Like poverty, virginity was less highly regarded than in the ascetic models of the late classical world. Nearly half of our saints were married, and most of those had children. Only in the case of Genovefa, the closest to the Roman tradition, was virginity seen to have special potency. Their wealth made these women the objects of competition between their sovereigns and their parents, and even Christ appears as a contending suitor…Wealth and noble status, rightly employed, were unabashedly offered as qualifications for sainthood. None of these women alienated themselves from their husbands or fathers so far as to lose them.

Family connections strengthened the natural administrative talents of great abbesses, while their active alliance with abbots and bishops (who were sometimes also their relatives) assured them the ecclesiastical support they needed without undermining the liberties of the communities. Their aristocratic rank and self-assurance enabled them to recruit members, publicize their communities, administer estates, and enhance their resources by deploying the spiritual attraction of miracles and relics. Their charitable services and spiritual offerings gave them a secure and necessary place in the development structure of early medieval society.

Thus Merovingian Gaul produced a new model of sanctity: the great monastic lady, withdrawn from worldly power and worldly comfort but not from the world’s misery and strife. Hagiographers praised her as a model of hospitality, a virtue antithetical to the original desert ideal. Abbesses entertained relatives and other noble travelers, neighborhood magnates, and prelates, who responded with generous gifts. They supported chaplains, working people, pilgrims, invalids, and beggars. They cared for the sick and the poor either temporarily or permanently, as seems to be the case with the five demoniacs housed in the upper stories of Anstrude’s monastery. Some noble abbesses acted as peacemakers and as protectors of fugitives and prisoners. Unconsecrated women sought the convent simply for protection while their armies enemies prowled about the sanctuary. Family loyalty entangled the saints in political rivalries that brought violent men into the convent itself. Miracles assured the reader that a sainted woman was a powerful friend and a dangerous enemy, even against armed and violent men.

Jo Ann McNamara, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages


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