Bathild – c.626 – 680 – Burgundy and Neustria

Britain, England, France

Bathild

Of uncertain origins, Bathild’s curious life appears to have begun in East Anglia, Britain, where she possibly born into a noble family. Whatever the circumstances of her upbringing, she was at some point uprooted and sold into slavery – possibly as a result of the war for the throne of East Anglia.

Still a little girl, Bathild now found herself a very long way from home, in Neustria (part of modern day France), where she entered service in the household of Erchinoald, a powerful Frankish nobleman.

The story goes that Bathild grew up into the ideal medieval woman – beautiful, modest, subservient and pious. When Erchinoald’s wife died, he was keen to make Bathild his wife. Unfortunately for him, Bathild was uninterested in the man who had bought her as a child, and hid herself away until he found someone else to marry.

Eventually (though the details are murky) Bathild got a much better offer of marriage – Clovis II, king of Burgundy and Neustria. This time, she said yes.

Like all good medieval Christian queens, Bathild engaged in public acts of charity. She donated enough money to the church to found two Abbeys, Corbie and Chelles – and possibly three others. She also had three sons, Clotaire, Childeric and Theuderic.

Their eldest son was only five years old when Clovis died, leaving little Clotaire on the throne, but Bathild in charge. As queen regent she really came into her own. She was an intelligent and capable politician, even handling an attempted coup.

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Bathild’s seal matrix (sourcesource)

Her greatest triumph was the abolition of Christian slavery – something which must have been very dear to her heart. Historical sources also write that she worked to free children who had been sold into slavery by paying for them herself and giving them their freedom.

All three of Bathild’s sons became kings – Clotaire of Neustria, Childeric of Austrasia and Theuderic of Burgundy. Satisfied that she had done her job, Bathild retired to the Abbey she had founded in Chelles, where she lived peacefully until the end of her life.

 

 

 


References:

Bathild Seal Matrix – Norfolk Museum

On Wikipedia:

Radegund – c.520 – 587 – Poitiers, France

France, Germany

Radegund

Radegund (also Rhadegund, Radegonde or Radigund) was a German princess and a Frankish queen who founded the Abbey of the Holy Cross at Poitiers. She was also the granddaughter of Basina through her father.

At the time Radegund was born, the kingdom of Thuringia was ruled by three men; her father Bertachar and his brothers, Baderic and Hermanfrid.

In 529, Hermanfrid killed Bertachar in battle, leaving nine-year-old Radegund an orphan. She was taken into Hermanfrid’s household while he continued his campaign for sole kingship, killing Baderic shortly afterwards.

Hermanfrid’s victory had come at a cost – he had sought the help of Theuderic, king of the Franks, agreeing that they would share sovereignty of Thuringia. However, you can’t trust a man who will kills his own brothers in the pursuit of power, and Hermanfrid did not make good on his promise.

Furious at the betrayal, Theuderic and his own brother, Clotaire I marched into Thuringia in 531, defeating Hermanfrid and claiming his kingdom. When the victorious brothers returned to Gaul (France), they took twelve-year-old Radegund with them.

She was raised in Clotaire’s villa in Picardy, and in 540 Radegund became one of his six wives. Little is known about her life as Clotaire’s concubine, other than that they had no children.

In 550, Radegund’s family was in peril again when Clotaire had her brother, the last surviving male, murdered. With her own life potentially in danger, Radegund left the Frankish court and sought shelter within the church. She pleaded her case to the Bishop of Noyon, who agreed to make her a deaconess.

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Radegund retiring to the monastery (source)

While living in the Frankish court Radegund had been noted for her charitable giving, but once she joined the church she really came into her own, founding the monastery of Cainte-Croix in Poitiers.

As a deaconess, Radegund’s life was governed by a very strict set of instructions, known as the Rule for Virgins. This required nuns to live cloistered lives, away from the public. They were expected to devote much of their time to reading the Bible and copying out manuscripts, and had a restrictive vegetarian diet of legumes and green vegetables.

As well as founding the monastery, Radegund personally tended to the sick, gaining a reputation as a gifted healer. In addition, Radegund wrote poetry (likely with a religious theme) which has sadly been lost.

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Radegund retiring to the monastery (source)

Through her writing, Radegund corresponded with a number of very learned men of her generation, including Gregory of Tours, who attended her funeral, and the hermit Junian of Mairé, who was said to have died on the same day as Radegund.

Radegund died in 587 in her late seventies, and was buried in Poitiers in a church which later became the Church of St Radegonde. Due to the strict Rule for Virgins the nuns of Radegund’s abbey were not permitted to attend the funeral.

Radegund is venerated as a saint in the catholic church, her feast day is celebrated on 13th August each year. She is also the patron saint of Cambridge University’s Jesus College. A number of churches and building across Britain and France are named in Radegund’s honour.


References:

Information on St Radegund – Jesus College Cambridge

St. Radegund from Sainted Women of the Dark Ages.-  Jo Ann McNamara, John E. Halborg, with E. Gordon Whatley

On Wikipedia:

Olympias – c.361/368 – 408 – Constantinople

Ancient Turkey, Constantinople

Olympias

Olympias (also known as Olympias the Younger and Olympias the Deaconess) dedicated so much of her time and money towards good works and charity that John Chrysostom told her that she had done ‘almost too much’.

As with Marcella, Paula and Fabiola before her, Olympias began life as a wealthy noblewoman of lofty lineage. She grew up in Constantinople, at the time the capital of the Roman Empire, and was ethnically Greek.

Like every good Roman woman she was married to a man of equal status once she reached adulthood. Her husband Nebridius was Prefect of Constantinople, making her social position even more public. When Nebridius died and left Olympias widowed, she chose not to remarry, but instead focussed her efforts on supporting the church as a deaconess.

Olympias was not the first woman to be ordained as a deacon in the church. The Didascalia (a Christian treatise from the third century) encourages bishops to appoint women to these positions in the church hierarchy because women were often capable of ministering to other women while male deacons might not be appropriate:

“Appoint a woman for the ministry of women. For there are homes to which you cannot send a male deacon to their women, on account of the heathen, but you may send a deaconess … Also in many other matters the office of a woman deacon is required.”

Olympias herself personally financed and oversaw the construction of a hospital and an orphanage and dedicated much of her time to caring for monks exiled from Nitria (Egypt).

She attracted the attention of the Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, with her good works and the two became lifelong friends. The friendship got her into trouble when Chrysostom was banished after his feud with the Roman Empress, Aelia Eudoxia. Olympias herself was exiled in 404 to Nicomedia (Turkey), where she remained for the last four years of her life.

Olympias is honoured as a Saint in the Roman Catholic (feast day 17th December) and Eastern Orthodox Church (feast day 25th July).


In the arts:

Olympias is one of the 140 Colonnade saints which adorn Saint Peter’s Square.

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Saints on the colonnade, St Peter’s Square, The Vatican (Source)


References:

Catholic onlineSt. Olympias

This Female Man of God: Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age – Gillian Cloke

On Wikipedia:

Fabiola – d. 399 – Rome

Ancient Rome

Fabiola

In a similar fashion to contemporaries Marcella and Paula, Fabiola was a high ranking Roman noblewoman who chose a life of poverty and charitable work under the influence of Saint Jerome.

She was married twice before her conversion to Christianity – first to a cruel man who she divorced, the second time to a man who left her widowed.

With two husbands behind her and enough money to live comfortably, like so many other women of her generation Fabiola turned to the church. There was only one problem – Fabiola had divorced her first husband and remarried, something forbidden by the Roman church. She would have to prove herself worthy before being accepted.

At Easter, Fabiola dressed in a plain paupers smock and went to do penance at the gates of the Lateran basilica. Impressed, the pope welcomed her.

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The Lateran Basilica in Rome where Fabiola did her penance. (Source)

Fabiola got to work at once. She built a hospital and personally tended to the sick herself. Not afraid to get her hands dirty in the service of the poor, Jerome writes of Fabiola’s good works:

“She was the first person to found a hospital, into which she might gather sufferers out of the streets, and where she might nurse the unfortunate victims of sickness and want. Need I now recount the various ailments of human beings? Need I speak of noses slit, eyes put out, feet half burnt, hands covered with sores? Or of limbs dropsical and atrophied? Or of diseased flesh alive with worms? Often did she carry on her own shoulders persons infected with jaundice or with filth. Often too did she wash away the matter discharged from wounds which others, even though men, could not bear to look at.”

She also donated money to support churches and monasteries across Italy and travelled the empire sharing her wealth and caring for the sick. By 395 Fabiola felt she had not yet done enough – she decided to follow Paula’s example and travel to Jerusalem.

In Bethlehem Fabiola lived for a time with Paula and studied with Jerome. Here she threw herself into a life of penitence and contemplation of the scriptures.

“And yet this eagerness to hear did not bring with it any feeling of satiety: increasing her knowledge she also increased her sorrow, and by casting oil upon the flame she did but supply fuel for a still more burning zeal.”

Fabiola had still not found what she was seeking. The political climate in Jerusalem changed for Jerome after the Huns invaded. Between that and Jerome’s quarrel with the bishop of Jerusalem, Fabiola decided to go home.

She kept in touch with Jerome, and eventually went on to found a hospital at Portus for pilgrims travelling into Rome. She spent the rest of her life working in her hospitals caring for others, and is an example of Christian women’s early involvement in medicine and nursing.


References:

St. Jerome wrote a eulogistic memoir of Fabiola in a letter to her relative Oceanus.

Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century : a Biographical Dictionary with Annotated Bibliography – Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

On Wikipedia:

Paula – 347 – 404 – Rome/Bethlehem

Ancient Rome

“If all the members of my body were to be converted into tongues, and if each of my limbs were to be gifted with a human voice, I could still do no justice to the virtues of the holy and venerable Paula.” – Saint Jerome

Paula

One of the early ‘desert mothers’ – women who relocated to the holy land to work for the church – Paula of Rome was a key figure in the formation of Christianity.

She came from one of the most prestigious Roman families and inherited immense wealth. Married in her teens to a nobleman of equal standing, Paula had five children. As a young matron of Rome she enjoyed her privilege; Saint Jerome writes that she wore silk dresses and was carried about the city by eunuch slaves.

Paula’s husband died when she was only thirty-two, plunging her into grief.  Her mourning drove her desire to learn more about religion and eventually led her to the brown dress society, led by Marcella. Inspired by this monastic style of living, Paula became devoted to the church, giving away much of her material wealth.

When her family and friends complained that she was giving away her children’s inheritance, she simply dismissed them, claiming that she was exchanging their earthly inheritance for a heavenly one.

It was after she met Saint Jerome in 382 that Paula decided to make a pilgrimage to the holy land. Though she was doing good work in Rome, she was unhappy with the life she had because of her familial ties and social status and felt she would be free from these burdens in the desert.

Paula’s journey was an epic one by the standards of the time. Her children accompanied

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Saint Jerome with Saint Paula and Saint Eustochium by Francisco de Zurbaran (Source)

her as far as the Roman port of Portus at Ostia, and once she was on board the ship she refused to look back at them on the shore in case seeing them there drew her back.

Only her daughter Eustochium chose to make the journey with her. They stopped at the island of Pontia to visit the exiled martyr Flavia Domitilla, who further strengthened Paula’s resolve to reach Jerusalem.

Later she stopped at Cyprus to visit the bishop Epiphanius. Here she travelled to at every monastery on the island to leave behind a donation of money. Paula continued on her journey through to Seleucia, then Antioch, stopping at a number of holy places in modern day Syria, Lebanon and Israel to see the sights and worship, before eventually arriving in Bethlehem.

After seeing a number of important places from the bible, including the cave in which Jesus was said to have been born, Paula decided that she would stay in Bethlehem. Immediately she set to work building a monastery for monks and a convent for the women who joined her.

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The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem (Source)

For the rest of her life, Paula dedicated herself tirelessly to working for the poor, the sick and pilgrims who passed through Bethlehem. She may have had some basic medical knowledge as she is described as tending to the sick personally.

She also assisted Jerome academically, helping his Bible translation into Latin and later (with her daughter Eustochium) making copies to circulate the gospel.

After Paula’s death, Eustochium continued running the convent she had left behind. Her final resting place is beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the spot thought to be Jesus’ birthplace.

Paula is honoured as a Saint in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church and her feast day is celebrated on 26th January.


In fiction:

Geoffrey Chaucer played upon the relationship between Jerome and Paula in the Wife of Bath‘s Prologue.


References:

Jerome’s Letter 108

On Wikipedia:

Marcella – 325 – 410 – Rome

Ancient Rome

Marcella

Marcella was a Roman noblewoman who was active in the early Christian church as one of the founders of monasticism (renouncing a worldly life to dedicate oneself to spiritual service).

The majority of information we have on Marcella comes from a letter written by Saint Jerome, a theologian and doctor of the church, in which he gives a biography of her life and praises her intelligence and good works.

“I will not set forth her illustrious family and lofty lineage… I will praise her for nothing but the virtue which is her own and which is the more noble, because forsaking both wealth and rank she has sought the true nobility of poverty and lowliness.”

– Saint Jerome on Marcella

Like Faltonia Betitia Proba, who lived around the same time, Marcella was born into a wealthy and influential Roman family. She was widowed young, after only seven months of marriage, and while it was Roman custom to remarry quickly, Marcella chose instead to dedicate the rest of her life to serving the poor, rather than a husband.

This was shocking to her contemporaries, including her mother, Albina, who had already found her a suiter, the elderly consular Cerealis. After hearing that Marcella planned to remain unmarried, Cerealis attempted to win her over by promising her his fortune, claiming that she would be more of a daughter to him than a wife, due to their age difference. Marcella’s cutting response was:

“Had I a wish to marry and not rather to dedicate myself to perpetual chastity, I should look for a husband and not an inheritance.”

Being uninterested in material wealth was an unusual trait at the time, particularly in a Roman Matron, for whom wealth and status was everything. Still, Marcella’s life of quiet prayer, chastity and charity struck a chord, and soon other young women were following her example.

Known as ‘the brown dress society’, Marcella and her community of Roman women dressed in coarse plain garments and stopped dressing their hair or wearing makeup. Marcella opened up her luxurious mansion as a refuge for the poor and a house of hospitality for pilgrims travelling to Rome.

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Painting of the Tiber with the Aventine Hill where Marcella’s house once stood. 1690 (Source)

It was through her hospital that Marcella met Jerome in 382 as he stayed with her while visiting Pope Damasus I. An intelligent and learned woman, Marcella thrived on the opportunity to debate with Jerome, a leading mind in theological matters. Fluent in Greek and Hebrew as well as her native Latin, she was invaluable to the scholar as he spent three years translating the Bible from her home.

Not content to simply listen and learn, Marcella was active in her pursuit of knowledge, openly challenging Jerome a number of times, impressing him immensely:

“..she never came to see me without asking me some questions about [the scriptures]… nor would she rest content at once, but on the contrary would dispute them; this, however, was not for the sake of argument, but to learn by questioning the answers to such objections might, as she saw, be raised. How much virtue and intellect, how much holiness and purity I found in her I am afraid to say, both lest I may exceed the bounds of men’s belief… This only will I say, that whatever I had gathered together by long study, and by constant meditation made part of my nature, she tasted, she learned and made her own.”

Marcella’s influence spread throughout Rome, reaching another future collaborator of Jerome’s – Paula. Eventually Jerome and Paula chose to travel to the holy land to set up churches and monasteries there, but Marcella opted to stay in Rome and oversee her brown dress society.

The virgins in her society called Marcella ‘Mother’, and their lives can be compared to convent nuns in later Christianity. She was in her late seventies when the Goths attacked and ravaged Rome. Marcella’s house was invaded by soldiers seeking the treasure which was by then long gone on various charitable causes.

Marcella fled to the church of St Paul, where she died soon after. She is honoured today in the Roman Orthodox and Easter Orthodox churches as a saint. Her feast day is 31st January.


References:

Letter from Saint Jerome ‘To Principia’ detailing the life of Marcella – 412 AD

Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church – Ruth A. Tucker

On Wikipedia:

 

Pompeia Plotina – d.121/122 – Rome

Ancient Rome

PompeiaPlotina

Pompeia Plotina Claudia Phoebe Piso – or just Pompeia Plotina for short – was an influential and intellectual Roman Empress.

Raised in Escacena del Campo in the romanised Hispania province, Plotina was the daughter of Lucius Pompeius Plotia, a politician. In around 91 she married Trajan, a soldier who had recently been elected a roman Consul.

Plotina_-_sestertius_-_RIC_0740

The couple never had any children of their own, but were adoptive parents to the future emperor Hadrian and his sister, who had become orphaned at a young age. Trajan became emperor in 98, and in 100 he gave his wife the title of Augusta (Empress), which she did not accept until five years later.

Plotina was well read, and took a deep interest in philosophy – particularlyBust_of_Pompeia_Plotina,_from_the_Baths_of_Nepture_at_Ostia,_110-120_AD,_Palazzo_Massimo_alle_Terme,_Rome_(12453374733) the Epicurean school, which promoted modesty and moderation as well as gaining knowledge of the world. The empress and her husband became known for their simplicity, their philanthropy and their kindness.

Rather than concerning herself with increasing her power as so many empresses before her, Plotina used her influence to help others. She worked for fairer taxation, better access to education and poverty relief. She became beloved by Roman society and Trajan became known as one of the ‘five good emperors’.

When Plotina died, she was deified (made a goddess) and Hadrian built a temple in her honour at Nîmes, in Provence.


References:

A to Z of Ancient Greek and Roman Women – Marjorie Lightman, Benjamin Lightman

The Women of Pliny’s Letters – Jo-Ann Shelton

Women in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook – Bonnie MacLachlan

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

Plotina – sestertius – RIC 0740” by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Bust of Pompeia Plotina, from the Baths of Nepture at Ostia, 110-120 AD, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome (12453374733)” by Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany – Bust of Pompeia Plotina, from the Baths of Nepture at Ostia, 110-120 AD, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Phile – c. 50 BCE – Priene, Greece

Ancient Turkey, Turkey

Phile

Phile lived in the Greek city state of Priene, which was under Roman rule. She was honored for her services to the city and the first woman elected Magistrate.

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Ruins at Priene

A wealthy woman, Phile personally paid for the construction of a reservoir and aqueduct for the city in 50 BCE. The funding of public works by private citizens was encouraged under the Emperor Augustus who wished to see his Empire modernised.

History doesn’t tell us how Phile was able to pay for such a huge project, but she must have been independently wealthy somehow, whether she was widowed or by some other means.

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Aqueduct of Segovia, Spain

We do know that the city of Priene was grateful to their benefactress – Phile was honoured by public decree. She was also rewarded in another way; by being elected Magistrate – the first woman to achieve this post.

To the ancient Romans, Magistrates were not lawyers, but the highest government officers. They often held some excecutive and judicial powers (and would be advised by jurists, who knew the law). Phile was probably responsible for supervising public works in the city.


References:

Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities – Bruce W. Winter

Participating in Public: Female Patronage and Economic Prominence at Hellenistic Priene – Ashley Eckhardt

On Wikipedia:


Image Credits:

Agora of Priene” by Ken and Nyetta – Flickr: Agora of Priene.

Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Acueducto1 Lou“.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons