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27 April 2008

The Convent Of Radegunde.

The Frankish writer, Gregory of Tours, tells of a revolt in the convent of Radegunde, outside Poitiers, in the sixth century.

The nuns charged the abbess with keeping a man dressed as female and pretending that he was a woman. It was common knowledge, they claimed, that he 'was most plainly of the male sex, and that this person regularly served the abbess'.

An investigation did find this man. He justified himself in that he was unable to do man's work. As for the abbess, he lived forty miles away and had never met her. A physician came forward and explained that the male nun, even as a boy, had a disease of the groin. On the instructions of Radegunde herself (who had founded the convent), he had castrated the boy to cure him. As far as he knew, the present abbess was ignorant of the issue.

Unlike the many tales of female transvestites who lived as men in monasteries and were later canonized, it was assumed that there is only one reason for a man to impersonate a nun, and that is to have sex with the other nuns. Radegunde (who was later made a saint) had founded the convent after escaping from an enforced marriage with the Frankish king Chlotar I. The convent possessed a relic of the true cross, and the little finger of the right hand of the Cappadocian martyr, St. Mamas of Caesarea. Radegunde had a close friendship with the poet Venantius Fortunatus, who acted as her chaplain.

Radegunde is the patron saint of Jesus College Cambridge, which was founded on the site of the twelfth-century nunnery of Saint Mary and Saint Radegund.
  • Donald Attwater. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints. Penguin Books 1965 under Radegunde.
  • Vern L. Bullough. “Transvestism in the Middle Ages”. in Vern L. Bullough & James Brundage (eds) Sexual Practices & the Medieval Church. Prometheus Books 1982: 45-6.

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