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Archive for February, 2020

Empress Irene of Byzantium, Part 2

 

We have been looking at the stories of some of the countless number of women who served in God’s kingdom in early church history. Women evangelized, prayed, taught, preached, went on pilgrimages, reigned over kingdoms, founded monasteries, and took care of the poor. 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.

Our focus has been on the stories of women who lived mostly in western Europe, because we have far more information from that part of the world. We do have some historical writings from Byzantium, so last week we took a trip towards the East to begin a look at the lives of three Byzantine empresses – Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora (9th century).

 

Note on Icons:

Many people in Western Protestant churches are not familiar with icons. The use of icons has a long history and I can only summarize a bit here. Some early church leaders felt that the pictures of saints helped the common folk to learn the story of the gospel. Indeed, Pope Gregory the Great said that religious images were the “Bible of the illiterate”.  Other theologians were against using images in worship. They felt that going all the way back to the Old Testament, images had been forbidden by God. After all, they reasoned, God had given us a written word for a purpose. These objectors to the use of images were also worried that the images would be too easily worshipped in place of God.

Both of these groups make good points. I will not try and take a side on this issue. I only mention the two views of the dispute because whether or not to have icons in worship played a large role in the rulership of Byzantium. Some emperors wished to do away with icons (Iconoclasts). Other emperors were sensitive to the people and did not wish to change their worship service and so they allowed icons (Iconophiles). In the stories of our three empresses we will see how this played out in the 8th and 9th centuries.

 

Empress Irene of Byzantium – (754 – 803), continued…

In part 1 of our story we saw that Irene became the Empress mother/Regent of Byzantium when her husband Leo IV died. She proved that she would be a strong, effective, and popular ruler as she protected her son’s throne, accumulated support, won military battles, and built homes for the poor.

The achievement that Irene is most remembered for however is the restoration of the icons. Whatever her own personal policy may have been, Irene had seen how this issue divided the church. She had also witnessed the cruelty of the iconoclasts as they sought to impose their views on the people. Her husband had tortured many iconophiles. Irene wanted a reconciliation between the two parties.

In an effort to reunite the church, Irene summoned two church councils. The first one did not go well. At the second one held in Nicaea in 787, the veneration of icons was restored to the church. Also, a rift that had occurred between the eastern and western churches was healed. New relations began with the Pope in Rome. Irene and Constantine VI were proclaimed the new “Constantine and Helena” and were given the status of saints in the church.

For the next few years of her reign, Irene was a pious ruler and she dedicated herself to helping the poor. As Constantinople began to grow, Irene found ways to give relief to the poor. Indeed, people began to move into the city just for the help they could receive. Irene and her Patriarch housed homeless people and provided them with clothing and food. She enjoyed distributing money to them on feast days.

People thought that when Constantine reached his majority that he would automatically take over as emperor. Irene did not have much confidence in him and she kept ruling. In 787, she found a bride for him, Mary of Amnia and the royal pair had two daughters, Irene (named after her grandmother) and Euphrosyne (who will figure in the next post).

In 790, Constantine was tired of waiting for his rightful position as emperor and gathered supporters and was proclaimed emperor. He banished Irene from court. He did not rule well. Constantine made many mistakes including the same one his father had made of not rewarding the people who helped him. After pressuring her son to restore her to power, Irene came back to court in 792. She and Constantine formed a joint rulership. Many high placed people were happy to see Irene back.

Among other mistakes, Constantine divorced Mary. This gave fuel to his mother’s fire when she came back to court. Neither the church nor the people approved of Constantine’s actions. Constantine married another woman and they had a son, but the child died. Constantine also lost several military campaigns. He raised taxes to pay for the losses. His popularity was steadily going downhill.

In 797, Constantine and Irene faced a struggle for power. Irene succeeded in having him arrested. In order to prevent her son from trying to regain total control she had him blinded and banished. (Blinding was considered a merciful option to execution.) In the meantime, the uncles sensed another opportunity to try for power, but Irene had the younger four blinded and banished. (Constantine had already had his eldest uncle blinded earlier.)

Now that Irene had put down all opposition, she was the sole ruler of Byzantium. She announced that Constantine was unable to rule due to the loss of his sight and she immediately went about proclaiming herself as the sole ruler by having new coins made. The new coins show only Irene as empress on both sides. This was the standard practice for letting everyone in the kingdom and surrounding countries (through trade) know that Irene was the ruler.

Irene received very little protest. She placed her own staff in the Great Palace. She won the support of the church when she restored those clergy who had been persecuted for opposing the “adulterous” second marriage of Constantine. She won the support of the people by lowering taxes and resuming her charitable works.

Irene became the first female to reign as emperor in her own right. She reigned for five more years. Her only mistake was in not naming her heir before she died. This made the throne vulnerable. Not surprisingly there was a military supported coup d’etat in October 802. Irene was forcibly removed from the throne.

The finance minister, Nikephoros headed the revolution and had himself proclaimed emperor. Nikephoros promised Irene a quiet life in the palace but had her moved to the island of Prinkipo. Later he discovered that her treasure was there, so he moved her further away to the island of Lesbos. She was surrounded by guards and allowed no visitors. She died there about eight months later. She was around fifty years old.

Irene had accomplished much during her reign. Her building program aided the church in social services to the poor. She helped to reunite a church that was split over areas of theology. In spite of the way that she displaced her son, Constantine, Irene was a more effective ruler. She had a more intelligent foreign policy. She extended Byzantine influence further beyond the borders that existed when she ascended to the throne. Though as a woman she faced challenges and threats against her power, she proved that she was well able to handle all aspects of government. In the end, she reigned longer than her husband, Leo IV (775-780). She left a more lasting impression than either he or the three previous male rulers had.

Very importantly, Irene had set a precedent. In the years to come Byzantium would be ruled by two more amazing empresses – Euphrosyne and Theodora. These three women changed history.

 

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Empress Irene of Byzantium, Part 1

We have been reviewing the stories of many of the countless number of women who served Christ throughout church history. Women evangelized, prayed, taught, preached, went on pilgrimages, reigned over kingdoms, founded monasteries, and took care of the poor. 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.

For the past few months we have told the stories of women in the Middle Ages including Genovefa, Brigid of Ireland, the first Empress Theodora (6th century), Gertrude, Anstrude, Frideswide and Lioba. The focus of our stories has been mainly on the faithful women who lived mostly in Western Europe because we have far more information from that part of the world. We do have some historical writings from Byzantium, so for the next several posts, let’s take a journey towards the East and look at the lives of three Byzantine empresses – Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora (9th century).

 

Note on Icons:

Many people in Western Protestant churches are not familiar with icons. The use of icons has a long history and I can only summarize a bit here. Some early church leaders felt that the pictures of saints helped the common folk to learn the story of the gospel. Indeed, Pope Gregory the Great (6th century) said that religious images were the “Bible of the illiterate”.

Other theologians were against using images in worship. They felt that going all the way back to the Old Testament, images had been forbidden by God. After all, God had given us a written word for a reason. Those who objected to the use of images believed that the images would be too easily worshipped in place of God.

Both of these groups make good points. I will not try and take a side on this issue. I only mention the two views of the dispute because whether or not to have icons in worship played a large role in the rulership of Byzantium. Some emperors wished to do away with icons (Iconoclasts). Other emperors were sensitive to the people and did not wish to change their worship service and so allowed them to use icons (Iconophiles). In the stories of our three empresses we will see how this played out in the 8th and 9th centuries.

 

Empress Irene of Byzantium – (754 – 803)

Byzantium had many famous empresses starting with Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, (246 – 330) through Zoe (11th century). We have already related the story of the 6th century Empress Theodora who was married to Justinian. Her story is particularly interesting as she was a lowly circus entertainer who captured Justinian’s eye and married him. This fascinating woman nevertheless became one of the most powerful empresses in the Middle Ages. Wise, compassionate, and just, Theodora has been remembered as a righteous Christian ruler.[1]  Theodora was also the model for the three empresses in our current posts.

Irene was brought from Athens, Greece in 769 AD to be the consort of the future emperor Leo IV. Her family may have been prominent in Athens and perhaps that is why she was chosen to become the future empress in Constantinople. Constantine V was reigning at the time and he arranged for this marriage to his son, Leo. It was not unusual for emperors to cement alliances with other nations in this way.

Irene left Greece to become the bride of Leo IV. There is no record of the date of her birth, but she was probably around fifteen years old. Leo was nearly twenty. Though the marriage was arranged, both the bride and groom gave their consent.

How exciting it must have been for Irene as she sailed to Constantinople knowing that she was to be the consort of the future emperor. Her first days in her new home would have been filled with instructions for all of the things an empress was expected to do. Irene had months of training for her upcoming coronation and marriage to Leo. She had to learn the customs of Byzantium. She was an intelligent and quick learner. This would be very helpful to her later when she would have to rule after her husband’s death as the Regent for their young son..

At the coronation Irene was presented to the court and all of important officials and their wives. The ceremony continued with a ritual where Irene honored the cross of Christ. Leo, Irene and the court asked God for his blessing. Her position was now official. She would be the one who would ensure the continuance of the dynasty with Leo through her children.

Her firstborn son, Constantine VI was born on January 14, 771. When Constantine V died in 775, Leo ascended the throne as emperor and Irene became the empress. Her position was secure and this would be important when she became the empress mother.

Leo had been influenced against icons by his father, Constantine V. This position was called “iconoclasm”. Leo was lenient to “iconophiles” (those who used icons) at the beginning of his reign but later became harsher. Irene’s original position is not clear, but later she sided with the iconophiles. In the early part of his reign Leo allowed monasteries to worship in their own way. He changed his mind when he found icons in the palace. He punished the men who brought them in harshly and began to persecute the iconophiles. Some were exiled; others were imprisoned.

As it turned out, Leo died suddenly (and somewhat mysteriously) in 780 and Irene became the regent for Constantine VI, now nine years old. Irene proved her courage and wisdom as she defended her son’s throne from many would-be usurpers who thought this was their chance to rise to power. Leo’s brothers, Constantine VI’s uncles, thought they saw their chance to get the throne. They assumed that Irene was just a weak woman and they could get rid of her and put one of themselves in power. But Irene proved to be a strong Regent with a will of her own and she exiled all of the uncles. They were forced to become clerics and for the time being at least Constantine VI’s throne was secure.

Irene surrounded herself with supporters that she could trust. She was careful to reward those who dutifully obeyed her wishes and she consolidated her power. She brought back from exile the iconophiles that her husband had persecuted.  Irene also took charge of the military and is credited with protecting Constantinople from enemy threats several times. Those who thought this young woman would be weak and easily disposed of were proven wrong. Irene showed that she knew how to rule and rule effectively. To show that she was in charge, she had new coins struck. They show Irene and Constantine VI as co-rulers.

Irene thus began her Regency for the throne of Byzantium. She would accomplish much over the next twenty-two years. In Part 2, we will see how Irene set the precedent for female rulers in Byzantium. She and her two successors – Euphrosyne and Theodora would change history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] For more information on Empress Theodora see the post on September 10, 2019 on this site. The mosaic pictured above is in the church of San Vitale at Ravenna, (completed in 547) and shows Empress Theodora wearing the official robes of rulership and holding a chalice, a symbol of her rulership.

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Christian Women in the Medieval Era – Dhuoda

We have been looking at the stories of some of the thousands of women 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]

Women participated in all ministries in the first few centuries of the church. Things really changed for women in the 6th and 7th centuries when women began to be barred from the freedom of ministry that they exercised in the Patristic Era and Early Medieval Era. By the 9th century it was a settled fact that women would be barred from the institutionalized church ministries. That did not stop women from finding ways to serve the Savior. In the cloisters, women found ways to support themselves while actively working among the poor in their communities.

Throughout history, even with restrictions placed against them, women have and always will find ways to serve their Savior. Our story this week is about a dedicated servant of Christ whose writings have blessed thousands.

Dhuoda – 9th Century Lay Theologian

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 9thcentury. 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 our faith because we have confidence in the timeless true faith.

We 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 things 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 2ndcentury. 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. (An excellent source of more information is: Marie Anne, Mayeski. Dhuoda: Ninth Century Mother and Theologian, Scranton, PA: The University of Scranton, 1996).

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. Any young person today could do well to heed her advice.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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