Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, August 13, 2021

Radegund of Thuringia, Frankish Queen and Patron Saint

Radegund of Thuringia (died 13 August 587)


Probably born between the years 518 and 520, Radegund was the daughter of Berthacar, one of three brothers who, together, ruled the Germanic kingdom of Thuringia. The name of her mother is unknown.

Radegund has left us some details of her life in two epistolary poems that survive, one addressed to her cousin, Amalfred (the poem is now sometimes referred to as De excidio Thoringiae, "The Fall of Thuringia") and one to her nephew, Artachis, written after the death of his father, Amalfred.

Radegunde of Thuringia,
from an eleventh-century 
manuscript
 copy of 
The Life of St. Radegund
In addition to what Radegund reveals in these carefully crafted, highly rhetorical Latin letters, three of her contemporaries wrote about the woman who would become queen of the Franks and, after her death, be recognized as a saint. 

Gregory of Tours, bishop of Tours, who knew Radegund well, mentions her in his History of the Franks, paying particular attention to her foundation of the convent of the Holy Cross. He also includes references to Radegund in his Glory of the Confessors and Glory of the Martyrs, where he focuses on details of her piety.

The poet Venantius Fortunatus, bishop of Poitiers, also knew Radegund. He wrote a number of poems to her as well as her biography, the Vita Radegundis. In addition, he corresponded with her, and several of his letters to Radegund survive (though none of hers to him). Interestingly, although Fortunatus mentions Radegund's grandfather, father, and uncle by name in his life of Radegund, he is silent about her mother.

The third account of Radegund's life is by the nun Baudonivia, a member of the community of the Holy Cross at Poitiers, a convent founded by Radegund. Her De vita sancti Radegundis, addressed to the "holy ladies" of the convent and to their abbess, Dedimia, has been written at their request: "This task you have assigned me of writing the life of the Lady St. Radegund is like attempting to touch heaven with a fingertip," she begins. About Radegund's family, Baudonivia refers to the beginning of Fortunatus's Life for "an account of her royal origin and rank." Radegund is a "noble sprig" who springs from a "royal race"--but Baudonivia has nothing to say about Radegund's maternal family either.

We may know nothing of Radegund's early life, but we know it was filled with violence. In 529, her father, Berthacar. was killed by one of his brothers, Hermanfrid (Amalfred's father), and the girl and her unnamed brother were taken by their uncle to live with him and his wife, Amalaberga (who is said to have encouraged Hermanfrid to eliminate his other brother too . . . ).

But in 531, Thuringia was attacked by the Franks, and while Hermanfrid escaped (he did not live long after his defeat), Radegund was taken as a prize of war by the victorious Chlothar.* Possession of the girl was the subject of a dispute between Chlothar and his half-brother, Theuderic. In the words of Venantius Fortunatus, the "royal girl became part of the plunder of these conquerors and they began to quarrel over their captive." After the dispute threatened to become deadly, the brothers decided the girl's fate by some kind of wager or bet, and Radegund fell "to the lot of the illustrious King Clothar." 

In her own description of the fall of Thuringia, Radegund is only too aware of the fate of its women--the body of a "milk-white woman," lying unburied on the ground, a "matron . . . rapt away," her hands "bound fast," a wife whose "naked feet" walked through a pool of her husband's blood, a "tender sister," who is forced to step over the body of her brother, a mother whose child is "torn" from her arms. Radegund refers to herself as "The captive maid given to a hostile lord, her power fell / From the heights of glory to the lowest depths." She remains as the "sole survivor," the one who must shed tears for all those who have died.

But, as Fortunatus reminds his readers, Thuringia was a "barbarian nation"--Radegund describes herself as a "barbarian woman." Chlothar and the Franks, on the other hand, were Christian--indeed, Chlothar's mother, Clotilde, helped to convert her husband to Christianity. And so Thuringia's fall was to lead to Radegund's salvation. Once she had been taken back to Chlothar's court near Soissons, he arranged for his captive to be sent to Athies, in Vermandois, where she was reared in what Fortunatus describes as "a royal villa." The plan was for her to be educated there until she reached an age suitable for marriage.

Her "upbringing" thus "entrusted" to suitable guardians, the captive girl was not only instructed in the Catholic faith but taught to read and write in Latin as well. She learned her lessons well, as her surviving letters demonstrate. In his Life of Radegund, Fortunatus describes Radegund's many pious acts she performed while at Athies. She also expressed her desire to become a martyr for the faith.

Perhaps that was why, when Chlothar decided to bring her back to court, she "escaped by night" from the villa, accompanied by "a few companions." Her attempted escape may also be explained by Chlothar's decision that "she should be made his queen at Soissons."

Her resistance to marrying Chlothar may have been due to her inclination to a religious life. But it may also have to do with the fact that Chlothar already had a few wives. Not that he had a few wives who had died or been otherwise eliminated--we're not talking about Henry VIII here. Rather, Chlothar was married to several women already--like his father, Chlothar practiced polygyny, and at the time he decided he would marry Radegunde, about the year 540 or a little earlier, he already had a number of wives, at least three and possibly four, but the chronology of his marriages and their dates aren't clear.  

According to one account of the king's marital situation, "At least two of Chlothar's wives, Ingund and Aregund, and possibly also Chunsinna and Radegund, were married to him at the same time," though Chlothar "may have abandoned" Ingund and Aregund before he married Radegund. Chlothar seems also to have married his brother's widow, Guntheuc, around the time of his marriage to Radegund (though Guntheuc may have died before Chlothar's marriage to Radegund). So, a little incest (Ingund and Aregund were sisters, and Guntheuc was his brother's widow) in addition to the more-than-one-wife-at-a-time thing.** (For a little of what Gregory of Tours has to say about Chlothar and his wives, click here. Gregory also notes that Chlothar tricks his mother, Clotilde, and joins in the murder of two of his nephews, Guntheuc's sons, who are in his mother's custody--a third escapes. Sheesh.)

All of this may help to explain why Radegund did not want to marry Chlothar and attempted to escape. She was compelled to do so, however, though the two had no children, and both Venantius Fortunatus and Baudonivia stress that Radegund continued to live her pious life even while she was married. Fortunatus insists that Radegund "avoided the trappings of royalty" and that, though married to a "terrestrial prince," she had not separated from the "celestial one."

And so matters remained. Although married to a king, Radegund devoted herself to the poor and the needy and lived an increasingly ascetic life. But about the year 550, Chlothar had Radegund's brother, the last surviving male in the royal Thuringian line, ambushed and murdered, and she fled the court at Soissons. 

And yet, as Fortunatus reminds his reader, "misfortune often leads to salvation." In his words, Radegund's "innocent brother was killed so that she might come to live in religion. . . . She left the king and went straight to holy Médard," who was the bishop of Noyon. Radegund "earnestly begged that she might change her garments and be consecrated to God." The bishop was "mindful of the words of the Apostle: 'Art thou bound unto a wife? Seek not to be loosed,'" and so "he hesitated to garb the Queen in the robe of a monacha." The bishop may have been worried about scripture, but he was also afraid of the very real wrath of Chlothar. 

Radegund seeks to enter a monastery,
from an eleventh-century 
Vie de sainte Radegonde,
Bibliothèque municipale de Poitiers

But Médard was won over by Radegund, who warned him that divine vengeance would surely be worse than her husband's. And the bishop soon found his way out of his scriptural dilemma too; rather than consecrating Radegund as a nun, he made her a deacon, a state that required neither virginity nor widowhood. And it probably did not hurt that Radegund "divested herself" of all of her "queenly" garb and paraphernalia, laying her golden bracelets, ornaments, pins, and circlets, her gems, and her costly garments at the altar and in the cells of those holy men whom she wished to persuade. As if to affirm that her new status as a deacon conformed to God's wishes, Radegund then experienced a series of visions, which are described by Baudonivia.

Although Chlothar made several attempts to reclaim his runaway queen over the next decade, he was never successful, eventually resigning himself to her loss, perhaps because of a sense of his own impending death. In the mean time, by about 552, she had begun to establish the abbey of Sainte-Marie in Poitiers, the first monastery for women in the Frankish empire. Construction was complete by 560, aided in part by donations from Chlothar.

Radegund was particularly noted by Gregory of Tours for her efforts to obtain a portion of the True Cross for her convent from the Byzantine emperor, Justinius. She was successful, and in 569, her convent was renamed when the relic arrived, now known as the abbey of Sainte-Croix.

Radegund remained at the convent for more than thirty years, until her death on 13 August 587.

In addition to the work of Venantius Fortunatus and Gregory of Tours, to which I've linked, above, I recommend the excellent essay on Radegund by Onnie Duvall at the ORB: Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies (click here). Now archived at the Wayback Machine is the Other Women's Voices entry for Radegund (click here). 

Letters written by and to Radegund are found online at Epistolae: Medieval Women's Latin Letters (click here).

First published in 1994, Marcelle Thiebaux's The Writings of Medieval Women: An Anthology is still in print--it contains an excellent selection from Radegund's letters and from Baudonivia's Life, written for the nuns at Sainte-Croix. And a very good chapter, "Radegund, Queen of the Franks and Abbess of Poitiers" is in Jo Ann McNamara's Sainted Women of the Dark Ages.

*The name of the Merovingian Chlothar, king of the Franks, is spelled a number of different ways--Chlothar, Chlotar, Clotaire, even Lothar.

**So much for those who are always pining for "traditional marriage"--but who have no idea of the "traditions" that have been part of marriage . . .