If You Couldn’t Live as a Virgin at Least You Could Die as One

31 May

I originally had written a much longer post but I have one significant aspect of Radegund’s portrayal (or at least I consider it significant) that I decided deserves its own post, which will follow soon. Don’t worry, it’s mostly written since I simply copied it from this one.

One of my favorite Saints is Radegund. There are a lot of reasons for this. First and foremost, she’s a Merovingian woman and women and peasants are, IMO, the two most underrepresented groups in the Middle Ages, even more so in the Early MA. Second, we have a lot of source material for her. 1 Third, some of the source material says different things. And finally, it’s just a good story. She ranks high on my list of favorite Dead Holy People.

I recently finished reading Transformations of Late Antiquity: Essays for Peter Brown by Philip Rousseau and Manolis Papoutsakis. It’s a good book with some pretty solid essays. So I’m reading along and I get to Essay XVI, “Radegundis peccatrix: Authorizations of Virginity in Late Antique Gaul,” by Julia M. H. Smith. Good deal – I know Radegund pretty well. Then Dr. Smith writes, “Because she read about virginity, wrote about it and, although not herself a virgin, was extensively written about in virginal terms, she should be evaluated in the context of late antique virginity literature.” (304-305) Cool.

The remainder of the essay talks about how Radegund was portrayed by her various biographers – Gregory of Tours, Venantius Fortunatus and Baudonivia. The vita written by Fortunatus is equated with that of Eugenia who underwent symbolic martyrdom. Good essay.

But I’m going to go in a bit of a different direction and offer my own interpretation of Radegund and how she was portrayed. I can do that because this is my blog and also because I’m not a historian so I can chuck words around when the topic is fun and not damage my professional reputation too much. And I think the Radegund story is fun, from an analytical point of view – there’s a lot to work with.

A brief bio is probably the first order of business. Radegund was born around 520 in Thuringia and was captured around 531 by Clothar/Lothar. She received schooling and became a Christian before marrying Clothar around 540. Somewhere around 550-555 Clothar killed her brother and Radegund fled to Menard where she was consecrated as a deaconess. Around 560 she founded the Convent of the Holy Cross in Poitiers and was named Abbess. She ruled the convent until her death in 586/7 with two notable accomplishments; adopting the rule of Caesarius of Arles and being given a fragment of the One True Cross by Justin II.

We have three main sources for her. Gregory of Tours provides most of his information in his Histories but she also is mentioned in Glory of the Confessors and Glory of the Martyrs. Venantius Fortunatus wrote a vita and she is mentioned frequently in his poems. Baudonivia, a nun from Radegund’s convent, also wrote a vita. All of these, except the poems which are often addressed to her, were composed after her death. These sources have some interesting things to say about Radegund and I think they are very enlightening as to how biographers would portray a subject to promote his or her cult.

Fortunatus’ vita is of most interest to me. While it is never claimed that she is a virgin, virgin references fill the account. It starts early on, “Therefore, though married to a terrestrial prince, she was not separated from the celestial one … she was more Christ’s partner than her husband’s companion.” 2 And, “Because of this, people said that the King had yoked himself to a monacha rather than a queen.” 3 Also, “Who could believe how she would pour out her heart in prayers when the king was away? How she would cling to the feet of Christ as though He were present with her and satiate her long hunger with tears as though she was gorging on delicacies! She had contempt for the food of the belly, for Christ was her only nourishment and all her hunger was for Christ.” 4

So, though trapped in an Earthly marriage, she was at heart a bride of Christ. Of course once she moved into a convent that eased off and the martyrdom began. Even while living with the king she would wear a hair cloth for religious holidays and would regularly lie on the stone floor, praying, under a hair cloth. 5

Once she moved to the convent, things began in earnest. She ate no meat, fish or eggs and gave up bread and drank very little water during the Quadragesima (Lent). 6

But it gets better (or worse). Once during Lent she encircled her neck and arms with iron bands and inserted chains into them. Her body swelled around these to where the chains were embedded in her flesh. 7 During another Lent she took a brass plate “shaped in the sign of Christ,” heated it and pressed it against herself so her flesh was roasted. Another time she took a basin full of burning coals and, “She drew it to herself, so that she might be a martyr though it was not an age of persecution.” 8

Of course mixed in with the burning and freezing and starving and hair cloths were a bunch of acts of charity and miracles. I won’t go into these because they’re pretty standard fare but Radegund’s re-virgination and martyrdom are very interesting, particularly because, while virginity was prized, married Saints, even with kids, are known. 9

In contrast, while Baudonivia mentions the hair shirts and fasting, as well as other acts of abstinence and asceticism, she doesn’t say anything about the self-mutilations Fortunatus relates. Fortunatus chose to portray her as removed from the world but Baudonivia, who knew of his vita and wrote hers as a complement to it, discusses her letter writing, her actions on behalf of the Church and individuals, her traveling to collect relics and, most importantly, her efforts to gain a fragment of The One True Cross from Justin II, the Byzantine Emperor.

Two very different accounts and it’s pretty clear from the use of language and from the incidents mentioned that Fortunatus wanted Radegund to be considered a virgin, or as close to this as someone who had been sexually active could be, and he also wanted her to be considered a martyr. Neither was a requirement to be named a Saint but Fortunatus was clearly a big fan.

Radegund is a great figure to examine. Her vitae and other accounts have everything. You have your violence, you have a martyrdom account, re-virgination – the only thing you don’t have is sex and for that, check out Gregory’s account about what happened to the Convent after Radegund died. 10

Abbreviations used in notes:

VR I – Vita Radegundii by Venantius Fortunatus
VR II – Vita Radegundii by Baudonivia (These are usually referred to as books I and II of her Vita) Both found in McNamara, et al. (1992).

1 Of course it would be nice to have even more. Radegund wrote a lot of letters but unfortunately only one has survived.

2 VR I.3

3 VR I.4 According to McNamara, Halborg and Whatley(1992), the word monacha is a term which later fell out of usage to be replaced by sanctimonial which they translate as nun.

4 VR I.6

5 VR I.5,6

6 VR I.22. At one time Quadragesima could mean any Christian ritual of fasting and prayer but as Fortunatus consistently identifies this as if it were the only one, without providing additional information, it seems almost certain that this was the Lenten Fast.

7 VR I.25

8 VR I.26. This type of self-abuse is rare in hagiography. Saints almost always engaged in some sort of ascetic, strict lifestyle which is portrayed as unpleasant and quite frequently they wore hair shirts or engaged in self-flagellation however behavior such as Fortunatus portrays Radegund as engaging in is unusual.

9 For example, Monegund and Chrothilda. Also, Angela Kinney recounts several of these, though later than this period, in her paper, “The Elusive ‘Happy Marriage’ in Hagiography,” given at the 2010 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

10 What you basically had was a Medieval version of Girls Gone Wild. A revolt in the nunnery, prostitution, pregnant nuns, etc. Gregory gives quite the account. See, Historiae IX.39-43 and X.15-17.

Special Note: Sometimes events happen that slap you in the face. This post had mostly been written when the news story about women undergoing “virginity checks” in Egypt came out. I scrupulously steer clear of current events in this blog. However I want to stress that though I am somewhat light in my use of the term “re-virgination” and with the title of this post I am not, in any way whatsoever, as light about the abuses and atrocities committed upon women in the name of sexuality and sexual reputation. In a world where “honor killings” are committed because a woman has the temerity to be sexually active, where women go to prison for being raped, where female genital mutilation and operations to restore hymens are commonplace, it is impossible for these things to be taken lightly. I’m going to leave the post as written (I considered a total re-write) because I do think the examination of how biographers portrayed their subjects is fun however these things happening in our world today are atrocities. I hope the tone I wrote this post in will not offend anyone. This note may well take some of the fun out of it, and that’s OK.


George, Judith, trans., Venantius Fortunatus: Personal and Political Poems. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1995). ISBN: 9-780853-231790

McNamara, Jo Ann, Halborg, John E. and Whatley, Gordon, ed. and trans., Sainted Women of the Dark Ages. Durham and London: Duke University Press (1992). ISBN: 978-0822312000

Rousseau, Philip and Papoutsakis, Manolis, eds., Transformations of Late Antiquity: Essays for Peter Brown. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company (2009). ISBN: 9-780754-665533

Thorpe, Lewis, trans., Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. London: Penguin Books (1974). ISBN: 9-780140-442953


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

18 responses to “If You Couldn’t Live as a Virgin at Least You Could Die as One

  1. Michelle Ziegler

    June 1, 2011 at 12:03 am

    So how do you compare her to Æthelthryth? Though competing versions always add extra interest.

  2. Medieval History Geek

    June 1, 2011 at 3:07 am

    Other than what's in Bede I'm not very familiar with her. Seems a parallel though with the Queen building a religious house, according to her story she really was a virgin and didn't torture herself – not based on Bede anyway.

  3. Michelle Ziegler

    June 1, 2011 at 3:27 am

    Mild torture but she went to greater lengths to retain her virginity. She fended off two husbands, one for 12 years.

  4. Medieval History Geek

    June 1, 2011 at 10:13 am

    Yup – kind of makes me wonder what her biographer would have done if he/she (there is a vita isn't there?) had been forced to deal with the idea of the marital debt.

  5. Michelle Ziegler

    June 4, 2011 at 3:47 am

    She doesn't have an early medieval vita. Her story is told in Bede's History and then embellished in the Liber Eliensis (Book of Ely, 12th century) and then there are later more traditional vitas. Marital debt? I'm not sure I know what you mean. Sounds like you have found a family to research more.

  6. Medieval History Geek

    June 4, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Marital debt is the idea that a married partner is required to be available sexually for his/her spouse. In the 12th century Gratian wrote about the idea of a marital or conjugal debt which seems to have had its basis in 1 Corinthians:3-4. Basically, if a man or wife wanted to get some action, his/her wife/husband was obligated to provide it. No one party, once married (with the marriage consummated, without which, by this time, there was no marriage) could unilaterally become abstinent. If, after doing so, the spouse then committed adultery, the sin of adultery was as much a stain on the abstinent person as the adulterer. Gratian's very explicit that this applies equally to married men & women. Of course there are exceptions – sex on Sunday, during Lent, etc., is wrong so it was OK to refuse to provide it then.This wouldn't have been a problem for Aethelthryth since she would never have been married – may have been with Radegund. But this idea wasn't out there, at least not officially, in the 6th-8th centuries.

  7. Jonathan Jarrett

    June 9, 2011 at 9:17 am

    An interesting juxtaposition of sources! Which author do you think was better-informed, and are they letting that show?Also:Radegund was born around 620 in Thuringia and was captured around 631 by Clothar/Lothar. She received schooling and became a Christian before marrying Clothar around 540.Unless she was a Timelord as well as a saint, I suspect at least one of these dates of being a typo…

  8. Medieval History Geek

    June 9, 2011 at 10:40 am

    That's a bit of a hard call to make because nobody seems to know much about Baudonivia. She could have been a close friend of Radegund's from the nunnery or barely known her. As for the typo – Blogger did it! Er, once again I'm embarrassed at not picking something up. you'd think after I read it about the 4th time I'd notice that.

  9. Medieval History Geek

    June 9, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    Realized I didn't address a part (and the more interesting part at that) of your question. Fortunatus writes as if he's intimately familiar with Radegund, including details of her married life and items such as her iron bands cutting her breast which you wouldn't think just anyone would know. OTOH, it's very possible (I consider it likely) that much of what he wrote was hagiographical embellishment. Baudonivia's account, while including various acts of piety and asceticism, reads more (not completely) along the lines of a detailed chronology of her life.Based on the exchange of correspondence and the poems, it's obvious Fortunatus knows her well and is very fond of her – not just as a religious figure but personally. I don't think this is obvious from reading Baudonivia's vita.

  10. Anonymous

    November 2, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    As far as political influence goes, does Baudonivia portray that more or less than Fortunantus? why do you think that is? p.s. great blog.

  11. Curt Emanuel

    November 2, 2011 at 8:45 pm

    That's a good question. Fortunatus really downplays anything which might seem "worldly" while Baudonivia recounts them. With Fortunatus it's all hair-shirts, fasting, self-flagellation, sleeping on the floor by the latrine instead of with her husband, etc. Baudonivia has much more of her communication with Constantinople, the fragment of the One True Cross, writing to quarreling Kings asking them to make peace and so on.Why's a bit dangerous to speculate but personally, I think Fortunatus had his image of how he wanted her to be remembered and went all-out. It wasn't good enough for her to be remembered as a great woman who accomplished some very significant things such as founding as convent and gathering some powerful relics; she had to have suffered through pseudo-virginal martyrdom, something to make her among the all-time greats. Baudonivia likely didn't know her as well, probably only as Abbess, and gave what appears to be a much more straightforward account. Fortunatus apparently wrote his vita first so Baudonivia may have figured Radegund had had plenty of spiritual promotion – not that hers completely lacks it, but it's nothing like Fortunatus. Speculation but those are my thoughts.

    • Chezjim

      February 16, 2013 at 12:04 pm

      As you may know, John Kitchen carefully contrasts their approaches in “Saints’ Lives and the Rhetoric of Gender”:

      I’m a food historian, so Fortunatus’ version is far more interesting to me. Reading Baudonivia’s version makes me aware how much Fortunatus’ own hedonistic character may have colored his account. Though he mentions food largely by negation (ie, what she DIDN’T eat), still the catalogue is rich enough that his seem to be the first mentions in France of, for instance, flan (then a flatcake) and perry. It’s important too to read his letters to Radegund and Agnes; though they lived ascetically themselves, they seemed to have taken real delight in indulging his (considerable) appetites. The result for a food historian is a rich lode of information on Gallo-Roman eating under the Franks.

      And I agree: your blog is very well done. And quite unassuming, given the depth of scholarship it reveals.

      • Curt Emanuel

        February 17, 2013 at 8:27 am

        Thanks for the comment. I have Kitchen though it’s been some time since I read it but I recall that his comparative approach was pretty effective. You’d have enjoyed the last session I went to at Kalamazoo last year. All about food and very interesting, I thought.

  12. Curt Emanuel

    November 2, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    Oh – and thanks for the compliment. I very much appreciate it.

  13. Anonymous

    November 3, 2011 at 12:15 am

    That's interesting speculation, I could possibly add the origin of the primary sources at the most basic level. Fortunantus was a man, Baudonivia a woman above all and then a nun. Baudonivia goes on about how Radegund has turned her motherly instincts towards the nunnery and the fighting kings something which maybe only a woman could appreciate as important enough to report?Currently following a medieval sexuality course at my uni and your blog is in our reading list!

  14. Curt Emanuel

    November 3, 2011 at 2:12 am

    That's one of the reasons Radegund is so fun. Just a lot to work with and a lot of different ways to approach it. Hope I don't end up on too many "what not to do" lists for your course!

  15. Jon Kaneko-James

    September 28, 2014 at 4:44 am

    This is cool. Your area is a bit earlier than mine but I’ve taken a jaunt into the early church for something I’m writing and this sort of narrative is incredibly interesting.

    I also wanted to say that as someone who’s just starting out in History (and, in my case, folklore) blogging, your writing really shows how it should be done.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: