The Empress Theodora (500–548) was an actress back when the scandals in today’s tabloids—even the made-up ones—would have been laughably tame. Actresses of the day not only performed “sleazy entertainment” onstage (and Theodora was as sleazy as they came), they doubled as workers in the red lampada district. At sixteen she travelled to Africa as “companion” to a government official, and after dumping or being dumped by him, she returned by way of Alexandria to Constantinople, where she eschewed show biz and got a job as a wool spinner. Somehow she came to the attention of Justinian, nephew of Emperor Justin I (whose reign is referred to as the “Justin Time”). He wanted to marry her, but the law at the time prevented people of his station from marrying actresses. He prevailed upon his uncle to tweak the law so that an actress who received certain honors was marriageable. He then bestowed the requisite honors upon her, and married her. By this time Theodora had had a daughter, who may or may not have been Justinian’s, although he treated her as legitimate. As a morning gift, Theodora asked for a house and land that were hers by deed, perhaps fearing being “put aside” at some later date. A sort of sixth-century prenup.
In time Justinian became Emperor, and once in the purple, Thodora proved to be no fainting violet. She lobbied for and won sweeping changes in laws regarding women, for instance banning forced prostitution and closing brothels. To provide a home for the ex-prostitutes, she founded a women’s monastery just across the straits. Other laws she championed expanded the rights of women in divorce cases and property ownership, instituted the death penalty for rape, and forbade the exposure (death by abandonment) of unwanted infants. She also fought to protect miaphysites from persecution, to the extent that her enemies questioned the sincerity of her Chalcedonianism.
When she died young of breast cancer, Justinian wept bitterly at her funeral. He outlived her by some 17 years, then was buried with her in the Church of the Holy Apostles.
We end with a story. During the infamous Nika Riots, the capital city descended for days into chaos, and things looked grim for the royals. Justinian was about to flee the city, but changed his mind when Theodora averred it was better to die courageously than to flee in cowardice. “The purple makes as good a winding sheet as any,” she said.
Dyfrig (d. ca. 545) (aka Dubricius)was conceived out of wedlock, which enraged his grandfather, King Peibio of Ergyng, who suffered from either leprosy or terminal drooling (I kid you not) (translating medieval Celtic is apparently a tricky business). Peibio had Dyfrig’s mother Efrddyl ( “I’d like to buy a vowel”) ensacked and tossed in the river. When she lived, he ordered her burnt alive. The next day she was found nonchalantly nursing her baby in the ashes of the pyre. Peibio had a fit of remorse (previously it had been several sizes too large), and allowed Efrddyl and Dyfrig to approach him. The baby’s touch cured his affliction.
Next thing you know, this miraculous baby was founding monasteries at Hentland and Moccas, and performing other miraculous healings, as well as other miracles. He taught Saints Illtyd and Samson, who became his lifelong friends. In time he became bishop of Llandaff, and he is even said (by Geoffrey of Monmouth or Wace or one of that crowd) to have crowned King Arthur. He convinced Dewi Sant (Mar 1) to attend the famous (to scholars, anyway) Synod of Llanddewi Brefi, at which he (Dyfrig) gave him (Dewi) his episcopal see. He retired to Ynys Enlli (called by the unwashed “Barsey Island”), sometimes referred to as “The Island of 20,000 Saints,” as it was major monastic center until Henry the Serial Divorcer did his number (666) on the monasteries. Dyfrig’s relics were moved to Llandaff Cathedral in 1120.