Saturday, January 21, 2012

How one gained entree into the highest circles in 6th-century Europe

This year I returned to the early Middle Ages or late Antiquity to teach a fourth-year seminar on Gregory of Tours. Gregory was a sixth century bishop of what is now western France and who wrote a massive history of his times, the Histories, or more commonly the History of the Franks.  Gregory is a lot of fun to study because he is interested in lots of things and wrote with a great deal of personality (though how much of that personality is literary artefact is hard to say).

Gregory begins his history with this statement: "I wish first of all to explain my faith, so that whoever reads me may not doubt that I am a Catholic." This is followed by about two pages of a detailed creed or declaration of faith. Fair warning about his priorities, admittedly not very surprising from a bishop who is justifying his role as a teacher to his audience, which undoubtedly included his fellow bishops and would include in the future his successors in the church at Tours.  For some people, this declaration was an essential preamble to anything else Gregory might say.. Gregory was completely in sympathy with that point of view.

Yesterday, I was reading the letters of St. Radegund in preparation for a class discussion of this famous nun who lived at the same time Gregory did.    Radegund is a very interesting figure.  Born as a Thuringian princess, she was carted off to Gaul while still a child, after the Franks had destroyed most of her family. On reaching adulthood, she was married to King Lothar of the Franks, presumably to strengthen the Frankish claim to overlordship of Thuringia. Radegund and Lothar never got along very well, and eventually she insisted on becoming a nun and establishing a convent where she could live the ascetic life surrounded by other like minded women – and some women who were also high-ranking refugees from court life. Radegund became the foremost female religious figure in Frankish Gaul, but never completely lost her royal status.  One example of her working the system through her dual status was her acquisition of a piece or pieces of the True Cross from the Byzantine emperor. We can guess that if a random, distant nun had asked for such a fantastic gift, she would not have gotten it.  Her request would never have gotten to the Emperor.

We dod not have Radegund's request for a relic, we do have something that looks like a thank you letter that she set off to Emperor Justin (II) and Empress Sophia once she had it.  And a curious letter it is.  
Here's the beginning of her letter:

To the August Justin and Sophia 
The highest glory of the father, son, and nourishing spirit, 
one god to be adored in this trinity, 
majesty, triple person, simple substance, 
equal consort and coeval with itself, 
one force remaining the same, one power in three 
(which the father begetting , the spirit enables), 
indeed distinct in persons, joined in vigor, 
of one nature, equal in strength, light, throne, 
the trinity was always with him, ruling without time, 
lacking no use nor capable by seizing. 10 
Highest glory to you, creator of things and redeemer, 
who, just, gives Justin headship in the world. 
He claims, properly, the dominant fortress over kings, 
who pleases the heavenly king by serving. 
How deservedly he rules Rome and the Roman world 
who follows what the dogma says from the cathedra of Peter, 
what Paul sang far and wide, with one trumpet to thousands, 
to heathens and the senseless he poured out salt from his mouth, 
whose four-sided axle the wheel of his tongue circled, 
cold hearts are warm from the faith of his eloquence. 20 
Highest glory to you, creator of things and redeemer, 
who, just, gives Justin headship in the world. 
Strengthened, the disturbed faith of the church shines again 
and venerable law returns to its former place. 
Give back your vows to God, since the new purple holds whatever 
the council of Chalcedon established. 
Gaul sings this to your merits, Augustus, 
the Rhone, the Rhine, the Danube, the Elbe do. 
Beneath the western axle Galicia heard the deed, 
Biscayne brought it to the nearby Basques. 30 
The pious fable runs to the farthest people of the faith 
and the British land across the ocean is favorable. 
How well, lover, do you share the care with the lord! 
You make his causes yours, he makes yours his. 
Christ gives you the power, you give Christ the honor: 
he gives the summit, you give back the faith. 
There was nothing more on earth that he might give to be ruled, 
nor more that you could give back than nourishing faith is strong. 
Fathers sent into exile for the name of Christ 
then came back, with the diadem to you. 40 
Released from prison, residing in the former seat, 
hold you to be one general good. 
Curing so many sorrows of the confessors, 
you come as a healing to innumerable people. 

Presumably Radegund had in a previous communication established that she was the kind of person who was worthy of Imperial attention -- holy woman and influential Frankish queen.  But just in case Justin and  Sophia might have second thoughts, and be tempted to think that Radegund was only a barbarian they mistakenly had been overgenerous to, Radegund spends line after line of poetry buttering them up, showing that she is quite aware of current religious conflicts, is on the right side of them, and appreciates (weak word) Justin's role in establishing theological truth and restoring unjustly persecuted bishops to their sees.  The man is a universal hero and his wife is not far behind him.  

That's the way, or one way, that one established one's right to a place in the Big Time in sixth-century Christian Europe.  Radegund may have been a Thuringian or a Frank, she was determined to show that she was no hick. One wonders if the letter had the desired effect.

Image:  Radegund imagined by the illustrator of the Nuremberg Chronicle, 15th century.

No comments:

Post a Comment