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Archive for October, 2019

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.

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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.

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