Literal and Symbolic: the Language of Asceticism in Two Lives of St Radegund
Florilegium, Volume 19 (2002)
Ascesis as practised within the early church combined a variety of qualities and functions: combat with the devil, suffering and mortification of the flesh, separation from the world, and preparation for death. It was also a means by which those saints who were not martyrs demonstrated heroic action; through asceticism saints created and maintained power. Hagiographers, in turn, described the ascetic actions of saints in order to construct a sense of the saint’s body as a holy place, a locus of power. And yet, ascetic behaviour is not transparent of interpretation; hagiographers represented ascetic practices, and thus sainthood itself, differendy. These differences are readily apparent in the two major lives of St Radegund.
Radegund was an influential sixth-century Thuringian nun and princess who was captured in battle and forced to marry Lothar, a Frankish king. After several years of married life, she left Lothar and with his aid founded two monasteries in Poitiers. One of these, Holy Cross monastery, where she lived, was inside the walls of the city. There she arranged for the collection of a variety of relics for the monastery, and eventually enclosed herself inside a single cell adjoining the monastery. She died around 587. Her story offers an invaluable opportunity for comparative study of the construction of sainthood through asceticism in that her life was recorded by two different people who knew her personally—Venantius Fortunatus, who wrote a vita sometime around 600 (Momtmenta Gertnaniae Historica 359), and Baudonivia, one of the nuns of the Holy Cross monastery, which Radegund founded, who wrote a second vita several years later, around 609.