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  • Their Cross to BearControversy and the Relic of the True Cross in Poitiers
  • Jennifer C. Edwards

Readers of Gregory of Tours are familiar with the sixth-century Saint Radegund's quest for a relic of the True Cross. After leaving her husband, the Merovingian King Clothar, and founding a monastery for women in Poitiers, Radegund became an insatiable collector of relics. To enhance the status of her foundation she begged the imperial court at Constantinople for a piece of the True Cross that had been recovered by Helena, Constantine's mother, two centuries earlier.1 Justin II and Sophia granted her request and Radegund's messengers returned to Poitiers with the relic and many gifts. To the former queen's great dismay, however, the town's bishop Maroveus refused to install the relic in the altar of Radegund's abbey church. So firm was Maroveus's refusal that he mounted his horse and left town for his properties outside Poitiers.2

Gregory described Maroveus's disappearance as negligence, since the bishop failed to attend properly to his responsibilities toward the monastery. One of Radegund's sister nuns and biographers, Baudonivia, was a good deal more critical of the bishop in her vita of Radegund, arguing that Maroveus was the agent of the "enemy of men" for failing to welcome the relic.3 For Baudonivia, Maroveus's absence was far more than "negligence," and she cast him as an opponent to the cross and an agent of evil.

Modern interpretations of the bishop's motivations have been more generous to Maroveus. Raymond Van Dam has argued that Radegund's presence in the town threatened the established cult of Saint Hilary in Poitiers, since her reputation for holy deeds made her a holy rival.4 The bishops of Poitiers had been closely associated with the cult of Saint Hilary, as was common in Merovingian Gaul. Bishops in Merovingian Gaul were often affiliated with the local cult of a saint—such as the bishops of Tours with the cult of Saint Martin—especially in an urban setting.5

With even greater sympathy in regard to Maroveus's motivation, Barbara [End Page 65] Rosenwein has suggested that he really objected to installing the cross within the cloistered walls of the abbey because it would make such an important and powerful relic inaccessible to the rest of his flock.6 Granted, Radegund herself also rivaled Maroveus' authority in the city by attracting petitioners away from his cathedral and through her close ties with royal relatives. While Maroveus was likely jealous of Radegund's enormous popularity, and her growing influence within his own episcopal quarter of the city certainly made her a difficult rival to his own authority and additionally had the potential to undercut the cult of Saint Hilary, Rosenwein's interpretation is also convincing. Maroveus had demonstrated that he was an able protector by ransoming the town from King Guntram's army. Even the excuses offered to explain his failures to attend to Radegund or to her community show him tending to other members of the community. He very well might have objected to the idea of allowing the cross to disappear within the abbey where the nuns' strict claustration, under the Rule of Caesarius, prohibited ordinary townspeople from seeking out its cures and comforts.

The following discussion will consider whether Maroveus's concern was justified—if we may attribute this concern to him. While the arrival of a relic of the True Cross was a considerable achievement for Poitiers as a town, did the relic's location within Radegund's abbey—now known as Sainte-Croix—prohibit the town's residents from enjoying its presence? How did the presence of an enormously popular woman shift the sands beneath Poitiers' ecclesiastical hierarchy? Was Maroveus's hostility, or jealousy, well-founded, and what did the arrival of such a relic mean for Poitiers?

Radegund's relationship with the bishop of Poitiers had not always been unfriendly.7 She initially enjoyed a very positive relationship with the local bishop, Pientius, who had supported her efforts to build Sainte-Croix. It is unclear from the available sources, however, whether Radegund took efforts to sidestep Maroveus's...


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