non iam sola suas lamentet Troia ruinas:
pertulit et caedes terra Thoringa pares. (20)
hinc rapitur laceris matrona revincta capillis,
nec laribus potuit dicere triste vale.
oscula non licuit captivo infigere posti
nec sibi visuris ora referre locis.
nuda maritalem calcavit planta cruorem
blandaque transibat fratre iacente soror.
raptus ab amplexu matris puer ore pependit,
funereas planctu nec dedit ullus aquas.
sorte gravi, minus est nati sic perdere vitam:
perdidit et lacrimas mater anhela pias. (30)
non aequare queo vel barbara femina fletum
cunctaque guttarum maesta natare lacu.
Not Troy alone must mourn her ruins:
The Thuringian land suffered equal slaughter. (20)
The matron was rapt away, with streaming hair, bound fast
Without even a sad farewell to the household gods.
Nor could the captive press a kiss on the threshhold
Nor cast one backward glance toward what was lost.
A wife’s naked feet trod in her husband’s blood
And the tender sister stepped over the fallen brother.
The boy torn from his mother’s embrace, his funeral plaint
Hung on her lips, with all her tears unshed.
So to lose the life of a child is not the heaviest lot,
Gasping, the mother lost even her pious tears. (30)
I, the barbarian woman, seek not to count these tears,
Nor to keep afloat in the melancholy lake of all those drops.
“The barbarian woman” who wrote this letter-poem is likely one of the medieval women of whom you have never heard, even in passing, which is a shame because she is emblematic of several contradictions of women in the medieval world. I have chosen to write about her because few people know of the Merovingians, those blood-thirsty “long-haired kings,” or reges criniti that preceded Charlemagne and the Carolingian dynasty.
Radegund was a Thuringian, from those people along the Czech border of modern Germany, while the Merovingians were Franks, or that group of Germanic people from northern France called the Salii. Remember in Henry V, Act I. Scene 2. Lines 9-32?
My learned lord, we pray you to proceed,
And justly and religiously unfold 10
Why the law Salic that they have in France
Or should or should not bar us in our claim.
With the last Merovingian off the throne and the start of the Carolingians, Salic law might have disappeared, but not without haunting British monarchs when they made moral claims to the throne. Salic Law was, in short, the right to exclude those from royal succession based on the female line. Ironic that England would adopt the Law of Primogeniture to avoid the troublesome task of dividing up land among heirs. The right of accession through the maternal line was played both ways throughout English history: Henry V, The Hundred Years’ War and the accession of Henry VII.
What does that have to do with Radegund since she was not a Frank? It had everything to do with Thuringian succession and blood-feuds. Six-year-old Radegund and her brother were the last of the Thuringians after the Merovingians retaliated for a raid in which Frankish women and children had been killed. The Merovingians responded to the slaughter of kinsmen by exterminating the Thuringians, leaving only two survivors. The opening of the letter-poem depicts the carnage, with a classical allusion to Troy; it is a testament to Radegund’s learning that she knew about the Trojan War. The poem-letter also belies her Christian conversion. Now that she and her brother were hostages, the Frankish leader Clothar married her to secure peace between him and any remaining confederates friendly with the Thuringians. The Merovingians were bound by family and loyalty amongst warriors called comitatus, a social value that is exhibited in early Anglo-Saxon society and in Beowulf.
Before you start thinking ‘family’ was paramount to the Merovingians you should know that they practiced polygamy and Clothar was from the Father of the Year Award. He had survived the bloody altercations with his brothers after the death of their father, Clovis. Clothar spurred his brother’s death, married his sister-in-law, killed all her children, and later in life, when his son Chram had rebelled against him, he had Chram, his daughter-in-law, and their children, sealed up in a cottage and burned alive. Nice guy. For a parallel comparison, Henry VII and Henry VIII would systematically hunt down and kill anyone with a potential Yorkist claim to the English throne; and this murderous rampage would include murdering children and women, including an elderly woman. Nice father-and-son team.
Radegund and her brother were trying to survive in this reality. As you read the letter-poem, you’ll realize that she was highly educated: aside from knowing Troy, she wrote in Latin, and poetically recounts her plight. Radegund knew that she was a pawn in keeping the peace between her new husband and her slain family’s former allies, while owning and being responsible for property in Saix, a result of morgengabe or “morning gift,” given to the bride after the marriage is consummated. I mention her villa in Saix because Radegund fled there after Clothar had killed her brother in 550. She did not, in my opinion, see herself as a victim. You might agree after you read about her actions immediately after her brother’s death, a death she sincerely mourned in her letter-poem.
She fled Clothar and then coerced the bishop in Saix to consecrate her as a nun, which was gutsy since Clothar was alive and in pursuit. Henry II might have suggested an untimely demise for Thomas of London with his legendary exclamation, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” but Clothar, a barbarian, was not beyond killing a bishop himself. Radegund didn’t stop there. As a nun and as a noblewoman she took over the Abbey of Poitiers and installed herself there as Abbess and as Queen of the Franks. She ran the abbey well, procuring important relics, and continued writing in Latin, exchanging letters with Venantius Fortunatus and Gregory of Tours.
Radegund outlived Clothar and within a generation after her death Charles Martel and the Carolingians rose in ascendancy. The last of the two long-haired Merovingian kings, Childeric III and his son Theuderic, were tonsured and sent into exile rather than face death at the sword of Pepin Herstal, father of the ruthless Charles Martel. It is worth reading other writing by this remarkable woman.
… germane, saluti;
mors cui sola fui, nulla sepulchra dedi.
quae semel excessi patriam, bis capta remansi
atque iterum hostes fratre iacente tuli.
tunc, pater ac genetrix et avunculus atque parentes,
quos flerem in tumulo reddidit iste dolor. (150)
non vacat ulla dies lacrimis post funera fratris,
qui secum ad manes gaudia nostra tulit.
Brother, I salute you, and stand accused of this impiety:
You only died because of me and I gave you no sepulchre.
Twice am I captive who only left my country once,
Having endured again the enemy while my brother lay fallen.
Then, father and mother, uncle and kindred,
This grief recalls them whom I should mourn in the tomb. (150)
After my brother’s burial, no day passed without tears;
He bore my joy away with him to the land of the shades.