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Archive for the ‘Historical Women’ Category

Margaret of Scotland (1045 – 1093)

 Introduction:

 There have been millions of incredible women who have served in God’s kingdom. For the last few months on this blog we have been focusing on women who have served in the church that Jesus Christ established. That is because most church history books leave out women’s stories. The mistaken impression is given that women did nothing of importance since time began. I hope to change that impression on this blog site.

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.

We have steadily moved from the stories of women in the Bible to our recent series on women in the Medieval Era. 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), and Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora who were Byzantine empresses. Then we presented the story of the amazingly gifted Hrotsvitha, a poet and a playwright whose works are still influential today. Then we related the story of a strong, passionate, and gifted queen and empress – Adelheid. This week we will take a journey to Scotland and recount the story of another amazing queen – Margaret.

 

Introduction

 Out, damned spot! out, I say!–One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t.–Hell is murky!–Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
account?–Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.
Lady Macbeth[1]

Most of us studied Shakespeare in high school.  One play that is popular is “Macbeth”. Like many young people who didn’t study much history, I thought the whole play came from Shakespeare’s imagination. As a matter of fact, many of Shakespeare’s serious plays were based on actual historical English or Scottish rulers. Our subject this week, Queen Margaret of Scotland will come into this history, though she wasn’t mentioned in Shakespeare’s play.

As in the play, the real Macbeth lived in Scotland. When King Malcolm II died in 1034, he left no heir. Macbeth and Duncan were cousins who vied for the throne. Duncan became the king, but he was a weakling and a terrible ruler.  Macbeth and his wife plotted to kill King Duncan and succeeded in 1040 AD. Macbeth then ruled for seventeen years while Prince Malcolm, Duncan’s son, remained in exile. Though he appears a villain in the play, Macbeth was actually a wise and respected ruler. Prince Malcolm never gave up on trying to get his throne back. He finally succeeded when in 1057 when he defeated Macbeth at Lumphanan in Aberdeenshire. Malcolm took the throne as Malcolm III of Scotland.

In the meantime – in the south of Britain in Merry old England – the Danish army had overrun England and King Canute had taken control in 1016 AD. Naturally, Canute wanted his own sons to succeed him. The descendants of the rightful English king, Edward Atheling, were now in a dangerous position. The English royal family decided to flee for their safety. They fled to Hungary where they were welcomed and cared for.

While the royal family was exiled in Hungary, Margaret was born in 1045. She could trace her imperial ancestry to King Alfred the Great. She was the granddaughter of King Edmund. Evan as a young child her nobility was apparent to all, but she was chiefly admired for her intelligence, beauty, and devotion to God. It was while she was in exile at the Hungarian court that Margaret received a formal education.

After a few years, Canute’s sons died. When the family felt that it was safe, they returned to England. Margaret’s great uncle, Edward the Confessor was reigning. Edward the Confessor had no children so there were claimants vying for power when he died. Margaret’s father, Edward Atheling died, and so Margaret’s brother Edgar was in line for the kingship. However, he wasn’t strong enough to hold out against the English nobility. Harold, the Saxon son of Earl Godwine seized the throne. However, the Saxon rule was to be short-lived because the Normans were advancing on England and war was inevitable again.[2]

In 1057 (while her future husband Malcolm III was gaining the throne in Scotland) Margaret and her family were again embroiled in conflict in England. Margaret’s family represented the last of the Saxon line so when the Normans succeeded in gaining the rule, Margaret’s family was in danger again. They decided to flee. This time as they were traveling back to Hungary, their ship was blown off course and they ended up in Fife, Scotland. There, Malcolm III extended a welcome to them.

Malcolm was recently widowed and so it is not surprising that he was attracted to the beautiful, twenty-one-year old Margaret. Malcolm proposed to Margaret several times. Margaret had been contemplating a life of solitude, piety, and virginity in a religious house. But, the church in Scotland was in disarray and so there was no decent convent for her to go to. She could not return to England where the enemy Normans were ruling. Her family did not wish to return to Hungary. Malcolm was persistent in pressing his suit so when Margaret realized that there were no other good options, she decided to accept. Margaret and Malcolm III were married in Dunfermline around the year 1070.

Margaret was marrying the king, so life should have been easy and luxurious.  But Margaret had her work cut out for her. Malcolm was really an out-and-out barbarian. He was illiterate and his favorite past time was making savage raids on the English. The Scottish court was crude and disgraceful. The pious and undaunted Margaret set about making changes. She would be remembered as a good influence on her husband. She is also remembered for her piety, charitable works, and the reform of the Scottish Church.

Next time, in Part 2 we will see how:

She was to increase God’s praise in the land and to direct the king from the erring path and to bend him to a better way, and his people with him; and to suppress the evil customs which the people had formerly used, even as afterwards she did.[3]

 

 

 

 

 

[1]William Shakespeare, Macbeth, ACT V, Scene 1. Dunsinane. Anteroom in the castle. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/macbeth/full.html

[2] Enter, William Duke of Normandy, also known as “The Conqueror,” who defeated the Saxons at the battle of Hastings in 1066 and was crowned king. A new era began in England.

[3] This passage is taken from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and quoted in Lavinia Byrne. The Life and Wisdom of Margaret of Scotland (New York: Alba House, 1998) p. 18.

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Adelheid – Empress of the Holy Roman Empire – Part 2

 Introduction:

 There have been millions of incredible women who have served in God’s kingdom since creation. That may seem surprising to those who have read the many church history books that leave out women’s stories. The mistaken impression is given that women did nothing of importance since time began. I hope to change that impression on this blog site.

For the last few months we have been focusing on the church that Jesus Christ established. 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.

Recently, we have been presenting a series on women in the Medieval Era. 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), and Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora who were Byzantine empresses. Then we presented the story of the amazingly gifted Hrotsvitha, a poet and a playwright whose works are still influential today. Last week we began the story of a strong, passionate, and gifted queen and empress – Adelheid.

Adelheid’s life would provide many storytellers with exciting material. She began life as a royal princess who was sought after for her beauty and position. She became queen of Italy for a time. She gave birth to one daughter. Then her husband died, probably killed by a usurper, Berengar, who then tried to seal his illegitimate claim to the throne by marrying Adelheid to his son. Adelheid refused and was imprisoned. She managed to escape and make her way to King Otto of Germany for protection. Before Adelheid and Otto joined forces there had been close ties between her homeland, Burgundia and Otto’s homeland, Germany. Ruling families maintained close relationships, intermarrying and coming to one another’s aid in time of war.

When Otto thought that he could realize his dream of uniting Germany and Italy and restoring the Holy Roman Empire, he married Adelheid who was after all the legitimate queen of Italy. The couple worked to get rid of the usurper Berengar and unite Italy and Germany. They were crowned Emperor and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope John XII in 961. Adelheid began her new life as empress of the Holy Roman Empire. She was a wise and benevolent ruler.

 

Adelheid (931-999) – Part 2

 Modern readers have been left with the impression that during the Middle Ages all women were weak and submissive. Single women remained home with their fathers or some were blessed to enter a convent where they could at least get an education and have a good life serving the poor in their communities. The average lower and middle-class women were happy to make good marriages, raise children and sometimes help their husbands in their work.

But in spite of what male-centered history books tell you, many women were in positions of leadership. Women who were in leadership positions had access to much power and independence. We have already seen in the stories of queens and empresses on this blog site that women could rule intelligently, compassionately, and most of all peacefully and justly. Adelheid was just one of a long line of pious and just female rulers.

Adelheid’s biographer, Odilo, abbot of Cluny, revealed the details Adelheid’s remarkable life.[1] During the time that she lived, control of land meant control of power. In part 1 we saw that Adelheid knew this and her escape and appeal to Otto showed a woman of strength, resourcefulness, and wisdom. Adelheid retained her territorial rights and with Otto returned as queen of Burgundy and eleven years later empress of the Holy Roman Empire. During this time of campaigning for dominance, Adelheid and Otto had two children, a son Otto II and a daughter Matilda of Quedlinburg.

Otto began his campaign to unite Germany and Italy in 951 after their marriage. Otto already had three children by his first wife, Edith, who died in 946. Otto’s Italian campaign was slowed down however when one of his sons, Liudolf rebelled against him along with the aid of several Magnates. After a prolonged fight Otto prevailed and Liudolf had to submit. Otto went on to subdue the Magyars in 955. He then furthered his territorial control with his defeat of the Slavs by 960.

In May 961, Otto and Adelheid were crowned emperor and empress of the Holy Roman Empire. Otto then resumed his campaigns while Adelheid remained in Rome for six years. Their son, Otto II was crowned co-emperor in 967. As was typical, a marriage was arranged to bring peace between two empires, the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, who had been squabbling over southern Italy. Otto II married Byzantine princess Theophanu in April 972. This marriage also ensured the succession to the imperial throne. After this royal wedding, Otto and Adelheid returned to Germany where Otto died in May 973. He was buried in Magdeburg at the side of his first wife, Edith.

In the years following Otto’s death, Adelheid governed at court as regent until Otto II reached his majority. Odilo gives us a description of Adelheid’s rule in Germany:

There is no mortal capable of expressing the many ways in which she displayed her nobility of spirit. Nevertheless, to some small degree, I shall speak of them at length. She was steadfast in hope and faith, filled with twofold charity, thoroughly just, strong, prudent, and extremely modest, and she lived prosperously, ruling over worldly affairs with the help of the Lord, who governs every corner of the universe. The words of the wise Solomon are well suited to this most holy woman: “She has opened her hands,” he says, “to the needy, and extended her palms to the poor. … Strength and beauty are her vestments; she shall laugh on the last day. Her mouth has revealed wisdom, and the law of clemency is upon her tongue. She has considered well the paths of her house and has not idly eaten her bread. Her children have risen up and called her blessed, and her husband has praised her. Many daughters have gathered up riches, but you have surpassed them all.”[2]

This is high praise indeed! If Adelheid’s life had continued in this manner, it would seem that she always enjoyed a blessed and happy life. But things were not to remain so wonderful. Adelheid’s daughter-in law, Theophanu began to turn her husband against his mother. Listening to his wife, Otto II sent Adelheid away from court in 978. Adelheid loved her son but did not wish to further the strife in his family so she returned to Italy. She divided her time between Italy and her homeland, Burgundy. Her brother Conrad, King of Burgundy, welcomed her. Later, Conrad was instrumental in Adelheid’s reconciliation with her son, Otto II. Shortly before his death in 983, Otto made Adelheid his viceroy in Italy.

God was not through using his gifted daughter with her rulership abilities. In time, Otto II died and Theophanu became regent for their son Otto III. Odilo tells us that Theophanu desired to use her authority to reduce Adelheid’s power.

She (Theophanu) made this threat, gesturing with her hand as she did so; “If I live another year, Adelheid’s power in this world will be small enough to fit in the palm of my hand.” Divine judgment guaranteed that her ill-considered words would come true: before four weeks had passed, the Greek empress passed away from the light of this world, while the august Adelheid remained behind, safe and sound. While she continued to lament and bemoan the danger of the world, all the while she dutifully managed the Roman empire. The third Otto, the son of her only son, who was brought up by the great magnates of the kingdom in a most auspicious and honorable way, never dealt with her in a way unbecoming to either of them. Thus, through the aid of his grandmother and the diligence of the magnates, he obtained the rule of the Roman empire.[3]

The unfortunate Theophanu passed away and Adelheid dutifully served as the regent. Adelheid returned to power without bitterness or regrets. Otto III attained his majority in 995. Adelheid resigned as regent and then was free to spend the rest of her days doing charitable work. She founded several monasteries, churches, and abbeys. She retired at a convent that she had founded in 991 at Seitz in Alsace. She died at this convent in 999 and was buried in the Abbey. Adelheid was canonized by Pope Urban II in 1097.

Odilo concludes the Epitaph of Adelheid with this summary of the life of this devout empress, saint, and faithful follower of Christ:

No pride in earthly nobility fettered her, no desire for human praise could divert the goodness which God gave her. Neither boastfulness concerning her God-given virtues, nor ill-considered despair on account of her own failures, could rule over her. No ambition for honors, riches, and the delights of the world took precedence with her; instead, she was attended in all things by discretion, the mother of all virtues. She demonstrated tranquil steadfastness in faith and steadfast tranquility in hope, and charity in her love of God and neighbor, which is the root of all good things and the principal cause of virtue.[4]

 A rich man once asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all you mind; and love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

This is how Adelheid lived. Truly she is one to be admired and emulated as we seek to emulate Christ by loving God and neighbor.

 

 

 

[1] For the biography of Adelheid by Odilo, “The Epitaph of Adelheid”, See:  Sean Gilsdorf, Queenship and Sanctity: The Lives of Mathilda and the Epitaph of Adelheid (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2004) 128-143.

[2] Ibid, p. 132. Odilo is quoting from Proverbs 31:20-29.

[3] Ibid, 134.

[4] Ibid., 140.

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Introduction:

 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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Introduction:

 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.  
Hrotsvitha

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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Empress Theodora of Byzantium – Part 2

In previous posts we reviewed the history of Byzantium from the middle of the eighth century until 842 AD. We saw that two empresses were very influential in guiding the government – Irene and Euphrosyne during most of that time. Now a third very powerful empress enters the picture – Theodora. In our last post we looked at Theodora’s background and the early years of her marriage to Theophilos. We continue now with the rest of the events in her life during her rulership.

When Theophilos died in 842 AD, he left Theodora with five children ranging in age from the eleven- year-old Thekla down to Michael age two. Theodora’s main goal was to protect the throne from usurpers. This was not an unfounded fear since between 802 AD and 820 AD there were no fewer than four changes in the rulership, mostly military coups, but all by non-royal persons. As we have noted, ambitious men had shown no compunction about taking the throne by force using assassination. Theodora would remember that even her children’s great grandmother, Empress Irene was forced off of the throne and into exile.[1] Theodora knew that if male rulers could be overthrown by vicious means, ruthless men would think nothing of taking advantage of a woman.

Theodora reacted quickly and began her stratagem by having a coronation ceremony proclaiming the accession of Michael III. She had gold coins struck to commemorate the event. It was typical to have coins struck to let everyone know, especially in the surrounding territories that a change in rulership had occurred. In this coin set, Thekla as big sister, is shown with Michael who holds the cross. Theodora is on the reverse. With these official coins, Theodora clearly demonstrated that she was the Regent and now the kingdom would now be ruled by her.  Her family was in control.

Theodora was now free to restore the veneration of icons. She needed a good reason to reverse the decades-old laws for iconoclasm. She received the help of the church in declaring that iconoclasm was a sin. Revering icons was now to be seen as holy and right. Those who held to iconoclasm were now seen as sinners. However, she had a problem. What to do about Theophilos? She did not want her husband’s image ruined. So, she came up with a plan. She put about the story that Theophilos had actually been converted shortly before his death and repented on his deathbed. She convinced the people of her husband’s change of heart and the way was clear for the restoration of icons as part of true and holy worship.

A new liturgy was performed for the first time in March 843. The timing was significant as the first Sunday in Lent in the Orthodox church. Theodora knew the power of having important events occur on major holy days. Those who had held the iconoclast position were to use this occasion to repent. Those who refused to accept the new iconophile position were condemned and cast out of the church. New prelates took their places and the work of changing over the worship service began. Eventually by 867 AD most of the churches had installed images for veneration.

Theodora ruled from 842 – 856 while Michael was too young to assume the throne. She proved to be adept at managing the government. Most of the civilian organizations remained in place. Theodora appointed ministers who supported her of course. In her foreign policy she maintained peace as much as possible. Theodora was also interested in missionary activity. She desired to take the gospel to the Slavic peoples and sent missionaries there. Historians have recorded that in the main her rulership was prudent, beneficial, and successful.

All the while, Theodora did not neglect her work as the mother of four girls and one boy. Michael received special tutors of course who gave him the instructions he would need as the future ruler. We do not know specifically what education the girls would have received, but we can assume that they would have been given whatever education was appropriate for crowned princesses.

As Empress Regents before her had done, Theodora arranged the marriage for her son. In spite of her disapproval, Michael had already taken a mistress, named Eudokia Ingerine. Theodora ignored her son’s wishes and chose a different Eudokia, whose father was from Decapolis. Eudokia Dekapolitissa was married to Michael and crowned in 855.

Michael had his friend, Basil, marry his mistress Eudokia Ingerine so she would be “acceptable” to everyone though they all knew that she was Michael’s concubine. When the mistress Eudokia Ingerine conceived and bore Michael a child, Constantine, around 859, Basil claimed the son as his own. No one was fooled however about the paternity of this child or the child born in 866 to Eudokia Ingerine. Michael was so busy with his mistress that he failed to produce any legitimate children with the rightful empress, Eudokia Dekapolitissa. In the end Michael would legally die childless. Since Theodora worked so hard to preserve the throne for her family, we have to wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to have allowed her son marry his mistress. But how could Theodora have foreseen that Michael would prove to be so stubborn?

Michael attempted to have himself proclaimed ruler around 856 though he hadn’t reached his majority. He was easily led by his uncle Bardas who convinced him to murder Theodora’s chief advisor which weakened her power. She remained the Empress mother ruling for two more years in spite of it. Eventually after a stand-off, Michael took control and expelled Theodora from the palace in late 858. He sent his sisters the princesses to various monasteries to remove the threat that Theodora would circumvent his leadership by having one of them married and placed on the throne. Michael’s uncle, Bardas then became the real power behind the throne.

Theodora was in exile in Gastria until around 863, when she was released and allowed to live in comfort in the palace of a friend. She maintained relative peace there in prayer and meditation. She must have watched the developments at the palace in Constantinople with some trepidation, knowing that Michael was too easily led by ambitious men. Did she long to be back there advising him and working toward maintaining the throne for her family?

Things went along well for Michael and Bardas until conspirators, with Michael’s consent, brutally murdered Bardas in 866. Michael’s friend Basil now thought that he could seize the throne. He talked Michael into crowning him as co-emperor. Theodora must have seen that this was the beginning of the end for her family’s dynasty. At this stage she could do nothing about it. It was too late. Could she have had more influence with her son if she would have allowed him to have the wife of his choice? Theodora inadvertently lost the throne for her family by not compromising with Michael.

Not surprisingly, Basil took steps to secure the throne for himself. He invited Michael and Eudokia Ingerine to a dinner party in September 867. One historical account relates that Basil got Michael drunk then used the same assassins he used to murder Bardas to murder Michael in his bedchamber. Basil then had himself proclaimed sole emperor. He reigned as Basil I from 867 until 886. By all accounts he was actually a very able administrator. Theodora buried her son while Basil began his reign.

There are varying accounts of Theodora’s last years. Most probably she lived quietly in a monastery hoping that Basil would not kill her or her daughters. It is uncertain how much longer she lived. Perhaps her daughters were with her when she died. She asked them to bury her near her mother, Theoktiste at Gastria monastery. A tenth century record from the Gastria monastery indicates that Theodora and three of the daughters, Thekla, Anastasia, and Pulcheria were buried there.  Anna chose to be buried near step-grandmother Euphrosyne in her monastery.

Theodora accomplished much during her reign. She had a reputation as a fearless leader when dealing with the enemies of Constantinople. She stood up to the Arabs who thought they could take advantage of a woman, negotiating a long-lasting peace. She managed the financial resources of her nation well. For fourteen years she protected the throne for her son.

But Theodora is mostly remembered as the Byzantine ruler who overturned the religious practices of many generations. She made sure that iconoclasm would be ended once and for all. The Orthodox church commemorates Saint Theodora annually on February 11 by reading an account of her life and the Orthodox venerate icons of her. Every year on the first Sunday of Lent she is also honored for bringing the Triumph of Orthodoxy -the return of the veneration of icons – to the church.

Theodora’s restoration of icons led to the development of icon painting which has been prized and esteemed in culture for centuries. Today millions appreciate the beautiful art in churches, shrines, and museums. Whether the icons are objects to be used for instruction or reverence they are part of the lasting Orthodox culture.

The three empresses Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora each contributed to the return of a central tenet of the Orthodox faith – the power of the use of images in worship. Irene began the restoration of icons by setting the precedent for changing the law. Euphrosyne began an iconophile revival in 787. Theodora used her power to bring all of the past and present resources to bear on getting images back into the worship service which still exists today. These three women ruled one of the largest and longest-lasting dynasties in the world for nearly a century (780 to 867 AD). Their accomplishments truly changed history for all time.

 

[1] See posts on Empress Irene, February 18 and 25 on this blog site.

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Theodora – The Empress Who Changed History

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. We’ve covered mostly stories about women who lived in the West because we have much more information about them. However, there does exist a fair amount of information about the Byzantine Empire, so in the last several weeks we have taken a trip towards the East to look at the lives of three Byzantine empresses – Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora (9th century). These three women were powerful, courageous and opportunistic. Through their leadership they put into place the laws that altered history. They dared to challenge the ban on images (iconoclasm) and restore the use of icons in worship that is still a part of the Easter Orthodox church today.

 

Note on Icons:

In the early church when copies of the Scriptures were scarce, leaders felt that the pictures of saints helped the common folk to learn the story of the gospel. At this time, images were being used in both the Eastern and Western churches. Indeed, Pope Gregory the Great (Rome) said that religious images were the “Bible of the illiterate”.  Some theologians were against using images in worship. They pointed out that starting in the Old Testament, images had been forbidden by God. These theologians reasoned that God had given us a written word for a purpose. They worried that the images would be too easily worshipped in place of God.

Artists continued to produce beautiful paintings and drawings with a religious theme. Most people just revered them, but in Byzantium by the eighth century the church decided that using images in the worship service was idolatry.

In 730 AD Leo III issued an order imposing iconoclasm (the ban of icons) on the Eastern Orthodox church. All icons were to be destroyed and those people found with them were to be punished. In 754 AD Constantine V further established iconoclasm when he declared that the only true image of Christ was in the Eucharist (the host at communion). By the time Irene arrived in Constantinople in 769 AD, iconoclasm was the law of the land. In our last few posts we have seen how Empress Irene and then Euphrosyne worked to restore the icons in worship. When Theodora became empress there was still a clash going on between iconoclasts and iconophiles. In the ninth century Theodora would enact the final laws that would ensure the adoration of icons in worship that would last until today.

 

Theodora – Byzantine Empress (815 – 867)

Let’s see how this third empress – Theodora – fits into the 8th and 9th century history of Byzantium. We saw in an earlier post that Irene became the sole ruler of Byzantium as Empress mother/Regent of Byzantium when her husband Leo IV died in 780 AD.[1] Irene’s one son, Constantine VI was too young to ascend to the throne and so Irene assumed power. She would prove to be an effective and popular ruler, much loved by her people.

In 787, Irene found the future wife for her son, Mary of Amnia. Constantine VI and Mary were married, and they had two daughters – Irene (named after her paternal grandmother) and Euphrosyne. When Mary did not have a son, Constantine VI divorced her and sent Mary and his two daughters into exile on the island of Prinkipo. Granddaughter Irene died during their banishment. Euphrosyne grew up in her confinement believing that she would live in a monastery until she died.

While Mary and the girls were in exile, Empress Irene and Constantine VI fought for control of the throne with Irene gaining control. The populace welcomed Irene mostly because of Constantine’s divorce. They did not protest when Constantine was exiled in 797. Irene reigned for five more years. In October 802 there was a military supported coup d’etat. Irene was forcibly removed from the throne. The finance minister, Nikephoros assumed the throne, and it seemed to be the end of the dynasty that had begun with Justinian in the sixth century.

After the coup d’etat of 802, when Empress Irene was forced off of the throne, Nikephoros I reigned from 802 to 811. He did not succeed in any great accomplishments. He was killed by Bulgars after a battle with them in 811. The throne was fought over, and Michael I became emperor, but reigned only 2 years. Three junior military officers plotted to oust him. Each one wanted to be emperor, but Leo the Armenian prevailed, becoming Leo V. He reigned from 813 – 820. What goes around comes around and another military coup saw Leo assassinated and a conspirator named Michael ascended to the throne as Michael II.

Michael II began his reign in 820 at about age forty. He knew that he was not royalty. One wonders if he was worried about plots against him since he was now the fourth emperor in a row who attained the throne through treachery and murder rather than legal hereditary descent. Anyway, he decided to fix the problem by marrying someone who was royalty. Enter – Euphrosyne. Euphrosyne had been raised with iconophile sympathies. She kept her feelings to herself. She had no children. When Michael died and her stepson, Theophilos became emperor in 829, Euphrosyne arranged a marriage for him.

Euphrosyne found a number of eligible girls and apparently let Theophilos choose between the finalists. He chose Theodora.

Theodora was born in Paphlagonia to Marinos and Florina. They were from the village of Ebissa. Marinos held some sort of position in the military. He died around 830 leaving Florina with six children. Theodora was probably the fourth. There were no dates recorded, but if Theodora was in her mid to late teens when she married Theophilos in 830 AD she was probably born around 815 AD.

We know very little about Theodora’s childhood. She was most likely brought up as a typical young woman learning domestic duties. She may have been taught to spin thread and weave cloth. That was the trade of many people in Paphlagonia. Other trades that she would have been familiar with were farming and fishing. The Orthodox faith was practiced by the people of Paphlagonia. Theodora would have been familiar with all of tenets and practices of her religion. Her parents were iconophiles and so Theodora was sympathetic to the use of images in the worship service.

Theophilos chose Theodora to be his bride and the two were married. Theodora was crowned Empress on June 5, 830. For the next ten years her life was filled with the joy of having children. Her first three children were daughters, Thekla, Anna, and Anastasia. Theophilos was very proud of his daughters, even featuring all of them on a royal coin, but he was especially overjoyed when his son, Constantine was born in 834. Unfortunately, the next year Constantine got away from his nurse somehow and fell into a palace cistern and drowned. Theophilos and Theodora were devastated.

The emperor and empress held out hope for another son but had two more daughters, Maria and Pulcheria. Sadly, Maria died in 839. Finally, on January 9, 840 Theodora had another son and he was named Michael III. Theophilos had Michael christened and crowned at the Christmas feast. This was in keeping with the tradition of having important events occurring on the day of the birth of Jesus.

During this decade Theodora was mostly occupied with the children. Privately, she remained committed to icons. She often took her daughters to visit their grandmother, Euphrosyne for iconophile instruction.[1] At this time iconoclasm was the law of the land and many iconophiles were severely punished. Theophilos tried to stop iconophile veneration by having all of the icons in Constantinople destroyed. Church leaders who objected to this were exiled. Others were tortured with beatings and imprisonment. Theodora did what she could to relieve their suffering. She often approached Theophilos to convince him to have mercy on men who were being tortured for their faith. On several occasions Theodora succeeded in having Theophilos change the death penalty to exile or imprisonment.

Besides working on the home front to destroy icons, Theophilos was busy fighting battles to protect Constantinople from her enemies and to enlarge his territory. The

results were mixed. Then on the eve of peace negotiations with one of his enemies he learned that he was dying of dysentery. He called for Theodora and Michael to explain his wishes. On January 20, 842, not yet twenty-nine years old he died. The heir, Michael III was just two years old. Theodora realized that she needed to protect Michael’s throne for at least fourteen more years. She began a regency that lasted until 856 AD.

Next time, in Part 2 we will learn how Theodora ruled Byzantium and made lasting changes for the Orthodox church.

 

[1] See post on March 24, 2020, “Euphrosyne – Byzantine Empress – Part 2”

[1] See posts on February 13, 2020 (Irene Part 1) and February 25, 2020 (Irene Part 2) on this blog site.

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Euphrosyne – Byzantine Empress – Part 2

Countless numbers of women served in God’s kingdom throughout church history. 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.

For the first few months of our series on women in the Medieval Era we have covered mostly stories about women who lived in the West because we have much more information about them. We do have some historical writings from Byzantium, so in the last several weeks we have taken a trip towards the East to look at the lives of three Byzantine empresses – Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora (9th century). The stories of these three empresses would make a good movie!

 

Note on 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.

Some Byzantine 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 our stories of three Byzantine empresses (Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora) we will see how this played out in the 8thand 9th centuries.

 

Euphrosyne – (793? – 836?)

Let’s review a bit. Irene became the sole ruler of Byzantium as Empress mother/Regent of Byzantium when her husband Leo IV died. She proved that she would be a strong, effective, and popular ruler. Irene is still remembered as a devout empress who loved her people.

In 787 Irene found a bride for her only son, Constantine VI, Mary of Amnia. Mary bore two daughters, Irene (named after her paternal grandmother) and Euphrosyne. The girls would have been born between 789 and 794 but no records exist of actual dates. When Euphrosyne was born Constantine decided he was tired of waiting for a male heir and divorced Mary. Constantine succeeded in trumping up charges of treason against Mary and had her convicted and exiled.

The empress mother Irene and the citizens of Constantinople objected to this sinful divorce. Nevertheless, Constantine forced Mary and their two daughters to leave Constantinople in January 795 to go to a monastery. Only much later would the wrong be righted when Mary was exonerated, and Euphrosyne would return to Constantinople.

Irene and Constantine fought for control of the throne with Irene gaining control. Part of the reason the populace welcomed Irene was because of Constantine’s divorce. Constantine who was exiled in 797. Irene reigned for five more years. In October 802 there was a military supported coup d’etat. Irene was forcibly removed from the throne. The finance minister, Nikephoros assumed the throne, and it seemed to be the end of the dynasty that had begun with Justinian in the sixth century.

Meanwhile, Euphrosyne was growing up in a monastery on Prinkipo. Her mother was forced to join the religious community. Mary and young Irene and Euphrosyne were virtually prisoners there. The girls were taught to read and write by other nuns or tutors. Eventually, Euphrosyne likely took the vows to be a nun. A modern view of Prinkipo shows an island with beautiful trees and sandy shores and many places for young girls to have fun while growing up even though for all they knew they were confined there permanently.

During their stay in the monastery the girls were probably aware of the conflict over icons. Euphrosyne would no doubt have been taught that she was a true daughter of Constantine and therefore a royal princess. Of coursed at this time of her life she could not foresee any other future than taking vows as a nun and spending the rest of her life in the monastery.

After the coup d’etat of 802, when her grandmother Irene as forced off of the throne, Nikephoros I reigned from 802 to 811. He did not succeed in any great accomplishments. He was killed by Bulgars after a battle with them in 811. The throne was fought over, and Michael I became emperor, but reigned only 2 years. Three junior military officers plotted to oust him. Each one wanted to be emperor, but Leo the Armenian prevailed, becoming Leo V. He reigned from 813 – 820.

Leo realized that he was not “royalty”. He also realized that the land was divided over the issue of icons. He believed that his best support to maintain his power for ruling would come from the iconoclasts (those who are against icons). During Irene’s reign, the use of icons in worship had come back. Irene had overturned the laws establishing iconoclasm. Now, Leo reversed this and made a new law in favor of iconoclasm.

Not surprisingly, Leo’s rule was challenged by Michael of Amorion. Leo had Michael imprisoned and would have executed him, but empress Theodosia persuaded him against it. It seems it was a holy day, the Feast of the Nativity. This gave Michael’s co-conspirators a chance to carry out an assassination attempt against Leo. They disguised themselves as members of the chapel choir and struck Leo down while he was singing the Christmas liturgy. The conspirators rushed to free Michael and changing his prison garb for royal purple had him crowned Michael II.

Michael began his reign in 820. He knew that he was not royalty. One wonders if he was worried about plots against him since he was now the fourth emperor in a row who attained the throne through military might rather than legal hereditary descent. Anyway, he decided to fix the problem by marrying someone who was royalty. Enter – Euphrosyne.

Michael was about forty years old in 820, and Euphrosyne between twenty-six and thirty. Though she was raised as an iconophile, Michael overlooked it in order to gain this royal bride for himself. Since Euphrosyne’s vows as a nun were supposed to be permanent, he also had to get a special dispensation for her to leave the convent. We don’t have records of Euphrosyne’s feelings in these matters, but she must have been happy to be restored to her rightful place in court. She and Michael married in 820.

Mary returned to the palace with her daughter. She was fully exonerated.

We have very few records of Euphrosyne’s activities during her reign with Michael from 820 – 829. We can assume that she would have fulfilled all of the duties of an empress, diplomatic meetings, caring for the poor, and trying to get an heir. She had no children but got along well with her stepson, Theophilos who would eventually become the emperor.

Euphrosyne founded a monastery near the city of Constantinople. It would become a family shrine. When her mother Mary died Euphrosyne had her buried there. Later Euphrosyne would bring the remains of her father Constantine, and her sister Irene and have them buried there. This was really important to Euphrosyne. She had no children, so her shrine commemorated the last few generations of the Syrian dynasty.

Michael II died in 829 and Theophilos ascended to the throne. Euphrosyne arranged a marriage for him with Theodora who will be the subject of our next post. Eventually Euphrosyne retired out of the Great Palace. She went to live in another palace. Here she began her somewhat covert activities in restoring the iconophile position in the land. Theophilos had adopted the iconoclastic laws of his father. But his and Theodora’s children, Euphrosyne’s step-grandchildren, would visit her in her palace. There she taught them as well as Theodora about icons. Theophilos had no idea that Euphrosyne was undermining Theophilos’ policy of iconoclasm. It would be after his death that Theodora would restore Icons to worship in the Church. That will be discussed in the next post.

There is no record of the date of Euphrosyne’s death. The nuns at the monastery probably performed the burial rituals. A marble tomb was built for her and she was laid to rest near her father, mother, and sister Irene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Euphrosyne – Byzantine Empress – Part 1

Countless numbers of women served in God’s kingdom throughout history. 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.

Our stories over the last few months have mainly been about women in the western part of the world because more of their writings have survived the ravages of time. We do have some historical writings from Byzantium, so in the last several weeks we have taken a trip towards the East to look at the lives of three Byzantine empresses – Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora (9th century). We needed two posts to cover the amazing life if Irene! The stories of these three empresses would make a good movie! Before we talk about the second of the three, Euphrosyne, let’s review a bit about icons. Icons are still very popular in some Eastern Orthodox churches. It is an important part of their history and understanding the issues helps to understand the changes in leadership in the Byzantine empire.

Note on Icons:

The use of icons has a long history. Some early church leaders in the Western and Eastern churches 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 believed that in the Old Testament images had been forbidden by God. After all, they reasoned, God had given us a written word and it should be sufficient. These objectors to the use of images were also worried that the images would be too easily worshipped in place of God. These two views remain with us today.

 

The picture on the left is of a very famous icon from the Byzantine era. Icons of Christ are the most revered. This icon was at the Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia was built in the sixth century by Justinian[1] as an Orthodox cathedral. It remained a Christian cathedral until 1453 when Constantinople was captured by the Ottomans. Constantinople was renamed Istanbul and the church was converted to a Muslim mosque. Today it is a museum that you can visit. (See picture on the right.)

 

Euphrosyne – (793? – 836?)

Let’s review a bit. We learned from our last two posts that Irene became the sole ruler as 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, lowered taxes, and spent time and money caring for the poor. Irene is still remembered as a devout empress who loved her people.

In 787 Irene found a bride for her only son, Constantine VI, Mary of Amnia. Mary bore two daughters, Irene (named after her paternal grandmother) and Euphrosyne. The girls would have been born between 789 and 794 but no records exist of actual dates. When Euphrosyne was born Constantine decided he was tired of waiting for a male heir and divorced Mary. He could only put her away on charges of treason, so he spread the lie that Mary was trying to poison him. Many, including the Patriarch found the accusation untrue and shameful. Nevertheless, Constantine succeeded in getting Mary convicted and exiled.

The empress mother Irene objected to this. The patriarch tried to talk Constantine out of it. Divorce was not allowed in the Orthodox religion. Actually, even the citizens of Constantinople felt that Constantine VI was sinning and most refused to recognize the divorce. Nevertheless, Constantine forced Mary and their two daughters to leave Constantinople in January 795 to go to a monastery. Only much later would the wrong be righted when Mary was exonerated, and Euphrosyne would return to Constantinople.

After this Irene and Constantine fought for control of the throne. The people and the leaders favored Irene. Constantine had not been an effective ruler. He lost battles, raised taxes, alienated top government officials, and the people were still angry about his divorce. Irene prevailed over Constantine and had him exiled in 797. Irene reigned for five more years. In October 802 there was a military supported coup d’etat. Irene was forcibly removed from the throne. The finance minister, Nikephoros assumed the throne. He was not a member of the royal family and it seemed to be the end of the Syrian dynasty.

Meanwhile, the exiled Euphrosyne was growing up in a monastery on a large island in the Princes Isles, Prinkipo. Her mother was forced to join the religious community. Mary and young Irene and Euphrosyne were virtually prisoners there. As royalty their housing was probably better than most. Prinkipo is a beautiful island with forests and rocks and beaches where the girls probably enjoyed playing. Mary and the girls no doubt had a nice apartment and maybe even some servants. The girls were taught to read and write by other nuns or tutors. Eventually, Euphrosyne likely took the vows to be a nun. At this stage in her life she probably thought she would be in a monastery until she died.

During their stay in the monastery, Mary kept in touch with what was going on in court through letters. The girls were probably aware of the conflict over icons. Euphrosyne would no doubt have been taught that she was a true daughter of Constantine and therefore a royal princess. Of coursed at this time of her life she could not foresee any other future than taking vows as a nun and spending the rest of her life in the monastery. When her sister Irene died, Euphrosyne became the only living descendant of Leo III, the last of the legitimate ruling dynasty. This fact will later play a significant part in her life.

After the coup d’etat of 802, when Euphrosyne’s grandmother Irene was forced off of the throne, Nikephoros I assumed control and he reigned from 802 to 811. Nikephoros would be the first of the next four emperors who succeeded to the throne by military might or rebel takeovers. The story of the changes in government over the next eighteen years reads like a good movie plot. While the men were fighting over the throne, Mary and her daughters, Irene and Euphrosyne were living peaceful lives away from the intrigues and bloodshed. We will pick up the story of the Byzantine empire in Part 2 next time with the takeover by Nikephoros in 802. Euphrosyne would be in seclusion for eighteen years during all the drama at court. It will have a happy ending for her.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] You can read about Justinian and Theodora, posted on this blog – September 10, 2019, “Christianity Women in the Medieval Era – Part 4”

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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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