Archive for January, 2017

Medieval Women Saints

There is very little teaching done on women who lived during the Middle Ages. This is not only true in general society but also in church. It is a shame because the women who lived 5 to 10 centuries ago did wonderful work in the Kingdom of God. They served the poor, comforted the mourning, raised godly families, and much more. Many even left us written accounts of their activities. If we did not have these stories we would not know as much about everyday life during Medieval times.

The material in the books covered in these reviews spans about ten centuries – from 500 AD to 1500 AD. Three of the books contain biographies. One book, Crown & Veil, gives us the background to life in the female monasteries. If you ever wondered what God’s saints were doing during this thousand-year time period, these books will fascinate and enlighten you.


—  Hamburger, Jeffrey F., and Marti, Susan, Editors, Crown & Veil: Female Monasticism from the Fifth to the Fifteenth Centuries, (Columbia University Press, New York, 2008).

crown-and-veilWhen most people picture a convent the image they get is a quiet, secluded, austere building far away from civilization. While some convents were purposefully more secluded, most were communities of women who were able to engage in activities otherwise denied them both inside and outside of the cloister.

Convents were not the bleak places we often imagine them to be. Women went to convents to get an education as well as to fellowship and pray with other women. Many “nuns” wrote books, poetry, and music. Others painted and engaged in other facets of art. Most did not reside like hermits in their cloisters but moved out into the surrounding community with food and clothing and medicine and love for the poor and needy. Some abbesses were renowned for their Biblical knowledge and wisdom and their spiritual care of others in the convent and in the surrounding community.

This book is a series of articles by different authors, each telling of the different aspects of female monastic life. It is thrilling to see what sort of life Christian women lived during the Middle Ages. You won’t be disappointed!


—  Dronke, Peter, Women Writers of the Middle Ages, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984).

This book actually covers from 300 AD to around 1300 AD. That is because Perpetuadronke-book is included (see my post on this site – August, 2010). Perpetua is considered one of the earliest women Christian writers. Perpetua and her slave Felicitas were martyred on March 7, 203 AD. Perpetua wrote an account of her life that has been preserved for us. Peter Dronke continues moving through the Middle Ages telling the stories of Dhuoda, Hrotsvitha, Heloise, Hildegard of Bingen and Marguerite Porete, focusing on their writings. He also includes the poetry by women of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

The book is written from a technical standpoint, but it is still fascinating because Dronke emphasizes the women’s personal testimonies. Peter Dronke has shown what skilled writers women are. It is too bad that their stories are so neglected. Though a little on the “dry” side I think you will be amazed and uplifted by these accounts.


—  Mayeski, Marie Anne, Dhuoda: Ninth Century Mother and Theologian, (The University of Scranton Press, Scranton, 1996).

One of the women mentioned in Peter Dronke’s book as an exceptional female writer dhuodaof the Middle Ages was Dhuoda. Dhuoda is very well known among scholars of literature. Marie Anne Mayeski has given the world a gift in her book about Dhuoda’s life. We know so little about women in the Middle Ages. This book whets our appetites for more.

Admittedly, not much is known about Dhuoda except through her writings, but we do have the history of her times and her family. Through her writing we can deduce what a dedicated mother Dhuoda was. One of her books (published in 843 AD) was copied for many years and is in print today – Liber Manualis. Dhuoda intended this book to be a manual for the personal growth and edification of her son William.

Dhuoda’s book contains teaching from the Scriptures. Her Bible knowledge and wisdom, coming from years of study, proves that Dhuoda was a lay theologian.

We can be thankful that Dhuoda left us her writings. Her advice to her son on moral behavior is timeless. Dhuoda is a shining example of a woman who loved God above all and spent her time studying about Him to get to know Him better and to pass on that knowledge to others.

Marie Anne Mayeski is a good story teller. You will not find this book dry! You will appreciate how Mayeski weaves Dhuoda’s learning and writing with history and biography. For me, it was a book hard to put down. I think you will enjoy it.


—  McNamara, Jo Ann, Editor and Translator, Halborg, John E. and Whatley, E. Gordon, Editors, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages, (Duke University Press, London, 1992).

The book contains the stories of 18 Frankish women (12 abbesses, 3 queens, and othersaints-dark-ages devout widows and wise women) who lived during the so-called Dark Ages – the time period of the sixth and seventh centuries. This time period covers from the fall of the Roman Empire until the rise of Charlemagne’s family.

When the stories begin, we find the women living in the land that was known as Roman Gaul. The Christians were the survivors of the wars. Gradually they formed their own kingdoms of Neustria, Burgundy, and Austrasia. The people in this land would come to be called the “Franks”.

Each chapter in the book gives the historical background of the saint. Then the editors include information gained from historical documents. Many of the stories will contain information that is strange sounding if you are not a Roman Catholic. I grew up with stories of the miracles that surrounded women saints. The editors of this book put their own commentary in the footnotes for you. How much is myth or legend? I believe that God does do miracles and heal people. I am sure that the prayers of these saintly women had some effect. Even if some of the legends are just that – legends – they are interesting stories. Every legend contains a kernel of truth.

I think you will still enjoy reading this book. Again, it is proof that God was at work in the so-called Dark Ages!


—  Deen, Edith, Great Women of the Christian Faith, (Christian Herald Books, Chappaqua, New York, 1959).

deen-women-bibleEdith Deen has also written a companion book that I think you will enjoy, All of the Women of the Bible.

In this book on great Christian women in history, you will encounter the stories of 45 spiritual leaders and 76 other women from around the world. The stories include women from many denominations. deen-women-faithTheological controversies are put aside. The important thing about each woman is that she loves Jesus and that her life shows how she served God faithfully.

You will be inspired as you read the stories of martyrs, mothers, wives, and even political leaders. The stories span the last twenty centuries (at least up until the writing of the book in 1959).

Of special interest for this review is the fact that Edith Deen relates the stories of more than a dozen women from the Middle Ages. Edith Deen has a great gift as a storyteller and I think you will not find this book to be as “dry” as the others in this review. It is a great book to share with your daughters and other Christian women who are interested in stories.

Both of Edith Deen’s books could be used to good effect in a Bible Study or Sunday School. Women will love the stories!

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Do not despise them, even though they’re full of faults,
But, with your gentle heart, praise the deeds of God.  Hrotsvitha

hrotsvithaDuring the medieval times women often went to convents as a way to serve God. It was a good, safe option for women who did not get married. The convent also enabled women to get an education. Convents were the ideal environment to express their artistic and literary talents.

One such woman was Hrotsvitha, a young nun in a convent at Gandersheim in the late 10th century. The convent at Gandersheim was especially well known as a cultural and educational center.

Gandersheim was different from most convents because it was established by Duke Liudolf and his wife and her mother in 852 to be a “free abbey”. In other words, it was not connected to the hierarchy of the church. Gandersheim was answerable to the local ruler until king Otto 1 declared it to be a completely free abbey.

The abbesses of this convent were related to the reigning family. During Hrotsvitha’s time the abbess was Gerberga, the niece of the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto 1 the Great. All of the nuns at this abbey were of noble birth, so we know that Hrotsvitha came from the aristocracy and may have even been distantly related to the king.

Some of the nuns took vows and became full-fledged nuns; others did not take vows and remained canonesses. Hrotsvitha did not take the vow of poverty, so she remained a canoness. She was able to control her money and have servants and other luxuries that most nuns did not. However, she did take the vows of obedience and chastity.


Hrotsvitha is considered to be Germany’s first poet and playwright.  While at the convent she wrote six plays – they were comedies. She also wrote stories, poetry, and a history of the abbey.

As was common in those days, Hrotsvitha wrote in Latin. That was the language that educated people used for writing. We know from things she said about events of her day that she must have written her poetry and plays some time after 968. There was an extensive library at the abbey. Allusions to famous lyric poets such as Ovid, Terence, Virgil, and Horace confirm the fact that Hrotsvitha made much use of the library.

Why would a nun write comedies? There were several reasons.

Hrotsvitha had studied the Scriptures and she was aware of the evil of her times. The church was very corrupt. Church leaders were involved in greed, licentiousness, and immorality. It was not uncommon for priests to force women into compromising positions. Hrotsvitha wanted a way to admonish the wicked rulers.

Women were not expected to teach or preach in the medieval ages. How could Hrotsvitha call for reform? As a woman she wanted to be seen as sharing a spiritual message but not as preaching, so she put her thoughts into six comedic plays.

Another reason that Hrotsvitha deliberately chose the medium of comedic plays was that in Hrotsvitha’s day theater was secular and outrageously immoral. Hrotsvitha wanted to present her own Christian version of this interesting literary form.

Her comedies and poetry were probably mostly shared with the other women at the abbey. Hrotsvitha would enjoy writing something so different from the usual writing of her time thinking that it would go no further than her sisters. She could be bold and express her thoughts on the sins of the church leaders in her day in a very creative way.

Hence, the quote above – Hrotsvitha calls for her readers to forbear with her humble efforts. She asks them to praise God for His working, not hers.

Hrotsvitha realizes that she might be criticized by men when they realize that she is pointing the finger at their corruption and so she is careful to point out that she is only seeking praise for Christ.

And let him not scorn the frail sex of the woman of no importance
          Who played these melodies on a frail reed pipe;
But rather let him praise Christ’s heavenly mercy:
          He does not want to destroy sinners…

Hrotsvitha admitted to blushing with shame when writing about sexual sin. In her day, and in ours in certain cultures such as the Muslim culture, women were blamed for all sexual temptations. She was calling the men to take responsibility for their own sin. She had a purpose in writing about matters such as lasciviousness. She stressed that she was trying to show how ‘womanly frailty emerges victorious and virile force, confounded is laid low’.

She wants to show the strength in weakness of Christian women and the weakness in power of the men. In the end it is the men who should blush.

For example, in one of Hrotsvitha’s comedies, Emperor Diocletian orders three chaste virgins to deny their faith. They refuse and are thrown into prison. An army general, Dulcetius sees how beautiful they are and decides to take advantage of them.

Dulcetius locks the women in a kitchen, thinking to return later that night and have his way with them. The women pray for protection. God answers their prayers  in an admittedly strange-sounding way to us –(but remember this is written as comedy – to make a serious point in a dramatic way.)

When Dulcetius returns for the girls things don’t exactly go according to plan. As he enters the kitchen:

          Befuddled, he begins to caress the pots and pans, while the girls watch through a crack in the wall. “Why, the fool is out of his mind. He fancies he has got hold of us,” reports one of them. “Now he presses the kettle to his heart, now he clasps the pots and pans and presses his lips to them . . . His face, his hands, his clothes are all black and sooty; the soot which clings to him makes him look like an Ethiopian.” One of her companions comments, “Very fitting that he should be so in body, since the devil has possession of his mind.”

The girls in the play attribute their escape from Dulcetius’s evil attempts to the grace of God. The moral lesson in the play is that Hrotsvitha wants women to understand that they can turn to God for protection. And she has found a clever way to show men that they are “out of their minds” or “immoral” for taking advantage of the “weaker” sex.

Some of Hrotsvitha’s plays were lost for centuries. Then in 1502 they were discovered and published in Latin. They were published in English in 1920.

Many of Hrotsvitha’s poems were written to honor the saints, including the Virgin Mary, as well as Agnes, Basil, and the martyr Pelagius (not the 4th century heretic – but a later Pelagius who was tortured and martyred by the Muslims.)

Her last extant work, probably written about 973 or later, is a poem on the founding of Gandersheim. As in her other works, Hrotsvitha opens her work with humility:

Behold, my spirit, lowly and submissive,
Breaks forth to tell the origins of blissful Gandersheim.

The primary inspiration for this poem was the Gospel account of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. There are many allusions in the poem to “shepherds” and “guiding lights”.

Hrotsvitha claimed often that she was so blessed to have the gift of writing. In spite of being a woman and living in a convent, she was able to express her thoughts in a way that inspired many others. Even if not many people would see her works, she felt that she was nearer to God by using His gift to her. She was thankful that God had given her a way to address the wrongs of her times in a Scriptural, yet creative way.

We can learn from Hrotsvitha’s example of humility and service. We can use our gifts with joy and thanksgiving and praise to the One Who gave them to us.






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I admonish you continually to mull over the words of the holy gospels and the writings of the fathers concerning these (things)…. By thinking, speaking and acting rightly, you may believe in the everlasting God, who remains one in trinity and triune in unity. Dhuoda – “Liber Manualis”, 843 AD

This remarkably astute advice was given to a son by a mother who lived in the 9th century. It is so wonderful to be able to connect with someone who lived and wrote nearly 1200 years ago. Dhuoda studied the same Scriptures that we study. She read the church fathers that we have read. She came to the same doctrinal understanding of the faith that we consider “orthodox”. Reading Dhuoda’s story is an encouragement to my faith.

dhuodaWe only know of Dhuoda’s life through her writings. She married Bernard, son of William of Gellone, at Aachen on June 29, 824. William was a cousin to Charlemagne. Bernard and Dhuoda lived in southern France where Bernard was an advisor at the French court. Dhuoda accompanied Bernard on his travels until the birth of their first son, William, in 826. Then she went to live in a castle at Uzes for the rest of her life.

To put Dhuoda’s life into perspective let us review the 8th and 9th centuries in Europe. Charlemagne (c.742-814) ruled much of Western Europe from 768 to 814. In 771, Charlemagne became king of the Franks (a Germanic people group who extended through most of Western Europe). He wanted to unite all Germanic peoples into one kingdom, and convert his subjects to Christianity. He spent most of his reign engaged in warfare in order to bring this about. In 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Romans. Charlemagne founded the Carolingian Renaissance, a cultural and intellectual revival in Europe.

When Charlemagne died in 814, his empire encompassed much of Western Europe, and he had also ensured the survival of Christianity in the West. It was into this largely Christian society that Dhuoda was born around 803 AD.

After Charlemagne died his son Louis (778-840) reigned in his stead. It was rumored that the self-seeking Bernard had an affair with Louis’s second wife, Judith. In any event, Bernard was an advisor at court when Louis died in 1840. Louis’s three sons then started a bloody civil war for the throne. At first Bernard backed Pepin II but then changed sides and backed Charles the Bold. In order to prove to Charles that he would not change sides again, Bernard presented his first born son, William, to Charles as a hostage.

Bernard was a very selfish, cruel, lecherous man. He tortured and maimed his enemies. He shut Dhuoda up in a castle in Uzes when he took their firstborn son from her. When Dhuoda’s second son was born, Bernard snatched him away even before he was baptized. In her writing, Dhuoda tells us that she never found out what her second son’s name was. (It was usual to name the child at Baptism.) Bernard’s enemies were just as treacherous. They killed everyone else in Bernard’s family. Perhaps it was just as well for Dhuoda that she was shut away in a castle.

In spite of the fact that Bernard had given his son as hostage, Charles lured him to court in 844 and had him beheaded. Apparently Bernard was still engaged in intrigues. He was always only thinking of himself. His son William proved to be too much like his father and unwisely sought to gain back his family’s territories.

Meanwhile at the castle in Uzes, Dhuoda decided to write to her son. She had heard that thingsliber-manualis were dangerous at court. She was perhaps also told that William was not living the Christian life that he should.  She thought that writing to him would help to get her son to live rightly.

The city of Uzes where Dhuoda was living had seen many changes over the centuries. It began as a Christian community very early in the 2nd century. There were monasteries there and a large cathedral. It was a very peaceful city until 843 with the Treaty of Verdun. After that Uzes became a major battlefield in the dynastic wars which Dhuoda’s husband and family were involved in.

This was the year, 843, when Dhuoda’s book, Liber Manualis, was completed. Dhuoda intended this book to be a manual for the personal growth and edification of her son William. The book was written against the backdrop of all of the wars and fighting and intrigues going on around her. Her main purpose was to write words of wisdom for her son. She wanted him to survive, not as a selfish person, but as a man of God.

Dhuoda stressed three allegiances in her book, first to God, then to William’s earthly father, and then to the king, Charles the Bold.

Unfortunately, Dhuoda’s wise counsel was lost on William. As we now know Bernard was put to death for treason in 844 the following year after Dhuoda’s book was written. William forsook his mother’s counsel and supported Pepin II in spite of owing his allegiance to Charles. William tried to regain his territorial rights against Charles. He was beaten in battle and slain in 850. It remains unclear what happened to Dhuoda’s second son, possibly also named Bernard. In any event Bernard’s family fortunes were now lost.

Though Dhuoda’s well written instruction manual went unheeded by her son, it remains for us a beautiful example of Medieval writing by a woman was is considered a lay theologian in her own right.

Dhuoda wrote during a time when few women were writing. Only the wealthy could afford the kind of education that Dhuoda had. Yet, thanks to Charlemagne’s efforts at advancing Christianity and the culture, more people were reading the classics. We can tell from Dhuoda’s writings that she had read the Scriptures many times. She was also familiar with the major works of the Church fathers. She learned Christian principles that she wanted to pass on to her son.

One example comes from her teaching on the Beatitudes. She tells her son that being “poor in spirit” does not mean only being poor financially. “Someone may shine with gold, gems and the royal purple, but will go forth to the shadows naked and poor, carrying nothing unless he has lived well, piously, chastely, and worthily.” She admonished William to be generous to the poor. She reminded William that his position came from God and he needed to be a good steward.

Too bad William didn’t pay more attention.

Dhuoda wrote in Latin. She was a gifted writer who presented her thoughts in unique ways. She used poetry and prose and even played word games, such as an acrostic she made of her own name.

Dhuoda was a lay theologian. She wrote commentaries on many parts of the Bible. Her translations are orthodox. Some of her theology takes a fresh approach to interpreting Scripture. For example, following Augustine, the main commentaries on the beatitudes in her day compared the beatitudes with the gifts of the Spirit. Dhuoda understood that the gifts of the Spirit enable believers to live the holy life expressed in the beatitudes. Dhuoda used these as concrete examples in her writing to her son.

But, while Augustine reduced the number of beatitudes in order to complete the numerical parallel with the gifts, and he reversed the order of the gifts of the Spirit in order to make them fit his pattern, Dhuoda described both the gifts and the beatitudes as sets of military skills needed to live a mature Christian life. This is not surprising given that she is encouraging her son to live rightly in the world of the intrigues of the court and political revolution.

Dhuoda advised William “to ascend the fifteen steps through the seven formative gifts and the eight beatitudes; ascend them in order and thoughtfully, a step at a time, but vigorously, my son.” Historians believe that Dhuoda was uncertain of her son’s Christian commitment. In her writing we see that she assumes he is a Christian, but very immature. Her book was written to help him know how to grow up to a complete man in Christ.

The date of Dhuoda’s death is unknown. Though we do not have more details of her life, we can be thankful that she left us her writings. Her advice to her son on moral behavior is timeless. Dhuoda is a shining example of a woman who loved God above all and spent her time studying about Him to get to know Him better and to pass on that knowledge to others.












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149729-religious-new-years-quoteHappy New Year to everyone!

Have you made some New Year’s resolutions? How did you do on last year’s resolutions?

It’s a lot of fun talking with our friends about all of our good intentions for the coming new year. We laugh about the resolutions that did not last long in 2016. I am wondering if some of my resolutions were either too specific or too general. No wonder we get discouraged.

As my husband and I sat at the breakfast table Sunday morning, January 1, we talked about making resolutions for the new year. It’s really good to take time out to evaluate our lives. Even if our good intentions only last a month or two, at least we tried.

Maybe we ought to switch to “New Quarter” resolutions, or even “New Monthly” resolutions. If we didn’t accomplish our goals, we can just make adjustments and keep on going. The point is to not give up at the end of January when we throw in the towel and put off thinking about our decisions and goals until the next new year.

So, I told my husband that I would like to lose 15 pounds, but I will not beat myself up if I don’t. He would like to spend more time reading books. We agreed that we will review at the beginning of each month and see how we are doing.

But what about our more serious resolutions for this year? What should those be?

And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. (1 John 5:20)

When we celebrated Christmas we celebrated the birth of Jesus. Jesus came not only to diechristian-happy-new-year-2014-wishes-images-sms-messages-1 for our sins but to give us new life. Our lives can now be spent for God’s glory. We can now serve Christ with joyful hearts. We can follow in Jesus’ footsteps leading lives that look like His. I would like to do a better job of that this year but how did I do last year?

Our goal is to become more like Christ. Can I honestly say that during 2016 I became more like Christ?

How did I do in my spiritual life?

– Did I take time to study the Word of God in order to be able to “present (my)self approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15)?

new-year-2017Thanks to Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection we are able to grow spiritually.

“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10)

All Christians are given the gifts of the Spirit “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” (Eph. 4:12)

– Did I grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”? (2 Peter 3:18)

– Did I take the apostle Peter’s advice on how to be more spiritually mature? Peter encourages the saints to INCREASE in the following progression of character traits of the spiritually mature.

“Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in our knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in in your perseverance godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-8)

– Was I grateful, gracious, and thankful? “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

What did I do when I failed or was discouraged?

– Did I remember that we “have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you and example for you to follow in His steps”? (1 Peter 2:21)

– Did I get up and try again when I came up short of my goal? Paul encourages believers to keep on persevering. “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. … I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, (Philippians 3:12, 14) knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.” (Colossians 3:24).

Don’t’ be discouraged. Make resolutions. Seek God’s help to fulfill your plans.

I hope that by the end of 2016 I had become more like Christ than at the end of 2015. And my prayer is that when the end of 2017 gets here I can look back and say that my New Year’s resolution – my resolution to be more like Christ – will have been accomplished.


The apostle Paul tells us that we should be, “a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.”  (2 Corinthians 2:15) Will I be a fragrance to others this year?

To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen!


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