Thursday, March 16, 2006

Medieval Women I Adore - Installment 2: Chrodield and Basina

We move back in time to the late sixth century, and over to Gaul, to find these two rebel nuns of royal lineage. (I'm not an elitist, almost everybody we know about from the early Middle Ages was well-connected. Blame the history books.) They may not be pious, nor are they exceptionally bright, but their story sure is funny.

Background Information (If you need it):
- The land and money to build monasteries (male, female, and double-houses) on the continent in the early medieval period was donated by noble familes. Very often these gifts had contingencies: the inmates would pray for the donating family a certain number of times per week, the abbot or abbess would always be drawn from that family, occasionally there would even be duties of fealty from the monastery to the donating family (providing food, trained and armed knights, etc). Monastic houses added substantially to the wealth and power of a family, and were considered family property. Monasteries throughout the Middle Ages also proved an excellent place to "store" excess children, siblings, or dowagers. (A little later, the Pippinids proved brilliant at this. It's amazing how many of Charlemagne's troublesome relatives discovered religious vocations at politically opportune times.)

- The Convent of the Holy Cross at Poitiers was established by St. Radegund, a captured and enslaved Thuringian princess who became the wife of Clotaire I, King of Neustria and Austrasia (Belgium, Northern parts of France and Germany). She left her husband and entered religious life, with full ecclesiatic approval. More on her later. For now, know that she was childless, her house was a known seat of learning, her nuns followed the Rule of C├Žsarius of Arles (first Rule for women's houses), and there were many noble women among the nuns of her house.

The Nuns:
Chrodield was the daughter of King Charibert I of Austrasia, and so was Clothaire's granddaughter and Radegund's step-granddaughter. She seems to have entered the convent willingly, and was the leader of the rebellion.
Basina was the daughter of King Chilperic I of Neustria, and was Chrodield's cousin, with the exact same relationship to the convent's founders. She was placed in the convent as a very young child (younger than 7), to escape the machinations of her father's third wife, Fredegunda. People in the royal family had a nasty habit of dying around Fredegunda; all three of her step-sons, her husband's second wife, her brother-in-law, and eventually Chilperic himself. Actually, the murder of near relatives was a "traditional family value" among the Merovingians. Fredegunda was nothing special in that regard, but Basina was still in real danger.

The Revolt:
Radegund died in 587 CE, but named a woman called Agnes abbess of Holy Cross prior to her death. Agnes died in 589 CE, and the nuns elected "a certain Leubover" as abbess. And then all hell broke loose. Leubover was strict, Chrodield and Basina would say cruel, and the "a certain" bit probably indicates that she wasn't related to anybody very powerful. So, here are two royal princesses feeling that their power has been usurped by a base-born woman, and now they are meant to obey the usurper. Sure.

Chrodield persuaded 40 of the nuns to vow to help her unseat Leudover, and elect her as abbess. The whole group of 42 women left the convent (this was forbidden), and marched over to Tours to get help from Bishop Gregory. (The guy who wrote the history of this revolt, was very interested in expanding his own family's religious empire, and was uncle to the new Prioress under Leubover.) Chrodield felt that, as progeny of queens, they were being treated exceptionally poorly, and would not promise to abide by the bishops decisions. She left Basina in charge of the rebel nuns and travelled on to meet with the King of Orleans. When she returned some of the women had disbanded -- or married -- in her absence. She brought the remaining nuns back to Poitiers, and took over the basilica at St. Hilary, where she picked up some (male) followers. A whole passel of bishops arrived at St. Hilary's to demand that the women return to their convent, the women refused. The bisops then pushed themselves into the basilica and urged obedience. When that was not forthcoming, they excommunicated all the nuns. The women and their followers then physically assaulted the bishops, who ran in all directions in fear of the assault. One bishop even dove into the river.

Chrodield ordered her men to abduct the abbess from the convent, but they abducted the Prioress first (Gregory's niece), and had to let her go on the road and return to get the abbess. On the second try, the guys got it right, and Leubover was abducted. The next night, the guys and some of the nuns returned to the convent, and removed everything they could carry, including furnishings and relics. The Bishop appealed for Leudover's release, threatening not to say Easter Mass that year if the abbess was still imprisoned, and to get the locals to attack the basilica. Chrodield set up guards to defend the basilica, with orders to kill anyone who tried to free Leubover. The bishops refused to intercede, afraid of being run off again, until the military came in and handled the rebellion.

After two years a large enough force was gathered together to fight the rebel nuns, and Chrodield was defeated. But she still didn't go down without a fight. As the men were charging her basilica, Chrodield gathered up the relic of the true cross, held it out in front of her, and declared "Do no violence to me, I beg of you, for I am a queen, daughter of one king and cousin of another; don't do it, lest a time may come for me to take vengeance on you." That threat didn't work, and the women were overcome. The captured rebels were beaten, some were burned at the stake, and some had body parts cut off as punishment.

Basina caved, apologized to the abbess, said her cousin had grown too prideful, and was eventually released from excommunication and allowed back to the convent. Chrodield accused Leubover of having a man living in the convent dressed as a woman, and a number of other charges which were refuted to the bishops' satisfaction. (There was, however, a cross-dressing eunuch in the crowd at the trial. He was explained away.) Chrodield would never repent, and never concede to go back to the convent while Leubover was abbess. She was given a villa in the country, and no more is written about her.

I love a rebel, it's true. However, the keystone cops aspects of this story -- on all sides -- just have me enthralled.

1 comment:

L.N. Hammer said...

I'm pretty sure I've not heard this story before, but it still sounds familiar. I think because of yet another book, or rather books: Kate Elloitt has a fantasy series starting with The King's Dragon that's not-so-loosely based on Merovingian politics[*], and I think she includes an analog of this somewhere in the first few books. She even has Radegund under that name, as a person still remembered by grandparents of the present generation.

Good to hear the archetype of the fantastic type.

[*] Well, it's loose if you insist that the sourcerous astrology, elves, and trollish Northmen aren't historically accurate.