The Marriage of Bertolf and Godelieve
The Marriage of Bertolf and Godelieve
A Saintly Woman. In 1084 a monk named Drogo wrote the life story of a remarkable Frenchwoman whom the local community had begun spontaneously to venerate as a saint. The story of Godelieve of Ghistelle, who led an unhappy life and experienced horrible betrayal, illustrates the clash between secular values and ecclesiastical teachings about marriage toward the end of the eleventh century.
An Arranged Marriage. A member of the lesser aristocracy, Godelieve’s father was a knight and vassal of the count of Boulogne. When Godelieve reached the proper marriage age, her father and mother decided which of her many suitors she would marry, selecting Bertolf, a distinguished officer of the count and, thus, from their social rank. Because she was meek and obedient, Godelieve accepted her parents’ decision without question. According to Drogo, they chose Bertolf because he was the wealthiest of the suitors and would bring a sizable dower to the marriage. Instead of courting Godelieve, Bertolf had approached her parents directly. Nor had he sought the advice of his family and friends, a significant departure from custom. His family was quick to criticize his action as hasty and ill-advised.
Scandalous Behavior. Bertolf took his new bride from her parents’ home near Boulogne to Ghistelle, near the Flemish coast, where he lived with his mother, who was separated from his father. During the trip to Ghistelle, Bertolf conceived a dislike for his new bride, which was soon strengthened by his mother’s disapproval of her daughter-in-law. When the couple arrived at Bertolf’s home, they were supposed to participate in a nuptial ceremony to finalize their union. Bertolf, however, refused to participate. Instead his mother stood in for him at the ceremony, which occurred, according to custom, over the course of three days. This behavior was scandalous and was considered a breach of the moral and sexual order of society. Although the hagiographic accounts suggest that Godelieve remained a virgin, the marriage was probably consummated because the Church eventually ruled that her marriage to Bertolf was indissoluble.
Harsh Treatment. After their marriage, Bertolf left Godelieve alone at home, where she spent her time in prayer and works of charity. The townspeople of Ghistelle considered her a model wife: she worked hard, governed her servants well, and fulfilled social expectations that she be modest and obedient. Bertolf, however, grew more and more impatient and wished to be rid of her. He ordered the servants to give her only bread and water to eat; when this regimen did not break her spirit, he halved the size of her rations. Finally, exhausted by this harsh treatment and the impossible situation in which she found herself, Godelieve fled to her parents, flouting the secular and religious teaching that a wife should not leave her husband’s house.
A Father’s Appeal. Hoping to protect his daughter and defend her rights, Godelieve’s father appealed to the count of Flanders, who—despite his secular authority over Bertolf—acknowledged that the Church had jurisdiction over marriages and sent the father to the bishop of Noyon-Tournai. Mindful of the conjugal bonds that linked husband and wife, the bishop could not countenance the separation of Bertolf and Godelieve: there had been no adultery and the marriage had been consummated. So, Bertolf swore an oath to treat his wife appropriately, and Godelieve was sent back with her husband to Ghistelle, where he locked her in the house and deprived her of contact with the outside world. The townspeople, who considered Godelieve a chaste wife and a model of conjugal virtue, were outraged by her treatment and moved by her forbearance.
Murder. Bertolf, however, did not share their admiration and conspired with two of his serfs to murder Godelieve. One night, he arrived home and treated Godelieve with the kindness expected of a husband. He promised her that from then on they would live together in marital harmony and said that the problem in their relationship was that they were strangers and unaccustomed to one another. He asked her to get a potion from a neighborhood wise woman that would ease her fulfillment of the conjugal duty. Godelieve agreed to do as her husband asked. In the middle of the night, she went with the two serfs, who claimed they would guide her secretly to the wise woman. En route, they murdered Godelieve and returned her body to her bed to be discovered in the morning by her servants. Meanwhile, Bertolf had traveled to another town in order to establish an alibi.
Sainthood. The people of Ghistelle considered Godelieve a martyr, and shortly after her death they claimed that miracles were occurring at the site of her grave. Moved by the piety of the community, the Church elevated Godelieve to sainthood. Godelieve’s plight demonstrates how completely a medieval woman was the mercy of the her husband. Once a woman left her natal family, their ability to help her was limited. Moreover, Church teachings on wifely subordination and the indissolubility of marriage created a situation in which representatives of the Church were unable or unwilling to protect a woman from an abusive husband.
Georges Duby, The Knight, the Lady and the Priest: The Making of Modern Marriage in Medieval France, translated by Barbara Bray (New York: Pantheon, 1983), pp. 130–135.
Jacqueline Murray, Love, Marriage, and the Family in the Middle Ages (Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2001).