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Posts Tagged ‘Medieval Christian women’

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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Introduction to Series – Women in Medieval Times

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.”[1]

Medieval women displayed the Christlike character that was responsible for the advancement of the Gospel through word and deed in the Middle Ages. There were thousands of women who served in God’s Kingdom in Medieval times. Over the next few months, we will cover the stories of only a few. 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]

The Middle Ages cover a long period of time – about a millennium. There are so many variations in how scholars break up the time periods in the Middle Ages. Because his dating method lines up so well with the stories I want to tell about women during Medieval times, I will be somewhat following the outline as given by Thomas Cahill in his book on the Middle Ages (which I highly recommend).[3]

 

The Early Middle Ages(Also called the Dark Ages) 4th through 11th Centuries.

This era began after the Roman Emperor Constantine came to power in 312 AD. When Constantine declared that Christianity would be the state religion in 313 AD, scholarship, commerce and the size of cities began to increase. This continued until the end of the eleventh century.

The High Middle Ages– 12th and 13th Centuries and first half of the 14th Century.

This era extends from approximately 1100 to 1347. This was a Renaissance period in Europe until the Black Death began in 1347.

The Late Middle Ages– Second half of the 14th Century and 15th Century

This era covers the tragedy of the Black Death and ends with the first voyage of Columbus in 1492.

 

For our purposes,  500 AD is a turning point for my series on the Middle Ages. I covered some stories from the very early Middle Ages (4th and 5th Centuries) in the “Women in the Patristic Era” series, which we defined as 2nd through 5th centuries. We noted in our series that especially after 313 AD Christian Women enjoyed the freedom to travel, preach the gospel, and minister even in leadership positions. Tragically, by 500 AD women were not allowed to participate in the hierarchy of the institutionalized church. Since things really changed for women when the church and state came together to rule, my stories will pick up where the “Women in the Patristic Era” stories ended – around 500 AD.

 

Introduction to the Early Middle Ages – 313 (or 500) AD to 1100 AD

In spite of their being sidelined, women could and did hold many leadership positions outsideof the institutionalized church in the monasteries, convents, and other Christian groups such as the faithful Beguines. It could be argued that remaining outside of the hierarchy of the institutional church enabled women to have far greater ministry to the poor, neglected, and homeless people. When the institutionalized church forbade women access to official ministry, many women found ways to go and show the love of Christ in the world anyway. It was not God’s plan to shut women up; He called and gifted many for ministry to countless thousands and they served wherever Christ called them in spite of the patriarchal system.

While Christianity was spreading from 313 to around 500 AD, cities began to grow and prosper. Scholarship, commerce, and religion, began to increase and many people including women had more access to education. As the gospel of peace was preached in Europe life improved for many people. Christians took care of the poor and homeless.

Things were looking up for European civilization but then during the 5th and 6th centuries, hordes of barbarians began to pour into Italy and spread through much of Europe.  Learning, scholarship, and culture practically disappeared from the European continent.[4]Thankfully, Christianity, including the influence of women, prevented total degradation. Over several centuries Christianity made many converts and overcame the idolatry of the barbarians. Women took comfort in the gospel and the fellowship of other female believers. Because of their virtuous lives, Christianity flourished in an otherwise barbaric culture.

Life for women in Medieval times had its ups and downs. Freedom had been high for women as Christianity advanced in the 4th and early 5th centuries. Then, as already mentioned, the status of women was lowered when the church and state united and men set up male-only government. Women would not gain influence again until men would go to war leaving the women to manage responsibilities at home. Women would prove how capable they were as they managed families, farms, businesses, and even some governmental positions.

Most of the peasants lived on land owned by the wealthy and worked as serfs. They did not own property and paid rent to the landlord and taxes to the government. The middle class system as we know it would not develop for several hundred years. In the meantime there were only the lords and the laborers. Women shared in the agricultural work with their husbands besides caring for children and taking care of the home.

Many of the stories we have for women in the 5th and 6th centuries deal with the ruling classes. This makes sense since during the barbarous times education went by the wayside and books were being destroyed.  Not much was written down except for important people and we are fortunate to have the few surviving documents that remain. Our stories of some of those important people for this time period will include Clothilda, Queen of the Franks, Theodora, Empress of Byzantium, and Radegund, also a Queen of the Franks and an abbess, as well as Irene, Empress of Athens and others.

We will begin our series on the Early Middle Ages with the story of a famous Patron Saint – Genovefa (Genevieve) of Paris. Then we will move on to more stories of Royalty, Abbesses, and Witnesses.

Until next time, you may enjoy reading both of Thomas Cahill’s books!

 

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

[2]See posts on this blog site from January 22, 2019 through June 4, 2019 for Women in the Patristic Era – 2nd through 5th Centuries.

[3]Thomas Cahill. Mysteries of the Middle Ages and the Beginning of the Modern World(New York, NY: Random House, 2008). 63.

[4]As an aside, in an interesting book by 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, he demonstrates how the Irish saved many copies of the scholarly books that were being destroyed by the barbarians in Continental Europe. With St. Patrick, Irish saints preserved much of the learning of the ages and then with St. Columba went on to spread it to Europe, thus conserving Western Culture.

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It is unfortunate that we refer to the period of time from roughly 500 AD to 1500 AD as “The Middle Ages”. The people who lived during those times certainly thought of themselves as modern. Hundreds of years from now perhaps people will refer to us in the 21st century as the “middle ages”. The term is misleading because it implies that ancient history was great and our modern times are great but the thousand years in-between were just an interim or holding pattern.

The fact is the Middle Ages of Europe were a continuation of the Roman and Greek cultures on which they were built. The people living in Europe developed blended cultures that brought new languages including English, changes in government that led to more freedom for the peasants, more stable economies based on better farming methods, mobility for more people, and shifts in population centers. A major contributing factor to this freedom was the rise of the Christian Church. After Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion for the Roman world (around 320 AD), leaders began to organize to administer the new legislation efficiently. Believers, both men and women were able to care for the poor and sick unhindered by Roman persecution.

The women who lived during the Middle Ages carried on the Christian traditions handed down to them by the incredible women of the first few centuries of the Church. For the last several months we have covered stories of women from the Patristic Age (2nd through 5th centuries) – women like Thecla, Blandina, Perpetua, Helena, Monica, Marcella of Rome, Paula, Macrina the Younger, Egeria, Amma Sarah, Melania the Elder, and Empress Pulcheria.

Some of these women were born poor, others renounced great wealth to follow in the steps of Christ. Martyrs, Mothers, Theologians, Writers, Queens, Empresses, Pilgrims, and Monastery founders are among them. The world would not be the same without the influence of these women. They showed great piety, fortitude, and courage and left a rich heritage for the church. Their daughters, granddaughters and many generations of descendants would follow in their footsteps participating in the same kinds of life and work during the Medieval Period making great contributions to the Kingdom of God.

Medieval women did not have to suffer the kind of persecution that the early church believers did since the Roman Government accepted Christianity and even made it the religion of the Empire during the fourth century. While it was a blessing to be able to worship freely, life for women was still complicated at the turn of the sixth century. The status of women suffered a gradual reversal during the Middle Ages. A male controlled ecclesiastical structure blamed women for men’s sins and restricted women from the established church ministries.

As the government in Rome became increasingly Christian, believers took over the civil and social functions. By 500 AD the church had organized itself into a male-dominated institution. Following the governmental structure of the empire, Christians formed provinces and then elected bishops as administrators. All bishops were called “papa”, and the first among the bishops was the bishop in Rome. By the sixth century the Church had completed its institutionalzation with a hierarchy and Gregory the Great (509-604 AD) took the title “Pope”. The Church began the structure which is still with us today of Pope, Archbishops, Bishops, and Priests. In the twelfth century the “Cardinals” were formed as the ecclesiastical leaders of the main areas of the world. The college of cardinals would then elect the pope.

The Institutionalized Church had decided that women had no part in leadership and therefore could not be priests. It is hard to understand how they could say this when the apostle Peter said that all believers, men and women, “are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood” and are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood” (I Peter 2:5, 9). In the book of Revelation we see that all believers “will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years” (Revelation 20:6). But male Church leaders had the power, the organization, and the Scriptures were only in Latin which most people couldn’t read, so the men established their new institutionalized organization.

It is a shame that women were set aside because in actual fact, women had more freedom to serve in leadership positions while the church was growing. In contrast to the traditionalists’ belief that women were never allowed to be in leadership positions is the fact that women were ordained as deacons in the early church. When Origen wrote about Phoebe in Paul’s letter to the Romans he understood that she was officially ordained for the ministry of the church. Later John Chrysostom also wrote that women should not be hindered because of their sex since in “Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). During the fourth century, the Apostolic Constitution still recognized female deacons[1]but women began to be gradually pushed out. When the clergy began to impose itself between God and the community, it became a male-only organization. The term ‘deaconess’ was retained to refer to women doing menial tasks, but women were stripped of the clerical office.

As we saw when we studied the lives of women in the Patristic Era, there was a strong movement that considered singleness superior to marriage; virginity and sexual purity were considered the absolute ideal for Christians. Monastic life offered men and women a chance to live this ‘higher’ life. In the early years of the medieval period (5ththrough 8thcenturies) many of the monasteries were ‘double monasteries’ – men and women. Ely Cathedral, dating from the 7thcentury was one such double monastery. “The earliest abbots were all abbesses.”[2]  Such institutions were important centers of education and learning as well as political affairs. In the later Middle Ages, the Church began to control the monasteries. While the monasteries would be subject to the rulings of the Pope, the monks and nuns were considered something above laity, but not part of the hierarchy of the institutionalized Church. Often the men and women in the monasteries were closer to the poor and did the charitable work. Even during this time of increasing misogyny women found leadership positions in the monasteries as abbesses.

         

Case in point– When women were pushed out of one sphere they turned up in another. “It is virtually certain that Oxford developed around a mid-Saxon monastic church (the predecessor of the present Cathedral) at a major crossing over the Thames, and that the first head of the church was a princess named Frideswide.”[3] Frideswide was rich, beautiful and intelligent. As a girl she memorized the entire psalter in six months. Refusing marriage to a nobleman, Frideswide and twelve other women formed a convent. Frideswide served Christ happily in her monastery for the rest of her life. Truly her gifts and abilities would have been wasted if she had been confined to the restrictive form of medieval marriage.

 

 

 

The women of the Middle Ages do not enjoy a wide recognition in the Church any more than the women of the Patristic era. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of women who served in God’s Kingdom in Medieval times. Over the next few months, we will cover the stories of only a few. Our stories will go in somewhat of a chronological order from around 500 AD to 1500 AD. While women were not allowed to be priests in the institutionalized Church, 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 downtrodden people. Like their female forebears 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.

Many thousands that we will meet in Heaven will be grateful for their faithfulness.

 

 

 

[1]The pertinent portion from Apostolic Constitutions 8.3 reads:

Concerning the Deaconess— The Constitution of Bartholomew.
XIX. Concerning a deaconess, I Bartholomew make this constitution: O bishop, you shall lay your hands upon her in the presence of the presbytery, and of the deacons and deaconesses, and shall say:—
The Form of Prayer for the Ordination of a Deaconess.
XX . O Eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of man and of woman, who replenished with the Spirit Miriam, and Deborah, and Anna, and Huldah; who did not disdain that Your only begotten Son should be born of a woman; who also in the tabernacle of the testimony, and in the temple, ordained women to be keepers of Your holy gates—do Thou now also look down upon this Your servant, who is to be ordained to the office of a deaconess, and grant her Your Holy Spirit.

[2]David Noble, A World Without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science(New York, MY: Alfred A Knoff, 1992), 3-4.

[3]John Blair, Saint Frideswide: Patron of Oxford. (Oxford, United Kingdom: Perpetua Press, 2004), 1.

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Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaint. As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (I Peter 4:8-11)

Medieval Christian women spent their lives using their gifts in service to one another as commanded by Peter in this Scripture. They believed that following Christ meant sharing the Gospel and ministering to the poor as Jesus did. To help us understand why they served others in this way, let us look at what religion was like in the Middle Ages.

During the twelfth century the Church began to allow various religious movements to open up under their authority. We are very familiar with St. Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226). Another popular order was the Benedictines under St. Benedict. These were called “mendicant” orders because they took vows of poverty. The men and women who joined the mendicant groups were not part of the hierarchical priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church. These groups were separate and were recognized as legitimate religious orders by the pope as long as they did not depart from the Roman Catholic doctrines. They chose to serve in monasteries or other Christian communities rather than in a formal way in the church.

One of the main reasons that these mendicant groups were forming was because the Roman Catholic clergy during the Middle Ages were living a far too rich and decadent lifestyle. Many were involved in licentiousness and ignorance of the Word of God. They did not look anything like our Jesus Who was poor and “had no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). The mendicants wanted to call the Church back to the Gospel and true holiness. They wanted to follow in Christ’s footsteps.

Francis of Assisi turned away a wealthy inheritance and went to live among the poor. He took a vow of poverty. He also strove to reform the church. He and his followers spent their time caring for the poor and sick. He believed that he was following more faithfully in Jesus’ footsteps. A time-honored saying that is attributed to him goes, “Preach the Gospel always, and if you must, use words.” His message of reform spread all across Europe and the East. St. Francis is still honored today for his example of love and care to even the lowest, most forgotten people.

Many religious women, including the Beguines (see post July 27, 2016) were followers of Francis of Assisi. St. Clare founded the Poor Clares in the hope of renewing the Church and society while working among the poor. Two other women whose lives were influenced by Francis of Assisi were St. Elizabeth of Hungary and Blessed Angela of Foligno.

St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253)

st. clareClare was a beautiful Italian woman born into nobility. Even as a young girl she was known for her piety and her kindness. A story is told that she used to hide the food from her plate so that she could later give it to the poor.

When she was sixteen years old, Clare heard Francis of Assisi preach. She had been promised in marriage to a wealthy man but she refused a life of ease. Instead she put on sackcloth and went out to care for the poor.

Other women began to follow Clare including her mother and sister. Francis of Assisi built a little cloister for them near the Church of St. Damian. In 1215 Clare founded the order of Poor Clares. They devoted themselves to prayer, penance and service. The Poor Clares also took vows of poverty and renounced property ownership.

Clare never left her cloister but did maintain her friendship with Francis of Assisi and many others. In spite of being bedridden for the last twenty-eight years of her life (probably due to severe fasting) her influence was great. She and the group of women serving with her were responsible for extending the reforms started by St. Francis to the church and to society.

The Poor Clares spread beyond Assisi to other towns in Italy, England, Poor ClaresFrance, Germany, and Bohemia. Today the Poor Clares number over 20,000 sisters in 70 countries.

Clare died on August 11, 1253 of natural causes. In 1255 Clare was canonized as St. Clare by Pope Alexander IV.

Elizabeth of Hungary (1207 – 1231)

Elizabeth of HungaryElizabeth of Hungary (also known as Elizabeth of Thuringia) is remembered as the “Patroness of the Poor”. Born into wealth and luxury, Elizabeth spent most of her life giving it all away. Her beloved husband Ludwig, a ruler of Hungary, even encouraged her to give away their money. Elizabeth cared for lepers, built hospitals, and visited prisoners. She prayed with them and even purchased freedom for some.

Ludwig died when Elizabeth was barely twenty years old, leaving her with three children. Her cruel in-laws tried to get rid of her and steal her inheritance. Her own family came to her rescue. When she received her dower money she immediately gave a quarter of it to the poor. Elizabeth built a Franciscan hospital in Marburg.

Elizabeth had promised Ludwig that there would never be another man for her. She renounced the world and went to live at a Franciscan house in Eisenach. Her oldest son, Hermann ruled in Ludwig’s place with help from his uncle as his regent. Her daughter Sophia married Henry II, Duke of Brabant. Sophia was the ancestress of many of the branches of the house of Hesse. Gertrude eventually became the abbess of the convent of Altenberg.

Elizabeth became the first tertiary in Germany. A tertiary is like a nun, but does not take all of the vows of submission. Elizabeth of course lived a life of chastity and obedience, but kept her great wealth to help the poor. She tried to fill the third vow of poverty by living like a poor person even though she was very wealthy. She stayed in a very small house and wore plain clothes. She never purchased any luxuries. She labored at spinning wool to earn extra income to give to the poor. It was said that no one would have ever known that she was a princess.

Elizabeth literally wore herself out working among the poor. She died of exhaustion in 1231. She was only twenty-four years old. She was buried in the chapel attached to the hospital that she had founded. Many lepers, blind, lame, and poor came to her funeral.

The hospital that Elizabeth built at Wartburg no longer exists, but the little fountain that was attached to it is still there. At this fountain Elizabeth was known to have washed the clothes of the poor with her own hands. It is still called “the Fountain of Elizabeth”.

Angela of Foligno (1248 – 1309)

We do not have very many details of Angela’s life outside of her writings. WeAngela of Foligno know that she was born to a prominent family in Foligno, a few miles from Assisi. Her father died when she was young. She was rich, proud, beautiful, and educated. She lived for worldly pleasures until her conversion in 1285 when she was thirty-seven years old.

Angela says in her writings that she was convicted of her sins and feared going to hell. She wept and prayed constantly. One day she confessed her sins to a Franciscan chaplain, Brother Arnaldo who would become her confessor and the writer of her revelations. Angela felt great relief at the promise of God’s forgiveness for her sins and began a new life of penance and contemplation. She gave away her fine clothes and vowed to live a life of poverty.

Tragically, Angela’s mother died and then her husband and soon after that all of her children. Angela mourned for her family, but decided to take the opportunity to live among the poor, following in the footsteps of Christ. In 1291 the Franciscans of San Francesco’s in Foligno permitted her to take the habit and make her profession in the Third Order of St. Francis.

After a pilgrimage to Assisi, Angela returned home to begin her spiritual journey. This was described in Angela’s book. The first part of the book is the Memorial, Angela’s inner spiritual journey. The second part of her book, Instructions, gives us glimpses of her life as a spiritual mother.

In 1307 Angela visited the Poor Clares at the monastery of Valle Gloria in Spello. We do not know many more details of her life, but the events surrounding her death are recorded in detail in the Instructions.

Her sickness began a few days before Christmas, 1308 and lasted until January 4, 1309. She gave her followers a final blessing and then slipped away peacefully into the arms of her Beloved Lord. Angela’s body was laid to rest in the church in San Francesco in Foligno. Many people came from Spello and the surrounding areas to revere her body. Angela was given the title of “Blessed’ by Clement XI on July 11, 1701.

The common characteristic in all of these women is their love for the poor. All of these women were born into wealth but gave it all away. They were all touched by the life of St. Francis and desired to follow in the footsteps of Jesus as Francis did. Truly they obeyed Jesus’ when He said, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Matthew 19:21)

 

 

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