Christina of Markyate – Hermit and The First Feminist?
“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).
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.
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.”
“The Life of Christina of Markyate” Edited by Samuel Fanous and Henrietta Leyser Translated by C.H. Talbot Oxford World’s Classics [Oxford University Press, 2009]
“This is the remarkable story of a twelfth-century holy woman, Christina of Markyate, who endures terrible physical and mental suffering in order to devote her life to God. The account of her trials and temptations and her visionary experiences are described in a vivid, fast-moving narrative.
This is the only translation of the sole surviving manuscript, recovered and transcribed for the first time in 1959 by C.H. Talbot, and here revised and updated and publishing for the first time in paperback.
The Introduction sets Christina in her social, historical, and religious context and examines the visionary quality of her religious experiences and her powers as a seer. The notes identify biblical references and religious devotions.
Determined to devote her life to God and to remain a virgin, Christina repulses the sexual advances of the bishop of Durham. In revenge he arranges her betrothal to a young nobleman but Christina steadfastly refuses to consummate the marriage and defies her parents’ cruel coercion. Sustained by visions, she finds refuge with the hermit Roger, and lives concealed at Markyate for four years, enduring terrible physical and emotional torment. Although Christina is supported by the abbot of St Albans, she never achieves the recognition that he intended for her.
Written with striking candour by Christina’s anonymous biographer, the vividness and compelling detail of this account make it a social document as much as a religious one. Christina’s trials of the flesh and spirit exist against a backdrop of scheming and corruption and all-too-human greed.”