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Archive for August, 2019

Over these few 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]

Medieval women displayed Christlike character that was responsible for the advancement of the Gospel through word and deed. Over one hundred and fifty years ago, Irish writer Julia Kavanagh (1824-1877) noted about women during the Middle Ages:

“The progress of Christianity owes much, however, to these women. They had little personal influence, and thus their action was not perceived at first; but the virtues of Christianity, purity, temperance, forgiveness, and resignation were essentially feminine virtues: they were more easily practiced by women than by men; and this gave to the weaker sex a moral superiority over the stronger one, which is visible even through the primitive rudeness of those dark ages.”[2]

Women were not allowed to participate in the hierarchy of the ecclesiology of the institutionalized Church. Nevertheless, they would hold many leadership positions in the monasteries, convents, and other Christian groups such as the faithful Beguines. Some might argue that remaining outside of the hierarchy of the institutional Church enabled women to have far greater ministry to the poor, neglected, and oppressed people. When the institutionalized church forbade women access to official ministry, many faithful female believers found ways to go and show the love of Christ in the world anyway.

We began our journey through the Middle Ages with the story of Genovefa of Paris. Next, we learned about Clothilde, the Queen of the Franks who was a contemporary of Genovefa’s. This time we will take 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. The Irish church did not follow the Roman liturgy or rituals or system of government in the early Middle Ages. Life was also different for women in Ireland. While not totally equal with men, women were allowed to serve in leadership positions in all walks of life.

 

Bridget of Kildare (451-523)

We must not skip over Brigid of Ireland. She was a very unusual woman, founding a double monastery (one for men and women) of which she became the high abbess. One of the reasons Brigid was able to do this is because in Ireland women were not treated as lesser beings than men. While on the continent of Europe the institutionalization of the Church was taking place which excluded women from ministry, in Ireland the culture was more open. The Christians in the small villages had no need for bishops like the European Christians. Honor was given to Christian men and women who studied and applied the Scriptures, and there was not a deep clergy/laity split as there was on the continent. All Christians, male and female are heirs of the promise of God (Galatians 3:28-29) and all are called to witness for Christ.

Some background– Ireland consisted of five main provinces and these were further decentralized in small kingdoms and clan territories. Each clan had a chieftain whose rule was only partially hereditary, but mainly he was elected after he proved himself worthy. He could be impeached and so the Irish system was really more like our Republic than the monarchical system of most of Europe.

Irish laws gave more rights and protection to women than the European laws. Women were able to get educated and become political leaders, lawyers, judges, physicians, writers and some even were warriors in battle. Women were protected from discrimination, sexual harassment, and rape. If they got a divorce they could get equal terms with the husband for settlement of all property of the marriage. They could inherit the family property; possessions did not have to go to the first-born son as on the European continent.

Most of the intellectuals or professional people belonged to a Christian religious house such as a university or monastery. While life for Europeans was entering a “dark age” on the continent, in Ireland the 5th through 10th centuries were like an age of enlightenment. People flocked to Ireland to study in their universities. Irish men and women established monasteries and sent missionaries throughout Europe. The Irish had quietly located every book they could get their hands on and began copying them. If not for these Irish monks the world would have been a very different place – a world without books.

When Brigid was born in the middle of the 5th century she was baptized by St. Patrick because her mother was one of his converts. Her mother Brocseach was a slave and a concubine of her owner, a pagan chieftain named Dubtach. Unhappily, Brigid was separated from her mother Brocseach when she was sold to another chieftain.

Her father, Dubtach, recognized what a bright and beautiful child Brigid was and she became a favorite of his. Her inner spiritual beauty shone even more exceedingly and people admired her charitable spirit. Her real strength lay in her strong will and she was often defiant of authority. Against her father’s wishes she often raided the food supplies and gave them away to the poor. Rather than apologize to him, she would admonish Dubtach that he should be more charitable.

Dubtach was so angry that he decided to sell Brigid to the King of Leinster as a servant to grind his corn. When her father arrived at the King’s place, dragging Brigid along, he unbuckled his sword to leave it outside in his chariot. He could not approach the king armed. No sooner had he gone inside to talk to the king when a leper showed up and begged Brigid for help. The only thing available to her was her father’s sword so she gave it to the beggar.

Meanwhile, the king was suspicious of a man who would sell his own daughter, so he asked to meet the girl. When they got outside to the chariot and the father noticed his sword missing he flew into a wild rage and began to beat Brigid.

“Stop,” cried the king, and called Brigid to him. “Why do you steal your father’s property and give it away?”

“If I had the power,” answered Brigid, “I would steal all your royal wealth, and give it to Christ’s brothers and sisters.”

The king quickly declined the father’s kind offer because “your daughter is too good for me.”[3]

Apparently her father gave up or Brigid just escaped. Anyway she went on to found a monastery. She became the abbess. Throughout history Brigid has been thought of as establishing the reputation of the Irish for their hospitality.

Anyone was welcome at her Abbey, rich or poor, sick or well, Christian or not. Brigid would see that they were fed and cared for.

This is the Irish table grace spoken in honor of her:

I should like a great lake of finest ale

For the King of kings.

I should like a table of the choicest food

For the family of heaven.

Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith,

And the food be forgiving love.

I should welcome the poor to my feast,

For they are God’s children.

I should welcome the sick to my feast,

For they are God’s joy.

Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place,

And the sick dance with the angels.

God bless the poor,

God bless the sick,

And bless our human race.

God bless our food,

God bless our drink,

All homes, O God, embrace.

As with Genovefa there are many miraculous stories surrounding Brigid. Some people believe that Brigid is only a legend because of the stories of spectacular answers to prayer or healings, but the many churches and abbeys that are dedicated to her are a confirmation of her real existence. Stories about our favorite saints are often exaggerated, but that does not mean that they didn’t live. Brigid’s life should be an encouragement to all who desire to live only for Christ.

 

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

[2]Julia Kavanagh. Women of Christianity, Exemplary for Acts of Piety and Charity(New York, NY: D. Appleton and Company, 1869). 55.

[3]Thomas Cahill. How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe( New York, NY: Doubleday, 1995). 173, 174.

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Hagiographers shaped the historic destiny of the Franks as a divine mission in which women played a leading role.[1]

Thousands of women served in God’s Kingdom in Medieval times. The Christianization of Europe was due in large part to the efforts of women. Women brought the gospel to the needy themselves but often a larger impact was made when women converted rulers to the faith which led whole cultures to embrace Christ.

During this series, we cover the stories of many female servants of Christ who followed their callings during the Medieval era. 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.[2]Europe today is entirely different from what it would have been because of faithful women.

It is not surprising that women often turned to Christianity before men did. The Gospel of peace and love with its recognition of equality for all people appealed more to the underclasses than to their rulers. Godly, Christian women rose above their circumstances to unselfishly pray for and minister to others leading to the spread of the gospel.

We began our journey through the Middle Ages with the story of Genovefa of Paris. She is one of the saints during the earliest part of the Medieval period – the Merovingian era.  The next saint of the Medieval era in our series is Queen Clothilde, a woman whose life marks the turning point in the Christian history of Europe.

Clothilde – Queen of the Franks (c. 470 – June 3, 545)

Before we continue with our series on Christian women in the medieval era, let’s pause and study a little historical background. Genovefa and Clothilde lived during what historians call the Merovingianera. The Merovingian era comes after the period we already covered in our posts (The Patristic Era – 2nd through 5th centuries) and before the Carolingianera (began 751 AD). The Merovingian era is named for King Merovech, but the dynasty was firmly established when his grandson, fifteen year-old Clovis I came to power in 481 AD. Five years later Clovis conquered what was left of the old Roman Empire and united all of Gaul. (See map.)

Merovingiandynastymap

The empire that Clovis established was the basis for the area in Europe that we call France today. Clovis was converted to Christianity by Queen Clothilde towards the end of his life. The spread of Christianity accelerated with his conversion.

After Clovis I died in 511 AD the empire was divided up among his four sons. Nearly 100 years later King Dagobert I (603-639) would unite the Franks again in 629 AD. Dagobert was the last of the really powerful Merovingian kings. He is remembered as the one who tried to convert the Frisians to Christianity. Christianity then spread further throughout Europe into the Low Countries. However the later Merovingian kings grew weaker and weaker. With the accompanying corruption came a wrestling for power from other men who desired to take the throne.

Pepin II (635-714) saw his opportunity and came to power in the late seventh century. His title was “Master of the Palace”. He was not a son of kings or a descendant of royalty, but the Frankish empire had begun to decay and Pepin was able to seize the throne. Pepin built the empire back up, restoring authority in most of the realm. It was his bastard son, Charles Martel (688-741) who would go on to finish conquering Gaul.

The Merovingian Dynasty came to an end when Charles divided the realm between his two sons, Carloman and Pepin III (Also called “Pepin the Short”). Pepin III was declared king in 751 AD and was baptized by the archbishop Boniface. Pepin III had the last Merovingian king, Childeric III, locked up, thus ending the Merovingian dynasty.

Pepin III was the father of Charlemagne who was later crowned the king of the Franks. Because so many members of the new dynasty were named Charles, Charlemagne most importantly, this next era (750-887) became known as the Carolingiandynasty.

Now to return to our story of Queen Clothilde, wife of Merovingian king Clovis I.

Clothilde’s early life was one of tragedy. Clothilde was born into the family of the king of Burgundy. The Burgundian king had four sons – Gundobad, Godegisel, Chilperic and Gundomar. Gundobad killed Chilperic, Clothilde’s father, with his sword and ordered her mother to be drowned. Gundobad also exiled her older sister, Chrona. Clothilde fled to another uncle’s house for protection grieveing the loss of her parents and sister.

Soon after this Clothilde came to the attention of Clovis, King of the Franks. She was famed for her beauty and gentle manners. After several attempts to secure her in marriage, Clovis finally received Gundobad’s consent and Clovis and Clothilde were married in 493. Clothilde has misgivings about her marriage since she believed that it was not right for a Christian to marry a pagan (II Corinthians 6:14), but her uncle gave her to Clovis and she willingly acquiesced.

Clothilde stood her ground and almost immediately, she asked Clovis to give up his false gods and put his faith in the one true God. Clovis refused, but allowed Clothilde to practice her religion freely. He gave her permission to seek baptism for their sons.

Their first son, Ingmar, was baptized but he died shortly thereafter. This grieved the king but also made him angry. Again he refused to convert to Christianity.

Another son, Chlodomir, was born and baptized. He too fell ill, but he was restored to health after Clothilde prayed fervently at his bedside for days. Clothilde continued to try to persuade Clovis to worship the true God but he was still skeptical and kept refusing her until the time he went to war with the Alamans.

During the war with this Germanic tribe the Franks were losing at the beginning. One of Clovis’s men begged him to put his faith in Clothilde’s God. Clovis beseeched Jesus to free him and his men from danger. After he prayed the Alamans began to run away, their king fell dead, and they submitted themselves to Clovis. It was an amazing victory.

The people attributed Clovis’s victory and conversion to Clothilde’s prayers. Clovis realized that he needed to give God the credit for the victory. He returned home and told Clothilde how he had defeated the enemy by calling on Jesus. Clothilde acted on Clovis’s decision immediately and asked the bishop to come and baptize him. Clovis was baptized on Christmas Day, 496. After this he began a life of dedicated service to God.

Now freely and wisely accepting Clothilde’s counsel, the king began to destroy the pagan sites in northern Gaul. He built churches in their place. Clovis and Clothilde gave gifts to the poor and helped widows and orphans. Two more sons were born, Childebert I and Chlothar I. They had a daughter, also named Clothilde; she was later married to Almaric, King of the Goths.

Clovis died in 511 AD having led a devout Christian life until the end. He was buried in the Basilica that he and Queen Clothilde had begun building. Clothilde withdrew to the Abbey of St. Martin of Tours. There she continued to pursue good works. She built more churches and monasteries.

Clothilde also spent time trying to bring peace to her sons. They had divided the kingdom up after Clovis’s death, but each wanted to rule over the whole dynasty. Clodomer, who reigned at Orleans, Childebert I, at Paris, and Chlothar I, at Soissons, fought with each other over who would be king. Two of Clothilde’s grandsons, the children of Clodomer, were murdered by their uncles, Clothar and Childebert.  With great pain and grief Clothilde buried them at the basilica in Paris. She was unable to make her sons reconcile and retreated into her religious life at the Abbey of Saint Martin.

Clothilde spent her time fasting, praying and helping the poor while at the abbey. It was there that Clothilde called her two remaining sons to her as she lay dying. They came out of respect for her and listened while she exhorted them to lead godly lives. After some time passed she was anointed and received communion. On June 3 in the early hours of the night she passed from this life to the next. She was buried in the basilica of the Apostles Peter and Paul near Clovis. The body of St. Genovefa (See last post) is also in that basilica. An interesting aside is that Clothilde’s relics survived the French Revolution (began 1789) when so many other statues, churches, and monasteries were devasted or destroyed by the mobs.

Today Clothilde is still honored as a glorious queen, devout widow, mother of kings of the Franks, and devotion to Christ that led to the Christianization of Europe. Her faith passed on to her granddaughter Bertha, who became the wife of King Ethelbert. Bertha and Ethelbert introduced Christianity into Anglo-Saxon England. Her great-granddaughter Ethelberga took the faith to Northumbria. Because her good works were renowned, she was canonized and her feast day is June 3.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]Jo Ann McNamara & John E. Halborg with E. Gordon Whatley. Sainted Women of the Dark Ages (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1992) p.4.

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

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