Radegund and the Psalter

I’m focusing a lot of energy right now on my Cassiodorus/Psalms book and not getting a whole lot else done… I’m hoping to post here more regularly, but at the moment, most of my thoughts are occupied in the early medieval psalter… So here’s something from that!

I’ve been pondering why non-fiction books like The Art of Fermentation and Salt: A World History can become NYT Best Sellers. It has to do with well-told stories and effective hooks.  Reflecting on this, the story that I want to tell here is about far more than a single late patristic commentary on a single book of the Bible. Thus, I’m doing some experimenting with a starting hook to draw readers is, suggesting why this topic might actually be interesting after all… Here’s a shot at it—let me know what you think!


Radegund was furious. Of this, there can be no doubt. Her husband had crossed her for the last time, and she set a plan in motion to free herself from him once and for all. Within a short time she had the two letters that she needed: the one giving her leverage and the one that confirmed her spiritual path.

Sixth-century France was a hard place to be a woman. The land was in turmoil, Franks, Burgundians, and Lombards struggled for power, and violence spilled out from Italy as the Roman Emperor in the East tired to reassert his authority over his lost lands in the West. In addition to the perennial dangers of sickness and death in childbirth, war brought increased threat of rape and violent death along with its constant companions, famine and pestilence; the Plague of Justinian, one of the first recorded worldwide pandemics, swept through the Mediterranean world in the 540’s devastating Constantinople, Italy, and ravaging Gaul. While war and its effects are always hardest upon the poor, nobility was no guarantee of safety: Radegund’s life was proof of that.

Born a Thuringian princess, her uncle betrayed and slaughtered her father and took her into his household while she was yet a small child. But her uncle’s betrayals bore bitter fruit as spurned allies, the four sons of the Frankish king Clovis, sacked Thuringia, and Radegund—now 11—was carried off, fated to be the wife of one of the victorious brothers, Chlothar. Imprisoned in a villa in the north of modern France, Radegund learned reading, writing, and religion before she was married to Chlothar as his sixth wife in the year 540 at the age of 20.

By all accounts, the marriage was not a happy one. And, indeed, why would it be? Chlothar had been part of the original alliance that had killed her father, and he was marrying her largely to legitimate his claim to Thuringia. While Clothar was an indifferent Christian at best, Radegund was fiercely devoted to her faith and ascetic ideals—including virginity. While Chlothar’s women bore him seven legitimate children and there were rumors of many more unacknowledged offspring, Radegund remained childless. The joke around the palace was that Chlothar’s latest wife was a nun, not a queen.

The last straw came right around the year 550. Chlothar’s men murdered the last surviving male member of the Thuringian royal line: Radegund’s brother. Radegund was furious, and refused to put up with it any more. She fled the palace, triggering a set of events that she had apparently thought through beforehand and cultivated strategically as she suffered through her unhappy marriage. She wrote letters to the most influential bishops in the area—undoubtedly some of her almsgiving in the years before had predisposed them in her favor whether for pious motives or base ones—and shortly she had in hand a letter that history still possesses. She proposed the establishment of the first religious community for women in the Frankish Empire where she would live according to Rule of Caesarius of Arles. The letter, signed by a host of prelates, supported her plan. It included the most dire threats for any woman who took religious vows and then wished to forsake the community and return to the world and marriage. Conversely (and more to the point) it likewise threatened anathema and damnation to any man who would attempt to remove any of the women from the religious enclosure.

The other letter that Radegund had been looking for was the blessing of Caesaria II of Arles. Caesaria, abbess of a convent in the Visigothic city of Arles, was the successor of the the first Caesaria who had been the sister of the influential bishop and theologian Caesarius of Arles. Caesarius had written a rule of life for his sister’s community, and in this letter, Caesaria II not only sends her community’s rule to Radegund as the queen had commanded, but also gave her advice based on her experience. In commending the rule, Caesaria wrote this line which neatly captures three central themes, not just of Caesaria and Radegund’s lives and spirituality, but of the time and place that we will be considering. She wrote: “Let none of those [women] entering [the community] not learn letters; let all hold the psalter in memory and, as I have said, be zealous to carry out in all things what you read in the gospel.”

The first key element here is the emphasis on the psalms. This phrasing here—“hold the psalter in memory”—could simply mean something like “don’t forget about the psalms” or “don’t forget to say the psalms,” but it doesn’t. Instead, it means “make sure that everybody has all of the psalms memorized.” Looking back over the rest of Caesaria’s letter it’s quite obvious that she was following her own advice. The letter is littered with Scripture quotations; over half of these come from one book of the Bible: the Psalms. Likewise, she wasn’t telling Radegund anything new, either. The brief “Life of Radegund” written by her friend and correspondent Venantius Fortunatus mentions the psalms early and often as a part of her spiritual life as well as her devotion to singing the “hours,” a form of liturgical prayer grounded in the recitation of the psalms. Fortunatus gives us glimpses of Radegund’s future describing how, as a child, she would organize the other children and lead them into the chapel in a procession singing the psalms. Later, she would duck out of royal banquets to attend the worship of the hours, singing psalms as she left and checking to make sure the leftovers would be given to the poor.

You can only imagine how the psalms would have spoken to Radegund and sustained her as she endured her situation, married to the man responsible for the deaths of her father, uncle (however traitorous), and brother. How many times might Psalm 94 (“O Lord God of vengeance, O God of vengeance show yourself. Rise up, O Judge of the world; give the arrogant their just desserts…”) have passed through her head as she lay in bed next to her husband.

The second key element in Caesaria’s letter was the emphasis on literacy. While the phrasing sounds a bit odd in English, “Let none of those [women] entering [the community] not learn letters,” the double negatives have an emphatic sense in Latin, underscoring the importance that everyone—no matter what their origin or social station—be taught how to read. As we continue, we’ll explore the close connection between the psalms and literacy in the early medieval world. Indeed, one of the terms for being literate was to be psalteratus: knowing your psalms. In a world where literacy was not common, and where women’s literacy in particular was not prized, the insistence on making sure that women of all classes within the community are able to read is a fascinating one.

The third key element is the mention of the gospels in relation to the psalms. Modern Protestants in particular may have a number of assumptions about the early medieval church, one of which is that the Bible was rarely read and even more rarely understood. Yet Caesaria makes it plain that she expects Radegund and all of the women to be reading the gospels as their most fundamental source for instruction:

Though it be holy and good and laudable that you desire to live by the Rule, there is no greater, better, more precious nor more splendid doctrine than the reading of the gospel. See this, hold this, which our Lord and master Christ taught by words and fulfilled by example, who made so many miracles in the world that they can not be counted, and sustained so many ills from his persecutors through patience, that can scarcely be believed.

The words and examples of Jesus are central to the ideal this holy woman lifts up.

Out of all of Scripture, these two sections—the psalms and the gospels—are given special attention. Coming from a liturgical perspective this is hardly surprising because in commending these texts to Radegund, Caesaria is highlighting the two central texts of the two central forms of worship in the church of that time. The Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Divine Office) centered around the psalms; the Eucharist (or the Mass) centered around the gospels. But, coming from a spiritual perspective, Caesaria and Radegund would have both deeply believed that the two sections of Scripture were inextricably bound together: the heart and soul of Jesus was not just laid plain by the Gospels but was complemented and completed by the psalms. The Gospels made manifest his outward words and deeds; the psalms made manifest his inward thoughts and feelings. We will see exactly how this logic works as we go, but understanding and appreciating this link is crucial for grasping the medieval perspective on Jesus.

And Radegund? She got her community. In fact, her husband even donated the land the land for it. (After a friendly bishop had threatened him with excommunication if he wouldn’t come through!) Originally named the Abbey of St. Mary, you may have heard one of the songs celebrating its name change. In 567, Radegund and her abbey received a relic of the True Cross from the Byzantine Emperor. In honor of the event the name of the community was changed to the Abbey of the Holy Cross and Radegund’s friend Fortunatus wrote a hymn for the occasion, Vexilla regis prodeunt, translated in many hymnals as “The royal banners forward go.” When Radegund died in 587, she was buried in a chapel near the abbey. Soon venerated as a saint, the chapel was renamed the Church of St. Radegund and remains a parish church today in Poitiers.

Despite the hardships of her life—perhaps because of the hardships of her life—Radegund’s faith remained strong and powerful. Her life story recounts episode after episode focused on care for the sick, the poor, the hungry, and the neglected. She used her power to create a safe space for herself and other women—rigorous and not without its own challenges to be sure—but a place where learning and faith and female authority would be respected for centuries to come. And her experience of the psalms lies at the center of it all.

3 Replies to “Radegund and the Psalter”

  1. Yes. I’m using females as the way in partly because I love Radegund’s story so much and its psalm-infused character is ideal for talking about why this kind of spirituality matters.

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