At the same time it has been recognized that the purpose and practical effectiveness of law texts varied among western European regions in the early Middle Ages according to their differing political, social, and cultural contexts. In particular, written law was promoted far more effectively, and penetrated legal practice more deeply, in southern Europe, with its greater continuity from the literate legal culture of the Roman Empire, than in the Germanic kingdoms of the north. For instance, in Visigothic Spain the use of specific law codes was enforced by kings, and in the ninth and tenth centuries Visigothic law was cited in charters in Leon and Catalonia.

Huw Pryce, “Lawbooks and Literacy in Medieval Wales” (2000)


One clear indication of the increasing use of the written word in western Europe from the twelfth century onwards was the compilation of an unprecedentedly diverse and numerous body of legal texts. In part, the growing textualization of law built on earlier foundations. This was particularly true of Roman law, whose rediscovery in Italy in the late eleventh century led to a revival in the study of law. At the same time, the expansion of papal power from the second half of the eleventh century accelerated the production of new collections of canon law, whose compilers sought to impose order upon a mass of written law going back to the earliest councils of the church and also to integrate contemporary additions to that law resulting from conciliar and papal legislation.

Yet the diversification of legal writing also owed much to the compilation of texts of secular customary law, in both Latin and the vernacular. In some societies, such as Iceland and Scandinavia, these texts marked the beginning of written law; in others, including England, France, Germany, and, above all, Italy, where law and legislation had been written earlier in the Middle Ages, the custom of particular kingdoms or provinces was committed to writing in new forms with the compilation of coutumiers. Although their relationship to earlier Welsh legal writing is unclear, the lawbooks of medieval Wales provide a further instance of this textualization of secular custom.

The proliferation of compilations of customary law from the twelfth century onwards raises important issues about both law and literacy in medieval western Europe. In general terms, many of these compilations can be interpreted as reflecting an increasingly widespread conviction, stemming from acquaintance with the authoritative books of Roman and canon law, that law should be in written form. It has also been argued that the influence of the learned laws led to a greater emphasis in customary law on the use of written evidence and the keeping of court records, thereby helping to create a more literate and rational legal culture than that of the early Middle Ages.

Huw Pryce, “Lawbooks and Literacy in Medieval Wales” (2000)

Throughout the seventh century, there was increased attention to the deathbed as the focal point where sainthood was proved…A united sisterhood stood at a dying woman’s deathbed to sing her into heaven while her parting revelations strengthened them for their unending struggles to perfect themselves. The troops were thus reassured that they followed a victorious general. The visionary content of seventh-century texts increased, and the saints were credited with powers of prophecy and illumination directed toward making the promises of bliss in another world concrete. As the saint’s miracles in life decreased in number, the power of relics, tombs, and associated artifacts like oil, dust, funeral palls, and candles grew, weapons like the texts themselves in the ongoing battle.

The deeds and even the voices of women speak to us from these documents with a clarity rarely accomplished in historical texts. Although conforming to ecclesiastical prescriptions, at least two of the biographies that follow were written by women who knew their subjects. Others reflect the direct testimony of women within the cloister walls. They lived in a rough and brutal age, an age moderns have condemned as “the dark ages,” but from the peril and suffering of their lives they shaped themselves as models of womanly power, womanly achievement, and womanly voices. They did not hide their lights under a bushel, but lit candles in the darkness and set them high upon a candlestick. Today, their light still shines.

Jo Ann McNamara, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages

The lives of saintly abbesses were shaped to exemplify the need for stern discipline within the context of maternal responsibility. To maintain the community, nuns bonded in a fashion generally reserved to men. The imagery of virility, athletic competition, and military service runs throughout these lives. In patronizing the cults of sainted women and encouraging the composition of their vitae, the church not only rewarded women who contributed to the multifaceted monastic mission, but also forged a powerful didactic instrument for the training of new recruits, peculiarly suited to bridge the gaps between classes and races. Their rules firmly stated that the only acceptable distinctions within a community were those of virtue and office. Indeed, the offices themselves – the abbess and the prioress elected by the community and the adjutants whom they appointed – were intended to be allotted also as rewards for virtue. The other sisters were ranked according to seniority in religion. The sisters who had been longest in the convent took the lead in choir, at table, and in all processional activity unless they were demoted for some lapse in disciple.

Jo Ann McNamara, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages

Seventh-century noblewomen were in an unparalleled position to deploy their resources independently. Our texts insist that they seized upon the monastic life to liberate themselves from the violent secular world and that they sought their own spiritual self-realization. It would be foolish to become so fascinated by their structural position that we forget their own agenda. The monastic life itself was framed in terms of a better and closer family than the world could provide. Moreover, the aristocratic habit of keeping monasteries within the founding family made the community their adopted children…While the physical mothers of saints are commonly called genetrices, the word mater was reserved for the role of the abbess within the spiritual family. Similarly soror, as opposed to the more physical germana, was reserved for sisters in the community. The greatest instances of grief, loss, and familial affection are reserved to the monastic daughters, who regularly bemoan their fate as orphans when their founding mother is taken away from them.

Jo Ann McNamara, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages

In the sixth century, when bishops were more closely aligned to the conquered population than to their rulers, noble women enjoyed an independent footing in their relationships with the church hierarchy…However, as the Frankish aristocracy integrated into the hierarchy, the bonds between the sainted women and bishops tightened…Women often worked with bishops or abbots who validated their personal designs and served them as intermediaries with angry husbands, families, and even kings.

Jo Ann McNamara, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages

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

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

Throughout the sixth century, saints stood between the conquered people and their rulers, mitigating the effects of their ongoing fratricidal wars. Radegund extended Genovefa’s role as an advocate for prisoners and for humble people. Repeatedly, she begged God to help the sick and begged the king to help the needy, establishing a ritual whereby women could express the merciful side of royalty without softening the fierce warrior image of the king. This became a traditional role for Merovingian queens. Even Queen Fredegund, whose ruthlessness was far more widely celebrated than her tender heart, persuaded her husband to burn the old Roman tax records, claiming that God sent a plague that threatened her children in revenge for their oppression of the poor. The seventh-century queen Balthild took Radegund as her model and cultivated her spiritual power after she left her throne for a monastery. These holy women and the models they presented through their vitae thus played a vital role in the final amalgamation of Franks and Gauls into a working community.

Jo Ann McNamara, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages