In the Middle Ages, most noble women married the men whom their parents chose for them. A marriage for love was almost unheard of in this social class. Marriage between members of the upper classes was a cold-blooded business arrangement, drawn up to protect and increase inherited wealth and power.
Parents seeking advantageous marriages often betrothed their children at the age of six or seven years. Girls were usually married by the age of fourteen, taking into the partnership a valuable dowry of chattels and land.
What if the Lady Refused to Marry – What Options Did She Have?
But what if a young woman rebelled, refusing to marry the man selected by her parents? What options did she have? She could stay at home and endure the frustration of her humiliated family. She could enter a convent, or her parents might insist on her entering one.
That option would at least offer a reasonable education and a useful life, devoted to running schools and hospitals, managing convent lands or looking after the needy. Convents eagerly welcomed women from the upper echelons of society who brought with them valuable dowries, a prerequisite of entry to most convents.
Another alternative was to become an anchoress like Christina of Markyate. We know a lot about Christina through her autobiography, Life of Christina of Markyate (written in 1150), and also through the writings of Abbot Geoffrey de Gorham (Abbot of St. Albans – 1119-1145).
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Christina of Markyate – The First Feminist?
Christina of Markyate (born Theodora), was born into a wealthy English family in about 1095. As a young girl, during a visit to St. Alban’s Abbey in Hertfordshire, Christina took a vow of chastity, committing herself to a life dedicated to the church.
Christina’s family had many wealthy friends, one of whom was Bishop Ranulph Flambard. During a visit to Christina’s home, Ranulph tried to rape her. On realising his intentions, she suggested that she should lock the bedroom door. The unsuspecting Bishop agreed. Christina ran to the door and locked it – from the outside!
The embarrassed and humiliated Bishop took his revenge by brokering her marriage, with her father’s approval, to Burthred, one of his (Ranulph’s) wealthy friends. Because of her commitment to the church, Christina refused to marry not just Burthred, but anyone else they might choose.
Ranulph, and her parents, were furious. A bitter row went on for over two years until eventually Christina relented and the wedding took place in 1116. Because of her stance against the conventions of upper class society, many regard her as the first feminist.
No Marriage Was Legal Until Consummated
Burthred made several unsuccessful attempts to force his unwilling wife to consummate the marriage. On her wedding night she simply talked him out of it by lecturing him on the virtues of chastity. She recalled the story of Saint Cecilia’s wedding night.
Cecilia married Valerian and when he tried to consummate the marriage she told him an angel of the Lord watched over her and would punish anyone who attempted to take her virginity. On another occasion Christina out smarted Burthred by hiding between the bedroom wall and a hanging tapestry. When he went looking for her he could not find her.
Christina Becomes an Anchoress
Eventually, Christina ran away, going on the run for several years, seeking refuge with different religious recluses. Eventually, a monk from St. Albans, Roger the Hermit, concealed her in his cell at Markyate.
For several years she hid in a closet barricaded in by a tree trunk, leaving under cover of darkness to visit the chapel and answer the call of nature. Life as religious recluse (known as an anchoress or anchorite) was halfway between domesticity and the communal life of the convent.
An anchorite’s life was extremely hard. When a man or woman adopted this way of life they underwent a religious rite of consecration, very similar to a funeral, as if they were dead to the world.
Sealed into a tiny room, or cell, often attached to a church, the anchorite would usually stay there until death. Most cells had two windows. Through one, known as a “hagioscope” or ″squint″, the anchorite would hear mass and receive Holy Communion.
Through the other, which faced the outside world, the occupant received food and other essential items or offer spiritual guidance to visitors. Much of Christina’s time passed in prayer and contemplation or sewing and embroidering garments which served as payment for the food she received.
Life as an anchoress allowed Christina to devote her life to God and to fulfil her vow of chastity. Burthred eventually gave up and had the marriage annulled in 1122.
Christina of Markyate’s Legacy
Christina certainly left her mark on medieval society. Her good friend and confidante, Geoffrey de Gorham, Abbot of St. Albans, adapted a Psalter, known as the St. Alban’s Psalter, for her personal use. This still survives.
In the 1150s, a chaplain who probably served her community, wrote a very detailed account of her life based on her personal reminiscences. The manuscript was found at the British Library, which published The Life of Christina of Markyate – A Twelfth-Century Recluse in 1959.
Christina was well-known for the sound spiritual advice she offered those who came to her for guidance. Abbot Geoffrey founded a priory at Markyate for Christina, and many like-minded women, including her sister Margaret, joined her there. Christina’s community survived until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII in the sixteenth century. Christina of Markyate died in about 1155.