Archive for May, 2020


 Too many church history books leave out the stories of the thousands of women who had a part to play in God’s kingdom. Over the course of the last few months on this blog we have seen that even in the earliest centuries, women evangelized, prayed, taught, preached, pastored, 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 last few weeks, we have been presenting a series on women in the Medieval Era. It was not a golden age for women. Because men thought that the “daughters of Eve” were more prone to sin than the “sons of Adam” women were treated as inferiors. And yet women found ways to serve as preachers, missionaries, and ecclesiastical leaders. We have learned in the writings of many medieval biographers that they did not hold the biases that modern church historians would have us believe. The stories of Christian women in the Medieval Era are proof that God uses women in His kingdom. That is why we must tell them.

So far, we have looked at the stories of women from the earliest Middle Ages such as Genovefa, Brigid of Ireland and Radegund (5th and 6th centuries). Then we moved on to the 7th and 8th centuries with stories of abbesses and queens such as Gertrude, Frideswide, and Lioba. For the last few weeks we recounted the stories of 9th and 10th century women such as Dhuoda (writer and Theologian), as well as Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora who were Byzantine empresses. Last week we presented the story of the amazingly gifted Hrotsvitha, a poet and a playwright whose works are still influential today. This week we present the story of a strong, passionate queen, Adelheid.


Adelheid (931-999)

 We have related the stories of many queens. Their lives were inspirational and often filled with much drama. Adelheid’s story would make a good movie. Adelheid went from a life as a royal princess in Burgundy to queen of Italy to prisoner of a wicked usurper to a fugitive on the run, to empress of the Holy Roman Empire, and but always remaining a friend to the church. Her courage and faith in God saw her through all of these phases in her life.

Adelheid was also one of the most aristocratic of the queens whose stories we have recounted. Her mother, Bertha was the daughter of Duke Burchard of Swabia. Her father was Rudolf II, king of Burgundy. Adelheid (sometimes spelled Adelaide) was born in Burgundy in 931 as a royal princess.

During this period of time kings were struggling for power and ways to enlarge the kingdoms where they dominated. Adelheid’s father, Rudolf II fought with King Hugh of Arles but was unsuccessful and later was supplanted by this southern French ruler. As was typical of male rulers in the Middle Ages, Rudolf used his daughter Adelheid as a political object. In a peace settlement with King Hugh, Rudolf betrothed Adelheid to Hugh’s son Lothar.  In 937 when Rudolf died, Hugh married the widow Bertha. In effect, this meant that Adelheid was now betrothed to her stepbrother.

In 947, when she was about sixteen years old, Adelheid and Lothar married and lived at Hugh’s court in Pavia, Italy. When King Hugh died, Lothar and Adelheid began to rule the Italian kingdom. Adelheid gave birth to a daughter, Emma, who would later become a queen of France. Unfortunately, Lothar’s reign would only last three years. It was widely believed that a powerful rival for the throne, Margrave Berengar, poisoned Lothar. This left Adelheid vulnerable.

It was not unusual for women of wealth or status to be the targets of men who were                seeking more power through a marriage to a royal person. We have seen this played out many times. So, when Lothar died there were many claimants to the throne who took advantage of Adelheid, the young widow and mother. The most powerful claimant was Margrave Berengar of Ivrea, the very man who may have assassinated Adelheid’s husband. Berengar tried to seal his claim to the throne by arranging a marriage between his captive, Queen Adelheid and his son, Adalbert. Adelheid refused in spite of the fact that she knew she would be imprisoned in Berengar’s Castle in Garda. The nineteen-year old Queen Adelheid was held hostage while Berengar waited for her to change her mind. She became a “lady in distress”, but Adelheid did not wait for a prince charming to come and rescue her. This daring woman plotted and executed her own escape while trusting in God to help her.

Here in the words of Odilo of Cluny is one account of her flight to freedom.

Adelheid sprang form a royal and religious lineage. While still a young girl of sixteen years, she attained through God’s generosity a royal marriage to King Lothar, the son of the wealthy king of Italy, Hugh. …

Lothar, however, died before the third year of his marriage to the domina Adelheid had passed, leaving her widowed from her husband, deprived of the kingdom, and bereft of marital counsel. …

After the death of her husband Lothar, a certain man by the name of Berengar, who had a wife named Willa, attained the dignity of the Italian kingdom. The innocent Adelheid was captured by them and afflicted with diverse tortures, her flowing hair pulled out, her body frequently struck with blows from fists and feet, until finally she was confined in loathsome captivity with a single maidservant as her companion.

Liberated by divine providence, she was afterwards raised by God’s command to the imperial heights.

On the night when she was led out of prison, she stumbled into a swampy thicket where she remained for days and nights with nothing to eat or drink, beseeching God to send her aid.

 After four months of imprisonment, Adelheid and her companion spent a night tunneling for hours to escape. She and her handmaiden headed north to Reggio where Adelheid planned to appeal to Otto, the king of Germany for refuge. Running away as fast as they could toward the north, she and her handmaiden stopped to hide among tall stalks of wheat when they heard the sound of soldiers approaching. They did not know who to trust. One time the soldiers actually came within feet of the hidden Adelheid as they parted the grass looking for the fugitives. Miraculously, God prevented her discovery.

 In the midst of these dangers, a fisherman in a boat suddenly appeared, carrying with him a fish known as a sturgeon. Upon seeing them, he asked who they were and what they were doing there.[1]

Adelheid explained to the fisherman that they were alone and hungry. While this was going on, a friendly cleric appeared who helped the women make their way to a fortress.

Eventually Adelheid made her way to King Otto. Her choice of King Otto as an ally showed just how wise and resourceful Adelheid was. Otto’s kingdom bordered Italy to the north. He was a strong military and political leader. Not only that, but Otto was a friend of the family, having served as a tutor to Adelheid’s brother, Conrad. When Adelheid’s father died, Otto tried to help Conrad secure his right to the throne of Burgundy. Otto was also ambitious. He wanted to establish the Holy Roman Empire as a unification of Germany and Italy. If he helped Adelheid defeat Berengar and ascend to her rightful place as queen of Italy, he could accomplish his dream.

In 951, only a few months after her escape from Berengar’s prison, Adelheid and Otto were married. Otto wasted no time in pressing his advance into Italy. The usurper Berengar was defeated. With the help of Adelheid’s influence and popularity among her people, Otto eventually realized his dream. After eleven years of campaigning, Otto and Adelheid were crowned Emperor and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope John XII.

Adelheid began her new future as empress and mother of the future Emperor Otto II. She continued as a wise and beneficent ruler until her retirement to church work.

Next time, in part 2, we will look at her accomplishments in the latter part of her life.





[1] The italicized excerpts are from: Sean Gilsdorf, Queenship and Sanctity: The Lives of Mathilda and the Epitaph of Adelheid (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2004) 129-131.

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 Most church history books leave out the stories of the thousands of women who had a part to play in God’s kingdom. Over the course of the last few months on this blog we have seen that even in the earliest centuries, 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.

We have been presenting a series on women in the Medieval Era. For the last few weeks we covered the stories of some remarkable empresses in Byzantium. The Eastern Orthodox Church still honors and respects these women. Let us now turn to the west and pick up where we left off with stories of women in the 10thcentury.


Hrotsvitha – Poet and Playwright

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

During 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 10thcentury. 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 realized 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, as in ours in many cultures, 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 wanted 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 because they abused their power.

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 answered 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. We then leave the results to God. He may bless many others through our efforts.




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