Nuns at War: Authority and Power in Sixth Century Poitiers

Elizabeth Quillen

In choosing Poitiers, the queen had placed her convent in the eye of the Merovingian storm

Merovingian Gaul was a contentious place. The ever-shifting boundaries of the kingdom(s) carved out a battleground that stretched from Thuringia to the Pyrenees as royal heirs seemed perpetually unsatisfied with their portions. No individual or institution was immune to the insidious influence of familial war. Sons and nephews were slaughtered, daughters and widows exiled or held captive, and the hierarchies of the Christian churches filled with loyal retired warriors. This mélange of royal intrigue and righteous will is exemplified in the Sainte-Croix convent founded by Radegund of Thuringia, a captive princess then ascetic queen turned saint. The queen’s convent in Poitiers served as a battle ground, both figurative and literal, between ecclesiastical and lay authorities. A particularly violent scandal following the queen-saint’s death highlighted the susceptibility of the Church to royal politics and warfare. In choosing Poitiers, the queen had placed her convent in the eye of the Merovingian storm. In the twenty years that Radegund resided at her convent, the city was sacked or burned on at least three occasions. While Poitiers devolved into a battleground, Sainte-Croix quickly became a secure place to deposit noble Merovingian women. Among them were the princesses Clothild and Basina. In 589, only two years after the queen-saint’s death, these royal nuns led a rebellion which engulfed the city. They were displeased with the election of a new abbess, Leubovera. When they were unable to overturn the election internally, the princesses marched to Tours with 40 nuns – of the approximately 200 in the convent. We are told about this rebellion by Gregory, the bishop of Tours, who is famous for his History of the Franks. Gregory attempted to persuade the princesses to return to Poitiers to seek the arbitration of their own bishop, but Clothild insisted that she go on to the king’s court ‘so that the insult to [her] dignity may be known.’ While Clothild went on to the king and secured his support, her fellow nuns remained under Gregory’s protection. It seems that Clothild and her faction did not return to Poitiers until at least late autumn as several of the nuns were (allegedly) visibly pregnant. It is unclear if, and how many, women returned with Clothild and Basina, but the princesses’ band did not shrink in size. They traded nuns for mercenaries and began their conquest of Poitiers. When the contingent arrived, they expelled the bishop, attacked the cathedral, and made it the headquarters of their rebellion. A council of bishops descended on the city to make negotiations. The princesses insisted that Leubovera be dismissed and invoked their royal prerogative: ‘We are queens, and we will not set foot inside our nunnery until the abbess has been dismissed.’ Frustrated and out of ideas, the bishops excommunicated them on the spot. Enraged and out of options, Clothild ordered her men to attack. In the bloody chaos, one man even rode his horse into the river to escape. Many weeks of back-and-forth violence followed. The abbess was abducted from the inner sanctum of the convent where a piece of the True Cross, a gift from the Byzantine Emperor, was kept. When the abbess was rescued, Clothild and Basina fell out, creating then three armed factions, each led by a different nun. Finally, the kings sent in their own mercenaries, led by the count of Poitiers. As her mercenaries were cut down, Clothild held the piece of the True Cross aloft and cried out, ‘Do no violence to me, I beg of you, for I am a queen, daughter of one king and cousin of another; do not do it, lest a time may come for me to take vengeance on you.’ Clothild was escorted to her trial, True Cross still in hand. After the relic was wrestled away from her, the interrogation began. The princesses laid out their accusations against Leubovera: failure to fulfill her duties, several violations of the Rule, and disguising a lover as a female servant so that he might come and go at will. All these accusations were dismissed by the bishops. Clothild and Basina were excommunicated again but released from custody. At the royal court, the excommunicates (mis)informed King Childebert of the trial proceedings and accused a litany of men of being not only Leubovera’s lovers, but spies for Queen Fredegund, with whom Childebert was at war; he had only just escaped an assassination attempt the previous week! Within a year of the trial, the king insisted that both women be released from their excommunication. Basina returned to the convent, but Clothild, still insisting that Leubovera was not the rightful abbess, retired to a nearby estate where she ruled as an independent countess – perhaps her goal all along.
Nuns at War: Authority and Power in Sixth Century Poitiers
Saint Radegund of Thuringia

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Nuns at War: Authority and Power in Sixth Century Poitiers

Elizabeth Quillen

Elizabeth Quillen is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. Her work revolves around medieval religious cultures and the relationship between ecclesiastical and lay authority/power, particularly how that authority/power is expressed in written works (i.e., chronicles, fables, etc.). She finished a master’s at the University of Missouri – Kansas City with a thesis on medieval English Latin bestiaries and the evolving depiction of Jews and Judaism within them.
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