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Archive for the ‘Historical Women’ Category

 

Gertrude of Nivelles

Historians have not done justice to the thousands of women who served in God’s kingdom during Medieval times. Women prayed, taught, preached, went on pilgrimages, reigned over kingdoms, founded monasteries, and took care of the poor. Like their female forebears in the Patristic Era these women contributed greatly to the Kingdom of God, not so they could be remembered, but so they could serve the Lord Jesus by serving others.[1]

After looking at women in the Patristic Era, we began a journey through the Middle Ages with stories of women in the 5thand 6thcenturies – Genovefa of Paris (423-502), Clothilde, the Queen of the Franks (470-545), Brigid of Kildare (451-523), Empress Theodora (497-548), and Queen Radegund (520-587).

We then turned to the 7thand 8thcenturies to talk about Queen Bathilde (630-680) – the last of the rulers of the Merovingian Era (480-751 AD).

Things really changed for women in the 6thand 7thcenturies, so in our last post we took some time out to explain how little by little women began to be barred from the freedom of ministry that they exercised in the Patristic Era and Early Medieval Era. We saw that ideasabout women changed. For a number of worldly or unbiblical reasons women’s status was lowered and lowered until men saw them as impure, sinful, and unable to function in church service.

This did not entirely stop women from finding ways to serve Christ by serving others. In the monasteries, women would be able to pray, teach, preach, serve communion, study, support themselves and take care of the poor. Throughout history, even with restrictions placed against them, women have and always will find ways to serve their Savior.

One of the chief ways that women were able to serve was in the cloister. We continue with our accounts of women in Medieval times with the stories of godly abbesses.

 

Gertrude, Abbess of Nivelles (628-658)

Gertrude was born in Belgium in 628 AD. She was the daughter of Pippin the Elder, founder of the dynasty that would later be called the Carolingian Dynasty. In an earlier post where we recounted the history of the Middle Ages, we noted that the Merovingian Era came to a close when Pippin of Landen saw his opportunity to take over the rulership.[2]

In our post on Bathilde (October 8, 2019) we noted the descent of the Frankish kings from Clovis I (died 511) through Clovis II (died 657). Their descendent, Dagobert I was the one who was reigning when the Merovingian dynasty reached its peak. At this time, Pippin was already gaining in popularity with the people. He had made it clear that he wanted the throne. Dagobert was so corrupt that the people actually favored Pippin.

Dagobert was trying to use arranged marriages to strengthen his position as ruler. He thought that by marrying off Pippin’s daughter, Gertrude to one of his patrons, the duke of Austrasia, he could thwart Pippin. He ordered Gertrude to accept the suitor he had selected for her. Gertrude indignantly refused to marry Dagobert’s chosen suitor. Gertrude had a desire to enter the religious life and she had the support of her mother and father. She declared that she wanted no earthly husband but only Christ. Amazingly she got her way.

Gertrude was demonstrating her pious character when she turned down a life of wealth and influence. Gertrude had been influenced by the lives of other noble women who left their royal palaces to found convents. Her mother Ida and her sister Begga were known as holy women. They gave hospitality to missionary monks and pilgrims. They gave some land to one Irish monk so that he could build a monastery at Fosse.

When Pippin died (639), Ida and Gertrude founded the monastery at Nivelles. By doing this they were able to keep their part of the family fortune out of the hands of the rulers. It was acceptable to divert one’s money to religious causes. Apparently at this time the nuns did not have to take a vow of poverty. (In later centuries when women entered the convent all of their worldly goods would become church property.) Though the women kept control of their money, they usually spent it on the poor while they lived modestly. Gertrude was an exceptional example of using her money to help the poor.

Gertrude became an abbess at age seventeen with her mother helping her as a consultant. The monastery at Nivelles was a ‘double monastery’. There were places for men and for women, but all could socialize in common areas. Women as well as men studied the Scriptures and enjoyed a high rate of literacy. Learned monks from Ireland and Rome came, bringing many books with them.

Gertrude was gifted with intelligence and wisdom. She was able to commit whole sections of the Bible to memory. She was a committed leader and the women and men in the monastery were willing to follow her. Ascetism was still considered a special spiritual virtue. Gertrude practiced fasting from food and sleep to the point of wearing herself out by the time she was in her early thirties. She had to resign her position as abbess at age thirty-two. She then spent the rest of her days praying, reading, and fasting.

Once released from the responsibilities of her office Gertrude could exhort and preach the word of God. When her life was drawing to a close, she wore a hair shirt under her robe. She asked that she be buried with only the hair shirt and a simple veil that had been a gift from a traveling nun. On her last day on earth she led the nuns in prayer and at night she led them through the vigils. She died the next day at age thirty-three.

Gertrude is considered the patron saint of travelers, gardeners, and cats. She is often depicted as an abbess with cats. It is said that she offered hospitality to all people and animals and took care of the cats that adopted the monastery for their home. She offered them affection and food. Also because of her hospitality to traveling monks and nuns she is the patron of travelers.

Gertrude shares the same feast day as St. Patrick, March 17.

 

 

 

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

[2]See the post on “Clothilde” (August 5, 2019) for the historical account of the dynasties that ruled the empire from the 5th through 7th centuries.

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There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.(Galatians 3:28)

 

In earliest Christianity women were treated far better than they had been in antiquity. The apostles and disciples of Christ took Paul’s instruction to the believers at Corinth seriously and they allowed women to serve in ministry in the Church. Throughout the Patristic Era (about 200 to 500 AD) women were allowed be involved in the life of the church even in leadership positions. They prayed, taught, preached, journeyed as evangelists, founded monasteries, presided over church ordinances such as communion and baptism, took care of the poor and some even reigned over kingdoms. These humble and faithful women contributed greatly to the Kingdom of God, not so they could be remembered, but so they could serve the Lord Jesus by serving others.[1]

 

Our journey through the Middle Ages has included some lay women such as Genovefa of Paris (423-502), but most of the posts have been about queens such as Clothilde, the Queen of the Franks (470-545), Empress Theodora (497-548), and two Merovingian queens – Radegund (520 – 587) and Bathildis (630 – 680). Throughout the Middle Ages there would be many more women in political positions of leadership. We have more of this information than stories about common women because many documents about the wealthy and influential have survived. It is still awesome to see how many of these Christian women with political power used it to benefit the poor. But since the status of women in general was being lowered throughout the Middle Ages, even the queens had to submit to male authority.

 

Changes had begun to take place for women in ministry during the Medieval Era. Little by little women were being barred from the freedom of ministry in the Church that they exercised in the Patristic Era. What happened to the freedom women had begun to enjoy when Christianity began to transform the cultures in the Greco-Roman world? Why didn’t the transformation stick or spread further? How did the view of women suffer such a reversal when it was not only unbiblical but unethical?

When the Church began to form itself into an institution in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, women were left out. The institutional Church formed itself into a hierarchy that excluded women. Women were barred from education and service. Not all women just gave up and faded into the background. Yes, women are generally peaceful and were submissive to the formal hierarchy, but they found avenues for serving Christ in another way – the monastery. We have already looked at the life of a female founder of a monastery – Brigid of Kildare (451-523). In our upcoming posts we will look at the lives of many more women who exercised leadership in the monasteries. Before we explore the lives of the many pious abbesses, let’s pause and see why women chose this way of life.

 

Religious Life for Medieval Women

There were many reasons why women began to be barred from service in the Church. Whole books have been written about misogyny, abuse of power, ignorance, and superstition. For our purposes we want to explore the main cause of the belittlement of women that encouraged them to find their spiritual fulfillment in monasteries or cloisters when they were abandoned by the church.

The cause of the diminishment of women in the Church was generally speaking – ideasabout women changed. For a number of worldly or unbiblical reasons women’s status was lowered and lowered until men saw them as impure, sinful, and unable to function in church service. How did this come about?

What Jesus began when He treated women with dignity and equality, the early disciples of Christ continued. In the Patristic Era and the early part of the Medieval Era women had opportunities to seek spiritual fulfillment in many ways. Unlike the surrounding pagan culture, men were not to see their wives as only objects for procreation, but to treat their wives as equal ministry partners. Christian men were taught to “love their own wives as their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:28). In this passage, Paul is reminding believers that God originally created men and women to share in the work in the world equally (Genesis 1:26 – 30). For the first three centuries Christian singles and married couples served together in ministry. In fact, married men were seen as better equipped to furnish pastoral care in churches with their wives helping them.

Somewhere in the fourth or fifth centuries, many men lost sight of God’s original plan for equality of men and women in Genesis. They overlooked Christ’s example of allowing women into full discipleship,[2]and Paul’s reminder to the church of the equal status of women (Galatians 3:28). It is hard for us today to understand how men could suddenly demean women in an unbiblical fashion, but we must remember that many were illiterate. Even if they could read, there were not many Bibles available and the Bible was in Latin. Lay people had to believe the word of their priests and especially the bishops. How were the bishops able to convince men that only they could be priests? What was the matter with women?

There were many motives from ignorance to spiritual abuse. But the reason we explore today since it led to women feeling the need to turn to the cloister has to do with the view of “purity”.  In the fourth and fifth centuries ascetism including sexual abstinence was valued as a loftier Christian virtue. Men and women sought to dedicate their lives to service free from the troubles of marriage. They had some Biblical basis for this in I Corinthians 7 where Paul encourages singleness for those who would wholly follow the Lord. Celibacy became very popular. In time, the idea began to take hold that purity meant “sexual abstinence”.  Paul never said that sexual relations in marriage was a sin, but somehow with the idealization of abstinence it turned into that for the church.

The hierarchy in the Church went further – they actually passed laws forbidding priests to marry, or if they were married, they were forbidden to have relations with their wives.[3]The reason was that the priests handled the bread and wine for communion and those elements had to be ritually pure. Now that all sexual relations were seen as impure, they tainted the priest and therefore tainted the communion elements. There’s no time here to discuss the question of why the elements (bread and wine) took on such an exalted nature in the communion service. Even today in the Roman Catholic Church only the priests can handle the consecrated elements. Still today, priests may not marry. What we are concerned about for now is what happened to the women.

We find increasingly in the writings of the fourth and fifth centuries a disparagement against marriage and women.

              As the Western church began to press for sexual abstinence in higher orders, apologists began to compare the wives of clerics to Eve. For example, an anonymous treatise about the seven ecclesiastical grades, composed around 420, warned priests not to give power over their souls to their wives because, like Adam placed in paradise, they too might be beguiled. Tirades about woman’s role as temptress, henceforth appearing regularly in conciliar legislation, papal decretals, sermons, and treatises, encouraged the identification of women with sexuality and sin.[4]

No wonder with such a low view of women, females began to be left out of ministry. If the leaders of the Medieval Church were biblically and ethically correct, then women today should still not be allowed to serve as priests or clerics. Thankfully, over time as churches have studied their Bibles, we now realize that women were cruelly and mischievously abused. The mystery to me is “Why did it take so long?”

In the Middle Ages there was a place where women could find spiritual comfort and use their gifts and abilities to serve even in leadership positions. The monastery, abbey, cloister, or nunnery, though often under the hierarchal control of the institutional church, was still relatively free of the restrictions put on women in lay life. Women were respected and honored in the religious houses.

In the coming weeks we will take a deeper look at life for women in Medieval times as we consider the inspiring stories of the many faithful women who overcame the prejudice against them and found a way to serve Christ by serving others. In the monasteries, women would be able to pray, teach, preach, serve communion, study, support themselves and take care of the poor. Throughout history, even with restrictions placed against them, women have and always will find ways to serve their Savior.

 

 

 

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

[2]See for example Luke 10:38-42. When Martha complained that her sister Mary was not helping her in the kitchen, Jesus admonished Martha to let Mary be. “Mary has chosen the good part” said the Savior of the woman who was sitting at His feet as a disciple.

[3]For just one of many examples – The Council of Carthage declared in 401 that at the time of ordination, clergy in higher orders had to take a vow to abstain from sexual relations with their wives for the rest of their lives.

[4]Suzanne Fonay Wemple. Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister 500 to 900(Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981). P. 130.

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Historians have not done justice to the thousands of women who served in God’s kingdom during Medieval times. Women prayed, taught, preached, went on pilgrimages, reigned over kingdoms, founded monasteries, and took care of the poor. Like their female forebears in the Patristic Era these women contributed greatly to the Kingdom of God, not so they could be remembered, but so they could serve the Lord Jesus by serving others.[1]

We began our journey through the Middle Ages with the story of Genovefa of Paris (423-502). Next, we learned about Clothilde, the Queen of the Franks (470-545) who was a contemporary of Genovefa’s. Then we took a break from Medieval Christianity on the mainland continent of Europe to look at Christianity in Ireland and her most famous saint – Brigid of Kildare (451-523). We then returned our attention to the east to the Byzantine Empire and recounted the story of Empress Theodora. As a powerful woman, Theodora saw to it that the poor and disadvantaged were cared for. Many other noble ladies used their power and resources to care for the poor. Last time we were introduced to one of these – Radegund, Queen of the Franks. This week we turn to the story of a woman who went from slavery to reigning as queen in the Merovingian era – Bathilde (sometimes spelled Bathildis).

 

Bathilde (Bathildis) – 626 (630?) – 680

Queen Bathilde was one of the last to rule during the Merovingian era. Before we begin her story, let’s take a break and review the history of the Merovingian era. The circumstances in the Frankish kingdom during this time explain the details surrounding Bathilde’s life.

The Merovingian era was from about 480 to 751 AD. It was named for King Merovech, but the dynasty was firmly established with his grandson, Clovis I who came to power in 481 AD.[2]Clovis I died in 511 AD. As time went on the Merovingian kings became weaker and there was more corruption in the land. Over 100 years later Clovis’s descendant, Dagobert I (603-638) was the last really powerful Merovingian king.

 

Descent of Frank Kings from Clovis I

Clovis I – died 511 – married St. Clothilde

Clotaire I – died 561 – married St. Radegund[3]

Chilperic I – died 584

Clotaire II – died 628

Dagobert I – died 638

Clovis II – died 657 – married St. Bathilde

 

During the reign of Dagobert I, the Merovingian dynasty reached its peak. The kingdom had gone from barbarism to the luxuries and extravagances of a settled civilization. The latter kings became self-indulgent and lazy. The weakness in their character played into the hands of very powerful men – the major-domo’s (Mayor of the palace) who became greedy. The major-domo was elected from the wealthy proprietors of the land to help the king keep them under control. But the mayors began to use their power for their own advantage. It was during a period of warfare and struggles for power in the mid-seventh century that our story about Bathilde takes place.

Around 640 AD in one of the battles between a Frankish army and the Anglo-Saxons, a young aristocratic English girl was taken prisoner. Bathilde was carried into France and sold into slavery to the mayor of the palace, a man named Erchinoald. Bathilde was sweet and good-natured even in the face of her bad fortune. She had a cheerful countenance and was beautiful. Erchinoald desired to marry her, but she steadfastly refused.

Clovis had noticed the beautiful Bathilde too. Erchinoald offered to give her to him and Clovis and Bathilde were married. Bathilde was around nineteen years of age. They had three sons who would go on to be kings of the Franks – Clotaire III, Childeric II, and Theodoric III.

Clovis II became ruler of the entire kingdom of the Franks in 657. He only reigned in this capacity for a few months, dying in November of that year. Queen Bathilde became the regent for her young son Clotaire.

For a time, everything went well. Bathilde was assisted by the major-domo, Erchinoald who helped her rule wisely. The queen tried to do much that would help her people. She did away with a dreadful poll tax that mostly harmed the poor. Fathers were selling their children into slavery in order to pay the tax. Bathilde forbade the sale or purchase of Christian slaves. Having been a victim of war as a slave herself, Bathilde could sympathize with the prisoners captured in war. She declared that the slaves should be freed. Bathilde won the love of her people for her justice and compassion.

Bathilde also worked with the bishops to end corruption in the church. She supported the religious houses in her kingdom and at least two of them were founded out of her own means. One of them was at Corby, near Amiens and the other at Chelles near Paris on the river Marne.

During her reign forests and wastelands were reclaimed and turned into productive agricultural lands. Ahead of her time as a statesman, Bathilde introduced the concept of private property which had the effect of greatly improving the economy. Besides allowing property to be owned by someone other than the church or the nobles, individuals could start businesses. Farmers had the incentive to get loans and improve their land. The people greatly rejoiced in their freedom under Bathilde.

Bathilde built hospitals and purchased the supplies for the needy with the sale of her own jewelry. She continued to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, bury the dead and promote Christianity. She was praised by her people for her wisdom, charity, and generosity.

 

 

Things took a bad turn when Erchinoald was no longer the major-domo. The new mayor, Ebroin was unscrupulous and involved the government in serious disputes with the nobles and the clergy. Ebroin was as daring as he was unprincipled. He used his power to get rid of any bishops who did not agree with him. When he had Annemond, bishop of Lyons done away with he aggravated the crime by saying that he had done it with the authority of the queen. Ebroin did everything in his power to discredit Bathilde. Always humble, Bathilde eventually wearied and felt that she could no longer fight Ebroin. Around 665, her son Clotaire had come of age and was crowned King of France. Bathilde could then retire from public life. Her other two sons were also established in their respective territories, Childeric in Austrasia and Theodoric in Burgundy.

Bathilde went to join the nuns at Chelles. Though she was queen, she did not treat the other sisters as beneath her. With her usual humility, Bathilde submitted herself to the abbess and served in any capacity that was required. Her favorite post was the infirmary. Bathilde was delighted that she could serve the poor and needy with her own hands. For the last fifteen years of her life she served and prayed with humility, wisdom, meekness, amiability, compassion, and prudence. Having been a slave of men, Bathilde became a slave of the Lord Jesus Christ. She died peacefully in 680 and was buried in the Abbey of Chelles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

[2]See the post on Clothilde, August 3, 2019 for more details. Clothilde was the saintly queen of Clovis I who helped spread Christianity throughout Gaul.

[3]See the post on Radegund, September 24, 2019.

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There were thousands of women who served in God’s kingdom during Medieval times. Like their female forebears in the Patristic Era these women contributed greatly to the Kingdom of God, not so they could be remembered, but so they could serve the Lord Jesus by serving others.[1]

We began our journey through the Middle Ages with the story of Genovefa of Paris (423-502). Next, we learned about Clothilde, the Queen of the Franks (470-545) who was a contemporary of Genovefa’s. Then we took a break from Medieval Christianity on the mainland continent of Europe to look at Christianity in Ireland and her most famous saint – Brigid of Kildare (451-523). We then returned our attention to the east to the Byzantine Empire and recounted the story of Empress Theodora.[2]Theodora took advantage of her position as empress to change laws so that women had more privileges and remedies for the abusive behavior they received. As a powerful woman, Theodora also saw to it that the poor and disadvantaged were cared for. Many other noble ladies used their power and resources to care for the poor. One of these was Radegund, Queen of the Franks.

 

Radegund (520-587)

When we think of Medieval women who joined cloisters or “nunneries” we often picture women who were pious but poor. While “poverty, chastity, and obedience” were the traditional vows than men and women often took in monasteries, it did not always hold true that everyone who sought a religious life forsook their wealth and privilege. The cloisters during the Merovingian Era[3]housed women from every social level. In fact, many noble women kept their wealth precisely so that they could use it to take care of the poor. Queen Radegund was such a devout and pious woman, believing that charity is a virtue also.

 

 

Radegund, a princess of Thuringia, was born around 520 AD. Her father the king, was one of three sons who inherited kingdoms from Clovis I. As an interesting note to history, Radegund would be the future bride of Clothar, (Also spelled Chlothar), son of Clothilde (See post August 5, 2019). It is not certain whether or not the two women ever met. By the time Radegund was captured by Clothar and sent to live in his villa of Athie in Picardy, Clothilde had already retired to the Abbey of St. Martin of Tours. Like her future mother-in-law, Radegund was raised in the household of the uncle who murdered her father.

Around 531 AD, Radegund’s father and brothers fought to see who would have the preeminent rule. Her uncle Clothar won, and as part of his victory demanded the child princess, Radegund. She was so beautiful that Clothar decided to educate her to be his future queen. He sent her to live at Athie where she excelled in her studies. Radegund also responded to the gospel and became a devoted Christian. After she was baptized, Radegund never wavered from the life of prayer and passion for a devoted life of following Jesus in caring for the poor.

In her nineteenth year (538) Clothar sent for Radegund. She did not want to marry him. She was one of five wives. Clothar, probably 50 years old by now, had lived a life licentiousness and debauchery and was not worthy of her. Radegund relied on all of her training in prayer and discipline and submitted herself to her husband. However, like Clothilde before her, she bravely sought to fill the role of a Christian queen. She tried to convert her lawless husband, but he rejected her and complained that she turned “his court into a cloister”[4]The other nobles and peers supported Clothar but Radegund patiently continued to espouse a godly life in spite of them. Radegund spent most of her time engaged in acts of charity. In her rare moments of solitude, she enjoyed reading or conversing with clerks and bishops who visited the palace.

Radegund delighted in helping all who came to her for aid. Having been a devout Christian since childhood, Radegund took pleasure in giving her husband’s money away, especially since he had obtained most of it from conquered enemies. While he was throwing his lavish banquets to celebrate his conquests, she distributed the ill-gotten gains to any needy who came to the door. Radegund brought lepers into the royal palace and washed and fed them herself.

The miracle is that Clothar seemed to be content to allow her to give to charity as she wished. One time, Clothar presented her with the mansion where she had been raised. Radegund gave it to the poor and sick and ministered to the lepers with her own hands. Though he was a harsh and cruel man, Clothar had his moments of generosity. Later, when Radegund decided to establish a convent at Poitiers, Clothar gave the money to build it.

After six years of fervently trying to convince her husband to repent, Radegund gave up and asked to be allowed to move into a cloister. Clothar not only gave in but seemed to have supported the idea. When Radegund left Clothar she went to live in Noyon. The bishop there consecrated her as a deaconess. She took off her gold ornaments and expensive clothes and gave them to the poor. Radegund then retired to Saix, one of the royal residences in Poitou, where she lived an austere life.

News soon came that Clothar wanted to get Radegund back. She escaped to Poitiers with some friends. She wrote to Clothar and begged him to think of her as dead to him. He agreed for a time, but eventually changed his mind again. With help from Germanus, the bishop of Paris, she prevailed on getting him to leave her alone. He was near death at this time (561). Before he died, Clothar arranged for the rich endowment of the convent in Poitiers. Queen Radegund settled there when she was a widow.

Radegund lived happily in the convent until her death. She accomplished several things that were near and dear to her heart. One was her dream of getting a relic of the cross that Jesus died on for the monastery at Poitiers. The abbey in Poitiers became known as St. Croix in honor of this relic.

Though Radegund was at peace personally, the country around her was not. Wars and striving for power continued. At one point during a battle, Poitiers was burned and looted. We don’t know how much the convent was affected. Radegund never tired of writing to her royal relatives trying to get them to make peace. It seems that her efforts were in vain because troubles continued for many years.

Radegund died in 587. She had outlived her husband and his sons. To her last day she practiced a life of penance and humbly served in the convent doing even the most menial tasks. Radegund is honored as the patron saint of Poitiers.

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

[2]There were two Theodora’s – our subject for this week was married to Justinian (6thcentury) and reigned in Constantinople. Later we will talk about the Empress Theodora of Byzantium of the 9thcentury.

[3]Merovingian Era – Roughly 457 – 750 AD. See post on Clothilde, August 5, 2019.

[4]“A Secular Priest”. The Lives of St. Radegund & Bathildis, Queens of the Franks (St. Pius X Press, 2019).

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Over these several months, we are covering the stories of only a few of the thousands of women who served in God’s kingdom during Medieval times.Like their female forebears in the Patristic Era these women contributed greatly to the Kingdom of God, not so they could be remembered, but so they could serve the Lord Jesus by serving others.[1]

We began our journey through the Middle Ages with the story of Genovefa of Paris (423-502). Next, we learned about Clothilde, the Queen of the Franks (470-545) who was a contemporary of Genovefa’s. Then we took a break from Medieval Christianity on the mainland continent of Europe to look at Christianity in Ireland and her most famous saint – Brigid of Kildare (451-523). We will now turn to the east to the Byzantine Empire and recount the story of Empress Theodora.[2]

 

Empress Theodora (497-548)

Theodora was one of the many powerful empresses of the Medieval era. She was by all accounts a most extraordinary woman. Some regard her as the most powerful woman in Byzantine history. Emperor Justinian considered her his most trusted advisor. She used her influence to promote religious and social justice. The rights of women were greatly expanded while Theodora was empress.

Theodora was born as the middle child of three sisters. Her father died when she was only 5 years old. After her mother remarried, Theodora began a career on stage working with her older sister, Comito (sometimes spelled Comitona). She may have started her training as an actress around age 10. Theodora worked as a mime – a role that was open to women in those days. Theodora was part of the chorus for a few years before she started getting solo roles. After she gained enough experience, Theodora probably joined a troupe of male and female performers.

By about 517 AD Theodora had most likely given up her acting career. Theodora became the concubine of a man named Hecebolus, who was a high-ranking official in the government. Concubinage was a legal alternative to marriage; concubines had rights and privileges and were not considered common prostitutes. Hecebolus would be expected to take no other lovers and if there were children, they would be hers if there was a split. Theodora had a daughter around this time.

Living in a large palace with Hecebolus, Theodora learned how to manage a large staff. She learned how to build a network of support and always remained loyal to her friends. She learned something of how the empire was run not knowing at this time in her life that later when she became the Empress, she would use her education to help her husband Justinian reign.

Around 521, Hecebolus dismissed Theodora. Alone and with a young child, she set out to make a new life. Theodora was bright, headstrong, and energetic She began to make her own way. She refused to just join the ranks of unmarried women with children, dependent on the charity of others. She headed out for Alexandria and soon left there for Antioch in Syria and eventually made her way to Constantinople around 522.

Somehow Theodora came to Justinian’s notice. Attracted to her beauty, wit, and intelligence he fell in love rapidly and completely. He immediately made her his mistress. Laws were changed so that they could marry. It is safe to say that Theodora took to her new life like a duck takes to water. Her new home was now the imperial palace. This totally self-confident woman took her place among the patricians with ease and did not hesitate to interact with them as equals. She had grace and style and was accepted among the wealthy and influential at the palace.

While Justinian was the emperor and had the ultimate authority for ruling, it was well-known that Theodora had great influence that resulted in many reforms. Justinian treated her as his intellectual partner. Theodora’s name appears in the records of nearly all of the new laws that were passed including those that expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership. Perhaps remembering her own difficult childhood, in 534 she saw to it that legislation was passed to prevent parents from forcing their daughters to appear on stage. In fact, she fought for the right for women to live chastely without the danger of being forced into servitude. In regulations for admission to a monastery that were passed a year later, Justinian went so far as to state that, “in the worship of God, there was no distinction of gender or status, for all ‘are justly considered the same’ in Christ.”[3]

Theodora also established a hostel for women who wanted to escape their lives as prostitutes. She found a former imperial palace where 500 women could be cared for and she encouraged women who were victims of forced prostitution due to poverty. In an ancient form of sex-trafficking this included women who were brought to Constantinople and exploited by brothel owners. Justinian and Theodora went so far as to expel the brothels in the city. Thousands of women were thankful for their new lives.

Theodora’s wise actions also saved Justinian’s throne for him on several occasions. One event has become known as the “Nika Revolt”.

In January 532 two political factions in Constantinople known as the Blues and the Greens set aside their normal rivalry to unite and oppose Justinian. They sought to put their own emperor on the throne. On January 13, when chariot races were scheduled at the Hippodrome the crowd that showed up was very restless. Justinian should have cancelled the event and he would have headed off trouble. Instead, by the end of the day rioting started, things got out of hand and many buildings were burned down including the beautiful new Church of Hagia Sophia built by Justinian and Theodora. The rioters demanded changes and marched along shouting “Nika!” (“Victory!) as their watchword.

Justinian’s advisors urged him to flee. Theodora intervened. She convinced Justinian that flight was not in their best interest. She wisely pointed out that sometimes force must be used. Justinian resolved to end the destructive rebellion. His army went to the Hippodrome where many were gathered and put to death most of them. A number of high-ranking officials that had sided with the rebels were exiled and their property confiscated.

Theodora’s intervention changed history. And by this time if anyone doubted her ability to rule, they had been proven mistaken.

Even more threatening to Justinian’s reign than the Nika revolt was the Great Plague of 542. The Bubonic plague raged throughout the Mediterranean, Egypt, Ethiopia for three years. They did not have antibiotics to treat this disease in the sixth century. They did their best with bathing, bed rest, and prayer. People considered the plague to be the vengeance of God.

It took four months for the plague to run its course in Constantinople. Estimates are that there were between 5 and 10 thousand deaths in a single day. The full toll was probably in the hundreds of thousands, amounting to nearly half the population. The economy was ruined. Rich and poor alike were afflicted so revenues from taxes declined enormously. Transportation came to a standstill. Dead bodies were everywhere so sanitation concerns mounted for the living. Government workers went unpaid. Justinian himself fell ill, though he recovered.

While Justinian was recovering from the plague Theodora ruled wisely. Though lacking absolute power, she did what needed to be done to make sure that she and Justinian would continue to be emperor and empress. These qualities of intelligence, toughness, and loyalty would be enough to help her hold the title for the rest of her life.

Theodora had risen to the highest height possible – Empress of Byzantium. She proved that neither birth nor education can guarantee power, but steadiness, loyalty, and a firm resolve to do what was right. She knew how to talk to people as well as to listen. Most of her friends found her to be tough but very endearing.

Theodora died on June 28, 548, possibly from cancer. Her daughter had married well, and Theodora’s descendants would go on to occupy positions in the highest levels of society in Constantinople for many years.

Her relationship with Justinian was not based on passion alone, but each one’s loyalty was first to the other. Justinian regarded her as his most trusted advisor. When Theodora was buried, he made a proclamation of his undying love. He claimed that she changed his life and helped to shape the empire. “As she had transformed herself, so she had transformed her world.”[4]

Theodora was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles, one of the churches that she and Justinian had built in Constantinople. She is considered a saint in the Orthodox Church today.

 

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

[2]There were two Theodora’s – our subject for this week was married to Justinian (6thcentury) and reigned in Constantinople. Later we will talk about the Empress Theodora of Byzantium of the 9thcentury.

[3]David Potter. Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint (Oxford University Press, 2015). P. 107.

[4]Ibid. p. 203

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Over these few months, we are covering the stories of only a few of the thousands of women who served in God’s kingdom during Medieval times. Like their female forebears in the Patristic Era these women contributed greatly to the Kingdom of God, not so they could be remembered, but so they could serve the Lord Jesus by serving others.[1]

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

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

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

We began our journey through the Middle Ages with the story of Genovefa of Paris. Next, we learned about Clothilde, the Queen of the Franks who was a contemporary of Genovefa’s. This time we will take a break from Medieval Christianity on the mainland continent of Europe to look at Christianity in Ireland and her most famous saint – Brigid of Kildare. The Irish church did not follow the Roman liturgy or rituals or system of government in the early Middle Ages. Life was also different for women in Ireland. While not totally equal with men, women were allowed to serve in leadership positions in all walks of life.

 

Bridget of Kildare (451-523)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I should like a great lake of finest ale

For the King of kings.

I should like a table of the choicest food

For the family of heaven.

Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith,

And the food be forgiving love.

I should welcome the poor to my feast,

For they are God’s children.

I should welcome the sick to my feast,

For they are God’s joy.

Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place,

And the sick dance with the angels.

God bless the poor,

God bless the sick,

And bless our human race.

God bless our food,

God bless our drink,

All homes, O God, embrace.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

During this series, we cover the stories of many female servants of Christ who followed their callings during the Medieval era. Like their female forebears in the Patristic Era these women contributed greatly to the Kingdom of God, not so they could be remembered, but so they could serve the Lord Jesus by serving others.[2]Europe today is entirely different from what it would have been because of faithful women.

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

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

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

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

Merovingiandynastymap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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