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Saint Godelieve: The Iconography
JULY 6

This saint is in neither the Golden Legend nor the Roman Martyrology, and Butler (27) protests even calling her a martyr. Nevertheless, she is celebrated in Flanders as a saint and her story comes to us in a life written by Drogo of Winoksbergen only a few decades after her death (Head, 359).

In Drogo's account, which is followed in the altarpiece shown above, Godelieve was courted by a man of equally exalted rank named Bertolf. When her parents agreed that she should marry him, he took her home to a most unwelcoming mother-in-law. The woman persuaded her son that Godelieve was not good enough for him and encouraged him to treat her cruelly.

Bertolf's cruelty increased continually. He let Godelieve have only bread and water for food. At one point she escaped to her parents in Boulogne, but Bertolf's bishop ordered that she must return.

Throughout these woes, Drogo emphasizes the unfortunate bride's steadfastness in adversity, her prayerfulness, her sharing what little Bertolf gave her with the poor, and her refusal to hear ill spoken of him.

But none of this softened the cruel husband, and at last he ordered two of his servants to kill her. While he was away in another city, they tricked her into leaving the castle with them and strangled her with a noose. Then they dunked her head in water to make sure no breath was left and carried the body back to her bed.

Prepared in 2014 at Georgia Regents University by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English

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SHOWN ABOVE

The Life and Miracles of St. Godelieve (see description page): The two left panels represent the saint's piety and charity during her life in Boulogne. In the center the first panel shows Bertolf's courtship, the second their marriage, and the third Godelieve's ill treatment from her husband and mother-in-law. In the two right panels the servants first strangle her, then immerse her in water, then return the body to her bed.

DATES

  • ca. 1049-70
NAMES
  • In Latin Godeleva
  • A.k.a. Godelina
  • Also note the name of Harry Bailly's wife in the Canterbury Tales: Godelief.

HAGIOGRAPHY