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Christina of Markyate

October 6, 2012

I picked up Christina of Markyate recently at a used book store. I thought that reading it in Latin would benefit my language skills, but I wasn’t expecting such a good read. This story, from an 11th century manuscript, is published with the Latin original on the left and a translation on the right.

Christina was a special child from birth, and as a young girl she made a vow of virginity in order to serve Christ alone. Her first trial was attempted rape by the local bishop. Somehow Christina does not come across as a quiet saint, but as a spirited and resourceful young woman who managed to outwit the old bishop. He was so angry that she had escaped his advances that he schemes to have her married off to ensure that she loses her virginity, if not to him, to somebody, and soon.

Christina’s parents also want her married off and producing offspring. She is such a clever young woman that surely she would provide talented grandchildren for her parents! She attempts to resist their authority, or their bullying, hard to say which, but they manage to get the wedding ceremony completed. Christina pleads, reasons, and ultimately hides from her husband, who at first is understanding of the fact that she has never willingly consented to this marriage. The conversation is recorded in detail – how she will pretend to her family and friends that the marriage is consummated, to save the groom from embarrassment, and she also argues that it is not that she dislikes him, but that she has simply made a prior commitment to Christ.

Eventually she runs away and is sheltered for several years by an abbot. Over the years, they come to be friends, and he finally calls her his spiritual director.

The dialogue throughout the book consists mostly of a discussion of scripture passages relating to women and authority, but Christina each time argues that her vow to Christ releases her from any of the normal obligations to bishop, parents or husband. It is a tale of resistance to authority from first to last.

There are many Latin words which are translated into English as “authority” – potestas, auctoritas, dominium and jussio. Christina solidly argues against the claims of each and every authority in her life excepting Christ. She develops a warm friendship with the abbot, and becomes a respected spiritual adviser. She even comes across as a genuine human being. For some silly reason I was surprised that a tale from the 11th century could be such a good story. There is something very realistic about the way each of her relationships is described.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2012 7:50 am

    The biography of Christina of Markyate gets into the questioning of celibacy and the value of intentional singleness. Around the so called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” we’ve seen this discussion recently, framed in various ways: “Is Jesus is ‘too holy’ for sex?” and “The Gospel Of Jesus’ Wife: History & Why Our Forgeries Are Sacred” In Christina of Markyate: A Twelfth-Century Holy Woman, historians Kathryn Kelsey Staples and Ruth Mazo Karras address this very issue in their chapter, “Christina’s Tempting: Sexual Desire and Women’s Sanctity.” But the Latin and English history that you’ve shared with us seems to address very clearly the choices and agency of this very “genuine human being.”

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    October 8, 2012 12:03 am


    Thanks so much. I was able to read that chapter here,

    This is another aspect of the story that I didn’t mention, but it makes the story very modern and accessible. She is not a cold or withdrawn young woman who lacks sexual desire. But, in my view, her desire to be her own person is overwhelming, and there is no other way than dedicating herself to Christ.

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