To us the early Mediaeval life seems more remote and less intelligible than that of the classic age. We are more at home in the villas of Rome than in the castles of Charlemagne. This is partly because the literature of the latter age has not presented such a satisfying picture as have the immortal productions of the former; but more largely because the genius of modern civilization has its counterpart in the social ideas of classic times, rather than in the individualistic motive of mediaevalism.
The period covered by this chapter extends over four hundred years, from the end of the fifth century to the tenth. In our selection of characters from the successive generations during that term, we shall have an eye to their utility as representing types of the feminine, even more than to their aptitude for illustrating any special development in civilized habits. Evolution proceeded slowly in those days, and, consequently, a century or two did not greatly change social habits.
Somewhere about the middle of the fifth century, a Frankish chief named Childeric was driven from his own people by the varying fortunes of war. He took refuge among the Thuringians, and rewarded their kindness by seducing Basina, the wife of their king. After his return, she left her husband and joined her lover, becoming his recognized wife. Childeric's guilt in this affair is somewhat mitigated by the spirit of Basina, who declared that she chose the Frank solely because she knew no man who was wiser, stronger or handsomer, surely a frank admission of natural sentiment. The offspring of this free union was Clovis, the founder of the kingdom of the Franks, and the means whereby it became Christian.
While still a youth, though established in the chieftainship by his valor in marauding expeditions, Clovis heard of the beauty and the desirable character of Clotilde, the niece of Gondebaud, King of the Burgundians. She had been brought up amidst the most barbarous scenes which those times could produce. Her father and her two brothers had been put to death by her uncle, who had also caused her mother Agrippina to be thrown into the Rhone, with a stone fastened to her neck, and drowned. Clotilde and her sister Chrona, he permitted to live. The latter had become a nun, while Clotilde, no less religious, was living at Geneva where, as it is said, she employed her whole time in works of piety and charity. Clovis sent to Gondebaud asking the hand of his niece; but it appears that at first his suit was not favorably looked upon, for the Frank resorted to unusual measures whereby he gained his end and provided the material for an interesting story. It is told as follows by Fredegaire in his commentary on the history by Gregory of Tours: "As he was not allowed to see Clotilde, Clovis charged a certain Roman, named Aurelian, to use all his wit to come nigh her. Aurelian repaired alone to the spot, clothed in rags and with his wallet upon his back, like a mendicant. To ensure confidence in himself, he took with him the ring of Clovis. On his arrival at Geneva, Clotilde received him as a pilgrim charitably, and whilst she was washing his feet, Aurelian, bending toward her, said under his breath, 'Lady, I have great matters to announce to thee if thou deign to permit me secret revelation.' She consenting, replied, 'Say on.' 'Clovis, King of the Franks,' said he, 'hath sent me to thee: if it be the will of God, he would fain raise thee to his high rank by marriage; and that thou mayest be certified thereof, he sendeth thee this ring.' She accepted this ring with great joy, and said to Aurelian, 'Take for recompense of thy pains these hundred sous in gold and this ring of mine. Return promptly to thy lord; if he would fain unite me to him in marriage, let him send without delay messengers to demand me of my uncle Gondebaud, and let the messengers who shall come take me away in haste, so soon as they shall have obtained permission; if they haste not, I fear lest a certain sage, one Aridius, may return from Constantinople; and if he arrive beforehand, all this matter will by his counsel come to naught.'"
Aurelian returned and told Clovis all that had passed and the instructions he had received from Clotilde. "Clovis, pleased with his success and with Clotilde's notion, at once sent a deputation to Gondebaud to demand his niece in marriage. Gondebaud, not daring to refuse, and flattered at the idea of making a friend of Clovis, promised to give her to him. Then the deputation, having offered the denier and the sou, according to the custom of the Franks, espoused Clotilde in the name of Clovis, and demanded that she be given up to be married. Without any delay, the council was assembled at Chalons, and preparations were made for the nuptials. The Franks, having arrived with all speed, received her from the hands of Gondebaud, put her into a covered carriage and escorted her to Clovis, together with much treasure. She, however, having already learned that Aridius was on his way back, said to the Frankish lords, 'If ye would take me into the presence of your lord, let me descend from this carriage, mount me on horseback, and get you hence as fast as you may; for never in this carriage shall I reach the presence of your lord.'
"Aridius, in fact, returned very speedily from Marseilles; and Gondebaud, on seeing him, said, 'Thou knowest that we have made friends with the Franks, and that I have given my niece to Clovis to wife.' 'This,' answered Aridius, 'is no bond of friendship, but the beginning of perpetual strife; thou shouldst have remembered, my lord, that thou didst slay Clotilde's father, that thou didst drown her mother, and that thou didst cut off her brothers' heads and cast their bodies into a well. If Clotilde become powerful, she will avenge the wrongs of her relatives. Send thou forthwith a troop in chase, and have her brought back to thee. It will be easier for thee to bear the wrath of one person than to be perpetually at strife, thyself and thine, with all the Franks.' And Gondebaud did send forthwith a troop in chase to fetch back Clotilde with the carriage and all the treasure; but she, on approaching Villers (where Clovis was waiting for her), in the territory of Troyes, and before passing the Burgundian frontier, urged them who escorted her to disperse right and left over a space of twelve leagues in the country whence she was departing, to plunder and burn; and that having been done with the permission of Clovis, she cried aloud, 'I thank thee, God omnipotent, for that I see the commencement of vengeance for my parents and my brethren!'"
The kingdom to which Clovis welcomed his queen was not large. It comprised no more than the island of the Batavians, and the dioceses of Tournay and Arras. Nevertheless, this marriage was of exceeding importance in the history of Europe, for by virtue of his qualities Clovis was destined to go far in conquest, and to establish the beginning of a great nation; and the question of his conversion, whether to Arianism or to Catholicism, was fairly certain to be answered by his matrimonial alliance. The time had come when political wisdom provided the most effective argument against paganism.
It was not at once, however, that Clotilde was able to bring about the conversion of her husband. The most she could accomplish was to gain his consent, after the birth of their first son, to the baptism of the latter. The child dying a few days afterward, serious misgivings arose in the king's mind as to whether he had not been ill advised in permitting the Christian rite. But Clotilde's second son also was baptized, and fell sick. Said Clovis: "It cannot be otherwise with him than with his brother; baptized in the name of your Christ, he is going to die." The child lived, and thereby Clotilde was placed to better advantage in attacking her husband's mind with her Christian arguments. He was brought to the point of decision when, in his battle at Tolbiac against the Alemannians, the day seeming about to be lost, Aurelian cried: "My lord king, believe only on the Lord of heaven, whom the queen, my mistress, preacheth!" Clovis exclaimed: "Christ Jesus, Thou whom my queen Clotilde calleth the Son of the Living God, I have invoked my own gods, and they have withdrawn from me; I believe that they have no power, since they aid not those who call upon them. Thee, very God and Lord, I invoke; if Thou give me victory over these foes; if I find in Thee the power the people proclaim of Thee, I will believe on Thee, and will be baptized in Thy name." The fortune of battle immediately turned in favor of the Franks.
On his return home, to make sure that her husband would fulfil his vow while his gratitude was warm, Clotilde sent for Saint Remi, the holy Bishop of Rheims, to perfect her own instructions and receive him into the Church. Clovis was baptized, as were also the majority of his subjects. To what extent the doctrines of Christianity had taken possession of his mind may be gathered from the anecdote which recounts how, after hearing from the bishop's lips the story of the sufferings of Christ, he shouted: "Had I been present at the head of my valiant Franks, I would have revenged his injuries!" As Gibbon says: "The savage conqueror of Gaul was incapable of examining the proofs of a religion which depended upon the laborious investigation of historic evidence and speculative theology. He was still more incapable of feeling the mild influence of the gospel, which persuades and purifies the heart of a genuine convert. His ambitious reign was a perpetual violation of moral and Christian duties: his hands were stained with blood in peace as well as in war." He took part in a synod of the Gallican Church, and immediately murdered in cold blood all the princes of the Merovingian race. Into what, a pit the Christianity of those times had fallen may be understood when we find Gregory of Tours, after calmly reciting the murders of Clovis, concluding with these words: "For God thus daily prostrated his enemies under his hands, and enlarged his kingdom, because he walked before him with an upright heart, and did that which was pleasing in his sight." Clovis was the only strictly orthodox sovereign of that day -- a day when orthodoxy was permitted to cover a multitude of sins.
After making himself sole monarch of the Frankish race, Clovis died in the year 511, and was buried in the church which had been erected by Clotilde. The queen survived her husband many years, but did not exercise any noticeable influence. She could not even save her two little grandsons from the ambitious cruelty of her sons -- Clotaire and Childebert. These sent a message to Clotilde saying: "Send the children to us, that we may place them on the throne." Having sent them, there soon came to her another messenger, bearing a sword and a pair of shears. Unshorn locks were essential as a mark of the kingly race among the Franks; the messenger said therefore: "Most glorious queen, thy sons, our masters, desire to know thy will touching these children; wilt thou that they live with shorn hair or that they be put to death?" Clotilde, in her astonishment and despair, answered: "If they be not set upon the throne, I would rather know that they were dead than shorn." The messenger hastened back to the two kings and, with fatal and wilful inaccuracy, said: "Finish ye your work, for the queen favoring your plans, willeth that ye accomplish them." Forthwith the two children were murdered in the most cold-blooded fashion. The tale is rendered the more shocking by the addition of the fact that Guntheuque, the mother of the lads, had become the wife of that uncle who killed them.
The Merovingians allowed themselves as much license in love as they did freedom from restraint in regard to the sterner passions. Nominal Christians though they were, they felt no compunction of conscience as to polygamy, when the vagaries of their fancy could be satisfied only by its practice. Gregory of Tours records how: "King Clotaire I. had to wife Ingonde, and her only did he love, when she made to him the following request: 'My lord,' said she, 'hath made of his handmaid what seemeth to him good; and now, to crown his favors, let my lord deign to hear what his handmaid demandeth. I pray you be graciously pleased to find for my sister Aregonde, your slave, a man both capable and rich, so that I be rather exalted than abased thereby, and be enabled to serve you still more faithfully.' At these words, Clotaire, who was but too voluptuously disposed by nature, conceived a fancy for Aregonde, betook himself to the country house where she dwelt, and united her to him in marriage. When the union had taken place, he returned to Ingonde, and said to her, 'I have labored to procure for thee the favor thou didst so sweetly demand, and, on looking for a man of wealth and capability worthy to be united to thy sister, I could find none better than myself: know, therefore, that I have taken her to wife, and I trow that it will not displease thee.' 'What seemeth good in my master's eyes, that let him,' replied Ingonde; 'only let thy servant abide still in the king's grace.'"
From the above, it is noticeable that a servile manner of speech to their husbands was customary to the Frankish women of that time. It is possible that it was little more than an affectation. Doubtless the women of character and strength then, as ever, were not without means of holding their own. Chilperic, the King of Soissons, who was a son of Clotaire, added to the not brief list of his wives -- we may give him the benefit of the doubt as to whether they were
Contemporaneous with Fredegonde, and exerting a stronger and indeed more salutary influence upon her age, though scarcely superior in her moral character, was Brunehaut, Queen of the Franks of Austrasia. She was a younger sister of Galsuinthe, by the murder of whom the way was opened to Chilperic's bed and throne for Fredegonde. The King of Austrasia was Sigebert, brother of Chilperic. Among those fierce Merovingians kinship of the closest degree had no deterring influence on their passions. In a war between these two brothers, Sigebert was assassinated in his tent by the emissaries of Fredegonde. Brunehaut fell into the latter's power, and only the fact that she managed to make her way into the Cathedral of Paris, and thus claim right of asylum, saved her life. Thence she was sent to Rouen, where she met and married a son of Chilperic by a former wife. This so enraged Fredegonde that she persecuted her stepson until, in despair, he prevailed on a faithful servant to take his life. In the meantime, the Austrasians, who had the custody of Brunehaut's infant son, demanded their queen from Chilperic; she was surrendered to them, and was instated as queen-guardian of her son.
Brunehaut was in every sense a born ruler. A princess by birth, she also possessed a mind that was capable of formulating plans which united her people with herself in the enjoyment of the fruits of success as well as in the labor of accomplishment. Faults she had in abundance. As callous in regard to bloodshed and as loose in her morals as were the barbarians of her time, she was not without conscience as to the opportunities of her position, and she labored in many ways for the public good. Brunehaut came from Spain, where the Visigoths retained much of the Roman civilization. She endeavored to introduce some of these advantages into Austrasia, which was peopled by the least cultivated of the Franks; but, though forcing her reforms by sheer strength of will and intellect, the result was her expulsion from the land. The history of her rule is thus epitomized by Guizot: "She clung stoutly to the efficacious exercise of the royal authority; she took a practical interest in the public works, highways, bridges, monuments, and the progress of material civilization; the Roman roads in a short time received and for a long while kept in Austrasia the name of Brunehaufs Causeways; there used to be shown, in a forest near Bourges, Brunehaufs castle, Brunehaufs tower at Etampes, Brunehaufs stone near Tournay, and Brunehaufs fort near Cahors. In the royal domains, and wheresoever she went, she showed abundant charity to the poor, and many ages after her death the people of those districts still spoke of Brunehaufs Alms. She liked and protected men of letters, rare and mediocre indeed at that time, but the only beings, such as they were, with the notion of seeking and giving any kind of intellectual enjoyment; and they in turn took pleasure in celebrating her name and her deserts. The most renowned of all during that age, Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers, dedicated nearly all his little poems to two queens: one, Brunehaut, plunging amidst all the struggles and pleasures of the world; the other, Saint Radegonde, sometime wife of Clotaire I, who had fled in all haste from a throne to bury herself at Poitiers, in a convent she had founded there. To compensate, Brunehaut was detested by the majority of the Austrasian chiefs, those Leudes, land owners and warriors, whose sturdy and turbulent independence she was continually fighting against. She supported against them, with indomitable courage, the royal officers, the servants of the palace, her agents, and frequently her favorites."
Brunehaut maintained her power under the reigns of her son and her grandson in Austrasia, the capital of which was Metz. In 599, however, she was expelled from this kingdom, and went to that of Burgundy, where her other grandson, Theodoric II., reigned, having his capital at Orleans. In a letter written to Theodoric by Gregory the Great, the latter says: "And this in you among other things is enough to call for praise and admiration, that in such things as you know that our daughter, your most excellent grandmother, desires for the love of God, in these you make haste most earnestly to lend your aid, so that thereby you may reign both happily here, and in a future life with the angels." It is evident from this that in Burgundy the veteran queen was not denied the opportunity to exercise that executive talent of which the Austrasians had wearied. If the accounts given by Frankish historians may be relied upon, Brunehaut's influence upon her grandson was not in all respects calculated to fit him for a life among the angels. They accuse her of having encouraged him in licentious living, in order that her own power might not be undermined by the introduction into his court of a lawful queen.
There are several letters extant which were written to her by Pope Gregory. They all, in that polite manner in which Church dignitaries treat worldly potentates, speak of her virtuous acts and ignore all mention of her frailties. Brunehaut would be an exceedingly estimable woman if nothing more of her were known than what is to be gathered from these epistles. Gregory was a severe moralist, but he allowed his condemnation of many faults to be silenced by his gratitude for the piety of the queen in erecting "the Church of Saint Martin in the suburbs of Augustodunum (Autun), and a monastery for handmaidens of God, and also a hospital in the same city." There is also a letter to Thalassia, the first abbess of this convent, ordaining that the property donated shall never be alienated from her and her successors; also, that "on the death of an abbess of the aforementioned monastery, no other shall be ordained by means of any kind of craftiness or secret scheming, but that such a one as the king of the same province, with the consent of the nuns, shall have chosen in the fear of God, and provided for the ordination of." This also is evidence regarding the interior politics of the nunneries of that time.
Brunehaut lived a stormy life. Gentleness and modesty, the qualities most esteemed in feminine character, were the least noticeable in her nature; they would not have been consonant with either her ambitions or her methods. She was ever striving with the chieftains of her realm, endeavoring, with no little success, to force their independence into submission to regal authority. With the clerics, also, she had her quarrels. Saint Didier, Bishop of Vienne, was at her instigation brutally murdered. Saint Columba, even, was visited with her displeasure because he refused to connive at her faults with the award of his blessing. In 614, after thirty-nine years of the most strenuous political life and the most extreme vicissitudes of personal fortune that ever fell to the lot of any queen, she perished most miserably at the hands of Clotaire II., the son of her old enemy, Fredegonde. He caused the venerable queen, now eighty years of age, to be paraded before the army on the back of a camel; and then, by his order, she was bound by the hair, one hand, and one foot, to the tail of an unbroken steed by which she was kicked and dashed to pieces. Thus lived, and thus died a "Christian" queen who had received high encomiums from one of the greatest bishops of history.
It must not be supposed, however, that feminine modesty, faithful love, and the gentleness which is ever venerated in womankind, were entirely unknown to that rough and licentious age. What could be more pleasing than the romantic story of Theodelinda, Queen of the Lombards? In the year 584, Authari succeeded to that kingdom. He asked in marriage the beautiful and pious daughter of Garibald, King of the Bavarians. In order that he might ascertain whether the attractions of this damsel were in reality equal to their reputation, and also that he might hasten matters in case he should be satisfied on this point, Authari impersonated his own ambassador and visited the court of Garibald in this guise. He there stated that he was the trusted friend of the Lombard king, and that Authari had charged him to bring back a minute report of the charm of his expected bride. Theodelinda submitted to the inspection; and the supposed ambassador, being at once enamored of her grace and beauty, hailed her as Queen of the Lombards, and requested that, according to the custom of his people, she present a cup of wine to him, her first subject. As she did this, he slyly touched her hand and then his own lips. This familiarity astonished the maiden, but, advised by her nurse, she said nothing, and Authari, before leaving the court, succeeded in gaining her affections. As he left to return home, he revealed his rank to her by saying, as he drove his huge battle-ax into the trunk of a tree, "Thus strikes the king of the Langobardi." After his departure, influenced by the Franks, Garibald withdrew his consent to his daughter's marriage; whereupon Theodelinda took the matter into her own hands and fled across the Alps to her lover and was married to him at Verona. Although she was early left a widow, she had so completely gained the love and the confidence of the Lombards, that they intrusted her with the privilege of raising to the throne whomsoever she might favor with her hand in marriage. Her choice fell upon a handsome Thuringian named Agilulf. He knew not of his fortune until it was announced to him by the queen herself in this fashion: one day, as he bent to kiss her hand in faithful homage, she blushingly said, "You have the right to kiss my cheek, for you are my king!" So great was Theodelinda's influence over her people that at her request the whole nation simultaneously became Christian; and in view of that event, it is no wonder that she was on the most friendly terms with Pope Gregory the Great, whose letters to her may still be read. Under her happy reign, the kingdom of Lombardy was strengthened, and its constitution established. Agilulf died, and his son and successor, Adelwald, rendering himself obnoxious, was murdered by some of his subjects; but to make amends to her for this act, the Lombards placed the husband of her daughter Gerberga on the throne. Boccaccio, by making Theodelinda the subject of one of his amorous tales, has taken an unwarranted and reprehensible liberty with a good queen of whom her age was justly proud.
It is to these times, also, that the pathetic story of Saint Genevieve belongs. She was the wife of Count Siegfried of Andernach. He, setting out against the Moors who were then invading the land, intrusted her to the care of Golo, his principal servant. This man, having failed in his repeated attempts on her conjugal faithfulness, accused her of the fault which he would fain have persuaded her to commit, and procured her condemnation to death. Her executioners being merciful, spared her life by having her conveyed far into the recesses of a forest. There she, with her little daughter, lived for several years in absolute solitude. They were sheltered by a cave; and a doe, whose tameness was regarded as a miraculous providence, supplied them with milk. It was no less regarded as a divine interposition which eventually led Siegfried to the grotto while following the chase; her innocence being proved, she was happily reinstated as his wife, and has ever since been honored as a saint, which doubtless she was.
Christianity, during the latter half of the first millennium, could show triumphs of sanctification in personal character; it had its heroes of morality, but it must be confessed that the conversion of the barbaric nations was not accompanied with a very signal improvement in their morals. Milman says: "It is difficult to conceive a more dark and odious state of society than that of France under her Merovingian kings, the descendants of Clovis, as described by Gregory of Tours. In the conflict or coalition of barbarism with Roman Christianity, barbarism has introduced into Christianity all its ferocity, with none of its generosity or magnanimity; its energy shows itself in atrocity of cruelty and even of sensuality. Christianity has given to barbarism hardly more than its superstition and its hatred of heretics and unbelievers. Throughout, assassinations, parricides, and fratricides intermingle with adulteries and rapes....
"As to the intercourse of the sexes, wars of conquest where the females are at the mercy of the victors, especially if female virtue is not in much respect, would severely try the more rigid morals of the conqueror. The strength of the Teutonic character, when it had once burst the bounds of habitual or traditional restraint, might seem to disdain easy and effeminate vice, and to seek a kind of wild zest in the indulgence of lust, by mingling it with all other violent passions, rapacity, and inhumanity. Marriage was a bond contracted and broken on the lightest occasion. Some of the Merovingian kings took as many wives, either together or in succession, as suited either their passions or their politics. Christianity hardly interferes even to interdict incest." Clotaire and Charibert each married two sisters. The latter was sternly rebuked by Saint Germanus, but (so the historian informs us) as the king already had many wives, he bore the rebuke with extreme patience. There were laws against these irregularities; but, strict as they were in their terms, they were completely nullified by failure of execution. These laws, also, are models of the inequality which existed between the sexes. When punishment for adultery is prescribed, it is always understood that it refers solely to the wife. The man was burdened by no legal responsibility in this matter. Free women were not permitted to marry slaves; to do so reduced them to a position of servitude. This did not apply to men, excepting such as were too poor to compound the felony with the abducted slave's owner. The kings were free in this matter.
Under the Carlovingian dynasty, manners were somewhat less ferocious than those exhibited by the Merovingian kings; but it was rather the result of the former being more confident of its security than any evidence of real improvement in morals. Earnest champion of the Church as was Charlemagne, and much as he honored religion, the records of his own private life and those of his family are examples of wholesale libidinosity such as is rarely equalled in history.
Five women were united in marriage to the great emperor. The first was Desiree, the daughter of the Lombard king, whom Pope Stephen so bitterly opposed. This union, however, was short lived; during one year only did Desiree hold the wandering affections of the sturdy monarch. He then took Hildegarde, a Swabian princess; but in the same indifferent manner he dissolved this connection, being instigated thereto by the allegations of a servant named Taland, who was enraged at the contempt with which the queen received his criminal advances. Charlemagne did not trouble himself to look into the matter; like Caesar, he held that his wife should be above suspicion. There is a pleasing story in regard to Hildegarde who, after her divorce, went to Rome and devoted herself to a religious life. By her charitable deeds and acts of piety she gained a great and well deserved name for sanctity. It is said that one day she met Taland, who was reduced to the life of a blind mendicant. By the power of her holiness, she restored his sight, and he, filled with remorse, confessed his crime and brought about a reconciliation between Hildegarde and the king. No less naive is the legend related of one of Charlemagne's daughters. His children included several girls, all beautiful; but for political reasons their father denied them the privilege of marriage. He considered that if they were united to the great nobles of the land, it would mean a division and consequent weakening of the empire. But love laughed at politics. "His secretary, young Eginhart, became deeply enamored of his daughter Emma, and the youthful lovers, fearing his anger should he discover their affection, met only at night. It happened that one night, while Eginhart was in the princess's apartment, a fall of snow took place. To return across the palace court must lead to the inevitable discovery by the traces of his footsteps. The moment called for resolution; woman's wit came to the assistance of the perplexed lover, and the faithful and prudent Emma, taking her lover on her back, bore him across the court. The emperor, who chanced to be gazing from his window, beheld this strange sight by the clear moonlight, and the next morning sent for the young couple, who stood before him in the expectation of being sentenced to death, when the generous father bestowed upon Eginhart his daughter's hand, and the Odinwald in fief. The tomb of Emma and Eginhart is still to be seen at Erbach." Another daughter, Bertha, called after her grandmother -- the mother of Charlemagne, carried on a similar intrigue with Engelbert; and, though not fortunate enough to receive her father's sanction to marriage, with a gift of land, she became the mother of Nithart, who was a famous historian of his time. Charlemagne's own character enabled him to understand, and his justice prompted him to condone those instincts which his policy would not allow to be satisfied in a lawful and conventional manner.
[Illustration 5: THE LEGEND OF THE ROSES
We have seen that, save for the story of Hildegarde, the women of Charlemagne's family did not present examples of Christian piety or devotion, but it may be in place here to mention that Saint Rosalie, the patron saint of Palermo, was of a family said to have descended from that of Charlemagne. Saint Rosalie, becoming filled with a spirit of devotion, retired to a grotto on Mount Pelegrino, where in solitude she passed her time in prayer and penitence. Of her is told the legend that, surreptitiously conveying bread concealed in her apron to feed the hungry, without her father's consent, she was discovered by him and requested to open her apron, when it was found that the bread had been changed into magnificent roses.]
Charlemagne died in 813. From that time until the end of the tenth century there were no women who can, by the greatest elasticity of which the term is susceptible, be called Christian, and who, at the same time were of any note in history. The gloom of the dark ages had not begun to lift. There was nothing to stimulate the woman of ordinary birth to the exercise of any powers save the most inferior. The broadening influence of literature was unknown. Charlemagne encouraged study among his courtiers; but he could not revive the smouldering embers. During the succeeding centuries, Greek lore came to be forgotten in the Western world. The manners, even among the noblest dames, were inconceivably rude. Every woman, not excepting the daughters of the emperor, worked with her hands in the common affairs of the household. What the morals of the time were, we have already seen. Convents sprang up everywhere, sheltering a great number of women, of both high and low degree.
They were refuges from the barbarities which accompanied warfare, and, to a lesser degree, safeguards against the temptation of the world, the flesh and the devil. The former fanatical enthusiasm for celibacy had greatly subsided; bishops and priests not infrequently were married, and even the nunneries gave occasion for lively stories which became traditional. It was an age when two sisters, Marozia and Theodora, both prostitutes, could decide the succession to the papal tiara. The former secured it for her bastard son, and also for her grandson, the infamous John XII., during whose pontificate, as Gibbon puts it, "the Lateran palace was turned in a school for prostitution, and his rapes of virgins and widows deterred the female pilgrims from visiting the tomb of St. Peter, lest, in the devout act, they should be violated by his successor." It was an age fitted in all ways to produce such a story as that of Pope Joan, which, though it was probably not founded on fact, is a worthy illustration of the moral condition of the rulers of the Church in that time.
We have seen that, save for the story of Hildegarde, the women of Charlemagne's family did not present examples of Christian piety or devotion, but it may be in place here to mention that Saint Rosalie, the patron saint of Palermo, was of a family said to have descended from that of Charlemagne. Saint Rosalie, becoming filled with a spirit of devotion, retired to a grotto on Mount Pelegrino, where in solitude she passed her time in prayer and penitence. Miraculous power was ascribed by the Sicilians to this saint, and of her is told the legend that, surreptitiously conveying bread concealed in her apron to feed the hungry, without her father's consent, she was discovered by him and requested to open her apron, when it was found that the bread had been changed into magnificent roses.