15 April 2015

Mad Monarchs: Divine Justice on Duchess Geilana

Geilana wasn't crazy to order the death of the missionary who had told her husband to separate from her.

The seventh century Thuringian duchess was following a common practice of dispatching enemies. When I researched the history of my novels set in eighth century Francia, again and again, I came across blindings and assassinations, from Rome to Francia to Constantinople.

But Geilana had chosen the wrong victim, and she paid a high price: her sanity and her life.

We know about Geilana through the various legends about Saint Kilian, an Irish-born cleric. After receiving papal permission, Kilian and two companions started their work in 687 in Würzburg.

Thuringian Duke Gozbert was soon baptized and let Kilian preach wherever he wanted. Within two years, much of the populace accepted Christianity. Just one problem: when Gozbert was still a pagan, he had married his brother's widow, Geilana.

In medieval times, marriage was a means to secure alliances between important families and amass wealth, and that might have been the purpose of Gozbert and Geilana’s union. However in the eyes of the Church, Gozbert and Geilana became spiritual siblings when she married his brother. Her second marriage violated canon law.

Kilian waited a while before he broke the news to the duke, but when he did, he framed the separation as proof of Gozbert's commitment to Christianity. Gozbert responded this was the most difficult sacrifice Kilian had asked of him, but he finally agreed to put his wife aside after he returned from war. 

Perhaps, Gozbert’s reluctance stemmed from the risk a feud with her family, who would see the repudiation as an insult, and he wanted to fight only one battle at a time. Another reason: he apparently was satisfied with his marriage. Geilana’s responsibilities were far more bearing her husband an heir. Aristocratic medieval wives controlled access to their husbands, were responsible for the treasury, and impressed important guests with the family’s wealth. In short, she was a chief of staff, treasurer, and diplomat. Kilian never accused Geilana of being a bad or unfaithful wife. 

The legends portray Geilana as an enraged woman defending her status. When she ordered an assassin to behead Kilian and his companions, she might have justified her decision as a way to avoid a feud and keep peace within Thuringia. On July 8, 689, the missionaries became martyrs. Kilian urged them not to resist. At night, they were buried where they were killed, along with sacred vessels, vestments, and books.

At first, Geilana explained the missionaries’ absence as their leaving town. But the executioner, seized with guilt, revealed the murder and said Kilian's God was burning him with an inextinguishable fire. One version has him tearing at his flesh with his teeth before dying miserably.

Geilana met a similar fate. She was tormented by the devil and died crying out that Kilian was haunting her.

Or she was imprisoned after the murder, and the pagans dared Gozbert to release her, saying they would convert only if they witnessed the Christian God avenge the death of His servant. Geilana did not enjoy her freedom. She went mad and tore her flesh with her teeth until she died.

So is this story true? The older Passio about Kilian’s life might date to the veneration of his relics in 752. He probably was martyred, and it is possible a noblewoman desperate to keep peace in her realm and her status in a ruling family would resort to the brutal tactics of her time.

I will leave the veracity of divine justice to the reader, although I doubt Geilana would have been tormented by a guilty conscience. However, her story would have been real to its early medieval audience. The faithful believed the same God who granted an army victory in battle, gave a family a longed-for heir, and healed the sick also punished sinners.

-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), in which a young noblewoman contends with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband in battle, and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (2014, Fireship Press), where a mother will go to great lengths to protect her children. To read an excerpt and the first chapter of either book, visit kimrendfeld.com. You're also welcome to check out her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist, like her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.