Fortunatus imagined helping Radegund in the kitchen

In the sixth century, Radegund of Thuringia, a princess and queen, left her life of royal privilege to serve humbly her religious sisters in the Abbey of the Holy Cross at Poitiers. Her friend Venantius Fortunatus recognized her humble, arduous work in the kitchen. While kitchen help isn’t the most important gift men can offer women, Fortunatus at least imagined helping Radegund in the kitchen.

medieval kitchen work

After Radegund died, Fortunatus memorialized her life, including her kitchen service. In order that her loved ones could enjoy bountiful meals, Radegund worked assiduously:

How can anyone explain her excited fervor as she ran into the kitchen to do her week of chores? None of the nuns except she would carry as much wood as was needed in a bundle from the back gate. She drew water from the well and poured it into basins. She scrubbed vegetables, washed legumes, and revived the hearth by blowing so that she could cook the food. She busied herself while pots were boiling. She took the vessels from the hearth, washing and laying out the dishes. Then, when the meal was finished, she rinsed the small vessels. She scrubbed the kitchen till it shone, and did the same for whatever was filthy. She carried out what was scrubbed away.

{ Illud quoque quis explicet, quanto fervore excitata ad coquinam concursitabat suam faciens septimanam? Denique nulla monacharum nisi ipsa de posticio, quantum ligni opus erat, sola ferebat in sarcina. Aquam de puteo trahebat et dispensabat per vascula. Holus purgans, legumen lavans, flatu focum vivificans, et ut decoqueret escas, satagebat exaestuans. Vasa de foco ipsa levans, discos lavans et inferens. Hinc, consummatis conviviis, ipsa vascula diluens, purgans nitide coquina, quidquid erat lutulentum, ferebat ima purgamina. }[1]

That’s not the sort of work privileged women typically did in the sixth century. Privileged women today might just order take-out from a restaurant. Nonetheless, while laboring in obscurity, many men and women today do kitchen work on behalf of others.

Since Radegund lived in an institution that restricted men’s access, Fortunatus couldn’t simply go to Radegund to help her in the kitchen. But he acknowledged her work and prayed for her:

Sweet, bountiful, and worthy woman, for whom is such labor’s care
so that would come to you a great harvest from a few seeds,
you now willingly weary your limbs as time flees.
With Christ you will be given perpetual rest.
Your right hand, truly sweating as you prepare meals for the sisters,
now burns from waves of flames and numbs in cold.
With constant prayers I roll among your arms
and the burden you bear oppresses my spirit.
Now you hasten back to make the fire and cook the meal.
Since inactive, I have no value in helping mother.

{ Dulcis opima decens, cui tanta est cura laboris,
ut tibi sit modico semine magna seges,
quae modo membra libens fugitivo tempore lassas,
cum Christo dabitur perpetuanda quies.
Dextra ubi nempe paras sudando sororibus escas,
undis et flammis hinc riget, inde calet.
Assiduis votis inter tua bracchia volvor
atque meos animos sarcina vestra terit.
Nunc faciendo focos epulasque coquendo recurris,
nec valeo matrem quippe iuvare piger. }[2]

As a religious woman and the founding mother of a convent, Radegund surely understood that stillness in prayer has value. But it doesn’t have value in preparing ordinary food. Fortunatus imagined himself actually helping Radegund in the kitchen:

If I cannot pay tribute to you at your side, I pay in my absence
so that it would prove my devotion, my beloved mother.
If I were not absent, I would do whatever you ordered.
Perhaps an unskillful man would please with small submissions.
With devoted heart but rustic tongue I would offer
by shepherd’s pipe music in mother’s ear.
Attending your commands every day I would wear out my limbs —
they would serve with my neck bowed to its lady-lord.
My fingers would refuse nothing, and the hand
that wrote this would lift forth waters from a deep well,
pull out vines and set up cuttings in gardens,
willingly plant and cultivate sweet vegetables.
A splendor it would be to burn my limbs with you in the kitchen
and to wash blackened pots in a basin of pure water.

{ Si nequeo praesens, absens tibi solvo tributum,
ut probet affectum, mater amata, meum.
Si non essem absens, facerem quodcumque iuberes:
obsequiis parvis forte placeret iners.
Pectore devoto set rustica lingua dedisset
pastoris calamo matris in aure sonum.
Imperiis famulans tererem mea membra diurnis,
servirent dominae subdita colla suae.
Nulla recusarent digiti, puteoque profundo
quae manus hoc scripsit prompta levaret aquas,
protraheret vites et surcula figeret hortis,
plantaret, coleret dulce libenter holus.
Splendor erat tecum mea membra ardere coquina
et nigra de puro vasa lavare lacu. }[3]

What more could Fortunatus do? He also urged Radegund to “drink a little soothing wine, for you are over-weary {ut lassata nimis vina benigna bibas}.”[4] That’s authoritative Christian advice to those whose burdens are heavy.

Women are celebrated for competing with their beloved men in their men’s chosen fields. For example, Heloise of the Paraclete ardently loved Peter Abelard. He was renowned as an extraordinarily learned scholar and an outstanding poet. While she preferred not to burden him with marriage, they felt compelled to marry. Heloise herself came to be regarded as a great scholar. A medieval epitaph for her declares:

Heloise, beauty and glory of the womanly sex,
is enclosed before her time beneath this mass of stones.
She matched her Peter in perception, inclination, and skill.
She knew all literature unlike anyone else.
Speech and goodness made her figure and fame. With splendor and worth,
she was a rare one who to him continued perpetually sufficient.

{ Feminei sexus decor et decus hec Heloyssa
Mole sub hac lapidum clauditur ante dies.
Illa suo Petro par sensu, moribus, arte,
Scripturas omnes noverat absque pare.
Os, virtus, formam, famam, fulgore, valore,
Que sunt rara satis perpetuavit ei. }[5]

Heloise didn’t eternally promise Abelard that epitaph writers wouldn’t praise her above him in scholarly knowledge. Even as a highly learned woman, she probably perceived no reason to make that impossible promise.

Meninist literary criticism highlights important insights from great medieval women writers. Learn from what happened to Heloise. Men, don’t insist on helping your wives or girlfriends in the kitchen. Respect women. Your beloved women might prefer to prepare gifts for you independently and non-competitively.

work in restaurant kitchen

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Read more:


[1] Venantius Fortunatus, The Life of Holy Radegund {De vita sanctae Radegundis} para. 24, Latin text from Leo (1881), English translation (modified) from McNamara & Halborg (1992). Here’s the Latin edition of Migne (1849).

[2] Fortunatus, Carmina Appendix 28, vv. 1-10, Latin text from Roberts (2017), my English translation, benefiting from those of id. and Pucci (2010). Subsequent quotes above from Fortunatus’s poems are similarly sourced. Leo (1881) provides a freely available Latin edition of Fortunatus’s poems. Leo’s Latin edition differs little from Roberts’s Latin edition.

[3] Fortunatus, Carmina Appendix 22, vv. 1-14.

[4] Fortunatus, Carmina 11.4, v. 4. Cf. 1 Timothy 5:23.

[5] Epitaph for Heloise, vv. 1-6, Latin text from Dronke (1976) p. 49, , my English translation, benefiting from that of Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 469 (which inadvertently omitted the fifth verse). Cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9. This epitaph survives only in a fifteenth-century manuscript: Bern 211, fol. 160v. Id. This epitaph is 453 in Barrow, Burnett & Luscombe (1986) and 6418 in Walther (1963-1969).

Dronke commented “perpetuare — in the sense of ‘to promise lastingly’” and translated Que sunt rara satis perpetuavit ei as “she made to him an eternal promise of the rarest kind.” Dronke (1965) vol. 2, pp. 469-70. Dronke had outstanding knowledge of medieval Latin. Nonetheless, his translation of this verse seems to me inaccurate and tendentious. Similarly tendentious is Dronke’s claim, “what is unusual here is the sense of two lovers perfectly matched.” Donke (1976) p. 22.

Clanchy, in contrast, declared that verse 4 of this epitaph “looks like a riposte to Peter the Venerable’s epitaph which had declared Abelard to be ‘without an equal, without a better, the world’s acknowledged prince of studies {aut par, aut melior, studiorum cognitus orbi princeps}.'” Clanchy (2003) p. v (footnoted Latin included in quote). Peter the Venerable was a knowledgeable contemporary of Heloise and Abelard. Apparently dismissing Peter the Venerable’s claim, Clanchy declared:

The epitaph for Heloise asserts that she had been Abelard’s equal in sensibilities and his superior in learning. Because he is now so much better documented than she is (his main academic works survive, whereas she is known only through letters and charters), modern scholars have tended to see her as his intellectual and artistic dependent. Even her best biographer, Enid McLeod, takes this patriarchal line….

Id. Praise Clanchy for bravely denouncing patriarchy!

Men and women delight in aggrandizing women, and men ardently desire to be champions for women. For example, about the year 1100, Hildebert of Lavardin, then the forty-five-year-old bishop of Le Mans, praised poems that he had received from the nun Muriel of Wilton. Hildebert declared to her:

Former times boasted of ten sibyls,
and great was the glory of your sex.
The present age rejoices in just one genius,
and does not totally lack a young woman prophet.
Between humans and gods now exist certain communications,
which I think, if I’m not deceived, are uttered through a young woman’s voice.
The gods have placed in your mind their awesome inner workings
and have appointed your sacred voice as their prophet.
Whatever flows from your voice transcends the vigils of the ancients
and is inferior solely to the gods.
Whatever you exhale is immortal, and
the world adores your work as if it were divine.
By your genius you dethrone prophets and celebrated poets,
and both sexes are stunned by your eloquence.
The songs you have sent me I have considered and pondered ten times.
I marvel and deem them to have come from far away.
Such sacred works cannot be human,
nor do I believe you speak, but celestial beings speak through you.
The weight of your words, their deep meaning, their beautiful order,
have the face of making divinely.

{ Tempora prisca decem se iactavere sibillis,
et vestri sexus gloria multa fuit.
unius ingenio presentia secula gaudent,
et non ex toto virgine vate carent.
nunc quoque sunt homini quedam commercia divum,
quos puto, nec fallor, virginis ore loqui.
mente tua posuere dei penetrale verendum,
osque sacrum vatem constituere suum.
ore tuo quecumque fluunt vigilata priorum
transcendunt, solis inferiora deis.
quicquid enim spiras est immortale, tuumque
tanquam divinum mundus adorat opus.
deprimis ingenio vates celebresque poetas,
et stupet eloquio sexus uterque tuo.
carmina missa mihi decies spectata revolvens
miror, et ex aditis illa venire reor.
non est humanum tam sacros posse labores,
nec te, sed per te numina credo loqui.
pondera verborum, sensus gravis, ordo venustus
vultum divine condicionis habent. }

Hildebert of Le Mans, Carmen 26, Latin text of Scott (1969) pp. 17-8 via Epistolae: Medieval Women’s Latin Letters, my English translation, benefiting from that at Epistolae and Jaeger (2022) pp. 440-1 (Excursus 2). Here’s an Italian translation. If Hildebert actually admired Muriel of Wilton’s poetry so highly, he might have preserved it. None of her poetry has survived.

Despite being a bishop, Hildebert in praising Muriel of Wilton engaged in classical gyno-idolatry. His rhetoric implies that he experienced the sublime in reading Muriel’s poetry. Jaeger declared:

Hildebert, along with writers and audiences who shared his culture, understood that the aesthetic effect of Muriel’s poetry was more prophetic than mimetic; more like that of the Virgin Mary magnifying the lord than that of a sober observer exaggerating the virtues of an ordinary person. Both the mother of Jesus and Hildebert were raising the subject of their praise into the sublime.

Jaeger (2022) Excursus 2. This claim elides differences between “the aesthetic effect of Muriel’s poetry” and Muriel’s status as a person. Hildebert was praising Muriel as a god just as the mother of Jesus magnified the lord as god. In practice, men’s gyno-idolatry is commonplace. It has even been exhibited in the British Museum.

Not gyno-idolators, nuns of the Paraclete perceived their abbess Heloise to be a saint. Their epitaph for her emphasizes her closeness to them:

The prudent Heloise, our abbess, lies in this tomb.
Founder of the Paraclete, she rests with the Paraclete.
High above the poles, she shares the joys of the saints.
She lifts us from the depths by her merits and her prayers.

{ Hoc tumulo abbatissa iacet prudens Heloysa.
Paraclitum statuit, cum Paraclito requiescit.
Gaudia sanctorum sua sunt super alta polorum.
nos meritis precibusque suis exaltet ab imis. }

Latin text from Dronke (1976) p. 50, English translation (modified slightly) from McLaughlin & Wheeler (2009) (Letter 20). This epitaph is 454 in Barrow, Burnett & Luscombe (1986) and 8365 in Walther (1963-1969). It apparently comes from a manuscript from the Paraclete. It survives in two fifteenth-century sources and in a thirteenth-century manuscript: Troyes, Médiathèque du Grand Troyes (olim Bibliothèque Municipale), Fonds ancien 802 I, f. 102v. Fortunatus similarly regarded Radegund as a saint and wanted to be close to her in an ordinary way, i.e. working in the kitchen.

[images] (1) Medieval kitchen work. Woodcut by Johannes Fischauer in the Augsburg (1505) edition of Kuchenmaistrey {Kitchen Knowledge}. Peter Wagner first published this book in 1485. It’s the first printed cookbook in German. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Commercial work in a restaurant kitchen. Source image generously shared on flickr by Dr. Matthias Ripp under a Creative Commons By 2.0 license.


Barrow Julia, Charles Burnett, and David Luscombe. 1986. “A Checklist of the Manuscripts Containing the Writings of Peter Abelard and Heloise and Other Works Closely Associated with Abelard and His School.” Revue d’Histoire des Textes. 14-15: 183-302.

Clanchy, Michael. 2003. “Forward.” Pp. v-viii in Stewart, Marc, and David Wulstan. 2003. The Poetic and Musical Legacy of Heloise and Abelard: An Anthology of Essays by Various Authors. Ottawa, Canada; Westhumble, Surrey: Institute of Mediaeval Music and Plainsong and Mediaeval Music Society.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. 2 vols. Vol. 1Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1976. Abelard and Heloise in Medieval Testimonies: the twenty-sixth W.P. Ker Memorial Lecture delivered in the University of Glasgow 29th October, 1976. Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press. Reprinted as Chapter 9 (pp. 247-294) in Dronke, Peter. 1992. Intellectuals and Poets in Medieval Europe. Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura.

Jaeger, C. Stephen. 2022. The Sense of the Sublime in the Middle Ages. Online.

Leo, Friedrich, ed. 1881. Venanti Fortunati Opera Poetica (Pars Prior), Venanti Fortunati Opera Pedestria (Pars Posterior). Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi IV. Berlin: Weidmann. Another copy.

McLaughlin, Mary, and Bonnie Wheeler, trans. 2009. The Letters of Heloise and Abelard. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

McNamara, Jo Ann, and John E. Halborg, ed. and trans., with E. Gordon Whatley. 1992. Sainted Women of the Dark Ages. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Pucci, Michael, trans. 2010. Poems to Friends: Venantius Fortunatus. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co.

Roberts, Michael, ed and trans. 2017. Venantius Fortunatus. Poems. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 46. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Reviews by Hope Williard and by Lionel Yaceczko.

Scott, A. Brian. 1969. Hildeberti Cenomannensis Episcopi, Carmina Minora. Leipzig: Teubner.

Walther, Hans. 1963-1969. Proverbia sententiaeque latinitatis Medii Aevi: lateinische Sprichwörter und Sentenzen des Mittelalters in alphabetischer Anordnung. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

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