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Radegund of Poitiers (ca. 518-587)
Utah Valley State College
Having discovered the Frankish queen, Radegund, in Julia O'Faolain's novel, Women in the Wall, I took upon myself the task of searching for the history of this amazing individual from a period of time that relatively little is known. Most of what we know of sixth century France is given to us by Gregory of Tours in his Historia Francorum. We also have the sundry writings of Venantius Fortunatus who wrote the first biography of Radegund as well as the biography written by one of the nuns, Baudonivia, at the Convent of the Holy Cross, which Radegund founded in the city of Poitiers.
It is the intent of this monograph to examine the life of Radegund within the context of the times in which she lived, starting with a brief description of Thuringia, the land of her birth, and climaxing with the revolt at the convent after her death.
It is important, at this time to clarify the usage of some of the names that are mentioned in this paper. I will generally be using the form of the name given in Thorpe's translation of Gregory's Historia Francorum. I will refer to Radegund's captor and husband as Lothar even though many writers use the form Clothar. When the occasions arise that I am taking a direct quote from a source, the spelling in the source will be used, with the form of the name that I am using inserted in brackets at the first mention of the name. The exception will be for Radegund as all spellings(i.e.: Radegund, Radegunde, Radegunda, Radegundis) are quite obvious as to the person being mentioned.
Radegund And 6TH Century Thuringia
During a period of intense Frankish-Thuringian rivalry a princess was born to Berthar, one of three Thuringian kings. To this daughter the name of Radegund was given. The date of the princess' birth is unknown,but many scholars tend to place it between the years of 518 and 521 A.D.
Of Radegund's early years we know little. We know that her father was killed by his brother Hermanfrid and that as a young girl Radegund and her unnamed brother were taken "as prizes of war" and lived with their paternal aunt and uncle, Hermanfrid and Amalberga.
Sometime after this, after Hermanfrid apparently refused to keep the bargain he made in alliance with Theuderic, Theudebert, and Lothar, the Merovingian heirs of Clovis, in helping dispose of his brother. The original plan was for the Merovingians to ally themselves with Hermanfred so that he could conquer the lands of his brother Berthar. In payment for this alliance, Hermanfred was to give the Merovingians one half of the Thuringian kingdom. The result of Hermanfred's refusal to honor his treaty with the Merovingians resulted in the Frankish invasion of Thuringia. At the Battle of Bergscheidungen on the Unstrut in 531, the Merovingian royalty was practically destroyed. Of the royal Thuringian family, only Radegund and her brother were captured and carried-off as booty. Their aunt, Amalberga, and cousin, Amalfred, escaped to Byzantium.
>From Radegund, we get a picture of relative closeness between herself and her cousin:
Oh Amalfred, remember how it was in those first years, how I was your Radegund then. An infant, how you cherished me then, Son of my father's brother, kindly kinsman. What my dead father could have done, or my dead mother, what only a sister or brother could be, you were to me. With the press of a pious hand, sweet lingering kisses, your tender speech soothed the little child. Then there was scarcely an hour that you did not come to me.
Whereas no contemporary Thuringian sources are extant, we are limited in our observations of Radegund's childhood in the Thuringian court. Only her letter to Amalfred gives any indication of what her life was like after the death of her parents.
Not much is known of early Thuringia before the Battle of Bergscheidungen on the Unstrut in 531. What is known is that the Thuringians were a loose confederation of tribes living in the area of Germany which now consists of large parts of the states of Hesse, Thuringia, and Saxony. These tribes seemed to be united by a common dialect of the language that made uniting into one kingdom seem only natural.
Radegund's Life in Lothar's Court
After their capture, Radegund and her brother were brought to live in the court of their captor, Lothar, in the vicinity of Soissons. While at court,the siblings were apparently parted with Radegund being sent to the royal estate near Athies where she resided until she reached a "marriageable"age. While at Athies, Radegund learned to read and write in the Latin vernacular of her day and received instruction in the catholic faith. She also taught and cared for the children on the estate
After spending approximately five years on the Athies estate where she experienced the villa agricultural system, the teenaged Radegund was wed to her captor Lothar. Of this marriage we have been given two descriptions written by her contemporaries. Fortunatus and Baudonivia both agree that she was more of a celestial nature than earthly. While married, Radegund apparently gave herself more to her virtue and piety than to her husband for Fortunatus states:
At night, when she lay with her prince she would ask leave to rise and leave the chamber to relieve nature. Then she would prostrate herself in prayer under a hair cloak by the privy so long as the cold pierced her through and only her spirit was warm. Her whole flesh prematurely dead, indifferent to her body's torment, she kept her mind intent on Paradise and counted her suffering trivial, if only she might avoid becoming cheap in Christ's eyes. Re-entering the chamber thereafter, she could scarcely get warm either by the hearth or in her bed. Because of this, people said that the King had yoked himself to a monocha rather than a queen. Her goodness provoked him to harsher irritation but she either soothed him to the best of her ability or bore her husband's brawling modestly.
For approximately fifteen years Radegund stayed with Lothar, tolerating his concubines and becoming more and more devoted to the religion that she was brought into by a fate of war. In his thesis, Duey White is of the opinion that since "childlessness amounted to disinheritance," Lothar took up an unnamed concubine that bore him the bastard son,Gundovald, who would later become an irritant to the Merovingian rulers after Lothar's death.
While she was Lothar's queen, Radegund took advantage of her position and her morgengabe, the properties and revenues which Lothar granted her as his queen.Among other properties she was given Saix, Athies, and Peronne. The revenues from these cities enabled her to found hospitals and do other charitable work on behalf of the poor. One such hospice,dedicated to Radegund still exists at Athies.
It appears that it may have been during her marriage to Lothar that she began the practice of asceticism. She often wore hair cloth under her royal garments, fasted to excess, and had "contempt for the food of the belly, for Christ was her only nourishment and all her hunger was for Christ. "She seldom ate anything other than beans or lentils "from the dish of legumes placed before her, in the manner of the three boys." Lentils would, by all accounts, become the staple of Radegund's diet for the rest of her life.
Radegund also did not take kindly to the wearing of fashionable or particularly beautiful garments. She sought to devote her entire self and possessions to her eternal salvation. If the hand-maidens attending her gave particular praise to a article of clothing, she would consider herself to be unworthy to wear such an item that she would divest of the dress at once and donate it to some holy place for use as an alter cloth.
She would also exercise her power as queen, for when Lothar would sentence a criminal to death, Radegund would intervene on behalf of the condemned and lobby the ministers and nobles of the realm for intercession. Fortunatus relates an account that was to have occurred at her estate in Peronne:
while ... strolling in the garden after her meal, some sequestered criminals loudly cried to her from the prison for help. She asked who it might be. The servants lied that a crowd of beggars were seeking alms. Believing that, she went to relieve their needs. Meanwhile the fettered prisoners were silenced by a judge. But as night was falling and as she was saying her prayers, the chains broke and the freed prisoners ran from the prison to the holy woman. When they witnessed this, those who had lied to the holy one realized that they were the real culprits, while the erstwhile convicts were freed from their bonds.
The Establishment of the Convent of the Holy Cross
In the latter years of her marriage to Lothar, Radegund learned that her brother, the only male survivor of the Thuringian families still in Europe,had been murdered in an ambush under the orders of her husband. It is a matter of speculation, but Duey White connects his assassination to a Saxon revolt against Frankish rule about the year 555 in which the Thuringians were the primary instigators. Since her brother was a legitimate threat to Lothar's continued rule of Thuringian and other Saxon lands, it is hypothesized that this was the reason for his murder.
Once discovering that her brother had been murdered under Lothar's order, Radegund went into a period of lamentation. She blamed herself for his death. Sometime shortly thereafter, Radegund left Lothar. It is unclear from the sources of the time whether or not she fled Lothar's court or that he sent her away to become a nun.
Regardless of how she left Lothar, what is known is that she took sanctuary in the church at Noyon under the care of Bishop Medard who was a favorite of Lothar's. When she asked Medard to consecrate her as a nun, he at first refused, taking into account the words which Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "Art thou bound unto a wife? seek not to be loosed."(1 Cor. 7:27). He was also being intimidated by Frankish nobles who wanted to see her returned to Lothar. Regardless of the circumstances of the separation, it becomes apparent that on more than one occasion Lothar wanted his wife back and tried to use intimidation and force to do so. Eventually, Radegund prevailed on Medard to consecrate her a deaconess by dressing in "monastic garb and proceeded straight to the altar, saying to the blessed Medard: 'If you shrink from consecrating me,and fear man more than God, Pastor, He will require His sheep's soul from your hand.'" She was then ordained as a deaconess.
Whether or not is was legal for Medard to consecrate Radegund a deaconess was a mute point. What it did accomplish was that Radegund now had the power of the church behind her as she dedicated herself to her calling. She left Noyon and moved into her estate at Saix where she lived for several years.
While at Saix, Radegund had a series of visions which seemed to confirm her calling as the Lord's servant. Baudonivia thus relates one of them:
... She saw a man-shaped ship, with people sitting on every limb and she was sitting on the knee. He said to her: "Now, you are sitting on my knee, but in time you will find a place in my bosom." Thus she was shown the grace she would someday enjoy.
Apparently this vision was interpreted by Radegund as the man-shaped ship being the Lord. Baudonivia goes on to state that during her lifetime,Radegund only spoke privately of this vision for evidently she held it to be sacred and did not want it to be held open for ridicule by an unbelieving populace. It also gave her the fortitude necessary to reject Lothar's next attempt to reclaim her as his wife.
For a time Radegund maintained a life of severe asceticism when she heard a rumor that Lothar was about to try to reclaim her. She began wearing the harshest hair shirts she could find, endured long periods of fasting, and spent many nights in vigil offering prayers to be delivered again from Lothar. She sent an article of clothing that was cast in gold and studded with gems and pearls (Baudonivia estimates the value at one thousand gold solidi) to a monk by the name of Dom John, a recluse in the castrum of Chinon. She asked this man to pray for her and to inform her of any spiritual awareness he received in regards to Lothar's attempts to reclaim her. He said that she would take her own life before she would again be united to an earthly king since she was now united to a heavenly one. The monk informed her that before the king could reclaim her as his wife, he would be punished by the judgment of God.
Upon receiving this decision, Radegund proceeded to gather about her other women who had the same desire to serve the Lord as she. She built the Convent of the Holy Cross at Poitiers with the assistance of Lothar and the revenues of the lands of her morgengabe. The bishop of Poitiers also helped in this endeavor and by 560 the convent was completed and occupied by Radegund and her followers.
Again Lothar tried to reclaim Radegund as his wife, but she wrote Germanus, bishop of Paris, asking for him to exert his influence of the king. When Lothar heard Germanus' supplication he deemed himself unworthy to reclaim Radegund that he prostrated himself begging the bishop to ask his wife's forgiveness for sinning against her. He then sent the bishop to Poitiers to personally ask the queen's pardon which was readily granted. Within the year Lothar would be dead and Radegund thus totally released from any more claims.
When she established the convent, Radegund sent a letter of foundation to the bishops in the area of Poitiers. Gregory of Tours does history a favor by transcribing it in its entirety in his History of the Franks. In this letter Radegund outlines the organization of the convent. The convent would abide by the Rule of Caesaria of Arles; the Lady Agnes (a close friend of Radegund's since her childhood at Athies) would be Mother Superior; and that the convent was founded with the complete approval of the prelates in the area of Poitiers as well as the Merovingian kings, Charibert, Guntram, Chilperic, and Sigibert, the sons of Lothar.
Life and Orders of the Convent
Shortly after the foundation of the Convent of the Holy Cross, Radegund established the Rule of Caesaria of Arles for the residents of the cloister to adhere to. She applied for this rule only after Maroveus, who had succeeded Pientius as bishop of Poitiers, refused to provide a rule for the convent and ignored the convent completely during his tenure as bishop.The most notable aspects of the Rule of Caesaria was its demand that once cloistered, a nun was to never, under any circumstances, leave the convent. It further required that the cloistered sisters be old enough to read and write and that many hours be dedicated to the reading and studying of the scriptures. It also required the nuns to perform "womanly"tasks such as weaving and needlework, as well as the more scholarly copying of manuscripts and devotionals.
Radegund herself abode by these rules and took them to an even higher level. Because of Byzantine connections, as will be described later,Radegund undoubtedly knew that the practice of isolating herself within a cell represented an even higher level of sanctity, she eventually closed herself off from the day-to- day life of the convent. Even though the Rule of Caesaria declares that no nun may have a private cell, to have one in order to reach this higher level was not considered a violation of this rule. The action also parallels the activities of the desert saints,
who in contrast to the cultural ideals of the fourth century, sought truth in isolation rather than in urban centers. Because a Merovingian holy woman had no access to the desert, she instead thus created a similarly sterile environment in which to achieve the ascetic ideal.
Before long Radegund began making petitions with the Byzantine emperor, Justinian, for relics from the Holy Land that could be invested into her convent. It is apparent that King Sigibert sent at least two ambassadorial missions to Byzantium and it is probable that Radegund's petitions were included with them. The first such petition was for a relic of the Cappadocian martyr, St. Mamas of Caesarea. After several days of fasting after being presented with the petition, the patriarch of Jerusalem became convinced of Radegund's piety and authorized the transfer of the little finger of the saint's right hand from Jerusalem to Poitiers. The relic was received in Poitiers with all manner of pomp and circumstance do such an item. Radegund devoted herself and all those with her in the convent to a week of "psalmody, with vigils and fasts."
The next embassy to Byzantium contained a petition, sent with the expressed permission of Sigibert, was for a fragment of the True Cross, a sliver of the wood from the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified.To this petition Justinian sent not only a sliver of wood from the cross,but also gospels enshrined in gold and gems. Immediately upon receipt of the relic, Radegund made an overture to Bishop Maroveus of Poitiers to have the relic installed with all the circumstance do it, but as was his nature when it came to dealing with the convent, he refused and instead went to visit on of his country estates. Radegund appealed to Sigibert and he ordered Eufronius, Bishop of Tours, to deposit the relics in the convent. Sometime in 569 this was accomplished.
With the installation of the relic of the True Cross, Radegund's convent became the destination of pilgrims from the Frankish lands and throughout western Europe. The poet and later Bishop of Poitiers,Venantius Fortunatus visited and became close friends with Radegund and the Mother Superior, Agnes. Gregory of Tours also visited with Radegund in her convent and witnessed first hand the power of the relic and wrote of it:
Before St. Radegund's reliquary of the precious Cross, I saw that there was a lamp which was lit. Having noticed that frequent drops of oil were issuing from it, I believed -- God is my witness - - that the vessel was cracked, all the more because underneath it been placed a dish in which the flowing oil was received. Turning then to the abbess, I said to her: "Are you so careless that you cannot prepare a lamp that is intact, in which the oil is not leaking?" She replied: "My lord, it is not that, but the power of the holy cross which you see." Then, turning within myself and remembering what I had heard before, I looked at the lamp and saw it boiling in great waves and overflowing its edges, like a pot over a hot flame -- a phenomenon which,as I think, in order to better convince my unbelief, increased yet more and more, so that in the space of an hour the vessel, which held no more than a quart, had poured out a pint. I marveled in silence, and from that moment I proclaimed the true virtue of the precious Cross.
>From this time, Gregory became a intermediary of sorts for the convent.He pleaded with Bishop Maroveus to fellowship the convent with which he met with little success. He was also a member of the tribunal of bishops that investigated the rebellion that occurred at the convent not long after Radegund's death.
Death and Funeral of Radegund
Eventually it came time for Radegund to pass from this world into the next. As she lay on her deathbed, Baudonivia, who was quite possibly an eyewitness to the event, tells us that the entire congregation of nuns came and wailed at her bedside, striking their breasts with their fists and with stones and "raised their voices to Heaven clamoring, and said: 'Lord,spare us this heavy loss. You are taking our light. Why will you leave us in darkness?'" She slipped away in death on Wednesday, August 13, 587.
Even upon her death, Bishop Maroveus still refused to have any dealings with the convent. He refused to even be present at her funeral. A messenger had to be sent to Tours and summon Gregory who originally came out of friendship to Radegund. After three days and Maroveus still had not presented himself so that he could bring her to the basilica to be interred, Gregory was asked to perform the service. Miracles occurred at the time and were recorded by Gregory in another of his books, Book of Miracles. Of these, Baudonivia gives us two.
The first miracle came when Gregory arrived at the convent and viewed Radegund's body, he saw "an angel's face in human form, a face refulgent with roses and lilies and he was stricken with fear and trembling ... as though standing in the presence of the Lord's holy mother herself." The second miracle took place after the funeral of which Baudonivia relates:
When the aforesaid bishop [Gregory] buried her, he could not close up the grave until the local bishop arrived. Female serfs, who had carried the candles before her, stood in a circle around the tomb, each bearing a candle with her own name written on it. According to ritual, each then handed over her candle to one of the servants. But then there was an argument among the people. Some said that the candles should be placed in the holy tomb while others disagreed. While this was being debated, one candle escaped from the arms of the boy who held them all and flew on high above all the people and came to rest at the blessed woman in her holy grave, thus deciding what had been uncertain.
As has been mentioned, Gregory of Tours officiated at the funeral of Radegund. Because the nuns were forbidden by the Rule of Caesaria of Arles to ever step foot outside the convent, the entire congregation stood on the walls as Radegund's body was passed below them wailing as she passed.
After the death of Radegund, the convent went through a tough period of transition. It was of no help that Maroveus was not performing his ecclesiastical duty in supervising the convent. Eventually there arose a rebellion among several of the nuns. A council of bishops was convened to look into the allegations made and found many of them to be without merit. The Maroveus was all but ordered to attend to the spiritual needs and supervision of the convent and the number of nuns residing therein was greatly reduced over a period of time.
Over the years Radegund has been revered throughout France and even in England. Her legacy continues at Cambridge as well as in the names of several hospitals in France. She was consecrated a saint in the ninth century as well as was her Mother Superior, Agnes. Her body was discovered in 1562 and burnt by Calvinists, but the Convent of the Holy Cross still remains in Poitiers, albeit not in the same location as Radegund since over the years the original fell into ruin as well as desecration.
Radegund was a person of very high integrity and great humility. Her passion to serve the Lord, her bridegroom, was inspiring to many of her contemporaries as to many who came after her and not only to those of the Catholic faith, but to all faiths.
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Copyright (C) 1996, Onnie Duvall. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.
Comments to: Onnie Duvall
Updated: 14 March 1996
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