Avoiding a Bad Marriage, Medieval-Style

Rosalie Gilbert (author of The Very Secret Sex Lives of Medieval Women) tells of the “rebellious”Theodora in this blog post.

Theodora of Huntingdon, determined virgin
Theodora of Huntingdon, determined virgin

Most of us have heard of Christina of Markyate, but not as many people know that she was born Theodora. 

Theodora had dreams and ambitions in her life and let me tell you, marriage and motherhood wasn’t any of them. In a time where girls were prepared for life as a wife and a mother, Theodora’s life choices were not particularly welcomed by her family.

They had plans.

Those plans, of course, were those of the traditional medieval woman. A suitable husband would be found. Unfortunately for Theodora, she had the misfortune to catch the eye of an archbishop, Ranulf Flambard who took quite the fancy to her and hoped most ardently to include her in his collection of mistresses. 

Theodora, who had often spoke of having conversations with God, was having none of it. The Archbishop was none to pleased about her very firm refusal. At one point, Theodora had seemed to warm to the idea- suggesting they lock the door to her room for some privacy, but things went pear-shaped for him when she locked the door with herself on the other side after he’d come in.

Naturally, the Archbishop was infuriated and organised for her to marry a nobleman named Beorhtred. How any one thought this would go well is beyond reckoning. In what can only be described as a bit of a disappointing evening, the proposed night was spent with the young couple staying up all night chatting about the virtues of a holy life and staying chaste. On the whole, Theodora did the chatting, and her intended did the listening. A second night was planned for the hopeful groom to make a wife out of Theodora, but she escaped his attentions, some say by hiding behind a tapestry where she wasn’t found for the entire night. 

Her parents were not amused.

Word got around about Theodora and how she wished to give her life to God and not poor Beorhtred, and happily a religious recluse named Eadwine rescued her by disguising her in men’s clothing and making a hasty getaway. 

In a tale worthy of a feature film, Theodora passed into the care of Alfwen, an anchoress at Flamstead, and then Roger, who was a hermit (but also sub-Dean at St Albans.) After two, long years, Beorhtred her affianced, gave up hope of marriage and decided he didn’t want to marry her anymore. The Archbishop agreed, the marriage contact was annulled and finally Theodora was able to show her face in public again.

She changed her name to Christina, and continued her chosen life of religious contemplation and works until the end of her days. She founded a priory and maintained close friendships with several holy men but remained romantically entangled with exactly none of them.

Although she lived in the early medieval period- the 12th century- Theodora remains one of the most inspirational examples of medieval women living their best life.

The Very Secret Sex Lives of Medieval Women

An Inside Look at Women & Sex in Medieval Times

An inside look at sexual practices in medieval times. Were medieval women slaves to their husband’s desires, jealously secured in a chastity belt in his absence? Was sex a duty or could it be a pleasure? Did a woman have a say about her own female sexuality, body, and who did or didn’t get up close and personal with it? No. And yes. It’s complicated.

Romance, courtship, and behind closed doors. The intimate lives of medieval women were as complex as for modern women. They loved and lost, hoped and schemed, were lifted up and cast down. They were hopeful and lovelorn. Some had it forced upon them, others made aphrodisiacs and dressed for success. Some were chaste and some were lusty. Having sex was complicated. Not having sex, was even more so.

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