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Saint Frideswide – (650 – 727)

There are thousands of amazing stories of women who lived during Medieval times. For most people living today the history is just too far in the past. The cultures were so different from our democratic, individualistic society that it is hard to relate to the people who lived then.

But as we study the lives of women who lived in the fifth through fifteenth centuries, we find that apart from the outward circumstances, they were very much like ourselves. Women prayed, taught, preached, traveled, administered in organizations, founded ministries, and took care of the poor. Like their female forebears in the Patristic Era these women contributed greatly to the Kingdom of God, not so they could be remembered, but so they could serve the Lord Jesus by serving others.[1]

We can relate only of few of the many stories of women throughout history who were called and gifted by God to serve Him. We began by looking at women in the Patristic Era, then we moved on to a journey through the Middle Ages with stories of women in the 5thand 6thcenturies – Genovefa of Paris (423-502), Clothilde, the Queen of the Franks (470-545), Brigid of Kildare (451-523), Empress Theodora (497-548), and Queen Radegund (520-587).

We then turned to the 7thand 8thcenturies to talk about Queen Bathilde (630-680) – the last of the rulers of the Merovingian Era (480-751 AD).

Things really changed for women in the 6thand 7thcenturies, so we took a look at how women began to be barred from the freedom of ministry that they exercised in the Patristic Era and Early Medieval Era. We saw that ideasabout women changed. For a number of worldly or unbiblical reasons women’s status was continually lowered until men saw them as impure, sinful, and unable to function in church service.

One of the chief ways that women were able to serve was in the cloister. We continued with our accounts of women in Medieval times with the stories of godly abbesses. We related the stories of Gertrude, Abbess of Nivelles and a distant relative of Gertrude’s – Anstrude of Laon.

This week we continue with the story of Saint Frideswide. In the fall of 2016 I had the opportunity to travel to Oxford and visit Christ Church which is the site where St. Frideswide founded her chapel. I posted a story on her when I returned to the States and find that I cannot improve on it. I hope you enjoy reading about her.

Saint Frideswide 

 It is virtually certain that Oxford developed around a mid-Saxon monastic church (the predecessor of the present Cathedral) at a major crossing over the Thames, and that the first head of the church was a princess named Frideswide.

John Blair: “Saint Frideswide: Patron of Oxford”

In the fall of 2016, I had an opportunity to visit London and Oxford. While in Oxford I toured the famous Christ Church. Harry Potter fans will recognize the Great Hall. The pictures in this post were taken by me during the tour.

But even more exciting to me was the fact that the church gives credit for its original founding to a woman – St. Frideswide. Our tour guide emphasized St. Frideswide during our entire tour. Frideswide established the original monastery there around the turn of the eighth century.

Most of the present cathedral was built at the end of the twelfth century as a priory church for the Augustinian Canons who lived there. More additions were completed through the centuries. Christ Church still functions as a college in Oxford.

This shrine to St. Frideswide was built in 1289 but broken up in 1538 when the Reformer’s criticized praying to saints. Parts of the shrine were discovered in a well in the nineteenth century and restored to the church. The beautiful chapel and shrine were finished as we see them in this picture in 2002.

A beautiful stained-glass window (by Edward Burne-Jones, 1858) graces the end of the Latin Chapel – the area in Christ Church commemorating Frideswide’s story.

Here is another of the stained-glass windows of Frideswide.

There is a special chair in cathedrals for the archbishop to sit in when he visits. Above this special chair is another memorial to St. Frideswide. The women seated to her right and left are St. Catherine and St. Cecilia – two women who were also well known for their faithful acts of piety and charity. Both were also persecuted for their faith.

Frideswide’s Story

Frideswide, (also called Frithuswith, or Fritha as she was known to family and friends), was born around 650 AD. She was born a princess to King Didan of Oxford and Queen Sefrida. Sefrida was a very godly woman, known for her charitable works. Her parents, Didan and Sefrida loved her very much.

Frideswide was carefully brought up by a governess, a holy woman named Elgitha. Frideswide began to love and honor God under Elgitha’s teaching and her life took a spiritual direction from an early age. She was a gifted student and within six months had learned the entire Psalter.

After her mother died Frideswide lived in Oxford with her father. She persuaded him to give her some land so that she could build a church.

The period between 650 and 720 was the age of the great monasteries. Many were founded by kings and princes, and in our story a princess. These were “double” monasteries, where men and women both lived and worshipped and served. At this time the monasteries were mostly self-governing. It would be many years before the monasteries were consolidated under the rule of the organized church.

Frideswide and twelve other women formed a convent. Her fame spread not only as a pious woman, but it was known that she was rich and beautiful. This attracted Aelfgar, the Earl of Leicester and he pressed his suit for her hand.

Here is where the story gets interesting. Frideswide refused to get married. She desired only to serve Christ for the rest of her life. This made Aelfgar angry and he decided to take Frideswide by force. He traveled to the forest where she was living. He was struck blind as he neared Frideswide! Only after he repented and asked for her forgiveness was his sight restored. In another version of the story, Aelfgar sent two messengers ahead with flattering words and his offer of marriage. Frideswide rebuffed them and they returned to Oxford to report to Prince Aelfgar. They were struck blind as they entered the city.

Like other “legends” the story is probably embellished, but no doubt there is a kernel of truth in the various accounts of Frideswide’s life. Something certainly happened to convince Aelfgar to leave Frideswide alone. God certainly blessed Frideswide and the community with her service to them.

Here is one account of the story according to William of Malmesbury (c. 1125) from John Blair’s book, “Saint Frideswide: Patron of Oxford” (p. 29, 30).

In old times there was in the city of Oxford a monastery of nuns, where rests the most holy virgin Frideswide. A kings’ daughter, she spurned a king’s bed, avowing her chastity to the Lord Christ. But the king had set his heart upon marrying the virgin, and when prayers and flatteries had been spent in vain he prepared to take her by force. Frideswide learnt of this and fled into a wood. No refuge could be secret from the lover, no coldness of heart could deter him: he followed the fugitive. So once again, when the young man’s frenzy became plain, with God’s help she entered Oxford at dead of night by means of hidden ways. By morning the persistent lover had hastened there too, and the girl, now despairing of flight and too weary to go any further, prayed to God for protection for herself and punishment for her persecutor. As he passed through the town gates with this thegns, a heaven-sent blow struck him blind. Understanding the wrongfulness of his persistence, he placated Frideswide by means of messengers and recovered his sight as quickly as he had lost it. Thus it came about that kings of England are afraid to enter or lodge in that town: it is said to bring ruin, and they all shrink from the danger of putting it to the test. So the woman, secure in her maidenly victory, established a monastery there where she ended her days, submitting to her bridegroom’s call.*

In the time of king Aethelred, the Danes, doomed to be slain, fled into that monastery and were consumed by fire together with the buildings through the insatiable anger of the English. But soon the sanctuary was purified by the king’s penance, the monastery rebuilt, old lands returned, new possessions added. In our own time** only a few clerks remained there, who lived as they pleased so Roger bishop of Salisbury gave the place to Wimund, a canon of excellent learning and no mean holiness. He toiling fruitfully at the task entrusted to him, established there for God many canons to live according to the rule.***

*This “bridegroom” is the Lord Jesus Christ.

** c. 1125

***The canons lived under the rule of St. Augustine.

 

Frideswide lived happily at Oxford for many years. She eventually retired to Binsey, where she built a chapel. She prayed for water and a spring appeared. You can visit that site today. She eventually died on October 19, 727. She was buried at St. Mary’s church.

I was happy to be able to climb up the tower of St. Mary’s. Here is a view from there.

 

[1]See posts on this blog site from January 22, 2019 through June 4, 2019 for “Women in the Patristic Era”.

Anstrude – Abbess of Laon

On this blog we can barely do justice for the thousands of women who served in God’s kingdom during Medieval times. Women prayed, taught, preached, went on pilgrimages, reigned over kingdoms, founded monasteries, and took care of the poor. Like their female forebears in the Patristic Era these women contributed greatly to the Kingdom of God, not so they could be remembered, but so they could serve the Lord Jesus by serving others.[1]

We relate here only of few of the many stories of women throughout history who were called and gifted by God to serve Him. We began by looking at women in the Patristic Era, then we moved on to a journey through the Middle Ages with stories of women in the 5thand 6thcenturies – Genovefa of Paris (423-502), Clothilde, the Queen of the Franks (470-545), Brigid of Kildare (451-523), Empress Theodora (497-548), and Queen Radegund (520-587).

We then turned to the 7thand 8thcenturies to talk about Queen Bathilde (630-680) – the last of the rulers of the Merovingian Era (480-751 AD).

Things really changed for women in the 6thand 7thcenturies, so we took a look at how women began to be barred from the freedom of ministry that they exercised in the Patristic Era and Early Medieval Era. We saw that ideas about women changed. For a number of worldly or unbiblical reasons women’s status was continually lowered until men saw them as impure, sinful, and unable to function in church service.

Thankfully, the poor treatment did not entirely stop women from finding ways to serve Christ by serving others. In the monasteries, women would be able to pray, teach, preach, serve communion, study, support themselves and take care of the poor. Throughout history, even with restrictions placed against them, women have and always will find ways to serve their Savior.

One of the chief ways that women were able to serve was in the cloister. We continue with our accounts of women in Medieval times with the stories of godly abbesses. Last time we related the story of Gertrude, Abbess of Nivelles. This week we will recount the story of a distant relative of Gertrude’s – Anstrude of Laon.

 

Anstrude, Abbess of Laon (c. 645 – date of death unknown)

Anstrude was the daughter of Blandinus (Also known as Baso) and the sainted Sadalberga. Growing up in this godly home, Anstrude was nurtured in the Christian religion. She was a bright and gifted child and learned how to read while very young. Anstrude amazed everyone with her ability to recite Scriptures and portions of other books, but her holiness in mind and demeanor is what really impressed those around her. She was “so full of grace that the ways of her maturity could be discerned in her first years.”[2]

Like Gertrude of Nivelles and many other medieval women, Anstrude chose to give her life fully to Christ rather than get married. Her mother Sadalberga had founded a convent at Laon after her husband Blandinus’s death. It was only fitting that Anstrude should go with her mother to the convent. Anstrude took her vows at age 12. She spent her time in fasting and prayer. Because she was so gifted with administrative skills, she was able to assist her mother. When Sadalberga died, Anstrude was chosen to be the abbess of Laon. She was only twenty years old, but the other nuns chose her by acclamation because she was wise and able.

Anstrude accomplished many good things while abbess of Laon. She loved to care for the poor. She gave away many of her possessions. She was hospitable to guests; her doors were always open for pilgrims. She tended those in prison or held in chains. She never tired of giving alms to widows and orphans, food to the hungry or drink to the thirsty. She was always available to share in the sorrows of those who were bereaved. Anstrude herself helped the loved ones to bury their dead.

Anstrude was a bringer of peace. Besides comforting the sick, she offered wise counsel to those who were troubled in any way. She stood as guide and arbiter to those who were having disputes, bringing reconciliation to both parties. Her fame as a wise peacemaker spread far and wide. Even the kings among the Franks honored her.

In spite of the recognition given her, Anstrude always gave the credit to God for His goodness.

Her life was not without troubles and temptations however. There were those who were either jealous of her or just hated her because of her goodness. A treacherous group of people carried out a plot to kill her brother, Baldwin. Falsely posing as friends, several men asked Baldwin to come to an assembly at a villa in Laon. When Baldwin arrived on what he thought was a peaceful mission, the deceivers stabbed him to death with their swords. Anstrude was heartbroken. She asked God to give her the strength to bear up under her sorrow. She felt partly to blame for Baldwins’ death since he was helping her with her work. All of the nuns and the townspeople mourned for Baldwin who was as tireless in charitable works as his sister.

Another attack came against Anstrude personally. The Mayor of the Palace, Ebroin, believed some malicious lies about Anstrude. He went to the convent with the intent to have her banished. He angrily spoke abusive words to Anstrude, but she replied with a calm and charitable spirit. In the meantime, the sisters were praying for her. After a time, Ebroin realized his error. He asked Anstrude to forgive him. For the rest of his life, Ebroin remained a supporter of Anstrude and the convent.

On another occasion a certain man named Cariveus attacked Anstrude. He chased her into a church and drew his sword to kill her. Anstrude stood near the altar with her arms outstretched praying to God for protection. Cariveus was suddenly struck with the fear of divine retribution and begged Anstrude for forgiveness. She forgave him with her heart. Later when he died, Anstrude saw to it that he was buried at that church, showing that she had completely forgiven him and never sought to return evil for evil (Romans 12:17).

Anstrude worked unceasingly every day. She did not want any moment to find her not doing something for Christ. When she wasn’t visiting the infirm or giving out charity, she was praying. She did this until the day that she could no longer rise from her bed. She called the nuns to her and they prayed and wept. She offered and received forgiveness from each one. When she passed into the Savior’s arms, the sisters laid Anstrude out in simple clothes for her burial. People came from far and wide to honor this pious, wise, generous, and loving servant of the Lord.

It is not certain when Anstrude died. One historian thought it may have been as early as 688. It seems that she lived longer than that, but had probably passed by 709 AD. Her feast day is celebrated on 17 October.

A post card commemorating Saint Anstrude was designed and issued in 1913.

 

[1]See posts on this blog site from January 22, 2019 through June 4, 2019 for “Women in the Patristic Era”.

[2]Jo Ann McNamara, John E. Halborg and E. Gordon Whatley, editors. Sainted Women of the Dark Ages(Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1992). 292.

 

Gertrude of Nivelles

Historians have not done justice to the thousands of women who served in God’s kingdom during Medieval times. Women prayed, taught, preached, went on pilgrimages, reigned over kingdoms, founded monasteries, and took care of the poor. Like their female forebears in the Patristic Era these women contributed greatly to the Kingdom of God, not so they could be remembered, but so they could serve the Lord Jesus by serving others.[1]

After looking at women in the Patristic Era, we began a journey through the Middle Ages with stories of women in the 5thand 6thcenturies – Genovefa of Paris (423-502), Clothilde, the Queen of the Franks (470-545), Brigid of Kildare (451-523), Empress Theodora (497-548), and Queen Radegund (520-587).

We then turned to the 7thand 8thcenturies to talk about Queen Bathilde (630-680) – the last of the rulers of the Merovingian Era (480-751 AD).

Things really changed for women in the 6thand 7thcenturies, so in our last post we took some time out to explain how little by little women began to be barred from the freedom of ministry that they exercised in the Patristic Era and Early Medieval Era. We saw that ideasabout women changed. For a number of worldly or unbiblical reasons women’s status was lowered and lowered until men saw them as impure, sinful, and unable to function in church service.

This did not entirely stop women from finding ways to serve Christ by serving others. In the monasteries, women would be able to pray, teach, preach, serve communion, study, support themselves and take care of the poor. Throughout history, even with restrictions placed against them, women have and always will find ways to serve their Savior.

One of the chief ways that women were able to serve was in the cloister. We continue with our accounts of women in Medieval times with the stories of godly abbesses.

 

Gertrude, Abbess of Nivelles (628-658)

Gertrude was born in Belgium in 628 AD. She was the daughter of Pippin the Elder, founder of the dynasty that would later be called the Carolingian Dynasty. In an earlier post where we recounted the history of the Middle Ages, we noted that the Merovingian Era came to a close when Pippin of Landen saw his opportunity to take over the rulership.[2]

In our post on Bathilde (October 8, 2019) we noted the descent of the Frankish kings from Clovis I (died 511) through Clovis II (died 657). Their descendent, Dagobert I was the one who was reigning when the Merovingian dynasty reached its peak. At this time, Pippin was already gaining in popularity with the people. He had made it clear that he wanted the throne. Dagobert was so corrupt that the people actually favored Pippin.

Dagobert was trying to use arranged marriages to strengthen his position as ruler. He thought that by marrying off Pippin’s daughter, Gertrude to one of his patrons, the duke of Austrasia, he could thwart Pippin. He ordered Gertrude to accept the suitor he had selected for her. Gertrude indignantly refused to marry Dagobert’s chosen suitor. Gertrude had a desire to enter the religious life and she had the support of her mother and father. She declared that she wanted no earthly husband but only Christ. Amazingly she got her way.

Gertrude was demonstrating her pious character when she turned down a life of wealth and influence. Gertrude had been influenced by the lives of other noble women who left their royal palaces to found convents. Her mother Ida and her sister Begga were known as holy women. They gave hospitality to missionary monks and pilgrims. They gave some land to one Irish monk so that he could build a monastery at Fosse.

When Pippin died (639), Ida and Gertrude founded the monastery at Nivelles. By doing this they were able to keep their part of the family fortune out of the hands of the rulers. It was acceptable to divert one’s money to religious causes. Apparently at this time the nuns did not have to take a vow of poverty. (In later centuries when women entered the convent all of their worldly goods would become church property.) Though the women kept control of their money, they usually spent it on the poor while they lived modestly. Gertrude was an exceptional example of using her money to help the poor.

Gertrude became an abbess at age seventeen with her mother helping her as a consultant. The monastery at Nivelles was a ‘double monastery’. There were places for men and for women, but all could socialize in common areas. Women as well as men studied the Scriptures and enjoyed a high rate of literacy. Learned monks from Ireland and Rome came, bringing many books with them.

Gertrude was gifted with intelligence and wisdom. She was able to commit whole sections of the Bible to memory. She was a committed leader and the women and men in the monastery were willing to follow her. Ascetism was still considered a special spiritual virtue. Gertrude practiced fasting from food and sleep to the point of wearing herself out by the time she was in her early thirties. She had to resign her position as abbess at age thirty-two. She then spent the rest of her days praying, reading, and fasting.

Once released from the responsibilities of her office Gertrude could exhort and preach the word of God. When her life was drawing to a close, she wore a hair shirt under her robe. She asked that she be buried with only the hair shirt and a simple veil that had been a gift from a traveling nun. On her last day on earth she led the nuns in prayer and at night she led them through the vigils. She died the next day at age thirty-three.

Gertrude is considered the patron saint of travelers, gardeners, and cats. She is often depicted as an abbess with cats. It is said that she offered hospitality to all people and animals and took care of the cats that adopted the monastery for their home. She offered them affection and food. Also because of her hospitality to traveling monks and nuns she is the patron of travelers.

Gertrude shares the same feast day as St. Patrick, March 17.

 

 

 

[1]See posts on this blog site from January 22, 2019 through June 4, 2019 for “Women in the Patristic Era”.

[2]See the post on “Clothilde” (August 5, 2019) for the historical account of the dynasties that ruled the empire from the 5th through 7th centuries.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.(Galatians 3:28)

 

In earliest Christianity women were treated far better than they had been in antiquity. The apostles and disciples of Christ took Paul’s instruction to the believers at Corinth seriously and they allowed women to serve in ministry in the Church. Throughout the Patristic Era (about 200 to 500 AD) women were allowed be involved in the life of the church even in leadership positions. They prayed, taught, preached, journeyed as evangelists, founded monasteries, presided over church ordinances such as communion and baptism, took care of the poor and some even reigned over kingdoms. These humble and faithful women contributed greatly to the Kingdom of God, not so they could be remembered, but so they could serve the Lord Jesus by serving others.[1]

 

Our journey through the Middle Ages has included some lay women such as Genovefa of Paris (423-502), but most of the posts have been about queens such as Clothilde, the Queen of the Franks (470-545), Empress Theodora (497-548), and two Merovingian queens – Radegund (520 – 587) and Bathildis (630 – 680). Throughout the Middle Ages there would be many more women in political positions of leadership. We have more of this information than stories about common women because many documents about the wealthy and influential have survived. It is still awesome to see how many of these Christian women with political power used it to benefit the poor. But since the status of women in general was being lowered throughout the Middle Ages, even the queens had to submit to male authority.

 

Changes had begun to take place for women in ministry during the Medieval Era. Little by little women were being barred from the freedom of ministry in the Church that they exercised in the Patristic Era. What happened to the freedom women had begun to enjoy when Christianity began to transform the cultures in the Greco-Roman world? Why didn’t the transformation stick or spread further? How did the view of women suffer such a reversal when it was not only unbiblical but unethical?

When the Church began to form itself into an institution in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, women were left out. The institutional Church formed itself into a hierarchy that excluded women. Women were barred from education and service. Not all women just gave up and faded into the background. Yes, women are generally peaceful and were submissive to the formal hierarchy, but they found avenues for serving Christ in another way – the monastery. We have already looked at the life of a female founder of a monastery – Brigid of Kildare (451-523). In our upcoming posts we will look at the lives of many more women who exercised leadership in the monasteries. Before we explore the lives of the many pious abbesses, let’s pause and see why women chose this way of life.

 

Religious Life for Medieval Women

There were many reasons why women began to be barred from service in the Church. Whole books have been written about misogyny, abuse of power, ignorance, and superstition. For our purposes we want to explore the main cause of the belittlement of women that encouraged them to find their spiritual fulfillment in monasteries or cloisters when they were abandoned by the church.

The cause of the diminishment of women in the Church was generally speaking – ideasabout women changed. For a number of worldly or unbiblical reasons women’s status was lowered and lowered until men saw them as impure, sinful, and unable to function in church service. How did this come about?

What Jesus began when He treated women with dignity and equality, the early disciples of Christ continued. In the Patristic Era and the early part of the Medieval Era women had opportunities to seek spiritual fulfillment in many ways. Unlike the surrounding pagan culture, men were not to see their wives as only objects for procreation, but to treat their wives as equal ministry partners. Christian men were taught to “love their own wives as their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:28). In this passage, Paul is reminding believers that God originally created men and women to share in the work in the world equally (Genesis 1:26 – 30). For the first three centuries Christian singles and married couples served together in ministry. In fact, married men were seen as better equipped to furnish pastoral care in churches with their wives helping them.

Somewhere in the fourth or fifth centuries, many men lost sight of God’s original plan for equality of men and women in Genesis. They overlooked Christ’s example of allowing women into full discipleship,[2]and Paul’s reminder to the church of the equal status of women (Galatians 3:28). It is hard for us today to understand how men could suddenly demean women in an unbiblical fashion, but we must remember that many were illiterate. Even if they could read, there were not many Bibles available and the Bible was in Latin. Lay people had to believe the word of their priests and especially the bishops. How were the bishops able to convince men that only they could be priests? What was the matter with women?

There were many motives from ignorance to spiritual abuse. But the reason we explore today since it led to women feeling the need to turn to the cloister has to do with the view of “purity”.  In the fourth and fifth centuries ascetism including sexual abstinence was valued as a loftier Christian virtue. Men and women sought to dedicate their lives to service free from the troubles of marriage. They had some Biblical basis for this in I Corinthians 7 where Paul encourages singleness for those who would wholly follow the Lord. Celibacy became very popular. In time, the idea began to take hold that purity meant “sexual abstinence”.  Paul never said that sexual relations in marriage was a sin, but somehow with the idealization of abstinence it turned into that for the church.

The hierarchy in the Church went further – they actually passed laws forbidding priests to marry, or if they were married, they were forbidden to have relations with their wives.[3]The reason was that the priests handled the bread and wine for communion and those elements had to be ritually pure. Now that all sexual relations were seen as impure, they tainted the priest and therefore tainted the communion elements. There’s no time here to discuss the question of why the elements (bread and wine) took on such an exalted nature in the communion service. Even today in the Roman Catholic Church only the priests can handle the consecrated elements. Still today, priests may not marry. What we are concerned about for now is what happened to the women.

We find increasingly in the writings of the fourth and fifth centuries a disparagement against marriage and women.

              As the Western church began to press for sexual abstinence in higher orders, apologists began to compare the wives of clerics to Eve. For example, an anonymous treatise about the seven ecclesiastical grades, composed around 420, warned priests not to give power over their souls to their wives because, like Adam placed in paradise, they too might be beguiled. Tirades about woman’s role as temptress, henceforth appearing regularly in conciliar legislation, papal decretals, sermons, and treatises, encouraged the identification of women with sexuality and sin.[4]

No wonder with such a low view of women, females began to be left out of ministry. If the leaders of the Medieval Church were biblically and ethically correct, then women today should still not be allowed to serve as priests or clerics. Thankfully, over time as churches have studied their Bibles, we now realize that women were cruelly and mischievously abused. The mystery to me is “Why did it take so long?”

In the Middle Ages there was a place where women could find spiritual comfort and use their gifts and abilities to serve even in leadership positions. The monastery, abbey, cloister, or nunnery, though often under the hierarchal control of the institutional church, was still relatively free of the restrictions put on women in lay life. Women were respected and honored in the religious houses.

In the coming weeks we will take a deeper look at life for women in Medieval times as we consider the inspiring stories of the many faithful women who overcame the prejudice against them and found a way to serve Christ by serving others. In the monasteries, women would be able to pray, teach, preach, serve communion, study, support themselves and take care of the poor. Throughout history, even with restrictions placed against them, women have and always will find ways to serve their Savior.

 

 

 

[1]See posts on this blog site from January 22, 2019 through June 4, 2019 for “Women in the Patristic Era”.

[2]See for example Luke 10:38-42. When Martha complained that her sister Mary was not helping her in the kitchen, Jesus admonished Martha to let Mary be. “Mary has chosen the good part” said the Savior of the woman who was sitting at His feet as a disciple.

[3]For just one of many examples – The Council of Carthage declared in 401 that at the time of ordination, clergy in higher orders had to take a vow to abstain from sexual relations with their wives for the rest of their lives.

[4]Suzanne Fonay Wemple. Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister 500 to 900(Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981). P. 130.

Historians have not done justice to the thousands of women who served in God’s kingdom during Medieval times. Women prayed, taught, preached, went on pilgrimages, reigned over kingdoms, founded monasteries, and took care of the poor. Like their female forebears in the Patristic Era these women contributed greatly to the Kingdom of God, not so they could be remembered, but so they could serve the Lord Jesus by serving others.[1]

We began our journey through the Middle Ages with the story of Genovefa of Paris (423-502). Next, we learned about Clothilde, the Queen of the Franks (470-545) who was a contemporary of Genovefa’s. Then we took a break from Medieval Christianity on the mainland continent of Europe to look at Christianity in Ireland and her most famous saint – Brigid of Kildare (451-523). We then returned our attention to the east to the Byzantine Empire and recounted the story of Empress Theodora. As a powerful woman, Theodora saw to it that the poor and disadvantaged were cared for. Many other noble ladies used their power and resources to care for the poor. Last time we were introduced to one of these – Radegund, Queen of the Franks. This week we turn to the story of a woman who went from slavery to reigning as queen in the Merovingian era – Bathilde (sometimes spelled Bathildis).

 

Bathilde (Bathildis) – 626 (630?) – 680

Queen Bathilde was one of the last to rule during the Merovingian era. Before we begin her story, let’s take a break and review the history of the Merovingian era. The circumstances in the Frankish kingdom during this time explain the details surrounding Bathilde’s life.

The Merovingian era was from about 480 to 751 AD. It was named for King Merovech, but the dynasty was firmly established with his grandson, Clovis I who came to power in 481 AD.[2]Clovis I died in 511 AD. As time went on the Merovingian kings became weaker and there was more corruption in the land. Over 100 years later Clovis’s descendant, Dagobert I (603-638) was the last really powerful Merovingian king.

 

Descent of Frank Kings from Clovis I

Clovis I – died 511 – married St. Clothilde

Clotaire I – died 561 – married St. Radegund[3]

Chilperic I – died 584

Clotaire II – died 628

Dagobert I – died 638

Clovis II – died 657 – married St. Bathilde

 

During the reign of Dagobert I, the Merovingian dynasty reached its peak. The kingdom had gone from barbarism to the luxuries and extravagances of a settled civilization. The latter kings became self-indulgent and lazy. The weakness in their character played into the hands of very powerful men – the major-domo’s (Mayor of the palace) who became greedy. The major-domo was elected from the wealthy proprietors of the land to help the king keep them under control. But the mayors began to use their power for their own advantage. It was during a period of warfare and struggles for power in the mid-seventh century that our story about Bathilde takes place.

Around 640 AD in one of the battles between a Frankish army and the Anglo-Saxons, a young aristocratic English girl was taken prisoner. Bathilde was carried into France and sold into slavery to the mayor of the palace, a man named Erchinoald. Bathilde was sweet and good-natured even in the face of her bad fortune. She had a cheerful countenance and was beautiful. Erchinoald desired to marry her, but she steadfastly refused.

Clovis had noticed the beautiful Bathilde too. Erchinoald offered to give her to him and Clovis and Bathilde were married. Bathilde was around nineteen years of age. They had three sons who would go on to be kings of the Franks – Clotaire III, Childeric II, and Theodoric III.

Clovis II became ruler of the entire kingdom of the Franks in 657. He only reigned in this capacity for a few months, dying in November of that year. Queen Bathilde became the regent for her young son Clotaire.

For a time, everything went well. Bathilde was assisted by the major-domo, Erchinoald who helped her rule wisely. The queen tried to do much that would help her people. She did away with a dreadful poll tax that mostly harmed the poor. Fathers were selling their children into slavery in order to pay the tax. Bathilde forbade the sale or purchase of Christian slaves. Having been a victim of war as a slave herself, Bathilde could sympathize with the prisoners captured in war. She declared that the slaves should be freed. Bathilde won the love of her people for her justice and compassion.

Bathilde also worked with the bishops to end corruption in the church. She supported the religious houses in her kingdom and at least two of them were founded out of her own means. One of them was at Corby, near Amiens and the other at Chelles near Paris on the river Marne.

During her reign forests and wastelands were reclaimed and turned into productive agricultural lands. Ahead of her time as a statesman, Bathilde introduced the concept of private property which had the effect of greatly improving the economy. Besides allowing property to be owned by someone other than the church or the nobles, individuals could start businesses. Farmers had the incentive to get loans and improve their land. The people greatly rejoiced in their freedom under Bathilde.

Bathilde built hospitals and purchased the supplies for the needy with the sale of her own jewelry. She continued to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, bury the dead and promote Christianity. She was praised by her people for her wisdom, charity, and generosity.

 

 

Things took a bad turn when Erchinoald was no longer the major-domo. The new mayor, Ebroin was unscrupulous and involved the government in serious disputes with the nobles and the clergy. Ebroin was as daring as he was unprincipled. He used his power to get rid of any bishops who did not agree with him. When he had Annemond, bishop of Lyons done away with he aggravated the crime by saying that he had done it with the authority of the queen. Ebroin did everything in his power to discredit Bathilde. Always humble, Bathilde eventually wearied and felt that she could no longer fight Ebroin. Around 665, her son Clotaire had come of age and was crowned King of France. Bathilde could then retire from public life. Her other two sons were also established in their respective territories, Childeric in Austrasia and Theodoric in Burgundy.

Bathilde went to join the nuns at Chelles. Though she was queen, she did not treat the other sisters as beneath her. With her usual humility, Bathilde submitted herself to the abbess and served in any capacity that was required. Her favorite post was the infirmary. Bathilde was delighted that she could serve the poor and needy with her own hands. For the last fifteen years of her life she served and prayed with humility, wisdom, meekness, amiability, compassion, and prudence. Having been a slave of men, Bathilde became a slave of the Lord Jesus Christ. She died peacefully in 680 and was buried in the Abbey of Chelles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]See posts on this blog site from January 22, 2019 through June 4, 2019 for “Women in the Patristic Era”.

[2]See the post on Clothilde, August 3, 2019 for more details. Clothilde was the saintly queen of Clovis I who helped spread Christianity throughout Gaul.

[3]See the post on Radegund, September 24, 2019.

There were thousands of women who served in God’s kingdom during Medieval times. Like their female forebears in the Patristic Era these women contributed greatly to the Kingdom of God, not so they could be remembered, but so they could serve the Lord Jesus by serving others.[1]

We began our journey through the Middle Ages with the story of Genovefa of Paris (423-502). Next, we learned about Clothilde, the Queen of the Franks (470-545) who was a contemporary of Genovefa’s. Then we took a break from Medieval Christianity on the mainland continent of Europe to look at Christianity in Ireland and her most famous saint – Brigid of Kildare (451-523). We then returned our attention to the east to the Byzantine Empire and recounted the story of Empress Theodora.[2]Theodora took advantage of her position as empress to change laws so that women had more privileges and remedies for the abusive behavior they received. As a powerful woman, Theodora also saw to it that the poor and disadvantaged were cared for. Many other noble ladies used their power and resources to care for the poor. One of these was Radegund, Queen of the Franks.

 

Radegund (520-587)

When we think of Medieval women who joined cloisters or “nunneries” we often picture women who were pious but poor. While “poverty, chastity, and obedience” were the traditional vows than men and women often took in monasteries, it did not always hold true that everyone who sought a religious life forsook their wealth and privilege. The cloisters during the Merovingian Era[3]housed women from every social level. In fact, many noble women kept their wealth precisely so that they could use it to take care of the poor. Queen Radegund was such a devout and pious woman, believing that charity is a virtue also.

 

 

Radegund, a princess of Thuringia, was born around 520 AD. Her father the king, was one of three sons who inherited kingdoms from Clovis I. As an interesting note to history, Radegund would be the future bride of Clothar, (Also spelled Chlothar), son of Clothilde (See post August 5, 2019). It is not certain whether or not the two women ever met. By the time Radegund was captured by Clothar and sent to live in his villa of Athie in Picardy, Clothilde had already retired to the Abbey of St. Martin of Tours. Like her future mother-in-law, Radegund was raised in the household of the uncle who murdered her father.

Around 531 AD, Radegund’s father and brothers fought to see who would have the preeminent rule. Her uncle Clothar won, and as part of his victory demanded the child princess, Radegund. She was so beautiful that Clothar decided to educate her to be his future queen. He sent her to live at Athie where she excelled in her studies. Radegund also responded to the gospel and became a devoted Christian. After she was baptized, Radegund never wavered from the life of prayer and passion for a devoted life of following Jesus in caring for the poor.

In her nineteenth year (538) Clothar sent for Radegund. She did not want to marry him. She was one of five wives. Clothar, probably 50 years old by now, had lived a life licentiousness and debauchery and was not worthy of her. Radegund relied on all of her training in prayer and discipline and submitted herself to her husband. However, like Clothilde before her, she bravely sought to fill the role of a Christian queen. She tried to convert her lawless husband, but he rejected her and complained that she turned “his court into a cloister”[4]The other nobles and peers supported Clothar but Radegund patiently continued to espouse a godly life in spite of them. Radegund spent most of her time engaged in acts of charity. In her rare moments of solitude, she enjoyed reading or conversing with clerks and bishops who visited the palace.

Radegund delighted in helping all who came to her for aid. Having been a devout Christian since childhood, Radegund took pleasure in giving her husband’s money away, especially since he had obtained most of it from conquered enemies. While he was throwing his lavish banquets to celebrate his conquests, she distributed the ill-gotten gains to any needy who came to the door. Radegund brought lepers into the royal palace and washed and fed them herself.

The miracle is that Clothar seemed to be content to allow her to give to charity as she wished. One time, Clothar presented her with the mansion where she had been raised. Radegund gave it to the poor and sick and ministered to the lepers with her own hands. Though he was a harsh and cruel man, Clothar had his moments of generosity. Later, when Radegund decided to establish a convent at Poitiers, Clothar gave the money to build it.

After six years of fervently trying to convince her husband to repent, Radegund gave up and asked to be allowed to move into a cloister. Clothar not only gave in but seemed to have supported the idea. When Radegund left Clothar she went to live in Noyon. The bishop there consecrated her as a deaconess. She took off her gold ornaments and expensive clothes and gave them to the poor. Radegund then retired to Saix, one of the royal residences in Poitou, where she lived an austere life.

News soon came that Clothar wanted to get Radegund back. She escaped to Poitiers with some friends. She wrote to Clothar and begged him to think of her as dead to him. He agreed for a time, but eventually changed his mind again. With help from Germanus, the bishop of Paris, she prevailed on getting him to leave her alone. He was near death at this time (561). Before he died, Clothar arranged for the rich endowment of the convent in Poitiers. Queen Radegund settled there when she was a widow.

Radegund lived happily in the convent until her death. She accomplished several things that were near and dear to her heart. One was her dream of getting a relic of the cross that Jesus died on for the monastery at Poitiers. The abbey in Poitiers became known as St. Croix in honor of this relic.

Though Radegund was at peace personally, the country around her was not. Wars and striving for power continued. At one point during a battle, Poitiers was burned and looted. We don’t know how much the convent was affected. Radegund never tired of writing to her royal relatives trying to get them to make peace. It seems that her efforts were in vain because troubles continued for many years.

Radegund died in 587. She had outlived her husband and his sons. To her last day she practiced a life of penance and humbly served in the convent doing even the most menial tasks. Radegund is honored as the patron saint of Poitiers.

[1]See posts on this blog site from January 22, 2019 through June 4, 2019 for “Women in the Patristic Era”.

[2]There were two Theodora’s – our subject for this week was married to Justinian (6thcentury) and reigned in Constantinople. Later we will talk about the Empress Theodora of Byzantium of the 9thcentury.

[3]Merovingian Era – Roughly 457 – 750 AD. See post on Clothilde, August 5, 2019.

[4]“A Secular Priest”. The Lives of St. Radegund & Bathildis, Queens of the Franks (St. Pius X Press, 2019).

Over these several months, we are covering the stories of only a few of the thousands of women who served in God’s kingdom during Medieval times.Like their female forebears in the Patristic Era these women contributed greatly to the Kingdom of God, not so they could be remembered, but so they could serve the Lord Jesus by serving others.[1]

We began our journey through the Middle Ages with the story of Genovefa of Paris (423-502). Next, we learned about Clothilde, the Queen of the Franks (470-545) who was a contemporary of Genovefa’s. Then we took a break from Medieval Christianity on the mainland continent of Europe to look at Christianity in Ireland and her most famous saint – Brigid of Kildare (451-523). We will now turn to the east to the Byzantine Empire and recount the story of Empress Theodora.[2]

 

Empress Theodora (497-548)

Theodora was one of the many powerful empresses of the Medieval era. She was by all accounts a most extraordinary woman. Some regard her as the most powerful woman in Byzantine history. Emperor Justinian considered her his most trusted advisor. She used her influence to promote religious and social justice. The rights of women were greatly expanded while Theodora was empress.

Theodora was born as the middle child of three sisters. Her father died when she was only 5 years old. After her mother remarried, Theodora began a career on stage working with her older sister, Comito (sometimes spelled Comitona). She may have started her training as an actress around age 10. Theodora worked as a mime – a role that was open to women in those days. Theodora was part of the chorus for a few years before she started getting solo roles. After she gained enough experience, Theodora probably joined a troupe of male and female performers.

By about 517 AD Theodora had most likely given up her acting career. Theodora became the concubine of a man named Hecebolus, who was a high-ranking official in the government. Concubinage was a legal alternative to marriage; concubines had rights and privileges and were not considered common prostitutes. Hecebolus would be expected to take no other lovers and if there were children, they would be hers if there was a split. Theodora had a daughter around this time.

Living in a large palace with Hecebolus, Theodora learned how to manage a large staff. She learned how to build a network of support and always remained loyal to her friends. She learned something of how the empire was run not knowing at this time in her life that later when she became the Empress, she would use her education to help her husband Justinian reign.

Around 521, Hecebolus dismissed Theodora. Alone and with a young child, she set out to make a new life. Theodora was bright, headstrong, and energetic She began to make her own way. She refused to just join the ranks of unmarried women with children, dependent on the charity of others. She headed out for Alexandria and soon left there for Antioch in Syria and eventually made her way to Constantinople around 522.

Somehow Theodora came to Justinian’s notice. Attracted to her beauty, wit, and intelligence he fell in love rapidly and completely. He immediately made her his mistress. Laws were changed so that they could marry. It is safe to say that Theodora took to her new life like a duck takes to water. Her new home was now the imperial palace. This totally self-confident woman took her place among the patricians with ease and did not hesitate to interact with them as equals. She had grace and style and was accepted among the wealthy and influential at the palace.

While Justinian was the emperor and had the ultimate authority for ruling, it was well-known that Theodora had great influence that resulted in many reforms. Justinian treated her as his intellectual partner. Theodora’s name appears in the records of nearly all of the new laws that were passed including those that expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership. Perhaps remembering her own difficult childhood, in 534 she saw to it that legislation was passed to prevent parents from forcing their daughters to appear on stage. In fact, she fought for the right for women to live chastely without the danger of being forced into servitude. In regulations for admission to a monastery that were passed a year later, Justinian went so far as to state that, “in the worship of God, there was no distinction of gender or status, for all ‘are justly considered the same’ in Christ.”[3]

Theodora also established a hostel for women who wanted to escape their lives as prostitutes. She found a former imperial palace where 500 women could be cared for and she encouraged women who were victims of forced prostitution due to poverty. In an ancient form of sex-trafficking this included women who were brought to Constantinople and exploited by brothel owners. Justinian and Theodora went so far as to expel the brothels in the city. Thousands of women were thankful for their new lives.

Theodora’s wise actions also saved Justinian’s throne for him on several occasions. One event has become known as the “Nika Revolt”.

In January 532 two political factions in Constantinople known as the Blues and the Greens set aside their normal rivalry to unite and oppose Justinian. They sought to put their own emperor on the throne. On January 13, when chariot races were scheduled at the Hippodrome the crowd that showed up was very restless. Justinian should have cancelled the event and he would have headed off trouble. Instead, by the end of the day rioting started, things got out of hand and many buildings were burned down including the beautiful new Church of Hagia Sophia built by Justinian and Theodora. The rioters demanded changes and marched along shouting “Nika!” (“Victory!) as their watchword.

Justinian’s advisors urged him to flee. Theodora intervened. She convinced Justinian that flight was not in their best interest. She wisely pointed out that sometimes force must be used. Justinian resolved to end the destructive rebellion. His army went to the Hippodrome where many were gathered and put to death most of them. A number of high-ranking officials that had sided with the rebels were exiled and their property confiscated.

Theodora’s intervention changed history. And by this time if anyone doubted her ability to rule, they had been proven mistaken.

Even more threatening to Justinian’s reign than the Nika revolt was the Great Plague of 542. The Bubonic plague raged throughout the Mediterranean, Egypt, Ethiopia for three years. They did not have antibiotics to treat this disease in the sixth century. They did their best with bathing, bed rest, and prayer. People considered the plague to be the vengeance of God.

It took four months for the plague to run its course in Constantinople. Estimates are that there were between 5 and 10 thousand deaths in a single day. The full toll was probably in the hundreds of thousands, amounting to nearly half the population. The economy was ruined. Rich and poor alike were afflicted so revenues from taxes declined enormously. Transportation came to a standstill. Dead bodies were everywhere so sanitation concerns mounted for the living. Government workers went unpaid. Justinian himself fell ill, though he recovered.

While Justinian was recovering from the plague Theodora ruled wisely. Though lacking absolute power, she did what needed to be done to make sure that she and Justinian would continue to be emperor and empress. These qualities of intelligence, toughness, and loyalty would be enough to help her hold the title for the rest of her life.

Theodora had risen to the highest height possible – Empress of Byzantium. She proved that neither birth nor education can guarantee power, but steadiness, loyalty, and a firm resolve to do what was right. She knew how to talk to people as well as to listen. Most of her friends found her to be tough but very endearing.

Theodora died on June 28, 548, possibly from cancer. Her daughter had married well, and Theodora’s descendants would go on to occupy positions in the highest levels of society in Constantinople for many years.

Her relationship with Justinian was not based on passion alone, but each one’s loyalty was first to the other. Justinian regarded her as his most trusted advisor. When Theodora was buried, he made a proclamation of his undying love. He claimed that she changed his life and helped to shape the empire. “As she had transformed herself, so she had transformed her world.”[4]

Theodora was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles, one of the churches that she and Justinian had built in Constantinople. She is considered a saint in the Orthodox Church today.

 

[1]See posts on this blog site from January 22, 2019 through June 4, 2019 for “Women in the Patristic Era”.

[2]There were two Theodora’s – our subject for this week was married to Justinian (6thcentury) and reigned in Constantinople. Later we will talk about the Empress Theodora of Byzantium of the 9thcentury.

[3]David Potter. Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint (Oxford University Press, 2015). P. 107.

[4]Ibid. p. 203