Women and Men in Society
From Hearth & Home:Women Who Influenced Christian Civilization
Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.
Published in The Remnant, October 31, 1999
If you would like your daughter to understand what is virtuous woman, essentially feminine and not feminist, capable of governing a home and influencing the natural society in which she moves, what period of History would you direct her to study?
The Queen of France receives a book of poetry
written by one of her ladies
First, steer clear of our own sad 20th century of feminism. The answer is very simple. If you want your daughter to understand what it is to be a valiant woman, have her study the lives of medieval women, the women who helped to shape the Age of Faith. A period, by the way, feminists like to represent as the most oppressive because it was not egalitarian and vulgar, but hierarchical and sacral. Yet the pages of the history of Christian Civilization resound with stories of valorous mature women, personalities who played important roles in the unfolding of Christian Civilization. In fact, it is interesting to see that the conversion of Europe depended on the faith and piety of apostolic mothers and wives.
Let me give only a few - but worthwhile - examples to illustrate how women have wielded their enormous influence for the good. History books tell us that Catholic France, the first daughter of Christendom, was founded by the barbarian King of the Franks, Clovis. But Corinthians tells us: “The unbelieving husband is sanctified by the believing wife.” (2 Cor. 8:14). Let me explain.
The Roman Empire had fallen, the barbarians invaded. The lights of what appeared to St. Ambrose an unquenchable Roman civilization had been quenched. One era closed, but a new plan for humanity was opening. For it was the plan of God that the temporal Reign of Christ be born from the remnants of that broken Roman Empire that converted the rough barbarian tribes.
In this darkness a new light appeared - noble, sacral, dignified. A soul imbued with the spirit of the Catholic Church, shining with the lumen of sanctity from the Mystical Body of Christ. She was St. Clotilda (474-545), daughter of the King of the Burgundians of Lyons, wife of Clovis, King of the Franks. Clovis had reasons to want to this Christian wife: Clotilda was reputed to be very beautiful; the Burgundians would become an ally of the Franks, and a Christian wife could help to bind his Roman subjects more closely to him. Confident of her virtue, Bishop Remigius sent the 17-year-old girl to reign as queen over the pagan Franks with the mission of converting their barbarian king.
We can imagine Clotilda: her features delicate but firm, stately in bearing, suave in gesture and voice. Her constant prayers and exemplary life began to have their effect on Clovis. To understand the influence of St. Clotilda, one need only recall the exclamation of Clovis during a battle against the Alemanni. Seeing his troops on the point of yielding, he invoked the aid of “the God of Clotilda” and promised to become a Catholic if only victory were granted him. By the force and influence of that supernatural lumen of Clotilda, Clovis understood t he light of the Catholic Church.
This was St. Clotilda, born at the dawn of the Middle Ages, a sun who will shine for all of History. Rejoicing quietly, humbly, without the palms of victory, she would have assisted at the Baptism of Clovis at Christmas 496, perhaps with the intuition that a historical era was being born. The Frankish Kingdom thenceforth become the representative and defender of Catholic interests throughout the West. In this crucial situation, one woman had a decisive mission: Clotilda.
In Britain, it fell to the great-granddaughter of Clotilda to unlock the doors for Christianity. Bertha, a Frankish princess (d. 612), married the pagan King Elthelbert of Kent. For many years she lived as a Catholic at the pagan court of Canterbury. When St. Augustine of Canterbury arrived at the head of his forty missionaries to preach the Gospel in England in 596, he found in Queen Bertha a powerful ally at the court of her husband - and Ethelbert ripe for conversion. Ethelbert was baptized on Whitsunday in 597, and Canterbury became the mother-church of England.
The epic story continues. Bertha’s daughter, Ethelburga, following in that heroic tradition of the family, married the pagan King Edwin of Northumbria, and thus carried the faith to the Angles. Edwin, the first Christian King of Northumbria, was baptized at York in 627 and was so zealous in the conversion of his people that the Church today honors him as Saint.
And what about Italy? Around 600 a Bavarian Christian princess Theodelind married the King of the Lombards. Both husband and nation converted to the Catholic faith. In Spain, a pious Christian Greek mother Theodosia instructed the two sons of her impious Visigothic husband in the Catholic faith. One son, St. Hermengild, died a martyr rather than abjure his Catholic belief. His brother Recared ascended the throne, embraced Christianity, and at the 3rd Council of Toledo (589) proclaimed that Spain aspired to be a Catholic nation. The Christian mother from her tomb had triumphed in her sons over the persecuting father.
Turning East, we see the first Christian Queen of Bohemia, St. Ludmilla, who converted with her husband in 879. She was strangled at prayer in 921 at the order of her daughter-in-law, who was jealous of the great influence that Ludmilla wielded over her grandson. That grandson was the great popular hero St. Wenceslaus, who would water with his own blood the seeds of faith planted so heroically by his grandmother.
It was Catholic queens who laid the foundation for Christianity in Poland and Russia. And it was the great St. Margaret of Scotland (1038-1093) who married Malcolm III of Scotland and gentled the rough manners of the Highland warriors. In her position as queen, all Margaret’s great influence was thrown into the cause of religion and piety. She was instrumental in the convocation of the synod that instituted reforms that led Scotland out of isolation and into line with the rest of Western Christendom.
We tell our sons and daughters today: “Only one thing matters - that you’re happy. That you’re fulfilled.” This is quite different from what the valiant Queen Blanche of Castile told her young son who would become St. Louis IX of France: “I would rather see you dead at my feet than have you commit one mortal sin.” A formidable woman, Blanche of Castile was able to hold the Crown for her son during the regency against powers in Languedoc, Brittany, the Ile de France and even Henry III of England.
This is but a fragment of the stories of great medieval women, many of them saints. It is said that the history of a saint is a page in the history of Christian Civilization. Let the Simone de Beauvoirs’ and the feminists rage and twist the facts of history. But the truth needs to be stated. The role and influence of virtuous Catholic wives and mothers, who never lost their femininity of spirit, has always been immense. At a moment when feminist movement seems to be faltering and failing to convince, it seems opportune to present archetypes for young girls and women today - who are so desperately in need of finding models of women who did not abandon their traditional roles and yet were so essential in the shaping of Christian Civilization.
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