ICMS Session Report VIII: Session 508 – Early Medieval Europe IV

31 May

Saturday, May 15, 2010
Session 508
Early Medieval Europe IV

This was a very enjoyable session for me – possibly my favorite session of Congress. As I’ve mentioned previously, this is different from being the “best” but it was still quite good. I think part of this was that I’m very interested in the subject matter and part is that it’s in my comfort zone – I was familiar with the concepts and could easily follow them. 

The first paper was by Kathleen Self of Saint Lawrence University, “Two Conversions, Three Genders: Religious Transformations of Gender in the Writings of Gregory of Tours.”

Dr. Self discussed how the portrayal of figures in a religious sense (I need to be careful of my wording – this is NOT the portrayal of religious figures as some were lay personages portrayed religiously) involved three genders – male, female and chaste – and part of the literature associated with these figures involved what amounted to a gender change from male or female to chaste.

To open she related a couple of fairly well-known conversion accounts told by Gregory, neither of which involve the chaste gender. The story of Clovis is one of miraculous intervention by God in permitting him to win a battle, accompanied by persuasion from Chlotild, his wife. In the case of Recared of Spain, his miraculous proof was less direct but recounts how Catholics can heal while Arians cannot and is also accompanied by persuasion. In the case of Clovis we have the mass conversion of the Franks to accompany it. In Recared’s case we have the account that he sent envoys out to tell his people so they could convert but it’s not explicitly stated how this came out. The Clovis story introduces one other element, that of men being convinced to convert by women, specifically their wives.

Other accounts followed. She recounted a female conversion story of a woman who withdraws to a convent following the deaths of her daughters. She also told a story from the Lives of the Fathers where Brachio, a huntsman, is converted after seeing a wild boar standing as if tamed before a hermit’s cell.

She then proceeded to the discuss the details by which the “chaste gender” is portrayed by Gregory. He portrays St. Gall as “de-masculated” and possessed of a high, sweet voice. His masculine properties have been minimized to display the gender change. Gregory’s rhetoric identifies chaste women through flower imagery – use of the terms “flower” or “flowering” in discussions of females.

The chaste can be identified by acts exhibiting their gender. Dress for both men and women and the tonsure for men and cutting of hair for women are chaste gender indicators.

I found this paper very interesting. The conversion stories of Gregory’s that she recounted were familiar but I hadn’t really looked at them in this way before, not as a systematic “de-gendering” in literature. It gives me something to look for in other similar works – certainly a suppression or “gift” of removal of sexual desire is a very common theme, as is the removal of other baser impulses, but these don’t go as far as gender change

During the question period something was raised which ended up being the last question of the session – I was going to answer but time ran out though I did speak with both the questioner and Dr. Self following the session (I’d already had “my question” in response to another paper). If someone who was at this session happens to read this I think these are important points and I want to cover them. The question was raised by someone familiar with conversion stories from the later Middle Ages – I believe he specifically said 13th century England. The question was that in the conversion tales he was familiar with men are pretty much emasculated but Clovis was converted as a war leader and he wondered why there was such a difference. Of course nobody can give a definitive answer but I think two points can be made. First, and most obvious, the Clovis conversion story is very similar to that of Constantine – pretty much a parallel account with Gregory fulfilling the role of Eusebius. This is a battle conversion and would resonate powerfully with the Franks. The second point relates to the portrayal of God to the Franks in the late 5th/early 6th century. Dennis Green in Language and History in the Early Germanic World (Cambridge, 1998) describes how language used by 5th and 6th century missionaries indicates that God was portrayed as a warrior deity, one who would lead his followers to success in battle. This is very different from the terminology used when Ulfilus was sent to convert the Goths in the 4th century. When he developed a written Gothic language God was portrayed in pacifist terms and Ulfilus wouldn’t even translate Kings because it was too violent for an already violent people. The story of Clovis as a converted war leader following a strong warrior God would resonate with the Franks and a warrior God would have made their mass conversion much easier for them to accept. The portrayal of God changed substantially over time and place to best connect with the people who missionaries were trying to convert.

The second paper discussed an aspect of history which I am unfamiliar with. Genevra Kornbluth of Kornbluth Photography gave an interesting paper on “Solid Geometry in Francia and Alemannia: Some Physical Evidence.”

This was a discussion of gemstones and ornamental metalwork found in the fifth through seventh centuries. Kornbluth discussed – assisted by some very good visuals – the use of geometric shapes in objects made of rock crystal, glass and metal. This will be tough to explain without the visuals but I’ll do my best.

Rock crystal and glass frequently functioned as spindle whorls. Octagon is the simplest shape and is frequently found but there were also quite a few hexagons.

Rock crystal is naturally shaped as a hexagon but were usually ground into spheres – Kornbluth found that only 4 or 5 of the 139 finds were set as hexagons in pendants.

Many pentagon whorls have been found. A pentagon whorl has 5 facets on each face. This makes it an irregular dodecahedron. Kornbluth doesn’t know what the significance would have been of this but believes there must have been something beyond aesthetics – some spiritual/superstitious meaning.

Pierced metal dodecahedra are found all over Roman Gaul – and nowhere else in the world. Kornbluth believes these may have served some type of divination function.

Another frequent find are icosahedra. In ancient sources they represent water. They are generally not pierced and the tops and bottoms could be ground down into spindle whorls.

This was not a thesis type paper or even one that gave a lot of answers. Instead it helped clarify some questions that researchers may want to ask and it helped illustrate an area of study which I am unfamiliar with. I enjoyed it and I apologize for not finding a better way to represent what was really an interesting and informative paper and presentation.

The final paper in this session was, “The Elusive ‘Happy Marriage’ in Hagiography” by Angela Kinney, a University of Illinois PhD student.

I’ve previously mentioned that I enjoy hagiography very much. I was looking forward to this paper and was not disappointed.

With the aid of a useful handout Kinney began with a discussion of how marriage, particularly in accounts of female married saints, is addressed in hagiography and has changed over time.

The first issue she mentioned is that there are few female married saints mentioned in hagiography. Initially, their accounts included what amounted to a “marriage apology.” In the 8th century case of Eustadiola, she marries as an expression of the scriptural guidance to obey her parents, while they remind her that if a virgin marries she doesn’t commit a sin. Her vita emphasizes the honorable status of her marriage and her match with a lawful husband. On her husband’s death, rather than take another husband, she chooses to wed God.

In a story dating to the 7th century, Waldetrud is portrayed similarly, though with different results. Again, she marries out of obedience to her parents. After a time her husband, still loving her (according to her vita) dissolves their conjugal bonds and enters a monastery. Waldetrud is portrayed as a “religious servant” despite wearing “a secular habit” and remains in the world to manage her household – the vita fails to mention that she has four children.

In the 10th century Rictrudis is portrayed very differently. She became wife to a husband who married not out of lust but due to a desire to have children. She marries him freely and there is substantial language which to me appears to discuss what was known as the conjugal debt – the debt of each partner in a marriage to share their bodies with each other (though this seems a bit early for that – Gratian is who I’ve seen this mainly attributed to though there were earlier mentions of the idea). Her body as a temple of God is also discussed as is the honor and sanctity of marriage.

Kinney admitted that the selection of these types of accounts is sparse but they seem to be moving toward a stylization of marriage as good and honorable, a state of being within which sanctity may be found.

This was another very good paper and presentation. I found it extremely interesting and Kinney provided substantial information and evidence. I believe there may be additional information to be gained by looking into canon law and see if the changes in the way marriage is portrayed in hagiography may parallel the way the Church came to view marriage. While marriage may arguably have been a sacrament from the earliest time of Christianity it certainly didn’t rank very high on the scale with no official ceremony to mark it until the 11th century – just the need for words of the present and future and consummation. However as time went on the Church increasingly regulated marriage and the concept of the conjugal debt evolved. I think there is much waiting to be discovered – or at least learned from – in hagiography.

Overall, another very good session. I found all of the papers quite interesting and the first and third happened to cover issues which I am particularly interested in. Each of the presenters gave interesting presentations and provided a great deal of information.


Posted by on May 31, 2010 in Conferences


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5 responses to “ICMS Session Report VIII: Session 508 – Early Medieval Europe IV

  1. Jonathan Jarrett

    May 31, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    I've met the idea of monks and nuns being sexless somewhere before, with parallels to angels and so forth. I wish I could remember where but if Magistra et Mater is reading she will doubtless know; my best guess is somewhere in the voluminous œuvre of Jinty Nelson or Elisabeth van Houts but I can't remember. Now if I had one of your spreadsheets, you see… But it may not be quite as new as Self seems to have presented it. And, it has always made me wonder: yes, there are instances of this language, but there are also instances of heavily gendered language for saints, male heroes bravely struggling, female ones sweetly acquiescing etc., and even interesting moments where a figure passes from one set of behaviours to the other because of their holiness (or indeed because of their lack of it). This makes me wonder whether the idea of a religious neuter was ever more than one of many possible arguments that were available to writers of the time, rather than a pervading mindset. Perhaps I've not given Self enough credit for subtlety here.

  2. Medieval History Geek

    June 5, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    I've started to reply to this several times and deleted it – guess it's time to bite the bullet. I don't recall Self identifying discussion of a chaste gender in any other literature but at the same time I didn't get the feeling that she was putting this out there as a "new great discovery" – just a discussion of how it was portrayed in Gregory.The question comes in as to whether this characterization is real or imagined – de-emphasizing sexuality isn't anything new. I suppose if there's enough of taking this beyond sexual activity, desire, lust, etc. and into all male/female characteristics with enough commonalities to be considered a topos then framing the discussion in this way is valid. Seems an awful fuzzy line to have to cross though.

  3. Genevra Kornbluth

    June 24, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    I've just stumbled on your blog– what fun!My paper did actually have a theses: that the shapes of objects normally seen as purely decorative were in fact significant to the people who used them. It is not possible to pin down exactly what that significance was, since we are dealing with visual rather than textual evidence.After many years of teaching art history, I have recently turned my photography into a business. If you and your readers would like to look at the visuals from my Kalamazoo presentation, you will find some of them posted in the 'historical archive' section of my web site. Please feel free to use and link to them.Best,GK (

  4. Medieval History Geek

    June 26, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    Thanks very much for your comment. I recall your discussion of the spiritual/superstitious significance of objects – what I missed was that the commonly held belief is that they are considered purely decorative.I haven't had the chance to go to your website yet. I intend to in the near future – though I think I'll bookmark it now to avoid forgetting.


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