The Case of Radegund’s Missing Brother

01 Jun

As I mentioned in my first Radegund post, I originally intended to discuss this issue there. I’m interested enough in this item to give it its own space.

As I’ve read accounts of Radegund, one item has begun to trouble me. Radegund left Clothar because he murdered her brother. 1 I’ve read a theory that he was a threat because he was last of a royal Thuringian line and that he may have been active in a revolt against Clothar.

Here’s my problem with the brother. He has no name. Gregory and Fortunatus both mention him, but he’s an anonymous figure. A substantial poem, “The Thuringian War,” was written either by Radegund or by Fortunatus with Radegund’s input. A large portion of this poem, written from Radegund’s point of view, laments her dead brother, yet he remains nameless. 2 As I’ve read more books on the Merovingians, Radegund is consistently mentioned and each time I’ve read, “Radegund left Chlothar after he murdered her brother,” I asked myself, “And who was this brother, exactly?” For some time I’ve been wondering; Did he really exist?

I have two reasons for questioning this. First and what really stands out for me is the simple fact of his namelessness. Gregory and Fortunatus wrote after Radegund’s death, roughly 40 years after she left Clothar. They were both well acquainted with Radegund. Gregory was bishop of Tours, just down the road from The Convent of the Holy Cross and conducted her funeral, even though he wasn’t her bishop. Fortunatus corresponded with her regularly and wrote poems for her. In the decades the two of them knew her, with this being the trigger; the single key, life-altering incident by which she entered into a religious life, she never mentioned him by name to either of them? If her brother’s murder bothered her enough to drive her from her husband, you’d think he would be important enough to be named.

Second, leaving one’s husband was a big friggin’ deal. It was highly frowned upon. There are plenty of cases of women seeking to leave their husbands for a religious life and being forced to return. 3 For whatever reason, Clothar didn’t seem to try to get her back very hard and in fact helped her establish The Convent of the Holy Cross. All I can do is conjecture but he’d been married to her for 10-15 years, she’d had no children, he had either other wives or a houseful of concubines, depending on the account you read, and she didn’t seem to be very interested in sex or even very affectionate toward him. When given a choice she’d rather lie stretch out on an unheated stone floor in a hair shirt next to the privy than lie in bed with him. Beyond this, he never knew when she might chuck money at poor people or stir up his entire household whenever he decided to execute a criminal. 4 Maybe he decided that her being gone was OK by him.

But 40 years later, there had to be a reason. Gregory and Fortunatus, in promoting her as a Saint, had to come up with a darn good explanation for why a woman could legitimately leave her husband for the Church. They would also have scrupulously tried to avoid any implication that it was OK to just leave one’s husband without a very good reason. An anonymous Thuringian brother would do just fine for these purposes. Thuringia was a new addition to the Frankish holdings and people wouldn’t be very familiar with it. But if you mentioned a name, there was a chance someone might say, “Huh? Who was that? I fought in Thuringia and I don’t remember him. You say he was heir to the Thuringian throne?” But a nameless brother from an obscure region? That stood a much better chance of passing muster. 5

A bigger issue is the poem, The Thuringian War, generally attributed to Radegund but sometimes to Fortunatus. This gives me the same problem. Writing decades later, this reads very much as an ode to Radegund’s brother, a lament that she had not honored him more – and she doesn’t mention him by name? This namelessness of a loved relative is huge for me. Names are how people were remembered. People were entered into prayer rolls by name – not as, “the brother of Radegund” (for this, I won’t say this never happened but I’m unaware of it). Panegyrics, which Radegund and Fortunatus would have been familiar with, are remembrances of a person with a name. Yet in 34 lines about her brother he is not named one time. This of course brings Radegund inventing her brother rather than Gregory or Fortunatus into the picture, if she was indeed the author. She would have had sound reasons for doing so, including explaining to Constantinople why a fragment of The One True Cross should be entrusted to someone who had deserted her husband. 6

An additional but relatively minor argument is that Baudonivia makes no mention of a brother in her account of Radegund’s taking the veil. She would have read it in Fortunatus’ account but chose not to include it in hers. This seems somewhat odd as the reasons for Radegund’s entrance into religious life is a pretty vital aspect of her story. However I consider it minor because a counter argument is that Baudonivia would have considered Radegund to be acting from a purer motivation if she left for the love of Christ, not from bitterness over the loss of a loved one – altruistic vs. selfish reasons. 7

As always, this is not completely one-sided. Chlothar killing a Thuringian noble who may have been a threat to him is hardly shocking and may even be considered legitimate if Thuringians were involved in a Saxon revolt. Of course if we take that to the next logical step, Radegund’s leaving loses legitimacy if her husband was acting against her brother in a justifiable manner to secure his control over the kingdom. 8

The simple fact that the brother exists and was written about by at least two and perhaps three separate authors also must be taken into account. However I believe that, as close as these three were with one another based on the source evidence, it is reasonable to posit one of the three as the initial source with the other two not questioning the account but adding it to their writings. And when we come to the possibility of this being an invention, I’ve previously said that I do not believe Gregory was a liar. I’ve not studied Fortunatus as closely but I have no reason to consider him as anything other than basically truthful. However I doubt that either of them would consider embellishing a story in promotion of a Saint’s cult to be lying. This seems to be a well accepted hagiographical convention.

Finally, there’s the potential fallout from Fortunatus and Gregory, and possibly even Radegund, making up a story that would portray Chlothar in a negative way. They would not bring this up if they thought doing so would seriously threaten their own safety and welfare. (I don’t believe so anyway, though Gregory had shown a fair degree of bravery in his conflicts with Chilperic and Leudast.)

This last is the most difficult aspect for me to evaluate. Chlothar had a bunch of kids and some of them were pretty powerful. However all were dead by the time the Radegund accounts were written, though not the The Thuringian War, if we accept its inclusion in the Byzantine mission. There were plenty of grandchildren living, some of them also powerful but it’s difficult to say how they would perceive the killing of a Thuringian, last of a royal line that their grandfather had gone to war with. And it’s very possible they wouldn’t have known enough about events from forty years past to even raise a protest against the account of the murder. I don’t see a lot in the family line which would have prevented Gregory or Fortunatus from making up this part of the story. Maybe Fredegund would have been concerned with the reputation of Chilperic’s father, Chlothar, but Gregory’s writings already reveal that he didn’t much care what she thought of his writings. Another option is that Radegund herself started the story with her poem, The Thuringian War. By around 570 (when the poem is believed to have been written) she was largely immune from threats. And keep in mind, the poem went to Constantinople. No one in Francia needed to have known about it, if the poem actually went there and wasn’t something written by Fortunatus and not disseminated until his poems were published.

In the end, I think the existence of Radegund’s brother is in question, with the balance of the evidence against it. He is unnamed even in a poem where he is a major character, there is a real need, in the eyes of the biographers (and Radegund herself), to come up with an explanation for Radegund’s leaving her husband, and I can’t find a compelling reason why Gregory, Fortunatus, or Radegund would be threatened by coming up with this story – in fact the grandchildren may not have known enough to call it into question. I think Radegund’s brother was a literary invention to provide justification for her leaving her husband for the Church in order to aid in the promotion of her cult. (I could go on – I have more – but this is a blog post, not a paper.)

It puzzles me that I’ve not run across this argument before. If someone knows of anyone discussing this, please let me know. 9 The historicity of Radegund’s brother seems to be unquestioned by modern historians.

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 VR I.12, “Thus her innocent brother was killed so that she might come to live in religion.”

2 For Gregory, Historiae III.7

3 Rather than listing names, let me quote James Brundage (1987), discussing the 6th-11th centuries, “Discussions of this possibility [leaving one’s spouse for religious life] emphasized that the decision must be mutual; no one could unilaterally terminate a marriage in order to enter a monastery or convent. Anyone who attempted to do so should be refused admission to the religious life and required to resume co-habitation with his or her spouse.” p. 202.

4 For Radegund’s sleeping habits see VR I.5. For condemned criminals see VR I.10.

5 I’ve seen secondary accounts that say Radegund’s brother was also captured and held as a hostage. If true, this would be much harder to hide but I haven’t seen this in any of the source material.

6 McNamara, et al.,(1992) contains a translation of the poem on pp 65-70. They indicate that the poem is commonly believed to have accompanied the mission to Constantinople to recover a fragment of The One True Cross to be delivered to a relative of Radegund’s, but it was found in an appendix of Fortunatus’ verses. p 65, n 22

7 VR II.3

8 The theory about Radegund’s brother being involved in a revolt or other treacherous activities is only mentioned in secondary analyses of the incident. I am unaware of any source material calling this anything but a murder. For Gregory, Historiae III.7, he was murdered by assassins. For Fortunatus, see note 1, above. In The Thuringian War he is referred to as murdered.

9 I went six pages deep with a Google search using the term, “Did Radegund’s brother exist?” without finding any discussion of the question.

Brundage, James A., Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (1987). ISBN: 9-780226-077840

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

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


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7 responses to “The Case of Radegund’s Missing Brother

  1. Historian on the Edge

    June 2, 2011 at 7:59 am

    Then again, Gregory doesn't name half of his own family… These are interesting exercises (I have a theory that Radegund was Gundovald's mother – another character that GT knew about and (IIRC) even gives a speaking part but doesn't name) but I wonder really whether we don't err in trying to account for these silences according to what seem to us 'moderns' to be rational explanations.

  2. Medieval History Geek

    June 2, 2011 at 10:01 am

    I have a post in fermentation mode about the dangers of responding to logical appeals because those are appeals to our logic, which may very well not be the same logic as those folks used – I used to be taken in by those all the friggin' time. Now I try not to be though I'm still susceptible if I'm not careful. Once I put it together I'll be able to link to it with a "remember this caution" note. I had a little blurb along those lines in this post – I think my discussion of possible naming ramifications for Gregory/Fortunatus is by far the weakest part – but took it out (among others) as a digression in something that was already long enough. I still can't come up with a good reason for not naming the brother, particularly in the poem, which to me just about screams for his name (and seems to me the most likely source for the origin of the brother). Then again, it doesn't mean all that much – it just bugs (and interests) me which is why I threw a post up.Have to think about the Gundovald thing, esp. with the Byzantine & Chlothar connections.

  3. Chezjim

    February 16, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    I think one sticking point here is the idea that she left Clothar because of her brother’s murder. I’ve always assumed, to the contrary, that it was the last straw.

    First of all, it seems unlikely she ever actually wanted to marry the (much older and polygamous) king in the first place; she was a captive and supposedly ascetic from an early age. I’ve often wondered if she didn’t marry him only because he promised to protect her brother (who normally would have been killed or enslaved like most of the rest of her people); at the worst, I can imagine her having been forced into the marriage (making it essentially a sanctified rape). Certainly, Fortunatus’ accounts of her at court are almost humorous in showing how much she defied Clothar’s expectations of his queen; it reminds me of an episode of “Night Court” where a woman, having agreed to sleep with a man she despises (for complex comic reasons), shows up with her hair in curlers and no make-up. And her religious obsessions alone were enough for her to want to remain a virgin (which, unless Clothar’s age betrayed him, I find very unlikely that she did).

    So I don’t think she needed her brother’s murder to make her want to follow a path she seems to have traced out from an early age; it only gave her slightly more reason in the public eye. But above all the passage on his death in the Fall of Thuringia is a marvel of imaginative writing if in fact he did not exist; it’s simply heart-breaking in its immediacy.

    • Curt Emanuel

      February 17, 2013 at 8:44 am

      I doubt she had much choice in the matter at all. Then again, I think that was fairly standard if you were an elite Merovingian woman unless you were in a convent. I just keep coming back to the fact that she never names her brother. Granted, folks back then thought differently from me but I can’t see writing something designed to memorialize someone and then never mentioning the someone by name. Names were sort of important back then. Gregory of Tours fills his Saint/Martyr stories with names, not leaving an anonymous account of what he or she did.

      If I were more accomplished in Latin I’d like to take a close look at The Thuringian War and decide if, based on style, it’s something Radegund would have been able to write or if it may have been written by Fortunatus. She never, as far as I know, wrote anything resembling it before or after and she had plenty of topics to write passionate poems about.

      BTW, found your web page and liked it.

      • Chezjim

        February 17, 2013 at 1:33 pm

        That’s kind. Thank you.

        I would quibble with the idea that she (or her surrogate Fortunatus) wrote the poem to memorialize her brother. The passage regarding him is part of a much broader outpouring of sorrow and loss and comes after a number of other subjects. I take her direct address of him as very personal, something she’s been led to in thinking of all these other sorrows, and requiring no name precisely because of that – when you’re addressing an intimate, you don’t really need to use their name. Either way, the lack of a name has to be weighed against the fervent tone of that passage and the statements of others who would have had no reason to indulge in such an ornate fabrication. So I confess I find the thesis intriguing but unconvincing.

        Otherwise, what strikes me about the poem is that this is a woman living a passionately religious life, a woman of faith, already along in years when she, at the least, expressed all this to Fortunatus. Yet all her faith falls away in the face of these losses. There is no sense of reconciliation, no sense of comfort in Christ, just a burning, immediate sense of loss, still fresh since her early childhood. This is all the more striking if you see what some peope today are able to overcome through the force of their faith; it raises the much broader question of what religion meant to this queen/nun: a true calling towards a deep spiritual happiness or a refuge – an ultimately unsatisfactory refuge – from the horrors of the material world as she had known it?

        In this regard, I find her pampering of the hedonistic Fortunatus very touching, reflecting a truly maternal indulgence. How much in all this was the aging abbess making up for the loss of her brother and the children she never had – that is, for the simpler pleasures of a secular woman that she had abandoned or had taken from her? It seems to me to reflect an enduring, and heart-breaking, yearning, a yearning religion never really cured.

        • Curt Emanuel

          February 17, 2013 at 2:21 pm

          The problem is that I don’t accept your premise for the purpose of the poem. It was sent with a mission to Constantinople to gain a fragment of the True Cross. Its purpose was to help persuade them to entrust her with it. Of course I don’t believe it was written to memorialize her brother as IMO it’s likely he didn’t exist. You don’t need to convince me of that. From a purely memorial aspect she spends much more time lamenting her separation from her cousin, who is named.

          We’re not talking about someone who had shown an inclination to get emotional before yet here she chooses to do so in a letter to people who were largely strangers. And this is someone who had been through some personal battles and shown herself to be one of the most adept individuals of her day at contemporary politics. She was a tough, experienced woman, one who had battled the most powerful Merovingians and come out on top. This poem was written with a purpose and I have sincere doubts that it was for her to express grief to the Court at Constantinople.

          • Curt Emanuel

            February 18, 2013 at 12:01 pm

            In case it isn’t clear, I don’t want to imply that Radegund didn’t feel real, genuine grief. I’m sure she did and I have no reason to think this didn’t stay with her. However her expressing this grief at this specific time and to this audience was to achieve an objective, not just to display her sorrow.


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