Poverty, one of the three traditional monastic virtues, was no recommendation for a Merovingian saint. Our texts trace the patterns of womanly power in an age where caste often transcended gender in the division of social and political authority. The outstanding virtue associated with sainted women in the sixth and seventh centuries was charity, viewed as an adjunct of noble lineage. The first barbarian kings were habituated to an economy of loot and gifts. They displayed their might and prestige by sharing the treasures garnered from their incessant warfare with their warrior companions and with their women. In turn, noble women acted as gift-givers to the poor, complementing the traditional role of men as gift-givers to their peers. Radegund obsessively moved her wealth her husband had won from his enemies (among whom were her own people) to the poor who gathered at her door during his nightly banquets. Monegund and Eustadiola lived more closely in the midst of the people they served, giving their husbands’ wealth to the poor and to the church, which hagiographers consistently classed with the poor as joint recipients of the saints’ largesse.

As the Frankish ruling class was gradually Christianized, nobles took their places in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, creating the new religion’s infrastructure with their money, influence, and administrative abilities. Within the dynastic patterns of the age, women played a central role in this development. Germanic laws protected the rights of women to share in the estates of both fathers and husbands as well as to accumulate gifts of unlimited size. They frequently chose to bring that inheritance to the church in the form of a monastery, which the landed aristocracy found convenient for storing family wealth beyond the reach of greedy suitors. The child Rusticula brought a huge family fortune to the convent in Arles where she was hidden after her rescue from the suitor who kidnapped her. The crown often resented such sequestering of wealth and sometimes attacked it directly.

Jo Ann McNamara, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages


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