Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Medieval Christian women’

Saint Frideswide – (650 – 727)

There are thousands of amazing stories of women who lived during Medieval times. For most people living today the history is just too far in the past. The cultures were so different from our democratic, individualistic society that it is hard to relate to the people who lived then.

But as we study the lives of women who lived in the fifth through fifteenth centuries, we find that apart from the outward circumstances, they were very much like ourselves. Women prayed, taught, preached, traveled, administered in organizations, founded ministries, 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 can relate only of few of the many stories of women throughout history who were called and gifted by God to serve Him. We began by looking at women in the Patristic Era, then we moved on to 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 we took a look at how 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 continually lowered until men saw them as impure, sinful, and unable to function in church service.

One of the chief ways that women were able to serve was in the cloister. We continued with our accounts of women in Medieval times with the stories of godly abbesses. We related the stories of Gertrude, Abbess of Nivelles and a distant relative of Gertrude’s – Anstrude of Laon.

This week we continue with the story of Saint Frideswide. In the fall of 2016 I had the opportunity to travel to Oxford and visit Christ Church which is the site where St. Frideswide founded her chapel. I posted a story on her when I returned to the States and find that I cannot improve on it. I hope you enjoy reading about her.

Saint Frideswide 

 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.

John Blair: “Saint Frideswide: Patron of Oxford”

In the fall of 2016, I had an opportunity to visit London and Oxford. While in Oxford I toured the famous Christ Church. Harry Potter fans will recognize the Great Hall. The pictures in this post were taken by me during the tour.

But even more exciting to me was the fact that the church gives credit for its original founding to a woman – St. Frideswide. Our tour guide emphasized St. Frideswide during our entire tour. Frideswide established the original monastery there around the turn of the eighth century.

Most of the present cathedral was built at the end of the twelfth century as a priory church for the Augustinian Canons who lived there. More additions were completed through the centuries. Christ Church still functions as a college in Oxford.

This shrine to St. Frideswide was built in 1289 but broken up in 1538 when the Reformer’s criticized praying to saints. Parts of the shrine were discovered in a well in the nineteenth century and restored to the church. The beautiful chapel and shrine were finished as we see them in this picture in 2002.

A beautiful stained-glass window (by Edward Burne-Jones, 1858) graces the end of the Latin Chapel – the area in Christ Church commemorating Frideswide’s story.

Here is another of the stained-glass windows of Frideswide.

There is a special chair in cathedrals for the archbishop to sit in when he visits. Above this special chair is another memorial to St. Frideswide. The women seated to her right and left are St. Catherine and St. Cecilia – two women who were also well known for their faithful acts of piety and charity. Both were also persecuted for their faith.

Frideswide’s Story

Frideswide, (also called Frithuswith, or Fritha as she was known to family and friends), was born around 650 AD. She was born a princess to King Didan of Oxford and Queen Sefrida. Sefrida was a very godly woman, known for her charitable works. Her parents, Didan and Sefrida loved her very much.

Frideswide was carefully brought up by a governess, a holy woman named Elgitha. Frideswide began to love and honor God under Elgitha’s teaching and her life took a spiritual direction from an early age. She was a gifted student and within six months had learned the entire Psalter.

After her mother died Frideswide lived in Oxford with her father. She persuaded him to give her some land so that she could build a church.

The period between 650 and 720 was the age of the great monasteries. Many were founded by kings and princes, and in our story a princess. These were “double” monasteries, where men and women both lived and worshipped and served. At this time the monasteries were mostly self-governing. It would be many years before the monasteries were consolidated under the rule of the organized church.

Frideswide and twelve other women formed a convent. Her fame spread not only as a pious woman, but it was known that she was rich and beautiful. This attracted Aelfgar, the Earl of Leicester and he pressed his suit for her hand.

Here is where the story gets interesting. Frideswide refused to get married. She desired only to serve Christ for the rest of her life. This made Aelfgar angry and he decided to take Frideswide by force. He traveled to the forest where she was living. He was struck blind as he neared Frideswide! Only after he repented and asked for her forgiveness was his sight restored. In another version of the story, Aelfgar sent two messengers ahead with flattering words and his offer of marriage. Frideswide rebuffed them and they returned to Oxford to report to Prince Aelfgar. They were struck blind as they entered the city.

Like other “legends” the story is probably embellished, but no doubt there is a kernel of truth in the various accounts of Frideswide’s life. Something certainly happened to convince Aelfgar to leave Frideswide alone. God certainly blessed Frideswide and the community with her service to them.

Here is one account of the story according to William of Malmesbury (c. 1125) from John Blair’s book, “Saint Frideswide: Patron of Oxford” (p. 29, 30).

In old times there was in the city of Oxford a monastery of nuns, where rests the most holy virgin Frideswide. A kings’ daughter, she spurned a king’s bed, avowing her chastity to the Lord Christ. But the king had set his heart upon marrying the virgin, and when prayers and flatteries had been spent in vain he prepared to take her by force. Frideswide learnt of this and fled into a wood. No refuge could be secret from the lover, no coldness of heart could deter him: he followed the fugitive. So once again, when the young man’s frenzy became plain, with God’s help she entered Oxford at dead of night by means of hidden ways. By morning the persistent lover had hastened there too, and the girl, now despairing of flight and too weary to go any further, prayed to God for protection for herself and punishment for her persecutor. As he passed through the town gates with this thegns, a heaven-sent blow struck him blind. Understanding the wrongfulness of his persistence, he placated Frideswide by means of messengers and recovered his sight as quickly as he had lost it. Thus it came about that kings of England are afraid to enter or lodge in that town: it is said to bring ruin, and they all shrink from the danger of putting it to the test. So the woman, secure in her maidenly victory, established a monastery there where she ended her days, submitting to her bridegroom’s call.*

In the time of king Aethelred, the Danes, doomed to be slain, fled into that monastery and were consumed by fire together with the buildings through the insatiable anger of the English. But soon the sanctuary was purified by the king’s penance, the monastery rebuilt, old lands returned, new possessions added. In our own time** only a few clerks remained there, who lived as they pleased so Roger bishop of Salisbury gave the place to Wimund, a canon of excellent learning and no mean holiness. He toiling fruitfully at the task entrusted to him, established there for God many canons to live according to the rule.***

*This “bridegroom” is the Lord Jesus Christ.

** c. 1125

***The canons lived under the rule of St. Augustine.

 

Frideswide lived happily at Oxford for many years. She eventually retired to Binsey, where she built a chapel. She prayed for water and a spring appeared. You can visit that site today. She eventually died on October 19, 727. She was buried at St. Mary’s church.

I was happy to be able to climb up the tower of St. Mary’s. Here is a view from there.

 

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

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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).

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »