Sainted Women of the Dark Ages

Sainted Women of the Dark Ages

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Sainted Women of the Dark Ages makes available the lives of eighteen Frankish women of the sixth and seventh centuries, all of whom became saints. Written in Latin by contemporaries or near contemporaries, and most translated here for the first time, these biographies cover the period from the fall of the Roman Empire and the conversion of the invading Franks to the rise of Charlemagne's family.
Three of these holy women were queens who turned to religion only after a period of intense worldly activity. Others were members of the Carolingian family, deeply implicated in the political ambitions of their male relatives. Some were partners in the great Irish missions to the pagan countryside and others worked for the physical salvation of the poor. From the peril and suffering of their lives they shaped themselves as paragons of power and achievement. Beloved by their sisters and communities for their spiritual gifts, they ultimately brought forth a new model of sanctity.
These biographies are unusually authentic. At least two were written by women who knew their subjects, while others reflect the direct testimony of sisters within the cloister walls. Each biography is accompanied by an introduction and notes that clarify its historical context. This volume will be an excellent source for students and scholars of women's studies and early medieval social, religious, and political history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822382362
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 03/27/1992
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 369
Lexile: 1400L (what's this?)
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

JoAnn McNamara is Professor of History Emerita at Hunter College, City University of New York.

John E. Halborg is a parochial vicar at St. Thomas More Church in New York City.

Gordon Whatley is Professor of English at Queen’s College, City University of New York.

Read an Excerpt

Sainted Women of the Dark Ages

By Jo Ann McNamara, John E. Halborg, E. Gordon Whatley

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8236-2


Genovefa: (423–502)

* * *

Germanus of Auxerre and Lupus of Troyes first encountered the child Genovefa in her hometown of Nanterre about 429. The Roman world was rapidly crumbling before the advances of Germanic tribes. To the south, Augustine of Hippo was soon to die while a Vandal army stormed the gates of his city. At the northern fringe, Patrick had barely begun his mission to Ireland before Anglo-Saxon invaders began to encroach on the Romanized Britons. The collapse of the Roman Empire left the Catholic church as the only outpost of Roman authority, but the church itself had to cope with various heresies that flourished among the barbarians who had heretofore received Christianity without its accompanying hierarchical structure. The two Gallic bishops were on their way to Britain to rally the Catholic people against the Pelagian heresy. In Roman Gaul, Arian Visigoths had infested the southern provinces and the pagan Franks had established a kingdom in the north around Tournai extending south in Genovefa's lifetime to Soissons, Laon, and finally Paris. The evangelization of the countryside had barely begun.

The little girl whom Germanus picked out of an admiring crowd as a candidate for future sainthood was destined to live a long life. She moved through a wild, half-pagan countryside and lived among excitable people easily moved to excesses of admiration and hostility. In 451, she rallied the people of Paris, her adopted city, against the Huns, led by their savage king Attila. A few years later, as their intermediary with the Frankish king Childeric, she gained the right to collect food for the besieged population and moved him to pardon his condemned prisoners. She was eighty years old or more when she died. Paris had become part of a Frankish kingdom, and its king had become a Catholic Christian. It is perhaps no small aspect of the Frankish success in winning Gallo-Roman loyalty that Clovis's consort Clothild may have commissioned Genovefa's biography and promoted her cult as patron of Paris. The anti-Arian elements in the Vita Genofevae would then reflect the queen's own sentiments and her husband's policies.

Inspired by the saintly bishop of Auxerre, Genovefa dedicated her life and her virginity to the service of God. Her asceticism, however, was not defined and regulated by any established rule, nor was her life bounded by the walls of a conventual community. Asceticism had been introduced into Roman Gaul by the saintly Martin of Tours (d. 397) and achieved some popularity among spiritually ambitious aristocrats of the early fifth century. But in the north outside of Tours, it did not result in monasticism, which flourished in the more urban south of France. Queen Clothild retired to Tours after Clovis's death. In Genovefa's vita, anti-Arianism and the heavy use of Martin as a model strongly support the argument that the text originated there. Genovefa lived at home with her mother and then with her godmother. In her later years she may have set up housekeeping with a few companions, but her biographer indicates no formal arrangement and does not mention whether the women who came to her for guidance remained under her roof. The principal monastic foundations in Gaul in Genovefa's time, and the only ones we know of to accept groups of women lay along the Mediterranean, at Marseille, Lérins, and in the Burgundian realm, not very accessible to a Parisian girl. The first written rule to make an impact in the north was that of the community of Arles founded about 510 by Bishop Caesarius.

Thus, despite her consecration, Genovefa was not bound to a rule of stability or claustration. The enduring legend that she was a peasant has now been set aside, and she has been located among the Gallic upper classes. She owned fields and went out to harvest them herself. She walked the city streets to church services and made use of the imperial transport services when her religious mission took her out of the city. In brief, whatever the actual date of composition, this life reflects an age when a saintly woman was free, indeed constrained, to create her own models and her own way of life. Although her social status was higher than French popular tradition would suggest, Gallic instincts were correct. Uniquely among the female saints of Gaul and Frankland, she did not originate from the conquering aristocracy, but from among its victims. She lived in a turbulent age, and she played no small role in its events.

As with the subsequent lives in this volume, brief notices of scholarly criticism of this biography and of specific historical events noted in its pages appear in the footnotes.

The Life of Genovefa, a Virgin of Paris in Gaul

1. The blessed Genovefa was born in the parish of Nanterre which is nearly seven kilometers from the city of Paris. Her father was called Severus and her mother Gerontia. I believe that in her earliest years the faithful noticed first her religious devotion and then, in due course, the grace that God conferred upon her.

2. The holy and venerable men, Bishops Germanus and Lupus, were setting out for Britain to conquer the Pelagian heresy which threatened those coasts. Like tares sown over wheat, that heresy asserted that one whose parents were both baptized can be saved without baptism whereas all divine teaching has shown that no one can have eternal life who has not been born again with water and the Holy Spirit. Triumphantly, they were to drive that heresy from the province with scriptural proofs and many powerful miracles. But as I have said, they were on the way to Britain, when they visited the aforesaid parish to stay a while and particularly to pray. Not far from the church, a multitude of common people came to meet them seeking their blessing and, through the Holy Spirit, Saint Germanus sensed from a distance the most holy Genovefa in the midst of the rushing crowd of both sexes, men, women and children. He asked immediately that she be brought to him. Kissing her on the head, he inquired among the crowd for her name and asked whose child she was. Straightaway, the bystanders told him Genovefa's name. Her father and mother were summoned and holy Germanus said to them: "Is this infant your daughter?" And they answered: "Ours, my lord." At that, Saint Germanus said to them: "Happy are the parents of such worshipful offspring! You should know that on the day of her birth the angels in heaven celebrated a mystery of great joy and exultation. For she will be great before the face of the Lord. Many people, marvelling at her life and holy conduct, will reject evil and turn from a dishonest and shameful life to God. So they will win forgiveness for their sins and the reward of life from Christ."

3. After a pause, he spoke to Genovefa: "My daughter, Genovefa." And she responded: "Your servant hears you, holy father. Tell me what you command." Saint Germanus said: "Let me ask, in case you are afraid to declare yourself openly, if you wish to preserve your body immaculate and intact, consecrated as a bride of Christ in sanctimony." Genovefa responded: "Blessings on you, my Father, for your suggestion, which is perhaps your own wish, is indeed the very thing I long for. It is my wish, holy father," she said. "And I pray that the Lord will deign to answer my prayer." Saint Germanus said to her: "Have faith, my daughter and act manfully. What you believe in your heart and declare with your mouth, you must strive to fulfill in your deeds. For the Lord will give you strength and fortitude for your adornment."

4. Then, entering the church for the celebration of the spiritual offices of nones and vespers, Saint Germanus kept his hand upon her head. And when they had eaten and sung a hymn, he told Severus to lodge with his daughter in that same hospice for the night and bade him return to him at dawn before his departure. When sunlight was cleansing the world, her father brought her back as directed. I don't know what celestial things Saint Germanus perceived in her, but he said: "Hail, daughter Genovefa! Do you remember what you promised me yesterday concerning your virginity?" To which Genovefa replied: "I remember, holy father, what I promised to God and to you. God helping me, I hope to keep my mind chaste and my body untainted to the end." Then Saint Germanus plucked a copper coin bearing the sign of the cross from the ground, where by God's favor it had fallen, and gave it to her as a great gift. He said to her, "Have this coin pierced, and wear it always hanging about your neck as a reminder of me; never suffer your neck or fingers to be burdened with any other metal, neither gold nor silver, nor pearl studded ornament. For, if your mind is preoccupied with trivial worldly adornment, you will be shorn of eternal and celestial ornaments." And, in farewell, he besought that she would remember him often in Christ. Commending her to Severus, her father, the men continued on the road which they had been following with God's help.

II. Her sanctity during a paralysis is commended in several ways.

5. Some days later when her mother was going to church on a solemn feast day, she ordered Genovefa to remain at home. But by no means could she get rid of the weeping girl who was clamoring: "With Christ's support, I will keep the vow I made to Saint Germanus. I shall haunt the threshold of the church so that I may deserve to become the bride of Christ as was promised me by his blessed confessor." At that, her mother was so angry that she boxed her daughter's ears only to be struck blind herself on the spot. The divine majesty, to demonstrate Genovefa's grace, let her mother suffer that blindness for two years less three months. Finally, when she remembered what the highest bishop had said about her daughter, her mother summoned her and said: "Daughter, I earnestly beseech you to take the dipper and hasten to the well to bring me water." Speedily, she went to the well and there at the rim she began to cry because she had caused her mother's blindness. Then, stifling her sobs, she filled the vessel with water and brought it to her mother. Sighing as she did so, she signed it with the power of the cross. Her mother stretched her hands toward heaven and, with faith and veneration took the water her daughter brought and dabbed some of it on her eyes. That soothed her eyes and she began to see a little. When she had done this two or three times, her sight was entirely restored.

6. Then, with two girls much senior to her, she was brought to Bishop Vilicius to be consecrated. They were to be offered for consecration in order of their ages but the aforesaid Pontiff with divine perception saw that Genovefa's merits were far above those of the other virgins before him. So he said, "She who is coming last is to take first place for she has already achieved sanctification in heaven." And so, having been blessed, they all filed out of the Bishop's sight.

7. When her parents were dead, the blessed Genovefa went to live in the city of Paris at her godmother's invitation. At that time, that the Lord might test her strength in infirmity and the grace conferred upon her by Christ might shine more brightly, her body was stricken with a paralysis that so weakened her limbs that her joints scarcely seemed to hold together. For three days, her severely afflicted body lay imprisoned by this infirmity, lifeless, save for a little blush in her cheeks. Later when she had regained health, she testified that her spirit had been led by an angel to the resting place of the just, where she saw the rewards which God prepares for those who love Him, in which infidels put no faith.

8. Then to many living in this world she clearly revealed their secret thoughts. But I prefer to be silent about this rather than make it known to the envious, on account of those presumptuous people who are excessively devoted to backbiting. For when they maliciously slander good people like her they plainly reveal their own blind prejudices.

9. After that, Saint Germanus came again to Paris, on his way to Britain for the second time and all the people went out from the city to greet him. Before anything else he asked solicitously what Genovefa had been doing. But the common people who prefer to carp at goodness rather than imitate it, asserted that she was not as great as he thought she was. Wholly despising that unjust voice, the blessed bishop entered the city and went to Genovefa's hospice and greeted her with such humility that everyone marvelled. Having prayed, he showed those who had scorned her how, in the privacy of her cell, she had turned the ground to mud with her tears. And sitting down, he told them of her early life just as it had appeared openly to all Nanterre. And likewise commending her to the people along the way, he went back to his road.

III. She repels the Huns from Paris by her prayers.

10. When it was noised abroad that Attila the King of the Huns, overcome with savage rage, was laying waste the province of Gaul, the terror-stricken citizens of Paris sought to save their goods and money from his power by moving them to other, safer cities. But Genovefa summoned the matrons of the city and persuaded them to undertake a series of fasts, prayers, and vigils in order to ward off the threatening disaster, as Esther and Judith had done in the past. Agreeing with Genovefa, the women gave themselves up to God and labored for days in the baptistery—fasting, praying and keeping watch as she directed. Meanwhile she persuaded the men that they should not remove their goods from Paris because the cities they deemed safer would be devastated by the raging Huns while Paris, guarded by Christ, would remain untouched by her enemies.

11. But during that time, the people of Paris rose against her, saying that a false prophetess had appeared in their midst who prevented them from transferring their goods from the doomed city to safer towns. The citizens were conspiring to punish Genovefa either by stoning or drowning her in the boundless deep, when an archdeacon arrived from the city of Auxerre who had once heard Saint Germanus give magnificent testimony for Genovefa. He went to the meeting place where the citizens had assembled to plan her slaughter. When he had discovered their plans he said to them: "Oh citizens, don't consent to such a crime! For we have heard our Primate Germanus say that this woman whose murder you are plotting, was chosen by God from her mother's womb. And behold, I present these eulogies direct from Saint Germanus." When the citizens of Paris realized from Saint Germanus' testimony that Genovefa was truly a most faithful servant of God, and when they saw the eulogies which the archdeacon had brought to present to her, the fear of God entered into them. Marvelling at what the archdeacon had said, they gave up their evil plan and made an end of their treachery.

12. On that day the Apostle's word was fulfilled: "All men have not faith. But the Lord is faithful who shall establish you and keep you from evil." The Bishops Martin and Anianus have been greatly praised for their amazing virtues. One day, near the city of Worms, the former went into battle without weapons. Having thus allayed the fury of the opposing armies, he obtained a treaty. And when the Huns besieged the city of Orléans, the latter by his prayers assisted the Patrician Aëtius and his Goths in keeping it from destruction. Aren't the same honors due to Genovefa, who drove away the same army by her prayers so that it would not surround Paris?

IV. She built a basilica, now called the Priory of Saint Denis de Strata.

13. From her fifteenth to her fiftieth year, she never broke her fast from Sunday to Thursday and from Thursday to Sunday. Thus, taking a little food only on the two sacred days of the week, Sunday and Thursday, she abstained during the rest of the week. In fact, her diet consisted of barley bread and beans, which she stirred with oil into a new batch every two or three weeks in an earthenware pot. In her whole life, she never drank wine or any intoxicating beverage. After her fiftieth year, at the urging of the bishops, whom it is sacrilege to contradict, she began to eat fish and milk with her barley bread, thus heeding the Lord's word: "Who heareth you, heareth me; who despiseth you, despiseth me."

14. Every time she contemplated Heaven, she dissolved into tears. Since she was pure in heart, she is believed to have seen the heavens open and our Lord Jesus Christ standing at the right hand of God, as Luke the Evangelist says of Blessed Stephen. For the Lord made no idle promise when He said: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."


Excerpted from Sainted Women of the Dark Ages by Jo Ann McNamara, John E. Halborg, E. Gordon Whatley. Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Note on Language and Abbreviations
Wives, Concubines, and Children of Merovingian Kings
Ancestors of Charlemagne
1 Genovefa, Virgin of Paris (423–502)
2 Clothild, Queen of the Franks (d. 544)
3 Monegund, Widow and Recluse of Tours (d. 570)
4 Radegund, Queen of the Franks and Abbess of Poitiers (ca. 525–587)
5 Eustadiola, Widow of Bourges (594–684)
6 Caesaria II, Abbess of Saint Jean of Arles (ca. 550)
7 Rusticula, Abbess of Arles (ca. 556–632)
8 Glodesind, Abbess in Metz (ca. 600)
9 Burgundofara, Abbess of Faremoutiers (603–645)
10 Sadalberga, Abbess of Laon (ca. 605–670)
11 Rictrude, Abbess of Marchiennes (ca. 614–688)
12 Gertrude, Abbess of Nivelles (628–658)
13 Aldegund, Abbess of Maubeuge (d. ca. 684) Waldetrude, Abbess of Mons (d. ca. 688)
14 Balthild, Queen of Neustria (d. ca. 680)
15 Bertilla, Abbess of Chelles (d. ca. 700)
16 Anstrude, Abbess of Laon (ca. 645, d. before 709)
17 Austreberta, Abbess of Pavilly (650–703)

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