patrons and warriors rather than as Christian reges iusti”; see Bagge, Sverre, Kings, Politics, and the Right Order of the World in German Historiography, ca. 950–1150 (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 90Google Scholar.


35 Althoff, Gerd, Family, Friends and Followers: Political and Social Bonds in Early Medieval Europe, trans. Carroll, Christopher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 84Google Scholar.

36 Widukind, II.1. This distinction is discussed in detail in Bagge, Kings, Politics, 90.

37 Althoff, Family, Friends, 124.

38 Ibid., 86, 129.


39 Ibid., 85, 129.


40 Bagge, Kings, Politics, 91.

41 Bagge, Kings, Politics, 90–91.

42 Shepard, “Marriages,” 12, 16. This was a distinctly different style from that previously seen in the Western Empire: it consisted of a full-frontal depiction of the crowned emperor holding a cross, orb, and scepter. See also Späth, Markus, “Kaiserliche Repräsentation in den Siegelbildern Ottos I.,” in Otto der Groß und das Römische Reich. Kaisertum von der Antike zum Mittelalter, ed. Puhle, Matthias and Köster, Gabriele (Regensburg: Schnell and Steiner, 2012), 573–74Google Scholar.

43 Mayr-Harting, Henry, Church and Cosmos in Early Ottonian Germany: The View from Cologne (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 4CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Mayr-Harting points out that in the past, scholars focused on the practical gains the Ottonians had enjoyed by being emperors, but that today “few historians would rate such practical purposes above those of mystical allure and sacrality. As the term “Holy Roman Empire” did not come into use until the twelfth century, “Roman Empire” refers in this article to the medieval western Roman Empire only.

44 “Plaque with Otto I presenting the Cathedral of Magdeburg [Ottonian],” New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Acc. Nr. 41.100.157. Discussed in Mayr-Harting, Henry, Ottonian Book Illumination: An Historical Study, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (London: H. Miller, 1999), 180–81Google Scholar; and in Schramm, Percy Ernst and Mütherich, Florentine, Denkmale der deutschen Könige und Kaiser (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1962), 141–42Google Scholar, 282 (plate 68).

45 Vlasto, A. P., The Entry of the Slavs into Christendom: An Introduction to the Medieval History of the Slavs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 119CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a discussion of Magdeburg's economic and military importance, see Mayr-Harting, Henry, “The Church of Magdeburg: Its Trade and Its Town in the Tenth and Early Eleventh Centuries,” in Church and City, 1000–1500: Essays in Honour of Christopher Brooke, ed. Abulafia, David, Franklin, Michael, and Rubin, Miri (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 129–50Google Scholar.

46 Mayr-Harting, Ottonian Book Illumination, 12.

47 Bagge, Kings, Politics, 90. See, e.g., the miniature of Otto III in the Liuthar Gospels, discussed in Schramm and Mütherich, Denkmale der deutschen Könige und Kaiser, 154, 313 (plate 108), discussed further in n. 59 of this article.

48 Bernhardt, John W., “Concepts and Practice of Empire in Ottonian Germany (950–1024),” in Representations of Power in Medieval Germany, 800–1500, ed. Weiler, Björn and MacLean, Simon (Turnhout: Brepols, 2006), 149–54Google Scholar; Leyser, Karl, “The Ottonians and Wessex,” in Communications and Power in Medieval Europe: The Carolingian and Ottonian Centuries (London: Hambledon Press, 1994), 88Google Scholar; Mayr-Harting, Ottonian Book Illumination, 42.

49 Shepard, “Marriages,” 16.

50 Ibid., 16–17.


51 Leyser, Rule and Conflict, 89. But Krjnie Ciggar suggests the possibility that Theophanu “or near relatives” (there is no clarification of who these might be) introduced eastern saints such as St. Nicholas, St. Demetrios, and St. Dionysios, and that her dowry goods bore portrayals of eastern saints that might have later “[become] patron saints of churches and chapels.” See Krjnie Ciggaar, “Theophano: An Empress Reconsidered,” in Davids, The Empress Theophano, 59.

52 Timmers, J. J. M., “Byzantine Influences on Architecture and Other Art Forms in the Low Countries with Particular Reference to the Region of the Meuse,” in Byzantium and the Low Countries in the Tenth Century, ed. Aalst, Victoria van and Ciggaar, Krjnie N. (Kasteel Hernen: A. A. Brediusstichting, 1985), 121Google Scholar. St. Pantaleon was originally founded in the late ninth century, but it was nearly a century later that Archbishop Brun of Cologne, Otto I's brother, founded a Benedictine monastery next to it. Theophanu took a particular interest in this church, providing for its extensive expansion, as well as renovation of the façade; she also requested that she be buried there. See Sebastian Ristow, “St. Pantaleon in Köln. Ausgrabungen, Bau- und Forschungsgeschichte der Lieblingskirche von Kaiserin Theophanu,” in Altripp, Byzanz in Europa, 62.

53 Krjnie N. Ciggaar, “The Empress Theophano (972–991): Political and Cultural Implications of Her Presence in Western Europe, in Particular for the Country of Holland,” in Van Aalst and Ciggaar, Byzantium and the Low Countries, 52–53.

54 Ibid., 53.


55 Cutler, Anthony and North, William, “Word over Image: On the Making, Uses, and Destiny of the Marriage Charter of Otto II and Theophanu,” in Interactions: Artistic Interchange between the Eastern and Western Worlds in the Medieval Period, ed. Hourihane, Colum (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2007), 180Google Scholar.

56 Shepard, “Marriages,” 17.

57 See Huschner, Wolfgang, “Erzbischof Johannes von Ravenna (983–998), Otto II und Theophanu,” Quellen und Forschungen aus italienischen Archiven und Bibliotheken 83 (2003): 140Google Scholar.

58 McKitterick, Rosamond, “Ottonian Intellectual Culture in the Tenth Century and the Role of Theophanu,” Early Medieval Europe 2, no. 1 (1993): 54Google Scholar.

59 The culmination of this idea was best represented in the illumination of The Emperor Seated in Majesty, from the tenth-century Liuthar Gospels. Originally thought to be a portrayal of Otto II and dated ca. 975, recent scholarship has associated the manuscript with Otto III and given it the later date of ca. 996, coinciding with the imperial coronation. While the gap of twenty years may seem a matter of academic trivia, it is of utmost importance in this particular instance. The image does not look strikingly different from illuminations in other gospels of the Carolingians or Ottonians, except for one marked change: in other texts, the man inhabiting the mandorla is Christ, not the emperor. For a detailed analysis of how this represents a new theology of rulership, see Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies, 61–65. Kantorowicz used the earlier dating in his analysis; more recent studies that follow the later dating include the one by Schramm and Mütherich, who suggest a date of 990 (see Schramm and Mütherich, Denkmale der deutschen Könige und Kaiser, 154); Mayr-Harting, Ottonian Illumination, 59–60; de Hamel, Christopher, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts, 2nd ed. (London: Phaidon Press, 1994), 60Google Scholar.

60 Shepard, “Marriages,” 20.

61 Ibid., 17.


62 Ibid., 17, quoting from Le Pontifical romano-germanique du dixième siècle, ed. Vogel, Cyrille and Elze, Reinhard, vol. 1, Studi e Testi. 226 (Città del Vaticano: Biblioteca apostolica Vaticana, 1963), 267–68Google Scholar; Warner, David A., “Rituals, Kingship and Rebellion in Medieval Germany,” History Compass 8:10 (2010), 1212CrossRefGoogle Scholar.


63 Shepard, “Marriages,” 18.

64 Ibid., 17. See Schulze, Die Heiratsurkunde der Kaiserin Theophanu, 90.


65 Shepard, “Marriages,” 19.

66 “Plaque with Otto I presenting the Cathedral of Magdeburg [Ottonian]” (see n. 44).

67 Warner, Ottonian Germany, 103; Thietmar, Chronicon, II.15.

68 Leyser, “Theophanu,” 14.

69 Ibid.,18.


70 Krjnie N. Ciggaar and Josef M. M. Hermans, “Byzantium and the West in the Tenth Century: Some Introductory Notes,” in Van Aalst and Ciggaar, Byzantium and the Low Countries, 7.

71 For a compelling argument about the internal damage control that Otto engaged in to offset this obvious slight by John Tzimiskes and to ensure Theophanu's acceptance among the Saxon and Italian aristocracy, see Cutler and North, “Word over Image,” 182.

72 Bernhardt, John W., “King Henry II of Germany: Royal Self-Representation and Historical Memory,” in Medieval Concepts of the Past: Ritual, Memory, Historiography, ed. Althoff, Gerd, et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 41Google Scholar; Stefan Weinfurter, “Authority and Legitimacy of Royal Policy and Action: The Case of Henry II,” in Althoff, Medieval Concepts of the Past, 22–23.

73 Warner, Ottonian Germany, 103.

74 Ibid, 102; Thietmar, Chronicon, II.15.


75 Leyser, Karl, “The Tenth Century in Byzantine-Western Relationships,” in Medieval Germany and Its Neighbours, 900–1250 (London: Hambleton Press, 1982), 119Google Scholar.

76 Notker even smugly notes an instance when the Franks beat the Greeks at their own game: Balbulus, Notker, Gesta Karoli Magni Imperatoris, in MGH SS, Nova Series XII, ed. Haefela, Hans F. (Berlin, 1959), II.6Google Scholar.

77 See Isidori Hispalensis episcopi Etymologiarum sive originum libri XX, ed. Lindsey, W. M. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1911), VI:8Google Scholar.

78 Shepard, “Marriages,” 21.

79 Ciggaar, “The Empress Theophano,” 36.

80 Shepard, “Marriages,” 22.

81 Herrin, Judith, The Formation of Christendom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 478–79Google Scholar, quoting from H.P. Lattin, The Letters of Gerbert, with His Papal Privileges as Sylvester II, no. 231, 296–97; Gerbert d'Aurillac, letter 187 in Correspondance, vol. 2: Lettres 130–220, ed. and trans. by Pierre Riché and Jean-Pierre Callu (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1993), 486.

82 Herrin, Formation, 479. See also Deshman, Robert, “Otto III and the Warmund Sacramentary: A Study in Political Theology,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 34, no. 1 (1971): 13CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Deshman would suggest that the idea of a new Constantine and Sylvester as protectors of the Roman Empire was a motif promoted and known outside of the immediate court circles.

83 Warner, Ottonian Germany, 158.

84 Annales Einsidlenses, in MGH SS 3, ed. Pertz, Georgius Heinricus (Hanover: Impensis Bibliopolii Hahniani, 1839), 144Google Scholar. Of the three codices edited in this edition of the Annals, two noted that Theophanu's death was in 991. In both of these, her name is spelled in Greek letters: “Obiit ΘEΩΦANOY imperatrix” (codex 29), and “Θεωφανoυ imperatrix obiit” (codex 356). It is interesting that no mention is made in the three codices of the deaths of Matilda or Adelheid.

85 Odilo of Cluny, Epitaphium Adalheidae, Patrologia Latina Database (PLD), vol. 142, 973, (Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey, 1995)Google Scholar,

86 Ciggaar, “Theophano: An Empress Reconsidered,” 53. See PLD, vol. 140, 445; Alpertus Symphoriani Metensis, De episcopis Metensibus (Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey, 1995)Google Scholar,

87 Ciggaar, “Theophano: An Empress Reconsidered,” 56.

88 Ibid., 54. See Otloh of St. Emmeram, “Ex Othloni Libro Visionem,” Visio Decima Septima, MGH SS 11, 385.


89 Althoff, Family, Friends, 86, 129, 153.

90 Emma, Queen of the Franks, letters to Empress Adelheid and Empress Theophanu, in Die Briefsammlung Gerberts von Reims, MGH BDKz 2, ed. Fritz Weigle (Weimar: Hermann Bohlaus Nachfolger, 1966), ep. 119 and ep. 97.

91 Gerbert d'Aurillac, letter 22 in Correspondance, vol. 1: Lettres 1–129, ed. and trans. by Pierre Riché and Jean-Pierre Callu (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1993), 44.

92 Corbet suggests that the sole reason Theophanu was not sainted was because of her “origenes étrangères.” See Corbet, Les saints ottoniens, 71.

93 In the end, Liudolf's worries about his father's remarriage were well founded. Previously favored by his father as heir to the throne, he was deprived of that succession by the birth of his half-brother, Otto II; see Leyser, Rule and Conflict, 20.

94 Odilo Engels, “Theophano, the Western Empress from the East,” in Davids, The Empress Theophano, 35.

95 Ibid., 34–35.


96 Ibid., 35.


97 Odilo of Cluny, Epitaphium Adalheidae, 973.

98 Gilsdorf, Sean, ed. and trans., Queenship and Sanctity: The Lives of Mathilda and the Epitaph of Adelheid (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2004), 134Google Scholar. Odilo of Cluny, Epitaphium Adalheidae, 973. Theophanu died a few weeks after making this comment, and Odilo reports that Adelheid's reaction to her death was predictable: “Adelheid remains behind, healthy and happy, after the death of her daughter-in-law”; see Odilo of Cluny, Epitaphium Adalheidae, 973.

99 Engels asserts that the enmity between Adelheid and Theophanu was so extreme that Adelheid “prohibited annual memorial services for Theophano, even at her grave in the monastery of St. Pantaleon in Cologne,” and that “for this reason Otto III expelled his grandmother from court when he came of age in 994”; see Engels, “Western Empress,” 41. The sources do not support this assertion, however. For example, Thietmar's Chronicon gives no hint about forbidding memorial masses: it only states that after Theophanu died, Otto III made a donation to the brothers of the church of St. Pantaleon, where she was buried, and that he sent Adelheid away in sorrow after she had seen him through the rest of his minority, having been ill-advised by youthful counsel (see Chronicon, IV.15). In addition, for a claim that the correspondence between Otto III and his grandmother showed no signs of tension or animosity after he had achieved his majority, see Althoff, Gerd, Otto III, trans. Jestice, Phyllis G. (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2003), 53, 60Google Scholar.

100 Warner, Ottonian Germany, 157–58; Thietmar, Chronicon, IV.10, 143.

101 Althoff, Otto III, 51.

102 Stafford, Queens, Concubines, and Dowagers, 6.

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