men's inferiority in the life of Christina of Markyate

Christina of Markyate in St. Albans Psalter

The twelfth-century Life of Christina of Markyate encompasses vignettes of Christina’s relationships with men. The men are morally and intellectually inferior to Christina. The narrative progresses from men who are obviously stupid and morally defective to men who reflect subtle and pervasive forms of masculine failings. While the Life of Christina of Markyate is commonly thought to be unfinished, the last relationship in the surviving text makes a suitable end for the narrative. The eminent Abbot Geoffrey of St. Albans provides material resources to Christina of Markyate, and she instructs him morally. That remains to our day a paradigmatic gender relation.

Shortly after Christina vowed to God to remain a virgin unlike “all them that go a-whoring,” she entered Ranulf Flambard’s bedroom. Ranulf Flambard was a rich, powerful man. Then a leading bishop, he had been the chief financial and legal agent and personal chaplain to the English King William II. Ranulf was regarded as an energetic, courageous, cunning, and very worldly official.[1] He had taken Christina’s maternal aunt Alveva as his concubine and had several children with her. He subsequently permitted Alveva to marry another man. Alveva’s new husband probably helped to provide for Ranulf’s children with Alveva. Ranulf maintained cordial relations with Alveva and her family and frequently visited them.[2] Since Christina’s family frequently visited Alveva’s family, Ranulf and Christina could come to know each other. Knowing Ranulf would offer Christina considerable worldly advantages.[3]

The Life of Christina Markyate shows Ranulf to have been stupid and morally defective in relation to Christina. Rejecting his extensive worldly experience, Ranulf acted out the part of the impulsive, devious, evil man in the fantasies of romance:

It happened that the bishop {Ranulf} gazed intently at Auti’s beautiful daughter {Christina of Markyate}. Straightaway Satan, that songster of voluptuousness, put into his heart an evil desire for her. Busily seeking some trick whereby to get her into his clutches, Ranulf had the unsuspecting girl brought into his chamber where he slept at night, a room handsomely decorated with hangings, the only others present with the innocent maiden being members of his retinue. Her father and mother and the others with whom she had come were on their own in the hall, enjoying too much drink. As night fell, the bishop gave a secret sign to his retinue and they went off, leaving their master and Christina, that is to say, the wolf and the lamb, together under the same roof. For shame! The shameless bishop indecently seized the maiden by one of the sleeves of her tunic, and with the mouth which he used to consecrate the holy sacrament he urged her to commit a wicked deed. What was the poor girl to do in such straits? [4]

The poor girl might well have followed the propitious example of her aunt Alveva, who had been Ranulf’s concubine. Alternatively, she might have prudently left the bishop’s bedroom before she found herself alone with him late at night. Such thoughts are now regarded as morally offensive. Anyone who thinks such thoughts, or even worse, expresses them, faces harsh condemnation and punishment.

Ranulf then attempted to rape Christina, according to orthodox scholarship. Poor Christina, alone with the bishop in his bedroom late at night, suddenly was propositioned by him:

Should she call her parents? They had already gone to bed. To consent was out of the question, but she did not dare to resist him openly for had she done so she would certainly have been overcome by force. [5]

Anyone who wonders why she didn’t just walk out of the room is a rape apologist. Careful study of romantic conventions provides a guide to prudent action in the bedroom of a cunning, worldly bishop:

Hear, then, how prudently she acted. She glanced back at the door, and saw that though it was closed it was not bolted. So she said, “Allow me to fasten the bolt, for even if we do not fear God at least we ought to fear men, lest they should catch us in this act.” He demanded an oath from her that she would not  deceive him but that she would do as she said and bolt the door. And she made the oath to him. And so, being released, she darted out of the room, bolted the door firmly from the outside, and hurried quickly home.

For good triumphing over evil, a false oath and bolting the door from the outside makes a much better story than simply walking out. Ranulf had deceived a whole army of men to collect a levy from them. He had also managed to escape from imprisonment in the tower of London.[6] Nonetheless, Christina fooled Ranulf with a false oath.

Stopping by again on the return leg of his journey, Ranulf offered Christina “silken garments and precious trinkets of all kinds.” She looked on those goods with utter contempt. That’s impressive, yet why was Ranulf seeking Christina’s favor? Surely if a medieval man in his position had wanted a beautiful concubine, he could have gotten one other than Christina with little effort and without being charged with rape in modern literary scholarship.[7] In the Life of Christina of Markyate, Ranulf Flambard is a fool.

Displaying the psychology of men who lack confidence with women, Ranulf responded with an act of “revenge” for Christina’s rejection, rather than with lack of concern. Ranulf urged the young nobleman Burthred and Christina’s parents to seek marriage between Burthred and Christina. Christina rejected that proposition. She insisted that she wanted to remain a virgin. In contrast to currently prevailing mis-education, a daughter was not merely her father’s property, to be given to any man he chose.[8] Burthred and Christina’s parents had to convince Christina to consent to marriage:

They gave her presents and made lavish promises. She refused. They cajoled her. They threatened her. She would not yield. Eventually they coaxed a young woman by the name of Melisen, one of her peers and a close friend, into whispering incessant blandishments in her ears, so that by her insistent chatter she would arouse a desire in the heart of her listener for the dignity and status of matrimony. … she was quite unable to extort one word of consent, even though she spent a whole year trying out stratagems of this kind. But sometime later, on a day when they had gathered together at church, everyone quite out of the blue accosted the girl. What more is there to say? I do not know how, all I do know is that with God’s consent Christina gave in to this chorus of haranguing voices. And in the same hour Burthred was betrothed to her. [9]

Burthred, seeking to provide better materially for his wife Christina, built a new, bigger home near the home of Christina’s parents. Ranulf’s vengeful marital act toward Christina is one that many women undoubtedly would have welcomed. Perhaps that explains Christina “giving in” and consenting to marriage.

As many men now sadly understand, a woman consenting to marriage doesn’t mean her consenting to have sex. Although Christina and Burthred as betrothed persons could licitly have sex, Christina publicly expressed her refusal “to be defiled by submitting herself to the carnal embraces of a man.” Christina’s parents diligently sought to stimulate in Christina desire to have sex with her husband. They flattered her and taunted her, gave her presents, and made promises to her. They isolated her from pious persons and surrounded her with “people given to jesting, boasting, and world amusements.” They insisted that she go partying:

they took her against her will to banquets, where an excellent variety of dishes was served with various kinds of drink, where the alluring melodies of singers were accompanied by the sounds of the zither and the harp, so that by listening to them her strength of mind might be sapped and in this way she might finally be brought to take pleasure in the world.

Christina’s loving parents even arranged for her to serve wine while dressed alluringly as the cup-bearer at the Gild merchant festival. Nonetheless, Christina retained her determination to remain a virgin even after she had consented to marriage. Burthred thus faced many more years of sexless marriage than Margery Kempe’s husband did.

After failing to arouse sexual desire in Christina, her parents tried a more forceful approach. They arranged to let Burthred into Christina’s bedroom secretly at night. They hoped that Burthred would find Christina sleeping and would “suddenly violate her.” That’s not how a normal man enjoys having sex, especially for the first time with his wife. In any case, the conspiracy failed. Entering Christina’s bedroom secretly at night, Burthred found Christina dressed and awake. She welcomed him “joyfully as if he had been her brother”:

She sat on the bed with him and strongly encouraged him to live chastely. … {She told him} “Do not feel shame that I have spurned you. So that your friends will not taunt you with having being rejected by me, I will go to your house and we will live there for a while ostensibly as husband and wife but in reality living chastely in the sight of the Lord. But first, let us join hands in agreement that neither meanwhile will touch the other unchastely, neither will one look upon the other except with a pure and angelic gaze, promising God that after three or four years, we will receive the religious habit and offer ourselves … to whichever monastery providence chooses.” [10]

After enduring talk of this sort for the greater part of the night, Burthred left, probably stunned and dazed. Surely he had a much different vision of his marriage to Christina when he build a big, new house for her near her parents’ house. He must have realized how stupid he was to get married to Christina.

Christina’s family and Burthred’s friends taunted Burthred with his failure to have sex with his wife. They perceived the problem to be his lack of manliness:

When those that had got him into the room {Christina’s bedroom} heard what had happened, they joined together in calling him a spineless and useless fellow. With many reproaches they goaded him on again, and on another night thrust him forcefully into the bridal chamber, warning him neither to be misled by Christina’s deceitful tricks and naive words nor to let her unman him. He was to get his way either by force or entreaty, and if neither of these sufficed, he was to know that they were standing by to help him. He must just remember to act the man. [11]

Not acting like a man tends to dry up heterosexual women’s sexual desire. Burthred apparently lacked advantage in both physical force and entreaty in seeking sex with his wife Christina. His friends “standing by to help him” have sex with his wife suggests pathos, brutality, and comedy.

Burthred’s second secret entrance into his wife’s bedroom combined romance, horror, and comedy. Sensing that Burthred was coming into her bedroom, Christina jumped out of bed and hung on a nail, hidden between the wall and the curtain. That strongly protruding nail provides a counterpoint to questions about Burthred’s masculinity. Soon Burthred approached his wife’s bed:

Not finding what he had hoped, he gave the signal to those waiting by the door. They immediately burst into the room, and with lights in their hands ran here and there looking for her, all the more eagerly since they were sure she had been in the room when he entered it and that she could not escape without them seeing her. What, I ask you, do you suppose were her feelings at that moment? How she trembled in fear for her life as they noisily sought her! Was she not faint with fear? She imagined herself already dragged out in their midst with them all surrounding her, leering at her, threatening her, abandoned to the violation of her seducer. [12]

Presenting a woman in danger and prompting sympathy for her is a core strategy in communication that seeks attention, e.g. contemporary mass media. The Life of Christina of Markyate adds a touching, dramatic gesture:

Finally, one of them by chance touched and held her foot as she hung there, but since the curtain between them deadened his sense of touch, he let it go, not knowing what it was.

That would make a winning scene in a Hollywood blockbuster movie about a strong, independent woman who prevails over her husband seeking to rape her. Events the next day provide another propitious Hollywood movie scene:

as he came in one door she fled through another. In front of her was a kind of fence which, because of its height and the sharp spikes on top of it, was calculated to prevent anyone from climbing over it. Behind her, almost on her heels, was the young man, who at any moment might catch hold of her. With amazing ease she jumped over the fence, and looking back in safety from the other side she saw her pursuer standing there unable to get across. [13]

Christina then identified her husband with “a devil of horrible appearance, with blackened teeth.” Men and women who internalize such mass-media representations of men become morally broken.

Archbishop Thurstan of York, who was a close friend of the Bishop of Durham Ranulf Flambard, intervened to help Christina after she fled from her home and her marriage. Thurstan met privately with Christina for a long time. That was foolish in light of the subsequent literary history of Ranulf being accused of attempting to rape Christina. But Thurstan probably couldn’t have imagined such a development. He served Christina well. He promised to annul her marriage, confirm her vow of virginity, and permit her husband, by apostolic indult, to marry another woman. He fulfilled his promises.[14]

With Christina desperately seeking a safe place to live, Thurstan also arranged for her to live with a cleric who was a close friend of his. That was foolish:

certainly at the beginning they had no feelings for each other, except chaste and spiritual affection. But the devil, the enemy of chastity, could not for long bear this situation. And he took advantage of their close companionship and feeling of security to infiltrate himself stealthily and with guile, then later on, alas, to assault them more openly. Loosing fiery darts, he pressed his attacks so vigorously that he completely overcame the man’s resistance. But the devil could not wrest consent from the maiden, even though he titillated her flesh and put ideas in her head. [15]

The man, blessed with naturally potent masculinity, suffered terribly from the carnal allure of Christina:

Sometimes the wretched man was so aroused that he came before her naked, burning with lust and quite beside himself, and behaved in such a shocking way that I cannot make it known lest by such shamefulness I pollute the wax by writing about it or the air by saying it. Sometimes falling on the ground, he implored and beseeched her to have pity upon him and to have compassion on his wretched state.

The ideology of courtly love valorizes men begging women for love and sex. Men who act like courtly lovers are dupes. Begging women for sexual pity, or pity generally, seldom works. So it was with Christina:

as he lay there she upbraided him for showing so little respect for his calling, and she dismissed his advances with harsh reproaches. And though she herself was struggling with this wretched passion, she wisely pretended that she was untouched by it.

Men are far inferior to women in guile. Moreover, because the man lacked enlightenment about seducing women, his very presence chilled Christina’s sexual desire:

Only one thing brought her respite {from her sexual passion}: the presence of her patron {the man sexually impassioned for her}. For then, her passion cooled; for in his absence she used to be so inwardly inflamed that she thought the clothes which clung to her body might catch fire! Had this happened while she was in his presence, the maiden might well have been unable to keep herself in check. [16]

The cleric unknowingly spurred Christina’s sexual desire in a way that her parents had never been able to do for her with respect to her husband. However, the cleric’s sexual self-abasement and ignorance of women’s guile saved him from sexual sin. A dream of stern admonishment from Mary Magdalen, a renowned holy harlot, ultimately cured his lust. Married men wanting sex with their wives should seek much different blessings.

After Christina became the prioress of a woman’s hermitage at Markyate, she established a paradigmatic gender relation with Abbot Geoffrey of St. Albans. Geoffrey promised to be the patron of her hermitage and provide for its material needs. She in turn provided him with moral instruction and served his spiritual needs.[17] Christina became his super-ego:

the abbot, whether near or far away, could not offend God either in word or deed without her immediately knowing it in the spirit. Nor did she make a secret of reproving him harshly in his presence whenever she knew that in his absence he had gravely sinned … Whenever Geoffrey was sorely tempted to sin, he imagined Christina to be present, for he knew that scarcely anything was hidden from her, and so he easily repelled temptation. [18]

Christina was credited with saving Geoffrey’s life and knowing what color cape he was wearing before she saw him. She also advised him about whether he should accept particular ecclesiastical travel assignments. In short, Christina was Geoffrey’s moral superior, and Geoffrey was Christina’s material provider. Christina and Geoffry, in addition to not having sex, related to each other in ways similar to that of many wives and husbands today.[19]

Men should read the Life of Christina of Markyate. That story can help men to understand their need for sexual self-confidence. It might also inspire men to reject the oppressive material-provider gender role and assert their moral equality with women.

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Notes:

[1] Reviewing Ranulf Frambard’s life in detail, Southern described Ranulf as “the first outstandingly successful administrator in English history.” Southern noted:

he was a new phenomenon in English government. This son of an obscure priest in the diocese of Bayeux was the first man of ignoble birth in English history to climb from the bottom to the top of the social scale by the backstairs of the royal administration.

Southern (1970) pp. 188, 186. More generally, id. pp. 183-205. King William II is also known as William Rufus.

[2] Life of Christina of Markyate 5, from Latin trans. Talbot, Fanous & Leyser (2008) pp. 6-7. I reference the text with the Latin section numbers and the page in the English translation of id. Talbot (2002) provides the Latin text. The Anglo-Saxon form of Alveva’s name is Ælfgifu. The subsequent two quotes are from Life of Christina of Markyate 5-6, pp. 7-8.

The Life of Christina of Markyate has survived in only one manuscript, British Museum MS. Cotton Tiberius E.1., f. 145r–167v.

[3] Ranulf had at least five sons and helped his family to achieve eminent offices and statuses. Southern (1970) p. 201 and Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, entry for Flambard, Ranulf (c.1060–1128).

[4] Life of Christina of Markyate 5, p. 7. Christina’s baptismal name was Theodora. She adopted the name Christina to indicate her vow of virginal fidelity to Christ. I refer to her as Christina throughout for clarity.

[5] Christina’s consideration of consent indicates that Ranulf sought her consent. With respect to the relational discourse of sexual consent, see my post on Calisto and Melibea.

[6] See entry for Ranulf in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Earlier in his life, Ranulf had shrewdly secured by himself his freedom from kidnappers. Southern (1970) p. 187.

[7] A papal legate reportedly visited Ranulf in 1125 to deliver a disciplinary measure for his incontinence. Ranulf arranged for a women to spend the night with the legate. Ranulf and his associates then burst into the legate’s room when he was in bed with the woman. The legate quickly left Durham without further annoying Ranulf. Southern (1970) p. 203. If Ranulf could arrange an appealing woman for a papal legate, surely he could do so for himself.

Moore notes scholarly references to Ranulf’s bedroom incident with Christina as “attempted rape.” Moore convincingly argues that such a phrase “is a stronger description than the text will support.” Moore (2005) p. 139. Jaeger (2005) p. 101 perceives in the Life of Christina of Markyate an instance of rape. Leading newspaper reporting on rape provides important context for that perception.

Brooke suggests that some stories within the Life of Christina of Markyate have “a quality of fantasy about them.” He asserts that Alveva may actually have been a concubine to Ranulf “even if the account of his efforts to seduce Christina has an element of fantasy in it.” Brooke (1989) p. 145. It’s reasonable to think that the account of Christina’s interaction with Ranulf has even more than one element of fantasy in it.

Patrolling against perceiving even one element of fantasy in that fantastic story, Stanton declares, “Yet more troubling is Brooke’s use of the term ‘fantasy,’ which he repeats in the following paragraph.” Stanton evokes the horror of Brooke implying a “rape fantasy” and declares that the text “leaves no doubt about the threat of rape.” Stanton (2002) pp. 262-2. Such remarks provide context for dominant mendacity in public discourse about rape and domestic violence.

[8] Among social scientists, Margo Wilson and Martin Daly have been highly successful in propagating the view that women, until the recent glorious age, have been universally the property of men. See notes [3] and [4] in my post on primatology and vegetarianism.

[9] Life of Christina of Markyate 8, p. 9. The subsequent two quotes are from id. pp. 9-10. Burthred is the Latin form of the Anglo-Saxon name Beorhtred. I have replaced Anglo-Saxon names with the more common Latin names for consistency and ease of identification.

Ranulf’s conception of revenge was for a man to auferret Christine florem pudicicie (remove from Christina the flower of modesty / deflower Christina). That language reflects deeply rooted social hostility to male sexuality.

With respect to Christina’s betrothal, the Latin text used the term desponsavit:

Desponsavit is often translated ‘betrothed’, but it was the common, indeed the normal, word for the exchange of promises which formed the core of matrimonial consent. It is clear that what is described here is a marriage ‘at church door’.

Brooke (1989) p. 146. For convenience of reference, I use the terms wife and husband in referring to Christina and Burthred in relation to each other prior to when their marriage was annulled.

[10] Life of Christina of Markyate 10, pp. 11-2. Christina taught Buthred about saints living sexless marriages:

She recounted to him the example of the saints, narrating to him in detail the story of St Cecilia and her husband Valerian

Id. Saint Cecilia and Saint Valerian were crowned with both sexless marriage and martyrdom.

[11] Id. The underlying Latin for “spineless and useless fellow” is ignavum ac nullius usus. These terms hint of male erectile failure.

[12] Life of Christina of Markyate 11, pp. 12-3. The subsequent quote is from id.

[13] Life of Christina of Markyate 12, p. 13. On the godly jumping over walls with ease, Psalm 18:29.

[14] On Thurstan’s friendship with Ranulf, see the entry for Ranulf in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Christina was under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Lincoln, not under that of Thurston, the Archbishop of York. Thurstan’s particular concern for Christina is further expressed later:

The archbishop of York {Thurston} in particular tried very hard to honour her {Christina} by making her superior over the virgins whom he had gathered together under his name at York, or as an alternative to send her over the sea to Marcigny or at least to Fontevrault. But she preferred our monastery {St. Albans}

Life of Christina of Markyate 50, p. 52.

[15] Life of Christina of Markyate 43, p. 46. In ancient Greco-Roman literature, Cupid rather than Satan would shoot passion-inducing fiery darts. The subsequent two quotes are from id.

[16] Life of Christina of Markyate 44, p. 47. Regarding her virginity and her desire to be a consecrated virgin, the text observes:

she remembered the forcefulness of the thoughts and stings of the flesh with which she had been troubled and even though she was not aware that she had fallen either in deed or desire, she did not dare assert that she had escaped unscathed from such great storms.

Life 51, p. 53. The earlier text clearly indicates that she had fallen “in desire.”

[17] The hermit Roger of Markyate was more subtly depicted as morally inferior to Christina. Roger chastised himself severely for initially not recognizing Christina’s worthiness to be a hermit even though she was fleeing from a marriage. In her living arrangements with him, she suffered greater bodily hardships. That signals superiority among hermits.

The election of Christina as Roger’s successor at the Markyate hermitage also indicates Roger’s moral inferiority to Christina. Roger considered making Christina his successor. He discussed the matter with her. She neither refused nor consented. Instead, she entrusted the matter to the authority of the Lord and the Virgin Mary. The Queen of Heaven (the Virgin Mary) subsequently gave Roger’s hermitage to Christina at her explicit request. Christina’s actions indicate her belief in Roger’s lack of authority to choose a successor for his hermitage. Christina’s actions also underscore Roger’s initial failure to recognize her virtue. Life of Christina of Markyate 38-42, pp. 38-46.

Jaeger perceives the Life of Christina of Markyate to be “structured as a series of relationships with men, which rise from rape and seduction to a deep spiritual love.” Jaeger (2005) p. 101. Jaeger highlights the romantic convention (exchange of glances) in the development of Christina and Roger’s relationship and ignores the construction of Roger’s spiritual inferiority to Christina. Id. p. 102. Jaeger views the cleric with strong, independent sexuality to be an aberration in his scheme of man’s moral progression under woman’s instruction. Id. p. 112. While both Roger and Geoffrey are represented as morally inferior to Christina, Roger’s moral inferiority to Geoffrey is far from clear.

[18] Life of Christina of Markyate 58-9, p. 60. Before taking a trip to Rome, Geoffrey requested from Christina two undergarments (interulas) to “mitigate the hardship” of the journey. Jaeger (2005), pp. 109-10, perceptively interprets the undergarments as contact relics of Christina.

[19] In addition to viewing men’s abasement in courtly love as “ennobling,” Jaeger celebrates Christina’s relationship with Geoffrey:

The structuring idea of Christina’s friendship with Geoffrey is that the love reaches ever higher stages, consistent with the abbot’s rise in spirituality through Christina’s efforts to improve him. It is rich in reverberations with courtly love themes. The reward of love is given in accordance with the man’s improvement. The woman becomes the moral force which ‘educates’ him and assures him of God’s favour.

Jaeger (2005) p. 111. This view reflects unlimited public latitude for man-degrading gender-equality double-talk.

[image] Christina of Markyate petitioning Jesus on behalf of monks of St. Albans. The illuminated initial letter begins Psalm 105 in the St. Albans Psalter (page 285). Above the letter in Latin is the petition “Spare your monks I beseech you, o merciful kindness of Jesus.” Here’s an excellent online explication and presentation of the St. Albans Psalter. That site regrettably and shamefully claims copyright on reproduction of images from the St. Albans Psalter. The image above is thanks to Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Brooke, Christopher N.L. 1989. The medieval idea of marriage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fanous, Samuel, and Henrietta Leyser, eds. 2005. Christina of Markyate: a twelfth-century holy woman. London: Routledge.

Jaeger, C. Stephen. 2005. “The loves of Christina of Markyate.” Ch. 6 (pp. 99-115) in Fanous & Leyser (2005).

Moore, R. I. 2005. “Ranulf Flambard and Christina of Markyate.” Ch. 8 (pp. 138-42) in Fanous & Leyser (2005).

Southern, R. W. 1970. Medieval humanism. New York: Harper & Row.

Stanton, Robert. 2002. “Marriage, Socialization, and Domestic Violence in the Life of Christina of Markyate.” Ch. 11 (pp. 242-71) in Salisbury, Eve, Georgiana Donavin, and Merrall Llewelyn Price, eds. Domestic violence in medieval texts. Gainesville: University Press of Florida

Talbot, C. H. 2002. The life of Christina of Markyate: a twelfth century recluse. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Talbot, C.H. trans, Samuel Fanous and Henrietta Leyser, rev. and ed. 2008. The life of Christina of Markyate. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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