Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Saint Kilian: Too Close to Power?

Saint Kilian baptizing Gozbert
Baptism of the Duke Gozbert by St. Kilian, 1905 glass painting
by Matthew Schiestl (1869-1939), in the
parish church of Our Lady of the Rosary in Gerolzhofen
(by Wolfgang Keller, public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

by Kim Rendfeld

Saint Kilian played by the rules.

When the seventh-century traveling bishop decided he and his followers should evangelize the Thuringians, he sought approval from the pope. Then he focused his efforts on converting Duke Gozbert, the pagan ruler in Würzburg. A shrewd choice. The Irish-born missionary would have stood out with his accent (assuming he learned the local language), his clothes, and his tonsure. He needed protection to preach and teach.

And he was playing by the rules when he told Gozbert to set aside his wife, Geilana, who was also the widow of the duke’s brother. By Church law, Gozbert and Geilana were spiritual brother and sister; therefore, the marriage was invalid.

But Killian waited two years before telling Gozbert. One legend says Kilian tarried to make sure Gozbert’s faith was strong enough for an arduous test. The duke called Kilian’s request the most difficult sacrifice the missionary had asked of him.

Was concern for Gozbert’s soul—and those of other Thuringians who married against Church rules—Kilian’s only motive? Or was there something more?

The answer might lie with Geilana, whom we know only through legend. An early medieval duchess could have tremendous influence on her husband and on affairs of the duchy. Aristocratic wives did more than bear children. They managed the household and controlled the treasury and access to their husbands. If Geilana remained a pagan, she could hinder Kilian’s missionary work by persuading her husband not to donate land or money to the Church or not let people see him.

A common tactic to remove a female political adversary was to call her an adulteress. (Double standard here: a Christian man’s infidelity was a matter between him and his confessor.) Had Kilian made such an accusation, he risked Geilana being able to disprove it through a trial by ordeal, in which the defendant or her champion is hurt and if the wound heals, she’s innocent.

He also risked Gozbert’s wrath. The duke apparently was satisfied with his marriage. If he weren’t, he would have tried to end it, even after accepting Christianity. Gozbert’s reluctance could have several causes. He might have loved his wife, but the primary reason for medieval marriages, especially among aristocrats, was politics. To divorce Geilana would offend her family. Gozbert might have even married her to preserve the alliance he had with his in-laws. And he might have come to depend on her as a partner.

Rather than question Geilana’s virtue, Kilian relied on another common tactic, one she could not dismiss: consanguinity by blood or by marriage.

Kilian probably knew there would be consequences if Gozbert ended his marriage but thought he was doing the right thing. Early medieval Christians believed they would be the only ones to see paradise. For a missionary, there was a personal stake: God would judge him for every soul he failed to lead to the True Faith. The fate of many souls outweighed politics.

Gozbert conceded to Kilian’s wishes but would do so only after he returned from war. Perhaps, he did not wish to fight more than one battle at a time.

Saint Kilian relics
Relic of Saint Kilian, Kolonat, and Totnan,
2012 temporary in St. Burkard church in Würzburg
(by Steffen 962 (CC0), dedicated the public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons)
Geilana was not going to stand for it. Perhaps, she wanted to avoid a feud, or she was desperate to hold onto her status and power as a duchess. Regardless of her reason, she used another common tactic to get rid of an enemy: assassination. On July 8, 689, she ordered Kilian and his companions slain and the bodies and their possessions buried. When Gozbert returned, she claimed the missionaries had left town.

The legends vary, but they all have Geilana and her accomplices going insane and dying miserably. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether Geilana faced divine retribution, but the story would have been true to its medieval audience. In it was a warning: Respect and obey God’s servants.


The Roman Breviary: Reformed by Order of the Holy Oecumenical Council of Trent

Papers of the Manchester Literary Club

Foxe's Book of Martyrs

"St. Kilian" by Friedrich Lauchert, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 8

Kim Rendfeld explores religion, warfare, justice, and love in her novels set in eighth century Francia. The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) is a story of a noblewoman contending with a jilted suitor and the premonition she will lose her husband in battle. The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (2014, Fireship Press) is a tale of a mother who will go to great lengths to protect her children after she has lost everything else.

To read the first chapters of  Kim's published novels or learn more about her, visit kimrendfeld.com or her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com. You can also like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

Kim's book are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers.

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