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The first women’s shelter in Europe? Radegund’s Holy Cross

‘With the passion of a focused mind, I considered how to advance other women so that—the Lord willing—my own desires might prove beneficial for others. […] I established a monastery for girls in the city of Poitiers. After its foundation, I endowed the monastery with however much wealth I had received from the generosity of the king.’

– Radegund, Letter to the Bishops

Radegund wrote these words while reflecting on her greatest achievement: the foundation of the convent of Holy Cross in Poitiers. She had every reason to be proud of this monastic house, which represented a triumph over the adversity she had faced previously in life—a manifestation of her personal resilience in stone. But was it something more? Had Radegund intended to create a sanctuary for women like herself, who had suffered everything that early medieval politics might inflict on highborn girls, to find refuge and peace? If Holy Cross was in fact a women’s shelter, then it was the first of its kind.

Born a princess to the Thuringian royal house, almost 1500 years ago, the young Radegund endured a series of tragedies: orphaned in her earliest years, she then witnessed the invasion of her homeland by the Frankish king, Chlothar, who slaughtered most of her remaining family and took her as his war captive. The king placed her in one of his rural villas, where she was guarded, raised, and in some ways treated like a slave. While still very young, she was forced to marry him, despite her efforts to run away. Radegund endured her marriage until Chlothar ordered the murder of her brother, her only surviving close kin.

After Radegund escaped her miserable marriage, but before she founded Holy Cross, she created her first institution for women in need: a hospital in a villa in Saix, which offered beds specifically for infirm women. ‘She herself washed them in warm baths, treating the putrid flesh of their diseases’, wrote one of her biographers. Radegund also provided treatment for men in Saix, but separately and without beds. This foundation can be fairly described as the first women’s hospital in Europe.

“If Holy Cross was in fact a women’s shelter, then it was the first of its kind.”

In her next effort to support her stated goal—the advancement of other women—Radegund founded Holy Cross in Poitiers. She accepted other highborn women into what became a religious house of considerable size, with around 200 nuns. Although the circumstances of entry are usually obscured from the historian, the example of Basina is both evidenced and instructive. The daughter of the Frankish king Chilperic I, Basina lost her mother, who was murdered at the hands of a rival—Queen Fredegund, who became Basina’s stepmother. Fredegund next turned her malevolent intentions to Basina, who was, according to the Histories of Gregory of Tours, ‘dishonoured by the slaves of the queen and sent into a monastery’. While most translators have interpreted the word deludere (rendered here as ‘dishonoured’) to mean something like ‘tricked’, it is much more likely that the word functioned as a euphemism for sexual assault, as suggested by Bruno Dumézil and explained in greater detail by Rachel Singer. Thus, historians have mistakenly thought that Radegund conspired in Fredegund’s trickery, when in fact she had offered refuge to a victim of sexual violence.

Radegund ensured that Holy Cross served as a protective environment for Basina, who was sheltered from the consequences of political life outside its walls. When Chilperic tried to reclaim Basina and marry her to a Visigothic prince, for example, Radegund resolutely refused. This was a fear that Radegund herself knew all too well: she had long worried that her former husband Chlothar, might try to reclaim her. This possibility was, according to one of her biographers, a fate she feared worse than death. History records one occasion, when a terrified Radegund successfully implored a high-ranking bishop to urge Chlothar to change his mind. Legend records another instance, in which nature herself protected the former queen. In an incident known as the ‘Miracle of the Oats’, Radegund fled into a field to escape Chlothar’s grasp. Recognising the vulnerability of the holy woman, the oats quickly grew so high that Radegund was concealed from Chlothar’s view. When the king saw that he had no hope of finding his former wife, he abandoned his pursuit.

Whether or not she was assisted by miraculous plants, Radegund ensured, just as she wrote in her Letter to the Bishops, that her efforts were beneficial not only for herself, but also for other women.

Featured image by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons.

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