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Title: Woman under Monasticism - Chapters on Saint-Lore and Convent Life between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500
Author: Eckenstein, Lina
Language: English
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  London: C. J. CLAY AND SONS,
  Glasgow: 263, ARGYLE STREET.

  Leipzig: F. A. BROCKHAUS.


  BETWEEN A.D. 500 AND A.D. 1500


  ‘Quia vita omnium spiritualium hominum sine litteris mors est.’
                                    ACTA MURENSIS MONASTERII.


  [_All Rights reserved._]




The restlessness, peculiar to periods of transition, is a characteristic
of the present age. Long-accepted standards are being questioned and
hitherto unchallenged rules of conduct submitted to searching criticism.
History shows us that our present social system is only a phase in human
development, and we turn to a study of the past, confident that a clearer
insight into the social standards and habits of life prevalent in past
ages will aid us in a better estimation of the relative importance of
those factors of change we find around us to-day.

Monasticism during the ten centuries between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500
exhibits phases of vital significance for the mental and moral growth of
Western Europe. However much both the aims and the tone of life of the
members of the different religious orders varied, monasticism generally
favoured tendencies which were among the most peaceful and progressive of
the Middle Ages. For women especially the convent fostered some of the
best sides of intellectual, moral and emotional life. Besides this it was
for several centuries a determining factor in regard to women’s economic

The woman-saint and the nun are however figures the importance of which
has hitherto been little regarded. The woman-saint has met with scant
treatment beyond that of the eulogistic but too often uncritical writer of
devotional works; the lady abbess and the literary nun have engrossed the
attention of few biographers. The partisan recriminations of the
Reformation period are still widely prevalent. The saint is thrust aside
as a representative of gross superstition, and the nun is looked upon as
a slothful and hysterical, if not as a dissolute character. She is still
thought of as those who broke with the Catholic Church chose to depict

The fact that these women appeared in a totally different light to their
contemporaries is generally overlooked; that the monk and the nun enjoyed
the esteem and regard of the general public throughout a term bordering on
a thousand years is frequently forgotten. Even at the time of the
Reformation, when religious contentions were at their height, the nun who
was expelled from her home appeared deserving of pity rather than of
reproach to her more enlightened contemporaries. As part of an institution
that had outlived its purpose she was perhaps bound to pass away. But the
work she had done and the aims for which she had striven contributed their
share in formulating the new standards of life. The attitude of mind which
had been harboured and cultivated in the cloister, must be reckoned among
the most civilizing influences which have helped to develop mental and
moral strength in Western Europe.

The social value of cloistered life in itself may be disputed. To the
Protestant of the 16th century a profession which involved estrangement
from family ties appeared altogether harmful. Moreover monasteries and
religious houses were bound up in the reformer’s mind with the supremacy
of Rome from which he was striving hard to shake himself free. Wherever
the breach with Rome was effected the old settlements were dissolved and
their inmates were thrust back into civic life. To men this meant much,
but it meant less to them than to women. In losing the possibility of
religious profession at the beginning of the 16th century, women lost the
last chance that remained to them of an activity outside the home circle.
The subjection of women to a round of domestic duties became more complete
when nunneries were dissolved, and marriage for generations afterwards was
women’s only recognised vocation.

But even in some of these same Protestant countries where nunneries were
summarily dissolved, the resulting complete subjection of women has in
modern times been felt to have outlived its purpose. How far this
subjection was a needful stage of growth which has helped to develop a
higher standard of willing purity and faithfulness need not now be
discussed. In certain countries, however, where the monastic system with
all the privileges it conferred on women was swept away, we now find a
strong public opinion against the restriction of women’s activity to the
domestic circle, and these countries were among the first to break down
the artificial barriers imposed on woman’s influence and grant her some
share in the intellectual and political life of the community.

The right to self-development and social responsibility which the woman of
to-day so persistently asks for, is in many ways analogous to the right
which the convent secured to womankind a thousand years ago. The woman of
to-day, who realises that the home circle as at present constituted
affords insufficient scope for her energies, had a precursor in the nun
who sought a field of activity in the convent. For the nun also hesitated,
it may be from motives which fail to appeal to us, to undertake the
customary duties and accept the ordinary joys of life. This hesitation may
be attributed to perversion of instinct, it can hardly in the case of the
nun be attributed to weakness of character, for she chose a path in life
which was neither smooth nor easy, and in this path she accomplished great
things, many of which have still living value.

It is with a view to the better appreciation of the influence and activity
of women connected with the Christian religion that the following chapters
have been written. They contain an enquiry into the cult of women-saints,
and some account of the general position of woman under monasticism. These
subjects however are so wide and the material at the disposal of the
student is so abundant that the analysis is confined to English and German

At the outset an enquiry into the position of women among the Germans of
pre-Christian times appeared necessary, for early hagiology and the lives
of women who embraced the religious profession after Christianity was
first introduced, recall in various particulars the influence of woman and
her association with the supernatural during heathen times. The legends of
many saints contain a large element of heathen folk-tradition, together in
some cases with a small, scarcely perceptible element of historical fact.
In order therefore to establish the true importance of the Christian
women, whose labour benefited their contemporaries, and who in recognition
of their services were raised to saintship, the nature of early
women-saints in general had to be carefully considered.

In the chapters that follow, the spread of monasticism is dealt with in so
far as it was due to the influence of women, and some of the more
representative phases of convent life are described. Our enquiry dealing
with monasticism only as affecting women, the larger side of a great
subject has necessarily been ignored. There is a growing consciousness
now-a-days of the debt of gratitude which mankind as a whole owes to the
monastic and religious orders, but the history of these orders remains for
the most part unwritten. At some periods of monasticism the life of men
and that of women flow evenly side by side and can be dealt with
separately, at others their work so unites and intermingles that it seems
impossible to discuss the one apart from the other. Regarding some
developments the share taken by women, important enough in itself, seemed
to me hardly capable of being rated at its just value unless taken in
conjunction with that of men. These developments are therefore touched
upon briefly or passed over altogether, especially those in which the
devotional needs of the women are interesting chiefly in the effect which
they had in stimulating the literary productiveness of men. Other phases
are passed over because they were the outcome of a course of development,
the analysis of which lies beyond the scope of this work. This applies
generally to various continental movements which are throughout treated
briefly, and especially to convent life in the Netherlands, and to the
later history of mysticism. The history of the beguines in the North of
France and the Netherlands is full of interesting particulars, marked by
the inclusion in the _Acta Sanctorum_ of women like Marie of Oignies († c.
1213), Lutgardis of Tongern († 1246) and Christine of Truyen († 1224),
whose fame rests on states of spiritual ecstasy, favoured and encouraged
by the Dominican friars. So again the women in Southern Germany, who
cultivated like religious moods and expressed their feelings in writing,
were largely influenced by the Dominicans, apart from whom it seemed
impossible to treat them. In England the analysis of writings such as the
‘Revelations’ of Juliana of Norwich and of Margery Kempe necessitates a
full enquiry into the influence and popularity of Richard Rolle († 1349)
and Walter Hylton († 1395).

During the later Middle Ages the study of the influences at work in the
convent is further complicated by the development of religious
associations outside it. Pre-eminent among these stands the school of
Deventer which gave the impulse to the production of a devotional
literature, the purity and refinement of which has given it world-wide
reputation. These associations were founded by men not by women, and
though the desire to influence nuns largely moulded the men who wrote for
and preached to them, still the share taken by women in such movements is
entirely subordinate.

It is needless to multiply instances of the chapters on convent life which
are here omitted; in those which I place before the reader it has been my
aim not so much to give a consecutive history of monasticism as it
affected women, as to show how numerous are the directions in which this
history can be pursued. Having regard to the nature of the subject I have
addressed myself in the first place to the student, who in the references
given will, I trust, find corroboration of my views. In quoting from early
writings I have referred to the accounts printed in the _Acta Sanctorum
Bollandorum_ and to the edition of Latin writings published under the
auspices of Migne in the ‘Patrologiae Cursus Completus,’ except in those
few cases where a more recent edition of the work referred to offered
special advantages, and regarding the date of these writings I have been
chiefly guided by A. Potthast, _Wegweiser durch die Geschichtswerke des
europäischen Mittelalters_, 1862. In accordance with a division which has
been adopted by some histories of art and seems to me to have much in its
favour, I have taken Early Christian times to extend to the close of the
10th century; I have spoken of the period between 1000 and 1250 as the
Earlier, and of that between 1250 and 1500 as the Later Middle Ages. The
spelling of proper names in a work which extends over many centuries has
difficulties of its own. While observing a certain uniformity during each
period, I have as far as possible adhered to the contemporary local form
of each name.

While addressing myself largely to the student, I have kept along lines
which I trust may make the subject attractive to the general reader, in
whose interest I have translated all the passages quoted. There is a
growing consciousness now-a-days that for stability in social progress we
need among other things a wider scope for women’s activity. This scope as
I hope to show was to some extent formerly secured to women by the
monastic system. Perhaps some of those who are interested in the
educational movements of to-day may care to recall the history and
arrangements of institutions, which favoured the intellectual development
of women in the past.

I cannot conclude these prefatory remarks without a word of thanks to
those who have aided me by criticism and revision. Besides the two friends
to whom I have dedicated this book, I have to cordially thank Mrs R. W.
Cracroft for the labour she has spent on the literary revision of my work
in manuscript. To Dr H. F. Heath of Bedford College I am indebted for many
suggestions on points of philology, and to Robert J. Parker, Esq. of
Lincoln’s Inn for advice on some points of law and of general arrangement.
Conscious as I am of the many defects in my work, I cannot but be grateful
to the Syndics of the University Press, for the assistance they have
rendered me in its publication, and I trust that these defects may not
deter readers from following me into somewhat unfrequented paths, wherein
at any rate I have not stinted such powers of labour as are mine.


_December, 1895._



  PREFACE                                                              vii


    § 1. The Borderland of Heathendom and Christianity                   1

    § 2. The Tribal Goddess as a Christian Saint                        15

    § 3. Further Peculiarities of this Type of Saint                    28


    § 1. At the Frankish Invasion                                       45

    § 2. St Radegund and the Nunnery at Poitiers                        51

    § 3. The Revolt of the Nuns at Poitiers. Convent Life in the North  65


    § 1. Early Houses in Kent                                           79

    § 2. The Monastery at Whitby                                        88

    § 3. Ely and the influence of Bishop Wilfrith                       95

    § 4. Houses in Mercia and in the South                             106


    § 1. The Women corresponding with Boniface                         118

    § 2. Anglo-Saxon Nuns abroad                                       134


    § 1. Women’s Convents in Saxony                                    143

    § 2. Early History of Gandersheim                                  154

    § 3. The Nun Hrotsvith and her Writings                            160


    § 1. The new Monastic Orders                                       184

    § 2. Benedictine Convents in the Twelfth Century                   201

    § 3. The Order of St Gilbert of Sempringham                        213


    § 1. Art Industries generally                                      222

    § 2. Herrad and the ‘Garden of Delights’                           238


    § 1. St Hildegard of Bingen and St Elisabeth of Schönau            256

    § 2. Women-Saints connected with Charity and Philanthropy          285


    § 1. Mystic Writings for Women in England                          305

    § 2. The Convent of Helfta and its Literary Nuns                   328


    § 1. The external Relations of the Convent                         354

    § 2. The internal Arrangements of the Convent                      365

    § 3. The Foundation and internal Arrangements of Sion              383


    § 1. Visitations of Nunneries in England                           398

    § 2. Reforms in Germany                                            414


    § 1. The Dissolution of Nunneries in England                       432

    § 2. The Memoir of Charitas Pirckheimer                            458

  CONCLUSION                                                           477

  APPENDIX. The Rhyme of Herrad                                        485

  INDEX                                                                488


  Page 23, note 1, date of St Ida in A. SS. Boll. should be _Sept. 4_
                       instead of _June 20_.
    "  26, line 7, read _tilth_ instead of _silk_.
    " 162,   " 21, read _Martianus_ instead of _Marianus_.
    " 190,   " 32, read 1240 as the date of Jacobus di Vitriaco’s death.
    " 241,   "  8, read _Bergen_ instead of _Berg_.



    ‘Die mit dem goldenen Schuh und dem Geiger ist auch eine
    Muttergottes.’ _Bavarian Saying._

§ 1. The Borderland of Heathendom and Christianity.

In order to gain an insight into the causes of the rapid development of
monasticism among the German races, it is necessary to enquire into the
social arrangements of the period which witnessed the introduction of
Christianity, and into those survivals of the previous period of social
development which German Christianity absorbed. Among peoples of German
race monastic life generally, and especially monastic life which gave
scope for independent activity among women, had a development of its own.
Women of the newly-converted yet still barbarian race readily gathered
together and dwelt in religious settlements founded on their own
initiative and ruled independently of men. A reason for this must be
sought in the drift of contemporary life, which we shall thus have to
discuss at some length.

During the period of declining heathendom--for how long, measuring time by
centuries, it is not yet possible to say--the drift of society had been
towards curtailing woman’s liberty of movement and interfering with her
freedom of action. When the Germans crossed the threshold of history the
characteristics of the father-age were already in the ascendant; the
social era, when the growing desire for certainty of fatherhood caused
individual women and their offspring to be brought into the possession of
individual men, had already begun. The influence of women was more and
more restricted owing to their domestic subjection. But traditions of a
time when it had been otherwise still lingered.

Students of primitive history are recognising, for peoples of German race
among others, the existence of an early period of development, when women
played a greater part in both social and tribal life. Folk-lore,
philology, and surviving customs yield overwhelming evidence in support of
the few historic data which point to the period, conveniently called the
mother-age, when women held positions of authority inside the tribal group
and directly exercised influence on the doings of the tribe[1].

This period, the mother-age, is generally looked upon as an advance from
an earlier stage of savagery, and considered to be contemporaneous with
the beginnings of settled tribal life. It brought with it the practice of
tilth and agriculture, and led to the domestication of some of the smaller
animals and the invention of weaving and spinning, achievements with which
it is recognised that women must be credited.

In matters of polity and sex it established the paramount importance of
the woman; it is she who regulates the home, who notes the changes of the
seasons, who stores the results of experience, and treasures up the
intellectual wealth of the community in sayings which have come down to us
in the form of quaint maxims and old-world saws. As for family
arrangements, it was inside the tribal group and at the tribal festival
that sex unions were contracted; and this festival, traditions of which
survive in many parts of Europe to this day, and which was in its earliest
forms a period of unrestrained license for the women as well as the men,
was presided over by the tribal mothers, an arrangement which in various
particulars affords an explanation of many ideas associated with women in
later times.

The father-age succeeding to the mother-age in time altogether
revolutionised the relations of the sexes; transient sex unions, formerly
the rule, were gradually eliminated by capture and retention of wives from
outside the tribal group. The change marks a distinct step in social
advance. When men as heads of families succeeded to much of the influence
women had held in the tribe, barbarous tendencies, such as blood
sacrifice, were checked and a higher moral standard was attained. But this
was done at the cost of her prerogative to the woman; and her social
influence to some extent passed from her.

It must be granted that the character of the mother-age in some of its
bearings is hypothetical, but we can infer many of the social arrangements
of the period from surviving customs and usages, and its organisation
from the part woman played in tradition and saga, and, as we shall see
later, from folk-traditions preserved in the legends of the saints. And
further, unless we admit that the social arrangements of the earlier
period differed from those of the later, we are at a loss to account for
the veneration in which woman was held and for the influence exerted by
her as we confront her on the threshold of written history. When once we
grasp the essentials of these earlier arrangements, we hold the clue to
the existence of types of character and tendencies which otherwise appear

For at the time when contact with Christianity brought with it the
possibility of monastic settlements, the love of domestic life had not
penetrated so deeply, nor were its conditions so uniformly favourable, but
that many women were ready to break away from it. Reminiscences of an
independence belonging to them in the past, coupled with the desire for
leadership, made many women loth to conform to life inside the family as
wives and mothers under conditions formulated by men. Tendencies surviving
from the earlier period, and still unsubdued, made the advantages of
married life weigh light in the balance against a loss of liberty. To
conceive the force of these tendencies is to gain an insight into the
elements which the convent forthwith absorbs.

In the world outside the convent commanding figures of womankind become
fewer with outgoing heathendom, and the part played by women becomes of
less and less importance. There is less room left for the Gannas of
history or for the Kriemhilds of saga, for powerful natures such as the
Visigoth princess Brunihild, queen of the Franks, or Drahomir of
Brandenburg, queen in Bohemia, who gratify their passion for influence
with a recklessness which strikes terror into the breasts of their
contemporaries. As the old chronicler of St Denis remarks, women who are
bent on evil do worse evil than men. But in the convent the influence of
womankind lasted longer. Spirited nuns and independent-minded abbesses
turn to account the possibilities open to them in a way which commands
respect and repeatedly secures superstitious reverence in the outside
world. The influence and the powers exerted by these women, as we shall
see further on, are altogether remarkable, especially during early
Christian times. But we also come across frequent instances of lawlessness
among the women who band together in the convent,--a lawlessness to which
the arrangements of the earlier age likewise supply a clue. For that very
love of independence, which led to beneficial results where it was coupled
with self-control and consciousness of greater responsibility, tended in
the direction of vagrancy and dissoluteness when it was accompanied by
distaste for every kind of restraint.

In this connection we must say a few words on the varying status of loose
women, since the estimation in which these women were held and the
attitude assumed towards them affected monasticism in various particulars.
It is true that during early Christian times little heed was taken of them
and few objections were raised to their influence, but later distinct
efforts were made by various religious orders to prevent women from
drifting into a class which, whatever may have been its condition in past
times, was felt to be steadily and surely deteriorating.

The distinction of women into so-called respectable and disreputable
classes dates from before the introduction of Christianity. It arose as
the father-age gained on the mother-age, when appropriated women were more
and more absorbed into domesticity, while those women outside, who either
resented or escaped subjection, found their position surrounded by
increasing difficulties, and aspersion more and more cast on their
independence. By accepting the distinction, the teachers of Christianity
certainly helped to make it more definite; but for centuries the existence
of loose women, so far from being condemned, was hardly discountenanced by
them. The revenues which ecclesiastical courts and royal households
derived from taxes levied on these women as a class yield proof of
this[2]. Certainly efforts were made to set limits to their practices and
the disorderly tendencies which in the nature of things became connected
with them and with those with whom they habitually consorted. But this was
done not so much to restrain them as to protect women of the other class
from being confounded with them. Down to the time of the Reformation, the
idea that the existence of loose women as a class should be
discountenanced does not present itself, for they were a recognised
feature of court life and of town life everywhere. Marshalled into bands,
they accompanied the king and the army on their most distant expeditions,
and stepped to the fore wherever there was question of merrymaking or
entertainment. Indeed there is reason to believe, improbable though it may
seem at first sight, that women of loose life, as we come across them in
the Middle Ages, are successors to a class which had been powerful in the
past. They are not altogether depraved and despised characters such as
legislation founded on tenets of Roman Law chose to stamp them. For law
and custom are often at variance regarding the rights and privileges
belonging to them. These rights and privileges they retained in various
particulars till the time of the Reformation, which indeed marks a turning
point in the attitude taken by society towards women generally.

Different ages have different standards of purity and faithfulness. The
loose or unattached women of the past are of many kinds and many types; to
apply the term prostitute to them raises a false idea of their position as
compared with that of women in other walks of life. If we would deal with
them as a class at all, it is only this they have in common,--that they
are indifferent to the ties of family, and that the men who associate with
them are not by so doing held to incur any responsibility towards them or
towards their offspring.

If we bear in mind the part these women have played and the modifications
which their status has undergone, it will be seen that the subject is one
which nearly affects monasticism. For the convent accepted the dislike
women felt to domestic subjection and countenanced them in their refusal
to undertake the duties of married life. It offered an escape from the
tyranny of the family, but it did so on condition of such a sacrifice of
personal independence, as in the outside world more and more involved the
loss of good repute. On the face of it, a greater contrast than that
between the loose woman and the nun is hard to conceive; and yet they have
this in common, that they are both the outcome of the refusal among
womankind to accept married relations on the basis of the subjection
imposed by the father-age.

In other respects too the earlier heathen period was not without influence
on the incoming Christian faith, and helped to determine its conceptions
with regard to women. In actual life the sacerdotal privileges, which
tribal mothers had appropriated to themselves at the time of the
introduction of Christianity, were retained by the priestess; while in the
realm of the ideal the reverence in which tribal mothers had been held
still lived on in the worship of the tribal mother-divinity. It is under
this twofold aspect, as priestess and as tribal mother-goddess, that the
power of women was brought face to face with Christianity; the priestess
and the mother-goddess were the well-defined types of heathen womanhood
with which the early Church was called upon to deal.

We will show later on how the ideal conception prevailed, and how the
heathen mother-goddess often assumed the garb of a Christian woman-saint,
and as a Christian woman-saint was left to exist unmolested. Not so the
heathen priestess and prophetess. From the first introduction of
Christianity the holding of sacerdotal powers by women was resented both
within and without the Church, and opprobrium was cast on the women who
claimed to mediate between the human and the divine.

At the time of the advent of Christianity the Gannas and Veledas of the
Roman period are still a living reality; they are the ‘wise women’ who
every now and then leave their retreat and appear on the stage of history.
A prophetess in gorgeous apparel makes her entry into Verdun in the year
547, drawing crowds about her and foretelling the future. She is in no way
intimidated by the exorcisms of prelates, and presently leaves to betake
herself to the court of the Frankish queen Fredegund. Again in 577 we find
the Frankish king Guntchramm in consultation with a woman soothsayer, and
other cases of the kind are on record[3].

In the ninth century the Church more effectually exercised her influence
in the case of the woman Thiota, who coming from Switzerland inflamed the
minds of the folk in Mainz; for she was accused of profanity and publicly
scourged[4]. But for all the attacks of the Church, the folk persisted in
clinging to its priestesses and in believing them gifted with special
powers. Grimm shows how the Christian accusers of soothsaying women made
them into odious witches[5]; Wuttke and Weinhold, both well-known
students of folk-lore, consider that witches were originally heathen
priestesses[6]. The intrinsic meaning of the word _hexe_, the German
designation for witch, points to some one who originally belonged to a
group living in a particular manner, but whose practices made her
obnoxious to those who had apprehended the higher moral standard of a
later social period. But the Church failed to stamp even the witch as
wholly despicable; for in popular estimation she always retained some of
the attributes of the priestess, the wise woman, the _bona domina_, the
‘white witch’ of tradition; so that the doctrine that the soothsaying
woman is necessarily the associate of evil was never altogether accepted.
Even now-a-days incidents happen occasionally in remote districts which
show how the people still readily seek the help of women in matters of
wisdom, of leechcraft, and of prescience. It was only under the influence
of a scare that people, who were accustomed to consult the wise woman in
good faith, could be brought to abhor her as a witch. It was only during
the later Middle Ages that the undisputed and indisputable connection of
some ‘wise women’ with licentious customs gave their traducers a weapon of
which they were not slow to avail themselves, and which enabled them to
rouse fanaticism of the worst kind against these women.

The practices and popularity of witchcraft were in truth the latest
survivals of the mother-age. The woman, who devised love-charms and brewed
manifold remedies for impotence and for allaying the pangs of childbirth,
who pretended to control the weather and claimed the power to turn the
milk of a whole village blue, carried on traditions of a very primitive
period. And her powers, as we shall see, always had a close parallel in
those attributed to women-saints. For example St Gertrud of Nivelles has
left a highly prized relic to womankind in the form of a cloak which is
still hung about those who are desirous of becoming mothers[7]; and the
hair of a saint, Mechthild, is still hung outside the church at Töss in
Switzerland to avert the thunderstorm[8]; and again St Gunthild of
Biberbach and others are still appealed to that they may avert the cattle
plague[9]. What difference, it may be asked, is there between the powers
attributed to these saints and the powers with which witches are usually
credited? They are the obverse and reverse of woman’s connection with the
supernatural, which in the one case is interpreted by the sober mind of
reverence, and in the other is dreaded under the perturbing influence of a
fear encouraged, if not originated, by Christian fanatics.

In the Christian Church the profession of the nun was accepted as holy,
but an impassable gulf separated her from the priestess. During early
Christian times we come across the injunction that women shall not serve
at the altar[10], and that lady abbesses shall not take upon themselves
religious duties reserved to men by the Church. When we think of women
gathered together in a religious establishment and dependent on the
priest outside for the performing of divine worship, their desire to
manage things for themselves does not appear unnatural, encouraged as it
would be by traditions of sacerdotal rights belonging to them in the past.
And it is worthy of notice that as late as the 13th century, Brother
Berthold, an influential preacher of south Germany, speaks ardently
against women who would officiate at divine service and urges the mischief
that may result from such a course.

Turning to the question of how far these obvious survivals from a heathen
age are determined by time and place, we find broad lines of difference
between the heathen survivals of the various branches of the German race,
and considerable diversity in the character of their early Christianity
and their early women-saints. This diversity is attributable to the fact
that the heathen beliefs of these various peoples were not the same at the
time of their first contact with Christianity, and that they did not
accept it under like circumstances.

For while those branches of the race who moved in the vanguard of the
great migration, the Vandals, the Burgundians and the Goths, readily
embraced Christianity, it was Christianity in its Arian form. Arianism,
which elsewhere had been branded as heresy and well-nigh stamped out,
suddenly revived among the Germans; all the branches of the race who came
into direct contact with peoples of civilized Latinity readily embraced
it. Now one of the distinguishing features of Arian belief was its hatred
of monasticism[11]. The Arian convert hunted the monk from his seclusion
and thrust him back to the duties of civic life. It is not then among
Germans who adopted Arian Christianity that the beginnings of convent life
must be sought. Indeed as Germans these peoples soon passed away from the
theatre of history; they intermarried and fell in with the habits of the
people among whom they settled, and forfeited their German language and
their German traditions.

It was otherwise with the Franks who entered Gaul at the close of the
fourth century, and with the Anglo-Saxons who took possession of Britain.
The essentially warlike character of these peoples was marked by their
worship of deities such as Wodan, a worship before which the earlier
worship of mother-divinities was giving way. Women had already been
brought into subjection, but they had a latent desire for independence,
and among the Franks and Anglo-Saxons women of the newly converted race
eagerly snatched at the possibilities opened out by convent life, and in
their ranks history chronicles some of the earliest and most remarkable
developments of monasticism. But the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons, in
leaving behind the land of their origin, had left behind those hallowed
sites on which primitive worship so essentially depends. It is in vain
that we seek among them for a direct connection between heathen
mother-divinity and Christian woman-saint; their mother-divinities did not
live on in connection with the Church. It is true that the inclination to
hold women in reverence remained, and found expression in the readiness
with which they revered women as saints. The women-saints of the
Anglo-Saxons and the Franks are numerous, and are nearly all known to have
been interested in convent foundations. But the legends, which in course
of time have crystallised round them, and the miracles attributed to them,
though containing certain elements of heathen folk-tradition, are
colourless and pale compared with the traditions which have been preserved
by saint legend abroad. It is in Germany proper, where the same race has
been in possession of the same sites for countless generations, that the
primitive character of heathen traditions is most pronounced and has most
directly determined and influenced the cult and the legends of

Besides the reminiscences of the early period which have survived in saint
legend, traditions and customs of the same period have lived on in the
worship of the Virgin Mary. The worship of the Virgin Mary was but
slightly developed in Romanised Gaul and Keltic Britain, but from the
beginning of the sixth century it is a marked feature in the popular creed
in those countries where the German element prevailed.

As Mrs Jameson says in her book on the legends of the Madonna: ‘It is
curious to observe, as the worship of the Virgin mother expanded and
gathered in itself the relics of many an ancient faith, how the new and
the old elements, some of them apparently most heterogeneous, became
amalgamated and were combined into the earlier forms of art...[12].’

Indeed the prominence given to the Virgin is out of all proportion to the
meagre mention of her in the gospels. During the early Christian period
she was largely worshipped as a patron saint in France, England and
Germany, and her fame continued steadily increasing with the centuries
till its climax was reached in the Middle Ages, which witnessed the
greatest concessions made by the Church to the demands of popular faith.

According to Rhys[13] many churches dedicated to Mary were built on spots
where tradition speaks of the discovery of a wooden image, probably a
heathen statue which was connected with her.

In the seventh century Pope Sergius (687-701) expressly ordered that the
festivals of the Virgin Mary were to take place on heathen holy days in
order that heathen celebrations might become associated with her[14]. The
festivals of the Virgin to this day are associated with pilgrimages, the
taste for which to the Frenchman of the Middle Ages appeared peculiarly
German. The chronicler Froissart, writing about 1390, remarks ‘for the
Germans are fond of performing pilgrimages and it is one of their

Mary then, under her own name, or under the vaguer appellation of _Our
Lady_ (Unser liebe frau, Notre Dame, de heilige maagd), assimilated
surviving traditions of the heathen faith which were largely reminiscences
of the mother-age; so that Mary became the heiress of mother-divinities,
and her worship was associated with cave, and tree, and fountain, and
hill-top, all sites of the primitive cult.

‘Often,’ says Menzel[16], ‘a wonder-working picture of the Madonna is
found hung on a tree or inside a tree; hence numerous appellations like
“Our dear Lady of the Oak,” “Our dear Lady of the Linden-tree,” etc. Often
at the foot of the tree, upon which such a picture is hung, a fountain
flows to which miraculous power is ascribed.’

In the Tyrol we hear of pictures which have been discovered floating in a
fountain or which were borne to the bank by a river[17].

As proof of the Virgin Mary’s connection with festivals, we find her name
associated in Belgium with many pageants held on the first of May.
Throughout German lands the Assumption of the Virgin comes at the harvest
festival, and furnishes an occasion for some pilgrimage or fair which
preserves many peculiar and perplexing traits of an earlier civilization.

The harvest festival is coupled in some parts of Germany with customs
that are of extreme antiquity. In Bavaria the festival sometimes goes by
the name of the ‘day of sacred herbs,’ _kräuterweihtag_; near Würzburg it
is called the ‘day of sacred roots,’ _würzelweihtag_, or ‘day of
bunch-gathering,’ _büschelfrauentag_[18]. In the Tyrol the 15th of August
is the great day of the Virgin, _grosse frauentag_, when a collection of
herbs for medicinal purposes is made. A number of days, _frauentage_, come
in July and August and are now connected with the Virgin, on which herbs
are collected and offered as sacred bunches either on the altar of Our
Lady in church and chapel, or on hill-tops which throughout Germany are
the sites of ancient woman-worship[19]. This collecting and offering of
herbs points to a stage even more primitive than that represented by
offerings of grain at the harvest festival.

In a few instances the worship of Mary is directly coupled with that of
some heathen divinity. In Antwerp to this day an ancient idol of peculiar
appearance is preserved, which women, who are desirous of becoming
mothers, decorate with flowers at certain times of the year. Its heathen
appellation is lost, but above it now stands a figure of the Virgin[20].

Again we find the name of Mary joined to that of the heathen goddess Sif.
In the Eiffel district, extending between the rivers Rhine, Meuse and
Mosel, a church stands dedicated to Mariasif, the name of Mary being
coupled with that of Sif, a woman-divinity of the German heathen pantheon,
whom Grimm characterizes as a giver of rain[21]. The name Mariahilf, a
similar combination, is frequently found in south Germany, the name of
Mary as we hope to show further down being joined to that of a goddess who
has survived in the Christian saint Hilp[22].

These examples will suffice to show the close connection between the
conceptions of heathendom and popular Christianity, and how the cloak of
heathen association has fallen on the shoulders of the saints of the
Christian Church. The authorities at Rome saw no occasion to take
exception to its doing so. Pope Gregorius II. (590-604) in a letter
addressed to Melitus of Canterbury expressly urged that the days of
heathen festival should receive solemnity through dedication to some holy
martyr[23]. The Christian saint whose name was substituted for that of
some heathen divinity readily assimilated associations of the early
period. Scriptural characters and Christian teachers were given the
emblems of older divinities and assumed their characteristics. But the
varying nature of the same saint in different countries has hardly
received due attention. St Peter of the early British Church was very
different from St Peter who in Bavaria walked the earth like clumsy
good-natured Thor, or from St Peter who in Rome took the place of Mars as
protector of the city. Similarly the legends currently told of the same
saint in different countries exhibit markedly different traits.

For the transition from heathendom to Christianity was the work not of
years but of centuries; the claims made by religion changed, but the
underlying conceptions for a long time remained unaltered. Customs which
had once taken a divine sanction continued to be viewed under a religious
aspect, though they were often at variance with the newly-introduced
faith. The craving for local divinities in itself was heathen; in course
of time the cult of the saints altogether re-moulded the Christianity of
Christ. But the Church of Rome, far from opposing the multitude of those
through whom the folk sought intercession with the Godhead, opened her
arms wide to all.

At the outset it lay with the local dignitary to recognise or reject the
names which the folk held in veneration. Religious settlements and Church
centres regulated days and seasons according to the calendar of the chief
festivals of the year, as accepted by the Church at Rome; but the local
dignitary was at liberty to add further names to the list at his
discretion. For centuries there was no need of canonisation to elevate an
individual to the rank of saint; the inscribing of his name on a local
calendar was sufficient. Local calendars went on indefinitely swelling the
list of saintly names till the Papal See felt called upon to
interfere[24]. Since the year 1153 the right to declare a person a saint
has lain altogether with the authorities at Rome[25].

Considering the circumstances under which the peoples of German race
first came into contact with Christianity, it is well to recall the fact
that a busy Church life had grown up in many of the cities north of the
Alps, which were centres of the Roman system of administration previous to
the upheaval and migration of German heathen tribes, which began in the
fourth century. Legend has preserved stories of the apostles and their
disciples wandering northwards and founding early bishoprics along the
Rhine, in Gaul and in Britain[26]. The massacres of Christians in the
reign of Diocletian cannot be altogether fabulous; but after the year 313,
when Constantine at Rome officially accepted the new faith, until the
German invasion, the position of Christianity was well secured.

A certain development of monastic life had accompanied its spread. In
western Gaul we hear of Martin of Tours († 400) who, after years of
military service and religious persecution, settled near Poitiers and drew
about him many who joined him in a round of devotion and work. The
monastic, or rather cœnobite, settlement of his time consisted of a number
of wattled cells or huts, surrounded by a trench or a wall of earth. The
distinction between the earlier word, _coenobium_, and the later word,
_monasterium_, as used in western Europe, lies in this, that the
_coenobium_ designates the assembled worshippers alone, while the
monastery presupposes the possession of a definite site of land[27]. In
this sense the word monastery is as fitly applied to settlements ruled by
women as to those ruled by men, especially during the early period when
these settlements frequently include members of both sexes. St Martin of
Tours is also credited with having founded congregations of religious
women[28], but I have found nothing definite concerning them.

Our knowledge of the Christian life of the British is very limited;
presumably the religious settlement was a school both of theology and of
learning, and no line of distinction divided the settlements of priests
from those of monks. From Gildas, a British writer, who at the time of the
Anglo-Saxon invasion (c. 560) wrote a stern invective against the
irreligious ways of his countrymen, we gather that women lived under the
direction of priests, but it is not clear whether they were vowed to
continence[29]. But as far as I am aware, there is no evidence
forthcoming that before the Saxon invasion women lived in separate
religious establishments, the rule of which was in the hands of one of
their own sex[30].

The convent is of later date. During the early centuries of established
Christianity the woman who takes the vow of continence secures the
protection of the Church but does not necessarily leave her

Thus Ambrosius, archbishop of Milan († 397), one of the most influential
supporters of early Christianity, greatly inflamed women’s zeal for a
celibate life. But in the writings of Ambrosius, which treat of virginity,
there is no suggestion that the widow or the maiden who vows continence
shall seek seclusion or solitude[31]. Women vowed to continence moved
about freely, secure through their connection with the Church from
distasteful unions which their relatives might otherwise force upon them.
Their only distinctive mark was the use of a veil.

Similarly we find Hilarius († 369), bishop of Poitiers, addressing a
letter to his daughter Abra on the beauties of the unmarried state. In
this he assures her, that if she be strong enough to renounce an earthly
bridegroom, together with gay and splendid apparel, a priceless pearl
shall fall to her share[32]. But in this letter also there is no
suggestion that the woman who embraces religion should dwell apart from
her family. It is well to bear this in mind, for after the acceptance of
Christianity by the peoples of German race, we occasionally hear of women
who, though vowed to religion, move about freely among their fellows; but
Church councils and synods began to urge more and more emphatically that
this was productive of evil, and that a woman who had taken the religious
vow must be a member of a convent.

To sum up;--the peoples of German race, at the time of their contact with
Christianity, were in a state of social development which directly
affected the form in which they accepted the new faith and the
institutions to which such acceptance gave rise. Some branches of the
race, deserting the land of their birth, came into contact with peoples
of Latin origin, and embraced Christianity under a form which excluded
monasticism, and soon lost their identity as Germans. Others, as the
Franks and Anglo-Saxons, giving up the worship of their heathen gods,
accepted orthodox Christianity, and favoured the mode of life of those who
followed peaceful pursuits in the monastery, pursuits which their wives
especially were eager to embrace. Again, those peoples who remained in
possession of their earlier homes largely preserved usages dating from a
primitive period of tribal organization, usages which affected the
position of their women and determined the character of their
women-saints. It is to Germany proper that we must go for the
woman-priestess who lives on longest as the witch, and for the loose women
who most markedly retain special rights and privileges. And it is also in
Germany proper that we find the woman-saint who is direct successor to the
tribal mother-goddess.

§ 2. The Tribal Goddess as a Christian Saint.

Before considering the beginnings of convent life as the work of women
whose existence rests on a firm historic basis, we must enquire into the
nature of women-saints. From the earliest times of established
Christianity the lives of men and women who were credited with special
holiness have formed a favourite theme of religious narratives, which were
intended to keep their memory green and to impress the devout with
thoughts of their saintliness.

The Acts of the Saints, the comprehensive collection of which is now in
course of publication under the auspices of the Bollandists, form a most
important branch of literature. They include some of the most valuable
material for a history of the first ten centuries of our era, and give a
most instructive insight into the drift of Christianity in different
epochs. The aims, experiences and sufferings of Christian heroes and
heroines inspired the student and fired the imagination of the poet. Prose
narrative told of their lives, poems were written in their praise, and
hymns were composed to be sung at the celebration of their office. The
godly gained confidence from the perusal of such compositions, and the
people hearing them read or sung were impressed in favour of Christian

The number of men and women whom posterity has glorified as saints is
legion. Besides the characters of the accepted and the apocryphal gospels,
there are the numerous early converts to Christianity who suffered for
their faith, and all those who during early Christian times turned their
energies to practising and preaching the tenets of the new religion, and
to whose memory a loving recollection paid the tribute of superstitious
reverence. Their successors in the work of Christianity accepted them as
patron saints and added their names to the list of those to whose memory
special days were dedicated. Many of them are individuals whose activity
in the cause of Christianity is well authenticated. Friends have enlarged
on their work, contemporary history refers to their existence, and often
they have themselves left writings, which give an insight into their
lives. They are the early and true saints of history, on whose shoulders
in some cases the cloak of heathen association has fallen, but without
interfering with their great and lasting worth.

But besides those who were canonised for their enthusiasm in the cause of
early Christianity, the Acts of the Saints mention a number of men and
women who enjoy local reverence, but of whose actual existence during
Christian times evidence is wanting. Among them are a certain number of
women with whom the present chapter purposes to deal, women who are
locally worshipped as saints, and whose claims to holiness are generally
recognised, but whose existence during Christian times is hypothetical.
Their legends contain a small, in some cases a scarcely sensible, basis of
historic fact, and their cult preserves traits which are pre-Christian,
often anti-Christian, in character.

The traveller Blunt, during a stay in Italy in the beginning of this
century, was struck with the many points which modern saints and ancient
gods have in common. He gives a description of the festival of St Agatha
at Catania, of which he was an eye-witness, and which to this day, as I
have been told, continues little changed. The festival, as Blunt describes
it, opened with a horse-race, which he knew from Ovid was one of the
spectacles of the festival of the goddess Ceres; and further he witnessed
a mummery and the carrying about of huge torches, both of which he also
knew formed part of the old pagan festival. But more remarkable than this
was a great procession which began in the evening and lasted into the
night; hundreds of citizens crowded to draw through the town a ponderous
car, on which were placed the image of the saint and her relics, which the
priests exhibited to the ringing of bells. Among these relics were the
veil of Agatha, to which is ascribed the power of staying the eruption of
Mount Aetna, and the breasts of the saint, which were torn off during her
martyrdom[33]. Catania, Blunt knew, had always been famous for the worship
of Ceres, and the ringing of bells and a veil were marked features of her
festivals, the greater and the lesser Eleusinia. Menzel tells us that huge
breasts were carried about on the occasion[34]. Further, Blunt heard that
two festivals took place yearly in Catania in honour of Agatha; one early
in the spring, the other in the autumn, exactly corresponding to the time
when the greater and lesser Eleusinia were celebrated. Even the name
Agatha seemed but a taking over into the new religion of a name sacred to
the old. Ceres was popularly addressed as _Bona Dea_, and the name Agatha,
which does not occur as a proper name during ancient times, seemed but a
translation of the Latin epithet into Greek.

The legend of Agatha as contained in the _Acta Sanctorum_ places her
existence in the third century and gives full details concerning her
parentage, her trials and her martyrdom; but I have not been able to
ascertain when it was written. Agatha is the chief saint of the district
all about Catania, and we are told that her fame penetrated at an early
date into Italy and Greece[35].

It is of course impossible actually to disprove the existence of a
Christian maiden Agatha in Catania in the third century. Some may incline
to the view that such a maiden did exist, and that a strange likeness
between her experiences and name on the one hand, and the cult of and
epithet applied to Ceres on the other, led to the popular worship of her
instead of the ancient goddess. The question of her existence as a
Christian maiden during Christian times can only be answered by a balance
of probabilities. Our opinion of the truth or falsehood of the traditions
concerning her rests on inference, and the conclusion at which we arrive
upon the evidence must largely depend on the attitude of mind in which we
approach the subject.

The late Professor Robertson Smith has insisted that myths are latter-day
inventions which profess to explain surviving peculiarities of ritual. If
this be so, we hold in the Eleusinia a clue to the incidents of the Agatha
legend. The story for example of her veil, which remained untouched by the
flames when she was burnt, may be a popular myth which tries to account
for the presence of the veil at the festival. The incident of the breasts
torn off during martyrdom was invented to account for the presence of
these strange symbols.

Instances of this kind could be indefinitely multiplied. Let the reader,
who wishes to pursue the subject on classic soil, examine the name, the
legend and the emblem of St Agnes, virgin martyr of Rome, who is reputed
to have lived in the third century and whose cult is well established in
the fourth; let him enquire into the name, legend and associations of St
Rosalia of Palermo, invoked as a protectress from the plague, of whom no
mention occurs till four centuries after her reputed existence[36].

I have chosen Agatha as a starting point for the present enquiry, because
there is much evidence to hand of the prevalence of mother-deities in
pre-Christian Sicily, and because the examination of German saint-legend
and saint-worship leads to analogous results. In Germany too the mother
divinity of heathendom seems to survive in the virgin saint; and in
Germany virgin saints, in attributes, cult and name, exhibit peculiarities
which it seems impossible to explain save on the hypothesis that
traditions of the heathen past survive in them. So much is associated with
them which is pre-Christian, even anti-Christian in character, that it
seems legitimate to speak of them as pseudo-saints.

I own it is not always possible to distinguish between the historical
saint and the pseudo-saint. Sometimes data are wanting to disprove the
statements made by the legend-writer about time and place; sometimes
information is not forthcoming about local traditions and customs, which
might make a suggestive trait in saint-legend stand out in its full
meaning. In some cases also, owing to a coincidence of name, fictitious
associations have become attached to a real personage. But these cases I
believe are comparatively few. As a general rule it holds good that a
historical saint will be readily associated with miraculous powers, but
not with profane and anti-Christian usages. Where the latter occur it is
probable that no evidence will be forthcoming of the saint’s actual
existence during Christian times. If she represents a person who ever
existed at all, such a person must have lived in a far-distant heathen
past, at a time which had nothing in common with Christian teaching and
with Christian tenets.

There is this further peculiarity about the woman pseudo-saint of Germany,
that she is especially the saint of the peasantry; so that we rarely hear
more of her than perhaps her name till centuries after her reputed
existence. Early writers of history and biography have failed to chronicle
her doings. Indeed we do not hear of her at all till we hear of her cult
as one of long standing or of great importance.

It is only when the worship of such saints, who in the eyes of the common
folk are the chief glory of their respective districts, attracts the
attention of the Church, that the legend-writer sets to work to write
their legends. He begins by ascribing to the holder of a venerated name
human parentage and human experiences, he collects and he blends the local
traditions associated with the saint on a would-be historical background,
and makes a story which frequently offers a curious mixture of the
Christian and the profane. Usually he places the saint’s existence in the
earliest period of Christianity; sometimes at a time when Christianity was
unknown in the neighbourhood where she is the object of reverence.

Moreover all these saints are patronesses of women in their times of
special trial. Their cult generally centres round a cave, a fountain of
peculiar power, a tree, or some other site of primitive woman-worship.
Frequently they are connected with some peculiar local custom which
supplies the clue to incidents introduced by the legend-writer. And even
when the clue is wanting, it is sometimes possible to understand one
legend by reading it in the light of another. Obscure as the parallels are
in some cases, in others they are strikingly clear.

The recognised holiness of the woman pseudo-saint is in no way determined
by the limit of bishopric and diocese; she is worshipped within
geographical limits, but within limits which have not been marked out by
the Church. It was mentioned above that separate districts of Germany, or
rather tribes occupying such districts, clung to a belief in protective
mother-goddesses (Gaumütter). Possibly, where the name of a pseudo-saint
is found localised in contiguous districts, this may afford a clue to the
migration of tribes.

The _Acta Sanctorum_ give information concerning a large number of
pseudo-saints, but this information to be read in its true light needs to
be supplemented by further details of local veneration and cult. Such
details are found in older books of devotion, and in modern books on
mythology and folk-lore. Modern religious writers, who treat of these
saints, are in the habit of leaving out or of slurring over all details
which suggest profanity. Compared with older legends, modern accounts of
the saints are limp and colourless, and share the weak sentimentality,
which during the last few centuries has come to pervade the conceptions
of Catholic Christianity as represented in pictorial art.

The names of a number of women whom the people hold in veneration have
escaped the attention of the compilers of the _Acta Sanctorum_, or else
they have been purposely passed over because their possessors were held
unworthy of the rank of saint. But the stories locally told of them are
worth attention, and the more so because they throw an additional light on
the stories of recognised saints.

The larger number of recognised pseudo-saints are found in the districts
into which Christianity spread as a religion of peace, or in remoter
districts where the power of the Church was less immediately felt. They
are found most often north of the Danube and east of the Rhine, especially
in the lake districts of Bavaria and Switzerland, in the marshy wilds of
the Low Countries, and in the remote forest regions of the Ardennes, the
Black Forest, the Spessart or the Vosges. Where Christianity was
established as the result of political subjection, as for example among
the Saxons, the woman pseudo-saint is hardly found at all. Perhaps the
heathenism of the Saxons differed from the heathenism of other German
folk; perhaps, like the Anglo-Saxons in England, the Saxons were
conquerors of the land they inhabited and by moving out of their old homes
had lost their local associations and their primitive cult. But, however
this may be, it is not where Christianity advanced at the point of the
lance, but in the districts where its spread was due to detached efforts
of missionaries, that the woman pseudo-saint is most frequently met with.

Wandering away into forest wilds, where scattered clearings lay like
islets in an ocean, the missionary sought a retreat remote from the
interference of government, remote also from the interference of the
episcopate, where he could realise his hope of living a worthier life.
Naturally his success largely depended on his securing the goodwill of the
people in whose neighbourhood he settled. He was obliged to adapt himself
to their mode of thought if he would win favour for his faith, and to
realise their views if he wished to modify them in the direction of his
own. To bridge over the abyss which separated his standard of life from
theirs, he was bound to defer whenever he could to their sentiments and to
their conceptions of holiness.

How far these holy men ignored, how far they countenanced, the worship of
local divinities, necessarily remains an open question. Rightly or
wrongly popular tradition readily coupled the names of these early
Christians with those of its favourite women-saints.

Thus Willibrord, the Anglo-Saxon missionary who settled abroad in the
eighth century, is said to have taken up and translated relics of the
woman-saint Cunera and to have recognised her claim to veneration; her
cult is localised in various places near Utrecht. The life of Willibrord
(† 739), written by Alcuin († 804), contains no mention of Cunera, for the
information we have concerning Willibrord’s interest in her is to be found
in the account of her life written centuries later[37]. This account
offers such a picturesque medley of chronological impossibilities that the
commentators of the _Acta Sanctorum_ have entirely recast it.

The gist of the legend as told in the beginning of the 14th century is as
follows[38]. Cunera was among the virgin companions of St Ursula, and the
date of her murder, near Cöln, is given as 387, or as 449. Before the
murder Cunera was borne away from Cöln by King Radbod of Friesland, who
covered her with his cloak, an ancient symbolic form of appropriation.
Arrived at Renen he entrusted her with the keys of his kingdom, which
incensed his wedded wife to such an extent that she caused Cunera to be
strangled and the body hidden away. But the site where the saint lay was
miraculously pointed out, and the wicked queen went mad and destroyed
herself. In vain we ask why a king of the Frisians, who persistently clung
to their heathendom, should be interested in a Christian virgin and carry
her off to preside over his household, and in vain we look for the
assertion or for the proof that Cunera was a Christian at all. The _Acta
Sanctorum_ reject the connection between Cunera and St Ursula of Cöln, but
the writer Kist, who considers her to have been a real Christian
individual, argues in favour of it. In the 12th century we find a certain
Adelheid swearing to the rightfulness of her cause on the relics of St
Cunera at Renen[39].

Similarly the story goes that Agilfrid, abbot of the monastery of St Bavon
in Flanders, afterwards bishop of Liège (765-787), about the year 754
acquired the relics of the woman-saint Pharaildis and brought them to
Ghent[40]. When the Northmen ravaged Flanders in 846 the bones of
Pharaildis were among those carried away to St Omer by the Christians as
their most valued possession, and in 939 they were brought back to

The legend of Pharaildis gives no clue to the Christian interest in her,
nor to the veneration of her, which is localised at Ghent, Hamm,
Steenockerzeel, and Loo. We hear that she was married against her
inclination, that she cured her husband who was a huntsman of a wound, and
that after his death she dwelt in solitude to an advanced age, and that
occasionally she wrought miracles. Further, in popular belief, she crossed
the water dryshod, she chased away geese from the corn, and she struck the
ground and the holy fountain at Bruay welled up for the benefit of the
harvesters--incidents which are not peculiar to her legend. The festival
of Pharaildis is kept on different dates at Ghent, Cambray, Maastricht and
Breda. At Ghent it is associated with a celebrated fair, the occasion for
great rejoicings among the populace. At the church of Steenockerzeel
stones of conical shape are kept which are carried round the altar on her
festival[42], in the same way as stones are kept elsewhere and considered
by some writers to be symbols of an ancient phallic cult. The legend
explains the presence of these stones by telling how the saint one day was
surreptitiously giving loaves to the poor, when her act would have been
discovered but that by intercession the loaves were transformed into
stones. This incident, the transformation of gifts secretly given to the
poor, is introduced into the legends of other women-saints, but only in
this case have I found it mentioned that the transformed food was
preserved. We shall have occasion to return to Pharaildis, whose legend
and cult offer nothing to support the view that she was an early

There are numerous instances of a like connection between holy missionary
and woman pseudo-saint. A fair example is yielded by Leodgar (St Léger)
bishop of Autun († 678), a well-defined historical personality[43], whom
tradition makes into a near relative of Odilia, a saint widely venerated,
but whose reputed foundation of the monastery on the Hohenburg modern
criticism utterly discards[44].

But it is not only Christian missionaries who are associated with these
women-saints. Quite a number of saints have been brought into connection
with the house of the Karlings, and frequently Karl the Great himself
figures in the stories told of them. I do not presume to decide whether
the legendary accounts of these women are pure invention; some historic
truth may be embodied in the stories told of them. But judging by the
material at hand we are justified in disputing the existence of St Ida,
who is said to have been the wife of Pippin of Landen and ancestress of
the Karlings on the sole authority of the life of St Gertrud, her
daughter. This work was long held to be contemporary, but its earliest
date is now admitted to be the 11th century[45]. It is less easy to cast
discredit on the existence of the saints Amalberga, the one a virgin
saint, the other a widow, whom hagiologists find great difficulty in
distinguishing. Pharaildis, mentioned above, and the saints Ermelindis,
Reinildis and Gudila, are said to be Amalberga’s daughters, but together
with other saints of Hainault and Brabant they are very obviously
pseudo-saints. The idea of bringing Karl the Great into some relation with
them may have arisen from a twofold desire to justify traditions
concerning them and to magnify the Emperor’s importance.

In this connection it seems worth while to quote the passage in which
Grimm[46] describes the characteristic traits of the German goddess in his
German Mythology, and to consider how these traits are more or less
pronounced in the women we have called pseudo-saints.

‘It seems well,’ he says, in the opening of his chapter on goddesses, ‘to
treat of goddesses collectively as well as individually, since a common
conception underlies them all, which will thus stand out the more clearly.
They are conceived essentially as divine mothers, _travelling about_ and
_visiting mortals_, from whom mankind learn the ways and arts of
housekeeping and tilth: _spinning_, _weaving_, _guarding the hearth_,
_sowing_ and _reaping_’ (the italics are his).

The tendency of the goddess to wander from place to place is reflected in
many women pseudo-saints who are represented in their legends as
inhabiting at various periods of their lives different parts of the
district in which they are the object of veneration. Verena of northern
Switzerland dwelt first at Solothurn, where a cave, which was her
dwelling-place, is now transformed into a chapel. Later she took boat to
the place where the Aar, Reuss and Limmat meet, where she dwelt in
solitude, and her memory is preserved at a spot called the cell of Verena
(Verenazell). Later still she went to dwell at Zurzach, a place which was
celebrated for a fair, called Verena’s fair, of which more anon. All these
places are on or near the river Aar, at no inconsiderable distance from
each other. The legend, as told by Stadler, takes them all into account,
explaining how Verena came to be connected with each[47].

Similarly the legend of the saint Odilia[48], referred to above in
connection with the Hohenburg, explains how the saint comes to be
worshipped on both sides of the Rhine, a cruel father having driven her
away from home. On the eastern side of the river there is a hill of St
Odilia, Odilienberg, where there is a fountain which for its healing
powers is visited twice a year and the site of which is guarded by a
hermit. At Scherweiler there is also a site hallowed to her worship, and
local tradition explains that she stayed there as a child; according to
another version she was discovered floating in a wooden chest on the
water[49]. Finally she is said to have settled on the Hohenburg west of
the Rhine and to have founded a monastery. The critic Roth has written an
admirable article on Odilia and the monastery of Hohenburg. He shows that
the monastery was ancient and that at first it was dedicated to Christ and
St Peter, though afterwards their names were supplanted by that of St
Odilia[50]. Here, as on the other side of the Rhine, the folk celebrate
her festival by pilgrimages to a fountain which has miraculous healing
power, and by giving reverence to a sacred stone, on which Odilia is said
to have knelt so long in prayer for the soul of her wicked father, that
her knees wore holes in it[51].

We hear that other saints travelled about and stayed now at one place, now
at another. St Notburg visited different parts of the Neckar district[52],
Godeleva of Ghistelles[53] passed some time of her life in the marshy
district between Ostend and Bruges. This Godeleva is addressed in her
litany as the saint of marriage; she was buried, we are told, in a cave,
which was held holy as late as the present century. The pond, into which
she was thrown after death, for which act no reason is given, obtained,
and still retains, miraculous healing powers[54]. Her legend in other
respects offers the usual traits. She is Godeleva in some parts of the
country; in others she is Godeleina, and her life according to Potthast
was written in the 11th century by Drago, a monk of Ghistelles.

It is a curious trait in German saint-legend that the saint is often
spoken of as coming from afar--from across the sea, from Britain, from
Ireland, even from the Orkney Isles. It is thus with Ursula of Cöln,
Christiane of Dendermonde (Termonde), Lucie of Sampigny and many others.
The idea had taken root at a very early date that St Walburg, whose cult
is widespread, was identical with a sister of the missionaries, Wilibald
and Wunebald, who went from England to Germany under the auspices of the
prelate Boniface in the eighth century. We shall return to her further
on[55]. It is sufficient here to point out that there is little likeness
between the sober-minded women-missionaries of Boniface’s circle and the
woman-saint who is localised under such different aspects, sometimes as a
saint whose bones exude oil of miraculous power, sometimes as a valkyrie
who anoints warriors for battle, sometimes as a witch who on the first of
May leads forth her train to nightly riot on hill tops[56].

Again the love of home industry, which Grimm claims for mother goddesses,
is reflected in the legends of many saints, to whose real existence every
clue is wanting. This holds good especially of spinning and of weaving.
Lufthildis, whose date and whose very name are uncertain, is represented
as dwelling on a hill-top near a village and marking the limits of her
district by means of her spindle, which is preserved and can be seen to
this day in the chapel of Luftelberg, the hill which is connected with
her[57]. Lucie of Sampigny, to whose shrine women who are sterile make a
pilgrimage in order to sit on the stone consecrated to her[58]; Walburg,
referred to above; Germana, whose cult appears at Bar-sur-Aube[59]; and
one of the numerous localised saints Gertrud[60], are all connected with
the distaff. In the church of Frauenkirchen, which stands near the site of
the celebrated old abbey of Lach, St Genovefa of Brabant, whose legend is
most picturesque and who is in some degree akin to Geneviève of Paris, is
believed to be sitting behind the altar from which the buzz of her
spinning-wheel is audible[61].

Again the protective interest in silk and agriculture, which Grimm claims
for the German goddess, comes out in connection with the pseudo-saint. The
harvest festival, so often associated with the Virgin Mary, is frequently
also associated with the name of a pseudo-saint. Thus we find these saints
represented with ears of corn, as Mary too has been represented[62]. The
emblem of the three ears of corn was probably accepted owing to Roman
influence. Verena of Zurzach, Notburg of Rottenburg, and Walburg, are all
pictured holding a bunch of corn in one hand. Through the intercession of
Walburg full barns are secured, while Notburg or Nuppurg of Rottenburg,
one of the chief saints of Bavaria, to whose shrine many pilgrimages are
made, holds a reaping hook as well as a bunch of corn, and throughout the
Tyrol is looked upon as patron saint of the peasantry[63].

At Meerbeck in Brabant corn is blessed before it is sown under the
auspices of the saint Berlindis, who protects tree planting. She is a
saint of many associations and we shall hear more of her later[64]. In
some parts of Brabant seed sown at the time of the new moon in the month
of June is protected by the saint Alena. We know little of Alena except
that her arm was torn off in expiation of an unknown trespass and is kept
as a relic in the church of Voorst, and that the archduchess Maria Anna of
Spain sent for this relic in 1685 in the hope of securing a son by means
of the saint’s intercession[65]. To the shrine of Lufthildis corn is also
brought as an offering to be distributed among the poor, while St Gertrud
in Belgium protects bean and pea sowing[66].

Further traits in saint worship, which suggest woman’s connection with the
beginnings of settled civilization, are found in the pseudo-saint’s
frequent association with cattle and dairy produce.

Peasants, men and women, may be seen to this day touching in reverence the
udder of the cow which a rudely cut relief in wood represents by the side
of the saint Berlindis at Meerbeck[67]. Gunthild, the patron saint of
Biberbach in Würtemburg[68], is represented holding in her hand a
milk-jug, the contents of which were inexhaustible during her lifetime.
The connection of saints with butter-making is frequent. St Radiane,
otherwise called Radegund, is chiefly worshipped at Wellenburg near
Augsburg, and her intercession secures milk and butter in plenty to her
worshippers. She was torn in pieces by wolves[69].

Judging by her cult and her legends the pseudo-saint practises and
protects in endless ways the early arts of settled agriculture and
civilization. She herds cattle, she guards flocks of sheep, she weaves and
she spins, and she is careful of the dairy. In her representations she is
associated with ‘emblems’ which point to these various interests, and we
find her holding corn, a reaping-hook, or a spindle. Domestic animals are
pictured by her side, most frequently sheep, geese, cows and dogs. The cat
appears rarely[70], perhaps because it was associated with the evil side
of woman’s power. The besom too, the ancient symbol of woman’s authority,
is rarely, if ever[71], put into the saint’s hands, perhaps for a similar

One other peculiarity remains to be mentioned, which also has its
counterpart in the witches’ medicinal and curative power. The
pseudo-saint’s relics (after death) exude oil which is used for medicinal
purposes. This peculiarity is noticed of the bones of the saints
Walburg[72], Rolendis[73], and Edigna[74], but it is also noticed in
connection with the relics of historical saints.

But over and above these traits in the character of the pseudo-saint,
legend often points to a heathen custom in connection with her of which
we have definite information. Tacitus tells how the image of the German
goddess Nerthus was carried about on festive occasions in a chariot drawn
by cows. The pseudo-saint either during her lifetime or after her death
was often similarly conveyed. Sometimes the animals put themselves to her
chariot of their own accord, frequently they stopped of their own accord
at the particular spot which the saint wished to be her last
resting-place. Legend tells us of such incidents in connection also with
historical saints, both men and women, and we hear further that the relics
of saints sometimes and quite suddenly became so heavy that it was
impossible to move them, a sure sign that it was safest not to try.

So far the parallels between mother-goddess and woman pseudo-saint recall
the practices of the heathen past, without actually offending against the
tenor of Christianity. But the pseudo-saint has other associations of
which this cannot be said, associations which are utterly perplexing,
unless we go back for their explanation to the ancient tribal usages when
the meeting of the tribe was the occasion for settling matters social and
sexual. These associations introduce us to an aspect of the cult of the
saints which brings primitive usages into an even clearer light, and shows
how religious associations continued independently of a change of

§ 3. Further Peculiarities of this Type of Saint.

The Church, as mentioned above, had put every facility in the way of
transforming heathen festivals into its own festal days. The heathen
festival in many ways carried on the traditions of the tribal festival;
the tribal festival was connected with the cult of tribal goddesses. If we
bear in mind the many points mother-goddess, witch, and woman pseudo-saint
have in common, the association of the pseudo-saint with practices of a
profane character no longer appears wonderful. Both in the turn saint
legend takes, and in the character of festivities associated with the
saint’s name, we discern the survival of ideas which properly belong to
differently constituted family and social arrangements, the true meaning
of which is all but lost.

On looking through the legends of many women-saints, it is surprising how
often we find evil practices and heathen traditions associated with them,
practices and traditions which the legend writer naturally is often at a
loss to explain in a manner acceptable to Christianity. Thus the father
of St Christiane of Dendermonde is said to have set up a temple where
girls did service to Venus[75]; doing service to Venus being the usual way
of describing licentious pursuits.

In the metrical life of Bilihild, patron saint of Würzburg and Mainz, a
description is introduced of the marriage festival as it was celebrated by
the Franks in the Main district about the year 600, as this account would
have it. Dances took place and unions were contracted for the commencing
year. The Christian woman Bilihild was present at the festival, though we
are of course told that she found it little to her taste and determined to
abolish it[76]. The legend of Bilihild has very primitive traits and is
wanting in historical foundation and probability; and it is at least
curious that her name should be coupled with a festival which Christian
religion and morality must have condemned.

Again it is curious to find how often these women-saints die a violent
death, not for conscience sake, nor indeed for any obvious reason at all.
Radiane of Wellenburg, as mentioned above, was torn to pieces by
wolves[77]; Wolfsindis of Reisbach, according to one account, was tied to
wild oxen who tore her to pieces, according to another version of her
story she was tied to a horse’s tail[78]. St Regina of Alise, in the
bishopric of Autun, is sometimes represented surrounded by flames,
sometimes in a steaming caldron[79] which recalls the caldron of
regeneration of Keltic mythology.

Frequently the saints are said to have been murdered like Cunera of
Renen[80], and St Sura otherwise Soteris or Zuwarda of Dordrecht[81];
sometimes their heads are cut off as in the case of Germana worshipped at
Beaufort in Champagne[82]; sometimes like Godeleva they are strangled, and
sometimes burnt; but Christianity is not the reason assigned for their
painful deaths. For even the legend writer does not go so far as to bring
in martyrdom at a period and in districts where suffering for the
Christian faith is altogether out of the question.

Panzer tells us about a group of three women-saints, to whom we shall
presently return. He says in some churches masses are read for their souls
and prayers offered for their salvation. Though reverenced by the people
in many districts of Germany, they are as often said to have been hostile
to Christianity as favourably disposed towards it[83].

We find immoral practices and violence ascribed to some of the English
women-saints by Capgrave in the 15th century. He says of Inthware or
Iuthware, who perhaps belongs to Brittany, that she was accused of being a
harlot and put to death. Similarly he says of Osman or Oswen that she was
accused of being a witch, but when brought before a bishop she consented
to be baptized[84]. Stanton notifies of Iuthware that her translation was
celebrated at Shirbourne[85]. Winifred too, who is worshipped in
Shropshire, had her head cut off and it rolled right down the hill to a
spot where a fountain sprang up, near St Winifred’s well. The head however
was miraculously replaced, Winifred revived and lived to the end of her
days as a nun[86]. The want of information about these women makes it
impossible to judge how far their existence is purely legendary; certainly
their stories are largely coloured by heathen traditions. The names
Iuthware and Oswen are probably not Germanic; and the fact of Winifred’s
living on the confines of Wales makes it probable that she is a Keltic
rather than a Germanic saint.

In connection with the festivals of some women pseudo-saints we find
celebrations of a decidedly uproarious character taking place at a
comparatively recent time. The feast of St Pharaildis, called locally Fru
Verelde, used to be the chief holiday at Ghent, and was the occasion for
much festivity and merrymaking[87]. At Lüttich (Liège) stood a chapel
dedicated to St Balbine, who is said to have been venerated far and wide
in the 14th century. On her day, the first of May, there was a festival
called Babilone at which dancing was kept up till late at night[88]. The
festival of St Godeleva kept at Longuefort maintained even in the 18th
century a character which led to a violent dispute between the populace
and the Church dignitaries, who were determined to put it down[89].
Coincident with the festival known as the day of St Berlindis, a saint
frequently referred to as a protectress of the peasantry, there is a
festival called the Drunken Vespers, in which as early as the 16th century
the archbishop forbade his clergy to take part[90].

But by far the most striking and the most conclusive instances of the
pseudo-saint’s association with heathen survivals are afforded by St
Verena of Switzerland and St Afra of Augsburg, whose worship and history
we must examine more closely.

Verena’s association with various rites has already been referred to; she
is represented sometimes with ears of corn, sometimes accompanied by a
cat, and sometimes, which is even more suggestive, she is brought into
connection with a brothel. The procession of St Verena’s day from Zurzach
to a chapel dedicated to St Maurice passed an old linden tree which, so
the legend goes, marked the spot where the saint used to dwell. Hard by
was a house for lepers and a house of ill fame, where on the same day the
district bailiff (landvogt) opened the fair. He was obliged by old custom
to pass this tree, at which a loose woman stood awaiting him, and to dance
round the tree with her and give her money[91].

The legend of St Verena written between 1005 and 1032[92] does not explain
these associations. We are told of a woman who came from the east with the
Theban legion, which is generally supposed to have been massacred in 287.
She is said to have made her home now in one district now in another, and
one modern writer goes so far as to suggest that she was zealous in
converting the Allemans to Christianity before the coming of Irish

According to folk-custom in districts between the Aar and the Rhine, girls
who have secured husbands sacrifice their little maiden caps to Verena. At
Zurzach married couples make pilgrimages to the Verenastift in order to
secure offspring. Several dukes of the Allemans and their wives made such
pilgrimages in the 9th and 10th centuries. It would lead too far to
enumerate the many directions in which Verena is associated with
heathendom. Her day, which comes at the harvest festival, was a time of
unrestrained license in Zurzach, a fact on which the _Acta Sanctorum_
cast no doubt.

Rochholz considers Verena to be a tribal mother of heathendom; Simrock in
his mythology considers her to be identical with the goddess Fru Frene, in
whom he sees a kind of German Venus[93]. Grimm tells how the version of
the Tannhäuser saga, current in Switzerland, substitutes the name Frau
Frene for that of Frau Venus[94]. The hero Tannhäuser, according to
mediæval legend, wavers between a baser and a higher interpretation of
love; the acceptance of the name Frene as representative of sensuousness
shows the associations currently preserved in connection with this
so-called saint.

A similar association occurs in Belgium, where a saint Vreken (_Sint
Vreke_), otherwise Vrouw Vreke, in mediæval legend is the representative
of sensual as opposed to spiritual love. Corémans describes how in the
version of the saga of the faithful Eckhardt (_Van het trouwen Eckhout_)
current in Belgium, the hero wavers between spiritual love of Our Lady and
sensual love of Vreke. Among the folk Vrouw Vreke is a powerful personage,
for the story goes that the Kabauters, evil spirits who dwell on the
Kabauterberg, are in her service. In the book _Reta de Limbourg_, which
was re-written in the 17th century, the Kabauterberg becomes a Venusberg,
and Vreke is no longer a great witch (_eene grote heks_) but a goddess
with all the alluring charms of Venus[95]. Grimm includes a Fru Freke
among his German goddesses[96]. She retains her old importance among the
folk as a protective saint and presides over tree-planting[97].

Like the saints Verena and Vreke, St Afra of Augsburg is associated with
licentiousness; Wessely expressly calls her the patron saint of
hetairism[98]. Her legend explains the connection in a peculiar manner; as
told by Berno, abbot of Reichenau († 1048), it is most picturesque. We
hear how Afra and her mother came from Cyprus, an island which mediæval,
following the classical writers, associated with the cult of Venus, and
how she settled at Augsburg and kept a house of ill fame with three
companions. Here they entertained certain Church dignitaries (otherwise
unknown to history) who persuaded the women to embrace Christianity and
give up their evil practices. They became virtuous, and when persecutions
against Christians were instituted they all suffered martyrdom; Afra was
placed on a small island and burnt at the stake[99]. The legend writer on
the basis of the previous statement places the existence of these women in
the early part of the fourth century during the reign of Diocletian.
Curiously enough the legend of Afra is led up to by a description of the
worship of the heathen goddess Zisa, a description to which Grimm attaches
great importance[100]. This goddess was worshipped at or near Augsburg.
Velserus[101], who in the 16th century compiled a chronicle of Augsburg,
gives us a mass of information about traditions connected with her and her
worship, as he also does about St Afra. There is in his mind of course no
shadow of a suspicion of any connection between them. But he informs us
that the Zizenberg, or hill of Zisa, and the Affenwald which he interprets
as Afrawald or wood of Afra, are one and the same place.

Berno also wrote a life of Ulrich (St Udalricus), bishop of Augsburg (†
973), who boldly defended the town at the time of the invasion of the
Hungarians. In this life the bishop has a miraculous vision of St Afra,
who takes him on a pilgrimage by night and points out the site where he
afterwards founded a monastery, known to later ages as the monastery of St
Ulrich and St Afra. The worship of Afra is referred to by the poet
Fortunatus as early as the sixth century; the story of the saint’s
martyrdom is older than that of her conversion. The historian Rettberg is
puzzled why so much stress should be laid on her evil ways[102]; but the
historian Friedrich, regardless of perplexing associations, sees the
beginnings of convent life for women in Augsburg in the fact of Afra and
her companions dwelling together between their conversion and

There are other traits in saint legend which point to the customs and
arrangements of a more primitive period, and tempt the student to fit
together pieces of the past and the present which appear meaningless if
taken separately.

It seems probable that in early times the term mother was applied to a
number of women of a definite group by all the children of the group, and
that the word had not the specialized meaning of one who had actually
borne the children who termed her mother.

The story of a number of children all being born at once by one woman is
possibly due to a confused tradition dating from this period. In local
saga, both in Germany and elsewhere, there are stories in which a woman
suddenly finds herself in the possession of a number of offspring, and
often with direful consequences to herself, because of the anger of her
husband. The same incident has found its way into saint legend. Thus
Notburg, patron saint of Sulz, had at a birth a number of children,
variously quoted as nine, twelve and thirty-six. Stadler says that she is
represented at Sulz holding eight children in her arms, a ninth one lying
dead at her feet[104]. Lacking water to christen these children, she
produced from the hard rock a fountain which even to the present day is
believed to retain the power to cure disease.

A similar story is told of Achachildis, popularly known as Atzin, who is
held in veneration at Wendelstein near Schwabach. She bore her husband
five children at once and then took a vow of continence. Her legend has
never been written, but she enjoys a great reputation for holiness, and a
series of pictures represent various incidents in her life[105].

Images of women sheltering children, usually beneath their cloaks, are
frequently found abroad built into the outer wall of the church, the place
where Christian teachers felt justified in placing heathen images[106].
Students of pictorial art will here recall the image of St Ursula at Cöln
sheltering 11,000 virgins under her cloak.

Again there are other emblems in saint worship which cannot be easily
accounted for, such for instance as the holy combs of Verena and
Pharaildis, which remind one of the comb with which the witch Lorelei sat
combing her hair, or, on classic soil, of the comb of the Venus Calvata;
or the holy slippers of St Radiane, which are preserved to this day in
the church of Wellenburg and which, as Stadler informs us, had been
re-soled within his time[107]. Slippers and shoes are ancient symbols of
appropriation, and as such figure in folk-lore and at weddings in many
countries to this day. The golden slipper was likewise a feature at the
witches’ festival, in which the youthful fiddler also figured[108]. Both
the golden slipper and the youthful fiddler form important features in the
legend of the saint Ontkommer or Wilgefortis. The images and legend of
this saint are so peculiar that they claim a detailed account.

It is evident from what has been said that the legends and cult of many
women pseudo-saints have traits in common; indeed the acts ascribed to
different saints are often exactly similar. The stories of Notburg of
Rottenburg, of Radiane of Wellenburg, and of Gunthild of Biberbach, as
Stadler remarks, are precisely alike; yet it is never suggested that these
saints should be treated as one; each of them has her place in the _Acta
Sanctorum_ and is looked upon as distinct from the others.

There is, however, a set of women-saints whose images and legends have
features so distinctive that hagiologists treat of them collectively as
one, though they are held in veneration in districts widely remote from
each other, and under very dissimilar names.

The saint, who is venerated in the Low Countries as Ontkommer or
Wilgefortis, is usually considered identical with the saint Kümmerniss of
Bavaria and the Tyrol; with the saint Livrade, Liberata or Liberatrix
venerated in some districts of France as early as the 9th century when
Usuard, writing in the monastery of St Germain-des-Près, mentions her;
with Gehulff of Mainz; with Hilp of the Hülfensberg at Eichsfelde; and
with others called variously Regenfled, Regenfrith, Eutropia, etc.[109]
The name Mariahilf, which is very common in south Germany, is probably a
combination of the name of the Virgin Mother with that of St Hilp or St

The legends of this saint, or rather of this assembly of saints, are
characterized by Cuper in the _Acta Sanctorum_ as an endless
labyrinth[110]. Whatever origin be ascribed to them, when once we examine
them closely we find explanation impossible on the hypothesis that they
relate to a single Christian woman living during Christian times.

A considerable amount of information on this group of saints has lately
been collected by Sloet, who deals also with their iconography[111]. The
peculiarity of the images of Ontkommer or Kümmerniss consists in this,
that she is represented as crucified, and that the lower part of her face
is covered by a beard, and her body in some instances by long shaggy fur.
Her legend explains the presence of the beard and fur by telling us that
it grew to protect the maiden from the persecutions of a lover or the
incestuous love of her father; such love is frequently mentioned in the
legends of women pseudo-saints.

The fact that Ontkommer or Kümmerniss is represented as crucified might be
explained on the hypothesis that the common folk could not at first grasp
the idea of a god and looked upon Christ as a woman, inventing the legend
of the woman’s persecution and miraculous protection in order to account
for the presence of the beard. But other accessories of the
representations of Ontkommer or Kümmerniss lead us to suppose that her
martyrdom, like that of other saints, has a different origin and that she
is heiress to a tribal goddess of the past[112].

In many of her representations Ontkommer or Kümmerniss is seen hanging on
the cross with only one golden slipper on, but sometimes she wears two
slippers, and a young man is sitting below the cross playing the fiddle.
Legend accounts for the presence of this young man in the following
manner. He came and sat at the foot of the image and was playing on his
fiddle, when the crucified saint suddenly awoke to life, drew off a
slipper and flung it to him. He took it away with him, but he was accused
of having stolen it and condemned to death. His accusers however agreed to
his request to come with him into the presence of the holy image, to which
he appealed. Again the crucified saint awoke to life and drew off her
second slipper and flung it to the fiddler, whose innocence was thereby
vindicated and he was set free. Where shall we go for a clue to this
curious and complicated legend? Grimm tells us that a young fiddler was
present at a festival of the witches, and that he played at the dance in
which he was not allowed to take part. Grimm also tells us that one of the
witches on this occasion wore only one golden slipper[113]. The
association of Kümmerniss with a golden slipper is deep-rooted, especially
in Bavaria, for the saying goes there that ‘She with the golden slipper
and with the youthful fiddler is also a mother of God[114].’

Many years ago Menzel wrote[115]: ‘Much I believe concerning this saint is
derived from heathen conceptions.’ Stories embodying heathen traditions
are preserved in connection with this saint in districts abroad that lie
far apart.

Thus the image of her which is preserved in North Holland is said to have
come floating down the river, like the images of the Virgin referred to
above. At Regensburg in Bavaria an image is preserved which is said to
have been cast into the water at Neufarn. It was carried down by the river
and thrown on the bank, and the bishop fetched it to Regensburg on a car
drawn by oxen. In the Tyrol the image of the saint is sometimes hung in
the chief bed-room of the house in order to secure a fruitful marriage,
but often too it is hung in chapel and cloister in order to protect the
dead. Images of the saint are preserved and venerated in a great number of
churches in Bavaria and the Tyrol, but the ideas popularly associated with
them have raised feelings in the Church against their cult. We hear that a
Franciscan friar in the beginning of this century destroyed one of the
images, and that the bishop of Augsburg in 1833 attempted in one instance
to do away with the image and the veneration of the saint, but refrained
from carrying out his intention, being afraid of the anger of the

It has been mentioned above that associations of a twofold character
survive in connection with Verena and Vreke, who are to this day popularly
reckoned as saints, but who are introduced in mediæval romance as
representatives of earthly love as contrasted with spiritual. Associations
of a twofold character have also been attached to the term Kümmerniss. For
in the Tyrol Kümmerniss is venerated as a saint, but the word Kümmerniss
in ordinary parlance is applied to immoral women[117].

Other heathen survivals are found attached to the Ontkommer-Kümmerniss
group of saints. At Luzern the festival of the saint was connected with so
much riotous merrymaking and licentiousness that it was forbidden in 1799
and again in 1801. The story is told of the saint under the name Liberata
that she was one of a number of children whom her mother had at a

Sloet, on the authority of the philologist Kern, considers that the
various names by which the saint is known in different districts are
appellatives and have the same underlying meaning of one who is helpful in
trouble. According to him this forms the connecting link between the names
Ontkommer, Kümmerniss, Wilgefortis, Gehulff, Eutropia, etc., of which the
form Ontkommer, philologically speaking, most clearly connotes the saint’s
character, and on this ground is declared to be the original form. The
saint is worshipped at Steenberg in Holland under the name Ontkommer, and
Sloet is of opinion that Holland is the cradle of the worship of the whole
group of saints[119]. But considering what we know of other women-saints
it seems more probable that the saints who have been collected into this
group are the outcome of a period of social evolution, which in various
districts led to the establishment of tribal goddesses, who by a later
development assumed the garb of Christian women-saints.

The cult of women-saints under one more aspect remains to be chronicled.
Numerous traditions are preserved concerning the cult of holy women in
triads, who are locally held in great veneration and variously spoken of
as three sisters, three ladies, three Marys, three nuns, or three

The three holy women have a parallel in the three Fates of classic
mythology and in the three Norns of Norse saga, and like them they
probably date from a heathen period. Throughout Germany they frequently
appear in folk-lore and saga, besides being venerated in many instances as
three women-saints of the Church.

In stories now current these three women are conceived sometimes as
sisters protecting the people, sometimes as ladies guarding treasures, and
sometimes as a group of three nuns living together and founding chapels
and oratories, and this too in places where history knows nothing of the
existence of any religious settlement of women.

Panzer has collected a mass of information on the cult of the triad as
saints in southern Germany[120]; Corémans says that the veneration of the
Three Sisters (_dry-susters_) is widespread in Belgium[121], but the
Church has sanctioned this popular cult in comparatively few instances.

The story is locally current that these three women were favourably
disposed to the people and bequeathed to them what is now communal
property. Simrock considers that this property included sites which were
held sacred through association with a heathen cult[122]. ‘In heathen
times,’ he says, ‘a sacred grove was hallowed to the sister fates which
after the establishment of Christianity continued to be the property of
the commune. The remembrance of these helpful women who were the old
benefactresses of the place remained, even their association with holiness
continued.’ By these means in course of time the cult of the three
goddesses was transformed into that of Christian saints.

Besides bequeathing their property to the people it was thought that these
three women-saints protected their agricultural and domestic interests,
especially as affecting women. In Schlehdorf in Lower Bavaria pilgrimages
by night were made to the shrine of the triad to avert the cattle plague;
the shrine stood on a hill which used to be surrounded by water, and at
one time was the site of a celebrated fair and the place chosen for
keeping the harvest festival[123]. At Brusthem in Belgium there were three
wells into which women who sought the aid of these holy women cast three
things, linen-thread, a needle and some corn[124]. Again in Schildturn in
Upper Bavaria an image of the three women-saints is preserved in the
church which bears an inscription to the effect that through the
intercession of these saints offspring are secured and that they are
helpful at childbirth[125]. In the same church a wooden cradle is kept
which women who wished to become mothers used to set rocking. A second
cradle which is plated is kept in the sacristy, and has been substituted
for one of real silver[126].

In some districts one of these three saints is credited with special power
over the others either for good or for evil. The story goes that one of
the sisters was coloured black or else black and white[127].

In many places where the triad is worshipped the names of the individual
sisters are lost, while in districts far apart from one another, as the
Tyrol, Elsass, Bavaria, their names have considerable likeness. The forms
generally accepted, but liable to fluctuation, are St Einbeth, St Warbeth
and St Wilbeth[128]. The Church in some instances seems to have hesitated
about accepting these names, it may be from the underlying meaning of the
suffix _beth_ which Grimm interprets as holy site, _ara_, _fanum_, but
Mannhardt connects it with the word to pray (beten)[129]. Certainly the
heathen element is strong when we get traditions of the presence of these
women at weddings and at burials, and stories of how they went to war,
riding on horses, and achieved even more than the men[130]. Where their
claim to Christian reverence is admitted by the Church, the stories told
about them have a very different ring.

According to the legend which has been incorporated into the _Acta
Sanctorum_, St Einbetta, St Verbetta, and St Villbetta were Christian
maidens who undertook the pilgrimage to Rome with St Ursula, with whose
legend they are thus brought into connection. The three sisters stayed
behind at Strasburg and so escaped the massacre of the 11000 virgins[131].

The tendency to group women-saints into triads is very general. Kunigund,
Mechtund and Wibrandis are women-saints who belong to the portion of Baden
in the diocese of Constance[132]. The locus of their cult is in separate
villages, but they are venerated as a triad in connection with a holy well
and lie buried together under an ancient oak[133]. We hear also of
pilgrimages being made to the image of three holy sisters preserved at Auw
on the Kyll in the valley of the Mosel. They are represented as sitting
side by side on the back of an ass(?), one of them having a cloth tied
over her eyes. The three sisters in this case are known as Irmina, Adela
and Chlotildis, and it is said they were the daughters or sisters of King
Dagobert[134]. Irmina and Adela are historical; they founded nunneries in
the diocese of Trier.

In another instance the sisters are called Pellmerge, Schwellmerge and
Krischmerge, _merg_ being a popular form of the name Mary which is
preserved in many place-names[135].

I have been able to discover little reference to local veneration of
saints in a triad in England. But there is a story that a swineherd in
Mercia had a vision in a wood of three women who, as he believed, were the
three Marys, and who pointed out to him the spot where he was to found a
religious settlement, which was afterwards known as Evesham.

A curious side-light is thrown on the veneration of the three women-saints
abroad by recalling the images and inscriptions about Mothers and Matrons,
which are preserved on altars fashioned long before the introduction of
Christianity under heathen influence.

These altars have been found in outlying parts of the Roman Empire,
especially in the districts contiguous to the ancient boundary line which
divided Roman territory from Germania Magna. They bear inscriptions in
Latin to the effect that they are dedicated to Mothers and Matrons, and
sometimes it is added that they have been set up at the command of these
divine Mothers themselves. The words _imperio ipsarum_, ‘by their own
command,’ are added to the formula of dedication, and as it seems that
they never occur on altars set up and dedicated to specified Roman or
Gallo-Roman divinities, they yield an interesting proof of the wide-spread
character of the worship of tribal goddesses[136].

At one time it was supposed that these altars were of Keltic origin, but
some of the tribes mentioned in their inscriptions have been identified
with place-names in Germany. Altars found in outlying parts of the Empire
primarily served for the use of the soldiery, for sacrifice at the altar
of the gods was a needful preliminary to Roman military undertakings. The
view has been advanced that, as the altars dedicated to pagan divinities
served for the devotions of the Roman and Gallo-Roman troops, it is
possible that these other altars dedicated to Mothers served for the
devotions of the German heathen soldiery, who were drafted from districts
beyond the Rhine, and at an early date made part of the Roman legions.

The parallels between the mothers of the stones and the three women-saints
are certainly remarkable.

Where a representation, generally in rude relief, occurs on the altar
stones, the Mothers are represented in a group of three, holding as
emblems of their power fruit, flowers, and the spindle. These recall the
emblems both of the heathen goddess of mythology and of the pseudo-saint.
Moreover one of the Mothers of the altars is invariably distinguished by
some peculiarity, generally by a want of the head-dress or head-gear worn
by the two others, perhaps indicative of her greater importance. This has
its parallel in the peculiar power with which one member of the saint
triad is popularly credited.

The erection of the altars belongs to a time before the introduction of
Christianity; our information about the three women-saints dates back
earlier than the 12th century in a few cases only; it chiefly depends on
stories locally current which have been gleaned within the last hundred
years. If the hypothesis of the mother-age preceding the father-age holds
good, if the divine Mothers imaged on the stones are witnesses to a
wide-spread worship of female deities during the period of established
Roman rule, these tales told of the triad carry us back nearly twenty
centuries. The power ascribed to tribal goddesses in a distant heathen
past survived in the power ascribed to Christian women-saints; the
deep-rooted belief in protective women-divinities enduring with undying
persistence in spite of changes of religion.

In conclusion, a few words may be acceptable on the names of
pseudo-saints, which I believe to be largely epithetic or appellative.
Grimm holds that the names of the German goddesses were originally
appellatives. In a few cases the name of the goddess actually becomes the
name of a saint. Mythology and hagiology both lay claim to a Vrene and a
Vreke; but from the nature of things these cases are rare. The conception
of the protective divinity is ancient; her name in a philological sense is
comparatively new.

With few exceptions the names are German; sometimes in contiguous
districts variations of the same name are preserved. The saint Lufthildis
is sometimes Linthildis[137]; Rolendis is sometimes Dollendis[138]; Ida,
Itta, Iduberga, Gisleberga are saints of Brabant and Flanders, whom
hagiologists have taken great trouble to keep separate. In some cases the
name of a real and that of a fictitious person may have become confounded.
The names are all cognate with the word _itis_, an ancient term applied to
the woman who exercised sacred functions.

The attempt to connect the group Ontkommer-Wilgefortis by the underlying
meaning of the several names has been mentioned. It has also been
mentioned that this saint is sometimes spoken of as a mother of God.
Similarly St Geneviève of Paris is worshipped as Notre-Dame-la-petite, and
again the saint Cunera of Reenen is popularly known as Knertje, which
signifies little lady[139].

On every side the student is tempted to stray from the straightforward
road of fact into the winding paths of speculation. The frequent
association abroad of female deities with hill tops suggests a possible
explanation why the word _berg_, which means remoteness and height, so
often forms part of the name of the woman pseudo-saint, and of women’s
names generally. For the beginnings of tilth and agriculture are now
sought not in the swampy lowlands, but on the heights where a clearance
brought sunlight and fruitfulness. Hill tops to this day are connected
with holy rites. Is it possible that the word _berg_, designating hill
top, should have become an appellative for woman because the settlements
on the hills were specially connected with her?

Philology hitherto has been content to trace to a common origin words
cognate in different languages, and on the conceptions attaching to these
words, to build up theories about the state of civilization of various
peoples at a period previous to their dispersion from a common home. But
the study of local beliefs and superstitions in western Europe tends more
and more to prove that usages pointing to a very primitive mode of life
and to a very primitive state of civilization are indissolubly connected
with certain sites; and that the beginnings of what we usually term
civilization, far from being imported, have largely developed on native

Thus, at the very outset of our enquiry into saint-worship and the convent
life of the past, we have found ourselves confronted by a class of
women-saints who must be looked upon as survivals from heathen times, and
who are in no way connected with the beginnings of Christianity and of
convent life; their reputation rests on their connection with some
hallowed site of the heathen period and the persistence of popular faith
in them. But the feeling underlying the attribution of holiness to them,
the desire for localized saints, yields the clue to the ready raising to
saintship of those women who in England, in France, and in Germany, showed
appreciation of the possibilities offered to them by Christianity, and
founded religious settlements. In some cases superstitions of a heathen
nature which are of value to the hagiologist, if not to the historian,
cling to these women also, but fortunately a considerable amount of
trustworthy material is extant about their lives. These women during the
earliest period were zealous in the cause of Christianity, and it is to
them that our enquiry now turns.



    ‘Sicut enim apis diversa genera florum congregabat, unde mella
    conficiat, sic illa ab his quos invitabat spirituales studebat carpere
    flosculos, unde boni operis fructum tam sibi quam suis sequacibus
    exhiberet.’ _The nun Baudonivia on St Radegund_ (_Vita_, c. 13).

§ 1. At the Frankish Invasion[140].

The great interest of early monastic life among the Franks lies in the
conversion of this hardy and ferocious people to Christianity just at the
moment of their emergence from a state of barbarism. Fierce, warlike and
progressive, the Franks were brought face to face with cultured Latinity.
The clerical student who claimed direct descent from the Gallo-Roman
rhetorician, and the bishop who was in possession of the municipal
government of the town, found themselves confronted by shaggy-haired,
impetuous men from forest wilds. At the outset an all but immeasurable
distance separated the social and intellectual development of the
Gallo-Roman from that of these strangers. Compared with the cultivated man
of letters and with the veteran, grown grey in imperial service, the
German invader was little more than a savage; nevertheless he succeeded in
holding his own. At first his standards of life and conduct gave way
before those of the Gallo-Romans. The lives of early Frankish princes, as
their contemporary, the historian Gregory of Tours, depicts them, are
marked by ceaseless quarrels and feuds, by numberless instances of murder,
perjury and violence. The bonds of union among them were forcibly relaxed,
as often happens in those periods of history when restraint and
responsibility are broken through by a sudden and overwhelming inrush of
new ideas. A prey to intemperance and greed, the descendants of the great
Merovech dwindled away. But other men of the same race, stronger than they
in mind and less prone to enervating luxury, pressed in from behind. And
after the temporary mental and moral collapse which followed upon the
occupation of Gaul by the Franks, the race rose to new and increased
vigour. New standards of conduct were evolved and new conceptions of
excellence arose, through the mingling of Latin and German elements. For
the great Roman civilization, a subject of wonder and admiration to all
ages, was in many of its developments realized, appropriated, and
assimilated by the converted Germans. Three hundred years after their
appearance in Gaul, the Franks were masters of the cultivated western
world; they had grasped the essentials of a common nationality and had
spread abroad a system of uniform government.

The Franks at first showed a marked deficiency in the virtues which pagan
Rome had established, and to which Christianity had given a widened and
spiritualized meaning. Temperance, habitual self-control and the
absorption of self in the consciousness of a greater, formed no part of
this people’s character. These virtues, together with peaceableness and a
certain simplicity of taste, laid the groundwork of the monasticism which
preceded the invasion. Persons who were vowed to religion were averse to
war, because it disturbed study and industry, and they shrank from luxury
of life, because it interrupted routine by exciting their appetites. An
even tenor of life was the golden mean they set before themselves, and in
some degree they had realized it in Roman Gaul before the barbarian

The Frank at first felt little tempted in the direction of monastic life.
His fierce and warlike tendencies, love of personal predominance and
glory, and impatience of every kind of restraint, were directly opposed to
the uniform round of devotion and work to which the religious devotee

The attitude of Frankish men towards monasticism was at best passive; on
the other hand convent life from the first found sympathy among Frankish
women. Princesses of pure German blood and of undisputed German origin
left the royal farms, which were the court residences of the period, and
repaired to the religious houses, to devote themselves to religion and to
the learning of cultured Latinity. Not one of the princes of the royal
Frankish race entered a convent of his own accord, but their wives,
widows, and daughters readily joined houses of religion.

Meekness and devotion, self-denial and subservience are not the most
prominent features in the character of these women. The wives and
daughters of men to whom Macaulay attributes all vices and no virtues, are
of a temper which largely savours of the world. What distinguishes them is
quick determination and clear-sighted appreciation of the possibilities
opened out to them by the religious life. Fortunately the information
which we have concerning them is not confined to the works of interested
eulogists. Accounts of women whom posterity estimated as saints lay stress
on those sides of their character which are in accord with virtues
inculcated by the Church. But we have other accounts besides these about
women who had taken the vows of religion, but whose behaviour called forth
violent denunciations from their contemporaries. And over and above these,
passages in profane literature are extant which curiously illustrate the
worldly tone and temper of many women who had adopted religion as a

These women were driven to resort to convents chiefly as the result of
their contact with a great civilization, which threw open unknown and
tempting possibilities to men, but raised many difficulties in the way of

The resources of the districts acquired by the Franks were immeasurably
greater than those of the lands they had left. Wealth and intemperance
readily join hands. The plurality of recognised and unrecognised wives in
which the Frankish princes indulged resulted in great family difficulties.
The royal farms and the ancient cities, where these petty kings resided,
were the scenes of continual broils and squabbles in which royal wives and
widows took the leading parts. From the chequered existence which this
state of things implies, convent life alone afforded a permanent refuge.
Sometimes a princess left home from a sense of the indignities she was
made to suffer; sometimes a reverse of fortune caused her to accept,
willingly or unwillingly, the dignified retirement of the cloister.

During the centuries preceding the Frankish conquest the development of
religious and monastic life in Gaul had been considerable, for the Church
had practically appropriated what was left of the Roman system of
organization, and since this system had been chiefly municipal, the
municipal bodies were largely composed of bishops and clerks.

The monastic life of men in Gaul had a number of independent centres in
the western provinces, due to the enthusiastic zeal of St Martin of Tours
(† 400), to whom reference has been made.

In the beginning of the 6th century a settlement of nuns was founded in
the south, where monasteries already existed, perhaps as the result of
direct contact with the east. A rule of life was drafted for this convent
shortly after its foundation.

Caesarius, bishop of Arles (501-573), had persuaded his sister Caesaria to
leave Marseilles, where she dwelt in a convent associated with the name of
Cassian. His plan was that she should join him at Arles, and preside over
the women who had gathered there to live and work under his guidance.

Caesarius now marked out a scheme of life for his sister and those women
whom she was prepared to direct. He arranged it, as he says himself,
according to the teachings of the fathers of the Church and, after
repeated modifications, he embodied it in a set of rules, which have come
down to us[141]. Great clearness and directness, a high moral tone, and
much sensible advice are contained in these precepts of Caesarius. ‘Since
the Lord,’ he says, addressing himself to the women, ‘has willed to
inspire us and help us to found a monastery for you, in order that you may
abide in this monastery, we have culled spiritual and holy injunctions for
you from the ancient fathers; with God’s help may you be sheltered, and
dwelling in the cells of your monastery, seeking in earnest prayer the
presence of the Son of God, may you say in faith, “we have found him whom
we sought.” Thus may you be of the number of holy virgins devoted to God,
who wait with tapers alight and a calm conscience, calling upon the
Lord.--Since you are aware that I have worked towards establishing this
monastery for you, let me be one of you through the intercession of your

Caesarius goes on to stipulate that those who join the community, whether
they be maidens or widows, shall enter the house once for all and renounce
all claims to outside property. Several paragraphs of the rule are devoted
to settling questions of property, a proof of its importance in the mind
of Caesarius. There were to be in the house only those who of their own
accord accepted the routine and were prepared to live on terms of
strictest equality without property or servants of their own.

Children under the age of six or seven were not to be received at all,
‘nor shall daughters of noble parentage or lowly-born girls be taken in
readily to be brought up and educated.’

This latter injunction shows how the religious at this period wished to
keep the advantages to be derived from artistic and intellectual training
in their own community. They had no desire for the spread of education,
which forms so characteristic a feature of the religious establishments of
a later date.

After their safe housing the instruction of the nuns at Arles was the most
important matter dealt with in the ‘rule.’ Considerable time and thought
were devoted to the practice of chants and to choir-singing, for the art
of music was considered especially fitted to celebrate God. In an appendix
to the rule of Caesarius the system of singing is described as similar to
that adopted in the cœnobite settlement at Lerins[142]. Apparently
following Keltic usage, the chant was taken up in turn by relays of the
professed, who kept it up night and day all the year round in perpetual
praise of the Divinity. At this period melody and pitch were the subjects
of close study and much discussion. The great debt owed by the art of
music to the enthusiasm of these early singers is often overlooked.

The women who joined the community at Arles also learned reading and
writing (‘omnes litteras discant’). These arts were practised in classes,
while domestic occupations, such as cooking, were performed in turns.
Weaving, probably that of church hangings, was among the arts practised,
and the women also spun wool and wove it into material with which they
made garments for their own use.

There are further injunctions about tending the infirm, and stern advice
about the hatefulness of quarrels. Intercourse with the outside world is
restricted, but is not altogether cut off.

‘Dinners and entertainments,’ says the rule, ‘shall not be provided for
churchmen, laymen and friends, but women from other religious houses may
be received and entertained.’

In the year 506 Caesarius, the author of this rule, was present at the
synod of Agde at which it was decreed that no nun however good in
character should receive the veil, that is be permanently bound by a vow,
before her fortieth year[143]. This decree, taken together with the rule,
proves the sober and serious spirit of these early settlements and the
purpose which their founder set before him.

The teaching of Caesarius generally reflects the spirit of cautious
reserve characteristic of the rule instituted by the great St Benedict of
Nursia for the monks he had assembled together on Monte Casino in Central
Italy. His efforts like those of Caesarius were directed to the creation
of conditions favourable to the devoutly disposed, not to the leavening of
the outside world by the spread of Christian doctrine.

It was part of the plan of Caesarius to secure independence to the
communities he had founded; for in his capacity as bishop he addressed a
letter to Pope Hormisda († 523) in which he asked the Pope’s protection
for his monasteries, one of which was for men and one for women, against
possible interference from outside. He also begged that the Pope would
confirm the grants of property which had already been made to these
establishments. In his reply to this letter the Pope declared that the
power of the bishop in regard to these settlements should be limited to

It must be borne in mind that Arles and the southern parts of Gaul were
overrun by the Goths, who inclined to Arianism and opposed the Church of
Rome. Fear of this heresy induced the prelates of the Church to favour
Frankish rule. After the alliance of the Frankish kings with the Church
the religious establishments in the land remained undisturbed, and
numerous new monasteries were founded.

It is evident from what we know of the nuns at Arles, and of other bands
of women whom the Church took under her protection, that they readily
accepted life on the conditions proffered and were content to be
controlled and protected by men. It is only when the untamed German
element with its craving for self-assertion came in, that difficulties
between the bishops and heads of nunneries arose, that women of barbarian
origin like Radegund, Chrodield, and others, appealed to the authority of
ruling princes against the bishop, and asserted an independence not always
in accordance with the usual conceptions of Christian virtue and

§ 2. St Radegund and the Nunnery at Poitiers.

Certain settlements for women in northern France claim to have existed
from a very early period, chiefly on the ground of their association with
Geneviève, patron saint of Paris, and with Chrothild (Clothilde, † 545),
wife of the first Christian king of the Franks. The legend of St Geneviève
must be received with caution[145]; while bands of women certainly dwelt
at Paris and elsewhere previously to the Frankish invasion, under the
protection of the Church, it is doubtful whether they owed their existence
to Geneviève.

A fictitious glamour of sanctity has been cast by legendary lore around
the name and the doings of Queen Chrothild, because her union with King
Clovis, advocated by the Gallo-Roman Church party, led to his conversion
to Christianity[146]. In the pages of Gregory’s history the real Chrothild
stands out imperious, revengeful and unscrupulous. It is quite credible
that she did service for a time as deaconess (diacona) at the church of
Tours, and that she founded a religious house for women at the royal farm
Les Andelys near Rouen, but we can hardly believe that the life she lived
there was that of a devout nun.

Radegund of Poitiers and Ingetrud of Tours are the first Frankish women
who are known to have founded and ruled over nunneries in France. Their
activity belongs to the latter half of the 6th century, which is a date
somewhat later than that of the official acceptance of Christianity, and
one at which the overlordship of the Franks was already well established
throughout France. The settlements they founded lay in close proximity to
cities which were strongholds of Church government. Poitiers had become an
important religious centre through the influence of St Hilary, and Tours,
to which the shrine of St Martin attracted many travellers, was of such
importance that it has been called the centre of religion and culture in
France at this period.

The historian Gregory, afterwards bishop of Tours, to whom we are largely
indebted for our knowledge of this period, was personally acquainted with
the women at Tours and at Poitiers. He probably owed his appointment to
the bishopric of Tours in 573 to the favour he had found with
Radegund[147]. He has treated of her in his history and has written an
account of her burial at which he officiated[148], whilst a chapter of his
book on the _Glory of Martyrs_ praises the fragment of the Holy
Cross[149], which had been sent to Radegund from Constantinople and from
which the nunnery at Poitiers took its name.

Besides this information two drafts of the life of Radegund are extant,
the one written by her devoted friend and admirer the Latin poet
Fortunatus, afterwards bishop of Poitiers, the other by the nun
Baudonivia, Radegund’s pupil and an inmate of her nunnery[150]. Fortunatus
has moreover celebrated his intercourse with Radegund in a number of
verses, which throw great light on their interesting personal

A letter is also extant written by Radegund herself and preserved by
Gregory in which she addresses a number of bishops on the objects of her
nunnery. She begs the prelates of the Church to protect her institution
after her death and, if need be, assist those who are carrying on life
there in her spirit against hindrance from without and opposition from
within. The letter is in the usual wordy style of the Latin of that day.

‘Freed from the claims of a worldly life, with divine help and holy grace,
I,’ she says, ‘have willingly chosen the life of religion at the direction
of Christ; turning my thoughts and powers towards helping others, the Lord
assisting me that my good intentions towards them may be turned to their
weal. With the assistance of gifts granted me by the noble lord and king
Clothacar, I have founded a monastery (monasterium) for maidens (puellae);
after founding it I made it a grant of all that royal liberality had
bestowed on me; moreover to the band assembled by me with Christ’s help, I
have given the rule according to which the holy Caesaria lived, and which
the holy president (antistes) Caesarius of Arles wisely compiled from the
teachings of the holy fathers. With the consent of the noble bishop of
this district and others, and at the desire of our congregation, I have
accepted as abbess my sister, dame Agnes, whom from youth upwards I have
loved and educated as a daughter; and next to God’s will I have conformed
to her authority. I myself, together with my sisters, have followed the
apostolic example and have granted away by charter all our worldly
possessions, in fearful remembrance of Ananias and Sapphira, retaining
nought of our own. But since the events and duration of human life are
uncertain, since also the world is drawing to its close (mundo in finem
currente), many serving their own rather than the divine will, I myself,
impelled by the love of God, submit to you this letter, which contains my
request, begging you to carry it out in the name of Christ[152].’

Radegund was one of an unconquered German race. Her father was Hermafried,
leader of the Thüringians, her mother a grandniece of the great Gothic
king, Theodoric. She was captured as a child together with her brother in
the forest wilds of Thüringen during one of the raids made into that
district by the Frankish kings Theuderic (Thierry) of Metz, and Clothacar
(Clothair) of Soissons. Clothacar appropriated the children as part of his
share of the booty and sent Radegund to a ‘villa’ in the neighbourhood of
Aties, in what became later the province of Picardie, where she was
brought up and educated. ‘Besides occupations usual to those of her sex,’
her biographer says, ‘she had a knowledge of letters’ (litteris est
erudita). From Aties she vainly tried to make her escape, and at the age
of about twelve was taken to the royal farm near Soissons and there
married to Clothacar[153]. In the list of King Clothacar’s seven
recognised wives Radegund stands fifth[154].

From the first Radegund was averse to this union. She was wedded to an
earthly bridegroom but not therefore divided from the heavenly one[155].
Her behaviour towards her husband as described by her biographers can
hardly be called becoming to her station as queen. She was so devoted to
charitable work, we are told, that she often kept the king waiting at
meals, a source of great annoyance to him, and under some pretext she
frequently left him at night. If a man of learning came to the court she
would devote herself to him, entirely neglecting her duty to the
king[156]. Quarrels between the couple were frequent, and the king
declared that he was married to a nun rather than to a queen[157]. The
murder of her younger brother finally turned the balance of the queen’s
feelings against the king. With fearless determination she broke down all
barriers. She was not lacking in personal courage, and had once calmly
confronted a popular uproar caused by her having set fire to a sacred
grove[158]. Now, regardless of consequences, she left the court and went
to Noyon, where she sought the protection of Bishop Medardus († 545), who
was influential among the many powerful prelates of his day[159]. But the
bishop hesitated, his position was evidently not so assured that he could,
by acceding to the queen’s request, risk drawing on himself the king’s
anger[160]. However Radegund’s stern admonition prevailed: ‘If you refuse
to consecrate me,’ she cried, ‘a lamb will be lost to the flock[161].’
Medardus so far consented as to consecrate her a deaconess, a term applied
at the time to those who, without belonging to any special order, were
under the protection of the Church.

In the oratory of St Jumer Radegund now offered up the embroidered clothes
and jewelry she was wearing, her robe (indumentum), her precious stones
(gemma), and her girdle weighty with gold. Both her biographers[162] lay
stress on this act of self-denial, which was the more noteworthy as love
of gorgeous apparel and jewelry was characteristic of early Frankish
royalty. Kings and queens were content to live in rural dwellings which
were little more than barns; life in cities was altogether uncongenial to
them, but they made up for this by a display of sumptuous clothes as a
mark of their rank. Already during her life with the king Radegund is
described as longing for a hair-cloth garment as a sign of unworldliness.
She now definitely adopted the raiment of a nun, a dress made of undyed

She subsequently wandered westwards from Noyon and came into the district
between Tours and Poitiers, where she settled for some time at a ‘villa’
her husband had given her called Sais[163]. She entered into friendly
relations with the recluse Jean of Chînon (Johannes Monasteriensis[164]),
a native of Brittany, who with many other recluses like himself enjoyed
the reputation of great holiness. Jean of Chînon is represented as
strengthening Radegund in her resolution to devote herself to religion,
and it is probable that he helped her with practical advice.

Radegund now devoted herself to the relief of distress of every kind, her
practical turn of mind leading her to offer help in physical as well as in
mental cases. Her biographer tells us how--like a new Martha, with a love
of active life--she shrank from no disease, not even from leprosy[165].

When she saw how many men and women sought her relief the wish to provide
permanently for them arose. She owned property outside Poitiers which she
devoted to founding a settlement for women; in all probability she also
had a house for men near it[166]. Various references to the settlement
show that it extended over a considerable area. Like other country
residences or ‘villae,’ it was surrounded by walls and had the look of a
fortress, although situated in a peaceful district. As many as two hundred
nuns lived here at the time of Radegund’s death[167]. When the house was
ready to receive its inmates, they entered it in a procession starting
from Poitiers. We hear that by this time the doings of Radegund ‘had so
far increased her reputation that crowds collected on the roofs to see
them pass.’

King Clothacar, however, did not calmly submit to being deserted by his
wife; he determined to go to Poitiers with his son to find her and to take
her back. But the queen, firm in her resolve, declared she would sooner
die than return to her husband. She notified this resolution to Bishop
Germanus of Paris, who besought the king not to go to Poitiers. His
entreaties were successful. Clothacar left his wife unmolested, and seems
to have come to some kind of agreement with her. In her letter to the
bishops, Radegund speaks of him as the noble lord, King Clothacar, not as
her husband.

Radegund did not herself preside over the women in her nunnery. With their
consent the youthful Agnes, the pupil of Radegund, but by no means her
intellectual equal, was appointed abbess. Difficulties very soon occurred
between Radegund and the bishop of Poitiers, who was probably jealous of
her attracting religious women from himself. Radegund is said to have
gone to Arles in order to learn about the life of the women gathered
together there. Against the accuracy of this statement it is urged[168]
that a written copy of the rule, together with an eloquent exhortation to
religious perfection and virtue, was forwarded from Arles by the Abbess
Caesaria († c. 560), the second of that name.

The rule was established in Poitiers in 559. In the previous year King
Clothacar, Radegund’s husband, through the death of his brothers and their
sons, had become sole king of France[169]. His monarchy thus included the
whole of what is now called France, the contiguous districts of Burgundy
and Thüringen, and the lands which had been taken from the Goths in Italy
and Spain. This great kingdom remained united for a few years only. In 561
Clothacar died and his realm was divided by his four sons, with whose
reigns a tempestuous period begins in the history of the Franks. During
more than forty years the rivalry and jealousy of the monarchs, aggravated
by the mutual hatred of the queens Brunihild and Fredegund, overwhelmed
the country with plots, counterplots, and unceasing warfare.

An eloquent appeal to the kings was called forth from the historian
Gregory by the contemplation of this state of things. It is contained in
the preface to the fifth book of his history. Calling upon them to desist
from the complications of civil war, he thus addresses them:

‘What are you bent on? What do you ask for? Have you not all in plenty?
There is luxury in your homes; in your storehouses wine, corn, and oil
abound; gold and silver are heaped up in your treasuries. One thing only
you lack; while you have not peace, you have not the grace of God. Why
must the one snatch things from the other? Why must the one covet the
other’s goods?’

Living at Poitiers Radegund was close to the scene of these turmoils. The
cities of Tours and Poitiers had fallen to the share of Charibert. When he
died in 562 his kingdom was divided between his three brothers by cities
rather than by districts. Tours and Poitiers fell to Sigebert of Rheims,
who was comparatively peace-loving among these brothers. But his brother
Chilperic of Soissons, dissatisfied with his own share, invaded Touraine
and Poitou and forced Poitiers to submit to him. He was subsequently made
to give way to Sigebert, but this did not bring their feuds to an end. In
575 Sigebert was raised on the shield and proclaimed king of Neustria (the
western part of France), but on being lifted down from the shield he was
forthwith assassinated. New complications resulted and new factions were
formed. In the interest of her son, Brunihild, the powerful widow of
Sigebert, pursued with inveterate hatred Chilperic and his wife, the
renowned Fredegund, for she looked upon Fredegund as the assassin of
Sigebert her husband and of Galesuith her sister.

Radegund had close relations with these impetuous, headstrong and
combative persons. King Sigebert was throughout well disposed towards her.

‘In order to show his love and affection for her,’ says Gregory[170], ‘he
sent a deputation of ecclesiastics to the Emperor Justinus II and his wife
Sophia at Constantinople.’ The Franks entertained friendly relations with
the imperial court, and the surviving members of Radegund’s family had
found a refuge there. In due course gifts were sent to Radegund,--a
fragment of the Holy Cross set in gold and jewels, together with other
relics of apostles and martyrs. These relics arrived at Tours some time
between 566 and 573[171]. It was Radegund’s wish that they should be
fetched from Tours to her nunnery by a procession headed by the bishop of
Poitiers. But Bishop Maroveus, who was always ready to thwart the queen,
forthwith left for his country seat when he heard of her request[172].
Radegund, much incensed, applied in her difficulty to King Sigebert, and
Eufronius, bishop of Tours, was ordered to conduct the translation.

Radegund’s adoption of the religious profession in no way diminished her
intercourse with the outside world or the influence she had had as queen.
We find her described as living on terms of friendship with Queen
Brunihild ‘whom she loved dearly.’ Even Queen Fredegund, Brunihild’s rival
and enemy, seems to have had some kind of intimacy with her. Fortunatus in
one of his poems suggests that Fredegund had begged Radegund to offer
prayers for the prosperity of her husband Chilperic.

It seems that Radegund’s word was generally esteemed, for in a family feud
when a certain Gundovald claimed to be the son of Clothacar and aspired to
the succession, we find him coupling the name of Radegund with that of
Ingetrud in asseveration of his statements.

‘If you would have the truth of what I declare proven,’ Gundovald
exclaimed, ‘go and enquire of Radegund of Poitiers and of Ingetrud of
Tours; they will tell you that what I maintain is the truth[173].’

In an age of endless entanglements, Radegund evidently did her best to
mediate between contending parties. ‘She was always favourable to peace
and interested in the weal of the realm whatever changes befell,’ writes
the nun Baudonivia[174]. ‘She esteemed the kings and prayed for their
welfare, and taught us nuns always to pray for their safety. If she heard
that they had fallen out she felt troubled: and she appealed in writing,
sometimes to one, sometimes to another, in order that they should not
fight and war together, but keep peaceful, so that the country might rest
securely. Similarly she exhorted the leaders to help the great princes
with sensible advice, in order that the common people and the lands under
their rule might prosper.’

What is here said of her peace-loving disposition is corroborated by
traits in her character mentioned by Gregory and Fortunatus. The friendly
intercourse between Radegund and Fortunatus necessitates a few remarks on
the life and doings of this latter-day Roman poet before he came to
Poitiers and entered the Church.

For years Fortunatus had lived the life of a fashionable man of letters at
Ravenna, but about the year 568 the occupation of that city by the
Langobards forced him to leave Italy. He wandered north from court to
court, from city to city, staying sometimes with a barbarian prince,
sometimes with a Church-prelate, who, one and the other, were equally
ready to entertain the cultivated southerner. In return for the
hospitality so liberally bestowed on him he celebrated his personal
relations to his benefactors in complimentary verses. He has good wishes
for prelates on the occasion of their appointment, flattering words for
kings, and pleasant greetings for friends. In some of his poems he gives
interesting descriptions of the districts through which he has travelled,
his account of a part of the Rhine valley being specially graphic[175]. He
glorifies the saints of the Church in terms formerly used for celebrating
classic divinities, and addresses Bishop Medardus of Noyon as the
possessor of Olympus[176]. He even brings in Venus to celebrate a royal
wedding, and lets her utter praises of the queen Brunihild[177].

Besides these poetical writings Fortunatus has left prose accounts of
several of his contemporaries. An easy-going man of pleasant disposition,
he combined in a curious way the traditions of cultured Latinity with the
theological bent peculiar to the Christian literature of the day. His
poems, though somewhat wanting in ideas, show a ready power of
versification and a great facility in putting things politely and
pleasantly. He wrote some hymns for church celebration which became widely
known. The one beginning ‘Pange, lingua, gloriosi’ was adopted into the
Roman Liturgy for the adoration of the Cross on Good Friday, and it was
repeatedly modified and re-written during the Middle Ages. Another hymn
written by him is the celebrated ‘Vexilla regis prodeunt,’ the words of
which are comparatively poor, but the tune, the authorship of which is
unknown, has secured it world-wide fame[178].

The relic of the Holy Cross kept at Poitiers may have inspired Fortunatus
with the idea of composing these hymns; in a flattering epistle, written
obviously at Radegund’s request, he thanks Justinus and Sophia of
Constantinople for the splendour of their gift to her[179].

Fortunatus had come to Tours on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Martin,
to whose intercession he attributed the restoration of his eyesight.
Passing through Poitiers he made the acquaintance of Radegund, who at once
acquired a great influence over him.

‘Radegund wished me to stay, so I stayed,’ he writes from Poitiers to some
friends[180], and he enlarges on the superiority, intellectual and
otherwise, of the queen, whose plain clothing and simple mode of life
greatly impressed him. Naming Eustachia, Fabiola, Melania, and all the
other holy women he can think of, he describes how she surpasses them all.
‘She exemplifies whatever is praiseworthy in them,’ he says; ‘I come
across deeds in her such as I only read about before. Her spirit is
clothed with flesh that has been overcome, and which while yet abiding in
her body holds all things cheap as dross. Dwelling on earth, she has
entered heaven, and freed from the shackles of sense, seeks companionship
in the realms above. All pious teaching is food to her; whether taught by
Gregory or Basil, by bold Athanasius or gentle Hilary (two who were
companions in the light of one cause); whether thundered by Ambrose or
flashed forth by Jerome; whether poured forth by Augustine in unceasing
flow, by gentle Sedulius or subtle Orosius. It is as though the rule of
Caesarius had been written for her. She feeds herself with food such as
this and refuses to take meat unless her mind be first satisfied. I will
not say more of what by God’s witness is manifest. Let everyone who can
send her poems by religious writers; they will be esteemed as great gifts
though the books be small. For he who gives holy writings to her may hold
himself as giving to the accepted temples (templa) of God.’

Judging from this passage, Nisard, the modern editor of Fortunatus, thinks
it probable that Radegund was acquainted with Greek as well as with
Latin[181], a statement which one cannot endorse.

The queen was much interested in the poet’s writings. ‘For many years,’ he
writes in one poem, ‘I have been here composing verses at your order;
accept these in which I address you in the terms you merit[182].’

Radegund too wrote verses under Fortunatus’ guidance. ‘You have sent me
great verses on small tablets,’ he writes. ‘You succeed in giving back
honey to dead wax; on festal days you prepare grand entertainments, but I
hunger more for your words than for your food. The little poems you send
are full of pleasing earnestness; you charm our thoughts by these

Among the poems of Fortunatus are found two which modern criticism no
longer hesitates in attributing to Radegund. They are epistles in verse
written in the form of elegies, and were sent by the queen to some of her
relatives at Constantinople. Judging by internal evidence a third poem,
telling the story of Galesuith, Queen Brunihild’s sister, who was murdered
shortly after her marriage to King Chilperic, was composed by her also;
though Nisard claims for her not the form of the poem but only its
inspiration[184]. ‘The cry,’ he says, ‘which sounds through these lines,
is the cry of a woman. Not of a German woman only, who has in her the
expression of tender and fiery passion, but a suggestion of the strength
of a woman of all countries and for all time.’ The lament in this poem is
intoned by several women in turn. Whoever may have composed it, the depth
of feeling which it displays is certainly most remarkable.

One of these poems written by Radegund is addressed to her cousin
Hermalafred, who had fled from Thüringen when Radegund was captured, and
who had afterwards taken service in the imperial army of Justinian[185].
Hermalafred was endeared to Radegund by the recollections of her
childhood, and in vivid remembrance of events which had made her a captive
she begins her letter[186] in the following strain:

‘Sad is condition of war! Jealous is fate of human things! How proud
kingdoms are shattered by a sudden fall! Those long-prosperous heights
(culmina) lie fallen, destroyed by fire in the great onset. Flickering
tongues of flame lapped round the dwelling which before rose in royal
splendour. Grey ashes cover the glittering roof which rose on high shining
with burnished metal. Its rulers are captive in the enemy’s power, its
chosen bands have fallen to lowly estate. The crowd of comely servants all
dwelling together were smitten to the dust in one day; the brilliant
circle, the multitude of powerful dependents, no grave contains them, they
lack the honours of death. More brilliant than the fire shone the gold of
her hair, that of my father’s sister, who lay felled to the ground, white
as milk. Alas, for the corpses unburied that cover the battle-field, a
whole people collected together in one burial place. Not Troy alone
bewails her destruction, the land of Thüringen has experienced a like
carnage. Here a matron in fetters is dragged away by her streaming hair,
unable to bid a sad farewell to her household gods. The captive is not
allowed to press his lips to the threshold, nor turn his face towards what
he will never more behold. Bare feet in their tread trample in the blood
of a husband, the loving sister passes over her brother’s corpse. The
child still hangs on its mother’s lips though snatched from her embrace;
in funeral wail no tear is shed. Less sad is the fate of the child who
loses its life, the gasping mother has lost even the power of tears.
Barbarian though I am, I could not surpass the weeping though my tears
flowed for ever. Each had his sorrow, I had it all, my private grief was
also the public grief. Fate was kind to those whom the enemy cut down; I
alone survive to weep over the many. But not only do I sorrow for my dead
relatives, those too I deplore whom life has preserved. Often my
tear-stained face is at variance with my eyes; my murmurs are silenced,
but my grief is astir. I look and long for the winds to bring me a
message, from none of them comes there a sign. Hard fate has snatched from
my embrace the kinsman by whose loving presence I once was cheered. Ah,
though so far away, does not my solicitude pursue thee? has the bitterness
of misfortune taken away thy sweet love? Recall what from thy earliest age
upwards, O Hermalafred, I, Radegund, was ever to thee. How much thou didst
love me when I was but an infant; O son of my father’s brother, O most
beloved among those of my kin! Thou didst supply for me the place of my
dead father, of my esteemed mother, of a sister and of a brother. Held by
thy gentle hand, hanging on thy sweet kisses, as a child I was soothed by
thy tender speech. Scarce a time there was when the hour did not bring
thee, now ages go by and I hear not a word from thee! I wrestle with the
wild anguish that is hidden in my bosom; oh, that I could call thee back,
friend, whenever or wherever it might be. If father, or mother, or royal
office has hitherto held thee, though thou didst hasten now to me, thy
coming is late. Perhaps ’tis a sign of fate that I shall soon miss thee
altogether, dearest, for unrequited affection cannot long continue. I used
to be anxious when one house did not shelter us; when thou wast absent, I
thought thee gone for ever. Now the east holds thee as the west holds me;
the ocean’s waters restrain me, and thou art kept away from me by the sea
reddened by the beams of the sun (unda rubri). The earth’s expanse
stretches between those who are dear to each other, a world divides those
whom no distance separated before.’

She goes on to speculate where her cousin may be, and she says if she were
not held by her monastery she would go to him; storm and wind and the
thought of shipwreck would be nothing to her. The fear of incriminating
her, she says, was the cause of the death of her murdered brother. Would
that she had died instead of him! She beseeches Hermalafred to send news
of himself and of his sisters, and ends her letter with these words: ‘May
Christ grant my prayer, may this letter reach those beloved ones, so that
a letter indited with sweet messages may come to me in return! May the
sufferings wrought by languishing hope be alleviated by the swift advent
of sure tidings!’

This poem expresses great and lasting affection for her race. But her
relatives were a source of continued grief to the queen. She received no
reply to her letter to Hermalafred, and later she heard of his death. She
received this news from his nephew Artachis, who sent her at the same time
a present of silk, and Radegund then wrote another letter[187] which is
addressed to Artachis and is even sadder in tone. In it she deplores the
death of Hermalafred, and asks the boy Artachis to let her have frequent
news of himself sent to her monastery.

It is pleasant to turn from the sad side of Radegund’s life which these
poems exhibit to her friendly intercourse with Fortunatus, which was no
doubt a source of great comfort to her during the last years of her life.
With the exception of short intervals for journeys, the Latin poet lived
entirely at Poitiers, where he adopted the religious profession, and dwelt
in constant communication with Radegund and the abbess Agnes, in whose
society he learned to forget the land of his birth. The numerous poems and
verses which he has addressed to these ladies throw a strong light on his
attitude towards them and their great affection for him.

Radegund was wont to decorate the altar of her church with a profusion of
flowers[188]. Again and again the poet sends her flowers, accompanying his
gift with a few lines. With a basket of violets he sends the

‘If the time of year had given me white lilies, or had offered me roses
laden with perfume, I had culled them as usual in the open or in the
ground of my small garden, and had sent them, small gifts to great ladies.
But since I am short of the first and wanting in the second, he who offers
violets must in love be held to bring roses. Among the odorous herbs which
I send, these purple violets have a nobleness of their own. They shine
tinted with purple which is regal, and unite in their petals both perfume
and beauty. What they represent may you both exemplify, that by
association a transient gift may gain lasting worth.’

The interchange of gifts between the poet and the ladies was mutual, the
nuns of Ste Croix lacked not the good things of this world and were
generous in giving. Fortunatus thanks them for gifts of milk, prunes,
eggs, and tempting dishes[190]. On one occasion they send him a meal of
several courses, vegetables and meat, almost too much for one servant to
carry, and he describes his greedy (gulosus) enjoyment of it in graphic
terms[191]. Are we to take the lines literally which tell us that when
they entertained him at dinner the table was scarcely visible for the
roses with which it was strewn, and that the foliage and flowers spread
about made the room into a bower of greenery[192]?

Sometimes a fit of indigestion was the result of the too liberal enjoyment
of what his friends so freely provided[193]. The poet was evidently fond
of the pleasures of the table, and accentuates the material rather than
the spiritual side of things. Once addressing Agnes he tells her that she
shines in the blending of two things, she provides refreshment for the
poet’s mind and excellent food for his body[194].

But the 6th century poet is generally somewhat plain-spoken on delicate
topics. In a poem addressed to Radegund and Agnes he openly defends
himself against the imputation that the tone of his relations to them is
other than is signified by the terms mother and sister by which he is wont
to address them[195]. Still these platonic relations do not preclude the
use of expressions which border on the amorous, for he tells them that
they each possess one half of him[196], and he calls Radegund the light of
his eyes[197].

‘My dear mother, my sweet sister,’ he writes, ‘what shall I say, left
alone in the absence of the love of my heart[198]?...’ And again[199],
‘May a good night enfold my mother and my sister; this brings them the
good wishes of a son and a brother. May the choir of angels visit your
hearts and hold sweet converse with your thoughts. The time of night
forces me to be brief in my greetings; I am sending only six lines of
verse for you both!’

The vocabulary used to denote the different kinds of human affection
contains, no doubt, many terms common to all, and if the poems of
Fortunatus sometimes suggest the lover, it must be remembered that as
poems of friendship they are among the earliest of their kind. They are
throughout elegant, graceful, and characterized by a playful tenderness
which a translator must despair of rendering.

Radegund died in the year 587, and her death was a terrible loss to the
inmates of her settlement. Gregory, bishop of Tours, who officiated at the
burial, gives a detailed description of it, telling how some two hundred
women crowded round the bier, bewailing her death in such words as

‘To whom, mother, hast thou left us orphans? To whom then shall we turn in
our distress? We left our parents, our relatives and our homes, and we
followed thee. What have we before us now, but tears unceasing, and grief
that never can end? Verily, this monastery is to us more than the
greatness of village and city.... The earth is now darkened to us, this
place has been straitened since we no longer behold thy countenance. Woe
unto us who are left by our holy mother! Happy those who left this world
whilst thou wast still alive...!’

The nun Baudonivia says that she cannot speak of the death of Radegund
without sobs choking her. Her account was written some time after
Radegund’s death during the rule of the abbess Didimia to whom it is
dedicated; Didimia probably succeeded Leubover, who witnessed the serious
outbreak of the nuns at Poitiers. This outbreak throws an interesting
light on the temper of professed religious women at this period, and
illustrates how needful it was that a religious establishment should be
ruled by a woman of character and determination at a time when the
monastic system was only in its infancy.

§ 3. The Revolt of the Nuns at Poitiers[201]. Convent Life in the North.

The revolt of the nuns at Poitiers, which happened within a few years of
the death of Radegund, shows more than anything else the imperious and the
unbridled passions that were to be found at this period in a nunnery.
Evidently the adoption of the religious profession did not deter women
from openly rebelling against the authority of the ministers of the
Church, and from carrying out their purpose by force of arms. The outbreak
at Poitiers, of which Gregory has given a description, shows what proud,
vindictive, and unrelenting characters the Frankish convent of the 6th
century harboured.

Already during Radegund’s lifetime difficulties had arisen. King Chilperic
had placed his daughter Basina in the nunnery, and after a time he asked
that she should leave to be married. Radegund refused and her authority
prevailed, but we shall find this Basina taking an active part in the
rebellion. Other incidents show how difficult it was for Radegund even to
uphold discipline. A nun escaped through a window by aid of a rope and,
taking refuge in the basilica of St Hilary, made accusations which
Gregory, who was summoned to enquire into the matter, declared to be
unfounded. The fugitive repented and was permitted to return to the
nunnery; she was hoisted up by means of ropes so that she might enter by
the way she had gone out. She asked to be confined in a cell apart from
the community, and there she remained in seclusion till the news of the
rebellion encouraged her to again break loose.

Agnes the abbess appointed by Radegund died in 589. The convent chose a
certain Leubover to succeed her, but this appointment roused the ire of
Chrodield, another inmate of the nunnery.

Chrodield held herself to be the daughter of King Charibert, and relying
on her near connection with royalty persuaded forty nuns to take an oath
that they would help her to remove the hated Leubover and would appoint
her, Chrodield, as abbess in her stead. Led by Chrodield who had been
joined by her cousin Basina, the daughter of Chilperic mentioned above,
the whole party left the nunnery. ‘I am going to my royal relatives,’
Chrodield said, ‘to inform them of the contumely we have experienced. Not
as daughters of kings are we treated but as though we were lowly

Leaving Poitiers the women came to Tours where Chrodield applied for
assistance to the bishop and historian Gregory. In vain he admonished her,
promising to speak to Bishop Maroveus of Poitiers in her behalf, and
urging her to abide by his decision, as the penalty might be

The feeling of indignation in the women must have been strong, since
nothing he could say dissuaded them from their purpose. ‘Nothing shall
prevent us from appealing to the kings,’ said Chrodield, ‘to them we are
nearly related.’

The women had come on foot from Poitiers to Tours, regardless of
hardships. They had had no food and arrived at a time of year when the
roads were deep in mud. Gregory at last persuaded them to postpone their
departure for the court till the summer.

Then Chrodield, leaving the nuns under the care of Basina, continued her
journey to her uncle, King Guntchram of Orléans, who at the time was
residing at Chalôns-sur-Saône. She was well received by him and came back
to Tours there to await the convocation of bishops who were to enquire
into the rights of her case. But she found on her return that many of her
followers had disbanded, and some had married. The arrival too of the
bishops was delayed, so that she felt it expedient to return with her
followers to Poitiers where they took possession of the basilica of St

They now prepared for open hostility. ‘We are queens,’ they said, ‘and we
shall not return to the monastery unless the abbess is deposed.’

At this juncture they were joined by other dissatisfied spirits,
‘murderers, adulterers, law-breakers and other wrong-doers,’ as Gregory
puts it[203]. The nun too who had previously escaped and been taken back,
now broke loose from her cell and returned to the basilica of Hilary.

The bishop of Bordeaux and his suffragan bishops of Angoulême, Perigueux,
and Poitiers, now assembled by order of the king (Guntchram), and called
upon the women to come into the monastery, and on their refusal the
prelates entered the basilica of St Hilary in a body urging them to obey.
The women refused, and the ban of excommunication was pronounced, upon
which they and their followers attacked the prelates. In great fear the
bishops and clergy made off helter-skelter, not even pausing to bid each
other farewell. One deacon was so terrified that in his eagerness to get
away he did not even ride down to the ford, but plunged with his horse
straight into the river.

King Childebert († 596), the son and successor of King Sigebert, now
ordered Count Macco to put an end to the rebellion by force of arms, while
Gondegisel, bishop of Bordeaux, sent a circular letter to his brethren,
describing the indignity to which he had been exposed. Chrodield’s chance
of success was evidently dwindling, when she determined to carry her point
by a bold assault, the account of which may fitly stand in the words of

‘The vexations,’ he says, ‘which sown by the devil had sprung up in the
monastery at Poitiers, daily increased in troublesomeness. For Chrodield,
having collected about her, as mentioned above, a band of murderers,
wrong-doers, law-breakers, and vagrants of all kinds, dwelt in open revolt
and ordered her followers to break into the nunnery at night and forcibly
to bear off the abbess. But the abbess, on hearing the noise of their
approach, asked to be carried in front of the shrine of the Holy Cross,
for she was suffering from a gouty foot, and thought that the Holy Cross
would serve her as a protection in danger. The armed bands rushed in, ran
about the monastery by the light of a torch in search of the abbess, and
entering the oratory found her extended on the ground in front of the
shrine of the Holy Cross. Then one of them, more audacious than the rest,
while about to commit the impious deed of cutting her down with his sword,
was stabbed by another, through the intercession I believe of Divine
Providence. He fell in his own blood and did not carry out the intention
he had impiously formed. Meanwhile the prioress Justina, together with
other sisters, spread the altar-cover, which lay before the cross, over
the abbess, and extinguished the altar candles. But those who rushed in
with bared swords and lances tore her clothes, almost lacerated the hands
of the nuns, and carried off the prioress whom they mistook for the abbess
in the darkness, and, with her cloak dragged off and her hair coming down,
they would have given her into custody at the basilica of St Hilary. But
as they drew near the church, and the sky grew somewhat lighter, they saw
she was not the abbess and told her to go back to the monastery. Coming
back themselves they secured the real abbess, dragged her away, and placed
her in custody near the basilica of St Hilary in a place where Basina was
living, and placed a watch over her by the door that no one should come to
her rescue. Then in the dark of night they returned to the monastery and
not being able to find a light, set fire to a barrel which they took from
the larder and which had been painted with tar and was now dry. By the
light of the bonfire they kindled, they plundered the monastery of all its
contents, leaving nothing but what they could not carry off. This happened
seven days before Easter.’

The bishop of Poitiers made one more attempt to interfere. He sent to
Chrodield and asked her to set the abbess free on pain of his refusing to
celebrate the Easter festival. ‘If you do not release her,’ he said, ‘I
shall bring her help with the assembled citizens.’ But Chrodield
emboldened by her success said to her followers: ‘If anyone dare come to
her rescue, slay her.’

She seems now to have been in possession of the monastery; still we find
defection among her party. Basina, who throughout had shown a changeable
disposition, repented and went to the imprisoned Leubover, who received
her with open arms. The bishops, mindful of the treatment they had
received, still refused to assemble in Poitiers while the state of affairs
continued. But Count Macco with his armed bands made an attack on the
women and their followers, causing ‘some to be beaten down, others struck
down by spears, and those who made most strenuous opposition to be cut
down by the sword.’

Chrodield came forth from the nunnery holding on high the relic of the
Cross; ‘Do not, I charge you, use force of arms against me,’ she cried, ‘I
am a queen, daughter to one king and cousin to another. Do not attack me,
a time may come when I will take my revenge.’ But no one took any notice
of her. Her followers were dragged from the monastery and severely
chastised. The bishops assembled and instituted a long enquiry into the
grievances of Chrodield, and the accusations brought against Leubover by
her. They seem to have been unfounded or insignificant. Leubover justified
herself and returned to the monastery. Chrodield and Basina left Poitiers
and went to the court of King Childebert.

At the next Church convocation the king tendered a request that these
women should be freed from the ban of excommunication. Basina asked
forgiveness and was allowed to return to the monastery. But the proud
Chrodield declared that she would not set foot there while the abbess
Leubover remained in authority. She maintained her independence and went
to live in a ‘villa’ which the king had granted her, and from that time
she passes from the stage of history.

The revolt of the nuns at Poitiers, which for two years defied the efforts
of churchmen and laymen, is the more noteworthy in that it does not stand
alone. Within a year we find a similar outbreak threatening the nunnery at
Tours where a certain Berthegund, similarly disappointed of becoming
abbess, collected malefactors and others about her and resorted to violent
measures. The circumstances, which are also described by Gregory, differ
in some respects from those of the insurrection at Ste Croix[205].

Ingetrud, the mother of Berthegund, had founded a nunnery at Tours close
to the church of St Martin, and she urged her daughter, who was married,
to come and live with her. When Berthegund did so, her husband appealed to
Gregory, who threatened her with excommunication if she persisted in her
resolve. She returned to her husband, but subsequently left him again and
sent for advice to her brother who was bishop of Bordeaux. He decreed that
she need not live with her husband if she preferred convent life. But when
this bishop of Bordeaux died, his sister Berthegund and her mother
Ingetrud quarrelled as to the inheritance of his property, and Ingetrud,
much incensed against her daughter, determined at least to keep from
Berthegund her own possessions at the nunnery and succession to her
position there. She therefore appointed a niece of hers to succeed her as
abbess after her death. When she died the convent of nuns looked upon this
appointment as an infringement of their rights, but Gregory persuaded them
to keep quiet and abide by the decision of their late abbess. Berthegund
however would not agree to it. Against the advice of the bishop she
appealed to the authority of King Childebert, who admitted her claim to
the property. ‘Furnished with his letter she came to the monastery and
carried off all the moveable property, leaving nothing but its bare
walls,’ Gregory says. Afterwards she settled at Poitiers, where she spoke
evil of her cousin the abbess of Tours, and altogether ‘she did so much
evil it were difficult to tell of it all.’

From the consideration of these events in central France we turn to the
religious foundations for women in the northern districts. With the
beginning of the 7th century a change which directly influenced convent
life becomes apparent in the relations between the Frankish rulers and the
representatives of Christianity. Influential posts at court were more and
more frequently occupied by prelates of the Church, and kings and queens
acted more directly as patrons of churches and monasteries. Hitherto the
centres of religious influence had been in southern and central France,
where the Gallo-Frankish population and influence predominated, and where
monasteries flourished close to cities which had been strongholds of the
Roman system of administration. New religious settlements now grew up
north of the rivers Seine and Marne, where the pure Frankish element
prevailed and where Christianity regained its foothold owing to the
patronage of ruling princes.

Whatever had survived of Latin culture and civilisation in these districts
had disappeared before the influence of the heathen invaders; the men
whose work it was to re-evangelise these districts found few traces of
Christianity. Vedast (St Vaast, † 540), who was sent by bishop Remigius
(St Rémy) of Rheims († 532) into the marshy districts of Flanders, found
no Christians at Arras about the year 500, and only the ruins of one
ancient church, which he rebuilt[206]. The author of the life of Vedast
gives the ravages made in these districts by the Huns as the reason for
the disappearance of Latin culture and of Christianity. But the author of
the life of Eleutherius, bishop of Tournai († 531), holds that the
Christians had fled from these districts to escape from the inroads of the
heathen Franks[207].

It was chiefly by the foundation of monasteries in these districts that
Christianity gained ground during the 7th century. ‘Through the
establishment of monasteries,’ says Gérard[208], ‘the new social order
gained a foothold in the old Salic lands.’ Among the names of those who
took an active part in this movement stand the following: Wandregisil (St
Vandrille, † 665) founder of the abbey of Fontenelle; Waneng († c. 688)
founder of Fécamp; Filibert († 684) founder of Jumièges; Eligius bishop of
Noyon († 658) and Audoenus (St Ouen, † 683) archbishop of Rouen. These men
were in direct contact with the court and were much patronised by the
ruling princes, especially by the holy queen Balthild. Early and reliable
accounts concerning most of them are extant[209].

With regard to political events the 7th century is the most obscure period
of Frankish history, for the history of Gregory of Tours comes to an end
in 591. Feuds and quarrels as violent as those he depicts continued, and
important constitutional changes took place as their result. The vast
dominions brought under Frankish rule showed signs of definitely
crystallising into Austrasia which included the purely Frankish districts
of the north, and Burgundy and Neustria where Gallo-Frankish elements were

The latter half of the life of the famous Queen Brunihild[210] takes its
colouring from the rivalry between these kingdoms; during fifty years she
was one of the chief actors in the drama of Frankish history. At one time
she ruled conjointly with her son Childebert, and then as regent for her
grandsons, over whom she domineered greatly. In the year 613, when she was
over eighty years old, she was put to a cruel death by the nobles of

The judgments passed on this queen are curiously contradictory. Pope
Gregory († 604) writes to her praising her great zeal in the cause of
religion, and thanks her for the protection she has afforded to Augustine
on his passage through France, which he considers a means to the
conversion of England[211]. On the other hand the author of the life of St
Columban[212], whom she expelled from Burgundy, calls her a very
Jezebel[213]; and the author of the life of Desiderius, who was murdered
in 608, goes so far as to accuse her of incestuous practices because of
her marriage with her husband’s nephew[214]. Indirect evidence is in
favour of the conclusion that Queen Brunihild disliked monasticism; she
was by birth of course a princess of the Gothic dynasty of Spain who had
accepted Christianity in its Arian form.

During the reign of Brunihild’s nephew Clothacar II († 628), under whose
rule the different provinces were for a time united, a comprehensive and
most interesting edict was issued, which affords an insight into the
efforts made to give stability to the relations between princes and the
representatives of religion. In this edict, under heading 18, we are told
that ‘no maidens, holy widows or religious persons who are vowed to God,
whether they stay at home or live in monasteries, shall be enticed away,
or appropriated, or taken in marriage by making use of a special royal
permit (praeceptum). And if anyone surreptitiously gets hold of a permit,
it shall have no force. And should anyone by violent or other means carry
off any such woman and take her to wife, let him be put to death. And if
he be married in church and the woman who is appropriated, or who is on
the point of being appropriated, seems to be a consenting party, they
shall be separated, sent into exile, and their possessions given to their
natural heirs[215].’

From these injunctions it can be gathered that the re-adjustment of social
and moral relations was still in progress; women who were vowed to a
religious life did not necessarily dwell in a religious settlement, and
even if they did so they were not necessarily safe from being captured and
thrown into subjection. Clothacar II had three wives at the same time and
concubines innumerable; plurality of wives was indeed a prerogative of
these Frankish kings.

Monastic life in northern France at this period was also in process of
development. It has been mentioned how Radegund adopted the rule of life
framed and put into writing by Caesarius at Arles. The rule
contemporaneously instituted by Benedict at Nursia in central Italy spread
further and further northwards, and was advocated by prelates of the
Romish Church. It served as the model on which to reform the life of
existing settlements[216].

During the first few centuries religious houses and communities had been
founded here and there independently of each other, the mode of life and
the routine observed depending in each case directly on the founder. Many
and great were the attempts made by the advocates of convent life to
formulate the type of an ideal existence outside the pale of social duties
and family relations, in which piety, work and benevolence should be
blended in just proportions. The questions how far the prelates of the
Church should claim authority over the monastery, and what the respective
positions of abbot or abbess and bishop should be, led to much discussion.

During the period under consideration the rules drafted by different
leaders of monastic thought were not looked upon as mutually exclusive. We
are told in the life of Filibert († 684), written by a contemporary[217],
that he made selections from ‘the graces of St Basil, the rule of
Macarius, the decrees of Benedict and the holy institutions of Columban.’
Eligius, bishop of Noyon, says in a charter which he drafted for the
monastery founded by him at Solemny that the inmates of the settlement
shall follow the rules of St Benedict and of St Columban[218].

Towards the close of the 6th century Columban came from Ireland into
France and northern Italy and founded a number of religious settlements.
What rule of life the inmates of these houses followed is not quite clear,
probably that drafted by Columban. The convents in Elsass, Switzerland and
Germany, which considered that they owed their foundation to Irish monks,
were numerous and later became obnoxious to the Church in many ways. For
in after years, when the feud arose between the Romish and the Irish
Churches and the latter insisted on her independence, the houses founded
by Irishmen also claimed freedom and remained separate from those which
accepted the rule of St Benedict.

The property granted to religious foundations in northern France went on
increasing throughout the 7th century. The amount of land settled on
churches and monasteries by princes of the Merovech dynasty was so great
that on Roth’s computation two-thirds of the soil of France was at one
time in the hands of the representatives of religion[219]. Under the will
of Dagobert, who first became king of Austrasia in 628 and afterwards of
the whole of France, large tracts were given away. Through the gifts of
this king the abbey of St Denis became the richest in France, and his
great liberality on the one hand towards the Church, on the other towards
the poor and pilgrims, is emphasized by his biographer. His son Chlodwig
II, king of Neustria and Burgundy, followed in his footsteps. He was a
prince of feeble intellect and his reign is remarkable for the power
increasingly usurped by the house-mayor, who grasped more and more at the
substance of royal authority while dispensing with its show.

Chlodwig II was married to Balthild, who is esteemed a saint on the
strength of the monastery she founded and of the gifts she made to the
Church. There are two accounts of her works; the second is probably a
re-written amplification of the first, which was drafted within a short
period of her death[220]. As these accounts were written from the
religious standpoint, they give scant information on the political
activity and influence of the queen, which were considerable. They dwell
chiefly on her gifts, and concern the latter part of her life when she was
in constant communication with her nunnery.

Balthild was of Anglo-Saxon origin, and her personality and activity form
the connecting link between the women of France and England. It is
supposed that she was descended from one of the noble families of Wessex,
and she favoured all those religious settlements which were in direct
connection with princesses of the Anglo-Saxon race.

She had been captured on the north coast of France and had been brought to
Paris as a slave by the house-mayor Erchinoald, who would have married
her, but she escaped and hid herself. Her beauty and attractions are
described as remarkable, and she found favour in the eyes of King Chlodwig
II who made her his wife. The excesses of this king were so great that he
became imbecile. Balthild with Erchinoald’s help governed the kingdom
during the remainder of her husband’s life and after his death in the
interest of her little sons. From a political point of view she is
described as ‘administering the affairs of the kingdom masculine wise and
with great strength of mind.’ She was especially energetic in opposing
slavery and forbade the sale of Christians in any part of France. No doubt
this was due to her own sad experience. She also abolished the poll-tax,
which had been instituted by the Romans. The Frankish kings had carried it
on and depended on it for part of their income. Its abolition is referred
to as a most important and beneficial change[221].

During the lifetime of Chlodwig and for some years after his death the
rule of Balthild seems to have been comparatively peaceful. The
house-mayor Erchinoald died in 658 and was succeeded by Ebruin, a man
whose unbounded personal ambition again plunged the realm into endless
quarrels. In his own interest Ebruin advocated the appointment of a
separate king to the province Austrasia, and the second of Balthild’s
little sons was sent there with the house-mayor Wulfoald. But the rivalry
between the two kingdoms soon added another dramatic chapter to the pages
of Frankish history. At one time we find Ebruin ruling supreme and
condemning his rival Leodgar, bishop of Autun, to seclusion in the
monastery of Luxeuil. An insurrection broke out and Ebruin himself was
tonsured and cast into Luxeuil. But his chief antagonist Leodgar was
murdered. Ebruin was then set free and again became house-mayor to one of
the shadow kings, _rois fainéants_, the unworthy successors of the great
Merovech. His career throughout reflected the tumultuous temper of the
age; he was finally assassinated in the year 680.

Queen Balthild had retired from political life long before this. She left
the court in consequence of an insurrection in Paris which led to the
assassination of Bishop Sigoberrand, and went to live at a palace near the
convent of Chelles, which she had founded and which she frequently
visited. In the account of her life we read of her doing many pious
deeds[222]. ‘A fond mother, she loved the nuns like her own daughters and
obeyed as her mother the holy abbess whom she had herself appointed; and
in every respect she did her duty not like a mistress but like a faithful
servant. Also with the humility of a strong mind she served as an
example; she did service herself as cook to the nuns, she looked after
cleanliness,--and, what can I say more,--the purest of pearls, with her
own hands she removed filth’s impurities....’

At various times of her life Balthild had been in friendly intercourse
with many of the chief prelates and religious dignitaries of the day. She
had taken a special interest in Eligius, bishop of Noyon, who was a Frank
by birth and the friend and adviser of King Dagobert.

We hear how Eligius took a special interest in monastic life; how at Paris
he collected together three hundred women, some of whom were slaves,
others of noble origin; how he placed them under the guidance of one
Aurea; and how at Noyon also he gathered together many women[223].

On receiving the news that Eligius was dying, Balthild hurried with her
sons to Noyon, but they came too late to see him. So great was her love
for him, that she would have borne away his body to Chelles, her favourite
settlement, but her wish was miraculously frustrated. The writer of the
life of Eligius tells that the holy man’s body became so heavy that it was
impossible to move it.

When Eligius appointed Aurea as president of his convent at Paris she was
living in a settlement at Pavilly which had been founded by Filibert, an
ecclesiastic also associated with Queen Balthild. On one occasion she sent
him as an offering her royal girdle, which is described as a mass of gold
and jewels[224]. It was on land granted to him by Balthild and her sons
that Filibert founded Jumièges, where he collected together as many as
nine hundred monks. At his foundation at Pavilly over three hundred women
lived together under the abbess Ansterbert[225].

It is recorded that Ansterbert and her mother Framehild were among the
women of northern France who came under the influence of Irish teachers.
The same is said of Fara († 657)[226], the reputed founder of a house at
Brie, which was known as Faremoutiers, another settlement indebted to
Queen Balthild’s munificence. Similarly Agilbert and Theodohild[227] († c.
660) are supposed to have been taught by Irish teachers who had collected
women about them at Jouarre on the Marne. This house at Jouarre attained
a high standard of excellence in regard to education, for we are informed
that Balthild summoned Berthild[228] from here, a woman renowned for her
learning, and appointed her abbess over the house at Chelles.

Yet another ecclesiastic must be mentioned in connection with Balthild,
viz. Waneng, a Frank by birth. He was counsellor for some time to the
queen who gave the cantle of Normandy, the so-called Pays de Caux, into
his charge. He again founded a settlement for religious women at Fécamp
which was presided over by Hildemarque.

The foundation and growth of so many religious settlements within so short
a period and situated in a comparatively small district shows that the
taste for monastic life was rapidly developing among the Franks.

‘At this period in the provinces of Gaul,’ says a contemporary writer,
‘large communities of monks and of virgins were formed, not only in
cultivated districts, in villages, cities and strongholds, but also in
uncultivated solitudes, for the purpose of living together according to
the rule of the holy fathers Benedict and Columban[229].’

This statement is taken from the life of Salaberg, a well written
composition which conveys the impression of truthfulness. Salaberg had
brought up her daughter Anstrud for the religious life. Her husband had
joined the monastery at Luxeuil and she and other women were about to
settle near it when the rumour of impending warfare drove them north
towards Laon where they dwelt on the Mons Clavatus. This event belongs to
the period of Queen Balthild’s regency. It was while Anstrud was abbess at
Laon that the settlement was attacked and barely escaped destruction in
one of the wars waged by the house-mayor Ebruin. This event is described
in a contemporary life of Anstrud[230].

It is interesting to find a connection growing up at this period between
the religious houses of northern France and the women of Anglo-Saxon
England. We learn from the reliable information supplied by Bede that
Englishwomen frequently went abroad and sometimes settled entirely in
Frankish convents. We shall return to this subject later in connection
with the princesses of Kent and East Anglia, some of whom went to France
and there became abbesses. The house at Brie was ruled successively by
Saethrith (St Syre), and Aethelburg (St Aubierge), daughters of kings of
East Anglia, and Earcongotha, a daughter of the king of Kent. About the
same time Hereswith, a princess of Northumbria, came to reside at

We do not know how far the immigration of these women was due to
Balthild’s connection with the land of her origin, nor do we hear whether
she found solace in the society of her countrywomen during the last years
of her life. Her death is conjectured to have taken place in 680.

With it closes the period which has given the relatively largest number of
women-saints to France, for all the women who by founding nunneries worked
in the interests of religion have a place in the assembly of the saints.
They were held as benefactors in the districts which witnessed their
efforts, and the day of their death was inscribed in the local calendar.
They have never been officially canonised, but they all figure in the
Roman Martyrology, and the accounts which tell of their doings have been
incorporated in the Acts of the Saints.



  ‘Ecce catervim glomerant ad bella phalanges
  Justitiae comites et virtutum agmina sancta.’
                                  Ealdhelm, _De laude Virginum_.

§ 1. Early Houses in Kent.

The early history of the convent life of women in Anglo-Saxon England is
chiefly an account of foundations. Information on the establishment of
religious settlements founded and presided over by women is plentiful, but
well-nigh a century went by before women who had adopted religion as a
profession gave any insight into their lives and characters through
writings of their own. The women who founded monasteries in Anglo-Saxon
England have generally been raised to the rank of saint.

‘In the large number of convents as well as in the names of female saints
among the Anglo-Saxons,’ says Lappenberg[232], ‘we may recognise the same
spirit which attracted the notice of the Roman army among the ancient
Germans, and was manifested in the esteem and honour of women generally,
and in the special influence exercised by the priestess.’

A great proportion of the women who founded religious houses were members
of ruling families. From the first it was usual for a princess to receive
a grant of land from her husband on the occasion of her marriage, and this
land together with what she inherited from her father she could dispose of
at will. She often devoted this property to founding a religious house
where she established her daughters, and to which she retired either
during her husband’s lifetime or after his death. The great honour paid by
Christianity to the celibate life and the wide field of action opened to
a princess in a religious house were strong inducements to the sisters and
daughters of kings to take the veil.

We have trustworthy information about many of the Anglo-Saxon women who
founded and presided over religious settlements and whom posterity
reverenced as saints; for their work has been described by writers who
either knew them, or gained their information from those who did. But
there are other women whose names only are mentioned in charters, or
correspondence, or in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Historians however
welcome such references as chronological evidence and as proofs of these
women’s real existence; without them they would have nothing to rely upon
but accounts dating from a later period and often consisting of little
more than a series of incidents strung together in order to explain the
miracles with which the saints’ relics were locally credited. There is a
certain similarity between these later accounts and those we have of
pseudo-saints, but they differ from those of an earlier date, for the
writers of the 8th and 9th centuries were not actuated like those of a
later period by the desire to give a miraculous rendering of fact. Bede (†
735) stands pre-eminent among the earlier writers, and our admiration for
him increases as we discover his immense superiority to other early

Most of the women who were honoured as saints in England belong to the
first hundred years after the acceptance of Christianity in these islands.
A few other women have been revered as saints who lived in the 10th
century and came under the influence of the monastic revival which is
associated with the name of Dunstan († 988). But no woman living during
Anglo-Norman times has been thus honoured, for the desire to raise women
to saintship was essentially Anglo-Saxon and was strongest in the times
which immediately followed the acceptance of Christianity.

It was more than two hundred years after the Anglo-Saxons first set foot
on British shores that they accepted Christianity. The struggles between
them and the inhabitants of the island had ended in the recognised
supremacy of the invaders, and bands of heathen Germans, settling at first
near the shore, for the sake of the open country, had gradually made their
way up the fruitful valleys and into adjoining districts till they covered
the land with a network of settlements. After the restlessness of invasion
and warfare the Anglo-Saxons settled down to domestic life and
agriculture, for compared with the British they were eminently tillers of
the soil. Under their régime the cities built by the Romans and the
British fastnesses alike fell into decay. The Anglo-Saxons dwelt in
villages, and the British either lived there in subservience to them or
else retired into districts of their own which were difficult of access.

The re-introduction of Christianity into these islands is associated with
the name of Pope Gregory. Zealous and resolute in his efforts to
strengthen the papal power by sending forth missionaries who were devoted
to him, he watched his opportunity to gain a foothold for the faith in

Tradition connects the first step in this direction with the name of a
Frankish princess, and Bede in his Church History tells how the marriage
of Berhta, daughter of King Charibert of Paris (561-567), to King
Aethelberht of Kent (586-616) brought an ecclesiastic to Canterbury who
took possession of the ancient British church of St Martin: this event was
speedily followed by the arrival of other ecclesiastics from Rome, who
travelled across France under the leadership of Augustine.

At the time of Augustine’s arrival the position of Kent was threatened by
the growing supremacy of Northumbria. Through the activity both of
Aethelfrith († 617) and of Eadwin his successor, the land extending from
the Humber to the Firth of Forth had been united under one rule;
Northumbria was taking the lead among the petty kingdoms which had been
formed in different parts of the island. The king of Kent strengthened his
independent position by accepting the faith which had proved propitious to
the Franks and by entering into alliance with his neighbours across the
Channel; and it was no doubt with a view to encouraging peaceful relations
with the north that Aethelburg the daughter of Aethelberht and Berhta was
given in marriage to King Eadwin of Northumbria during the reign of her
brother Eadbald (616-640).

Again the marriage of a Christian princess was made an occasion for
extending the faith; an ecclesiastic as usual followed in her train.
Paulinus, the Roman chaplain who came north with Aethelburg, after various
incidents picturesquely set forth by Bede, overcame King Eadwin’s
reluctance to embrace Christianity and prevailed upon him to be baptized
at York with other members of his household on Easter day in the year 627.
The event was followed by an influx of Christians into that city, for
British Christianity had receded before the heathen Angles, but it still
had strongholds in the north and was on the alert to regain lost ground.
The city of York, during Roman rule, had been of great importance in
affairs of administration. The Roman Eboracum nearly died out to arise
anew as Anglian Eoforwic. King Eadwin recognised Paulinus as bishop and a
stone church was begun on part of the ground now occupied by the

Bede loves to dwell on the story of this conversion, which was endeared to
all devout churchmen by many associations. Eanflaed, the child of Eadwin
and Aethelburg, whose baptism was its immediate cause, was afterwards a
staunch supporter of Roman versus British Church tendencies. She was the
patron of Wilfrith, in his time the most zealous advocate of the supremacy
of Rome.

Among the members of Eadwin’s household who were baptized on the same
Easter day in 627 was Hild, a girl of fourteen, who afterwards became
abbess of Whitby. She was grand-niece to Eadwin through her father
Hereric, who had been treacherously made away with; her mother Beorhtswith
and her sister Hereswith were among the early converts to Christianity.
Hereswith afterwards married a king of the Angles, and at a later period
was living in the Frankish settlement of Chelles (Cala), where her sister
Hild at one time thought of joining her. Nothing is known of the life of
Hild between the ages of fourteen and thirty-four, but evidently she had
not dwelt in obscure retirement, for the Scottish prelate Aidan in 647,
knowing that she was living in the midlands, begged her to return to the
north. It is a noteworthy circumstance if, in an age when marriage was the
rule, she remained single without taking the veil, but she may have been
associated with some religious settlement[234].

It was only a few years after the acceptance of Christianity at York that
the days of King Eadwin’s reign, ‘when a woman with her babe might walk
scatheless from sea to sea,’ came to an abrupt close. Eadwin was slain in
633 at the battle of Hatfield, a victim to the jealousy of the British
king Caedwalla, who combined with the heathen king Penda of Mercia against
him. Queen Aethelburg with her children and Paulinus fled from York to
the coast and went by sea to Kent, where they were welcomed by her brother
King Eadbald and by Archbishop Honorius.

At the beginning of his reign Eadbald of Kent had been in conflict with
the Church owing to his marriage with his father’s relict, a heathen wife
whom Aethelberht had taken to himself after the death of Berhta. It is
characteristic of the position held at first by Christian prelates in
England that they depended entirely on the ruling prince for their
position. Paulinus fled from York at the death of Eadwin, and Eadbald’s
adherence to heathen customs temporarily drove the Kentish prelate abroad.
The king of Kent had, however, found it well to repudiate his heathen wife
and to take a Christian princess of the Franks in her stead. This act
restored him to the goodwill of his prelate, who returned to English

Eadbald had settled a piece of land at Folkestone on his daughter
Eanswith, and there about the year 630 she founded what is held to be the
first religious settlement for women in Anglo-Saxon England[235]. The fact
of this foundation is undisputed, but all we know of Eanswith’s life is in
the account given of her by Capgrave, an Augustinian monk who lived in the
15th century[236]. He tells us how she went to live at Folkestone and how
a king of Northumbria wished to marry her, but as the king was a heathen,
she made their union conditional on his prevailing upon his gods to
manifest their power by miraculously lengthening a beam. In this he failed
and consequently departed. There follows a description how Eanswith made a
stream to flow ‘againste the hylle,’ from Smelton, a mile distant from
Folkestone, possibly by means of a well-levelled water conduit. Capgrave
also describes how she enforced the payment of tithes.

Eanswith’s settlement was in existence at the close of the century, when
it was destroyed or deserted during the viking invasion. A charter of King
Athelstane dated 927 gives the land where ‘stood the monastery and abbey
of holy virgins and where also St Eanswith lies buried’ to Christ Church,
Canterbury, the house having been destroyed by the ‘Pagans[237].’
Capgrave says that its site was swallowed by the sea, perhaps in one of
the landslips common to the coast; the holy woman’s relics were then
transferred to the church of St Peter. A church at Folkestone is dedicated
conjointly to St Mary and St Eanswith, and a church at Brensett in Kent is
dedicated solely to her[238].

Queen Aethelburg coming from the north also settled in Kent at a place
called Liming[239]. Bede knows nothing of her after her departure from the
north, and we have to depend on Canterbury traditions for information
concerning her and the religious house she founded. Gocelin, a monk of
Flanders who came into Kent in the 11th century, describes Queen
Aethelburg as ‘building and upraising this temple at Liming, and obtaining
the first name there and a remarkable burial-place in the north porch
against the south wall of the church covered with an arch[240].’ Modern
research has shown that the buildings at Liming were so arranged as to
contain a convent of monks as well as of nuns. The church is of Roman
masonry and may have been built out of the fragments of a villa, such as
the Anglo-Saxons frequently adapted to purposes of their own, or it may
have been a Roman basilica restored.

Queen Aethelburg, foundress of Liming, is not usually reckoned a saint;
she has no day[241] and collections of saints’ lives generally omit her.
The identity of name between her and Aethelburg († c. 676), abbess of
Barking at a somewhat later date, has caused some confusion between
them[242]. Gocelin mentions that both Queen Aethelburg and ‘St Eadburga’
were buried at Liming[243]. A well lying to the east of the church at
Liming is to this day called St Ethelburga’s well, and she is commonly
held to be identical with Queen Aethelburg[244].

At a somewhat later date another religious settlement for women was
founded at Sheppey in Kent by Queen Sexburg, the wife of Earconberht of
Kent (640-664), the successor of Eadbald. We know little of the
circumstances of the foundation[245]. Sexburg was a princess of East
Anglia, where Christianity had been accepted owing to the influence of
King Eadwin of Northumbria[246] and where direct relations with France had
been established.

‘For at that time,’ says Bede, writing of these districts[247], ‘there
being not yet many monasteries built in the region of the Angles, many
were wont, for the sake of the monastic mode of life, to go from Britain
to the monasteries of the Franks and of Gaul; they also sent their
daughters to the same to be instructed and to be wedded to the heavenly
spouse, chiefly in the monasteries of Brie (Faremoutiers), Chelles, and

Two princesses of Anglia, Saethrith and Aethelburg, who were sisters or
half-sisters to Sexburg, remained abroad and became in succession abbesses
of Brie as mentioned above. Sexburg’s daughter Earcongotha also went
there, and was promoted to the rank of abbess. Both Bede and the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle speak in praise of her. For her other daughter
Eormenhild, who was married to Wulfhere, king of Mercia, Queen Sexburg of
Kent founded the house at Sheppey; she herself went to live at Ely in her
sister Aethelthrith’s convent.

The statement of Bede that women at this time went abroad for their
education is borne out by the traditional records of Mildthrith, first
abbess of a religious settlement in Thanet which rose to considerable
importance[248]. A huge mass of legend supplements the few historical
facts we know of Mildthrith, whose influence, judging from the numerous
references to her and her widespread cult, was greater than that of any
other English woman-saint. Several days in the Calendar are consecrated to
her, and the site where her relics had been deposited was made a subject
of controversy in the 11th century. As late as 1882 we find that some of
her relics were brought from Deventer in Holland to Thanet, and that Pope
Leo XIII granted a plenary indulgence on the occasion[249]. Churches in
London, Oxford, Canterbury and other places are dedicated to St
Mildred[250], and Capgrave, William of Malmesbury and others give details
of her story, which runs as follows:

Her mother Eormenburg, sometimes called Domneva, was married to Merewald,
prince of Hacanos, a district in Herefordshire. King Ecgberht (664-673) of
Kent gave her some land in Thanet as a blood-fine for the murder of her
two young brothers, and on it she founded a monastery. She asked for as
much land as her tame deer could run over in one course, and received over
ten thousand acres of the best land in Kent[251].

Besides Mildthrith Eormenburg had two daughters, Mildburg and Mildgith,
and a boy, the holy child Merwin, who was translated to heaven in his
youth. Mildburg presided over a religious house at Wenlock in Shropshire,
and her legend contains picturesque traits but little trustworthy
information[252]. We know even less of the other daughter Mildgith. It is
doubtful whether she lived in Kent or in the north, but she is considered
a saint[253]. An ancient record says that ‘St Mildgith lies in Northumbria
where her miraculous powers were often exhibited and still are,’ but it
does not point out at what place[254].

According to her legend, Mildthrith, by far the best known of the sisters,
was sent abroad to Chelles for her education, where the abbess Wilcoma
wished her to marry her kinsman, and on the girl’s refusal cast her into a
burning furnace from which she came forth unharmed. The girl sent her
mother a psalter she had written together with a lock of her hair. She
made her escape and arrived in England, landing at Ebbsfleet. ‘As she
descended from the ship to the land and set her feet on a certain square
stone the print of her feet remained on it, most life-like, she not
thinking anything; God so accomplishing the glory of his handmaid. And
more than that; the dust that was scrapen off thence being drunk did cure
sundry diseases[255].’ It appears that a stone to which a superstitious
reverence was attached was walled into the Church of St Mildred in

Other incidents told of her influence are not without their humorous side.
One day a bell-ringer, forgetful of his duties, had dropped asleep, when
Mildthrith appeared to him and gave him a blow on the ear, saying,
‘Understand, fellow, that this is an oratory to pray in, not a dormitory
to sleep in,’ and so vanished.

Thus writes the author of her legend. The fact remains that Mildthrith was
presiding over a settlement in Kent towards the close of the 7th century.
For in a charter of privileges granted between 696 and 716 by King Wihtred
and Queen Werburg to the churches and monasteries of Kent granting them
security against interference, her name is among those of the five lady
abbesses who place their signatures to the document.[256] These names
stand after those of the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of
Rochester and are as follows; ‘Mildritha, Aetheldritha, Aette, Wilnotha
and Hereswytha.’ The settlements mentioned in the body of the charter[257]
as being subject to them are Upminstre (or Minstre) in Thanet, afterwards
known as St Mildred’s, Southminstre, a colony of Minstre, Folkestone,
Liming and Sheppey, the foundation of which has been described.

Thus at the close of the 7th century there existed in the province of Kent
alone five religious settlements governed by abbesses who added this title
to their signatures, or who, judging from the place given to them, ranked
in dignity below the bishops but above the presbyters (presbyteri), whose
names follow theirs in the list. From the wording of the charter we see
that men who accepted the tonsure and women who received the veil were at
this time classed together. Those who set their signatures to the charter
agreed that neither abbot nor abbess should be appointed without the
consent of a prelate.

The charter is the more valuable as it establishes the existence of the
Kentish convents and their connection with each other at a period when we
have only fragmentary information about the religious houses in the south.
We must turn to the north for fuller information as to the foundation and
growth of religious settlements presided over by women during the early
Christian period.

§ 2. The Monastery at Whitby[258].

A temporary collapse of the Christian faith had followed the death of King
Eadwin of Northumbria, but the restoration of King Oswald, who was not so
strong as his predecessor in administrative power but whose religious
fervour was greater, had given it a new impulse and a new direction.

Oswald had passed some time of his life in Iona or Hii, the great Scottish
religious settlement and the stronghold of British Christianity in the
Hebrides. Here he had made friends with the ecclesiastic Aidan, who became
his staunch supporter. Soon after his accession Oswald summoned a monk
from Iona ‘to minister the word of the faith to himself and to his
people,’ and when it was found that the monk made no progress, Aidan was
moved to go among the Angles himself. In preference to York he chose the
island Lindisfarne for his headquarters, but he spent much of his time
with Oswald, helping him to set the practice and teaching of religion on a
firmer footing.

It was during this part of Aidan’s career that he consecrated Heiu[259],
according to Bede ‘the first woman who took the vow and the habit of a nun
in the province of Northumbria.’ Heiu presided over a congregation of
women at Hartlepool in Durham, from which she removed to Calcaria of the
Romans, which is perhaps identical with Healaugh near Tadcaster, where
apparently Heiu’s name is retained. Further details of her career are

Aidan’s labours were interrupted for a time. Again the fierce and
impetuous King Penda of Mercia invaded Northumbria, and again the
Christian Angles fled before the midland heathens. King Oswald fell in
battle (642) and Aidan retired to his rocky island, from which he watched
the fires kindled all over the country first by the raids of Penda, and
afterwards by civil strife between the two provinces of Northumbria, Deira
and Bernicia. This arose through the rival claims to the throne of Oswiu,
Oswald’s brother, and Oswin, who was King Eadwin’s relative.

An understanding was at length effected between them by which Oswiu
accepted Bernicia, while Oswin took possession of Deira, and Aidan, who
found a patron in Oswin, returned to his work.

He now persuaded Hild[260], who was waiting in Anglia for an opportunity
to cross over to France, where she purposed joining her sister, to give up
this plan and to return to the north to share in the work in which he was
engaged. Hild came and settled down to a monastic life with a few
companions on the river Wear. A year later, when Heiu retired to Calcaria,
Hild became abbess at Hartlepool. She settled there only a few years
before the close of Aidan’s career. He died in 651 shortly after his
patron Oswin, whose murder remains the great stain on the life of his
rival Oswiu.

A 12th century monk, an inmate of the monastery of St Beeves in
Cumberland, has written a life of St Bega, the patron saint of his
monastery, whom he identifies on the one hand with the abbess Heiu,
consecrated by Aidan, and on the other with Begu, a nun who had a vision
of Hild’s death at the monastery of Hackness in the year 680. His
narrative is further embellished with local traditions about a woman Bega,
who came from Ireland and received as a gift from the Lady Egermont the
extensive parish and promontory of St Beeves, which to this day bear her

There has been much speculation concerning this holy woman Bega, but it is
probable that the writer of her life combined myths which seem to be
Keltic with accounts of two historical persons whom Bede keeps quite
distinct. There is no reason to doubt Bede’s statements in this matter or
in others concerning affairs in the north, for he expressly affirms that
he ‘was able to gain information not from one author only but from the
faithful assertion of innumerable witnesses who were in a position to know
and remember these things; besides those things,’ he adds, ‘which I could
ascertain myself.’ He passed his whole life studying and writing in the
monasteries of SS. Peter and Paul, two settlements spoken of as one, near
the mouth of the river Wear, close to where Hild had first settled. He
went there during the lifetime of Bennet Biscop († 690), the contemporary
of Hild and a shining representative of the culture the Anglo-Saxons
attained in the 7th century.

Hild settled at Hartlepool about the year 647. Eight years later Oswiu
finally routed the army of Penda, whose attacks had been for so many years
like a battering ram to the greatness of Northumbria. And in fulfilment of
a vow he had made that the Christian religion should profit if God
granted him victory, he gave Hild the charge of his daughter Aelflaed ‘who
had scarcely completed the age of one year, to be consecrated to God in
perpetual virginity, besides bestowing on the Church twelve estates.’
Extensive property came with the child into the care of Hild, perhaps
including the site of Streaneshalch[262], which is better known as Whitby,
a name given to it at a later date by the Danes. Bede says that Hild here
undertook to construct and arrange a monastery.

Bede thus expresses himself on the subject of Hild’s life and influence
during the term of over thirty years which she spent first as abbess of
Hartlepool and then as abbess of Whitby[263]:

‘Moreover, Hild, the handmaid of Christ, having been appointed to govern
that monastery (at Hartlepool), presently took care to order it in the
regular way of life, in all respects, according as she could gain
information from learned men. For Bishop Aidan, also, and all the
religious men who knew her, were wont to visit her constantly, to love her
devotedly, and to instruct her diligently, on account of her innate
wisdom, and her delight in the service of God.

‘When, then, she had presided over this monastery for some years, being
very intent on establishing the regular discipline, according as she could
learn it from learned men, it happened that she undertook also to
construct and arrange a monastery in the place which is called
Streanshalch; and this work being enjoined on her, she was not remiss in
accomplishing it. For she established this also in the same discipline of
regular life in which she established the former monastery; and, indeed,
taught there also the strict observance of justice, piety, and chastity,
and of the other virtues, but mostly of peace and charity, so that, after
the example of the primitive Church, there was therein no one rich, no one
poor; all things were common to all, since nothing seemed to be the
private property of any one. Moreover, her prudence was so great that not
only did ordinary persons, but even sometimes kings and princes, seek and
receive counsel of her in their necessities. She made those who were under
her direction give so much time to the reading of the Divine Scriptures,
and exercise themselves so much in works of righteousness, that very many,
it appeared, could readily be found there, who could worthily enter upon
the ecclesiastical grade, that is the service of the altar.’

In point of fact five men who had studied in Hild’s monastery were
promoted to the episcopate. Foremost among them is John, bishop of Hexham
(687-705) and afterwards of York († 721), the famous St John of Beverley,
a canonised saint of the Church, of whose doings Bede has left an account.
In this[264] we hear of the existence of another monastery for women at
Watton (Vetadun) not far from Whitby, where Bishop John went to visit the
abbess Heriburg, who was living there with her ‘daughter in the flesh,’
Cwenburg, whom she designed to make abbess in her stead. We hear no more
about Watton till centuries later, but Bede’s remark is interesting as
showing how natural he felt it to be that the rule of a settlement should
pass from mother to daughter.

Cwenburg was suffering from a swollen arm which John tells us was very
serious, ‘since she had been bled on the fourth day of the moon,’ ‘when
both the light of the moon and the tide of the ocean were on their
increase. And what can I do for the girl if she is at death’s door?’ he
exclaims. However his combined prayers and remedies, which were so often
efficacious, helped to restore her.

Aetla, another of Hild’s scholarly disciples, held the see of Dorchester,
though perhaps only temporarily during the absence of Aegilberht. A third,
Bosa, was archbishop of York between 678 and 686; Bede speaks of him as a
monk of Whitby, a man of great holiness and humility. Oftfor, another of
Hild’s monks, went from Whitby to Canterbury, to study ‘a more perfect’
system of discipline under Archbishop Theodore († 690), and subsequently
became bishop of Worcester.

The career of these men shows that the system of discipline and education
under Hild at Whitby compared favourably with that of other settlements.
At the outset she had followed the usages of the Scottish Church, with
which she was familiar through her intercourse with Aidan, but when the
claims for an independent British Church were defeated at Whitby, she
accepted the change and adopted the Roman usage.

The antagonism which had existed from the first appearance of Augustine in
England between Roman Christianity and British Christianity as upheld by
the Scottish and Welsh clergy took the form of open disagreement in
Northumbria. On one side was the craving for ritual, for refinement and
for union with Rome; on the other insistence by the Scottish clergy on
their right to independence.

Aidan had been succeeded at Lindisfarne by Finnan, owing to whose
influence discussion was checked for the time being. But after his death
(661) the latent antagonism came to a head over the practical difficulty
due to the different dates at which King Oswiu and Queen Eanflaed kept
Easter. Thus the way was cleared for the Whitby synod (664), a ‘gathering
of all orders of the Church system,’ at which the respective claims of
Roman and of British Christianity were discussed.

The British interest was represented among others by Colman, Finnan’s
successor at Lindisfarne, who temporarily held the see at York, and by
Aegilberht, bishop of Dorchester. The opposite side was taken by the
protégé of Queen Eanflaed, Wilfrith, abbot of Ripon, whose ardour in the
cause of Rome had been greatly augmented by going abroad with Bennet
Biscop about the year 653. Besides these and other prelates, King Oswiu
and his son and co-regent Ealhfrith were present at the synod. The abbess
Hild was also there, but she took no part in the discussion.

The questions raised were not of doctrine but of practice. The computation
of Easter, the form of the tonsure, matters not of belief but of
apparently trivial externals, were the points round which the discussion
turned. Owing chiefly to Wilfrith’s influence the decision was in favour
of Rome, and a strong rebuff was given for a time to the claim for an
independent British Church in the north.

The choice of Whitby as the site of the synod marks the importance which
this settlement had attained within ten years of its foundation. Those who
have stood on the height of the cliff overlooking the North Sea and have
let their gaze wander over the winding river course and the strand below
can realize the lordly situation of the settlement which occupies such a
distinguished place among the great houses and nurseries of culture at
Hexham, Wearmouth, Jarrow, Ripon and York.

The property which the monastery held in overlordship extended along the
coast for many miles, and the settlement itself consisted of a large group
of buildings; for there are references to the dwellings for the men, for
the women, and to an outlying house for the sick. These dwellings were
gathered round the ancient British Church of St Peter, which was situated
under the shelter of the brow of the cliff where King Eadwin lay buried,
and which continued to be the burial-place of the Northumbrian kings.
Isolated chapels and churches with separate bands of religious votaries
belonging to them lay in other parts of the monastic property, and were
subject to the abbess of Whitby. We hear of a minor monastery at Easington
(Osingadun)[265] during the rule of Aelflaed, Hild’s successor, and at
Hackness (Hacanos) on the limit of the monastic property, thirteen miles
south of Whitby, a monastery of some importance had been founded by
Hild[266]. Bands of men and of women dwelt here under the government of
Frigith, and it was here that the nun Begu had a vision of Hild on the
night of her death, when she saw her borne aloft by attendant angels[267].

The name of Hild and the monastery at Whitby are further endeared to
posterity through their connection with Caedmon, the most celebrated of
the vernacular poets of Northumbria and the reputed author of the
Anglo-Saxon metrical paraphrases of the Old Testament[268]. It was his
great reputation as a singer that made Hild seek Caedmon and persuade him
to join her community. Here the practice of reading Holy Scripture made
him familiar with the stories of Hebrew literature in their grand and
simple setting, and he drank of the waters of that well to which so many
centuries of creative and representative art have gone for inspiration.

Caedmon’s power of song had been noticed outside the monastery.

‘And all concluded that a celestial gift had been granted him by the Lord.
And they interpreted to him a certain passage of sacred history or
doctrine, and ordered him to turn it if he could into poetical rhythm. And
he, having undertaken it, departed, and returning in the morning brought
back what he was ordered to do, composed in most excellent verse.
Whereupon presently the abbess, embracing heartily the grace of God in the
man, directed him to leave the secular habit, and to take the monastic
vow; and having together with all her people received him into the
monastery associated him with the company of the brethren, and ordered him
to be instructed in the whole course of sacred history. And he converted
into most sweet song whatever he could learn from hearing, by thinking it
over by himself, and, as though a clean animal, by ruminating; and by
making it resound more sweetly, made his teachers in turn his

These passages are curious as showing that a singer of national strains
was persuaded to adapt his art to the purposes of religion. The
development of Church music is usually held to have been distinct from
that of folk-music, but in exceptional cases such as this, there seems to
have been a relation between the two.

Excavations recently made on several of the sites of ancient northern
monasteries have laid bare curious and interesting remains which add
touches of reality to what is known about the houses of the north during
this early period[270]. In a field called Cross Close at Hartlepool near
Durham skeletons of men and women were found, and a number of monumental
stones of peculiar shape, some with runic inscriptions of women’s names.
Some of these names are among those of the abbesses inscribed in the
so-called ‘Book of Life of Durham,’ a manuscript written in gold and
silver lettering in the early part of the 9th century[271]. Again, an
ancient tombstone of peculiar design was found at Healaugh; and at
Hackness several memorial crosses are preserved, one of which bears the
inscription of the name Aethelburg, who no doubt is the abbess of that
name with whom Aelflaed, Hild’s successor at Whitby, in 705 travelled to
the death-bed of King Ealdfrith[272].

Finally on the Whitby coast on the south side of the abbey a huge
kitchen-midden was discovered. A short slope here leads to the edge of the
cliff, and excavations on this slope and at its foot, which was once
washed by the tide, have revealed the facts that the denizens of the
original monastery were wont to throw the refuse of their kitchen over the
cliff, and that the lighter material remained on the upper ledges, the
heavier rolling to the bottom.

Among the lighter deposits were found bones of birds, oyster, whelk and
periwinkle shells, and two combs, one of which bears a runic inscription.
Among the heavier deposits were bones of oxen, a few of sheep, and a large
number of the bones and tusks of wild swine, besides several iron
pot-hooks and other implements; a bone spindle and a divided ink-horn are
among the objects specified. An inscribed leaden bulla found among the
refuse is declared by experts to be earlier than the 8th century; it is
therefore proof that these remains were deposited during the earlier
period of the existence of Hild’s monastery, possibly during her lifetime.

Hild died after an illness of several years on November 17, 680. Would
that there were more data whereby to estimate her personality! The few
traits of her character that have been preserved, her eagerness to acquire
knowledge, her success in imparting it to others, her recognition of the
need of unity in the Church, the interest she took in one who could repeat
the stories of the new faith in strains which made them intelligible to
the people, are indicative of a strong personality and of an understanding
which appreciated the needs of her time.

Various myths, of which Bede knows nothing, have been attached to her name
in course of time. According to a popular legend she transformed the
snakes of the district into the ammonites familiar to visitors to those
parts. And it is said that at certain times of the day her form can be
seen flitting across the abbey ruins[273].

At her death the rule of the settlement passed to Aelflaed, the princess
who had been given into her care as a child. After King Oswiu’s death in
670 Queen Eanflaed joined her daughter in the monastery. The princess and
abbess Aelflaed proved herself worthy of the influence under which she had
grown up, and we shall find her among the persons of importance who took
up a decided attitude in regard to the disturbances which broke out
through the action of Bishop Wilfrith. The beginnings of these
difficulties belong to the lifetime of Hild: we do not know that she took
any interest in the matter, but judging from indirect evidence we should
say that she shared in the feeling which condemned the prelate’s
anti-national and ultra-Roman tendencies.

§ 3. Ely and the influence of Bishop Wilfrith.

The further history of the monastery of Whitby and the history of the
foundation of Ely are closely connected with the prelate Wilfrith, and for
this reason his actions and attitude claim our attention. In him we
recognise a direct advocate of the principle that a queen could if she
chose leave her husband and retire to a religious settlement, and that
such a course would secure her the favour of the Church.

It has been said of him that he was the most important man in Northumbria
for forty years after the Whitby synod[274]. He owed his education to
Queen Eanflaed, whose attention he had attracted when quite a youth, and
who had sent him into Kent to complete his education; there he imbibed
strong Roman sympathies. He lived for some years in France and Italy in
the society of Bennet Biscop, and he was already held in high esteem at
the time of the Whitby synod, which he attended in the character of abbot
of the monastery at Ripon, a house he had founded with the help of

When Colman and his adherents beat a rapid retreat to the north in
consequence of the decision of the synod, Wilfrith became bishop of York,
an appointment which meant ecclesiastical supremacy over the whole vast
province of Northumbria. His intellectual brilliancy gained him many
admirers, but an innate restlessness of disposition and a wilful
determination to support the power of Rome to the national detriment
launched him into repeated difficulties with temporal and spiritual
rulers. He was at the height of prosperity and popularity when Ecgfrith
succeeded Oswiu in 670 after the death of Ealhfrith. Wilfrith had hitherto
been on good terms with Ecgfrith, but a breach in their relations soon
occurred, partly owing to the conduct of Ecgfrith’s wife, Aethelthrith,
whom Wilfrith supported against the king.

Aethelthrith, known to a later age as Etheldred or Awdrey, was the
daughter of King Anna of the East Angles (635-645), whose province,
including the present shires of Norfolk and Suffolk, was removed from
direct intercourse with others by the almost impassable reaches of the
fens. Anglia has not left any annals of her own, and we have to depend for
the names and dates of her kings on the slight information which other
provinces have preserved.

Written legends generally consider Anna as the father also of Sexburg, the
foundress of Sheppey, and of Aethelburg and Saethrith, two princesses who
had settled in France, as well as of Wihtburg, a woman-saint of whom very
little is known, and who was associated with a religious foundation at
East Dereham in Norfolk[275]. We further learn from legend that King Anna
was married to Hereswith, sister of Hild of Whitby, and Aethelthrith is
spoken of as niece to the great abbess Hild. But this connection is
discredited by a statement in Bede which suggests that Hild’s sister
Hereswith was married not to King Anna but to his successor King
Aethelhere (654-664). It is difficult to decide to which of the kings of
the East Angles Hereswith was married, but Anna was certainly not her

The princess Aethelthrith at the time of her marriage with the king of
Northumbria was the widow of Tunberht prince of the South-Gyrvi, or
fen-country men. Anglia stood at this time in a relation of dependence to
Northumbria, and in 664, four years before the Whitby synod, Aethelthrith
a woman of over thirty was married to Ecgfrith a boy of fifteen, the
heir-apparent to the throne of Northumbria. The marriage was no doubt
arranged for political reasons.

The consequences which followed render these facts worthy of notice. For
Aethelthrith on her arrival in the north at once conceived a great
admiration for the prelate Wilfrith, while she treated her husband with
contumely. She bestowed on Wilfrith the extensive property at Hexham which
she had received from her husband, and on which Wilfrith built the church
which was spoken of in his days as the most wonderful building on this
side of the Alps[277]. Judging from what Wilfrith himself told him about
the queen’s attitude Bede says ‘the king knew that she loved no man more
than Wilfrith.’

The events that followed bear out this statement, for after living about
ten years with the king, Aethelthrith left him and repaired to the
monastery of Coldingham (Coludesburg) in Berwickshire, which had been
founded and was ruled over by Aebbe, sister, or perhaps half-sister, of
the kings Oswald and Oswiu[278]. King Ecgfrith may or may not have agreed
to this step. Eddi, the friend and biographer of Wilfrith, maintains a
judicious silence on the relations of the king and queen, while Bede
represents[279] that Aethelthrith had always had an aversion to the
married state and describes how he had been told by Wilfrith himself that
Ecgfrith promised much land and money to the prelate if he persuaded the
queen to allow him conjugal rights.

At Coldingham Wilfrith gave Aethelthrith the veil; this act involved her
breaking all marital ties. But she cannot have deemed her position secure,
for she presently left Coldingham, which was within her husband’s
territory, and went to Ely, the island in the fens which her first husband
Tunberht had bestowed on her.

Under the date 673 stand in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle these words: ‘And
Aetheldryth began the monastery at Ely.’ It was situated on a hill
prominent above the flatness of the surrounding fen-land, which at that
time consisted of a wilderness of marsh and water. Men and women readily
flocked thither to live under the guidance of the queen. We hear that she
received material aid from her cousin King Ealdwulf of Anglia, that Hunna
acted as her chaplain, and that Bishop Wilfrith stayed with her on his
passage from Northumbria to Rome. Thomas of Ely (fl. c. 1174) has
embellished the account of Aethelthrith’s flight and journey south by
introducing into the story various picturesque incidents, which Bede does
not mention. She, with her companions Sewenna and Sewara[280], was saved
from her pursuers by water rising round a rock on which they had taken
refuge, and she was sheltered by an ash-tree which grew in one night out
of her pilgrim’s staff and which can still be seen at a place called
Etheldredstowe[281]. As Aethelthrith of Ely is a favourite saint of
English legend it is interesting to find water and the tree miraculously
associated with her.

Shortly after Aethelthrith’s departure Ecgfrith summoned Theodore,
archbishop of Canterbury, to the north to divide the diocese of York into
three separate districts. Wilfrith resented these proceedings as an
infringement of his rights, but as he was unable to influence the king he
determined to seek the intervention of the Pope and set out for Rome. His
absence extended over several years.

It was at this time, Bede tells us, that Aethelthrith ‘having built a
monastery at Ely began both by example and by admonition of heavenly life
to be a virgin mother of very many virgins[282].’ The particulars he gives
of her life show that she had renounced the splendours which constituted
so essential a feature of royalty and had willingly devoted herself to
humility and self-denial. She wore no linen, only wool, rarely used a warm
bath, save on the eve of great festivals, and assisted at the washing of
others. When she fell ill of a tumour in her throat, she told the
physician Cynefrith, who lanced it, that she looked upon it as a
chastisement for her love of wearing necklaces in her youth. And on her
death-bed she desired to be buried in a wooden coffin in the nun’s
ordinary cemetery.

The fame of Aethelthrith spread rapidly. She was looked upon as a virgin,
and her name with the epithet virgin was inscribed at an early date in
both the Anglo-Saxon and Roman Calendars, and to this day it is to be
found in the Book of Common Prayer. Later writers of her legend say that
she lived with Ecgfrith ‘not as a wyfe but as a lady,’ and add as a
fitting pendant to this story that she maintained similar relations with
her first husband Tunberht[283]. She died in the year 679, having presided
over her monastery only six or seven years, but during that time it had
gained marked importance. Many women had come to live there with her, and
among them her sister Sexburg, widow of the king of Kent, who had founded
the monastery at Sheppey and now succeeded Aethelthrith as abbess of Ely.

The chief event of Sexburg’s rule at Ely was the exhumation of the bones
of Aethelthrith in 695, which were transferred to a stone coffin of
antique workmanship which had been opportunely, or miraculously as
contemporaries thought, discovered at the old Roman colony of Grantchester
near Cambridge[284]. This translation took place on the 17th of October, a
day on which the relics were again transferred in 1106, and which is the
date of the important fair of Ely[285].

In a supplement to the History of Ely by Bentham, Essex gives an account
of the ruins of the conventual church begun by Aethelthrith[286]. Judging
from his investigations the church consisted of two parts, the nave and
the choir, the windows of the nave outside being ornamented with pillars
and arches, and the choir being arched with stone. Traces were still left
of the apartments of the abbess from which she could enter the church in a
private manner, and of a building opposite of equal dimensions which
served as a dormitory for the nuns. At a little distance the remains of
another large building were discovered, one room of which, near the
entrance to the settlement, was a parlour for the reception of strangers,
and the apartment over it a dormitory for the men.

We know little more than the name of the next abbess of Ely. She was
Sexburg’s daughter Eormenhild, wife of King Wulfhere of Mercia, who had
hitherto dwelt in the monastery of Sheppey. Eormenhild in her turn was
succeeded by her daughter, the celebrated St Werburg of Chester, who was
never married. Various stories are preserved about Werburg’s influence,
but without reference to her work at Ely. We are indebted to Gocelin for
the oldest account of her[287]. He tells us that her uncle King Aethelraed
of Mercia entrusted her with the care of all the monasteries in his
kingdom, that she had founded religious houses at Trentham and at Hanbury,
besides turning a palace at Wedon-le-Street into a monastery[288]. He
speaks of her as a person of great cheerfulness and benevolence, and of a
peaceful and happy disposition. Several accounts of her are extant in
manuscripts of different dates, and as late as the 15th century her life
was made the subject of a most graceful metrical epic by the poet Henri
Bradshaw († 1513)[289].

We are told that Werburg died at Trentham and that the society of that
place wished to keep her body, but the nuns of Hanbury carried it off by
force and enshrined it at Hanbury where the day of her deposition was
kept[290]. During the viking invasion in 875 the body for the sake of
safety was conveyed to Chester, of which town St Werburg then became
patron saint. This incident gave rise at a later date to the story that
the saint had founded the monastery and the chief church at Chester on
land given to her by her father. Livien mentions that nine churches in
England are dedicated to St Werburg, who appears to have been a person of
considerable importance[291].

Once more we must return to the north and to the work of Bishop Wilfrith,
as he came into contact with various other religious women. When he
returned to England after an absence of several years Aethelthrith was
dead, but King Ecgfrith’s hatred of him had not abated. Insulted in his
person and nation he caused Wilfrith to be thrown into prison, offering to
give him back part of his bishopric and other gifts if he would submit to
royal authority and disclaim the genuineness of the document brought from
Rome[292]. Queen Eormenburg, whom Ecgfrith had taken to wife in place of
Aethelthrith, further embittered the king against the unlucky prelate. She
appropriated the reliquary Wilfrith had brought from Rome and wore it as
an ornament. For nine months the prelate was kept imprisoned, and the
story how he regained his liberty brings us back to Aebbe, abbess at
Coldingham, who had formerly sheltered Aethelthrith[293].

According to the account of Eddi, Wilfrith’s biographer, the king and
queen of Northumbria were staying at Coldingham when the queen was
suddenly taken ill. ‘At night she was seized like the wife of Pilate by a
devil, and worn out by many ills, hardly expected to see the day alive.’
The abbess Aebbe went to King Ecgfrith and represented to him that the
reason of this seizure was their treatment of Wilfrith.

‘And now, my son,’ she said, ‘do according to the bidding of your mother;
loosen his bonds and send back to him by a trusty messenger the holy
relics which the queen took from him and like the ark of God carried about
with her to her harm. It were best you should have him as your bishop, but
if you refuse, set him free and let him go with his followers from your
kingdom wherever he list. Then by my faith you will live and your queen
will not die; but if you refuse by God’s witness you will not remain

Aebbe carried her point and Wilfrith was set free. He went into Mercia
which was at war with Northumbria, but he was not suffered to stay there,
for Queen Ostrith, the sister of King Ecgfrith, shared her brother’s
hatred of him. Forced to fly from Mercia he went into Wessex, but King
Centwin’s wife prevented him from staying there. It is curious to note the
hatred with which these married women pursued him while lady abbesses were
his friends. At last he found protection among the south Saxons, who
fifteen years before had nearly killed him, but their king Aethelwalch (†
686) had lately been converted to Christianity and gave him a friendly
reception. Wilfrith is represented as joining his civilizing influences
to those of the Irish monks who had settled on the coast. An interesting
episode of his sojourn here was his intercourse with Caedwalla, afterwards
king of Wessex (685-688), who at the time was living as an outlaw in the
forests of Sussex[294].

We get further glimpses of Aebbe and the settlement at Coldingham. She
entertained a great admiration for the holy man Cuthberht († 687), one of
the most attractive figures among the evangelizing prelates of the north,
of whom Bede has left an account.

Cuthberht was brought both by birth and education under Scottish
influences. He was prior at Melrose before the Whitby synod, but after it
came to Lindisfarne where his gentleness of temper and sweetness of
disposition won over many to accept Roman usages. Overcome by the longing
for solitude and contemplation which was so characteristic of many early
Christian prelates, he dwelt as a recluse on the desert island of Farne
from 676 to 685. There are many accounts of his life and of his

At the time when Cuthberht’s fame was spreading, Aebbe of Coldingham ‘sent
to this man of God, begging him to come and condescend to edify both
herself and the inmates of her monastery by the grace of his exhortation.
Cuthberht accordingly went thither and tarrying for some days he expounded
the ways of justice to all; these he not only preached, but to the same
extent he practised[296].’

It is recorded that during his stay at Coldingham Cuthberht went at night
to pray on the deserted beach, and the seals came out of the water and
clustered around him.

The first instance mentioned by Bede of a lapse of monastic discipline was
at Coldingham where disorders occurred during Aebbe’s rule[297]. An Irish
monk who was on a visit to the monastery had a vision of its destruction
by fire, and when questioned about it by the abbess interpreted it as an
impending retribution for the tenor of life of those assembled there.

‘For even the dwellings,’ he said, ‘which were built for praying and
reading are now converted into places of revelling, drinking, conversation
and other forbidden doings; the virgins who are vowed to God, laying aside
all respect for their profession, whenever they have leisure spend all
their time in weaving fine garments with which they adorn themselves like
brides, to the detriment of their condition, and to secure the friendship
of men outside.’

Through Aebbe’s efforts things somewhat improved, but after her death, the
date of which is uncertain, the monastery really was destroyed by
fire[298]. The story is told that Cuthberht at Lindisfarne forbade women
to cross the threshold of his conventual church on account of the life of
the nuns at Coldingham[299], but another version of his doings considers
that his attitude was due to an episode with a Scottish king’s daughter
which turned him against the sex[300].

Cuthberht was also the friend of Aelflaed, abbess of Whitby, who
entertained unbounded reverence for him. On one occasion[301] she had
fallen ill and, as she herself told the monk Herefrid, suffered so from
cramp that she could hardly creep along. ‘I would,’ she said, ‘I had
something belonging to my dear Cuthberht, for I believe and trust in the
Lord that I should soon be restored to health.’

In compliance with her wish the holy man sent her a linen girdle, which
she wore for a time and which entirely cured her. Later a nun by the help
of the same girdle was relieved of a headache, but after that the girdle
of miraculous power miraculously disappeared. The reason given for this
disappearance illustrates naïvely enough how divine power was considered
to be justified in making itself manifest with a reservation. ‘If this
girdle had remained present,’ Bede argues, ‘the sick would always flock to
it; and whilst some one of these might not be worthy to be healed, its
efficacy to cure might have been denied, whereas their own unworthiness
was perhaps to blame. Therefore, as was said above, Heaven so dealt its
benevolence, that, after the faith of believers had been confirmed, then
immediately the opportunity for detraction was entirely withdrawn from the
malice of the unrighteous.’

Contemporary witnesses bear testimony to the wisdom and prudence of the
abbess Aelflaed of Whitby, for Bede says in the life of Cuthberht that
‘she increased the lustre of her royal lineage with the higher nobility
of a more exalted virginity’; whilst Eddi speaks of her as ‘the most
virtuous virgin who is actually a king’s daughter,’ and in another passage
characterizes her as ‘ever the comforter and best counsellor of the whole

We find her in Cuthberht’s society on more than one occasion. Once he met
her at the monastery of ‘Osingadune’ (Easington) where he went to dedicate
the church, and while sitting by her at table he had a prophetic vision of
the death of one of her servants[302].

The abbess Aelflaed directly appealed to this prophetic insight of
Cuthberht’s when troubled in her mind about her brother King Ecgfrith,
whose expedition against the Picts filled her with apprehension[303]. In
the words of Bede: ‘At another time, the same most reverend virgin and
mother of Christ’s virgins, Aelflaed, sent to the man of God, adjuring him
in the name of the Lord that she might be allowed to see him, to converse
on some pressing affairs. Cuthberht accordingly went on board ship,
accompanied by some of the brethren, and came to the island which from its
situation opposite to the river Coquet receives its name, and is
celebrated for its community of monks; there it was that the aforesaid
abbess had requested him to meet her. When she was satisfied with his
replies to her many enquiries, on a sudden, while he was yet speaking, she
fell at his feet and adjured him by the sacred and venerable Name of the
Heavenly King and His angels, to tell her how long Ecgfrith, her brother,
should live and rule over the kingdom of the Angles; “For I know,” she
said, “that you abound in the spirit of prophecy, and that you can tell me
this, if you will.” But he, trembling at her adjuration, and yet not
wishing openly to reveal the secret which she asked for, replied, “It is
marvellous that you, a woman wise and well-instructed in the Holy
Scriptures, should speak of the term of human life as if it were long,
seeing that the Psalmist says, ‘Our years shall be considered as a
spider[304],’ and that Solomon warns us that, ‘If a man live many years
and have rejoiced in them all, he must remember the darksome time and the
many days, which, when they shall come, the things passed shall be accused
of vanity[305].’ How much more then ought he, to whom only one year of
life remains, to be considered as having lived a short time, when death
shall stand at his gates?”

‘The abbess, on hearing this, lamented the dreadful prophecy with floods
of tears, and having wiped her face, with feminine boldness she adjured
him by the majesty of the sovereignty of God to tell her who would be the
heir of the kingdom, since Ecgfrith had neither sons nor brothers.
Cuthberht was silent for a short time, then he replied, “Say not that he
is without heirs, for he shall have a successor whom you may embrace with
sisterly affection as you do Ecgfrith himself.” But she continued: “Tell
me, I beseech you, where he is now.” And he said, “You see this mighty and
wide ocean, how it abounds with many islands. It is easy for God from one
of these to provide a ruler for the kingdom of the Angles.” Then she
understood that he spoke of Ealdfrith (Aldfrid) who was said to be the son
of Ecgfrith’s father, and who at that time lived in exile, in the islands
of the Scots, for the sake of studying letters.’

This meeting, if we credit the historian, took place in 684, and
Aelflaed’s forebodings were realized. Ecgfrith lost his life, and part of
his kingdom was taken by the Picts. In consequence of his defeat the
settlement Whithern, set up as a religious outpost in the territory south
of the Firth of Forth, was destroyed. Trumwin who had been entrusted with
it was forced to fly. He and his friends sought refuge at Whitby where he
remained and had much intercourse with Cuthberht and Aelflaed. Bede says
that the abbess found ‘great assistance in governing and also comfort for
her own life’ in Trumwin[306].

Northumbria had now passed the zenith of her greatness as a political
power, for the territory in the north which was lost through Ecgfrith’s
defeat was not regained, while in the south the province of Mercia began
to shake off the Northumbrian yoke. King Ecgfrith had been succeeded by
his half-brother Ealdfrith († 705) and owing to his attitude Wilfrith’s
exile came to an end. Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a letter
in his behalf to Ealdfrith and also one to Aelflaed of Whitby begging her
to be at peace with him[307]. The prelate left Sussex for the north, where
he remained for five years in undisturbed possession of his see[308]. But
again the old quarrels revived, and Wilfrith in consequence of a council
assembled by order of Ealdfrith at Eastrefield was robbed of his episcopal
dignity and reduced to his abbacy at Ripon. He again insisted that the
king and bishops should submit to the Pope, and at the age of well-nigh
seventy he undertook another journey to Rome. But it was in vain he sent
envoys to the king on his return. Ealdfrith was determined not to relent,
but afterwards approaching death intimidated him. Feeling his end draw
nigh he sent for Aelflaed of Whitby, who with the abbess Aethelburg
(probably of Hackness) came to where he lay ill at Driffield in the East
Riding. Aelflaed received the king’s dying words, and at a council of
prelates subsequently assembled on the river Nidd bore testimony that he
had spoken in favour of making peace. Wilfrith regained part of his
influence but remained in retirement at his monastery.

Aelflaed outlived him and her friend Cuthberht who died in 687. It is
probable that she assisted at the translation of Cuthberht’s body in 698,
for in the inventory of the church at Durham one of the linen cloths or
outer envelopes of his body, which was taken from it in 1104, is described
as ‘a linen cloth of double texture which had enveloped the body of St
Cuthbert in his grave; Elfled the abbess had wrapped him up in it[309].’

Aelflaed is the last abbess of Whitby known by name. Her death is supposed
to have taken place in 713. Her monastery, like so many houses in the
north, which had grown to prosperity with the rising power of Northumbria,
sank into insignificance with the decadence of that power. This decline
was partly due to political reasons, but the dislike which the later kings
of Northumbria felt towards monasteries may have had something to do with
it. For as we shall see later on the example Queen Aethelthrith had set
was probably followed by two other Northumbrian queens, Cyneburg, the wife
of Ealhfrith, and Cuthburg, wife of Ealdfrith († 705), who returned to
their own countries and there founded monasteries.

§ 4. Houses in Mercia and in the South.

From the north we turn to Mercia and Wessex, the central and south-western
provinces of England. Mercia had clung longest to her heathen beliefs, for
Christianity was not accepted there till after the defeat of Penda in 655
when Northumbria gained supremacy. Penda, king of Mercia, remained
faithful to his gods to the end himself, but his children adopted the new
faith. His son Peada had already been baptized in Northumbria by Finnan
who sent four ecclesiastics back with him to evangelise the Midlands, and
Wulfhere (c. 658-675) Peada’s brother and successor was married to the
Christian princess Eormenhild of Kent, for whom Queen Sexburg had made the
religious foundation at Sheppey. Peada had founded a religious settlement
at Burh or Medehampstead which is better known as Peterborough, a name
bestowed on it after its restoration in 970. The charter of the foundation
of Burh is dated 664, and besides the signatures of Wulfhere and other
princes and thanes it bears those of Wulfhere’s sisters Cyneburg and

Cyneburg and Cyneswith were esteemed as saints on the strength of their
religious foundations at Castor, a village some miles distant from
Peterborough; the name Cyneburg is held by the local historian to survive
in the appellations of Lady Connyburrow Walk and Coneygreve Close[311].
Cyneburg had been married to Ealhfrith, who was for some time co-regent of
Northumbria, but little is known of him after his presence at the synod of
Whitby in 664. The charter of the Medehampstead foundation above referred
to establishes beyond a doubt that Cyneburg had left her husband to found
and preside over her monastery; for she is designated as ‘formerly a queen
who had resigned her sway to preside over a monastery of maidens[312].’
Her legend, which is not older than John of Tinmouth[313], enlarges on
this fact, and like Aethelthrith of Ely, Cyneburg together with her sister
Cyneswith has found a place in the Calendar as a virgin saint[314].

The legend which tells of Cyneburh and Cyneswith also refers to St Tibba
or Tilba, their kinswoman, who dwelt at Ryhall not far from Castor. The
same day was kept in commemoration of all these three saints at
Peterborough, to which place their bodies were transferred at an early
date. For the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (972) says of Aelfsi, abbot of
Peterborough: ‘And he took up St Kyneburg and St Kyneswith who lay at
Castor, and St Tibba who lay at Ryhall, and brought them to Burh, and
offered them all to St Peter in one day.’ Camden[315] speaks of Tibba as a
‘saint of inferior order, who was worshipped as another Diana by fowlers,
a patroness of hawking,’ and adds information which shows that she was
popularly connected with heathen survivals.

Mercia was the birthplace of many picturesque legends about the conversion
of members of the ruling family and about their religious foundations.
When once Christianity was accepted the activity which kings, queens and
prelates displayed in its favour was great, but the historical information
we have about them is meagre.

Thus Repton (Repandune) in Derbyshire, a monastery for women, had gained
considerable importance when the noble youth Guthlac repaired thither in
694 to devote himself to learning under the abbess Aelfthrith[316].
Nothing is known about the beginnings of the house, and if the abbess
Aelfthrith founded it she has not on this account been accepted as a saint
like the founders of other houses. This omission may however be due to the
difficulties which arose between Aelfthrith and the prelates of Mercia. We
do not know their nature, but in 705 a council of Mercian clergy assembled
to consider the re-admission of Aelfthrith to Church privileges[317]. A
letter is also extant from Bishop Waldhere of London to Archbishop
Brihtwald of Canterbury in which he mentions that a reconciliation has
taken place[318].

The noble youth Guthlac who came to study at Repton afterwards became
famous, and many accounts of his life have been written[319]. The earliest
version, drafted by his friend Felix, supplies some interesting details of
the life at Repton and the studies there[320].

We are told that Guthlac’s progress was wonderful. ‘When he had been there
two years he had learnt the psalms, the canticles, the hymns and prayers
after the ecclesiastical order,’ but he met with disapproval in the
monastery by refusing to drink wine. The accounts which he read of the
solitary life of the older monks filled him with a longing for solitude,
and he left Repton and wandered about till he found the place of his
heart’s desire at Crowland in the fen country, where he determined to
settle. He had received the tonsure at Repton and returned there on a
visit before finally settling at Crowland. He did not break his connection
with Repton, for we hear that the abbess Ecgburh who succeeded Aelfthrith
sent him as a gift a coffin made of wood and lead, together with a linen
winding-sheet, and asked who should be warden of the place after him, as
though she regarded Crowland as a dependency of Repton[321].

The abbess Ecgburg was the daughter of King Ealdwulf of East Anglia (†
714)[322], and an eloquent letter which is quoted later in my account of
Boniface’s correspondents was probably written by her[323].

In connection with Guthlac’s solitary life we hear of a woman Pega, who
had also chosen a retreat in the fen country, at a place afterwards known
as Peykirk, which is now situated on a peninsula formed by the uplands of
Northamptonshire and connected with the mound on which Guthlac dwelt by a
ridge of gravel, but which at that time formed an island[324]. One version
of Guthlac’s life tells how ‘he had a sister called Pega whom he would not
see in this life, to the intent that they might the rather meet in the
life to come’; and another manuscript life says that the Evil One appeared
to the saint in the form of Pega. Mr W. de Birch Gray who has reprinted
these accounts notices that the tone in which Florence of Worcester speaks
of Pega suggests that to him at least she appeared more famous than

Different accounts of Guthlac agree that at his death his companions at
once departed to fetch Pega. In the celebrated series of drawings of the
12th century, which set forth the story of St Guthlac, the holy woman Pega
is depicted twice[326]. In one picture she steps into the boat, in which
the companion of Guthlac has come to fetch her, and in the other she is
represented as supporting the saint, who is enveloped in his shroud.

The connection between Guthlac and Pega is at least curious, and the
authority she at once assumed is noteworthy. ‘For three days’ space with
sacred hymns of praise she commended the holy man to God,’ says the
Anglo-Saxon prose version of his life[327]. And further, ‘After his death
when he had been buried twelve months God put it into the heart of the
servant of the Lord that she should remove the brother’s body to another
tomb. She assembled thither many of the servants of God and mass-priests,
and others of the ecclesiastical order.... She wound the holy corpse, with
praises of Christ’s honour, in the other sheet which Ecgbriht the
anchoress formerly sent him when alive for that same service.’

The Acts of the Saints give an account of St Pega or Pegia and tell us
that she went to Rome where she died[328]. Her reputation for holiness, as
far as it is preserved, is based chiefly on her connection with Guthlac,
but these accounts leave room for much that must necessarily remain

Other women-saints who were reputed to have lived about this period, and
who were brought into connection with the rulers of Mercia, claim a
passing attention, although their legends written at a much later date
supply the only information we have about them. Thus there is St
Osith[329] of Colchester, whose legend written in the 13th century is full
of hopeless anachronisms. The house of Augustinian canons at Chich[330] in
the 12th century was dedicated conjointly to the saints Peter and Paul and
to the woman-saint Osith; a canon of this house, Albericus Veerus,
probably wrote her legend. Perhaps St Osith of Aylesbury is identical with

Our information is equally untrustworthy concerning St Frideswith, patron
saint of Oxford, for it dates no further back than the 12th century[332].
The chief interest in her legend is that its author establishes a
connection between incidents in the life of Frideswith, and the dread
which the kings of England had of entering Oxford; a dread which as early
as 1264 is referred to as an ‘old superstition[333].’

All these women are credited in their legends with founding monasteries
and gaining local influence, and excepting in the case of St Tibba, I have
come across no coupling of their names with profane cults. Other
women-saints who may perhaps be classed with them, though little survives
except their names, are St Osburg of Coventry[334], St Modwen of Strenhall
in Staffordshire and Burton-on-Trent[335], and St Everhild of Everingham
in Yorkshire[336].

Other names which occur in local calendars will be found in the _Menology_
of Stanton, who has compiled a very complete list of men- and women-saints
in England and Wales from a number of local calendars.

In contrast to the uncertainty which hangs about the settlements under
woman’s rule in the Midlands and around their founders, two houses founded
in the south of England during the 7th century stand out in clear
prominence. Barking in Essex, and Wimbourne in Dorsetshire, attained a
considerable degree of culture, and the information which has been
preserved concerning them is ample and trustworthy.

Bede has devoted several chapters of his history to stories connected with
Barking[337]. It owed its foundation to Earconwald sometime bishop of
London (675-693) who, after founding a settlement at Chertsey in Surrey
under the rule of an abbot, in 666 made a home for his sister Aethelburg
at Barking[338] where ‘he established her excellently in the regular
discipline.’ Aethelburg appears to have been an energetic person, and has
been raised to the rank of saint[339]. Her settlement included men as well
as women, and young children seem to have been entrusted to her care for
their education.

Bede says that ‘having taken the rule of the monastery she showed herself
worthy of her brother the bishop in all respects, both by living rightly
herself, and by the pious and prudent course she took to rule those who
were subject to her; this was proved by celestial miracles.’

A number of these miracles are described by him with considerable power.
Between 664 and 684, a great pestilence, the earliest on record in
Christian times, visited England and carried off many of the inmates of
Barking. First a boy of three years fell ill and in dying called by name
the nun Eadgith, who presently died. Another nun called Torctgith[340]
also had a vision of impending death. ‘One night at the beginning of dawn,
having gone forth from the chamber in which she abode, she saw plainly as
it were a human body, which was brighter than the sun, carried up on high,
wrapped in fine linen, and lifted apparently from the house in which the
sisters were usually placed to die. And when she looked more intently to
see by what means the apparition of a glorious body which she beheld was
raised on high, she saw that it was lifted up into the upper regions as it
were by cords brighter than gold, until being introduced into the opening
heavens it could no longer be seen by her.’

This imagery foretold the death of Abbess Aethelburg, who was carried off
by the pestilence. She was succeeded at Barking by Hildelith, whom
Boniface refers to as a very estimable person and who has also found a
place among the saints[341]. Capgrave speaks of her having been educated
in France, whence she came to Barking at the desire of Bishop Earconwald
to help in establishing the foreign system of discipline.

It was for the abbess Hildelith and her companions at Barking that the
scholar Ealdhelm († 709) wrote his great treatise on Virginity, a long and
elaborate composition which sets before these women the beauties of the
virgin life with a mass of illustration taken from religious and classical
literature. From the point of view of women’s religious life, it is worth
while to describe this treatise at some length, for it shows what a high
degree of culture had been attained at Barking towards the close of the
seventh century.

Ealdhelm, born of noble parentage about the year 640, is the
representative in southern England of the classical revival which was
about this time engrafted on Christian teaching. He studied first at
Malmesbury under the learned Scot Maidulf and then at Canterbury where
Archbishop Theodore and Abbot Hadrian were attracting many students, and
where he perfected his Latin and musical studies and acquired in some
measure the rare and much esteemed knowledge of Greek. ‘A wonder of
erudition in liberal as well as in ecclesiastical writings,’ Bede calls
him[342]. From Canterbury he returned to Malmesbury, which owing to his
influence attained a fame which it kept till the Middle Ages. In 705 when
Wessex was divided into two bishoprics, Ealdhelm was made bishop of the
see of Sherbourne.

The interest Ealdhelm took in women was so great that posterity pictured
him as continually in their society[343]. Besides his great treatise,
passages in his other works bear witness to this interest. In a letter
addressed to Sigegith[344], he gave advice about the baptism of a nun who
had been received into her community while still a heathen; to another nun
whose name is not mentioned he sent a letter together with several
poems[345]. He composed verses in praise of a church which Bugga, a
daughter of King Centwin (670-685), had built[346]. And besides the prose
treatise on virginity addressed to the sisterhood of Barking, he wrote a
long poem in heroic hexameters on the same subject called the ‘Praise of
Virgins’; it has a preface addressed to the abbess Maxima, and is followed
by a poem on the ‘Eight chief Sins,’ likewise intended for the perusal of

Ealdhelm opens his prose work on virginity[348] with thanks to the women
of Barking for the writings they have sent to him. Hildelith, Justina,
Cuthburg, Osburg, Ealdgith, Scholastica, Hidburg, Burngith, Eulalia and
Tecla are addressed by name. He praises them as gymnosophists, as scholars
and as fighters in the arena of discipline (c. 2). Like unto bees, he says
(c. 4), they collect everywhere material for study.

Sometimes, he says, you study the Prophets, sometimes the Books of the
Law, ‘now skilfully tracking the fourfold wording of the gospel story,
expounded in the mystic commentaries of the Catholic fathers, and
spiritually bared to the kernel, and disposed fitly according to the
four-square pattern of ecclesiastical usage, namely according to the
letter, allegory, tropology and anagogy[349]; now carefully searching into
the writers of history and into the collections of chronographers, who
have handed down the changing events of the past in wording that impresses
the mind. Sometimes you carefully examine the rules of grammarians, the
laws of accentuation measured by tone and time, fixed in poetic feet by
marks of punctuation, that is divided into parts of verse consisting of
two and a half and three and a half feet, and changed in endless varieties
of metre.’

Ealdhelm then enlarges on the beauties of the virgin’s life, and dwells
especially on the charms of peaceful companionship which it secures. Again
in their dwelling and working together the women are likened to bees.

The charms of the virgin’s life are then set forth in language redundant
of imagery, verbose and grandiloquent in the extreme. We are told of the
temptations which those who have adopted a religious life must guard
against (c. 11). There are eight sins as to which they are especially
warned; the chief of these is pride. Women are then directed as to the
books they should make a special subject of study, and are recommended to
peruse the works of Cassian (who in the 5th century wrote the ‘Duties of
Monastic Life’) and the ‘Moralities’ of Gregory the Great (which contain
reflections suggested by the book of Job), and they are advised to study
the Psalms to avoid unhappiness (c. 14). With the love of contrast
peculiar to early writers, Ealdhelm shows how the women who serve God and
those who do not are different in their bearing and outward appearance,
and enlarges on the relative value of different estates (c. 17): virginity
is of gold, chastity is of silver; marriage (jugalitas) is of brass; and
again: virginity is wealth, chastity is sufficiency, marriage is poverty,

He then displays the wide range of his learning by adducing many writers
in support of his views (c. 20-40), in passages which are elaborate and
instructive but wearisome through their reiterations. He enumerates all
the women famous for their religious lives. The Virgin Mary comes first
and she is followed by many women-saints of Italy and the East, on whom
there is in some cases much, in others little, comment. In this list we in
vain look for the names of religious women living on this side of the
Alps. Helen the mother of Constantine (c. 48) is referred to, but her
British origin is not mentioned and the idea of it had probably not arisen
in Ealdhelm’s time.

The writer again turns to those who are devoted to religion, and in
passages which are full of interest as a study of the times complains of
the personal appearance of the clergy and of those women who have chosen
religion as a profession. These passages are among the most instructive in
regard to women and clearly show how completely life in a nunnery at the
beginning of the 8th century differed from what it was later on.

‘It shames me,’ he says, ‘to speak of the bold impudence of conceit and
the fine insolence of stupidity which are found both among nuns
(sanctimoniales) who abide under the rule of a settlement, and among the
men of the Church who live as clergy under the rule of the Pontiff. These
act contrary to canonical decrees and to the rule of regular life, for
with many-coloured vestments[350] and with elegant adornments the body is
set off and the external form decked out limb by limb. The appearance of
the other sex agrees with it; a vest of fine linen of a violet colour is
worn, above it a scarlet tunic with a hood, sleeves striped with silk and
trimmed with red fur; the locks on the forehead and the temples are curled
with a crisping iron, the dark head-veil is given up for white and
coloured head-dresses which, with bows of ribbon sewn on, reach down to
the ground; the nails, like those of a falcon or sparrow-hawk, are pared
to resemble talons’.... This state of things Ealdhelm strongly condemns.
But he adds the remark that he is addressing no one in particular,
evidently to avoid any umbrage his women friends might take at these
remarks. His reference to luxurious clothing does not stand alone. The
description Bede gives of the women at Coldingham has been quoted, and
Boniface in a letter[351] to Cuthberht of Canterbury speaks of ‘the
adornment of clothes, trimmed with wide edging of purple,’ which, he says,
is deteriorating the young men in the monasteries, and foretells the
coming of Antichrist. Sumptuous clothes as vestments during religious
service remained in use, but in all other respects they were condemned as
prejudicial to the welfare of those who were vowed to religion.

Ealdhelm’s work on virginity closes with an affectionate greeting to his
women friends in which he addresses them finally as ‘Flowers of the
Church, sisters of monastic life, scholarly pupils, pearls of Christ,
jewels of Paradise, and sharers of the eternal home.’

His work was greatly prized and widely read both by his own and by later
generations. It is extant in several copies of the 8th century[352], and
maintained its reputation throughout the Middle Ages. William of
Malmesbury († 1141) in his account of Ealdhelm specifies the work on
virginity as one ‘than which nothing can be more pleasing[353].’ It still
held its own when printing was introduced, for it was published at
Deventer in Holland in 1512, and has since been reprinted for devotional

Among those on whom the book made a profound impression was Cuthburg,
sister of King Ina of Wessex (688-725). She was at one time an inmate of
the Barking settlement and was probably one of those to whom the work was

Cuthburg was held as a saint for founding a settlement at Wimbourne in
Dorset[355], where the cult of her sister Cwenburg was associated with
hers. Cuthburg as mentioned above was said to have left her husband
Ealdfrith of Northumbria († 705) from religious motives. Her being held in
veneration as a virgin saint may be due to her name being coupled with
that of a virgin sister[356]. Missals printed at Rouen in 1515, and at
Paris in 1519 and 1529, have an office prescribed for Cuthburg as a
virgin[357]. The statement that she was the mother of Osred, afterwards
king of Northumbria (706-717), is perhaps unfounded.

There is no doubt as to Ealdhelm’s friendly relations both with Cuthburg
and her husband. He dedicated his enigmas to Ealdfrith under the title
‘Adcircius[358],’ and in a letter dated 705 he declares that liberty of
election is granted to all congregations under his government including
that called ‘Wimburnia,’ over which Cuthburg, the king’s sister,
presides[359]. A manuscript of the 14th century, preserved in the nunnery
of Romsey, contains a collection of saints’ lives, and gives a full
account of a conversation Cuthburg had with her husband previous to their
separation[360]. It further relates how she placed the basilica of her
settlement under the protection of the Mother of God, and was herself
buried in it. She died some time between 720 and 730, probably nearer the
earlier date, for several abbesses are said to have ruled between her and
Tetta. The name of Tetta has been brought into connection with a place
named Tetbury, but we know nothing definite concerning a monastery
there[361]. As abbess of Wimbourne she was the teacher of Lioba, called
also Leobgith, who went abroad at the desire of Boniface as we shall see
further on.

In the life of Lioba we get a description of the settlement of
Wimbourne[362], which may be somewhat coloured to show the result of
Tetta’s strict and beneficent rule, but which deserves attention as
yielding a fair example of the arrangements which in the eyes of its
author appeared desirable for a monastery of women. The author, Rudolf of
Fulda, was a monk who wrote between 800 and 850, and who compiled his work
from notices which Magno († c. 838) had collected from women pupils of

‘There were two settlements at Wimbourne, formerly erected by the kings of
the country, surrounded by strong and lofty walls and endowed with ample
revenues. Of these one was designed for men, the other for women; but
neither, for such was the rule of their foundation, was ever entered by
any member of the other sex. No woman had permission to come among the
congregation of the men, no man to enter into the dwellings of the women,
with the exception of the priests who entered to celebrate mass and
withdrew at once when service was over. If a woman, desirous of quitting
the world, asked to be admitted to the sisterhood (collegium), she joined
it on condition that she should not leave it unless a reasonable cause or
a special occasion took her out with the leave of the abbess. The abbess
herself, when she gave orders in affairs of the settlement or tendered
advice, spoke through a window and there gave her decision....’

Wimbourne stands last in the list of well authenticated monastic
foundations made by women during the early Anglo-Saxon period; of such
foundations more than twenty have been mentioned in the course of this
chapter. Others no doubt existed at this time, but we only hear of them at
a later date. We find among them some of the centres most influential in
enabling the Anglo-Saxons to attain a high degree of culture within a
hundred years of their conversion to Christianity.



    ‘Et ut dicitur, quid dulcius est, quam habeas illum, cum quo omnia
    possis loqui ut tecum?’ _Eangith to Boniface._

§ 1. The Women corresponding with Boniface.

In the course of the 6th and 7th centuries a number of men left England
and settled abroad among the heathen Germans, partly from a wish to gain
new converts to the faith, partly because a change of affairs at home made
them long for a different field of labour. Through the influx of the
heathen Anglo-Saxons, the British Christians had been deprived of their
influence, and when Christianity was restored it was under the auspices of
princes who were favourably inclined towards Rome. Men who objected to the
Roman sway sought independence among the heathens abroad in preference to
dependence on strangers at home, and it is owing to their efforts that
Christianity was introduced into the valleys leading up from the Rhine,
into the lake districts of Bavaria, and into Switzerland.

A century later the Church had so far extended the limits of her power
that it was felt desirable at Rome that these Christian settlers should be
brought into subjection. For the tenets which they held and the traditions
which had been handed down to them differed in many ways from what Rome
could countenance. They were liberal in tolerating heathen practices, and
ignorant of matters of ritual and creed which were insisted on in the
Church of Rome. The bishops, who were self-appointed, were won over by the
promise of recognising the title to which they laid claim, but the
difficulty remained of weaning them from their objectionable practices.
Efforts were accordingly made to reconvert the converted districts and to
bring some amount of pressure to bear on the clergy.

The representative of this movement in South Germany was Boniface,
otherwise called Wynfred, on whom posterity has bestowed the title Apostle
of Germany, in recognition of his services in the twofold character of
missionary and reformer. He was a native of Wessex, and his mission abroad
has an interest in connection with our subject because of the friendly
relations he entertained with many inmates of women’s houses in England,
and because he invited women as well as men to leave England and assist
him in the work which he had undertaken.

Boniface had grown up as an inmate of the settlement of Nutshalling near
Winchester and first went abroad in 716, but proceeded no further than
Utrecht. Conjecture has been busy over the difficulties which took him
away, and the disappointments which brought him back. Utrecht was an old
Roman colony which had been captured from the Franks by Adgisl, king of
the Frisians, who gave a friendly reception there to Bishop Wilfrith in
678. But King Radbod, his successor, was hostile to the Franks and to
Christianity, and it was only in deference to the powerful Frankish
house-mayor Pippin that he countenanced the settling of Willibrord, a
pupil of Wilfrith, with eleven companions in 692. However, owing to
Radbod’s enmity the position of these monks was such that they were
obliged to leave, and it is possible that Boniface when he went to Utrecht
was disappointed in not finding them there.

Two years later Boniface went on a pilgrimage to Rome, where the idea of
bringing his energies to assist in the extension of Papal influence
originated. The Pope furnished him with a letter[364] in which he is
directed to reclaim the faithless, and armed with this he travelled in the
districts of the Main. But as soon as the news of the death of Radbod the
Frisian († 719) reached him he went to Utrecht, where Willibrord had
returned. We do not know what afterwards prompted him to resume his work
in Germany, but perhaps the proposal of Willibrord that he should settle
with him altogether awakened Boniface to the fact that he was not working
for the Pope as he proposed. His reception at Rome, where he again went in
722, and the declaration of faith he handed in, are in favour of this
view. But Gregory II who was aware of the abilities of Boniface forgave
him, and on the strength of his declaration provided him with further
letters. One of these was addressed to the Christians of Germany, to the
representative clergy and to the Thüringians, and another to the
house-mayor, Karl Martel, who had succeeded Pippin; both letters commanded
that the authority of Boniface was to be everywhere recognised.

From this time for a period of over thirty years Boniface devoted his
energies to extending, organizing and systematizing the power of Rome in
Germany. His character appears in different lights varying with the
standpoint from which he is regarded. Judging from his letters he is
alternately swayed by doggedness of purpose, want of confidence in
himself, dependence on friends, and jealous insistence on his own
authority. He has a curious way of representing himself as persecuted when
in fact he is the persecutor, but his power of rousing enthusiasm for his
work and for his personality is enormous.

His biographer Wilibald describes this power as already peculiar to him
during his stay at Nutshalling, where many men sought him to profit by his
knowledge, ‘while those who on account of their fragile sex could not do
so, and those who were not allowed to stay away from their settlements,
moved by the spirit of divine love, sought eagerly for an account of

The interest Boniface had aroused at home accompanied him on his travels.
He remained in friendly communication with many persons in England, to
whom he wrote and who wrote to him. Among the friends and correspondents
whose letters are preserved are churchmen, princes, abbesses, clerics of
various degrees, and nuns. From the point of view of this book the letters
addressed to women are of special interest, since they bring us into
personal contact so to speak with the abbesses and inmates of English
convents, and we hear for the first time what they personally have to tell
us of themselves.

Among Boniface’s early friends and correspondents was Eadburg[366], abbess
of the monastery in Thanet. She was a woman of great abilities, zealous in
the pursuit of knowledge, and her influence secured several royal charters
for her settlement. She had probably succeeded Mildthrith, but at what
date is not known. Her letters to Boniface unfortunately have not been
preserved, but the letters he wrote to her are full of interesting matter.
The earliest of these was written between 718 and 719; in it Boniface does
not yet address her as abbess[367].

In this letter Boniface in compliance with a wish Eadburg had expressed,
describes a vision of the future life which a monk living at Mildburg’s
monastery at Wenlock had seen during a state of suspended animation.
Boniface had first heard of this vision from the abbess Hildelith of
Barking, and he writes a graphic and eloquent account of it, parts of
which are put into the mouth of the monk himself. The account gives
curious glimpses of that imagery of the future life which early Christians
dwelt upon and elaborated more and more. Nuns at this time as well as
later took a special interest in the subject.

First the monk is carried aloft through flames which enwrap the world. He
sees many souls for the possession of which angels and devils are
fighting. Impersonations of his sins confront and accost him, but his
virtues arise also and enter into conflict with the sins. The virtues are
supported by angels and the fight ends to the monk’s advantage. He also
sees fiery waters flowing towards hell: and souls like black birds which
hover over waters from whence proceed the wails of the damned. He sees
Paradise, and a river of pitch over which a bridge leads to Jerusalem, and
souls are trying to cross it. Among others suffering torments he catches
sight of King Ceolred of Mercia. At last the angels cast the monk down
from the height and he re-awakens to life.

Such descriptions of a future life multiply as one nears the Middle Ages.
By the side of the one which Boniface sent to Eadburg should be read
another by him, a fragmentary one, which supplements it[368]. The
sufferers in hell mentioned in this are Cuthburg, Ceolla and Wiala (of
whom nothing is known), an unnamed abbot and Aethelbald, king of Mercia (†

The description of the after life given by Boniface agrees in various ways
with one contained in the works of Bede. According to this account there
was a man in Northumbria named Drycthelm, who died, came to life again,
and described what he had seen of the world to come.

The other letters which Boniface addressed to Eadburg are of later date
and were written when he had settled abroad and was devoting his energies
to converting the Hessians and Thüringians. At this time he asked her to
send him through the priest Eoban the letters of the apostle Peter, which
she was to write for him in gold characters. ‘Often,’ he says, ‘gifts of
books and vestments, the proofs of your affection, have been to me a
consolation in misfortune. So I pray that you will continue as you have
begun, and write for me in gold characters the epistles of my master, the
holy apostle Peter, to the honour and reverence of holy writ before mortal
eyes while I am preaching, and because I desire always to have before me
the words of him who led me on my mission....’ He ends his letter by again
hoping that she will accede to his request so ‘that her words may shine in
gold to the glory of the Father in heaven[369].’

The art of writing in gold on parchment was unknown to Scottish artists
and had been introduced into England from Italy. Bishop Wilfrith owned the
four gospels ‘written in purest gold on purple-coloured parchment,’ and a
few of the purple gospels with gold writing of this period have been
preserved. The fact that women practised the art is evident from the
letter of Boniface. Eadburg must have had a reputation for writing, for
Lul, one of Boniface’s companions, sent her among other gifts a silver
style (_graphium argenteum_) such as was used at the time for writing on
wax tablets[370].

Boniface received frequent gifts from friends in England. Eoban, who
carried his letter asking Eadburg for the Epistles of St Peter, was the
bearer of a letter to an Abbot Duddo in which Boniface reminding him of
their old friendship asked for a copy of the Epistles of St Paul[371].
Again Boniface wrote asking Abbot Huetberht of Wearmouth for the minor
works (_opuscula_) of Bede[372], and Lul, who was with him, wrote to
Dealwin to forward the minor works of Ealdhelm, bishop of Sherbourne,
those in verse and those in prose[373].

Judging from the correspondence the effective work of Boniface resulted in
the execution of only a small part of his great schemes. His original plan
was repeatedly modified. There is extant a letter from the Pope which
shows that he hoped for the conversion of the heathen Saxons and
Thüringians[374], and the idea was so far embraced by Boniface that he
wrote a letter to the bishops, priests, abbots and abbesses in England
asking them to pray that the Saxons might accept the faith of Christ[375].
But the plan for their conversion was eventually abandoned.

At this period belief in the efficacy of prayer was unbounded, and praying
for the living was as much part of the work of the professed as praying
for the dead. Settlements apparently combined for the purpose of mutually
supporting each other by prayer. A letter is extant in the correspondence
of Boniface in which the abbot of Glastonbury, several abbesses and other
abbots agree to pray at certain hours for each other’s settlements[376].

In his times of trouble and tribulation Boniface wrote to all his friends
asking for prayers. ‘We were troubled on every side,’ he wrote to the
abbess Eadburg, quoting Scripture[377], ‘without were fightings, within
were fears.’ She was to pray for him that the pagans might be snatched
from their idolatrous customs and unbelievers brought back to the Catholic
mother Church.

Eadburg had liberally responded to his request for gifts. ‘Beloved
sister,’ he wrote[378], ‘with gifts of holy books you have comforted the
exile in Germany with spiritual light! For in this dark remoteness among
German peoples man must come to the distress of death had he not the word
of God as a lamp unto his feet and as a light unto his paths[379]. Fully
trusting in your love I beseech that you pray for me, for I am shaken by
my shortcomings, that take hold of me as though I were tossed by a tempest
on a dangerous sea.’ This consciousness of his shortcomings was not wholly
due to the failure of his plans, for Boniface at one period of his life
was much troubled by questions of theology. The simile of being
tempest-tossed is often used by him. In a letter addressed to an unnamed
nun he describes his position in language similar to that in which he
addresses Eadburg. This nun also is urged to pray for him in a letter full
of biblical quotations[380].

Among the letters to Boniface there are several from nuns and abbesses
asking for his advice. Political difficulties and the changed attitude of
the ruling princes of Northumbria and Mercia towards convents brought such
hardships to those who had adopted the religious profession that many of
them wished to leave their homes, and availed themselves of the
possibility of doing so which was afforded by the plan of going on
pilgrimage to Rome.

The wish to behold the Eternal City had given a new direction to the love
of wandering, so strong a trait in human nature. The motives for visiting
Rome have been different in different periods of history. To the convert
in the 8th and 9th centuries Rome appeared as the fountain-head of
Christianity, the residence of Christ’s representative on earth, and the
storehouse of famous deeds and priceless relics. Architectural remains
dating from the period of Roman rule were numerous throughout Europe and
helped to fill the imagination of those dwelling north of the Alps with
wonder at the possible sights and treasures which a visit to Rome itself
might disclose. Prelates and monks undertook the journey to establish
personal relations with the Pope and to acquire books and relics for their
settlements, but the taste for travelling spread, and laymen and wayfarers
of all kinds joined the bands of religious pilgrims. Even kings and
queens, with a sudden change of feeling which the Church magnified into a
portentous conversion, renounced the splendour of their surroundings and
donned the pilgrim’s garb in the hope of beholding the Eternal City in its

Among the letters which are preserved in the correspondence of Boniface
there is one from Aelflaed, abbess of Whitby, in which she writes to the
abbess Adolana (probably Adela) of Pfälzel (Palatiolum) on the Mosel near
Trier, recommending to her care a young abbess who is on her way to Rome.
This letter shows that Aelflaed was well versed in writing Latin. The name
of the abbess in whose behalf the letter was penned is not known, but she
may be identical with Wethburg, who lived and died at Rome[381].

‘To the holy and worshipful abbess Adolana, a greeting in the Lord of
eternal salvation.

‘Since we have heard of your holiness from those who have come from your
parts, and from widespread report, in the first place I pray for your warm
affection, for the Lord has said: This is my command, that ye love one

‘Further we make humble request that your holy and fervent words may
commend us worthily to God Almighty, should it not be irksome to you to
offer devotion in return for ours; for James the Apostle has taught and
said: Pray for one another, that ye may be saved.

‘Further to your great holiness and usual charity we humbly and earnestly
commend this maiden vowed to God, a pious abbess, our dear and faithful
daughter, who since the days of her youth, from love of Christ and for the
honour of the apostles Peter and Paul, has been desirous of going to their
holy threshold, but who has been kept back by us until now because we
needed her and in order that the souls entrusted to her might profit. And
we pray that with charity and true kindness she may be received into your
goodwill, as well as those who are travelling with her, in order that the
desired journey with God’s help and your willing charity may at last be
accomplished. Therefore again and again we beseech that she may be helped
on her way with recommendations from you to the holy city Rome, by the
help of the holy and signbearing leader (signifer) of the apostles Peter;
and if you are present we hope and trust she may find with you whatever
advice she requires for the journey. May divine grace watch over your
holiness when you pray for us.’

The desire to go southward was strengthened among religious women by the
increasing difficulties of their position at home. Monastic privileges
were no longer respected by the kings of Mercia and Northumbria, and the
Church lacked the power of directly interfering in behalf of monks and
nuns. There is in the correspondence a letter which Boniface wrote in his
own name and in that of his foreign bishops to Aethelbald, king of Mercia
(716-756); he sharply rebukes him for his immoral practices and urges on
him the desirability of taking a lawful wife. He accuses the king of
indulging his wicked propensities even in monasteries and with nuns and
maidens who were vowed to God; following the example of Tacitus, he
praises the pure morals of the heathen Germans. The passages which bear on
the subject are worthy of perusal, for they show how uncertain was the
position of monasteries and how keenly Boniface realized the difficulties
of nuns. He tells the king ‘that loose women, whether they be vowed to
religion or not, conceive inferior children through their wickedness and
frequently do away with them.’ The privileges of religious houses, he
says, were respected till the reign of King Osred (706-17) of Northumbria,
and of King Ceolred (709-16) of Mercia, but ‘these two kings have shown
their evil disposition and have sinned in a criminal way against the
teaching of the gospels and the doings of our Saviour. They persisted in
vice, in the seduction of nuns and the contemptuous treatment of monastic
rights. Condemned by the judgment of God, and hurled from the heights of
royal authority, they were overtaken by a speedy and awful death, and are
now cut off from eternal light, and buried in the depths of hell and in
the abyss of the infernal regions[383].’ We have seen that in the letter
written by Boniface to Eadburg, Ceolred is described as suffering torments
in hell, and that King Aethelbald at a later date is depicted in the same

With his letter to Aethelbald Boniface forwarded two others to the priest
Herefrith, probably of Lindisfarne[384], and to Ecgberht (archbishop of
York, 732-66), requesting them to support him against Aethelbald. ‘It is
the duty of your office to see that the devil does not establish his
kingdom in places consecrated to God,’ he wrote to Ecgberht, ‘that there
be not discord instead of peace, strife instead of piety, drunkenness
instead of sobriety, slaughter and fornication instead of charity and
chastity[385].’ Shortly afterwards he wrote to Cuthberht, archbishop of
Canterbury (740-62), telling him of the statutes passed at the Synod of
Soissons[386], and severely censuring the conduct of the layman, ‘be he
emperor, king or count, who snatches a monastery from bishop, abbot, or

These admonitions show that the position of the religious houses and that
of their rulers depended directly on the temper of the reigning prince. In
the correspondence there are several letters from abbesses addressed to
Boniface bearing on this point, which give us a direct insight into the
tone of mind of these women. Their Latin is cumbersome and faulty, and
biblical quotations are introduced which do not seem always quite to the
point. The writers ramble on without much regard to construction and
style, and yet there is a genuine ring about their letters which makes the
distress described seem very real.

One of these letters was written by an abbess named Ecgburg, probably at
an early period of Boniface’s career[387]. Her reference to the remoteness
of her settlement suggests the idea that it was Repton, and that she
herself was identical with Ecgburg, daughter of Ealdwulf king of the East
Angles, the abbess whom we have noticed in connection with Guthlac. If
that be so her sister Wethburg, to whom she refers, may be identical with
the young unnamed abbess whom Aelflaed sped on her journey to Rome.

‘Since a cruel and bitter death,’ she writes, ‘has robbed me of him, my
brother Osher, whom I loved beyond all others, you I hold dearer than all
other men. Not to multiply words, no day, no night passes, but I think of
your teaching. Believe me it is on account of this that I love you, God is
my witness. In you I confide, because you were never forgetful of the
affection which assuredly bound you to my brother. Though inferior to him
in knowledge and in merit, I am not unlike him in recognizing your
goodness. Time goes by with increasing swiftness and yet the dark gloom of
sadness leaves me not. For time as it comes brings me increase of
indignities, as it is written “Love of man brings sorrow, but love of
Christ gladdens the heart.” More recently my equally beloved sister
Wethburg, as though to inflict a wound and renew a pang, suddenly passed
out of my sight, she with whom I had grown up and with whom I was nursed
at the same breast; one mother she and I had in the Lord, and my sister
has left me. Jesus is my witness that on all sides there is sorrow, fear,
and the image of death[388]. I would gladly die if it so pleased God, to
whom the unknown is manifest, for this slow death is no trifle. What was
it I was saying? From my sister not a sudden and bitter death, but a
bitterer separation, divides me; I believe it was for her happiness, but
it left me unhappy, as a corpse laid low, when adopting the fashion of the
age she went on a pilgrimage, even though she knew how much I loved and
cherished her, whom now as I hear a prison confines at Rome. But the love
of Christ, which is strong and powerful in her, is stronger and more
binding than all fetters, and perfect love casteth out fear. Indeed, I
say, he who holds the power of divination, the Ruler of high Olympus, has
endowed you with divine wisdom, and in his law do you meditate night and
day[389]. For it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of them that
preach the gospel of peace, and bring tidings of good things[390].” She
has mounted by a steep and narrow path, while I remain below, held by
mortal flesh as by irons upon my feet. In the coming judgment full of joy
she, like unto the Lord, will sing: “I was in prison and ye came unto
me[391].” You also in the future life, when the twelve apostles sit on
their twelve seats[392], will be there, and in proportion to the number of
those whom you have won by your work, will rejoice before the tribunal of
the eternal King, like unto a leader who is about to be crowned. But I
living in the vale of tears as I deserve, shall be weeping for my
offences, on account of which God holds me unfit to join the heavenly
hosts. Therefore, believe me, the tempest-tossed mariner does not so much
long for the haven, the thirsty fields do not long so much for rain, the
mother on the winding shore does not so anxiously wait for her son, as I
long to rejoice in your sight. But oppressed by sins and innumerable
offences, I so long to be freed from imminent danger, that I am made
desperate; adoring the footsteps of your holiness and praying to you from
the depths of my heart as a sinner, I call to you from the ends of the
earth, O beloved master; as my anxious heart prompts, raise me to the
corner-stone of your prayer, for you are my hope and a strong tower
invisible to the enemy. And I beg as consolation to my grief and as limit
to the wave of my sorrow, that my weakness may be supported by your
intercession as by a prop. I entreat that you will condescend to give me
some comfort either in the form of a relic or of a few words of blessing,
written by you, in order that through them I may hold your presence

By the side of this letter must be quoted another written by an Abbess
Eangith, describing similar difficulties in a similar strain[393]. We do
not know over which settlement Eangith presided, but her name and that of
her daughter Heaburg of whom she speaks are inscribed in the Durham ‘Liber

‘Beloved brother in the spirit rather than in the flesh,’ she writes, ‘you
are magnified by the abundance of spiritual graces, and to you alone, with
God as our sole witness, we wish to make known what you see here spread
out before you and blotted by our tears: we are borne down by an
accumulation of miseries as by a weight and a pressing burden, and also by
the tumult of political affairs. As the foaming masses of the ocean when
the force of the winds and the raging fury of the tempest lash up the
great sea, carry in and carry out again the heaving billows dashing over
rocks, so that the keels of the boats are turned upwards and the mast of
the ship is pressed downwards, so do the ships of our souls groan under
the great press of our miseries and the great mass of our misfortunes. By
the voice of truth has it been said of the heavenly house: “The rain
descended and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that
house[395],” etc.

‘First and before all noteworthy of the things that affect us from
without, must be mentioned the multitude of our offences and our want of
full and complete faith, due not so much to care for our own souls but,
what is worse and more oppressive, to care for the souls of those of
either sex and of every age which have been entrusted to us. For this care
involves ministering to many minds and to various dispositions, and
afterwards giving account before the supreme tribunal of Christ both for
obvious sins in deeds and words, and for secret thoughts which men ignore
and God alone witnesseth; with a simple sword against a double-edged one,
with ten thousand to meet twenty thousand warriors[396]. In addition to
this care of souls we have difficulties in our domestic affairs, and
various disagreements which the jealous enemy of all good has sown,
namely, he who fills the impure hearts of men with malice and scatters it
everywhere, but chiefly in the settlements of monks and nuns; but it is
said “the mighty shall be mightily tormented[397].” Moreover the poverty
and scantiness of our temporal possessions oppress us, and the smallness
of the cultivated part of our estate; and the hostility of the king, for
we are accused before him by those who envy us, as a wise man has said:
“the bewitching of vanity obscureth good things[398].” Similarly we are
oppressed by service due to the king and the queen, to bishop and prefect,
officers and attendants. It would take long to enumerate those things
which can be more easily imagined than described.

‘To all these evils is added the loss of friends, connections, and
relatives by alliance and by blood. I[399] have neither son nor brother,
neither father nor father’s brother, none but an only daughter who is
bereft of all that was dear to her; and a sister who is old, and the son
of our brother, who too is unhappy in his mind, for our king holds his
family connections in great contempt. There is no one else for us to rely
on; God has removed them all by one chance or another. Some have died in
their native land, and their bodies lie in the grimy dust of the earth to
rise again on the day of doom, when the Master’s trumpet shall sound, and
the whole race of man shall come forth from dark tombs to give account of
themselves; when their spirits, borne upwards in angels’ arms, shall abide
with Christ; when all sorrow shall end, and envy be worn out, and grief
and mourning shall vanish in sight of the saints. Again others have left
their native shores, and trusted themselves to the wide seas, and have
sought the threshold of the holy apostles Peter and Paul and of all those
martyrs, virgins and confessors, whose number God alone knows.

‘For these and other like causes, hardly to be enumerated in one day
though July and August lengthen the days of summer, we are weary of our
present life and hardly care to continue it. Every man uncertain of his
purpose and distrustful of his own counsel, seeks a faithful friend whose
advice he follows since he distrusts his own; and such faith has he in him
that he lays before him and reveals to him every secret of his heart. As
has been said, what is sweeter than having someone with whom one can
converse as with oneself? Therefore on account of the pressing miseries we
have now insisted on to the full, we needs must find a true friend, one
whom we can trust more than ourselves; who will treat our grief, our
miseries and our poverty as his own, who will sympathize with us, comfort
us, support us by his words, and raise us up by wise counsel. Long have we
sought him. And we believe that in you we have found the friend whom we
longed for, whom we wished for, whom we desired.

‘Would that God had granted to us that, as Habakkuk the prophet was sped
with food into the lion’s den to the seer Daniel[400], or that as Philip
one of the seven deacons was sped to the eunuch[401], we also were sped
and could come to the land and to the district where you dwell; or that it
were possible for us to hear living words from your lips. ‘How sweet are
thy words unto my palate, O Lord, sweeter than honey to my mouth[402].’

‘But since this is not vouchsafed to us and we are divided from you by a
wide expanse of land and of sea and by the boundaries of many provinces,
because of our faith in you referred to above we will tell you, brother
Boniface, that for a long time we have entertained the design like so many
of our friends, relatives and others, of visiting Rome, the mistress of
the world, there to seek forgiveness of our sins as many others have done
and are now doing; so especially I (wish to do) since I am advanced in
age, and have erred more than others. Wala, at one time my abbess and
spiritual mother, was acquainted with my wish and my intention. My only
daughter at present is young, and cannot share my desire. But because we
know how many there are who scoff at this wish and deprecate this desire,
and support their view by adducing what the canons of the synods enjoin,
that wherever anyone has settled and taken his vow, there shall he remain
and there serve God; for we all live in different ways and God’s purposes
are unknown, as the prophet says: ‘Thy righteousness is like the great
mountains, thy judgments are a great deep, O Lord[403]’; and because His
sacred will and desire in these things is hidden,--therefore we two, both
of us in our difficulty, call on you earnestly and reverently: be you to
us as Aaron, a mountain of strength, let your prayer be our help, swing
the censer of prayer with incense in sight of the Divine, and let the
lifting up of your hands be as the evening sacrifice[404]. Indeed we trust
in God and beg of your goodness that by supplication of mouth and inward
prayer it may be revealed to you what seems for us wise and useful:
whether we are to live at home or go forth on pilgrimage. Also we beg of
your goodness to send back your answer across the sea, and reply to what
we have scratched on these leaves in rustic style and with unpolished
wording. We have scant faith in those who glory in appearance and not in
heart[405], but faith in your love, your charity in God and your

It is not known whether Eangith carried out her intention and went to

Boniface had another correspondence with an abbess named Bugga, but though
Eangith states that her daughter Heaburg was sometimes called by that
name, it is not probable that they were the same, for Boniface writing to
Bugga makes no mention of Eangith’s plan, which he would hardly have
omitted to do if Heaburg had been his correspondent[406].

Bugga was afterwards abbess of a monastery in Kent. She too sent gifts to
Boniface, and later entertained the idea of going to Rome. In early days
the prelate wrote to her telling her how he had been mercifully led
through unknown countries, how ‘the Pontiff of the glorious see’ Gregory
II had inclined to him, and how he had cast down ‘the enemy of the
Catholic Church, Radbod,’ the Frisian.

In reply she assures him of her continued affection and makes some remarks
on books they have exchanged. The Passions of the Martyrs which he has
asked for she has not yet procured, but she will forward them as soon as
she can. ‘But you, my friend,’ she writes, ‘send me as a consolation what
you promised in your kind letter, your extracts from the holy writings.
And I beseech you to offer the oblation of the holy mass for one of my
relatives whom I loved beyond all others. I send you by the bearer of this
letter fifty gold coins (solidi) and an altar cloth, better gifts I cannot
procure. They are truly signs of a great affection though of insignificant

Bugga does not style herself abbess, but Boniface addresses her as such in
acknowledging the receipt of her gifts and advising her about going to
Rome. On another occasion he wrote to express concern at her troubles,
which he heard from many people had not diminished since she retired from
rule for the sake of quiet[408]. The letter in which he advises her about
going to Rome is worth quoting[409].

‘Be it made known to you, dearest sister,’ he writes, ‘regarding the
advice which you asked for in your letter, that I do not presume to forbid
you the pilgrim’s journey, neither would I directly advise it. I will
explain why. If you gave up the charge you had of the servants of God, of
his virgins (ancillae), and your own monastic life, for the purpose of
securing quiet and the thought of God, in what way are you now bound to
obey the words and the will of seculars with toil and wearing anxiety?
Still if you cannot find peace of mind in your home in secular life among
seculars it seems right that you should seek in a pilgrimage freedom for
contemplation, especially since you wish it and can arrange it; just in
the way our sister Wethburg did. She told me in her letter that she had
found the quiet she longed for near the threshold of St Peter. In
reference to your wish she sent me a message, for I had written to her
about you, saying that you must wait till the attacks, hostility and
menaces of the Saracens who have lately reached the Roman States have
subsided, and that God willing she would then send you a letter of
invitation. I too think this best. Prepare yourself for the journey, but
wait for word from her, and then do as God in his grace commands. As to
the collection of extracts for which you ask, be considerate to my
shortcomings. Pressing work and continuous travelling prevent my
furnishing you with what you desire. As soon as I can I will forward them
to please you.

‘We thank you for the gifts and vestments which you have sent, and pray to
God Almighty, to put aside a gift for you in return with the angels and
archangels in the heights of heaven. And I beseech you in the name of God,
dear sister, yea mother and sweet lady, that you diligently pray for me.
For many troubles beset me through my shortcomings, and I am more
distressed by uncertainty of mind than by bodily work. Rest assured that
our old trust in each other will never fail us.’

Bugga carried out her intention and went to Rome, where she met Boniface,
who was the Pope’s guest about the year 737. He had achieved a signal
success in reconverting the Hessians, and was now appointed to constitute
bishoprics in Bavaria and to hold councils of Church dignitaries at
regular intervals[410]. At Rome Bugga and Boniface walked and talked
together, and visited the churches of the holy apostles. A letter from
Aethelberht II, king of Kent, to Boniface refers to their meeting[411].
Bugga had come back to her old monastery and had given the king a
description of her visit. She attained a considerable age, for she was
advanced in years before her pilgrimage, and about twenty years later
Bregwin, archbishop of Canterbury (759-765), wrote to Lul informing him of
her death[412].

Boniface made provision at Rome for the women in whom he was interested. A
certain deacon Gemmulus writes to him from Rome to inform him[413] that
‘the sisters and maidens of God who have reached the threshold of the
apostles’ are there being cared for by himself and others as Boniface has

The readiness with which Anglo-Saxon nuns went abroad eventually led to a
state of things which cast discredit on religion. Boniface addressed the
following remarks on these pilgrimages to Cuthberht of Canterbury in the
letter written after the synod of Soissons[414].

‘I will not withhold from your holiness,’ he says, ‘... that it were a
good thing and besides honour and a credit to your Church and a palliation
of evils, if the synod and your princes forbade women, and those who have
taken the veil, to travel and stay abroad as they do, coming and going in
the Roman states. They come in great numbers and few return undefiled. For
there are very few districts of Lombardy in which there is not some woman
of Anglian origin living a loose life among the Franks and the Gauls. This
is a scandal and disgrace to your whole Church....’

The difficulty of exercising more control over those who chose to leave
their settlements was only partly met by stricter rules of supervision.
For there were no means of keeping back monk or nun who was tired of
living the monastic life. In the 9th century Hatto bishop of Basel († 836)
wrote to the bishop of Toul enjoining that no one should be suffered to
undertake a pilgrimage to Rome without leave, and provisions of a much
later date order that houses shall not take in and harbour inmates from
other settlements.

In this connection it is interesting to find Lul, who had settled abroad
with Boniface, excommunicating an abbess Suitha because she had allowed
two nuns to go into a distant district for some secular purpose without
previously asking permission from her bishop[415]. The women who settled
in Germany under Boniface were brought under much stricter control than
had till then been customary in either France or England.

§ 2. Anglo-Saxon Nuns abroad.

Among the women who came to Germany and settled there at the request of
Boniface was Lioba, otherwise Leobgith, who had been educated at Wimbourne
in Dorset, at no very great distance from Nutshalling where Boniface
dwelt, and who left England between 739 and 748. She was related to him
through her mother Aebbe, and a simple and modest little letter is extant
in which she writes to Boniface and refers to her father’s death six years
ago; she is her parents’ only child, she says, and would recall her mother
and herself to the prelate’s memory.

‘This too I ask for,’ she writes in this letter, ‘correct the rusticity of
my style and do not neglect to send me a few words in proof of your
goodwill. I have composed the few verses which I enclose according to the
rules of poetic versification, not from pride but from a desire to
cultivate the beginnings of learning, and now I am longing for your help.
I was taught by Eadburg who unceasingly devotes herself to this divine
art.’ And she adds four lines of verse addressed to God Almighty as an
example of what she can do[416].

As mentioned above we are indebted for an account of Lioba’s life to the
monk Rudolf of Fulda († 865). From this we learn that Lioba at a tender
age had been given into the care of the abbess Tetta at Wimbourne[417].
‘She grew up, so carefully tended by the abbess and the sisters, that she
cared for naught but the monastery and the study of holy writ. She was
never pleased by irreverent jokes, nor did she care for the other maidens’
senseless amusements; her mind was fixed on the love of Christ, and she
was ever ready to listen to the word of God, or to read it, and to commit
to memory what she heard and read to her own practical advantage. In
eating and drinking she was so moderate that she despised the allurements
of a great entertainment and felt content with what was put before her,
never asking for more. When she was not reading, she was working with her
hands, for she had learnt that those who do not work have no right to

She was moreover of prepossessing appearance and of engaging manners, and
secured the goodwill of the abbess and the affection of the inmates of the
settlement. A dream of hers is described by her biographer in which she
saw a purple thread of indefinite length issuing from her mouth. An aged
sister whom she consulted about it, interpreted the dream as a sign of
coming influence.

To Lioba, Tecla and Cynehild, Boniface addressed a letter from abroad,
asking in the usual way for the support of their prayers[418]. Lioba’s
biographer tells us that when Boniface thought of establishing religious
settlements, ‘wishing that the order of either sex should exist according
to rule,’ he arranged that Sturmi, who had settled at Fulda, should go to
Italy and there visit St Benedict’s monastery at Monte Casino, and he
‘sent envoys with letters to the abbess Tetta (of Wimbourne) begging her
as a comfort in his labour, and as a help in his mission, to send over the
virgin Lioba, whose reputation for holiness and virtuous teaching had
penetrated across wide lands and filled the hearts of many with praise of

This request shows that Boniface thought highly of the course of life and
occupations practised in English nunneries and that he considered English
women especially suited to manage the settlements under his care. In a
letter written from Rome about 738 Boniface refers to the sisters and
brothers who are living under him in Germany[420]. Parties of English men
and women joined him at different times. One travelled under the priest
Wiehtberht, who sent a letter to the monks of Glastonbury to inform them
of his safe arrival and honourable reception by Boniface, and he requests
that Tetta of Wimbourne may be told of this[421]. Perhaps Lioba, who was
Tetta’s pupil, was one of the party who travelled to Germany with

‘In pursuance of his plan,’ says Lioba’s life[422], ‘Boniface now arranged
monastic routine and life according to accepted rule, and set Sturmi as
abbot over the monks and the virgin Lioba as spiritual mother over the
nuns, and gave into her care a monastery at the place called Bischofsheim,
where a considerable number of servants of God were collected together,
who now followed the example of their blessed teacher, were instructed in
divine knowledge and so profited by her teaching that several of them in
their turn became teachers elsewhere; for few monasteries of women
(monasteria fœminarum) existed in those districts where Lioba’s pupils
were not sought as teachers. She (Lioba) was a woman of great power and of
such strength of purpose that she thought no more of her fatherland and of
her relations but devoted all her energies to what she had undertaken,
that she might be blameless before God, and a model in behaviour and
discipline to all those who were under her. She never taught what she did
not practise. And there was neither conceit nor domineering in her
attitude; she was affable and kindly without exception towards everyone.
She was as beautiful as an angel; her talk was agreeable, her intellect
was clear; her abilities were great; she was a Catholic in faith; she was
moderate in her expectations and wide in her affections. She always showed
a cheerful face but she was never drawn into hilarity. No one ever heard a
word of abuse (maledictionem) pass her lips, and the sun never went down
on her anger. In eating and drinking she was liberal to others but
moderate herself, and the cup out of which she usually drank was called by
the sisters ‘the little one of our beloved’ (dilectae parvus) on account
of its smallness. She was so bent on reading that she never laid aside
her book except to pray or to strengthen her slight frame with food and
sleep. From childhood upwards she had studied grammar and the other
liberal arts, and hoped by perseverance to attain a perfect knowledge of
religion, for she was well aware that the gifts of nature are doubled by
study. She zealously read the books of the Old and New Testaments, and
committed their divine precepts to memory; but she further added to the
rich store of her knowledge by reading the writings of the holy Fathers,
the canonical decrees, and the laws of the Church (totiusque ecclesiastici
ordinis jura). In all her actions she showed great discretion, and thought
over the outcome of an undertaking beforehand so that she might not
afterwards repent of it. She was aware that inclination is necessary for
prayer and for study, and she was therefore moderate in holding vigils.
She always took a rest after dinner, and so did the sisters under her,
especially in summer time, and she would not suffer others to stay up too
long, for she maintained that the mind is keener for study after sleep.’

Boniface, writing to Lioba while she was abbess at Bischofsheim, sanctions
her taking a girl into the settlement for purposes of instruction.
Bischofsheim was on the Tauber a tributary of the river Main, and
Boniface, who dwelt at Mainz, frequently conferred with her there. Lioba
went to stay with Boniface at Mainz in 757 before he went among the
Frisians[423]; he presented her with his cloak and begged her to remain
true to her work whatever might befall him. Shortly after he set out on
his expedition he was attacked and killed by heathens. His corpse was
brought back and buried at Fulda, and Lioba went to pray at his grave, a
privilege granted to no other woman.

Lioba was also in contact with temporal rulers. Karl the Great gave her
presents and Queen Hildegard († 783) was so captivated with her that she
tried to persuade her to come and live with her. ‘Princes loved her,’ her
biographer tells us, ‘noblemen received her, and bishops gladly
entertained her and conversed with her on the scriptures and on the
institutions of religion, for she was familiar with many writings and
careful in giving advice.’ She had the supervision of other settlements
besides her own and travelled about a good deal. After Boniface’s death
she kept on friendly terms with Lul who had succeeded him as bishop of
Mainz (757-786), and it was with his consent that she finally resigned
her responsibilities and her post as abbess at Bischofsheim and went to
dwell at Schornsheim near Mainz with a few companions. At the request of
Queen Hildegard she once more travelled to Aachen where Karl the Great was
keeping court. But she was old, the fatigues of the journey were too much
for her, and she died shortly after her return in 780. Boniface had
expressed a wish that they should share the same resting-place and her
body was accordingly taken to Fulda, but the monks there, for some unknown
reason, preferred burying her in another part of their church.

It is noteworthy that the women who by the appointment of Boniface
directed convent life in Germany, remained throughout in a state of
dependence[424], while the men, noticeably Sturmi († 779) whom he had made
abbot at Fulda, cast off their connection with the bishop, and maintained
the independence of their monasteries. Throughout his life Sturmi showed a
bold and determined spirit, but he was not therefore less interesting to
the nuns of Boniface’s circle. His pupil and successor Eigil wrote an
account of his life at the request of the nun Angiltrud, who is also
supposed to have come from England to Germany[425].

We know little concerning the other Anglo-Saxon women who settled abroad,
for there are no contemporary accounts of them. The ‘Passion of Boniface,’
written at Mainz between 1000 and 1050, tells us that as Lioba settled at
Bischofsheim so Tecla settled at Kizzingen, where ‘she shone like a light
in a dark place[426].’ No doubt this Tecla is identical with the nun of
that name whom Boniface speaks of in his letter to Lioba[427]. She has a
place among the saints[428], but it seems doubtful whether she founded the
monastery at Kizzingen or the one at Oxenfurt.

The names of several other women are given by Othlon, a monk of St Emmeran
in Bavaria, who in consequence of a quarrel fled from his monastery and
sought refuge at Fulda. While there, between 1062 and 1066, he re-wrote
and amplified Wilibald’s life of Boniface. In this account he gives a list
of the men who came into Germany from England, the correctness of which
has been called in question. He then enumerates the women who came abroad
and mentions ‘an aunt of Lul called Chunihilt[429] and her daughter
Berthgit[430], Chunitrud and Tecla, Lioba, and Waltpurgis the sister of
Wilibald and Wunebald[431].’ The only mention of Waltpurgis is her name,
but he describes where the other women settled, some in the district of
the Main, others in Bavaria.

This woman Waltpurgis has been the subject of many conjectures; writers
generally do not hesitate to affirm that the sister of Wunebald and
Wilibald is identical with the saint who was so widely reverenced. But St
Waltpurgis, popularly called Walburg, is associated with customs and
traditions which so clearly bear a heathen and profane character in the
Netherlands and in North Germany, that it seems improbable that these
associations should have clustered round the name of a Christian woman and
a nun[432].

In face of the existing evidence one of two conclusions must be adopted.
Either the sister of Wunebald and Wilibald really bore the name
Waltpurgis, and the monk Wolfhard who wrote an account of a saint of that
name whose relics were venerated at Eichstätt (between 882 and 912) took
advantage of the coincidence of name and claimed that the Walburg, who
bears the character of a pseudo-saint, and the sister of Wunebald and
Wilibald were identical; or else, desirous to account for the veneration
of relics which were commonly connected with the name Walburg, he found it
natural and reasonable to hold that Walburg had belonged to the circle of
Boniface, and identified her with the sister of Wunebald and

Nothing is preserved concerning this sister except a reference to her
existence, which is contained in the accounts of the acts of Wilibald and
Wunebald written by a nun at Heidenheim, whose name also is not
recorded[434]. These accounts offer many points of interest. The nun who
wrote them was of Anglo-Saxon origin; her style is highly involved and
often falls short of the rules of grammar, but she had possession of
interesting information, and she was determined to impart it. It has been
noticed that her writing varies according to whether she is setting down
facts or dilating on them; for she is concise enough when it is a question
of facts only, but when it comes to description she falls into the spirit
of Anglo-Saxon literature and introduces alliteration into her Latin and
launches forth into panegyric. She came from England to Germany, as she
tells us, shortly before the death of Wunebald (c. 765), and experiences
of an unpleasant nature led her to expect that her writings would not pass
without criticism.

‘I am but a woman,’ she says[435], ‘weak on account of the frailty of my
sex, neither supported by the prerogative of wisdom nor sustained by the
consciousness of great power, yet impelled by earnestness of purpose,’ and
she sets to work to give a description of the life of Wilibald and the
journey which he made to Palestine, parts of which she took down from his
dictation, for at the close of her account she says that she wrote it from
Wilibald’s narrative in the monastery of Heidenheim in the presence of
deacons and of some of Wilibald’s pupils who were witnesses to the fact.
‘This I say,’ she adds, ‘that no one may again declare this to be

The account she gives of Wilibald’s experiences contains one of the
earliest descriptions written in northern Europe of a journey to
Palestine, and modern writers have commented on it as a curious literary
monument of the time. Interest in descriptions of the Holy Land was
increasing. Besides early references to such journeys in the letters of St
Jerome who described how Paula went from Rome to Jerusalem and settled
there in the 4th century, we hear how Adamnan came to the court of King
Ealdfrith of Northumbria about the year 701 and laid before him his book
on Holy Places[436] which he had taken down from the narrative of bishop
Arculf who had made the pilgrimage, but of whom we know nothing more. But
Adamnan’s account is bald and its interest is poor compared to this
description of the adventures of Wilibald and of what he saw on his

The nun prefaces her account of the journey by telling us of Wilibald’s
origin. She describes how he fell ill as a child, how his parents vowed
him to a religious life if he were spared, and how in conformity with
their promise they took him to the abbey of Waltham at the age of five,
where Wilibald continued studying till manhood. We are not told to what
his love of travel was due. He determined to go south and persuaded his
father and his brother Wunebald to accompany him. We hear how they and
their companions took boat and arrived at Rouen, how they travelled on
till they reached Lucca where the father fell ill and died, and how the
brothers pursued their journey to Rome where they spent the winter. We
hear how the heat and bad air of summer drove them away from Rome and how,
while Wunebald remained in Italy, Wilibald with a few companions pushed on
by way of Naples and Reggio and reached Catania in Sicily, where he took
boat for Ephesus and Syria. We get a good deal of information by the way
on saints and on relics, and hear of the veil of St Agatha which stayed
the eruptions of Mount Aetna, and of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. The
travellers experienced all kinds of hardships; thrice they were cast into
prison and liberated before their feet trod on holy ground. Then they
visited Nazareth and Chana; they gazed upon Lake Tiberias, they bathed in
the river Jordan, and finally they reached Jerusalem where they made a
long stay, broken however by several long expeditions. Each site is
described in turn, and its connection with scriptural history is pointed
out. We hear a good deal about Jerusalem, about Mount Sion, the site of
the Ascension of the Virgin, and about the site of the Nativity at
Bethlehem. It was ‘once a cave, now it is a square house cut into the
rock,’ over which a little chapel is built. We also hear of various
monasteries where the travellers stayed in coming and going. Finally they
travelled to Tyre, where they took boat to Constantinople. There they made
a lengthy stay and then journeyed on to Italy and visited the Isle of
Lipari, where Wilibald desired to get a glimpse of the crater, which is
designated as hell, the thought of which called forth a fine piece of
description from the nun.

‘And when they arrived there they left the boat to see what sort of a hell
it was. Wilibald especially was curious about what was inside the crater,
and would have climbed the summit of the mountain to the opening; but he
was prevented by cinders which rose from the black gulf and had sunk
again; as snow settles falling from the sky and the heavenly heights in
white thick masses, so these cinders lay heaped on the summit of the
mountain and prevented Wilibald’s ascent. But he saw a blackness and a
terrible column of flame projected upwards with a noise like thunder from
the pit, and he saw the flame and the smoky vapour rising to an
immeasurable height. He also beheld pumice-stone which writers use[437]
thrown up from the crater with the flame, and it fell into the sea and was
again cast up on the shore; men there gathered it up to bring it away.’

When Wilibald and his companion Tidberht reached Rome they had been absent
seven years, and their travels had made them personages of such interest
that the Pope interviewed them. Wilibald at the Pope’s suggestion agreed
to join Boniface in Germany. Wunebald, the brother whom he had left in
Italy, had met Boniface in Rome in 738 and had travelled back with him.
Wilibald also settled in Germany and was made bishop of the new see of
Eichstätt. Here he came across the nun, who was so fired by his account of
his travels that she undertook to record them.

After she had finished this work she was moved to write a short account of
the life of Wunebald[438]. It is written in a similar style and contains
valuable historical information, but it has not the special interest of
the other account. Wunebald on coming into Germany had first stayed at
Mainz, then he travelled about with Boniface, and finally he settled at
Heidenheim where he made a clearance in the midst of a wooded wilderness
and dwelt there with a few younger men. He was active in opposing
idolatrous customs, but does not appear to have been satisfied with his
work. He died about the year 765, and his brother Wilibald, bishop of
Eichstätt, and his sister, of whom mention is now made for the first time,
came to his monastery to assist at the translation of his corpse. The
sister took charge of his settlement, apparently for a time only, for the
monastery at Heidenheim continued to be under the rule of an abbot and
there is no evidence that women belonged to it.

It was from this sister that the nun received her information about
Wunebald. The theory has been put forward that she was the same person as
a nun who came to Heidenheim and was there miraculously cured. However
that may be, this literary nun is the last Anglo-Saxon woman of whom we
have definite information who came abroad in connection with Boniface. Her
name is lost, it is as the anonymous nun of Heidenheim that she has come
down to posterity.



    ‘Nec scientia scibilis Deum offendit, sed injustitia scientis.’

§ 1. Women’s Convents in Saxony.

Some account has been given in the preceding chapters of the form which
monastic settlements of women took among the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons
during the first centuries after the acceptance of Christianity. Features
similar to those which appear in France and England characterised the
first period of monastic development among the continental Saxons, the
last branch of the German race to accept Christianity as a nation. Here
also we find highborn and influential women as abbesses at the head of
establishments which were important centres of contemporary culture.

The convent in Saxon lands, as elsewhere, was a place of residence and a
training school for women of the ruling classes. Girls came there to be
educated, and either considered the convent as their permanent home or
left it to be married; the widow frequently returned to it later in life.
But some of the Saxon settlements of women gained an additional importance
in the 10th and 11th centuries owing to their close connection with the
political affairs and interests of the time. The abbess was frequently a
member of the royal or imperial family. In one case she was appointed as
the guardian of the Emperor, in another she became representative of the
Emperor during his absence in Italy.

The story of the spread of monastic life into Saxony is closely connected
with the history of the conquest of the country and the subsequent growth
of national independence. The Saxons occupied the districts of northern
Germany, Westphalia, Eastphalia and Engern, of which Westphalia bordered
on lands occupied by the Franks. Between the 6th and the 9th centuries the
Franks had sometimes fought against the Saxons and had sometimes made
common cause with them against their mutual enemies the people of
Thüringen. But the Saxons were warlike and ferocious, insensible to the
influence of Christianity, and ready at any moment to begin hostilities.
They became more and more dreaded by the Franks, who looked upon them as
dangerous neighbours, and who attacked them whenever opportunity offered.
Karl the Great († 814), king of the Franks, and Roman Emperor of the
German nation, received the war against the Saxons as part of his
heritage, but repeated inroads into Saxony and a cruelty bordering on
vindictiveness were needed before he could speak of the conquest of the
Saxons as an accomplished fact. In 785, after a prolonged struggle,
Widukind, the Saxon leader in whom the spirit of Arminius lived, was
finally defeated; and he and his followers accepted Christianity as part
of their subjection.

The Frankish Emperor and the Church now united in extending a uniform
system of government over the lands of the Saxons. The count (_graf_ or
_comes_) was made responsible for the maintenance of peace in the separate
district (_gau_ or _pagus_) entrusted to him, and bishoprics were founded
as dependencies of the ancient archiepiscopal sees of Cöln and Mainz. At
the same time colonies of monks migrated into the conquered districts from
the west and south. Their settlements developed rapidly, owing to the
favour which monastic life found with the newly converted Saxons.

The subjection of the Saxons was not however of long duration. The
supremacy of the Western Empire culminated under the rule of Karl the
Great; the union under one rule of many peoples who were in different
stages of civilization was only possible at all through the rare
combination of commanding qualities in this emperor; at his death the
empire at once began to crumble away. This brought a returning sense of
self-confidence to those peoples on whom the yoke of subjection had been
forcibly thrust. Fifty years after Karl’s death a warlike chief of the old
type was established among the Saxons as duke (_herzog_ or _dux_); a
hundred years later and a Saxon duke was chosen king of the Germans by the
united votes of Frankish and Saxon nobles. The supreme authority now
passed from the Franks to the Saxons; a change which the Saxon historian
of the 10th century associated with the transference of the relics of St
Vitus from France to Saxon soil[439]. The present age seeks the
explanation of the removal of the centre of authority in less romantic
causes, and finds it in the altogether extraordinary aptitude which the
Saxons showed for assimilating new elements of civilization, and for
appropriating or remodelling to their own use institutions of rule and
government into which they breathed a spirit peculiarly their own.

The history of the attainment to political supremacy by the Saxons helps
us to understand the spirit which animated the Church and monastic
institutions of the time. The bishoprics which Frankish overlordship had
established were soon in the hands of men who were Saxons by birth, and a
similar appropriation took place in regard to monastic settlements.
Corvei, a religious colony founded on Saxon soil by monks from La Corbie
in northern France, a lifetime after the conversion numbered Saxon nobles
among its inmates. Settlements of women were also founded and rapidly
gained importance, especially in the eastern districts where they rivalled
the episcopal sees in wealth and influence.

A reason for the favour with which monastic life was regarded during the
period of political subjection lay in the practical advantages which these
settlements offered. The nobleman who turned monk was freed from the
obligations thrust upon him by the new régime; he was exempt from fighting
under the standard of his conqueror, and the property which he bestowed on
the religious settlement was in a way withdrawn from the enemy. But when
the people regained their independence the popularity of the convent still
remained. For the Saxons were quick in realizing the advantages of a close
union between religion and the state, and the most powerful and
progressive families of the land vied with each other in founding and
endowing religious settlements.

The political interest of the period centres in the career of Liudolf, who
was styled duke by his people, but count by the Emperor. Liudolf rapidly
rose to greatness and became the progenitor of a family which has given
Germany many remarkable men and her first line of kings. His son Otto (†
912) was renowned like his father for personal valour, and success in
every way favoured the undertakings of his grandson Heinrich the Fowler (†
936), first king of the Saxon line. Heinrich became the favourite hero of
the national poet on account of the triumphs he gained over the Slavs and
Magyars, who at this time threatened the lands occupied by Germans at
every point between the Baltic and the Adriatic. Again Heinrich’s
successes were reflected in those of his son Otto I († 973), surnamed the
Great, who added the lustre of imperial dignity to his father’s firmly
established kingship. Emulating the fame of Karl the Great, Otto was
crowned emperor by the Pope in Rome. During the reign of his son, Otto II
(† 982), and of his grandson, Otto III († 1002), the Saxon court remained
the meeting-place of representatives of the civilized world. It was there
that envoys were received from England and Italy, and it was from thence
that messengers were sent out to Constantinople and Cordova. The elective
crown of the German Empire remained hereditary in the Saxon dynasty for
over a hundred years, and it is with this period that the Germans
associate the first development of their national life on national

At this time the kingdoms founded in other parts of Europe by peoples of
the German race were much enfeebled. During the 9th and 10th centuries the
Frankish princes were wanting in that unity of purpose which alone could
prevent the appropriation of fruitful tracts of their territory by the
vikings. In England a period of returning difficulties had followed the
reign of King Aelfraed, so brilliant in many ways. The personal valour of
his children, the intrepid Lady Aethelflaed († 918) and King Eadward (†
925) her brother, had not stayed the social changes which prepared the way
for the rule of the Dane. It is in Saxony only that we find the
concentration and consolidation of power which make the advance and
attitude of a nation conspicuous in history. The sword was here wielded to
good purpose and likewise the pen. The bishoprics of Hildesheim,
Halberstadt, and Magdeburg had become centres of artistic activity, and
the monastery of Corvei rivalled the time-honoured settlements of St
Gallen and Fulda in intellectual importance. The Saxon historian Widukind
(† after 973) was at work in Corvei in the 10th century; this author is
for Saxon history what Gregory is for Frankish and Bede for Anglo-Saxon
history. Monasteries for women, especially those of Herford, Gandersheim,
and Quedlinburg, had rapidly developed and exerted a social and
intellectual influence such as has rarely fallen to the lot of women’s
religious settlements in the course of history.

The first religious house for women of which we have definite information
is Herford, which was situated close to Corvei in Westphalia and had
originally been founded as a dependency of it. Two small settlements for
women existed at an early period in Eastphalia, but our knowledge of them
is slight. The story is told that the heathen Saxon Hessi, having been
defeated by Karl the Great in 775, went to live in the monastery of Fulda,
and left his daughter Gisela in possession of his property, which she
devoted to founding two little monasteries (monasteriola) for her
daughters. This information is preserved in an account of Liutberg, a
Saxon girl of noble parentage who was brought up in one of these little
monasteries, but afterwards left it, as she preferred to dwell as a
recluse in a neighbouring cell. Here she was visited by Theotgrim, bishop
of Halberstadt († 840), and by the writer to whom we owe our account of
her[441]. Wendhausen, one of the little monasteries spoken of in this
account, was in existence a century later, for an attempt was then made to
transfer its inmates to Quedlinburg. The fame of Liutberg’s virtues was
great during her lifetime but apparently did not secure her recognition as
a saint. The cell in which she had lived was afterwards granted to
Quedlinburg by charter (958).

We have abundant information about Herford, the dependency of Corvei. In
838 a certain Tetta was abbess, who came from Soissons and regulated the
settlement at Herford on the plan of the house she had left[442]. The
Saxon element asserted itself here also. In 854 the abbess was Addila, who
was of Saxon parentage and probably the widow of a Saxon nobleman. Again
in 858 we hear of another abbess, Hadewy, probably the niece of Warin, who
was abbot of Corvei and a relation of Duke Liudolf. During her rule the
relics of the woman-saint Pusinna were sent to Herford by the Saxon
nobleman Kobbo as a gift to his sister the abbess Hadewy. The Saxons had
no traditions or relics of early Christians who had lived among them, and
so they were obliged to import relics to form a centre for their worship.
King and bishop alike set an extraordinary value on relics and paid
exorbitant prices for them. So great an importance was attached to the
arrival of the relics of Pusinna at Herford that a contemporary monk wrote
a detailed account of the event[443]. But it is characteristic of the
author’s disposition that he tells us nothing of the life and the works
of Pusinna, who but for this account is unknown to history.

A side-light is thrown on the material prosperity and the national
sympathies of the settlements of Corvei and Herford in 889. Egilmar,
bishop of Osnabrück (885-906), lodged a complaint with the Pope,
contending that these settlements, besides appropriating other rights,
drew so many tithes from his diocese that his income was reduced to a
quarter of what it should be. But Egilmar got scant reward for his pains,
no doubt because those in authority at Corvei and Herford were family
connections of Duke Liudolf, whom it was felt dangerous to cross. For the
Saxon duke had gained in influence as the Franks relaxed their hold on
Saxon affairs, and while he nominally remained a dependent, pressure from
outside was not brought to bear on him. In refusing to interfere in
Egilmar’s behalf, which would have involved his coming into conflict with
Liudolf, the Pope was acting in accordance with the policy which the
Franks pursued in Saxon lands[444].

At an early date the abbey of Herford was renowned as an educational
centre, and it long maintained its reputation. Hathumod, a daughter of
Duke Liudolf, was educated there previous to becoming abbess at
Gandersheim, as we shall see later on. A hundred years later Queen
Mathilde († 968) of the race of the warrior Widukind, and wife of Heinrich
the Fowler, was brought up at Herford, her grandmother being abbess at the

The foundation of Gandersheim in Eastphalia followed upon that of Herford.
Gandersheim was founded by Duke Liudolf and remained the favourite
settlement of the women of his family; we shall return to it later on. Two
other important abbeys ruled by women in connection with royalty were
Essen and Quedlinburg. Essen was founded by Altfrid, bishop of Hildesheim
(847-874), a Saxon by birth[445], and Quedlinburg at the instigation of
Queen Mathilde, who as mentioned above had been educated at Herford. For
centuries the abbess of Quedlinburg remained a person of marked
importance, in her influence both on politics and on matters social and
literary. Essen and Quedlinburg afterwards became centres of art industry;
all these early monastic foundations maintained their importance down to
the time of the Reformation.

The favour found by these institutions is explained when we come to
consider the uncertainty of the times and the changeful political events
which accompanied the growth of Saxon independence. The age, judged by a
later standard, may well be called an age of violence. For the country was
in the hands of a number of overlords who were frequently at war together,
and who dwelt in isolated castles in a thickly wooded district in which
only a patch here and there had been brought under cultivation.

The monotony of life in the castles or burghs of this period can hardly be
exaggerated. Means of communication were few and occasions for it were
rare. When the master and his men were absent, engaged in some private
broil, or else summoned by the arrière-ban to attend the duke or the king,
weeks and months would go by without a reminder of the existence of the
world outside; weeks and months when the arrival of a traveller offered
the one welcome diversion. The young nobleman followed his father to camp
and to court, where he tasted of the experiences of life; the young
noblewoman stayed at home, cut off from intercourse with those of her age
and standing, and from every possibility of widening her mental horizon.

It is with the daughters of these families that the religious house first
found favour. Settlements such as Herford, Gandersheim, Essen, and
Quedlinburg offered the companionship of equals, and gave a domestic and
intellectual training which was the best of its kind. Later ages were wont
to look upon the standard of education attained at Gandersheim and
Quedlinburg as exemplary. The word college (collegium), which early
writers often apply to these settlements in its modern sense of a learning
and a teaching body, aptly designates their character. For the religious
settlement was an endowed college where girls were received to be trained,
and where women who wished to devote themselves to learning and the arts
permanently resided.

The age at which girls were received in these settlements can be
determined by inference only; some were given into their care as children,
others joined them later in life. Probably here as elsewhere girls came at
about the age of seven, and remained till the age of fourteen, when they
left if marriage was to be their destiny. The responsibilities of married
and of unmarried life were undertaken at this period by persons of extreme
youth. Hathumod was made abbess of Gandersheim when she was between twelve
and thirteen years of age; and Mathilde, as abbess of Quedlinburg, at the
age of twelve received her dying grandmother’s injunctions together with
valuable documents[446], but in her case the chronicler notes that she had
developed early[447].

It remains an open question at what period in history the inmates of these
settlements took vows. Fritsch, who has written a detailed history of the
abbey of Quedlinburg, holds that its inmates never took a permanent vow,
since not a single case of the defection of a nun is on record[448], but
this view is disproved by accounts of consecrations during the early
period in other houses. Luther at the time of the Reformation noted that
the nuns of Quedlinburg were bound by no vow[449]. Probably the inmates
took vows at first, and the custom afterwards lapsed. Harenberg, to whom
we owe many learned dissertations on Gandersheim, says that the women
there lived at first according to the rule of St Benedict; but after the
12th century became Austin canonesses[450]. Engelhausen, a writer of the
15th century, speaking of the inmates of Saxon houses generally, says that
they lived as Austin canonesses[451]. Early writers in speaking of the
inmates of Saxon convents use the familiar terms nuns (sanctimoniales) and
virgins (virgines); the term canoness (canonissa), which designates a
woman who took residence without a permanent vow, came into general use
only at a later date[452]. It seems simplest therefore throughout to
retain the familiar term nun when speaking of the inmates of Saxon
settlements, though it must be understood with a reservation, for we are
not certain of the exact meaning of the word at different periods.

Engelhausen, the writer referred to above, adds that abbeys for women in
Saxony were founded ‘in order to help the noblemen who fought for the
faith of Christ and were killed by the heathens; so that their daughters
might not be reduced to begging (mendicare) but might live in these
monasteries (monasteria), and when they had attained a marriageable age,
might leave to be married.’

The range of subjects taught in the Saxon nunnery was wide. It included
the study of religious as well as of classical writers. Spinning, weaving,
and embroidery were also taught and practised. We shall see later on that
the nuns assembled at Quedlinburg wove large and elaborate hangings.
Reference is also made to the study of law, and it is said that Gerberg
II, abbess at Gandersheim († 1001), instructed her niece Sophie in convent
discipline and in common law. An early chronicle in the vernacular says
that the princess Sophie, a woman of determined character, so mastered
these subjects that she was able to enter into disputation with learned
men and successfully opposed them[453].

Where the inmate of a convent was consecrated to the office of nun, this
was done by the bishop of the diocese; but a curious story is told in
connection with the consecration of the above-named princess Sophie[454].
Sophie was the daughter of the emperor Otto II, and had been educated at
Gandersheim, but she refused to be consecrated by the bishop of
Hildesheim, who usually performed this office at the convent, and declared
that she must have the archbishop of Mainz, whose dignity was more in
keeping with her station. The compromise that both prelates should assist
at the consecration was at last agreed upon. But Sophie was not satisfied.
She left Gandersheim for the court of her brother, and only returned at
the death of the abbess, whom she succeeded. Endless quarrels occurred
during the term of her rule. On one occasion she allowed her nieces,
Sophie and Ida, who were consecrated nuns, to depart on a visit to her
friend the archbishop of Mainz, but when they sent word from Mainz that
they did not intend to return to Gandersheim, she applied to her old enemy
the bishop of Hildesheim, and forced him to interfere with the archbishop
and bring back her nuns. They returned, but only for a time, for they were
appointed abbesses at other convents.

It is interesting to note how large a number of princesses of the ruling
dynasty were unmarried, and remained in convents. Five daughters of Duke
Liudolf spent their lives at Gandersheim, of whom only one as far as we
know had been betrothed. At a later period Mathilde, the only daughter of
Otto I, was from her cradle upwards appointed to become abbess of
Quedlinburg; and her cousin Gerberg, daughter of Heinrich, duke of the
Bavarians († 955), was abbess of Gandersheim. In the next generation
Mathilde, daughter of Prince Liudolf († 957), was abbess at Essen (†
1011), and her two cousins, Adelheid and Sophie, the daughters of Otto
II, embraced the religious profession at the wish, it is said, of their
mother. Adelheid was abbess at Quedlinburg (999-1040), and Sophie, the
princess alluded to above, was abbess at Gandersheim (1001-1039). When
Sophie died her sister Adelheid planned to unite in herself the rule of
both houses, but death put a stop to her ambition[455]. The princess
Mathilde, another daughter of Otto II, had married Ezo, son of the
Palgrave of Lothringen, to whom she bore seven daughters; six of these
embraced convent life and in course of time attained to the rank of

These details are not without significance. They suggest that it was
probably for the interest of the royal family that its princesses should
remain in the convent in preference to contracting matrimonial alliances
which might involve their relatives in political difficulties. On the
other hand they suggest that life in these settlements must have been
congenial in more ways than one.

As abbess of one of the royal houses the princess certainly held a place
of authority second to that of no woman in the land. To gather together a
few items of this power: she held the abbey of the king and from the king,
which precluded a dependent relation on lords spiritual or temporal, and
made her abbey what is termed a free abbey (_freies reichstift_). Her
rights of overlordship sometimes extended over many miles, and the
property of Gandersheim is described as enormous[457].

As holding the place of a feudal lord the abbess had the right of ban; she
issued the summons when war had been declared and sent her contingent of
armed knights into the field; and she also issued the summons to attend in
her courts, where judgment was given by her proctor (_vogt_). In short she
had the duties and privileges of a baron who held his property of the
king, and as such she was summoned to the Imperial Diet (_reichstag_). She
may have attended in person during early times, the fact appears
doubtful; but in the 16th century she was only represented there[458].

Similar rights and privileges devolved on those abbesses in England who
were baronesses in title of the land they held. But these abbesses never
secured some of the rights enjoyed by their sisters in Saxony, for example
the right of striking coin which the abbess of Quedlinburg secured under
Otto I[459]. Coins also are extant which were struck by abbesses of
Gandersheim, whose portraits they bear[460].

In addition to these advantages of position, the abbesses of the chief
Saxon houses in the 10th and 11th centuries were in direct contact with
the court and with politics. During the minority of Otto III, who was
three years old when his father died in Italy (983), his mother Adelheid
together with his aunt Mathilde, abbess of Quedlinburg, practically ruled
the empire. Later when this emperor went to Italy for a prolonged stay in
997 the management of affairs was given to the abbess Mathilde, who is
praised for the determined measures she took to oppose the invading Wends.
In 999 she summoned a diet at Dornberg on her own authority[461].

The so-called free abbeys were under the obligation of entertaining the
king and his retinue in return for privileges granted to them, and as the
king had no fixed place of residence he stayed at his various palaces
(palatia) in turn, and usually spent holiday time at one of the religious
centres. Frequent royal visits to Quedlinburg are on record; the court was
also entertained at Gandersheim. These visits brought a store of political
information to the abbess of which she made use in her own way. Thus
Mathilde, abbess of Quedlinburg, is thought to have supplied the annalist
of Quedlinburg with the information which gives his chronicle its special
value, and she was so far interested in the history of her own time that
Widukind forwarded his history of the Saxons to her book by book for
approval[462]. The abbess Gerberg of Gandersheim was similarly in contact
with politics. As we shall see she supplied the nun Hrotsvith with the
materials for writing the history of Otto the Great.

§ 2. Early History of Gandersheim[463].

From these general remarks we turn to the foundation and early history of
Gandersheim, one of the earliest and wealthiest of Saxon houses, which
claims our attention as the home of the nun Hrotsvith. It was situated on
low-lying ground near the river Ganda in Eastphalia and was surrounded by
the wooded heights of the Harz mountains. It owed its foundation to
Liudolf himself, the great Saxon duke and the progenitor of the royal
house of Saxony. At the close of a successful political career, Liudolf
was persuaded by his wife Oda to devote some of his wealth and his
influence to founding a settlement for women in Eastphalia, where his
property chiefly lay.

Oda was partly of Frankish origin, which may account for her seeking the
aggrandisement of her family in a religious foundation at a time when
there were very few in Saxon lands. It is noteworthy that this foundation
was to be for women and that all the daughters of Liudolf and Oda went to
live there. Information about the early history of Gandersheim is
abundant. There are extant a life of Hathumod, its first abbess, which was
written by her friend the monk Agius († 874), and an elegy on her death in
which Agius tries to comfort her nuns for the loss they have sustained;
both these compositions are written in a very attractive style[464]. A
century later the nun Hrotsvith was busy at Gandersheim describing the
early history of the settlement in a poem in which she celebrates both it
and the family of its founder[465]. In many ways this is the most
beautiful and finished of the nun’s compositions; a work which reflects
credit alike on her powers as a poetess, and on the settlement with which
her name and fame are indissolubly linked.

From these accounts we gather that Oda’s mother, Ada, had already had a
vision of the future greatness of her family. Hrotsvith tells how St John
the Baptist appeared to her clad in a garment made of camel’s hair of
bright yellow, his lovely face of shining whiteness, with a small beard
and black hair. In giving these details of the saint’s appearance the nun
was doubtless describing a picture she had before her at Gandersheim.

It was in 852 that a plan was formed for transferring a small congregation
of women, who had been living at Brunshausen, to some property on the
river Ganda. A suitable site had to be sought and a fitting centre of
worship provided. Liudolf and Oda undertook a journey to Rome and
submitted their scheme to Pope Sergius II (844-847), begging him for a
gift of relics. They received from him the bodies of the saints Anastasius
and Innocentius, which they carried back with them to Saxony.

On the night before All Saints’ Day a swineherd in Liudolf’s employ had a
vision of lights falling from heaven and hanging in the air, which was
interpreted as a heavenly indication of the site of the settlement. A
clearance was accordingly made in the densely wooded district and a chapel
was built.

It was at this time that Hathumod, the eldest daughter of Liudolf, was
living in Herford. From childhood her bent had been serious, and her
friend Agius tells us that ‘of her own free will she desired to be
admitted to serious studies to which others are driven even by
force[466].’ She left her father’s residence for Herford, where she was so
happy that in after years she often longed to be back there. In 852 at the
age of twelve she was taken away to Gandersheim to preside over the new
settlement. This settlement was to be an improvement on existing
institutions of the kind, for Agius tells us that its members were not
allowed to have separate cells or to keep servants. They slept in
tenements (villula) in the neighbourhood till their ‘spiritual mother’ was
able to provide them with a suitable dwelling. Curious side-lights are
thrown on other religious institutions by the following remarks of Agius
on the nuns of Hathumod’s convent: ‘They shared everything,’ he says[467];
‘their clothes were alike, neither too rich nor too poor, nor entirely of
wool. The sisters were not allowed to dine out with relatives and friends,
or to converse with them without leave. They were not allowed like other
nuns (sanctimoniales) to leave the monastery to stay with relatives or
visit dependent estates (possessiones subjectae). And they were forbidden
to eat except at the common table at the appointed times except in cases
of sickness. At the same hour and in the same place they partook of the
same kind of food. They slept together and came together to celebrate the
canonical hours (ad canonicos cursus orandi). And they set to work
together whenever work had to be done.’

Agius draws a beautiful picture of the gentleness and dignified bearing of
Hathumod, who was at once strong and sensitive. She was always greatly
cheered by signs of goodness in others, and she was as much grieved by an
offence of a member of the community as if she had committed it herself.
Agius tells us that she was slow in making friends but that she clung
faithfully through life to those she had made.

Her literary acquirements were considerable. ‘No one could have shown
greater quickness of perception, or a stronger power of understanding in
listening to or in expounding the scriptures,’ he says[468], and the
scriptures always remained her favourite reading.

It is difficult to form an idea of the standard of life in these religious
settlements. The age was rough and barbarous in many ways, but the
surroundings of the Saxon dukes did not lack a certain splendour, and
traces of it would no doubt be found in the homes they made for their
daughters. In these early accounts nothing transpires about their
possessions in books and furniture, but it is incidentally mentioned that
the abbess Hathumod owned a crystal vessel in the form of a dove, which
contained relics and hung suspended by her bedside[469].

The plan was formed to build a stone church for Gandersheim, an unusual
and difficult undertaking. No suitable stone, however, could be found till
one day, as Hathumod was praying in the chapel, she was divinely moved to
walk forth and follow a dove which was awaiting her outside. The bird led
the way to a spot where the underwood was removed and masses of stone
which could be successfully dealt with were laid bare. ‘It is the spot
barren through its huge masses of stone, as we know it now-a-days,’
Hrotsvith the nun wrote a hundred years later[470].

The densely-wooded character of the neighbourhood is frequently referred
to by early and later writers. Lingering superstitions peopled the forest
with heathen fantasies, with ‘fauns and spirits,’ as Hrotsvith designates
them. The settlement lay in the midst of the forest and was at all times
difficult of access, but especially so in winter when the ground was
covered with snow. In the introduction to her history of Otto the Great
Hrotsvith likens her perplexity and fear in entering on so vast a subject
to the state of mind of one who has to cross the forest in mid winter, a
simile doubtless suggested by the surroundings of the convent[471]. Her
feelings, she says, were those of ‘someone who is ignorant of the vast
expanse of the forest which lies before him, all the paths of which are
hidden by a thick covering of snow; he is guided by no one and keeps true
to his direction only by noticing the marks pointed out to him; sometimes
he goes astray, unexpectedly he again strikes the right path, and having
penetrated half way through the dense interlacing trees and brushwood he
longs for rest and stops and would proceed no farther, were he not
overtaken by some one, or unexpectedly guided by the footprints of those
who have gone before.’

Neither Liudolf the founder of Gandersheim nor his daughter Hathumod lived
to see the stone church completed. He died in 866, and the abbess in 874
at the age of thirty-two. She was surrounded by her nuns, among whom were
several of her sisters, and her mother Oda, who had also come to live at
Gandersheim. The monk Agius, who was a frequent visitor at the home, was
often with her during her last illness, and after her death he composed an
elegy in dialogue to comfort the nuns under the loss they had sustained.
This poem is full of sweetness and delicacy of feeling, and is said to
have been written on the model of the eclogues of Virgil. Alternate verses
are put into the mouths of the nuns and of Agius; they describe their
sorrow, and he dwells on the thoughts which might be a consolation to
them. It opens in this strain:

‘Sad were the words we exchanged, I and those holy and worthy sisters who
watched the dying moments of the sainted abbess Hathumod. I had been asked
to address them, but somehow their recent grief made it impossible for
them to listen to me, for they were bowed down by sorrow. The thoughts
which I then expressed I have now put into verse and have added somewhat
to them. For they (the sisters) asked me to address them in writing, since
it would comfort them to have before their eyes, and to dwell upon, the
words which I then spoke in sadness. Yielding to their wish and
entreaties, I have attempted to express the thoughts which follow. Thou, O
reader, understand that I am conversing with them, and follow us if thou
wilt in our lament.’

He then directly addresses the nuns and continues: ‘Certainly we should
weep for one who died before her time in the bloom of youth. Yet grief
also has its limits; your sorrowful weeping should be within bounds. ’Tis
natural you should be unhappy, still reason commands moderation in all
things, and I therefore entreat you, O beloved and holy sisters, to stay
your weeping and your tears. Spare your energies, spare your eyesight
which you are wearing out by excess of grief. “Moderation in all things”
has been said wisely and has been said well, and God Himself commands that
it should be so.’ The nuns make reply in the following words: ‘What you
put before us is certainly true. We know full well that God forbids
excess, but our grief seems not excessive, for it falls so far short of
what her merit claims. We can never put into words the wealth of goodness
which we have lost in her. She was as a sister to us, as a mother, as a
teacher, this our abbess under whose guidance we lived. We who were her
handmaids and so far beneath her shared her life as her equals; for one
will guided us, our wishes were the same, our pursuits alike. Shall we not
grieve and weep and lament from our hearts for her who made our joy and
was our glory, and in whom we have lost our happiness? There can be no
excess of tears, of weeping and of grief, for in them only we find solace
now that we shall never more behold her sweet face.’ Agius replies: ‘I
doubt not that your grief is well founded, or that your tears rightly
flow. But weeping will not undo you altogether, for the body has powers of
endurance; you must bear this great anguish, for it has come to you
through the will of God. Believe me, you are not alone in this grief, I
too am oppressed by it, I too am suffering, and I cannot sufficiently
express to you how much I also have lost in her. You know full well how
great was her love for me, and how she cherished me while she lived. You
know how anxious she was to see me when she fell ill, with what gladness
she received me, and how she spoke to me on her deathbed. The words she
spoke at the last were truly elevating, and ever and anon she uttered my
name.’ Agius tries to comfort himself with dwelling on Hathumod’s
gentleness and sweetness, and urges the nuns as they loved their abbess in
the flesh now to continue loving her in the spirit. This alone, he says,
will help the work to grow and increase which she began and loved. ‘To
dwell on grief,’ he says, ‘brings weeping and weakness; to dwell on love
cheers and brings strength. The spirit of your abbess is still among you,
it was that which you most loved in her, and it is that which you have not

There is a curiously modern ring in much that the monk urges. His poem
sets forth how the nuns at last took heart, and requested Agius to visit
them again and help them with his advice, which he promised to do.

On her deathbed Hathumod in talking to Agius compared her monastery to a
plant of delicate growth and deplored that no royal charter sanctioning
its privileges had as yet been obtained[472]. This charter and further
privileges were secured to the settlement during the abbacy of Gerberg I
(874-897), sister and successor of Hathumod, a woman of determined
character and full of enthusiasm for the settlement. She was betrothed at
one time to a certain Bernhard, against whose will she came to live at
Gandersheim, and refused to leave it. He had been summoned to war, and
departed declaring that she should not remain in the convent after his
return. But opportunely for her wishes he was killed and she remained at
Gandersheim. She ruled as abbess more than twenty years and advanced the
interests of the settlement in many ways. The stone church which had been
begun during Hathumod’s rule was completed during that of Gerberg and was
consecrated in 881, on All Saints’ Day. The bishop of Hildesheim
officiated at the ceremony of consecration, many visitors came to assist,
and the assembled nuns for the first time took part in the singing of
divine service.

The abbess Gerberg was succeeded by her sister Christine, who ruled from
897 to 919. Köpke, one of the chief modern historians of this period,
considers that these three sisters, Hathumod, Gerberg and Christine,
abbesses of Gandersheim, were among the most zealous advocates of culture
and civilizing influences in Saxony during the 9th century[473]. The
settlement became a centre of interest to the whole ducal family. After
the death of Liudolf his widow Oda, who is said to have attained the age
of one hundred and seven years, dwelt there altogether. She outlived her
son, Duke Otto, who died in 912 and was buried at Gandersheim, and it is
said that she lived to hear of the birth of her great-grandson Otto (913),
who was destined to become king and emperor.

After the death of the abbess Christine the settlement of Gandersheim
drifts for a time into the background; Quedlinburg, founded by Heinrich I
at the instigation of his wife Mathilde, takes its place in ducal and
royal favour. Scant notices are preserved of the abbesses who ruled
during the first half of the 10th century. We hear of the abbess Hrotsvith
(† 927) that she was distinguished like her namesake of later date for
literary acquirements[474], and that she wrote treatises on logic and
rhetoric which are lost. And ‘what is more,’ says an early writer[475],
‘she forced the devil to return a bond signed with blood by which a youth
had pledged away his soul.’

Her writings may have perished in the fire which ravaged the settlement
without permanently interfering with its prosperity during the rule of
Gerberg II (959-1001). Contemporary writers concur in praise of the
learning, the powers of management and the educational influence of this
princess, who was the daughter of Heinrich, duke of the Bavarians († 955).
Heinrich for many years was the enemy and rival of his brother Otto I; and
the final reconciliation and lasting friendship between these princes
formed an important episode in the history of the time. We do not know
what prompted Gerberg to embrace convent life; perhaps she became a nun at
the wish of her father. She was appointed abbess at the age of nineteen
when her father was dead and her mother Judith was ruling in Bavaria in
the interests of her young son. Gerberg ruled at Gandersheim for forty-two
years; she has a special claim on our interest because she was the friend,
teacher, and patron of the nun Hrotsvith.

§ 3. The Nun Hrotsvith and her Writings[476].

The nun Hrotsvith occupies a unique position in monastic life and among
unmarried women generally. ‘This fruitful poetic talent,’ says the writer
Ebert, ‘which lacks not the inspiration and the courage of genius to enter
upon new ground, evinces how the Saxon element was chosen to guide the
German nation in the domain of art.’ The literary work of Hrotsvith can be
grouped under three headings. To the first belongs the writing of metrical
legends which were intended for the perusal and the edification of inmates
of convents; to the second, the composition of seven dramas written in the
style of Terence; and to the third, the writing of contemporary history
in metrical form. Each kind of work has merits of its own and deserves
attention. But while Hrotsvith as a legend writer ranks with other writers
of the age, and as a historical writer is classed by the modern historian
Giesebrecht with Widukind and Ruotger, as a writer of Latin drama she
stands entirely alone. We have no other dramatic compositions except hers
between the comedies of classic times and the miracle plays, which at
first consisted only of a few scenes with bald dialogue.

It can be gathered from Hrotsvith’s writings that she was born about the
year 932; and the fact of her entering a nunnery is proof of her gentle
birth. It is uncertain when she came to Gandersheim, probably at a very
early age. She owed her education there partly to Rikkardis, to whom she
refers in her writings, but chiefly to the abbess Gerberg, who, she says,
was somewhat younger than herself.

Judging from Hrotsvith’s writings she worked diligently and soon attracted
attention beyond the limits of her convent. The following facts in regard
to time are of importance. The first of her two sets of legends was put
together and dedicated to Gerberg as abbess, that is after the year 959;
she wrote and submitted part if not the whole of her history of Otto the
Great to Wilhelm, archbishop of Mainz, before the year 968, in which the
prelate died. How the composition of her dramas is related in point of
time to that of the legends and the historical poems cannot be definitely
decided; probably the dramas were written in the middle period of
Hrotsvith’s life. For the legends bear marks of being the outcome of early
effort, while the historical poems, especially the one which tells of the
early history of Gandersheim, were written in the full consciousness of
power. We do not know the date of Hrotsvith’s death; an early chronicle
says that she wrote a history of the three Emperors Otto, in which case
she must have lived till 1002, that being the year of Otto III’s death.
But the annalist to whom we owe this remark may have been misinformed;
only a part of the history of the first emperor is extant, and we cannot
argue from any references in her other works that she wrote a continuation
of it[477]. The nun and her writings soon ceased to attract attention, and
there are few references to her in any writings for nearly five hundred
years. At the beginning of the 16th century, however, the humanist Conrad
Celtes came across a copy of her dramas, which seemed to him so remarkable
that he had them printed. And since then they have repeatedly been
published, and excellent translations have been made of them into German
and French[478].

In the introduction to her plays Hrotsvith appeals to the judgment of
powerful patrons, but she does not give their names; in her history, as
mentioned above, she asks for criticism from Wilhelm, archbishop of Mainz,
who was the illegitimate son of Otto I, and a leading prelate of the time.
This exhausts what we know of friends outside the convent; probably the
abbess Gerberg was the chief critic throughout and had more influence on
her than any other. It was she who introduced Hrotsvith to the works,
classical and other, which she had herself studied under learned men, and
she was always ready to encourage her able pupil and supply her with
materials to work upon.

The library at Gandersheim, to which Hrotsvith had access, contained the
writings of a number of classical and theological authors. Among the
classical writers with whom the nun is thought to have been directly
acquainted were Virgil, Lucan, Horace, Ovid, Terence, and perhaps Plautus;
among the Christian writers Prudentius, Sedulius, Fortunatus, Marianus
Capella, and Boethius[479]. Ebert, who has analysed the sources from which
Hrotsvith drew the subject matter of her legends and dramas, considers
that at this time Greek authors were read at Gandersheim in Latin
translations only. Another writer, arguing from the fact that the nun
frequently uses words of Greek origin, considers that she had some
knowledge of Greek[480]. This latter opinion has little in its favour.
However we know that Greek teachers were summoned from Constantinople to
instruct Hedwig, Gerberg’s sister, who was to have married the Emperor
Constantine. The match fell through, but the Saxon royal family aimed
steadily at securing an alliance with the court of Constantinople, and
ultimately attained this object by the marriage of Otto II to the Greek
princess Theofanu (971).

After Hrotsvith had mastered the contents of the library at Gandersheim
she was moved to try her hand at writing Latin verse; she cast into
metrical form the account of the birth and life of the Virgin Mary
contained in a gospel which in some manuscripts is ascribed to St James,
the brother of Christ[481]. The story is well told, and the incidents
described follow each other naturally; the poem exceeds nine hundred lines
in length. She supplements the original text with some amplifications of a
descriptive nature and a panegyric on Christ, with which she closes the

The diffidence Hrotsvith felt at first in writing is described in the
introduction which she prefixed to the complete collection of her
legendary poems and addressed to a wider public[482].

‘Unknown to others and secretly, so to speak, I worked by myself’; she
says, ‘sometimes I composed, sometimes I destroyed what I had written to
the best of my abilities and yet badly; I dealt with material taken from
writings with which I became acquainted within the precincts of our
monastery of Gandersheim through the help of our learned and kindly
teacher Rikkardis, afterwards through that of others who taught in her
place, and finally through that of the high-born abbess Gerberg, under
whom I am living at present, who is younger than I am in years but more
advanced in learning as befits one of royal lineage, and who has
introduced me to various authors whom she has herself studied with the
help of learned men. Writing verse appears a difficult and arduous task
especially for one of my sex, but trusting to the help of divine grace
more than to my own powers, I have fitted the stories of this book to
dactylic measures as best I could, for fear that the abilities that have
been implanted in me should be dulled and wasted by neglect; for I prefer
that these abilities should in some way ring the divine praises in support
of devotion; the result may not be in proportion to the trouble taken and
yet it may be to the profit of some.’

The nun is filled with the consciousness that her undertaking is no mean
one. ‘Full well I know,’ she says, addressing the Virgin, ‘that the task
of proclaiming thy merits exceeds my feeble strength, for the whole world
could not celebrate worthily that which is a theme of praise among the
angels.’ The poem on the life of the Virgin is written in leonine
hexameters, that is with rhymes at the middle and the end of the line.
This form of verse was sometimes used at that period, and Hrotsvith
especially in her later historical poems handled it with considerable

Hrotsvith afterwards added to the account of the Virgin a poem of a
hundred and fifty lines on the Ascension of Christ[483]. In this, as she
tells us, she adapted an account written by John the Bishop, which had
been translated from Greek into Latin.

This poem also is simple and dignified, and gives proof of considerable
power of expression on the part of the nun. Her vocabulary however has
certain peculiarities, for she is fond of diminutives, a tendency which in
the eyes of her editor is peculiarly feminine[484].

The poem on the Ascension closes with the following characteristic lines:
‘Whoever reads this let him exclaim in a forbearing spirit: Holy King,
spare and have mercy on the suppliant Hrotsvith and suffer that she who
here has been celebrating thy glorious deeds may persevere further in holy
song on things divine!’

The next subject which engrossed the nun’s attention was the history of
Gongolf[485], a huntsman and warrior of Burgundy, who lived in the time of
King Pipin. He was credited with performing wonders such as calling up a
fountain; he was a pious Christian and was put to a cruel death by his
faithless wife and her lover. This poem is over five hundred lines in
length and contains some fine descriptive passages. The version of the
story Hrotsvith made use of being lost, we cannot tell how far she drew
upon her own powers of narrative[486].

But the next legend she wrote left full scope for originality of
treatment. It describes the experiences and martyrdom of Pelagius, a youth
who had been recently (925) put to death by the Saracens at Cordova in
Spain; the event, as she herself informs us, had been described to
Hrotsvith by an eye-witness. The story opens with an enthusiastic
description of the beauties of Cordova. Pelagius, the son of a king of
Galicia, persuaded his father to leave him as hostage with the Caliph. But
the Caliph, enamoured by the youth’s physical beauty, persecuted him with
attentions, and meeting with contempt ordered him to be cast down from the
city walls. The young man remained unharmed, and was then beheaded and his
head and body thrown into the river. Fishermen picked them up and carried
them to a monastery, where their identity was ascertained by casting the
head in the fire, which left it untouched. The head and body were then
given solemn burial.

The next legend has repeatedly been commented on as the earliest account
in verse of a pact with the devil and as a precursor of the many versions
of the legend of Faust[488]. The ‘Lapse and conversion of Theophilus[489]’
may have had special attractions for Hrotsvith since the incident of the
devil forced to return his bond was connected, as mentioned above, with
her namesake Hrotsvith, abbess of Gandersheim. The story of Theophilus
which Hrotsvith expanded and put into verse had recently been translated
from Greek into Latin, as Ebert has shown. The story runs as follows.

Theophilus, nephew of a bishop of Cilesia (of uncertain date), had been
educated in the seven liberal arts, but he held himself unworthy of
succeeding his uncle, and considered the office of ‘vice-domus’ more
suited to his powers. His popularity however drew on him the hatred of the
newly appointed bishop, who robbed him of his post. Thirsting for revenge
the young man went for advice to a certain Hebrew, ‘who by magic art
turned away many of the faithful,’ and who led him at night through the
town to a dark place ‘full of phantasms that stood in white clothes
holding torches in their hands’ (line 99). Their demon king was at first
indignant that a Christian claimed his assistance and jeered at the
Christians’ ways, but at last he promised to help Theophilus on condition
that he should sign an agreement by which he pledged himself to be one of
the ghastly crew to all eternity. The young man agreed to the condition,
and on his return home was favourably received by the bishop and
reinstated in his dignity. But his peace of mind had deserted him; again
and again he was seized by qualms of conscience and affrighted by
agonising visions of eternal suffering which he forcibly describes in a
monologue. At last he sought to escape from his contract by praying to the
Virgin Queen of heaven in her temple, and for forty days consecutively
prayed to her to intercede in his favour with God. The Virgin at last
appeared to him, told him that he was free and handed him the fatal
document. On a festal day he confessed his wrong-doing before all the
people and burnt the parchment in their presence. In the very act of doing
so he appeared as a changed man before their eyes and was instantly
overtaken by death.

To this legend Hrotsvith attached a little prayer of eight lines which is
a grace for use at meals. This prayer is in no way connected with the
legend, and its presence here indicates that the legends were originally
intended to be read aloud during meals in the refectory, and the reading
to be closed with a prayer.

Having written so far Hrotsvith collected her legendary poems together
with the poem on the Virgin and dedicated them in the form of a little
book to her teacher, the abbess Gerberg. Evidently the stories attracted
attention beyond the limits of the convent, and Hrotsvith was encouraged
to continue in the path she had chosen. Accordingly she wrote a second set
of legends, in composing which she was mindful of a wider public and that
not exclusively of her own sex. For in the opening lines of the first of
these legends which treats of the conversion of Proterius by Basilius,
bishop of Caesarea, she begs that those who peruse this story ‘will not on
account of her sex despise the woman who draws these strains from a
fragile reed[490].’

The story of this conversion, like that of Theophilus, treats of a pact
with the evil one, but with a difference. For in the one story the man
signs away his soul to regain his position, in the other he subscribes the
fatal bond for the purpose of securing the hand of the bishop’s daughter.
The bishop however intercedes with God in his behalf and regains his
liberty for him. The poem is neither so complete nor so striking as that
of Theophilus.

Two more legends are grouped with it. One of them describes the Passion of
Dionysius[491], who suffered martyrdom at Paris, and who at an early date
was held identical with Dionysius the Areopagite. The hand of this saint
had been given as a relic to King Heinrich the Fowler, and had been
deposited by him at Quedlinburg--an incident which made the saint’s name
familiar in Saxon lands.

The passion of Dionysius is described according to a prose account written
by Hilduin († 814), but Hrotsvith abbreviated and altered it[492]. She
describes how Dionysius witnessed an eclipse of the sun at Memphis at the
time when Christ was put to death, how he returned to Athens and there
waited to hear something of the new god. The apostle Paul arrived and
preached, and Dionysius followed him to Rome. From Rome he was despatched
into Gaul to preach the new faith, and while there he was first cast into
the flames which did not burn him, and then thrown before wild beasts
which refused to touch him. He was finally beheaded during the
persecutions under Diocletian. In this poem there is an especially fine
passage in which we hear how Dionysius after being beheaded rose to life
and took up his head, which he carried away down the hill to the spot
where he wished to be buried,--a story similar to that told of many

The last legend which Hrotsvith wrote treats of the Passion of St Agnes, a
virgin saint of Rome, whose fortitude in tribulation and stedfast
adherence to Christianity and to the vow she had taken made her story
especially suitable for a convent of nuns[493]. The story has often been
put into writing from the 4th century downwards; Hrotsvith took her
account from that ascribed to Ambrosius († 397), which she followed
closely. She prefaces it with an address to maidens vowed to God, who are
exhorted to remain steadfast in their purpose. Like most of these
legendary tales it is between four and five hundred lines in length.

Throughout her legends Hrotsvith, as she herself says in a few remarks
which stand at the conclusion of the legends, was bent on keeping close to
the original accounts from which she worked. ‘I have taken the material
for this book, like that for the one preceding it, from ancient books
compiled by authentic authors (certis nominibus), the story of Pelagius
alone is excepted.... If mistakes have crept into my accounts, it is not
because I have intentionally erred but because I have unwittingly copied
mistakes made by others[494].’

Ebert, commenting on the spirit of the legends generally, remarks on the
masterly way in which the nun has dealt with her material, on her skill in
supplying gaps left by earlier writers, on her deft handling of rhyme and
rhythm, on the right feeling which guides her throughout her work, and on
the completeness of each of her legends as a whole[495].

The lines in which the second set of legends are dedicated to Gerberg bear
witness to the pleasure Hrotsvith derived from her work. ‘To thee, lady
Gerberg,’ she says, ‘I dedicate these stories, adding new to earlier ones,
as a sinner who deserves benevolent indulgence. Rejoicing I sing to the
accompaniment with dactylic measures; do not despise them because they
are bad, but praise in your gentle heart the workings of God[496].’

Having so far worked along accepted lines and achieved success therein,
the nun of Gandersheim was moved to strike out a new path. Conscious of
her powers and conscious of a need of her time, filled with admiration for
the dramatic powers of classical writers while disapproving of their
tendencies, she set to work to compose a series of plays on the model of
Terence, in which she dramatised incidents and experiences calculated to
have an elevating influence on her fellow-nuns.

How she came to write plays at all and what determined her in the choice
of her subject, she has described in passages which are worth quoting in
full. They show that she was not wanting either in spirit or in
determination, and that her conviction that the classical form of drama
was without equal strengthened her in her resolve to make use of that form
as the vehicle for stories of an altogether different tenor. The interest
of the plays of Terence invariably turns on the seduction of women and
exposure of the frailty of the sex; the nun of Gandersheim determined to
set forth woman’s stedfast adherence to a vow once taken and her firm
resistance to temptation. Whatever may be thought of these compositions,
the merit of originality can hardly be denied to them. They were intended
for perusal only, but there is nothing in the dialogue or mechanism that
makes a dramatic representation of them impossible.

‘There are many Christians,’ says the nun[497], ‘from whom we cannot claim
to be excepted, who because of the charm of finished diction prefer
heathen literature with its hollowness to our religious books; there are
others who hold by the scripture and despise what is heathen, and yet
eagerly peruse the poetic creations of Terence; while delighting in his
flow of language, they are all polluted by the godless contents of his
works. Therefore I “the well known mouthpiece of Gandersheim” have not
hesitated in taking this poet’s style as a model, and while others honour
him by perusing his dramas, I have attempted, in the very way in which he
treats of unchaste love among evil women, to celebrate according to my
ability the praiseworthy chasteness of godlike maidens.

‘In doing so, I have often hesitated with a blush on my cheeks through
modesty, because the nature of the work obliged me to concentrate my
attention on and apply my mind to the wicked passion of illicit love and
to the tempting talk of the amorous, against which we at other times close
our ears. But if I had hesitated on account of my blushes I could not have
carried out my purpose, or have set forth the praise of innocence to the
fulness of my ability. For in proportion as the blandishments of lovers
are enticing, so much greater is the glory of our helper in heaven, so
much more glorious the triumph of those who prevail, especially where
woman’s weakness triumphs and man’s shameless strength is made to succumb.
Certainly some will allege that my language is much inferior, much poorer,
and very unlike that of him whom I try to imitate. It is so, I agree with
them. And yet I refuse to be reproached on this account as though I had
meant to class myself with those who in their knowledge are so far above
my insufficiency. I am not even so boastful as to class myself with the
least of their pupils; all I am bent on is, however insufficiently, to
turn the power of mind given to me to the use of Him who gave it. I am not
so far enamoured of myself that I should cease from fear of criticism to
proclaim the power of Christ which works in the saints in whatever way He
grants it. If anyone is pleased with my work I shall rejoice, but if on
account of my unpolished language it pleases no one, what I have done yet
remains a satisfaction to myself, for while in other writings I have
worked, however insufficiently, only in heroic strophe (heroico strophio),
here I have combined this with dramatic form, while avoiding the dangerous
allurements of the heathen.’

Those passages in which Hrotsvith speaks of her modest hesitation are
especially worthy of notice and will not fail to appeal to those women
now-a-days, who, hoping to gain a clearer insight into the difficulties
with which their sex has to contend, feel it needful to face facts from
which their sensibilities naturally shrink. They will appreciate the
conflicting feelings with which the nun of Gandersheim, well-nigh a
thousand years ago, entered upon her task, and admire the spirit in which
she met her difficulties and the courage with which she carried out her
purpose, in spite of her consciousness of shortcomings and derogatory

As she points out, the keynote of her dramas one and all is to insist on
the beauties of a steadfast adherence to chastity as opposed to the frenzy
and the vagaries of passion. In doing so she is giving expression to the
ideas of contemporary Christian teaching, which saw in passion, not the
inborn force that can be applied to good or evil purpose, not the storage
of strength which works for social advantage or disadvantage, but simply a
tendency in human nature which manifests itself in lack of self-restraint,
and the disturbing element which interferes with the attainment of
calmness and candour.

As Hudson, one of the few English writers who has treated of this nun and
her writings[498], remarks: ‘It is on the literary side alone that
Hrotsvitha belongs to the classic school. The spirit and essence of her
work belong entirely to the middle ages; for beneath the rigid garb of a
dead language beats the warm heart of a new era. Everything in her plays
that is not formal but essential, everything that is original and
individual, belongs wholly to the christianised Germany of the 10th
century. Everywhere we can trace the influence of the atmosphere in which
she lived; every thought and every motive is coloured by the spiritual
conditions of her time. The keynote of all her works is the conflict of
Christianity with paganism; and it is worthy of remark that in
Hrotsvitha’s hands Christianity is throughout represented by the purity
and gentleness of woman while paganism is embodied in what she describes
as ‘the vigour of men (virile robur).’

For the nun does not disparage marriage, far from it; nor does she
inculcate a doctrine of general celibacy. It is not a question with her of
giving up a lesser joy for a greater, but simply of the way to remain true
to the higher standard, which in accordance with the teaching of her age
she identified with a life of chastity. Her position may appear untenable;
confusion of thought is a reproach which a later age readily casts on an
earlier. But underneath what may seem unreasonable there is the aspiration
for self-control. It is this aspiration which gives a wide and an abiding
interest to her plays. For she is not hampered by narrowness of thought or
by pettiness of spirit. Her horizon is limited, we grant; but she fills it
entirely and she fills it well.

Passing from these generalities to the plays themselves, we find ourselves
in a variety of surroundings and in contact with a wide range of
personalities. The transition period from heathendom to Christianity
supplies in most cases the mental and moral conflicts round which centres
the interest of these plays.

The plays are six in number, and the one that stands first is divided into
two separate parts. Their character varies considerably. There is the
heroic, the romantic, the comic and the unrelieved tragic element, and
the two plays that stand last contain long disquisitions on scholastic
learning. A short analysis of their contents will give the reader an idea
of the manner in which Hrotsvith makes her conceptions and her purpose

‘Gallicanus,’ the play that stands first[499], is in some ways the most
striking of all. A complex theme is ably dealt with and the incidents
follow each other rapidly; the scene lies alternately in Rome and on the
battle-field. The Emperor Constantine is bent on opposing the incursions
of the Scythians, and his general Gallicanus claims the hand of the
emperor’s daughter Constantia as a reward for undertaking so dangerous an
expedition. Constantia is a convert to Christianity, Gallicanus is a
heathen. In an interview with her father the girl declares she will sooner
die than be united to a heathen, but with a mixture of shrewdness and
confidence in her faith she agrees to marry him on his return on condition
that the Christians John and Paul shall accompany him on his expedition,
and that his daughters shall meanwhile be given into her keeping. The
manner in which she receives the girls is at once proud and dignified.
‘Welcome my sisters, Attica and Artemia,’ she exclaims; ‘stand, do not
kneel, rather greet me with a kiss of affection.’ There is no development
of character in the course of the play, for Hrotsvith is chiefly bent on
depicting states of mind under given conditions. The characters in
themselves are forcibly drawn: witness the emperor’s affection for his
daughter, the general’s strength and determination, Constantia’s dignified
bearing and the gentleness of the Christian teachers. The sequel of events
bears out Constantia’s anticipations. The daughters of Gallicanus are
easily swayed in favour of Christianity and their father is converted. For
Gallicanus is hard pressed by the Scythians on the battle-field and
despairs of success, when the Christian teachers urge him to call upon
their God for help. He does so, overcomes the Scythians and takes their
leader Bradan prisoner. In recognition of his victory he is rewarded by a
triumphal entry into Rome. But he is now a convert to Christianity; he
describes to the emperor how Christ Himself and the heavenly host fought
on his side, and he approaches Constantia and his daughters and thus
addresses them: ‘I greet you, holy maidens; abide in the fear of God and
keep inviolate your virgin crown that the eternal King may receive you in
His embrace.’ Constantia replies: ‘We serve Him the more readily if thou
dost not oppose us.’ Gallicanus: ‘I would not discourage, prevent or
thwart your wishes, I respect them, so far that I would not now constrain
thee, beloved Constantia, whom I have secured at the risk of my life.’ But
he admits that his resolve costs him much, and he decides to seek solace
in solitude for his grief at having lost so great a prize.

The sequel to this play is short, and describes the martyrdom of the
Christian teachers, John and Paul, who had accompanied Gallicanus on his
expedition. Gallicanus is no more, the Emperor Constantius is dead, and
Julian the Apostate reigns in his stead and cruelly persecutes the
Christians. No woman appears in this part of the play. We first witness
the martyrdom of the Christians who are put to death by Terentian, one of
the emperor’s generals. Terentian’s son is then seized by a terrible
illness, and his unhappy father goes to the grave of the martyrs, where he
becomes a convert to Christianity and prays for their intercession with
God in behalf of his son. His prayer finds fulfilment and the boy is
restored to health. Hrotsvith took this story from the Acts and the
Passion of the saints John and Paul, but, as Ebert has shown, the
development is entirely her own[500]. Though working on the model of
Terence the nun is quite indifferent to unities of time and place, and
sacrifices everything to the exigencies of the plot, so that the
transition from scene to scene is often sudden and abrupt.

The next play is ‘Dulcetius, or the sufferings of the maidens Agape,
Chionia and Irene[501].’ It dramatises a story which was familiar in
western Europe from an early date; Ealdhelm mentions it in his poem on
Virginity. Its popularity is no doubt due to the juxtaposition of entirely
divergent elements, the pathos of martyrdom being in close company with
scenes of broad humour.

During the persecutions under Diocletian three youthful sisters are
brought before the emperor, who thus addresses the eldest:

‘_Diocletian._ The noble stock from which you spring and your extreme
beauty demand that you should be connected with our court through marriage
with high officials. This we incline to vouchsafe you if you agree to
disown Christ and offer sacrifice to our most ancient gods.

_Agape._ O spare yourself this trouble, do not think of giving us in
marriage. Nought can compel us to disown the name of Christ, or to debase
our purity of heart.

_Diocletian._ What is the object of this madness?

_Agape._ What sign of madness do you see in us?

_Diocletian._ A great and obvious one.

_Agape._ In what?

_Diocletian._ In this, that casting from yourselves the observance of the
ancient faith, you follow this new foolish Christian teaching.

_Agape._ Blasphemer, fear the power of God Almighty, threatening

_Diocletian._ To whom?

_Agape._ To you and to the realm you govern.

_Diocletian._ The girl is crazy, let her be removed.’

He then interviews the other two, but with similar results; threats are of
no avail and the girls are handed over to the general Dulcetius to be
summarily dealt with. Dulcetius, however, is so powerfully impressed by
their beauty, that he orders them to be placed in a chamber beyond the
kitchen, hoping to take advantage of their helplessness and induce them to
gratify his passion. He repairs at night to the chamber in spite of the
warning of his soldiers, when a spell falls on him, he misses the room,
and his reason so utterly forsakes him that he proceeds to fondle and
caress the pots and pans which he seizes upon in his excitement. The girls
are watching him from the next room through a chink in the wall and make
merry over his madness.

‘_Agape._ What is he about?

_Hirena._ Why, the fool is out of his mind, he fancies he has got hold of

_Agape._ What is he doing?

_Hirena._ Now he presses the kettle to his heart, now he clasps the pots
and pans and presses his lips to them.

_Chionia._ How ludicrous!

_Hirena._ His face, his hands, his clothes are all black and sooty; the
soot which clings to him makes him look like an Ethiopian.

_Agape._ Very fitting that he should be so in body, since the devil has
possession of his mind.

_Hirena._ Look, he is going. Let us wait to see what the soldiers who are
waiting outside will do when they see him.’

The soldiers fail to recognise their leader, they take to their heels.
Dulcetius repairs to the palace, where the gatekeeper scoffs at his
appearance and refuses him admittance, in spite of his insisting on his
identity and speaking of himself as dressed in splendid attire. At last
his wife who has heard of his madness comes forth to meet him. The spell
is broken and he discovers that he has been the laughing-stock of the
maidens. He then orders them to be exposed naked in the market-place as a
punishment. But a divine power causes their garments to cling to them,
while Dulcetius falls so fast asleep that it is impossible to rouse him.
The Emperor Diocletian therefore entrusts the accomplishment of the
maidens’ martyrdom to Sisinnius. Two of the girls are cast into the
flames, but their souls pass away to heaven while their bodies remain
without apparent hurt. The third sister is threatened with shameful
treatment, but before it is carried out she is miraculously borne away to
a hill-top. At first the soldiers attempt in vain to approach her, but at
last they succeed in killing her with arrows. The youthful, girlish traits
which appear in both the mirth and the sorrow of the three sisters are
well developed, and form a vivid contrast to the unrelieved brutality of
Dulcetius and Sisinnius.

Quite a different range of ideas is brought before the reader in the next
play, ‘Calimachus,’ which is Hrotsvith’s nearest approach to a love
tragedy[502]. She took its subject from an apocryphal account of the
apostles, but as Ebert remarks she handles her material with considerable
freedom[503]. The opening scene shows her power of immediately presenting
a situation. The scene is laid in the house of Andronicus, a wealthy
Ephesian. The youth Calimachus and his friends enter.

‘_Calimachus._ A few words with you, friends!

_Friends._ We will converse with thee as long as thou pleasest.

_Calimachus._ If you do not mind, we will converse apart.

_Friends._ Thou biddest, we comply.

_Calimachus._ Let us repair to a secluded spot, that we may not be
interrupted in our converse.’

They go and Calimachus explains how a heavy misfortune has befallen him;
they urge him to unbosom himself. He confesses he is in love with a most
beauteous, most adorable being, it is a woman, the wife of Andronicus;
what shall he do to secure her favour? His friends declare his passion
hopeless, Drusiana is a Christian and has moreover taken the vow of
chastity; ‘I ask for help, you give me despair,’ Calimachus exclaims. In
the next scene he confronts Drusiana and declares his passion. Drusiana
repudiates his advances but she is intimidated by his threats, and gives
utterance to her fears in a monologue in which she declares that she would
rather die than yield to him. Sudden death cuts her down; and the apostle
John is called in by her husband and undertakes to give her Christian
burial. But the youth Calimachus is not cured of his passion. At the
instigation of his companion, Fortunatus, he goes with him by night to the
vault where she lies and would embrace the corpse, but a serpent of
terrible aspect surprises the two young men and kills them. In the
following scene the apostle is leading Andronicus to the vault: when they
enter they come upon the serpent lying by the side of the youths. The
apostle then explains to Andronicus what has happened and gives proof of
his great power by awakening Calimachus from the dead. The young man
confesses his evil intentions and explains how he came there at the
suggestion of his companion. The apostle then recalls Drusiana to life,
and she begs that Fortunatus also may be restored, but the apostle refuses
on account of the man’s wickedness. Drusiana herself then intercedes in
his behalf and prays to God for his restoration. Her wish is fulfilled,
Fortunatus comes back to life, but he declares he would sooner have died
than have seen Drusiana happy and his friend a convert to Christianity.
The wounds which the serpent had inflicted at once begin to swell, and he
expires before their eyes, and the apostle explains that his jealousy has
sent him to hell. A great deal of action is crowded into this play and we
are abruptly carried on from scene to scene. It closes with some pious
reflections on the part of the apostle.

There is considerable diversity of opinion among modern writers on the
merits of the dramas we have discussed hitherto, but all concur in praise
of the play called ‘Abraham,’ which dramatises the oft repeated story of a
woman who yields to temptation and is reclaimed from her wicked ways. The
interest in this play never flags and the scenes are worked out with a
breadth of conception which gives the impression of assured strength[504].

Hrotsvith took the subject of this drama from an account, written in the
6th century by Ephrem, of the life of his friend, the hermit Abraham. The
story was written originally in Greek and is preserved in that language;
the translation into Latin used by Hrotsvith is lost[505]. The plot of the
drama is as follows:

The devout hermit Abraham consults his friend the hermit Ephrem as to what
he shall do with his niece, Maria, who is left to his care, and together
they decide that she shall come and live in a cell near her uncle. Abraham
throughout speaks directly and to the point, while Ephrem’s talk is full
of mystic allusions. He talks to the maiden of the beauties of the
religious vocation and assures her that her name, Maria, signifies ‘star
of the sea,’ and that she is therefore intended for great things. The
maiden is surprised at his words and naïvely remarks that it would be a
great thing ‘to equal the lustre of the stars.’ She comes to dwell in a
cell close to that of the two hermits, but after a time she is enticed
away and disappears from the sight of her uncle, who is deeply grieved at
her loss. For several years he hears nothing from her; at last a friend
comes and tells him that the girl has been seen in the city, and is there
living in a house of ill fame. The old man at once decides to go forth to
seek his niece and to reclaim her. He dons shoes, a traveller’s dress and
a large hat, and takes with him money, since that only can give him access
to her. The scene then shifts from the sylvan solitude to the house where
Maria is living. Abraham arrives and is received by the tavern-keeper,
whom he asks for a night’s lodging, offering him his ‘solidus’ and
requesting to see the woman the fame of whose beauty has spread. This
scene and the one that follows bring the situation before the reader
admirably. Abraham is served with a meal and Maria enters, at sight of
whose levity he scarce represses his tears. She entertains him, and he
feigns a gaiety corresponding to hers, the tavern-keeper being present. Of
a sudden she is overcome by the thought of the past, but he keeps up his
assumed character. At last supper is over, and they retire into the
adjoining chamber. The moment for disclosure has come, and Hrotsvith is
seen at her best.

‘_Abraham._ Close fast the door, that no one enter and disturb us.

_Maria._ Be not concerned, I have done so; no one will find it easy to get

_Abraham._ The time has come; away, deceitful clothes, that I may be
recognised. Oh, my adopted daughter, joy of my soul, Maria, dost thou not
know the aged man who was to thee a parent, who vowed thee to the heavenly

_Maria._ Oh woe is me! It is my father, my teacher Abraham, who speaks.

_Abraham._ What then has come to thee, my daughter?

_Maria._ Ah, wretchedness!

_Abraham._ Who was it that deceived thee? Who allured thee?

_Maria._ He who was the undoing of our first parents.

_Abraham._ Where is the noble life thou once wast wont to lead?

_Maria._ Lost, lost for ever!

_Abraham._ Where is thy virgin modesty, thy wondrous self-restraint?

_Maria._ Gone from me altogether.

_Abraham._ If thou dost not return to thine own self, what reward in the
life to come canst thou expect for fasting, prayer, and watching, since
fallen as from heaven’s heights thou now art sunk in hellish depths?

_Maria._ Woe, woe is me!

_Abraham._ Why didst thou thus deceive me? why turn from me? Why didst
thou not make known to me thy wretchedness, that I and my beloved Ephrem
might work for thy repentance?

_Maria._ Once fallen into sinfulness, I dared not face you who are holy.

_Abraham._ But is there any one entirely faultless, except the Virgin’s

_Maria._ Nay, no one.

_Abraham._ ’Tis human to be frail, but to persist in wickedness is of the
devil. Not he who falls of a sudden is condemned, but he who, having
fallen, does not strive forthwith to rise again.

_Maria._ Woe unto me, wretch that I am!

  (_She sinks to the ground._)

_Abraham._ Why dost thou sink? why lie upon the ground? Arise and ponder
what I am saying.

_Maria._ Fear casts me down, I cannot bear the weight of thy paternal

_Abraham._ Dwell only on my love and thrust aside thy fear.

_Maria._ I cannot.

_Abraham._ Think, was it not for thee I left my little hermitage, and so
far set aside the rule by which I lived that I, an aged hermit, became a
visitor to wantonness, and keeping silence as to my intent spoke words in
jest that I might not be recognised? Why then with head bent low gaze on
the ground? Why hesitate to give answer to my questions?

_Maria._ The accusations of my conscience bear me down, I dare not raise
my eyes to heaven, nor enter into converse with thee.

_Abraham._ Be not afraid, my daughter, do not despair; rise from this
depth of misery and fix thy mind on trust in God.

_Maria._ My sins in their excess have brought me to depths of desperation.

_Abraham._ I know thy sins are great, but greater than aught else is
Heaven’s power of grace. Put by thy grief and do not hesitate to spend the
time vouchsafed to thee in living in repentance; divine grace overflows,
and overflowing washes out the horrors of wrong-doing.

_Maria._ If I could entertain the hope of grace I should not be found
wanting in repentance.

_Abraham._ Think of the weariness that I have suffered for thee; leave
this unprofitable despair, nought in this world is so misleading. He who
despairs of God’s willingness to have compassion, ’tis he who sins
hopelessly; for as a spark struck from a stone can never set aflame the
ocean, so the bitterness of sin must ever fail to rouse sweet and divine

_Maria._ I know the power of grace divine, and yet the thought of how I
have failed fills me with dread; I never can sufficiently atone.

_Abraham._ Thy feeble trust in Him is a reproach to me! But come, return
with me to where we lived, and there resume the life which thou didst

_Maria._ I would not disobey thee; if it be thy bidding, readily I yield.

_Abraham._ Now I see my daughter such as I would have her; I hope still to
hold thee dearest among all.

_Maria._ I own a little wealth in gold and clothing; I abide by thy
decision what shall be done with it.

_Abraham._ What came to thee in evil, with evil cast it from thee.

_Maria._ I think it might be given to the poor; or offered at the holy

_Abraham._ I doubt if wealth acquired in wickedness is acceptable to God.

_Maria._ Besides this there is nothing of which the thought need trouble

_Abraham._ The dawn is breaking, the daylight shining, let us now depart.

_Maria._ Lead thou the way, dear father, a good shepherd to the sheep that
went astray. As thou leadest, so I follow, guided by thy footsteps!

_Abraham._ Nay, I shall walk, my horse shall bear thee, for this stony
road might cut thy tender feet.

_Maria._ Oh, that I ever left thee! Can I ever thank thee enough that, not
by intimidation and fear, but by gentle persuasion alone, unworthy though
I am, thou hast led me to repentance?

_Abraham._ Nought do I ask of thee but this, be now devoted to God for the
remainder of thy life.

_Maria._ Readily I promise, earnestly will I persevere, and though the
power fail me, my will shall never fail.

_Abraham._ It is agreed then--as ardently as before to vanity, be thou now
devoted to the will divine.

_Maria._ Thy merits be my surety that the divine will shall be

_Abraham._ Now let us hasten our departure.

_Maria._ Yea, hasten; for I loathe to tarry here.’

They return to the hermitage together, and Maria resumes her former mode
of life in hope of redeeming the past. The drama closes with a scene
between Abraham and Ephrem, who discourse on the beneficent change which
familiar surroundings are already working in Maria; the angels sing
rejoicing at the conversion of the sinner, says Abraham; and Ephrem adds
that the repentance of the iniquitous causes greater joy in heaven than
the perseverance of the just.

This play, currently known as ‘Abraham,’ but which would be more fitly
named ‘Maria,’ marks the climax of Hrotsvith’s power. In form it preserves
the simple directness of the classic model, in conception it embodies the
moral ideals of Christian teaching.

The last two plays of Hrotsvith are chiefly of historical interest for the
learned disquisitions they contain; their dramatic value is comparatively
small, and many of the scenes are in a way repetitions of scenes in other
plays. In ‘Paphnutius’ we again have the story of a penitent woman, the
hetaira Thais, who lived in the 6th century, but whose conversion has
little of the interest which attaches to that of Maria. In ‘Sapientia’ we
have a succession of scenes of martyrdom which recall those of the play
‘Dulcetius.’ The Lady Sapientia and her three daughters Fides, Spes and
Caritas are put to death by order of the Emperor Hadrian, but the horrors
of the situation are relieved by no minor incidents. The learned
disquisitions in these plays are however extremely curious because they
show on the one hand what store Hrotsvith set on learning, and on the
other they give an idea of the method of study pursued at Gandersheim in
those days.

The play ‘Paphnutius[506]’ opens with passages which Hrotsvith probably
adapted from two works of Boëthius: ‘On the teaching of Aristotle,’ and
‘On the study of music[507].’ The philosopher Paphnutius dilates to his
assembled pupils on man as the microcosm (minor mundus) who reflects in
himself the world, which is the macrocosm (major mundus), and then
explains that there is antagonism in the world, which is striving for
concord in accordance with the rules of harmony. He explains how a similar
antagonism exists in man and is represented by body and soul, which can
also be brought into agreement. These thoughts, he says, have been
suggested to him by the life of the hetaira Thais whose body and soul are
ever at variance. Paphnutius further enlarges on the higher course of
study known as the ‘quadrivium’ which includes arithmetic, geometry, music
and astronomy[508], and discourses about music and the influence of
harmony. His pupils, however, object to being taken along such devious
paths and having such knotty questions propounded to them, and at last
they quote Scripture in defence of their ignorance, saying that God has
chosen the foolish that he may confound the wise. This rouses indignation
in Paphnutius, who declares that ‘he who advocates falsehood, be he a fool
or a learned man, deserves to be confounded by God.’ And he further utters
words which are not devoid of a deeper significance: ‘It is not the
knowledge that man can grasp which is offensive to God, but the conceit of
the learned.’

The learned disquisitions of the play ‘Sapientia’ are presented in a form
still less attractive[509]. The Lady Sapientia, who speaks of herself as
one of noble stock, and as the descendant of Greek princes, dilates on the
relative value of numbers[510] to the emperor Hadrian till he tires of it
and commands her to be gone.

It is sometimes alleged that these two later plays were the productions of
earlier years, and that the nun added them to her other more finished
productions in order to equal the number of the plays of Terence. However
this may be, they were probably the two plays which she submitted to the
criticism of three outside but now unknown patrons with a letter in which
she states that she has taken threads and pieces from the garment of
philosophy to add to the worth of her work. We render this letter in full,
since it throws an interesting light on what Hrotsvith thought of her own
powers. If it brought advice which led to the composition of the other
plays, we must commend the judgment of those who counselled her. But it is
just possible that the approval which was accorded to the legends was
denied to the plays,--the absence of the name of the abbess Gerberg in
connection with them is remarkable,--and that, after writing a number of
dramas which found no appreciation, Hrotsvith was moved to compose
‘Paphnutius’ and ‘Sapientia,’ introducing learned disquisitions in hope of
giving them a more solid value.

The letter runs as follows:

‘To you, learned men[511], who abide in wisdom and are unenvious of
another’s progress and well-disposed towards him as befits the truly
learned, I, Hrotsvith, though I am unlearned and lacking in thoroughness,
address myself; I wish you health and unbroken prosperity. I cannot
sufficiently admire your great condescension, and sufficiently thank you
for the help of your liberal generosity and for your kindness towards me;
you, who have been trained in the study of philosophy and have perfected
yourselves in the pursuit of knowledge, have held my writings, those of a
lowly woman, worthy of admiration, and have praised with brotherly
affection the power which works in me. You have declared that there is in
me a certain knowledge of that learning (scientiam artium) the essence of
which is beyond my woman’s understanding. Till now I have dared to show my
rude productions only to a few of my nearest friends, and my work along
these lines would probably have ceased, for there were few who understood
my intentions, and fewer who could point out to me in what I had failed,
and who urged me to persevere. But now that threefold approval comes to me
from you I take confidence and feel strengthened by your encouragement to
devote my energies to work where God permits, and to submit this work to
the criticism of those who are learned. And yet I am divided between joy
and fear, which contend within me; for in my heart I rejoice, praising
God through whose grace alone I have become what I am; and yet I am
fearful of appearing greater than I am, being perplexed by two things both
of which are wrong, namely the neglect of talents vouchsafed to one by
God, and the pretence to talents one has not. I cannot deny that through
the help of the Creator I have acquired some amount of knowledge, for I am
a creature capable of learning, but I acknowledge there is ignorance in
me. For I am divinely gifted with abilities, but were it not for the
untiring zeal of my teachers, they would have remained undeveloped and
unused through my want of energy (pigritia). Lest this gift of God in me
should be wasted through neglect I have sought to pluck threads and pieces
from the garments of philosophy, and have introduced them into my
afore-mentioned work (praefato opusculo), so that my own moderate
knowledge may be enhanced by the addition of their greater worth, and God,
who grants power, may be praised by so much the more as a woman’s power is
held to be inferior. This is the object of my writing, this alone the
purpose of my exertions, for I do not conceal from myself that I am
ignorant, and had it depended on myself alone, I should know nothing. But
as you urge me on by the possibility of your approval and by your request
proffered to me in writing, I now submit to your criticism this little
work which I wrote with the intention of sending it to you but which I
have hitherto kept concealed on account of its demerits, hoping you will
study it with the intention of improving it as though it were your own
work. And when you have altered it to a correct standard, send it back to
me so that I may profit by your teaching in those points in which I may
have largely failed.’

The productions of Hrotsvith in the domain of contemporary history consist
of a poem on the emperor Otto the Great, and a history of the monastery of
Gandersheim. The history of Otto is thought to have been over sixteen
hundred lines in length[512], but only a fragment of about nine hundred
lines is preserved. The nun received the materials for this history
chiefly if not exclusively by word of mouth from the abbess Gerberg, whose
family feeling it seems to reflect in various particulars, for among other
distinctive traits, the quarrel between the father of Gerberg and his
brother the emperor is passed over; it is rather a history of the members
of the ruling family than a description of contemporary events[513]. This
detracts from its historic, though hardly from its poetical value, which
is considerable. Some of the episodes, such as that of the imprisonment
and flight of Queen Adelheid in Italy, are admirably told. Adelheid was
the widow of the king of the Langobards, and was afterwards married to
Otto I. Her flight and imprisonment in Italy previous to her second
marriage are unrecorded except by Hrotsvith.

The last work of the nun was probably that on the foundation and early
history of Gandersheim, in which, as in the history of Otto, Hrotsvith
enlarges more on persons than on events, and gives a detailed account of
Duke Liudolf, his wife and daughters. Many details referred to above, in
our chapter on the early history of the settlement, are taken from this
account, which is in many ways the most finished and beautiful of
Hrotsvith’s compositions.

The interest in Hrotsvith’s writings lay dormant for several centuries. It
was revived at the close of the 15th century when the learned abbot
Tritheim wrote of her, and the poet Celtes caused her dramas to appear in
print. During the last thirty years many writers have treated of her, an
appreciative and attractive account of her was written by Köpke[514], and
different views have been expressed as to her merits as a poet, a
dramatist and a historian[515]. Whatever place be ultimately assigned to
Hrotsvith, the reader of her writings cannot fail to be attracted by her
modesty, her perseverance, her loftiness of thought, and the directness of
purpose which underlies all her work. She stands nearly alone in Saxony,
and by her very solitariness increases our respect for her powers, and for
the system of education which made the development of these powers



    ‘Pulchritudo certe mentis et nutrimentum virtutum est cordis munditia,
    cui visio Dei spiritualiter promittitur; ad quam munditiam nullus nisi
    per magnam cordis custodiam perducitur.’ _Anselm to the Abbess of St

§ 1. The new Monastic Orders.

In this chapter I intend to give a description of the different monastic
orders which were founded between the 10th and the 12th centuries, and to
enter at some length into the reasons for their progress. A mass of
heterogeneous information must be passed in rapid review with occasional
digressions on outside matters, for it is only possible to understand the
rapid progress of monasticism by recalling the relation in which it stood
to other social developments.

As we cross the borderland which divides the centuries before the year
1000 from the period that follows, we become aware of great changes which
about this time take definite shape throughout all social institutions. In
the various strata of society occupations were becoming more clearly
differentiated than they had ever been before, while those who were
devoted to peaceful pursuits, whether in lay or religious circles, were
now combined together for mutual support and encouragement.

In connection with religion we find the representatives of the Church and
of monasticism becoming more and more conscious of differences that were
growing up between them. Monasticism from its very beginning practically
lay outside the established order of the Church, but this had not
prevented bishop and abbot from working side by side and mutually
supporting each other; nay, it even happened sometimes that one person
combined in himself the two offices of abbot and bishop. But as early
Christian times passed into the Middle Ages, prelates ceased to agree with
headquarters at Rome in accepting monasticism as the means of securing a
foothold for religion. The Church was now well established throughout
western Europe, and her ministers were by no means prepared to side
unconditionally with the Pope when he fell out with temporal rulers. The
monastic orders on the contrary generally did side with him, and by
locally furthering his interests, they became strongholds of his power.

The 12th century has been called the golden age of monasticism, because it
witnessed the increased prosperity of existing monasteries and the
foundation of a number of new monastic and religious orders. A wave of
enthusiasm for the life of the religious settlement, and for the manifold
occupations which this life now embraced, passed over western Europe,
emanating chiefly from France, the country which took the lead in culture
and in civilizing influences.

The 12th century, as it was the golden age of monasticism, was also the
golden age of chivalry; the cloister and the court were the representative
centres of civilized life. Under the influence of the system of mutual
responsibility called feudalism, the knight by doughty deed and unwavering
allegiance to his lord, his lady and his cause, gave a new meaning to
service; while the monk, devoted to less hazardous pursuits, gave a
hitherto unknown sanctification to toil. The knight, the lady, the
court-chaplain and the court-poet cultivated the bearings and the
formalities of polite intercourse which formed the background of the age
of romance, while in the cloister the monk and the nun gave a new meaning
to religious devotion and enthusiasm by turning their activity into
channels which first made possible the approximation of class to class.

This period knew little of townships as centres of intellectual activity,
and their social importance remained far below that of cloister and court.
The townsmen, whose possession of town land constituted them burghers, had
won for themselves recognition as an independent body by buying immunities
and privileges from bishop and king. But the struggle between them and the
newer gilds, into which those who were below them in rank and wealth,
formed themselves, was only beginning; the success of these newer gilds in
securing a share in the government marks the rise of the township.

The diversity of occupation in the different kinds of gilds was
anticipated by a similar diversity of occupation in the different monastic
orders. The great characteristic of the monastic revival of the Middle
Ages lay in the manifold and distinct spheres of activity which life
offered inside the religious community. The studious, the educational, the
philanthropic, and the agricultural element, all to some extent made part
of the old monastic system. But through the foundation of a number of
different orders which from the outset had separate aims, tastes which
were widely dissimilar, and temperaments that were markedly diverse, met
with encouragement in the religious settlement. The scholar, the artist,
the recluse, the farmer, each found a career open to him; while men and
women were prompted to undertake duties within and without the religious
settlement which make their activity comparable to that of the relieving
officer, the poor-law guardian and the district nurse of a later age.

To gain a clear idea of the purposes which the new monastic and religious
orders set before them, it will be best to treat of them severally in the
chronological order of their foundation. Two lines of development are to
be observed. There are the strictly monastic orders which sprang from the
order of St Benedict, which they developed and amplified. These included
the orders of Clugni, Citeaux, Chartreuse, and Grandmont, of which the
last two took no account of women. On the other side stand the religious
orders which are the outcome of distinctions drawn between different kinds
of canons, when the settlements of regular canons take a distinctly
monastic colouring. Among these the Premonstrant and the Austin orders are
the most important, the members of which, from the clothes they wore, were
in England called respectively White and Black Canons.

The importance of canonical orders, so far as women are concerned, lies in
the fact that the 12th century witnessed the foundation of a number of
religious settlements for both sexes, in which the men lived as canons and
the women as nuns. The Premonstrant began as a combined order; the orders
of Fontevraud and of St Gilbert of Sempringham were of a similar kind.
Bearing these distinctions in mind, we begin our enquiry with an analysis
of the Cluniac and the Cistercian orders, which have their root directly
in the monasticism of St Benedict.

As remarks in the previous chapters of this work will have shown,
monasteries had sprung up during early Christian times independently of
each other following a diversity of rules promulgated by various teachers,
which had gradually been given up in favour of the rule of St Benedict. At
the beginning of the 9th century this rule was largely prevalent in
monasteries abroad, owing to councils held under the auspices of Karl the
Great († 814)[516], and in England it gained ground through the efforts of
Aethelwold, abbot of Abingdon and bishop of Winchester († 984). Some
obscurity hangs about the subject, for a certain number of houses abroad,
and among them some of the oldest and wealthiest, clung to the prerogative
of independence and refused to accept St Benedict’s rule, while in
England, where this rule was certainly accepted in the 11th century, great
diversity of routine either remained or else developed inside the
different houses. This is evident from the account which Matthew Paris (†
1259), a monk of St Albans, gives of the visitation of houses in the year

The order of Clugni[518] owes its origin to the desire of obviating a
difficulty. As time wore on the rule of St Benedict had betrayed a
weakness in failing to maintain any connection between separate
monasteries. As there was no reciprocal responsibility between Benedictine
settlements, a lay nobleman had frequently been appointed abbot through
princely interference, and had installed himself in the monastery with his
family, his servants and his retinue, to the detriment of the monastic
property, and to the relaxation of discipline among the monks. The evil
was most conspicuous abroad in the eastern districts of France and the
western districts of Germany, and in 910 the order of Clugni was founded
in Burgundy as a means of remedying it.

At first the order of Clugni was the object of great enthusiasm, and it
was raised to eminence by a series of remarkable and energetic men.
Powerful patrons were secured to it, master-minds found protection in its
shelter. The peculiarities of its organisation consisted in the two rules
that the abbot of the Cluniac house should be chosen during the lifetime
of his predecessor, and that the abbots of different houses should meet
periodically at a synod at which the abbot of Clugni should preside. The
Pope’s sanction having been obtained, the order remained throughout in
close contact with Rome. In Germany especially this connection was
prominent, and became an important political factor in the 11th century
when the Cluniac houses directly supported the claim of Rome in the
struggle between Pope and Emperor.

The order of Clugni took slight cognizance of women, and the nunneries of
the order were few and comparatively unimportant. A reason for this may be
found in the nature of the order’s origin, for the settlements of nuns had
not been interfered with like the settlements of monks during the 9th and
10th centuries by the appointment of lay superiors, and were untouched by
the consequent evils. If this be so the falling away from discipline,
which called for correction in many houses of men, may justly be referred
to a change thrust on them from without, not born from within.

In England the order of Clugni was not officially introduced till after
the Norman Conquest, and then under circumstances which set a peculiar
stamp on it. The seed which each order scattered broadcast over the
different countries was the same, but the nature of the soil in which it
took root, and the climate under which it developed, modified the
direction of its growth.

During the 9th and 10th centuries England had been the scene of great
social and political changes. The powerful kings who arose in Wessex and
eventually claimed supremacy over all the provinces were unable to assert
their authority to the extent of making the eastern provinces sink all
provincial differences and jealousies, and join in organised resistance to
the Danes. From the 9th century onwards, the entire seaboard of England,
from Northumberland to the mouth of the Severn, had been exposed to the
depredations of this people. Having once gained a foothold on the eastern
coasts they quickly contracted alliances and adapted themselves to English
customs, thus making their ultimate success secure.

The heathen invaders were naturally indifferent to the teachings of the
Christian Church, and to the privileges of monasteries, and the scant
annals of the period written before Knut of Denmark became king of England
in 1016, give accounts of the destruction of many settlements. Some were
attacked and laid waste, and others were deserted by their inmates. To
realise the collapse of Christian institutions about this time, one must
read the address which Wulfstan, archbishop of York (1002-1023), wrote to
rouse the English to consciousness of the indignities to which their
religion was exposed[519]. But the collapse was only temporary, bishoprics
and abbacies stood firm enough to command the attention of the invader,
and as the heathenism of the Dane yielded without a blow to the teaching
of Christ, the settlements that were in the hands of abbot and monk rose

However, it was only after the establishment of William of Normandy in
England (1066) that the conditions of life became settled, and that the
tide turned in favour of monasticism; that is to say in favour of the
monastic life of men, but not of women. Various reasons have been alleged
for this difference: that the better position of the wife under Danish
rule made women loth to remain in the convent, or that the spread of the
system of feudal tenure excluded women from holding property which they
could devote to the advantage of their sex. So much is certain, that
during the reign of William many Benedictine houses for monks were founded
or restored, but we do not hear of one for nuns.

In the wake of the Norman baron, the Norman prelate had entered this
country, bringing with him an interest in the order of Clugni. It was
William of Warren, son-in-law of the Conqueror, and earl of Surrey, who
first brought over Cluniac monks, whom he settled at Lewes in Sussex. He
did so at the suggestion of Lanfranc, a Norman monk of Italian origin, who
had become archbishop of Canterbury (1070-1089). Before the close of
William’s reign Cluniac monks had met with patrons to build them four
monasteries on English soil besides the house at Lewes.

The Norman barons continued to make liberal endowments to the order, but
its popularity remained comparatively small, partly owing to the
distinctly foreign character which it continued to bear[520]. Thus we find
that after the accession of Henry II (1154), whose reign was marked by a
rise in English national feeling, only one Cluniac house was added to
those already in existence.

From the order of Clugni we pass to that of Citeaux[521], the foundation
of which comes next in point of time, but which owed its existence to a
different cause, and was characterised by widely dissimilar developments.

The story of the foundation of the order has been fully told by men who
were under the influence of the movement; the facts only of the foundation
need be mentioned here. It originated in France when Robert, abbot of
Molêmes, roused by the remonstrances of one Stephen Harding, an English
monk living in his convent, left his home with a band of followers in
1098, in search of a retreat where they might carry out the rule of St
Benedict in a worthier spirit. They found this retreat at Citeaux. From
Citeaux and its daughter-house Clairvaux, founded in 1113 by the
energetic Bernard, those influences went forth which made the Cistercian
order representative of the most strenuous devotion to toil and the most
exalted religious aspirations. While the order of Clugni in the 10th
century secured the outward conditions favourable to a life of routine,
devoting this routine chiefly to literary and artistic pursuits, the
reform of Citeaux exerted a much wider influence. It at once gained
extensive local and national sympathy, by cultivating land and by
favouring every kind of outdoor pursuit.

The agricultural activity of the Cistercian has called forth much
enthusiastic comment. Janauschek, a modern student of the order, describes
in eloquent terms how they turned woods into fields, how they constructed
water-conduits and water-mills, how they cultivated gardens, orchards, and
vineyards, how successful they were in rearing cattle, in breeding horses,
in keeping bees, in regulating fishing, and how they made glass and
procured the precious metals[522].

A comparison of their temper and that of the Cluniacs offers many
interesting points; a comparison which is facilitated by a dialogue
written by a Cistercian monk between 1154 and 1174 to exalt the merits of
his order compared with those of the order of Clugni[523]. For while the
Cluniac delighted in luxurious surroundings, the Cistercian affected a
simple mode of life which added to the wealth placed at his disposal by
his untiring industry. While the Cluniac delighted in costly church
decorations, in sumptuous vestments and in richly illuminated books of
service, the Cistercian declared such pomp prejudicial to devotion, and
sought to elevate the soul not so much by copying and ornamenting old
books as by writing new ones; not so much by decorating a time-honoured
edifice as by rearing a new and beautiful building.

Perhaps the nature of these occupations yields a reason why the Cistercian
order at first found no place for women. At an early date Cardinal de
Vitry (Jacobus di Vitriaco, † 1144), writing about the Cistercian
movement, says that ‘the weaker sex at the rise of the order could not
aspire to conform to such severe rules, nor to rise to such a pitch of
excellence[524].’ In the dialogue referred to above, the Cluniac expresses
wonder that women should enter the Cistercian order at all.

The first Cistercian nunneries were founded at Tart in Langres and at
Montreuil-les-Dames near Laon[525]. Hermann of Laon (c. 1150) describes
‘how the religious of Montreuil sewed and span, and went into the woods
where they grubbed up briars and thorns,’--an occupation which goes far to
equalise their activity with that of the monks[526]. In Switzerland and
Germany there is said to have been a pronounced difference in the
character of Cistercian nunneries, due to the various conditions of their
foundation. Some were aristocratic in tone, while others consisted of
women of the middle class, who banded together and placed themselves under
the bishop of the diocese, following of their own accord the rules
accepted by the monks of Citeaux[527].

In Spain a curious development of the order of Citeaux is recorded,
fraught with peculiarities which recall earlier developments.

In 1187 Alfonso VIII, king of Leon and Castille, founded an abbacy for
nuns of the order of Citeaux at Las Huelgas near Burgos, the abbess of
which was declared head over twelve other nunneries. In the following year
the king sent the bishop of Siguenza to the general chapter at Citeaux to
obtain leave for the abbesses of his kingdom to hold a general chapter
among themselves. This was granted. At the first chapter at Burgos the
bishops of Burgos, Siguenza and Placenza were assembled together with six
abbots and seven abbesses, each abbess being entitled to bring with her
six servants and five horses. The power of the abbess of Las Huelgas
continued to increase. In the year 1210 she had taken upon herself the
discharge of sacerdotal functions. In the year 1260 she refused to receive
the abbot of Citeaux, whereupon she was excommunicated. After the year
1507 the abbess was no longer appointed for life, but for a term of three
years only. Chapters continued to be held under her auspices at Burgos
till the Council of Trent in 1545, which forbade women to leave their

The date of the first arrival of monks of Citeaux in England was 1128,
when William Giffard, bishop of Winchester († 1129), in early days a
partisan of Anselm against Henry I, founded Waverley in Surrey for
them[529]. Shortly afterwards Walter Espec, the most powerful baron in
northern England, granted them land at Rievaulx in Yorkshire[530]. About
the same time the foundation at Fountains repeated the story of Citeaux. A
small band of monks, burning with the desire to simplify conventual life,
left York and retired into the wooded solitude of Fountains, whence they
sent to Bernard at Clairvaux asking for his advice[531].

These events fall within the reign of Henry I (1100-1135), the
peacefulness of which greatly furthered the development of monastic life.
The pursuits to which the Cistercians were devoted in England were similar
to those they carried on abroad. Here also their agricultural successes
were great, for they ditched, ridged and drained, wet land, they marled
stiff soils and clayed poor ones. The land granted to them, especially in
the northern counties, was none of the best, but they succeeded in turning
wildernesses into fruitful land, and by so doing won great admiration.
Similarly the churches built in this country under the auspices of these
monks bear witness to great purity of taste and ardent imagination. The
churches built by them were all dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who was the
patron saint of the order.

All these early settlements of the Cistercian order were for monks, not
for nuns, for Cistercian nunneries in England were founded comparatively
late and remained poor and unimportant. If we look upon the Cistercians as
farmers, builders and writers, this fact is partly explained. But there
are other reasons which suggest why the number of Cistercian nunneries was
at first small, and why the Cistercian synod shrank from accepting control
over them.

Convents of women had hitherto been recruited by the daughters of the
landed gentry, and their tone was aristocratic; but a desire for the
religious life had now penetrated into the lower strata of society. Orders
of combined canons and nuns were founded which paid special attention to
women of the lower classes, but they encountered certain difficulties in
dealing with them. It is just possible on the one hand that the combined
orders forestalled the Cistercians in the inducements they held out; on
the other, that the experience of the combined orders made the Cistercians
cautious about admitting women.

Consideration of these facts brings us back to a whole group of phenomena
to which reference was made in a previous chapter, viz. the disorderly
tendencies which had become apparent in connection with loose women, the
greater opprobrium cast on these women as time went on, and the increasing
difficulties they had to contend with. The founders of the orders of
combined canons and nuns tried to save women from drifting into and
swelling a class, the existence of which was felt to be injurious to
social life, by preaching against a dissolute life and by receiving all
persons into their settlements regardless of their antecedents.

The earliest and in many ways the most interesting of these combined
orders is that founded by Robert († 1117) of Arbrissel, a village in
Brittany. Robert had begun life in the Church, but he left the clerical
calling on account of his great desire to minister to the needs of the
lower classes, and as a wandering preacher he gained considerable
renown[532]. Men and women alike were roused by his words to reform their
course of life, and they followed him about till he determined to secure
for them a permanent abode. This he found in an outlying district at
Fontevraud. He organised his followers into bands and apportioned to each
its task. The men were divided into clerics, who performed religious
service, and lay brothers, who did outdoor work. ‘They were to use gentle
talk, not to swear, and all to be joined in brotherly affection.’ It
appears that the women were all professed nuns[533]; unceasing toil was to
be their portion, for they were to hold the industrious and hardworking
Martha as their model and take small account of such virtues as belonged
to Mary.

From every side workers flocked to the settlements, for Robert opened his
arms to all. We are told that ‘men of all conditions came, women arrived,
such as were poor as well as those of gentle birth; widows and virgins,
aged men and youths, women of loose life as well as those who held aloof
from men.’ At first there was a difficulty in providing for the numerous
settlers, but their labours brought profit, and gifts in kind poured in
from outsiders, a proof that in the eyes of the world the settlements
supplied an obvious need. Branch establishments were founded and
prospered, so that in one cloister there were as many as three hundred
women, in another one hundred, and in another sixty. Robert returned to
his missionary work, after having appointed Hersende of Champagne as lady
superior of the whole vast settlement. Her appointment was decisive for
the system of government,--Fontevraud remained under the rule of an
abbess. It was for her successor, Petronille, that the life of the founder
Robert was written soon after his death, by Baldric, bishop of Dol (†
1130). Baldric repeatedly insists on the fact that no one was refused
admission to these settlements. ‘The poor were received, the feeble were
not refused, nor women of evil life, nor sinners, neither lepers nor the
helpless.’ We are told that Robert attracted nearly three thousand men and
women to the settlements; the nuns (ancillae Christi) in particular wept
at his death.

The fact that Robert had the welfare of women especially at heart is
further borne out by a separate account of the last years of his life,
written by one Andrea, probably his pupil. Andrea tells how Robert at the
approach of death assembled the canons or clerics of the settlement around
him and addressed them saying: ‘Know that whatever I have wrought in this
world I have wrought as a help to nuns.’ Fontevraud occupied a high
standing, and we shall find that nuns were brought thence into England
when the nunnery of Amesbury was reformed in the reign of King John. The
order of Fontevraud made great progress in the course of the 12th century,
and next to it in point of time stands the foundation of the order of
Prémontré[534]. Fontevraud lies in the north-west of France, Prémontré in
the east, and the efforts of Robert have here a counterpart in those of
Norbert († 1134), who worked on similar lines. Norbert also left the
clerical calling to work as a missionary in north-western Germany,
especially in Westphalia, and he also succeeded in rousing his listeners
to a consciousness of their ungodly mode of life. With a view to reform he
sought to give a changed tone to canonical life and founded a religious
settlement in the forest of Coucy, which he afterwards called Prémontré
from the belief that the Virgin had pointed it out to him. His efforts
were likewise crowned with success, for many settlements were forthwith
founded on the plan of that of Prémontré. Hermann of Laon, the
contemporary of Norbert, praises him warmly and remarks that women of all
classes flocked to his settlements, and were admitted into the communities
by adopting the cloistered life. The statement is made, but may be
exaggerated, that ten thousand women joined the order during Norbert’s

Norbert differed greatly in character from Robert; his personal ambition
was greater, and his restless temperament eventually drew him into
political life. He died in 1134, and in 1137 the chapter at Prémontré
decided that the women should be expelled from all the settlements that
had inmates of both sexes, and that no nuns should henceforth be admitted
to settlements ruled by men. The reasons which led to this resolution are
not recorded. The nuns thus rendered homeless are said to have banded
together and dwelt in settlements which were afterwards numbered among
Cistercian houses, thus causing a sudden increase of nunneries of this
order. However a certain number of Premonstrant houses, occupied solely by
nuns and ruled by a lady superior, existed previous to the decree of 1137.
These remained unmolested, and others were added to them in course of
time[535]. It can be gathered from a bull of 1344 that there were at that
time over thirteen hundred settlements of Premonstrant or White Canons in
existence in Europe, besides the outlying settlements of lay brothers, and
about four hundred settlements of nuns[536]. The settlements of White
Canons in England amounted to about thirty-five and were founded after the
sexes had been separated. There were also two settlements of Premonstrant
nuns in England[537].

A third order of canons and nuns, which in various ways is akin to the
orders of Fontevraud and Prémontré previously founded abroad, was founded
at the beginning of the 12th century in England by Gilbert of Sempringham.
But as the material for study of this order is copious, and as it marks a
distinct development in the history of women’s convent life in England, it
will be discussed in detail later[538].

The canons who belonged to the combined orders were regular canons, that
is they owned no individual property, and further differed from secular
canons in holding themselves exempt from performing spiritual functions
for the laity. Erasmus at a later date remarked that ‘their life is half
way between that of monks and that of those who are called secular

As to the distinction between the two kinds, it appears that bands of
canons who may fitly be termed regular had existed from an early period;
but the subject is shrouded in some obscurity[540]. In the 11th century
mention of them becomes frequent, especially in France, and at the
beginning of the 12th century their position was defined by a decree
published by Pope Innocent II at the Lateran Council (1139)[541]. By this
decree all those canons who did not perform spiritual functions for the
laity were designated as regular and were called upon to live according to
the rule of life laid down by St Augustine in his Epistle, number 109. The
terms Austin canon and regular canon were henceforth applied
indiscriminately, but many independent settlements of unrecognised canons
of an earlier date have since been included under this term.

A few words are here needed in explanation of the term canoness or Austin
canoness, which is used in diverse ways, but is generally applied to women
of some substance, who entered a religious community and lived under a
rule, but who were under no perpetual vow, that is, they observed
obedience and celibacy as long as they remained in the house but were at
liberty to return to the world. These stipulations do not imply that a
woman on entering a convent renounced all rights of property, an
assumption on the strength of which the Church historian Rohrbacher
interprets as applying to canonesses the entire chapter of directions
promulgated at Aachen in 816, in the interest of women living the
religious life[542]. But the terms used in these provisions are the
ordinary ones applied to abbess and nun[543]. Helyot, who has a wider
outlook, and who speaking of the canon explains how this term was at first
applied to all living _in canone_, points out that uncertainty hangs about
many early settlements of women abroad, the members of which were in the
true sense professed[544]. It seems probable that they at first observed
the rule of St Benedict, and afterwards departed from it, as has been
pointed out above in connection with Saxon convents.

The tenor of the provisions made at Aachen shows that the monastic life of
women in a number of early settlements abroad rested on a peculiar basis,
and points to the fact that the inmates of settlements founded at an
early date were in some measure justified when they declared later that
they had always held certain liberties, and insisted on a distinction
between themselves and other nuns. The position of the inmates of some of
these houses continued different from that of the members of other
nunneries till the time of the Reformation. In England, however, this
difference does not seem to have existed. The inmates of the few Austin
nunneries, of which there were fifteen at the dissolution, though they are
frequently spoken of as canonesses in the charters that are secured by
them, appear to have lived a life in no way different from that of other
nuns, while they were in residence, but it may be they absented themselves
more frequently.

When once their position was defined the spread of the Austin Canons was
rapid; they combined the learning of the Benedictine with the devotional
zeal of the Cistercian, and ingratiated themselves with high and low. Of
all the settlements of the Austin Canons abroad that of St Victor in Paris
stands first in importance. It became a retreat for some of the master
minds of the age[545], and its influence on English thinkers was
especially great[546]. Austin Canons came from France into England as
early as 1108. At first their activity here was chiefly philanthropic,
they founded hospitals and served in them; but they soon embraced a
variety of interests. In the words of Kate Norgate speaking with reference
to England[547]: ‘The scheme of Austin Canons was a compromise between the
old-fashioned system of canons and that of monkish confraternities; but a
compromise leaning strongly towards the monastic side, tending more and
more towards it with every fresh development, and distinguished chiefly by
a certain elasticity of organisation which gave scope to an almost
unlimited variety in the adjustment of the relations between the active
and the contemplative life of the members of the order, thus enabling it
to adapt itself to the most dissimilar temperaments and to the most
diverse spheres of activity.’

Their educational system also met with such success that before the close
of the reign of Henry I two members of the fraternity had been promoted to
the episcopate and one to the primacy. In the remarks of contemporary
writers on religious settlements, it is curious to note in what a
different estimation regular canons and monks are held by those who
shared the interests of court circles. For the courtier, as we shall
presently see, sympathised with the canon but abused and ridiculed the

Throughout the early Christian ages the idea had been steadily gaining
ground that the professed religious should eschew contact with the outside
world, and it was more and more urged that the moral and mental welfare of
monk and nun was furthered by their confining their activity within the
convent precincts. Greater seclusion was first enforced among women; for
in the combined orders the nuns remained inside the monastery, and were
removed from contact with the world, while the canons were but little
restricted in their movements. How soon habitual seclusion from the world
became obligatory it is of course very difficult to determine, but there
is extant a highly interesting pamphlet, written about the year 1190 by
the monk Idung of the Benedictine monastery of St Emmeran in Bavaria,
which shows that professed religious women in the district he was
acquainted with went about as freely as the monks, and did not even wear a
distinctive dress. The pamphlet[548] is the more interesting as Idung was
evidently distressed by the behaviour of the nuns, but failed to find an
authority on which to oppose their actions. He admits that the rule as
drafted by St Benedict is intended alike for men and women, and that there
are no directions to be found in it about confining nuns in particular,
and in fact the rule allowed monks and nuns to go abroad freely as long as
their superior approved. Idung then sets forth with many arguments that
nuns are the frailer vessel; and he illustrates this point by a mass of
examples adduced from classical and Biblical literature. He proves to
himself the advisability of nuns being confined, but he is at a loss where
to go for the means of confining them. And he ends his pamphlet with the
advice that as it is impossible to interfere with the liberty of nuns, it
should at least be obligatory for them when away from home to wear clothes
which would make their vocation obvious.

No doubt the view held by this monk was shared by others, and public
opinion fell in with it, and insisted on the advantages of seclusion. Many
Benedictine houses owned outlying manors which were often at a
considerable distance, and the management of which required a good deal of
moving about on the part of the monks and nuns who were told off for the
purpose. We shall see later that those who had taken the religious vow had
pleasure as their object as much as business in going about; but
complaints about the Benedictines of either sex are few compared with
those raised against the Cistercian monks. For the Cistercians in their
capacity of producers visited fairs and markets and, where occasion
offered, were ready to drive a bargain, which was especially objected to
by the ministers of the Church, who declared that the Cistercians lowered
the religious profession in general estimation. Consequently orders which
worked on opposite lines enjoyed greater favour with the priesthood; such
as the monastic order of Grandmont, which originally demanded of its
members that they should not quit their settlement and forbade their
owning any animals except bees; and the order of Chartreuse, which
confined each monk to his cell, that is, to a set of rooms with a garden
adjoining[549]. But these orders did not secure many votaries owing to
their severity and narrowness.

Thus at the close of the 12th century a number of new religious orders had
been founded which spread from one country to another by means of an
effective system of organization, raising enthusiasm for the peaceful
pursuits of convent life among all classes of society. The reason of their
success lay partly in their identifying themselves with the ideal
aspirations of the age, partly in the political unrest of the time which
favoured the development of independent institutions, but chiefly in the
diversity of occupation which the professed religious life now offered.
The success obtained by the monastic orders however did not fail to rouse
apprehension among the representatives of the established Church, and it
seems well in conclusion to turn and recall some of the remarks passed on
the new orders by contemporary writers who moved in the court of Henry II

It has been pointed out how the sympathies of court circles at this period
in England were with the Church as represented by the priesthood; courtier
and priest were at one in their antagonism against monks, but in sympathy
with the canons. Conspicuous among these men stands Gerald Barri (c.
1147-c. 1220), a Welshman of high abilities and at one time court chaplain
to the king. He hated all monkish orders equally, and for the delectation
of some friends whom he entertained at Oxford he compiled a collection of
monkish scandals known as ‘The Mirror of the Church[550],’ in which he
represents the Cluniac monk as married to Luxury, and the Cistercian monk
to Avarice; but, in spite of this, incidental remarks in the stories he
tells give a high opinion of the Cistercian’s industry, hospitality and
unbounded charity. Gerald mentions as a subject for ridicule that the
Cistercian monk lived not on rent, but on the produce of his labour, an
unaristocratic proceeding which was characteristic of the order. Gerald’s
attitude is reflected in that of Ralph de Glanvil († 1190), justiciar of
England during the reign of Henry II, a clever and versatile man of whom
we know, through his friend Map, that he disliked all the monkish orders.
But his enthusiasm for religious settlements was not inconsiderable, and
several settlements of the Premonstrant or White Canons were founded by

The student of the period is familiar with the likes and dislikes of
Walter Map († c. 1210), great among poets and writers of the age, who
disliked all monks, but especially the Cistercians[551]. His friend Gerald
tells how this hatred had originated in the encroachments made by the
monks of Newenham on the rights and property of the church he held at
Westbury. For the perseverance with which Cistercian monks appropriated
all available territory and interfered with the rights of church and
chapel, made them generally odious to the ministers of the Church; their
encroachments were an increasing grievance. John of Salisbury, afterwards
bishop of Chartres († after 1180), directly censured as pernicious the
means taken by the monks to extend their power. He tells us they procured
from Rome exemption from diocesan jurisdiction, they appropriated the
right of confession, they performed burial rites; in short they usurped
the keys of the Church[552]. By the side of these remarks it is
interesting to recall the opinion of the monkish historian, William of
Malmesbury, who a generation earlier had declared that the Cistercian
monks had found the surest road to heaven.

All these writers, though lavish in their criticisms on monks, tell us
hardly anything against nuns. The order of St Gilbert for canons and nuns
alone calls forth some remarks derogatory to the women. Nigel Wirecker,
himself a monk, giving vent to his embittered spirit against Church and
monkish institutions generally in the satire of Brunellus, launches into a
fierce attack against the tone which then prevailed in women’s
settlements[553]. He does not think it right that women whose antecedents
are of the worst kind should adopt the religious profession and that as a
means of preserving chastity they should systematically enjoin hatred of

A similar reference is contained in the poem in Norman French called the
‘Order of Fair Ease,’ which is a production of the 13th century, and which
caricatures the different religious orders by feigning an order that
unites the characteristic vices of all[554]. It is chiefly curious in the
emphasis it lays on the exclusiveness of monasteries generally,
representing them as reserved for the aristocracy. It contains little on
nunneries and only a few remarks which are derogatory to the combined
order of Sempringham.

These remarks were obviously called forth by the fact that the combined
orders in particular admitted women from different ranks of life. For
generally nunneries and their inmates enjoyed favour with churchman and
courtier, whose contempt for the monk does not extend to the nun. In the
correspondence of Thomas Beket, John of Salisbury, Peter of Blois and
others there are letters to nuns of various houses which show that these
men had friends and relatives among the inmates of nunneries. Indeed where
members of the same family adopted the religious profession, the son
habitually entered the Church while the daughter entered a nunnery. A
sister of Thomas Beket was abbess at Barking, and various princesses of
the royal house were abbesses of nunneries, as we shall presently see.
They included Mary, daughter of Stephen (Romsey); a natural daughter of
Henry II (Barking), and Matilda, daughter of Edward I (Amesbury); Queen
Eleanor wife of Henry III also took the veil at Amesbury.

§ 2. Benedictine Convents in the Twelfth Century.

From this general review of the different orders we pass on to the state
of nunneries in England during the 12th century, and to those incidents in
their history which give some insight into their constitution.

Attention is first claimed by the old Benedictine settlements which still
continued in prosperity and independence. Of these houses only those which
were in connection with the royal house of Wessex remained at the close of
the 10th century; those of the northern and midland districts had
disappeared. Some were deserted, others had been laid waste during the
Danish invasions; it has been observed that with the return of
tranquillity under Danish rule, not one of the houses for women was
restored. Secular monks or laymen took possession of them, and when they
were expelled, the Church claimed the land, or the settlement was restored
to the use of monks. Some of the great houses founded and ruled by women
in the past were thus appropriated to men. Whitby and Ely rose in renewed
splendour under the rule of abbots; Repton, Wimbourne and numerous other
nunneries became the property of monks.

Various reasons have been given for the comparatively low ebb at which
women’s professed religious life remained for a time. Insecurity during
times of warfare, and displacement of the centres of authority, supply
obvious reasons for desertion and decay. A story is preserved showing how
interference from without led to the disbanding of a nunnery. The Danish
earl Swegen († 1052), son of Earl Godwin, took away (vi abstractam) the
abbess Eadgifu of Leominster in Herefordshire in 1048, and kept her with
him for a whole year as his wife. The archbishop of Canterbury and the
bishop of Worcester threatened him with excommunication, whereupon he sent
her home, avenging himself by seizing lands of the monastery of Worcester.
He then fled from England and was outlawed, but at a later period he is
said to have wanted the abbess back. The result is not recorded, for
Leominster as a women’s settlement ceased to exist about this time[555].
There is no need to imagine a formal dissolution of the settlement. The
voluntary or involuntary absence of the abbess in times of warfare
supplies quite a sufficient reason for the disbanding of the nuns.

About the same time a similar fate befell the monastery of
Berkley-on-Severn, in spite of the heroic behaviour of its abbess. The
story is told by Walter Map how it was attacked and plundered at the
instigation of Earl Godwin († 1053) and how in spite of the stand made by
the abbess, a ‘strong and determined’ woman, the men who took possession
of it turned it into a ‘pantheon, a very temple of harlotry[556].’ Berkley
also ceased to exist[557].

The monasteries ruled by women, which survived the political changes due
to the Danish invasion and the Norman Conquest, had been in connection
with women of the house of Cerdic; with hardly an exception they were
situated in the province of Wessex within the comparatively small area
of Dorset, Wilts, and Hampshire. Chief among them were Shaftesbury,
Amesbury, Wilton (or Ellandune), Romsey, and St Mary Winchester (or
Nunnaminster). With these must be classed Barking in Essex, one of the
oldest settlements in the land, which had been deserted at one time but
was refounded by King Edgar, and which together with the Wessex nunneries,
carried on a line of uninterrupted traditions from the 9th century to the
time of the dissolution.

The manors owned by these settlements at the time of the Conquest lay in
different shires, often at a considerable distance from the monastery

From the account of survey in the Domesday book we gather that Shaftesbury
had possessions in Sussex, Wiltshire, Dorset, and Hampshire[558], and that
Nunnaminster owned manors in Hampshire, Berkshire, and Wiltshire[559].
Barking, the chief property of which lay in Essex, also held manors in
Surrey, Middlesex, Berkshire, and Bedfordshire[560].

These monasteries were abbacies, as indeed were all houses for nuns
founded before the Conquest. The abbess, like the abbot, had the power of
a bishop within the limits of her own house and bore a crozier as a sign
of her rank. Moreover the abbesses of Shaftesbury, Wilton, Barking, and
Nunnaminster ‘were of such quality that they held of the king by an entire
barony,’ and by right of tenure had the privilege at a later date of being
summoned to parliament, though this lapsed on account of their sex[561].

The abbess as well as the abbot had a twofold income; she drew
spiritualities from the churches which were in her keeping, and
temporalities by means of her position as landlord and landowner. The
abbess of Shaftesbury, who went by the title of abbess of St Edward, had
in her gift several prebends, or portions of the appropriated tithes or
lands for secular priests. In the reign of Henry I she found seven knights
for the king’s service, and had writs regularly directed to her to send
her quota of soldiers into the field in proportion to her knights’ fees;
she held her own courts for pleas of debts, etc., the perquisites of which
belonged to her[562].

To look through the cartularies of some of the old monasteries, is to
realise how complex were the duties which devolved on the ruler of one of
these settlements, and they corroborate the truth of the remark that the
first requirement for a good abbot was that he should have a head for
business. Outlying manors were in the hands of bailiffs who managed them,
and the house kept a clerk who looked after its affairs in the spiritual
courts; for the management and protection of the rights and privileges of
the property claimed unceasing care.

The Benedictine abbesses do not seem to have been wanting in business and
managing capacity. At the time of the dissolution the oldest nunneries in
the land with few exceptions were also the wealthiest. The wealth of some
was notorious. A saying was current in the western provinces that if the
abbot of Glastonbury were to marry the abbess of Shaftesbury, their heir
would have more land than the king of England[563]. The reason of this
wealth lies partly in the fact that property had been settled on them at a
time when land was held as a comparatively cheap commodity; but it speaks
well for the managing capacities of those in authority that the high
standing was maintained. The rulers prevented their property from being
wasted or alienated during the 12th and 13th centuries, when the vigour or
decline of an institution so largely depended on the capacity of the
individual representing it, and they continued faithful to their
traditions by effecting a compromise during the 14th and 15th centuries,
when the increased powers of the Church and the consolidation of the
monarchical power threatened destruction to institutions of the kind.

It is worthy of attention that while all nunneries founded during
Anglo-Saxon times were abbacies, those founded after the Conquest were
generally priories. Sixty-four Benedictine nunneries date their foundation
from after the Conquest, only three of which were abbacies[564]. The
Benedictine prioress was in many cases subject to an abbot; her authority
varied with the conditions of her appointment, but in all cases she was
below the abbess in rank. The explanation is to be sought in the system of
feudal tenure. Women no longer held property, nunneries were founded and
endowed by local barons or by abbots. Where power from the preceding
period devolved on the woman in authority, she retained it; but where new
appointments were made the current tendency was in favour of curtailing
her power.

Similarly all the Cistercian nunneries in England, which numbered
thirty-six at the dissolution, were without exception priories. The power
of women professing the order abroad and the influence of the Cistercian
abbesses in Spain and France have been mentioned--facts which preclude the
idea of there being anything in the intrinsic nature of the order contrary
to the holding of power by women. The form the settlement took in each
country was determined by the prevailing drift of the time, and in England
during the 11th and 12th centuries it was in favour of less independence
for women.

Various incidents in the history of nunneries illustrate the comparatively
dependent position of these settlements after the Conquest. At first
Sheppey had been an abbacy. It had been deserted during the viking period;
and at the instigation of the archbishop of Canterbury about the year 1130
nuns were brought there from Sittingbourne and the house was restored as a

Amesbury again, one of the oldest and wealthiest abbeys in the land for
women, was dissolved and restored as a priory, dependent on the abbess of
Fontevraud. This change of constitution presents some interesting
features. The lives of the women assembled there in the 12th century were
of a highly reprehensible character; the abbess was accused of
incontinence and her evil ways were followed by the nuns. There was no way
out of the difficulty short of removing the women in a body, and to
accomplish this was evidently no easy undertaking. Several charters of the
time of King John and bearing his signature are in existence. The abbess,
whose name is not on record, retired into private life on a pension of ten
marks, and the thirty nuns of her convent were placed in other nunneries.
A prioress and twenty-four nuns were then brought over from Fontevraud and
established at Amesbury, which became for a time a cell to the foreign
house[565]. This connection with France, at a time when familiarity with
French formed part of a polite education, caused Amesbury to become the
chosen retreat of royal princesses. During the wars with France under the
Edwards, when many priories and cells were cut off from their foreign
connection, Amesbury regained its old standing as an abbacy.

Several of the Benedictine nunneries founded after the Conquest owed
their foundation to abbacies of men. Some were directly dependent cells,
like Sopwell in Hertfordshire, a nunnery founded by the abbot of St
Albans, who held the privilege of appointing its prioress. So absolute was
this power that when the nuns appointed a prioress of their own choice in
1330, she was deposed by the abbot of St Albans, who appointed another
person in her stead[566]. Similarly the nunnery at Kilburn was a cell to
Westminster, its prioress being appointed by the abbot of
Westminster[567]. But as a general rule the priories were so constituted
that the nuns might appoint a prioress subject to the approval of the
patron of their house, and she was then consecrated to her office by the

Various incidents show how jealously each house guarded its privileges and
how needful this was, considering the changes that were apt to occur, for
the charters of each religious house were the sole guarantee of its
continued existence. From time to time they were renewed and confirmed,
and if the representative of the house was not on the alert, he might
awake to find his privileges encroached upon. In regard to the changes
which were liable to occur the following incident deserves mention. In the
year 1192 the archbishop of York formed the plan of subjecting the nunnery
of St Clement’s at York[568], a priory founded by his predecessor
Thurstan, to the newly-founded abbacy for women at Godstow. Godstow was
one of the few women’s abbacies founded after the Conquest, and owed its
wealth and influence chiefly to its connection with the family of Fair
Rosamond, at one time the mistress of Henry II, who spent the latter part
of her life there. But the nuns of St Clement’s, who had always been free,
would not obey the abbess of Godstow, and they saved themselves from the
archbishop’s interference by appealing directly to the Court of Rome.

A curious incident occurred during the reign of Henry III in connection
with Stanford, a nunnery in Northamptonshire. Stanford was a priory
dependent on the abbot of Peterborough who had founded it. It appears that
the prioress and her convent, in soliciting confirmation of their
privileges from Rome, employed a certain proctor, who, besides the desired
confirmation, procured the insertion of several additional articles into
the document, one of which was permission for the nuns to choose their own
prioress, and another a release from certain payments. When the abbot of
Peterborough became aware of these facts he threatened to complain to the
Pope, whereupon the prioress with the nuns’ approval carried all their
charters and records of privileges to the archbishop of Canterbury,
alleging that the proctor had acted against their order. They renounced
all claim to privileges secretly obtained, and besought the primate to
represent their conduct favourably to the Pope and to make peace between
them and their patrons[569].

Both these incidents occurred in connection with Benedictine nunneries.
The difficulties which occurred in Cistercian nunneries are less easy to
estimate, as they were not daughter-houses to men’s Cistercian abbacies,
but in many cases held their privileges by a bull obtained directly from
the Pope. Thus Sinningthwaite in Yorkshire[570], founded in 1160, held a
bull from Alexander III which exempted the nuns from paying tithes on the
lands they farmed, such exemption being the peculiar privilege of many
Cistercian settlements. Other bulls secured by Cistercian nunneries in
England are printed by Dugdale[571].

A few incidents are recorded in connection with some of the royal
princesses, which illustrate the attitude commonly assumed towards
professed nuns, and give us an idea of the estimation in which convents
were held. Queen Margaret of Scotland we are told desired to become a nun;
her mother and her sister Christina both took the veil, and her daughters,
the princesses Matilda and Mary, lived at Romsey for some years with their
aunt Christina. As Pope Innocent IV canonised (1250) Queen Margaret of
Scotland a few words must be devoted to her.

Her father Edward, the son of Edmund Ironside († 1016), had found refuge
at the Scottish court when he came from abroad with his wife Agatha and
their children, a son and two daughters. Of these daughters, Christina
became a nun; but Margaret was either persuaded or constrained to marry
King Malcolm in 1070, and having undertaken the duties of so august a
station as that of queen, she devoted her energies to introducing reforms
into Scotland and to raising the standard of industrial art. We possess a
beautiful description of her life, probably written by her chaplain
Turgot[572], and her zeal and high principles are further evidenced by
her letters, some of which are addressed to the primate Lanfranc.

Margaret’s two daughters, Matilda and Mary, were brought up in the
convent, but it is not known when they came to Romsey in Wessex; indeed
their connection with Wessex offers some chronological difficulties. Their
mother’s sister Christina became a professed nun at Romsey in 1086[573];
she may have lived before in a nunnery in the north of England[574], and
there advocated her niece Matilda’s acceptance of the religious profession
as a protection against the Normans. If this is not the case it is
difficult to fix the date of King Malcolm’s scorn for her proposal that
Matilda should become a nun[575]. King Malcolm was killed fighting against
William Rufus in 1093, Queen Margaret died a few days afterwards, and the
princesses Matilda and Mary, of whom the former was about thirteen, from
that time till 1100 dwelt at Romsey in the south of England. In the year
1100, after the violent death of Rufus, Henry, the younger of his
brothers, laid claim to the English crown. A union with a princess, who on
the mother’s side was of the house of Cerdic, appeared in every way
desirable. According to the statement of William of Malmesbury († c. 1142)
Henry was persuaded by his friends, and especially by his prelates, to
marry Matilda. ‘She had worn the veil to avoid ignoble marriages,’ says
William, who lived close to the locality and was nearly a contemporary,
‘and when the king wished to marry her, witnesses were brought to say she
had worn it without profession[576].’ This is borne out by the historian
Orderic Vitalis († 1142), whose information however is derived at second
hand, for he enlarges on the princesses’ stay with the nuns at Romsey, and
on the instruction they received in letters and good manners, but he does
not say that they were actually professed[577].

The fullest account of the event is given by Eadmer († 1124), who was
nearly connected with the primate Anselm, and he naturally puts the most
favourable construction on Matilda’s conduct. According to him she wished
to leave the convent and went before Anselm to plead her cause.

‘I do not deny having worn the veil,’ the princess said. ‘When I was a
child my aunt Christina, whom you know to be a determined woman, in order
to protect me against the violence of the Normans, put a piece of black
cloth on my head, and when I removed it gave me blows and bad language. So
I trembling and indignant wore the veil in her presence. But as soon as I
could get out of her sight I snatched it off and trampled it
underfoot[578].’ In a lively way she goes on to describe how her father
seeing the veil on her head became angry and tore it off, saying he had no
intention other than that she should be married. Anselm, before complying
with the wish of the princess, convened a chapter at Lambeth, but after
hearing their decision, he declared Matilda free and united her in
marriage to the king.

Anselm’s behaviour is doubtless faithfully represented by Eadmer.
Curiously enough later historians, Robert of Gloucester, Matthew Paris and
Rudbone († c. 1234), represent Matilda as unwilling to leave the cloister
to be married; and in one of these accounts she is described as growing
angry, and pronouncing a curse on the possible offspring of the union.
Walter Map goes so far as to say that the king took to wife a veiled and
professed nun, Rome neither assenting nor dissenting, but remaining

Perhaps the validity of the union was afterwards for political reasons
called in question. At any rate Mary, Matilda’s sister, also left the
convent to be married to Eustace, Count of Boulogne, without objection
being raised.

That Matilda did not object to leaving the cloister, we have conclusive
proof in her great and continued affection for Anselm as shown in her
letters to him. These letters and the charitable deeds of the queen, throw
light on the Latinity of the Romsey pupil and on the tastes she had
imbibed there.

We shall have occasion to return to Matilda again in connection with the
philanthropic movement of the age, and we shall find her founding the
hospital of St Giles in the soke of Aldgate, and bringing the first Austin
Canons from France into England[579].

All her life she retained a taste for scholarly pursuits, and patronised
scholars and men of letters. Her correspondence with the primate
Anselm[580] yields proof of her own studies and the freedom with which she
wrote Latin.

In one of these letters, written shortly after her marriage (bk 3. 55),
Matilda urges the primate in strong terms to abstain from the severe
fasting he practises, quoting from Cicero ‘on Old Age,’ and arguing that
as the mind needs food and drink, so does the body; she at the same time
admits the Scriptures enjoin the duty of fasting, and Pythagoras, Socrates
and others urge the need of frugality. Anselm in his answer incidentally
mentions having joined her to the king in lawful wedlock.

Matilda’s next letters are less fraught with learning, and in unaffected
terms express grief at Anselm’s voluntary exile, which was the outcome of
his quarrel with the king. She is saddened by his absence and longs for
his return (3. 93); she would act as intercessor between him and her
husband (3. 96), and she writes to the Pope on Anselm’s behalf (3. 99).
The queen both read and admired Anselm’s writings, and compares his style
to that of Cicero, Quintilian, Jerome, Gregory and others (3. 119) with
whom her reading at Romsey may have made her acquainted.

Anselm is not slow in answering that the king’s continued bitterness is to
him a source of grief, and in expressing the desire that the queen may
turn his heart. It is good of her to wish for his return, which, however,
does not depend on himself; besides ‘surely she wishes him to act in
accordance with his conscience.’ In one of these letters he accuses the
queen of disposing otherwise than she ought of the churches which are in
her keeping (3. 57, 81, 97, 107, 120, 128).

Anselm’s continued absence from Canterbury, which was due to the quarrel
about investiture, was felt to be a national calamity, and many letters
passed between him and those among the Church dignitaries who sided with
him against the king.

Among Anselm’s correspondents were several abbesses of Wessex settlements,
who seem to have been in no way prejudiced against him on account of the
approval he gave to Matilda’s leaving the cloister. He writes in a
friendly strain to another Matilda, abbess of St Mary’s, Winchester
(Winton), thanking her for her prayers, urging her to cultivate purity of
heart and beauty of mind as an encouragement to virtue, and begging her to
show obedience to Osmund (bishop of Winchester) in affairs temporal and
spiritual (3. 30). To Adeliz, also abbess at St Mary’s (3. 70), he writes
to say she must not be sorry that William Giffard has left his appointment
as bishop of Winchester, for his going is a reason for rejoicing among his
friends, as it proves his steadfastness in religious matters. He also
writes to Eulalia, abbess (of Shaftesbury), who was anxious for him to
come back, and begs her to pray that his return may prosper (3. 125).

The references to the Benedictine nunneries of Wessex contained in this
correspondence are supplemented by information from other sources.

In the early part of the 12th century a girl named Eva was brought up at a
convent, but which she left to go to Anjou, since she preferred the life
of a recluse there to the career which was open to her in the English
nunnery. Her life abroad has been described in verse by Hilarius († c.
1124) who is the earliest known Englishman who wrote religious plays.
After studying under Abelard Hilarius had taken up his abode at Angers,
near the place where Eva dwelt, and was much impressed by her piety and

From his poem we gather that Eva had been given into the care of the nuns
at St Mary’s, Winchester (Winton), a place which he designates as ‘good
and renowned.’ The girl’s progress in learning was the subject of wonder
to the abbess and her companions, but when Eva reached the age at which
her enrolment as a member of the community was close at hand, ‘she turned’
in the words of the poet, ‘from success as though it had been a sinful
trespass,’ and left the nunnery to go abroad.

Her admirer Hilarius has celebrated other women who were devoted to
religious pursuits. He addresses one of them as ‘Bona,’ and praises her
for caring little for the religious garb unless good works accompany it.
The meaning of her name and that of other religious women whom Hilarius
also addresses, such as ‘Superba,’ and ‘Rosa,’ gives him an opportunity
for compliments on the virtues these names suggest. His poems, though
insignificant in themselves, add touches to our knowledge of women who
adopted the religious profession.

In the wars which ensued after the death of Henry I (1134) the nunneries
of Wessex witnessed the climax and the end of the struggle. The Empress
Matilda, daughter of Henry I and Queen Matilda, who claimed the crown on
the strength of her descent, finding the sympathies of London divided,
approached Winchester, and was received by two convents of monks and the
convent of nuns who came forth to meet her. The Empress for a time resided
at St Mary’s Abbey, and there received a visit from Theobald, archbishop
of Canterbury[582]. During the fighting which followed the nunnery of
Wherwell was burnt[583], and perhaps St Mary’s Abbey at Winchester was
destroyed[584]. Matilda finally yielded to Stephen, and left England on
condition that her son Henry should succeed to the crown.

The nunnery of Romsey continued its connection with royalty, and we find
the daughter of Stephen, Mary of Blois, established there as abbess
previous to her marriage. Her case again throws curious side-lights on the
foundation of convents and the possibilities open to women who adopted the
religious profession.

The princess Mary had come over from St Sulpice in France with seven nuns
to Stratford at Bow (otherwise St Leonard’s, Bromley in Middlesex), when
the manor of Lillechurch in Kent was granted to the nunnery there by King
Stephen for her own and her companions’ maintenance[585]. But these women,
as the charter has it, because of the ‘harshness of the rule and their
different habits’ could not and would not stay at Stratford, and with the
convent’s approval they left it and removed to Lillechurch, which was
constituted by charter a priory for them. Mary removed later to Romsey
where she became abbess some time before 1159[586], for in that year her
brother William, the sole surviving heir of Stephen, died, so that she was
left heiress to the county of Boulogne. She was thereupon brought out of
the convent at the instigation of Henry II, and married to Matthew, son of
the Count of Flanders, who through her became Count of Boulogne. Thomas
Beket, who was then chancellor, not primate, was incensed at this unlawful
proceeding, and intervened as a protector of monastic rule, but the only
result of his interference was to draw on himself the hatred of Count
Matthew[587]. It is said that Mary returned to Romsey twelve years later.
Her daughters were, however, legitimised in 1189 and both of them married.

Various letters found here and there in the correspondence of this period
show how women vowed to religion retained their connection with the outer
world. Among the letters of Thomas Beket there is one in which he tells
his ‘daughter’ Idonea to transcribe the letter he is forwarding, and lay
it before the archbishop of York in the presence of witnesses[588]. It
has been mentioned that a sister of Thomas Beket was in 1173 abbess at

Again, among the letters of Peter of Blois († c. 1200), chaplain to Henry
II, are several addressed to women who had adopted the religious
profession. Anselma ‘a virgin’ is urged to remain true to her calling;
Christina, his ‘sister,’ is exhorted to virtue, and Adelitia ‘a nun’ is
sent a discourse on the beauties of the unmarried life[589].

§ 3. The Order of St Gilbert of Sempringham[590].

The study of the order of St Gilbert, which is of English origin, shows
how in this country also sympathy with convent life was spreading during
the 12th century, and how, owing to the protection afforded to peaceful
and domestic pursuits by the religious houses, many girls and women of the
middle classes became nuns. From an intellectual point of view the order
of St Gilbert has little to recommend it, for we know of no men or women
belonging to the order who distinguished themselves in learning,
literature or art. As a previous chapter has indicated, its purpose was
chiefly to prevent women from drifting into the unattached and homeless
class, the existence of which was beginning to be recognised as
prejudicial to society.

The material for the study of the order is abundant. We have several
accounts of the life and work of Gilbert, besides minute injunctions he
drafted to regulate the life of his communities, and there are references
to him in contemporary literature. The success of his efforts, like that
of the men who founded combined orders of canons and nuns abroad, was due
to the admission of women into his settlements regardless of their class
and antecedents. Like Robert of Arbrissel his interest centred in women,
but he differed from him in giving the supreme authority of his
settlements into the hands of men. For the settlements which afterwards
became double originated in Gilbert’s wish to provide for women who
sought him as their spiritual adviser. It was only in consequence of the
difficulties he encountered that canons were added to the settlements.

Helyot likens the order of St Gilbert to that of Norbert, the founder of
the order of Prémontré[591], but here too there are marked points of
difference, for in disposition and character Gilbert was as unlike Norbert
as he was to Robert; he had neither the masterfulness of the one nor the
clear-sighted determination of the other. The reason of his popularity
lies more in his gentleness and persuasiveness, and these qualities made
him especially attractive to women.

Gilbert was a native of Lincolnshire, born about 1083, the son of a
wealthy Norman baron and an English woman of low rank. His ungainly
appearance and want of courtly bearing rendered him unfit for knightly
service. He was sent to France for his education and there attained some
reputation as a teacher. After his return home he devoted his energies to
teaching boys and girls in the neighbourhood. His father bestowed on him
two livings, one of which was at Sempringham. His chief characteristic was
pity for the lowly and humble, and this attracted the attention among
others of Robert Bloet, bishop of Lincoln († 1123). For a time Gilbert
acted as a clerk in Bloet’s house, and after his death remained with his
successor Alexander († 1148) in a like capacity. With Alexander he
consulted about permanently providing for those of the lower classes whom
his liberality was attracting to Sempringham.

The first step taken by Gilbert was to erect suitable dwellings round the
church of St Andrew at Sempringham for seven women whom he had taught and
who had devoted themselves to religion under his guidance, and as they
were not to leave their dwelling place, lay sisters were appointed to wait
on them. He also provided dwellings at Sempringham for the poor, the
infirm, for lepers, and orphans.

The order of Gilbert is held to have been established before 1135, the
year of King Henry I’s death[592]. The author of his life in Dugdale
likens Gilbert’s progress at this time to the chariot of Aminadab; to it
clung clerics and laymen, literate and illiterate women, and it was drawn
by Master Gilbert himself.

Gilbert had entered into friendly relations with the Cistercian monks who
were then gaining ground in Yorkshire, and William, first abbot of
Rievaulx († 1145-6), was among them. He had a good deal to do with Ailred
(† 1166), a notable north-country man who came from Scotland to live at
Rievaulx, and afterwards became abbot successively of Revesby and

At this time there were no nunneries in the north of England, for the
great settlements of the early English period had passed away and no new
houses for women had been founded. The numbers of those who flocked to
Gilbert were so great that he felt called upon to give them a more
definite organisation. His friendship with Cistercian monks no doubt
turned his eyes to Citeaux, and the wish arose in him to affiliate his
convents to the Cistercian order. Having placed his congregations under
the care of the Cistercians, he set out for Citeaux about 1146.

But his hopes were not fulfilled. At Citeaux he met Pope Eugenius III (†
1153) and other leading men. He cemented his friendship with Bernard of
Clairvaux and entered into friendly relations with Malachy, bishop of
Armagh († 1148), who had introduced the Cistercian order into Ireland. But
the assembly at Citeaux came to the conclusion that they would not preside
over another religious order, especially not over one for women[593], and
Gilbert was urged to remain at the head of his communities and Bernard and
Malachy presented him with an abbot’s staff.

He returned to England, burdened with a responsibility from which he would
gladly have been free, and obliged to frame a definite rule of life for
his followers. As one account puts it, ‘he now studied the rules of all
religious orders and culled from each its flowers.’ The outcome of his
efforts was the elaborate set of injunctions which now lie before us.

From these injunctions we can see how Gilbert’s original plan had
expanded, for his settlements consisted of bands of canons, lay-brethren,
nuns, and lay-sisters. One set of rules is drafted for the canons who
observed the rule of St Augustine and performed religious service for the
double community, and a separate set for the laymen who acted as servants.
And similarly there is one set of rules for the nuns who lived by the rule
of St Benedict, and another for their servants the lay-sisters.

These rules suggest many points of similarity to the combined settlements
of canons and nuns previously founded abroad, but there are also some

In the Gilbertine settlements the dwellings of the men and women were
contiguous, and the convent precincts and the church were divided between
them. The men’s dwelling was under the rule of a prior, but three
prioresses ruled conjointly in the women’s house. The arrangements in both
convents were alike, and the duties of prior and prioress similar, but in
all matters of importance the chief authority belonged to the prior who
was at the head of the whole settlement. The property owned by Gilbertine
settlements apparently consisted largely of sheep, and among the men we
note a number of shepherds and a ‘procurator’ who bought and sold the
animals. The ewes were regularly milked and the wool was either used in
the house for making clothes, or sold. The lay-sisters were appointed to
spin and weave and the nuns to cut out and make the garments.

There was one cellar and one kitchen for the whole settlement, for the
cellaress in the women’s house acted as caterer both for the canons and
the nuns. Domestic duties fell to the share of the women. They cooked the
canons’ food as well as their own and handed the meals into the men’s
quarters through a hole in the wall with a turn-table, through which the
plates and dishes were returned to them. They also made clothes for the
whole establishment.

At the daily chapter held in the women’s house the prioresses presided in
turn, with a companion on either side. The cellaress reported to the
prioress, who settled the allowances and gave out the food. She received
information also from the ‘scrutatrices,’ the nuns whose duty it was to go
the round of the house and report disorders, and according to whose
reports she imposed the various penances.

We also hear in the women’s house of a librarian (‘precentrix[594]’), who
had the keys of the book-case (‘armarium’), which was kept locked except
during reading time when the nuns were allowed the use of the books. There
was to be no quarrelling over the books; the nun like the canon was
directed to take the one allotted to her and not to appropriate that given
to another. Simplicity of life was studied. Pictures and sculpture were
declared superfluous and the crosses used were to be of painted wood. Only
books for choir use were to be written in the convent, but while this
holds good alike for the women and for the men, there is this further
prohibition with regard to the nuns, that talking in Latin was to be
avoided. ‘Altogether,’ says the rule[595], ‘we forbid the use of the
Latin tongue unless under special circumstances.’

The cooking was done by the nuns in turn for a week at a time in
compliance with a regulation contained in the rule of St Benedict. The
librarian also had her week of cooking, and when she was on duty in the
kitchen, gave up her keys to another nun. We hear also of the mistress
appointed to teach the novices, and of the portress who guarded the
approaches to the house.

The injunctions drafted for the canons and the lay members of the
settlement are equally explicit. Directions are also given about tending
the sick, who were to be treated with tenderness and care.

Girls were admitted into the company of the nuns at the age of twelve, but
several years passed before they could be enrolled among the novices. At
the age of twenty the alternative was put before the novice of joining the
nuns or the lay-sisters. If she decided in favour of the latter she could
not afterwards be promoted to the rank of nun; she was bound to observe
chastity and obedience while she remained in the house, but she was not
consecrated. A certain amount of knowledge of the hymns, psalms and books
of service was required from the novice before she could make profession.

The scheme of life worked out by Gilbert met with success and numerous
patrons were found to endow settlements on the plan of that at
Sempringham. As the chronicler says, ‘many wealthy and highborn
Englishmen, counts and barons, seeing and approving of the undertaking the
Lord had initiated and holding that good would come of it, bestowed many
properties (‘fundos et praedia’) on the holy father (Gilbert) and began to
construct on their own account numerous monasteries in various districts.’

The greater number of these settlements were situated in Lincolnshire and
Yorkshire, but judging by the extant charters the conditions and purposes
of their foundations were not always the same. Sometimes the grant is made
conjointly to men and women, sometimes reference is made to the prior
only. In the earlier charters the women are especially noticed, in the
later ones more account is taken of the men. As time went on the order
gradually ceased to have any attraction for women, and at the time of the
dissolution several foundations originally made for men and women were
occupied only by canons.

Gilbert himself did not accept a position of authority in his order but
became a canon at Bullington, one of its settlements. He appears to have
been influential in wider circles and we find him several times at court.
King Henry II visited him, and both the king and Queen Eleanor made grants
of land to the order. Henry regarded Gilbert with so much favour that when
he was summoned before the King’s Court in London on the charge of having
supported Beket in his exile, the king sent a message from abroad ordering
his case to be reserved for royal judgment, which practically meant his

Rapidly as the number of Gilbertine houses increased, the order did not
remain entirely free from trouble, for even in Gilbert’s lifetime
distressing incidents happened which justified to some extent the scornful
remarks of contemporary writers. One of these difficulties arose sometime
between 1153 and 1166 in connection with a girl at Watton. A full account
of the affair was written and forwarded to Gilbert by Ailred, abbot of
Rievaulx[597]. This account illustrates pointedly the readiness of the age
to accept a miraculous rendering of fact, and gives a curious insight into
the temper of a community of nuns. Indeed such violence of conduct, and
details of such behaviour as are here described show that the barbarity of
the age, which so often strikes us in connection with camp and court, was
reflected in the monastery.

Watton was among the older Gilbertine houses and had been founded before
1148 by a nobleman Eustace Fitz-John on property which had belonged to a
nunnery during the early English period[598]. The settlement was among the
larger Gilbertine houses; it owned property to the extent of twenty acres.

The girl had been placed under the care of the nuns of Watton at the
suggestion of Murdach, abbot of Fountains († 1153), and had given endless
trouble by her unbecoming levity and hopeless laziness. ‘She is corrected
by word of mouth but without result, she is urged by blows but there is no
improvement,’ writes Ailred, who speaks of her as a nun without telling us
that she had actually made profession.

She made the acquaintance of one of the lay-brothers who were engaged in
repairing the women’s dwelling. The two contrived to meet frequently out
of doors until at last the nun’s condition became obvious. Her fellow-nuns
were so incensed at this discovery that they treated her with barbarous
cruelty and would have put her to death had not the prioress intervened
and had her chained and imprisoned. The anger of the nuns now turned
against the lay-brother who had brought disgrace on their convent, and
with a mixture of cunning and deceit they managed to discover him and have
him terribly mutilated. ‘I do not praise the deed, but the zeal,’ says
Ailred; ‘I do not approve of bloodshed, but for all that I praise the
virgins’ hatred of such wickedness.’ The esprit de corps among the nuns
and their indignation evidently went far in his eyes to excuse behaviour
which he would not describe as he did if he had not felt it altogether

Meanwhile the nun overcome by contrition was awaiting her delivery in
prison; there she had visions of abbot Murdach who had died some years
before. He first rebuked her, but then miraculously relieved her of her
burden and restored her to her normal condition. The nuns though greatly
surprised were convinced of the truth of the statement concerning the
miraculous doings of Murdach because they found the nun’s chains loosened.
The prior of Watton sent for Ailred to enquire more closely into the
matter. Ailred came, collected all possible evidence, and was convinced
that there had been divine intervention on the girl’s behalf. He wrote an
account of what had happened to Gilbert, with these words as preface: ‘to
know of the Lord’s miracles and of his proofs of divine love and to be
silent about them were sacrilege.’ What became of the girl we are not
told. For trespasses such as hers the rule of Gilbert decreed life-long
incarceration, but the canon for a like trespass suffered no punishment
beyond being expelled from the settlement.

The old age of Gilbert was further troubled by the evil conduct of two
men, Gerard a smith, and Ogger a carpenter. He had taken them into the
order out of charity, but they greatly abused his kindness, appropriated
the revenues of the order, and encouraged dishonesty and sexual
irregularities. Their behaviour was productive of such results that it
called forth a letter from Beket to Gilbert in which he says ‘the greater
our love, the more we are troubled and perturbed by hearing of things
happening in your order, which are a grievance not only before the eyes of
men but before the eyes of God.’

However letters in defence of Gilbert were written by Roger archbishop of
York († 1181), Henry bishop of Winchester († 1171) and William bishop of
Norwich († 1174), who treat the occurrence as a misfortune and praise the
order generally in the warmest terms. Praise from other quarters is not
wanting, which shows that Gilbert’s work was considered remarkable,
especially with regard to the influence he had over women. William of
Newburgh wrote of him: ‘As far as this is concerned, in my opinion he
holds the palm above all others whom we know to have devoted their
energies to the control and government of religious women[599].’

Gilbert lived to an advanced age. Walter Map, writing between 1182 and
1189, speaks of him as over a hundred and well-nigh blind. He was buried
at Sempringham, where his tomb became the goal of many pilgrimages and the
scene of many miracles. He was canonised a saint of the Church by Pope
Innocent II in 1202. One of the accounts of his life, written shortly
after his death, says that the order at that time numbered thirteen
conventual churches and contained seven hundred men and fifteen hundred

The East Riding Antiquarian Society has recently begun excavating on the
site of Watton Priory, one of the oldest Gilbertine settlements, and has
ascertained many particulars about the inner arrangements of this
house[600]. It has found that the church, built on the foundations of a
Norman church which had been destroyed by fire in 1167, was divided
throughout its entire length by a substantial partition wall nearly five
feet thick. The church served for both sexes of the community, which were
kept separate by this partition. In some places remains of this wall were
found up to the height of four feet; this was part of the solid foundation
upon which, above the height of the eye, was erected an open arcade which
made it possible for the whole community to hear the sermon preached on
festal days from the pulpit. The parts into which the church was divided
were of unequal size. Dr Cox, the president of the Society, who read a
paper on the Gilbertine statutes, said that the full complement of the
double house at Watton consisted of a hundred and forty women and seventy
men, and that the larger part of the church was appropriated to the women
and the smaller to the men.

It was further shown by the excavations that the dividing wall had in one
place an archway, covering the door which was opened for the great
processions of both sexes which took place on the fourteen great
festivals of the year and at funerals. Remains were also found of an
opening in the wall with a turn-table, so arranged that articles could be
passed through without either sex seeing the other. Through this the
chalice, when the canons’ mass was over, would be passed back and restored
to the custody of the nuns; no doubt this was constructed on the same plan
as the opening through which the food was passed.

The cloister of the nuns lay on the north side of the transept and must
have been about a hundred feet square, an alley of ten feet wide
surrounding it. It is thought that the stone of which the house was built
must have been brought up the Humber from Whitby. An early writer tells us
that the nuns’ dwelling at Watton was connected by an underground passage
with the holy well at Kilnwick, and that the nuns by means of these waters
performed wonderful cures[601].



  ‘Spernere mundum, spernere nullum, spernere sese,
  Spernere sperni se, quatuor haec bona sunt.’ _Herrad._

§ 1. Art Industries generally.

From consideration of the nuns of different orders we turn to enquire more
closely into the general occupations and productive capacities of nuns
during early Christian times and the Middle Ages. It seems worth while
collecting the information scattered here and there on the work done by
these women, since the grouping together of various notices gives some,
though necessarily an incomplete, idea of the pursuits to which nuns were
devoted when not engaged in religious service. The work done, as we shall
see, includes art productions of every kind, weaving, embroidery, painting
and illuminating as well as writing, which during the period under
consideration must be looked upon as an art.

From the first monastic life had been dominated by the idea that idleness
is at the root of all evil. In a well ordered religious house the times
for work and for leisure, for eating, sleeping and for attendance at
divine service were fixed by custom and were enforced by routine; we shall
treat later of the way in which the day was divided by the canonical
hours. The purpose of the ordinary settlement, beyond observing the hours,
was to educate girls, to train novices and to provide suitable occupation
for the nuns of the convent. In all houses reading and copying books of
devotion was included among the occupations, and in some, the cultivation
of art in one or more of its branches. Between the 8th and the 14th
century religious settlements were the centres of production in
handicrafts and in art industry; to study the art of this period, it is
necessary to study the productions of the monasteries.

A sense of joint ownership united the members of each of the religious
settlements, and this was especially true of the older Benedictine houses
which have fitly been likened to small republics. To the convent inmate
the monastery was the centre of his interests and affections, and the
house’s possessions were in a sense his own. He was proud of them and
proud if he could add to their store. Increased communication with the
south and the east brought books, materials and other beautiful objects
which the inmates of the religious settlement zealously copied and
multiplied. During times of political and social unrest, while states were
in their making, the goldsmith, the scribe, the illuminator, and the
embroiderer, all found protection and leisure in the religious house. The
so-called dark ages, the centuries between 800 and 1200, cease to be dark
as soon as one enquires into the contents of monastic libraries, and the
monotony of convent routine ceases to appear monotonous on entering one of
the old treasuries and reflecting on the aims and aspirations which were
devoted to producing this wealth in design and ornamentation, the bare
fragmentary remains of which are to us of to-day a source of unending
delight and wonder.

Some of the houses ruled by women like so many of those ruled by men
became important centres of culture, where the industrial arts were
cultivated, and where books were prized, stored and multiplied. Nuns as
well as monks were busy transcribing manuscripts, a task as absorbing as
it was laborious, for the difficulties in the way of learning to write can
hardly be overestimated considering the awkwardness of writing materials
and the labour involved in fabricating parchment, ink and pigment. But as
the old writer with a play on the words _armarium_, book-case, and
_armatorium_, armoury, remarks, ‘a monastery without its book-case is what
a castle is without its armoury.’ And all houses, whether for monks or
nuns, took rank as centres of culture in proportion to their wealth in

Of the books over which the early scribe spent so much time and trouble,
comparatively speaking only a few survive. All books are worn out by use,
especially books of devotion; many were destroyed when printing came in
and parchment was handy to the book-binder; many when the Reformation
destroyed convents. The early scribe usually omitted to add his name to
the book he was copying. In the books which are preserved the names of men
scribes are few, and the names of women scribes fewer still, though they
do occasionally occur. Wattenbach, a student of manuscripts and of the
mediæval art of writing, has collected a number of names of women whom he
has found mentioned as scribes. He gives them, adding the remark that
other books no doubt were written by nuns where mention of the fact is

It will be profitable to recall these names and examine the references to
work done by nuns as calligraphists and miniature painters, for here and
there women attained great proficiency in these arts. The amount of
writing done in women’s houses compared with that done by men was no doubt
small, for it was not in this direction that the industry of the nun lay.
But what remains shows that where scope to activity was given talents of
no mean kind were developed.

In some departments of art industry, especially in weaving church
hangings, and embroidering altar cloths and church vestments, nuns greatly
distinguished themselves. In his comprehensive work on church furniture
Bock is eloquent on the industry of nuns. He first praises their early
proficiency in the art of weaving and passes on to the art of embroidery.
‘This art also,’ he says, ‘was chiefly cultivated in religious houses by
pious nuns up to the 12th century. The inmates of women’s establishments
were especially devoted to working decorations for the altar. Their
peaceful seclusion was spent in prayer and in doing embroidery. What work
could seem worthier and nobler than artistic work intended for the
decoration of the altar? It is in the nunnery that the art of design as
well as the technique of weaving were brought to their highest

Owing to the perishable material of this work the amount which was done of
course far exceeded what has been preserved. We often come across remarks
on such work, rarely across remains of it, and we are obliged to take on
trust the praise bestowed by early writers as so little exists by which we
can judge for ourselves. But enough remains to bear out the praise which
contemporaries bestow on the beauties of hangings and vestments
manufactured by nuns, and to give us the highest opinion of their industry
and their artistic skill.

Among women generally embroidery has always had votaries, and in the
nunnery it found a new development. During early Christian ages nuns
worked large hangings for decorating the basilica walls, and short
hangings for the square altar; and when the Gothic style took the place of
the earlier Byzantine in architecture, rendering such hangings
superfluous, they devoted their energies to working church vestments and

The proficiency acquired by the girl in the convent was not lost if she
returned to the world. We hear a good deal of badges and standards worked
by ladies at baronial courts during the age of romance, and their work was
no doubt influenced by what had been evolved in church decoration.

In studying the art industry of the convent, we needs must treat of work
produced with the brush and the pen side by side with work produced with
the needle. At two periods in history, the 8th and 13th centuries, England
takes the lead in art industry, and at both periods there is reference to
excellent work done by nuns.

A former chapter has mentioned how Eadburg, the friend of Boniface, was at
work in her monastery in Thanet in the 8th century, transcribing
scriptural writings on parchment in gold lettering, an art in which she
excelled[604]. Among the gifts sent to Boniface by lady abbesses in
England vestments and altar-cloths are mentioned which had without a doubt
been worked in the houses over which these ladies presided if not actually
made by themselves[605].

The importance and the symbolical meaning which early Christians attached
to death supplies the reason why the abbess of Repton in Mercia sent a
winding-sheet to St Guthlac during his lifetime[606]. Cuthberht of
Lindisfarne was wrapped in a shroud which his friend Aelflaed, abbess of
Whitby, had sent[607]. Both were of linen, for early Christians, who were
content to wear rough woollen clothes during their lifetime, thought it
permissible to be buried in linen and silk. Thus we read that Aethelthrith
the abbess of Ely sent to Cuthberht a present of silk stuffs which she
decorated with gold and jewels and which were shown at his resting-place
at Durham till the 12th century[608]. The silk robe on which the body of
Wilfrith († 709) had been laid was sent as a present to an abbess

About this time silk, which had been rarely seen north of the Alps, was
frequently sent from the east and was greatly prized. It has been
mentioned in a previous chapter how Radegund at Poitiers received a gift
of silk from a relation in Constantinople[610], and among the charges
brought by the turbulent Chrodield against the abbess Leubover was that
she had appropriated part of an altar-cloth to make a robe for her niece.
Caesarius of Arles in his rule for women forbade their working embroidery
except for purposes of church decoration. Repeated complaints were made
during the early ages in England against nuns for wearing embroidery and
silks. The council of Cloveshoe of the year 747 censures the undue
attention given to dress. ‘Time shall be devoted more to reading books and
to chanting psalms than to weaving and decorating (plectendis) clothes
with various colours in unprofitable richness[611].’ But to control the
standard of clothes remained a standing difficulty in all convents, and
especially in those of women[612].

Apart from personal decoration the arts of weaving and embroidering were
encouraged in every way. ‘Towards the 10th century the art of making large
hangings had so far progressed in England,’ says Bock, ‘that large scenes
with many figures were represented[613].’

Inside the cloister and out of it the art flourished, and the mention of
gifts of hangings becomes frequent. Thus Ealdhelm in his ‘Praise of
Virginity’ (c. 7) speaks of hangings made by the nuns, while reference is
made to secular women at the time of the Conquest who did remarkable work.
Among them were Alwid and Liwid who practised the air of embroidery and
taught it[614]. Emma, otherwise Aelfgifu († 1052), after her marriage to
King Knut, made a gift of hangings and vestments to the abbey of Ely, some
of which were embroidered with gold and jewels on silk, others of green
and purple colour were of such splendour that their like could not be
found elsewhere in England[615]. Again, Aelflaed, the wife of Edward the
Confessor († 1066), made hangings with pictures of the apostles for
Frithstan of Winchester.

‘We know,’ says Michel in his work on silk and the use of it in
embroidery[616], ‘that the women of England, long before the Conquest,
worked assiduously at weaving and embroidering, and that they were as
distinguished in this branch of art as men were in others.’ Unfortunately
no specimens of the work done in religious settlements during this early
period have been preserved, so far as I am aware. We do not know what
artist designed and executed the famous Bayeux tapestry which is worked in
woollen cross-stitch on a strip of linen; but it was certainly not the
work of nuns.

The references to weaving and embroidering during the later period are
fewer, but a certain amount of the work done in England has been
preserved, though the clue as to where and by whom it was done is
generally wanting. While weaving and embroidery were throughout important
branches of home industry, art-needlework seems to have owed its higher
development to nuns.

In connection with the prioress Christina of Mergate we hear that she had
worked three mitres and several pairs of sandals in wonderful work (operis
mirifici) as a present for Pope Hadrian IV († 1159), who was of English
origin, and perhaps known to her. Her work was carried to Rome by the
abbot of St Albans, who had affronted Hadrian in early days and wished to
propitiate him; we hear that the Pope was so delighted with the work that
he could not refuse the present[617].

England was, indeed, at this time famous for its embroidery, and her
products were much admired abroad. In the words of Prof. Middleton:

‘Another minor branch of art, in which England during the 13th century far
surpassed the rest of the world, was the art of embroidering delicate
pictures in silk, especially for ecclesiastical vestments. The most famous
embroidered vestments now preserved in various places in Italy are the
handiwork of English embroiderers between 1250 and 1300, though their
authorship is not as a rule recognized by their present possessors. The
embroidered miniatures on these marvellous pieces of needlework resemble
closely in style the illuminations in fine Anglo-Norman manuscripts of the
13th century and in many cases have obviously been copied from manuscript

A conclusion to be possibly drawn from this is that some of the early work
which has come back to this country from Italy may in reality be English.
There is no doubt it is curiously like the work done in England[619]. In a
footnote to the above passage Prof. Middleton points out that the Popes of
the period, on sending the pall to a newly elected English archbishop,
suggested that they would like in return embroidered vestments of English
work, ‘opus anglicum,’ a term at one time applied to work done in a
special style[620]. Its peculiarity seems to have consisted in the working
of figures in coloured floss silk on a piece of material, generally linen;
on this the silk was worked in close-lying chain stitches, which,
following the contours of face and drapery, entirely covered the material
just as the strokes of a brush in a miniature cover the parchment. The
background to these figures was also covered with coloured floss silk, but
this was not worked in chain stitch but in various styles of straight
close-lying stitches in diaper pattern. Prof. Middleton, in the passage
quoted above, says that the embroiderer copied the miniature painter; in
composing scenes and arranging figures this would of course be the case.
But considering the styles of some of the backgrounds, it seems possible
that in his turn the miniature painter borrowed from the embroiderer, by
taking the idea of filling up the background to his figures with lines and
diagonal patterns, which lines and patterns had been suggested to the
embroiderer by the texture of the stuff he was covering. Gold and silver
threads were liberally used in the ‘opus anglicum[621],’ and even jewels
may have been introduced[622]. The general effect was that of a shining,
glossy picture, and the care and industry needed to produce it exceeded
even that required in miniatures.

The English monk Matthew Paris († 1259) describes an incident illustrating
at once the excellence of the embroidery done in England and the rapacity
of Pope Innocent IV. The Pope he tells us was struck by the splendour of
the embroidery worn by the English clergy who came to Rome in the year
1246, and asked where it was made. ‘In England,’ he was told. He replied,
‘England is really a storehouse of delight; truly it is an inexhaustible
fountain, and where there is so much, much can be taken.’ And he sent
letters to the abbots of the Cistercian houses in England, ordering them
to forward to him gold embroidery of this kind, ‘as though they could
get it for nothing.’ Curiously enough it was supplied to them by London

A certain number of pieces of early English embroidery now form part of
the collection of art-needlework on view at South Kensington. Among them
is a cope, nine feet seven by four feet eight; it is considered a splendid
example of the ‘opus anglicum,’ and as is suggested ‘may have been worked
by the nuns of some convent which stood in or near Coventry[624].’ There
was no nunnery in Coventry in the Middle Ages, the nearest nunnery of
importance would be the one at Wroxhall. ‘This handsome cope,’ says Dr
Rock, ‘so very remarkable on account of its comparative perfect
preservation, is one of the most beautiful among the several liturgic
vestments of the olden period anywhere to be now found in
Christendom[625].’ It is made of linen entirely covered with embroidery in
floss silk. The space is divided up into barbed interlacing quatrefoils,
of which in the present state of the cope there are fifteen. These enclose
pictures representing Michael overcoming Satan, the Crucifixion, the risen
Christ, Christ crowned as King, Christ in the garden, the death of the
Virgin, her burial, and single figures of the apostles which are placed in
the quatrefoils along the lower edge of the cope. Among them are St
Philip, St Bartholomew, St Peter and St Andrew. Other pictures of the
apostles are wanting, for the lower edge in some places is cut away. The
faces, hands and coloured draperies of these figures are worked in
coloured floss silk in the way described above, and the background of all
the quatrefoils is in diaper pattern, worked in short straight stitches in
a dark green colour. The spaces between the quatrefoils were filled with
crimson silk which has faded to a rich brown, and in each of these spaces
stands a winged angel, those nearest Christ standing on a wheel. Their
faces and draperies are worked in similar style to those of the other
figures, and the dividing bands which mark off the quatrefoils are worked
in a variety of stitches; sometimes loose threads are laid on and sewn
over, sometimes gold thread is worked in. In spite of many colours having
faded the effect of the work is splendid; no textile fabric of any period
exceeds it in evenness and finish, to say nothing of beauty of design.

The edge of the cope in one place is mended by cutting and sewing
together. A band of embroidery which represents a succession of armorial
bearings worked in small cross-stitch is carried right round it. This band
is considered to be fifty years later in date than the cope, and is
somewhat different in style. Its addition suggests that some accident
happened to the cope, perhaps by fire, and that a piece had to be cut away
and a new finish given to the edge.

At the time of the dissolution this cope was in the possession of the nuns
of Sion, a house founded under peculiar circumstances as late as the 15th
century. Its inmates left England in a body and carried the cope away with
them in their wanderings. They finally settled at Lisbon, where the house
continued to be recruited by English women. At the beginning of this
century they returned to England, and the cope was acquired by the Museum

In looking at this piece of work it is distressing to think of the way in
which the property of monasteries in England was appropriated, scattered,
and destroyed at the dissolution. In no European country was the heirloom
of mediæval art so uniformly effaced and defaced. The old inventories give
some idea of the art treasures that had accumulated in monasteries in the
course of centuries, but very few fragments were saved from the rapacity
of Henry VIII and his agents.

From England we pass to Germany to consider the remains of decorative work
done by nuns in various departments of art between the 8th and the 14th
centuries. Influence from two sides gave a new direction to art-industry;
on one side was the influence of Roman art due to contact with France; on
the other the influence of Byzantine art due to intercourse with the East.

A high standard of work was soon attained in France; and at Bourges, early
in the 7th century, we hear of the abbess Eustadiola making many gifts to
her settlement, vases of gold and silver ornamented with jewels, crosses,
candelabra and chalices. ‘Also she made holy vestments,’ says her
biographer[626], ‘and decked the altar with costly hangings which with her
own hands and through the help of her women she embellished with
embroidery and with gold fringes; besides the hangings with which she
decorated the walls.’

This active interest spread from France into the convents of the Low
Countries during the 8th century, in one of which the sisters Harlind and
Reinhild did excellent work, which is highly praised. They were
contemporaries of Boniface and Willibrord, who visited and consecrated
them in their settlement at Maaseyck.

There is extant an account, written between 850 and 880, of the education
they received and the work to which they were devoted[627]. We learn from
this account that Harlind and Reinhild showed a serious disposition at a
youthful age, and that their parents were persuaded to send them to the
religious house for women at Valenciennes on the river Schelde, where, in
the words of the 9th century writer, ‘they were instructed in reading, in
chanting (modulatione), in singing the psalms and also in what now-a-days
is deemed wonderful, in writing and in painting (scribendo atque
pingendo), a task laborious even to men. Likewise they were carefully
trained in every department of work such as is done by women’s hands, in
various designs, in different styles; so that they attained a high
standard of excellence in spinning, weaving, designing, sewing, and
embroidering with gold and jewels on silk[627].’

When their education was finished the girls returned to their parents, but
they found no scope for their energies at home and decided to devote
themselves to religion. Their parents agreed to found a settlement for
them at Maaseyck, where at first they had twelve women with them. But many
noble as well as freeborn girls placed a black veil on their heads, as the
biographer says, and came to them hoping to be taken into the settlement.

We hardly need to be told that these gifted sisters abhorred idleness and
were devoted to work. Their energies were given to weaving, embroidering
and writing. Among other things they had woven with their own hands short
curtains, intended no doubt for the altar, which were splendidly
embroidered with a variety of designs[628]. These, in the words of their
biographer, ‘the holy women embroidered with God and his saints ornate
with gold and jewels, and left them behind them in their house. The four
gospels, which contain the words and actions of Jesus Christ our Lord,
they transcribed with commendable zeal. Likewise a book of psalms, such as
we call a psalter, they worked (stylo texuerunt), as well as many other
holy writings, which to this day remain in that same place, and are
resplendent in new and shining gold, and glowing with jewels, so that the
work might almost have been done to-day.’

Thus writes the 9th century chronicler. It seems from a remark made by
Stadler that some of the vestments they made were sent as a present to
Boniface, and samples of their work, it is not stated of what kind, are
preserved to this day in the little church of Maaseyck[629].

A previous chapter has dealt with the rapid development of women’s houses
in Saxony in the 10th and 11th centuries. References to the encouragement
of art in these convents are numerous; they became storehouses of wealth,
partly through gifts bestowed on them by their abbesses and partly owing
to the industry of the nuns. The marriage of Otto II with a Greek princess
brought Greek decorative work into fashion, and workmen came from Greece
into Germany, where they were patronised by bishops and lady abbesses.

Thus at Essen, one of the great Saxon abbacies for women, the art treasury
to this day contains the celebrated bronze candelabra made at the command
of the abbess Mathilde († 1011)[630], and a golden crucifix of Greek
workmanship of great beauty which, as its inscription says, was the gift
of the abbess Theofanu (1039-1054)[631]. This abbess was the granddaughter
of Otto II and his Greek wife, and her appointment to the abbacy marks a
great advance in the prosperity of the house. The treasury at Essen also
contains a Bible cover carved in ivory, which represents the abbess
Theofanu depositing a book at the feet of the Virgin[632].

An account of the great power and wealth of the abbey at Quedlinburg has
already been given. Its treasury (zither) still contains many interesting
specimens of early art industry collected in the days of its
prosperity[633]. The splendid cloak worked with figures from the
Apocalypse belonging to Otto III was probably made under the direction of
his aunt Mathilde, abbess of Quedlinburg († 999). Somewhat later we hear
of another sumptuous cloak which the Empress Kunigund († 1040) had made
for her husband Heinrich II, and of the wonderful embroidery done in gold
on purple by Heinrich’s sister Gisela († 1037), the wife of Stephen, king
of Hungary, which seems to have been embroidered in imitation of a
painting on stuff preserved at a Benedictine convent near Raab. To the
present day this embroidery forms part of the Hungarian coronation
robes[634]. It is not directly stated where this work was made, but the
general excellence of the work done by nuns[635], and the connection of
Saxon princesses with convents, suggest the possibility that the work was
done in convents.

One of these Saxon princesses, Hedwig († 994), sister of the abbess
Gerberg and duchess of Swabia, gave the monks of St Gallen some vestments
which she had embroidered herself[636]. Among them was a white stole
(stola) on which were worked in gold a series of pictures representing the
‘Marriage of Philology to Mercury,’ a subject taken from a story by
Martianus Capella, a writer of the 5th century, whose works were much read
in nunneries. The story was afterwards translated into German by Notker (†
1022), a monk of St Gallen.

A peculiar interest attaches to Agnes, abbess of Quedlinburg (1184-1203).
She encouraged art industry in all its branches and under her the nuns
made large curtains for church decoration. Some of these are still in
existence, and Kugler, the art student, considers them as of great value
in the study of the art industry of that period. Agnes herself wrote an
account of the property she bequeathed to the monastery, and in it she
mentions a golden cup, several silken covers (dorsalia), and
hangings[637]. Her chronicler credits her with writing and illuminating
with her own hands books for divine service; and a copy of the gospels,
said to have been written by her, is still preserved[638]. But the great
work of her life was the manufacture of wall-hangings, which she and her
nuns worked together. One set was intended for the Pope, but was never
forwarded to him. Like the vestments made by Hedwig, the subject taken for
them was the ‘Marriage of Philology to Mercury.’

One curtain still exists measuring twenty-four feet by twenty; it is of a
coarse woollen material, into which large figures are woven, which Kugler
thinks must have been designed by two different hands. ‘While some of the
work,’ he says[639], ‘is in no way superior to other pictorial
representations of the time, and only here and there in details shows
superior skill, other parts though retaining the peculiar style of
Byzantine art, show a grace and dignity in the arrangement of the figures,
and a perfection in the drawing of drapery, which in works of such an
early period arouse admiration in the beholder.’ In his handbook on
painting Kugler further says that we probably have in them the nearest
approach of the art of the time to full perfection.

In describing the curtain he tells us of a manly bearded figure with
raised hand, probably intended for the writer Martianus himself; near him
stands Mercury half covered by a well-draped toga, a very youthful figure
in accordance with the author’s description. These and other figures hold
scrolls on which their names are woven, but owing to the worn state of the
hanging some of the names are gone and some are illegible. Three female
figures are designated as ‘Manticen,’--whom Mercury would have married had
she not preferred Apollo; ‘Sichem,’--a name standing for Psyche, whom
Cupid had already enticed away according to Martianus; and ‘Sophia,’--whom
Mercury likewise desired to marry but in vain. All these figures are
described by Kugler as splendid, especially that of ‘Sichem’ whose pose
and drapery he pronounces most beautiful.

A crowned figure of a man comes next, with a scroll bearing the words
‘happy in wealth’ (qua felix copia talis), whom Kugler supposes to be
Hymenaeus, and a man and woman joining hands, who are designated as
Mercury and Philology. Similar allegorical figures fill the other parts of
the curtain. In Kugler’s estimation the figures of ‘Prudentia’ and
‘Fortitudo’ are strikingly grand; while others, ‘Justitia,’ ‘Temperantia,’
and ‘Philologia’ with her mother ‘Pronesis,’ are of inferior design.

There is another set of hangings preserved at Halberstadt, which, if the
remark of an early chronicler may be believed, was also the work of the
abbess Agnes and her nuns[640]. Kugler however, apparently unacquainted
with this statement, places these hangings at a somewhat earlier date,
since they are of less finished workmanship, but he admits that ‘in spite
of their faded colours and their roughness of design, a certain severe
dignity cannot be denied to these figures which with wide-open eyes stare
at the beholder[641].’

We have a description of these curtains from Büsching, who travelled in
quest of monastic treasures in the beginning of this century[642]. They
measure three-and-a-half by fifteen feet. On the centre piece a king
(God?) is represented on a throne, with one hand raised, the other holding
a sceptre; Cato and Seneca, each bearing a written scroll, sit on either
side. Next to them come six apostles, sitting two and two under a canopy,
each bearing a scroll with his name--another instance of how readily art
in the 12th century grouped together figures of Christian and classical
origin, where it was an object to unite the conceptions of religion and
philosophy; then Christ, pictured under a rainbow arch, which is supported
by angels. On Christ’s further side come the other six apostles similarly
arranged, and then follow scenes illustrating Old Testament history, such
as Jacob’s dream; Abraham visited by angels; the sacrifice of Isaac;--in
these scenes the figures are comparatively small and of inferior design to
the larger ones. Judging from Büsching’s description, the style of the
tapestry is the same as that of the manuscript illustrations of the time.
The background is uniformly of one colour, and the contours of the figures
and their draperies are in thick brown outline, the intervening spaces
being filled with different colours. Kugler compares the pictorial effect
of these hangings with that of the miniatures contemporaneously painted in
the abbey of Hohenburg under the abbess Herrad, of whose work we shall
speak presently. They recall the dignified and somewhat sombre character
of Byzantine art.

There is plenty of information from the Continent to show that nuns
belonging to houses of different religious orders were equally industrious
at the loom and with the needle.

Thus at Göss, formerly a Benedictine nunnery near Loeben in Steier, the
church still treasures a complete set of vestments, ‘ornatus integer,’
worked by the nuns between 1275 and 1300 during the rule of ‘abbatissa
Chunegundis.’ Bock describes them as most curious and beautiful, worked on
linen with coloured silks in a design of fantastic animals and

Again at Wienhausen near Celle several ancient wall-hangings are preserved
which were woven by the nuns of the Cistercian settlement there, and show
their industry and skill, and the readiness with which secular subjects
were treated in the convent. On one which dates from the 14th century the
story of Tristan and Isold is represented; on another hunting scenes; and
on a third the figures of the prophets[644].

At Heiningen near Wolfenbüttel, a house of Austin nuns, the inmates wove
hangings with allegorical figures which are still in existence. At Lüne,
Wende, Erfurt and at the Cistercian house of Ebsdorf wall-hangings were
made which are still preserved, and show the ability of the nuns who
worked at the loom between the 13th and 15th centuries[645]. We are
indebted to Bock for a comprehensive treatise on church decoration and
vestments. He also made a large collection of specimens of such work, but
it has apparently been scattered. Some part of it has been acquired by the
authorities at the South Kensington Museum where it is at present on view.

From these examples of art-needlework and tapestry, we must turn to the
art of writing and decorating books. We hear of a woman calligraphist in
connection with one of the ancient monasteries in Bavaria, the fame of
whose industry was carried on through centuries[646]. The monastery of
Wessobrunn had been founded in the 8th century; it included a community of
nuns as well as of monks, the dwelling allotted to the nuns being spoken
of as the Parthenon, a term sometimes applied to a religious house for
women in these districts. In the words of the monkish historian who wrote
about 1513: ‘the dwellings of the monks were where they are now, but those
of the nuns where the parish church now stands.’ Here between the years
1057 and 1130 Diemud the nun was active as a scribe, the amount of whose
work in the estimation of many ‘exceeded what could be done by several
men.’ She had become a professed nun at an early age and ‘was most skilful
in the art of writing; for while she is not known to have composed any
work of her own, yet she wrote with her own hand many volumes in a most
beautiful and legible character both for divine service and for the
library of the monastery, which volumes are enumerated in a list written
by herself in a certain _plenarius_.’ This list which is extant includes
works to the number of forty-five, which were highly prized during the
nun’s lifetime and had a considerable market value. We find in the list ‘a
Missal with Gradual and Sequences’ given to the bishop of Trier, and a
‘book of Offices with the Baptismal Service,’ given to the bishop of
Augsburg. A ‘bibliotheca,’ that is, a Bible, in two volumes, written by
Diemud, was given by the monastery of Wessobrunn in exchange for an estate
at Peissenburg. Besides these works the list mentions another Bible in
three volumes, books containing the gospels and lessons, writings of
Gregory and Augustine, and the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius. In
course of time these books were scattered, lists of those which remained
at Wessobrunn being made from time to time. At the sequestration of the
monastery at the beginning of the 19th century only fifteen volumes
written by Diemud remained, which were taken to Munich. They are said to
be of rare beauty, distinguished by highly ornate initial letters and by
small writing which is most elegant[647]. An example of this writing was
reproduced by Hefner in the hope that it might lead to the identification
of other books written by Diemud which may have found their way into other
libraries and be still in existence.

Contemporaneously with Diemud we find another Bavarian nun, Leukardis,
active as a scribe at Mallersdorf; she is said to have been of Scottish
origin and she knew Scotch (or Irish?), Greek, Latin, and German, and did
so much good work that the monk Laiupold, who was also devoted to writing,
established an anniversary in her memory[648].

The nuns of Admunt in Bavaria are also spoken of as devoted to
transcribing, and Wattenbach comments on the neat and elegant way in which
they mended the parchment leaves of their manuscripts with coloured silken

Again a manuscript written for Marbach about the year 1149 by Gutta von
Schwarzenthan is described as splendid. It contains the martyrology of
Usuard, the Rule of St Augustine with the comments of Hugo of St Victor,
the constitutions of Marbach and a homily for every day in the year[650].
We hear of Emo, abbot of Wittewierum (1204-34), a Premonstrant house which
contained men and women, that ‘not only did he zealously encourage his
canons (clericis) to write, acting as their instructor, but taking count
of the diligence of the female sex he set women who were clever at writing
to practise the art assiduously[651].’ Wattenbach considers that nuns
were especially clever in copying books for choir use, and in decorating

These notices must suffice. They prove that women leading cloistered lives
took an active interest in art-industry in all its branches and that
productiveness in their houses was controlled by the same causes which led
to the development and decay of art-industry in the houses of men.
Excellent work was done in Benedictine houses during early Christian
times, that is between the 8th and the 11th centuries; the revival of
monastic life in the Middle Ages gave a new impulse to art-industry and
the highest degree of excellence was reached in the first half of the 14th
century. After that there are signs of a steadily accelerated decline. The
reason of this, as a later chapter will show, lies chiefly in the changed
conditions of life outside the convent, which made it easier for artisans
in the townships to practise those arts and crafts which had hitherto been
practised in religious settlements. Writing, decorating, and
book-binding[652], as well as weaving and embroidering[653], were taken up
by secular workers and were practised by them on a far larger scale; the
spread of education in lay circles and the greater luxury in home
surroundings having created a new taste and a new market for artistic
productions. The taste of this wider public naturally influenced the
character of the work which was produced; cheapness and splendour, if
possible the combination of the two, were the qualities chiefly aimed at.
These are valuable qualities no doubt in their way, but insistence on them
had a discouraging effect on the productiveness of the convent. During the
14th and 15th centuries convents gave up their artistic pursuits. The
self-denying industry and unobtrusive earnestness which set the stamp of
excellence on the productions of the old hand-worker were no more, for the
spirit which looked upon the production of things beautiful as a matter of
religion had died out.

§ 2. Herrad and the ‘Garden of Delights.’

A work produced at Hohenburg, a nunnery in Elsass, in the 12th century
confirms the belief that given favourable conditions it is possible for
women to produce good work and to help to accumulate knowledge. Herrad,
the abbess of this house, conceived the idea of compiling for the use of
her nuns an encyclopædic work which should embody, in pictures and in
words, the knowledge of her age. The importance of this work has long
survived the attainment of its original purpose, for with its hundreds of
illustrations and its copious text it has afforded a wealth of information
on the customs, manners, conceptions and mode of life of the 12th century,
to which many students of archæology, art and philology have gone for
instruction and for the illustration of their own books. ‘Few illuminated
manuscripts had acquired a fame so well deserved as the “Garden of
Delights,” the _Hortus Deliciarum_, of Herrad,’ says the editor of the
great collection of reproductions of the pictures which illustrated her
work[654]. For the work itself is no more. The MS. was destroyed in the
fire which broke out in the library of Strasburg when that city was
bombarded by the Germans in 1870, and with it perished a complete copy of
the text. Our knowledge of the work is therefore limited to the remarks of
those who had studied it and to those portions of it which had been copied
or transcribed previous to its destruction. The ‘Society for the
Preservation of the Monuments of Elsass’ is at present collecting and
publishing a reproduction of all existing tracings and copies of the
pictures or of parts of them, and this collection already numbers nearly
two hundred. They are mere fragments of course of the work itself, and yet
they are of the highest interest. For Herrad’s ‘Garden of Delights’ with
its apt illustrations gave a complete picture of life in its domestic and
out-of-door aspects as it presented itself in the 12th century. It showed
what conceptions and ideas were then attractive to nuns and their
estimation of knowledge, and it has given greater insight than any other
production into the talents, the enthusiasm and the industry which were
found at this period in a nunnery.

The religious settlement at Hohenburg[655] was an ancient foundation
situated on the flat summit of a spur of the Vosges mountains, which here
rise abruptly to a height of over two thousand five hundred feet from the
wide expanse of the valley of the Rhine below. The wooded heights on
either side of the Rhine were the favourite haunts of missionaries in
early times, who settled there and appropriated sites in close proximity
to the castles or strongholds of the landed gentry. At one time there were
as many as sixty religious settlements in the Rhine valley between Basel
and Mainz and over a hundred castles or burgs. The nunnery of Hohenburg
was of high rank among these religious settlements owing to its extensive
property and to its commanding situation. The summit of the hill was
surrounded by an ancient wall dating from pre-Christian times which is
still known as the heathen wall; it enclosed a wide clearance of fields
and meadows, and the numerous buildings of the convent settlement. This
height was the goal of numerous pilgrimages and had various associations
dating from heathen times. It is at the present day a favourite health
resort on account of its aspect and romantic surroundings.

From historical information recently collected by Roth[656] we gather that
a religious settlement of women existed on the Hohenburg as early as the
9th century. Judith, the wife of Ludwig the Pious († 1840), took some
interest in it. Legendary lore has spun many webs about the religious
settlements in the Rhine district including that of Hohenburg, and the
majority of modern historians have taken no trouble to unravel them.
Legend[657] tells us that a holy maiden St Odilia fled from the
persecution of a cruel father and came to the Hohenburg, where she settled
and gathered many women about her. Various stories more or less fanciful
are told of her. She was cured of blindness and baptized by Archbishop
Hildulf of Trier and Bishop Erhard of Regensburg--who are unknown to
history; she was carried down the river in a chest and educated at the
convent of Beaume or Palma; and she has been given as a relative to St
Leodgar bishop of Autun († 678) and as a daughter to Eticho duke of the
Allemanni. Besides these stories we find the name Odilia locally
associated with a cave, a well, three linden-trees and a stone of peculiar
shape which are obviously heathen survivals, and encourage the view that
Odilia is the representative of some pre-Christian divinity. Roth has
shown that the name Odilia is nowhere on record in these districts before
the 10th century, and it occurs in connection with Hohenburg only in the
11th century, that is three or four hundred years after the saint’s
reputed foundation of the house. When Pope Leo IX (1048-1054), who was an
Alsatian, visited his home he was presented with a rhymed ‘responsarium’
on the local saints of the district. Among them was Odilia, who at that
time was directly associated with the nunnery. A hundred years later when
the convent was better known through the influence and activity of its
abbesses Relind and Herrad, St Odilia was looked upon as the daughter of
Duke Eticho and the founder of the house--this will be shown from pictures
preserved in Herrad’s work. But evidently this abbess had no knowledge of
the saint’s blindness and sufferings, nor of her connection with St
Leodgar and other prelates, which are all described in her legend written
another hundred years later.

In the year 1154 Relind[658], abbess of Berg, a nunnery near Neuburg on
the Danube, was appointed abbess at Hohenburg in accordance with the wish,
it is said, of the emperor Friedrich Barbarossa (1152-1190). Her influence
was most beneficial; many daughters of the surrounding gentry came to
study under her, and among them Herrad of the family of Landsperg. The
term nun must be applied to these women with a reservation; some writers
speak of them as Austin canonesses on account of the liberties they
enjoyed. In Herrad’s ‘Garden’ the picture of her nuns represents them
wearing clothes that differ little from those worn by women in other walks
of life. Their dresses are of different colours, their cloaks are
generally brown, and their veils are always brilliantly coloured, some
red, some purple[659]. The only detail of dress which they have in common
is a white turban or head-dress, over which the veil is thrown. They wear
no wimples. The establishment of the house under Herrad’s rule consisted
of forty-seven nuns and thirteen novices (or lay sisters?) who are
represented as wearing clothes similar to those of the nuns.

Herrad’s admission to the house furthered its prosperity in every way, for
besides literary and artistic abilities she had considerable powers of
management. She succeeded Relind as abbess in 1167, and in 1181 she
founded a settlement of Austin canons at Truttenhausen, and later another
at St Gorgon, both of which are situated not far below the summit of the
hill. The canons of these settlements took it in turn to read mass in the
women’s chapel. Roth speaks of other improvements which Herrad carried out
with the help of her diocesan, the bishop of Strasburg.

The consecration of a church at Niedermünster, situated below the
Hohenburg, also falls within the term of Herrad’s rule. A second nunnery
was founded there as a dependency, which was separated from the parent
house probably during Herrad’s lifetime, owing to the efforts of the
abbess Edelind (1195-1200), who according to Gérard was also of the family
of Landsperg[660]. The claim of this abbess to the attention of posterity
rests on her having been the possessor of a still extant chased case
several feet high, which she had made to hold a fragment of the Holy Cross
which a camel was alleged to have brought to Niedermünster of its own
accord in the time of Karl the Great. This case is covered with many
figures worked in relief and is praised by art students as a curious
example of early metal work[661].

The history of Hohenburg and Niedermünster in the sequel offers much that
is interesting. For while the nuns at Niedermünster accepted the rule of
St Benedict, the nuns on the Hohenburg persisted in their independent
course. At Niedermünster a stone monument is still to be seen which
experts declare to be 13th century work, and which gives a clue to the
association of St Odilia with Leodgar, to whom the church at Niedermünster
was dedicated. Three sides of this monument are covered with figures. On
one stands St Leodgar; on the next St Odilia with long tresses, and Duke
Eticho; on the third the Virgin, also with long tresses, and below her the
abbesses Relind and Herrad holding a book. Both these abbesses are
designated by name, and wear convent garb and wimples utterly different
from the clothes worn by them in the pictures of Herrad’s book[662].

From these general remarks we turn to the great work of Herrad’s life, to
which she herself gave the title of the ‘Garden of Delights.’ It consisted
of 324 parchment leaves of folio size, which contained an account of the
history of the world founded on the Biblical narrative, with many
digressions into the realm of philosophy, moral speculation, and
contemporary knowledge--and with numerous pictures in illustration of it.

The book was so arranged that the pictures stood alongside of the text;
and the pages of the work which were devoted to illustrations were in most
cases divided into three sections by lines across, so that the pictures
stood one above the other. The figures in each picture were about four
inches high. There were, however, a certain number of full-page
illustrations with larger figures, and it is among these that the greatest
proofs are given of Herrad’s imaginative powers and the range of her
intellectual abilities.

Engelhardt, to whom we are indebted for the fullest description of the
‘Garden of Delights,’ made tracings of a number of pictures and copied
their colouring[663]. He comments on the brilliant smoothness and finish
of the original miniature paintings. Only the silver, he says, was
tarnished; the gold was undimmed and all the colours preserved their full
brilliancy, when he had the work before him in the early part of this
century. According to him the method of painting was as follows. First the
figures were drawn in dark outline, then the colouring was filled in bit
by bit; shadows and high lights were next laid on, and then the dark
outlines were again gone over.

The question has naturally arisen whether Herrad did the whole of the work
herself. The text which stood at the beginning and at the end of it
referred to her as its sole author. Students are generally agreed that the
outline drawing and the writing were entirely her work, but the colours
may or may not have been laid on by her. For the work was wonderfully
complete in plan and execution--the conception of one mind, which laboured
with unceasing perseverance to realize the conception it had formed.

The style in which the pictures were drawn has likewise been the occasion
of much comment. We are here on the border-land between the conventional
Byzantine and the realistic Gothic styles. ‘We see very clearly,’ says
Woltman[664], ‘how the new ideas which scholastic learning and poetry had
generated required new modes of expression, and led to conceptions for
which the older art yielded no models and which had to be taken from real
life.’ In most cases Herrad no doubt had a model before her and adhered to
the traditional rendering, but where the model was wanting she may have
drawn on her powers of imagination and supplied details from her
surroundings. Thus incidents of Biblical history are represented by her in
a manner familiar to the student of early Christian art. A grave and
serious dignity which recalls the wall mosaics at Ravenna characterizes
the figures of God, Christ, Mary, and the angels; Engelhardt has pointed
out the close similarity of Herrad’s picture of the Annunciation to that
contained in a Greek MS. of the 9th century[665]. But in other cases
Herrad either composed herself or else drew from models which were nearer
to her in time and place. Thus the picture of the sun-god Apollo
represents him in a heavy mediaeval cart drawn by four horses, and the men
and women in many pictures are dressed in the fashion of the time. The
pictures drawn from real life especially delight the archæological
student. A water-mill grinding corn, men at the plough, soldiers on the
march and fighting, are drawn with minute exactness and with considerable
skill. Some of these scenes are powerfully realistic in spite of a certain
awkwardness in the figures; for example, that of a traveller who is
waylaid by robbers, coupled with the story of the good Samaritan, which is
illustrated by a series of pictures. In the first of these a man is
depicted lying by the roadside; in the second we see him on a horse which
is led by the Samaritan, and in the third he has arrived at the inn and is
being lifted down from the horse.

Herrad executed her work between 1160 and 1170, but additional entries
were made as late as 1190. This period falls in the reign of the emperor
Friedrich Barbarossa (1152-1190), which followed upon that of the luckless
Konrad III, and was one of comparative quiet and prosperity in Germany.
The power of the Pope had passed its climax, there was schism in the
Papacy, which was greatly aggravated by the line of conduct Friedrich
adopted, but the scene of their struggle had shifted to the cities of
northern Italy. We shall see later on that political changes were watched
with much interest in some nunneries, and that the conduct of the Emperor,
the Pope, and the bishops was keenly criticised among nuns. It is
difficult to tell how far events affected Herrad. The prose narrative
which her work contained, as far as we know, has perished and we have no
definite clue to her interpretation of contemporary affairs, but probably
she was content to devote her energies to rearranging and interpreting the
intellectual wealth of the age without entering into party conflicts. The
illustrations of the ‘Garden of Delights’ which have been preserved are
invaluable for the study of contemporary life, but they contain no
information as to contemporary events.

The study and enjoyment of the work in its original form were facilitated
by the addition to the picture of the name of every person and every
implement in Latin or in German, sometimes in both; and in many cases an
explanatory sentence or a moral maxim was introduced into the picture, so
that the nun who studied the work naturally picked up Latin words and
sentences. Through the industry of Engelhardt all these sentences and
words have been preserved, and the coupling of implements with their
names forms a valuable addition to our knowledge of terms as applied in
early mediaeval times. The book also originally contained a continuous
history in Latin for more advanced students, but unfortunately that is
lost. Engelhardt says that it described the history of the world from the
Creation to the coming of Antichrist, with many extracts from various
writers. He enumerates twenty writers from whose works Herrad quotes.
Among them are Eusebius Pamphili († c. 350), Jerome († 420), Isidor of
Seville († 636), Bede († 735), Frechulf († 838), and others who were her
contemporaries, such as Petrus Lombardus († 1164) and Petrus Comestor (†
1198). When quoting from secular writers the abbess invariably made
mention of the fact. In one instance she remarked that ‘all these things
have been described by philosophers by aid of their worldly wisdom (per
mundanam sapientiam), but this was the product of the Holy Spirit also.’

The attitude which Herrad assumed towards learning generally can be
studied in the pictures which deal with abstract conceptions. They are
usually of folio size and contain illustrations which are instructive to
the student of mediaeval scholasticism. Two pictures introduced into the
history of the Tower of Babel which illustrate the falling away from true
faith deserve especial attention. The one is a representation of the ‘Nine
Muses’; on it female heads of quaint dignity in medallions are arranged in
a circle. The other represents the ‘Seven Liberal Arts,’ in accordance
with the mediaeval interpretation of the teaching of Aristotle[666]. On it
Philosophy, a female figure, is seated in the centre of the picture
wearing a crown with three heads. These heads are designated as ‘ethica,
logica, phisica’; by means of these three branches of learning philosophy
adds to her powers of insight. Socrates and Plato, who are designated as
‘philosophers,’ sit below, and from the figure of Philosophy ‘seven
streams of wisdom flow which are turned into liberal arts’ as the text
explains. These arts are personified as female figures in 12th century
dress, and are so arranged that each figure stands in a separate division
forming a circle round Philosophy and the philosophers. The Liberal Arts
are robed in different colours, and each holds an emblem of her power.
‘Grammar,’ dressed in dark red, has a book and a birch rod; ‘Geometry,’ in
light red, has a measuring rod and a compass; ‘Arithmetic,’ in light blue,
holds a string of alternate white and black beads; ‘Music,’ dressed in
purple, has a lyre, a zither and a hurdy-gurdy; ‘Astronomy,’ in dark
green, holds a measure and looks up at the stars; ‘Rhetoric,’ in dark
blue, has a stilus and a writing-tablet (tabula); and ‘Dialectic,’ in
light green, holds the head of a howling dog. Each figure is encircled by
a sentence explaining the special nature of her power. In the lower part
of the picture are four men, seated at desks, with books, pens and
penknives, engaged in reading and writing. These are the ‘poets or magi,
who are filled with a worldly spirit’; black birds appear to be whispering
in their ears.

The whole of this picture is doubtless traditional; its admission into the
work shows that Herrad’s conception of ‘profane’ learning was one of
distinct appreciation. The idea conveyed by means of the pictures to the
young women students was by no means superficial or derogatory to
learning. On the contrary, we see them under the influence of a teacher
through whom their respectful attitude towards the means and modes of
knowledge was assured.

Another picture of folio size, called ‘The Ladder to Perfection,’ shows
that Herrad accepted a critical attitude towards the members of religion.
A ladder is drawn diagonally across the page and a number of figures are
seen ascending it on their way towards heaven. The highest rung has been
reached by Christian love (Caritas) personified as a woman to whom a crown
is proffered from heaven. Below her stand the representatives of different
branches of the religious profession and laymen arranged in order of
excellence, and with each is given a picture of the temptation which
prevents him from ascending further up the ladder. Among these the hermit
(heremita) stands highest, but he is held back by the charms of his
garden. Below him stands the recluse (inclusus), whose temptation is
slothfulness, which is represented by a bed. Then comes the monk
(monachus), who leans towards a mass of gold; ‘he is typical of all false
monks,’ says Herrad, ‘whose heart is drawn from duties by the sight of
money, and who cannot rise above greed.’ The nun (sanctimonialis) and the
cleric (clericus) have reached the same rung on the ladder. She is the
representative of false nuns who yield to the temptation of persuasion and
gifts, and return to their parents, never attaining the crown of life; he
is drawn away by the allurements of the table, and by a woman (amica) who
stands below. There are also figures of a lay woman and a soldier who are
respectively attracted by the charms of a city and of war. They are
absorbed by vanities, and we are told ‘rarely reach the crown of life
through contemplation.’ The picture is further crowded with demons who are
attacking and angels who are defending the people on the ladder. The devil
lurks below in the form of a dragon ready to seize upon those who fall.

In further illustration of Herrad’s attitude towards the clergy,
Engelhardt cites a passage from her work in which she severely censures
the customs which the clergy tolerate in church on festal days. In company
with laymen and loose women they eat and drink, and indulge in jokes and
games which invariably end in uproariousness. ‘How worthy of praise,’ she
exclaims, ‘if the spiritual princes of the Church (principes ecclesiae
spirituales) restored the evangelical teaching of early times in the place
of such customs[667].’

From these general remarks we turn to the pictures which illustrate the
Biblical narrative in a number of scenes containing a store of imagery and
a wealth of design. We cannot but admire the ready brush of the abbess and
the courage with which she grappled with difficulties, drawing with equal
skill human figures and divine personifications, dramatic incidents and
allegorical combinations.

The pictures which illustrated the Creation were led up to by a number of
diagrams and digressions on astronomy and geography, with lists of
technical terms in Latin and their German equivalents. Among these was a
picture of the signs of the zodiac and a ‘computus’ or table for
determining the festal days of the year. The desire to fix the date of
incidents of Old and New Testament history absorbed much attention at this
period, and Herrad’s table of computation was looked upon as so important
that it was recently used by Piper as the starting-point for an
investigation on the Calendar generally[668]. In Herrad’s table the date
of Easter was worked out for a cycle of 532 years, that is from 1175 till
1706; leap-years were marked, and the day of the week on which Christmas
fell was given for the whole period.

The history of the Biblical narrative opens with a picture illustrating
the creation of the animals. The lion, the elephant, the unicorn and the
giraffe are most fantastic, but the ox, the ass, the horse, the domestic
fowl, the sylvan animals of northern latitudes, and fish, are drawn with
tolerable correctness. God is represented in classical robes moving slowly
across a wave of the waters. In another picture He is depicted in a
simpler manner seated and fashioning the small figure of Adam, which He
holds between His knees. Again He is seen breathing life into Adam’s
nostrils, and then holding in His hand a rib out of which projects the
head of Eve, while Adam is lying asleep on the ground. There is a series
of pictures illustrating the temptation and expulsion from Paradise. A
full-sized one gives the Tree of Life, which has many ramifications out of
which human faces are peeping. Adam and Eve are throughout pictured as of
the same height and are several times drawn in the nude. There is a very
graceful picture in which Adam is seen delving while Eve spins.

Poems on the First Man and on the Fall accompanied by musical notation are
here introduced. The poems are preserved, the music is apparently lost; it
is not stated whether Herrad wrote the music herself.

The story of Noah and his sleeping in the vineyard, and the building of
the Tower of Babel, are illustrated by scenes details of which are
presumably drawn from real life. Here we see wooden vats and buckets, the
various implements used in the vintage, pictures of masons at work dressed
in short kirtles, and the various implements and arrangements for

After the pictures on secular learning above referred to the thread of
Biblical narrative is resumed, and there are many scenes from the lives of
the patriarchs, such as Jacob giving his blessing, a picture of Jacob’s
dream, Pharaoh seated on his throne with sumptuous surroundings, and the
passage over the Red Sea, in which the soldiers are clad in chain-mail and
march with standards borne aloft. Soldiers similarly accoutred are drawn
in one picture fighting under the leadership of Joshua; in another picture
they are seen attacking a city, a scene taken from the story of the
assault of Dan. The adoration of the golden calf gave occasion for a
picture which also illustrates contemporary manners. Men and women dressed
in the costume of the day are seen joining hands in a ring and dancing
round the idol. We also have pictures of the Holy Ark and of the
Tabernacle; the seven-branched candlestick is most elaborately drawn, and
the twelve tribes of Israel are grouped in medallions around it.

The next remarkable picture is the burial of Moses. In a solitary rocky
surrounding God lays the patriarch in his grave, while a demon holds him
by the legs and is pushed away by an angel. The demon was obviously a
living reality to Herrad, and he frequently appears in her pictures with
his wide mouth, long nose, pointed ears and green-coloured body, a figure
grotesque rather than terrible. When the moment of death is represented he
invariably puts in an appearance and claims the soul, which in one case
escapes from the dying person’s mouth in the shape of a small black demon.
In another picture the soul is wrapped in swaddling clothes and is borne
aloft by angels. This was a pre-Christian conception, that life is a small
living thing which dwells inside a human being and escapes at death. On
classic soil one comes across escaping life represented as a babe; in
German folk-lore it is often a mouse or a toad.

The story of Goliath and of David is also illustrated. David is a
diminutive figure wearing a kirtle, Goliath is huge and clad in
chain-mail. Another picture represents David playing on the harp. There
were also a number of scenes from the books of Kings, of Job, and of
Tobit; none of these have as yet been reproduced. A picture of the
prophets has, however, been published, in which a number of figures of
different ages are depicted in different attitudes standing side by side.
One of the most curious and dramatic pictures is the full-page
illustration of Jonah being cast up by the fish. The fish is a carp of
huge size, but it is designated as a whale.

The New Testament pictures follow on the Old Testament, but between them
stand several which illustrate their unity. One is an allegorical figure
with two heads, the one the head of Moses, the other that of Christ. There
is also a picture in folio size of the mystic family of Christ. At the
bottom is Abraham, who holds the mystic vine which grows upwards and
divides into beautiful twisted ramifications forming circles, and in these
are arranged the heads of patriarchs, kings, and groups of other members
of Christ’s family. A picture of Leviathan is extremely curious. He is
depicted floating below. God stands above with a rod and line, and uses
the cross as a fish-hook, dragging out of the huge creature’s mouth the
heads of the prophets which are strung together in a row.

The history of Christ was led up to by an account of the birth of John the
Baptist. The Nativity was celebrated by several poems, the words of which
have come down to us; the music which accompanied them is apparently lost.
Among the most realistic pictures preserved is that of the ‘Murder of the
Innocents’; agony is characteristically expressed in the attitude and
faces of the mothers who watch the soldiers fulfilling their task.

Other pictures, copies of which have been preserved, illustrate the
arrival of the three kings and Christ’s baptism. In this latter picture
the Jordan is personified as a river-god sitting in the water; the doors
of heaven above are wide open and a dove drawn in the accepted style is
descending. Christ’s parables gave the abbess many occasions for depicting
scenes taken from real life, many of which in their simplicity are truly
delightful. Biblical stories were supplemented by incidents taken from
legendary history, which were likewise accompanied by pictures, few of
which seem to have been preserved. The story of the healing power of the
statue of Christ, the legend of the Vernacle, and the story of the True
Cross were all illustrated. There was Adam planting the Tree of Life, King
Solomon fetching its wood to Jerusalem and making a bridge over the river
with it, and the Queen of Sheba coming on a visit and hesitating to cross
the bridge.

The pictures of the story of the Agony, the Resurrection, and the Acts of
the Apostles met with great praise from all who saw them. There were
folio-sized pictures setting forth the Universality of the Church, and the
Contending of Virtues and Vices[669]. Of this latter series several
pictures have just appeared in reproduction; some are arranged in pairs,
facing each other. The chief Vices, each with a band of attendants, are
depicted confronting and then overcome by the chief Virtues; all are
represented as women. Thus Pride, ‘Superbia,’ seated on horseback on a
lion’s skin and brandishing a spear, is leading a band of women, who are
clad in chain-mail with robes flowing about their feet and carrying
spears, against a band of Virtues similarly attired but carrying swords. A
most interesting picture is that of Luxury, ‘Luxuria,’ who is seen with
fourteen attendant Vices riding in a sumptuous four-wheeled car; Luxury is
in front throwing violets. She is confronted by a band of Virtues led by
Temperance, ‘Temperantia,’ who are in front of the horses and hold up
their hands in reprobation. On the next picture the car of Luxury is
smashed, the horses are overturned, and she herself is under the wheels.
Of her attendants ‘Voluptas’ has cast aside her rings and ornaments and is
caught in a briar-bush, ‘Amor’ has thrown away bow and quiver, and
‘Avaritia’ is seizing upon what the others have dropped. On another
picture Liberality, ‘Largitas,’ has stripped Rapine and Avarice, and has
transfixed Avarice with a spear.

Some of the pictures which illustrate Solomon in his glory and Solomon’s
Vanity of Vanities have also been preserved. Among them is Solomon lying
on a sumptuous couch and surrounded by his warriors. A representation of
two mannikins occurs among the Vanities; these mannikins were moved by
threads, exactly like a modern toy. The pictures illustrating the
experiences of the Church, the position of her members from Pope to
cleric, the means of repentance, and the coming of Antichrist, all roused
the enthusiasm of those who saw them; none of these have till now been
reproduced. Gérard, who was probably the last to see and handle the work
of Herrad, was especially struck by the pictures of the Last Judgment and
of Heaven and Hell. His descriptions of them were lying in the library at
the time of the bombardment, and were only rescued by the devotion of a
friend[670]. On the strength of these pictures he numbers Herrad among the
most imaginative painters the world has known. Engelhardt also was greatly
struck by them. He describes a picture of Hell in the following terms (p.

‘A mass of rocks was arranged so as to make a framework to this picture,
in the chasms of which rocks flames were flaring and the condemned were
seen suffering torments. Rivers of flame divided the inner part of the
picture into four divisions. In the lowest of these, at the bottom of
Hell, sat Lucifer or Satan in chains holding Antichrist in his lap. Next
to him a demon carried along a covetous monk, whose punishment was then
represented: he lay on his back without clothes and a demon poured molten
gold into his mouth. In the second division counting from below two
boiling caldrons hung suspended: in the one were Jews, in the other
soldiers (the text says ‘milites vel armati’). Demons stood by holding men
of either kind ready to add them to those already in the caldrons; other
demons were stirring the caldrons with forks. In front of the Jews’
caldron a demon was depicted holding a naked sinner to whom he
administered punishment by beating him. In the division above this a
usurer had hot gold poured into his hand; a slanderer was made to lick a
toad; an eaves-dropper had his ears pinched; a vain woman was assisted at
her toilet by demons (they seemed to be lacing her); the woman who had
murdered her child was forced to devour it. The following peculiar picture
filled the highest division: a rope was drawn through chasms in the rocks
so as to form a swing; on this a grinning demon sat swinging. At the ends
of the rope which hung on the other side of the rocks two sinners were
hanging bound head and foot so as to balance each other; demons held them
by the hair. Another sinner hung suspended by his feet, with a block of
stone hanging from his neck on which a demon was swinging. Sensual
pleasures personified were wound around and bitten by snakes, and a man
who had committed suicide was depicted plunging a knife into his own

These pictures illustrated with forcible directness conceptions which were
current throughout the religious world and served as a means of teaching
the lesson of reward and punishment in the world to come. Later on in
treating of mysticism we shall again see these conceptions stimulating the
imaginative powers of women living in convents.

Copies of the last pages of the ‘Garden of Delights,’ which are devoted to
a representation of the Hohenburg and of its convent of women, have
fortunately been preserved. Here we see the settlement as it presented
itself to Herrad and the thoughts she associated with it. The picture is
the size of two folio pages. High above in the centre stands Christ in
front of the convent church, holding in His right hand a golden staff
which is touched by the Virgin and St Peter, and the end of which is
supported by Duke Eticho, whom Herrad looked upon as the father of St
Odilia. St John the Baptist and St Odilia are seen standing on the other
side of Christ. A green hill is represented below roughly studded with
bushes or brambles,--this is the hill of the Hohenburg. On one slope of it
Duke Eticho is seated, and he hands the golden key of the convent to St
Odilia, who advances towards him followed by a band of women. Relind,
Herrad’s teacher and predecessor, also stands on the hill with her hand
resting on a cross on which are inscribed verses addressed to the nuns.
The fact that she restored the church and the discipline at Hohenburg,
which had fallen entirely into decay, is commemorated in a sentence which
is placed on the other side of her. Over against her stands Herrad
herself, who also holds verses addressed to the nuns. And between these
two abbesses all the members of Herrad’s congregation are drawn, six rows
of women’s heads placed one above the other. There is no attempt at
portraiture, but the name of each nun and each novice is added to her
picture. Among these names are those of families of the surrounding landed
gentry, from which we gather that the nunnery was chiefly for the upper
classes. The nuns in the picture address lines to Christ begging Him to
number them among the elect.

Such in rough outline was the ‘Garden of Delights,’ the loss of which is
greatly to be deplored, both from the point of view of culture in general,
and from that of women in particular. But even in its fragments the work
is a thing to dwell upon, a monument which bears the stamp of wide
knowledge and lofty thought. It shows how Herrad found her life’s interest
in educating the young women given into her care, how anxious she was that
they should be right-minded in all things, and how she strove to make
their studies delightful to them. The tone which she took towards her
congregation is apparent from the words in which she directly addressed
them. For besides occasional admonitory words, two long poems, one at the
beginning, the other at the end of the work, are devoted to the admonition
of the nuns. Herrad’s poems are composed in different metres; some have
the dignity of the hexameter, some the easier flow of shorter-lined
dactylic verse. The poems addressed to her nuns are of the latter kind.
Their incisive rhythm and ringing rhyme, in which their value chiefly
lies, make a translation difficult. Still a version of the first of these
poems in English prose will help to give the reader some idea of the tone
of the abbess; the form of address is necessarily determined by the mode
of expression of the 12th century, the meaning of the original is by no
means always clear.

This is: ‘The rhyme of Herrad, the abbess, in which she lovingly greets
the young maidens (virgunculas) of the Hohenburg and invites them to their
weal to faith and love of the true Bridegroom.

‘Hail, cohort of Hohenburg virgins, white as the lily and loving the Son
of God, Herrad, your most devoted, your most faithful mother and
handmaiden sings you this song. She greets you times countless and daily
prays that in glad victory you may triumph over things that pass. O,
mirror of many things, spurn, spurn those of time, and garner virtues,
Band of the true Bridegroom. Press on in the struggle to scatter the dread
foe, the King of Kings aids you for His desire is towards you. He Himself
strengthens your soul against Satan; He Himself will grant the glory of
His kingdom after victory. Delights await you, riches are destined for
you, the court of heaven proffers you countless joys. Christ prepares
espousals wondrous in delights, and you may look for this prince if you
preserve your chastity. Mean time put around you noble circlets (?) and
make your faces to shine fair, freed from mental strife. Christ hates spot
or stain, He abhors time-worn lines (of vice); He desires beauteous
virgins and drives forth women who are unchaste. With a dove-like faith
call upon that your Bridegroom, that your beauty may become an unbroken
glory. Living without guile, be admonished by praisegiving, so that you
may complete your best works of ascent. Do not hesitate amidst the
doubtful currents of the world, the truthful God holds out rewards after
danger. Suffer hardships now, despising the world’s prosperity, be now
fellow of the cross, hereafter sharer of the kingdom. Steer across the
ocean freighted with holiness, till you leave the bark and land in Sion.
May Sion’s heavenly castle with its beauteous halls be your home when the
term of life is past. May there the virgin Ruler, Mary’s Son, receive you
in His embrace and lift you up from sadness. Setting aside all the wiles
of the mean tempter, you will be abundantly glad, sweetly rejoicing. The
shining Star of the Sea, the one virgin Mother will join you to her Son in
bond eternal. And by your prayer do not cease to draw me with you to the
sweetest Bridegroom, the Son of the Virgin. As He will be partner of your
victory and of your great glory, He will draw you from earthly things.
Farewell, chaste band, you my exceeding joy, live without offence, ever
love Christ. May this book prove useful and delightful to you, may you
never cease to ponder it in your breast. May forgetfulness not seize you
like the ostrich (more Struthineo)[671], and may you not leave the way
before you have attained. Amen.’

This address in verse was followed by these lines in prose--‘Herrad, who
through the grace of God is abbess of the church on the Hohenburg, here
addresses the sweet maidens of Christ who are working as though in the
vineyard of the Lord; may He grant grace and glory unto them.--I was
thinking of your happiness when like a bee guided by the inspiring God I
drew from many flowers of sacred and philosophic writing this book called
the ‘Garden of Delights’; and I have put it together to the praise of
Christ and the Church, and to your enjoyment, as though into a sweet
honeycomb. Therefore you must diligently seek your salvation in it and
strengthen your weary spirit with its sweet honey drops; always be bent
on love of your Bridegroom and fortified by spiritual joys, and you will
safely pass through what is transitory, and secure great and lasting
happiness. Through your love of Christ, help me who am climbing along a
dangerous uncertain path by your fruitful prayer when I pass away from
this earth’s experiences. Amen.’

Thus far we have followed Herrad in her work and in her relations towards
her nuns; the question naturally arises, What inner experiences prompted
her to her great undertaking and in what spirit did she carry it through?
It has been noticed that a sombreness is characteristic of certain parts
of the work, and is peculiar to some of her poems also. Two short verses
which occur in the work seem to reflect her mental state. The one urges
great liberality of mind. It discusses the basis of purity, and comes to
the conclusion that purity depends less on actions than on the spirit in
which they are done. The other follows the mind through its several stages
of development and deserves to be chronicled among the words of wisdom. It
runs as follows: ‘Despise the world, despise nothing, despise thyself,
despise despising thyself,--these are four good things.’



    ‘Pauper homo magnam stultitiam habet quando vestimenta sua scissa
    sunt, semper in alium aspiciens, considerans quem colorem vestimentum
    illius habeat, nec suum a sorde abluit.’ _Hildegard._

§ 1. St Hildegard of Bingen[672] and St Elisabeth of Schönau[673].

From the peaceful pursuits of mediaeval nuns we turn to some of the women
who were interested in the problems of the day, and whose minds were
agitated by current difficulties which they sought to solve in their own
way. In Germany in the early Middle Ages the struggle between Pope and
Emperor, and the interference in temporal matters of prelates in their
character as dependents of the Pope, gave rise to a prolonged struggle.
Much criticism, reflection and speculative energy were brought to bear on
the relations between monarchical and ecclesiastical power, on the duties
of the ministers of the Church, and on the Pope’s efficiency in
controlling them. It is at least curious to find among the voices that are
raised in criticism and protest, those of two nuns, who in consideration
of the services they have rendered to the faith are estimated as saints.
The present chapter proposes to deal in outline with the writings of St
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1178) and of St Elisabeth of Schönau (c.
1129-1165). These two women differed somewhat in their points of view, but
they were equally zealous in supporting the Pope’s authority, and were
equally inspired by the belief that the Church could and should maintain
a lofty and universal standing and act as a regenerator to society. The
exhortations of these women were very popular, and in the year 1158, when
they were in the full exercise of their power, the annalist wrote, ‘in
these days God made manifest His power through the frail sex, in the two
maidens Hildegard and Elisabeth, whom He filled with a prophetic spirit,
making many kinds of visions apparent to them through His messages, which
are to be seen in writing[674].’

The attitude of these women and the tone of their writings were the direct
outcome of contemporary events. They were deeply moved by the instability
of social conditions and shared the belief of other great reformers of the
age, that what was needed to remedy social evils was a livelier faith in
the truths of religion and a higher standard of morality in conduct.

The 12th century is the age when national feeling in the different
countries of Europe first asserted itself strongly, and when consciousness
of solidarity within made possible the apprehension of ideas which lie
beyond the pale of immediate personal and national advantage. The
conception of knighthood, hitherto determined only by land ownership and
loyalty to a lord, was given a new interpretation, and the order of
Knights Templars was founded, which held knighthood to be based upon
devotion to the cause of religion and loyalty to the Saviour. Similarly
love of war, which till then had expended itself in self-protective and
aggressive warfare, was turned into a new channel, and the thought of the
Crusade roused peoples of different nationalities to fight side by side,
inspired by a common cause and actuated by a common interest. The
authority of the Pope as a temporal ruler had reached its climax, and
there were threatening signs of its decline, but when this power, like the
conception of knighthood, received the new interpretation, its importance
had never been more distinctly emphasized.

The Popes who ruled between 900 and 1000 had been absorbed by party
squabbles in Rome and had done little to raise the dignity of their office
in other lands. But a change had come through Hildebrand, who nominally
served, but practically ruled, five Popes before he himself sat in the
chair of St Peter as Gregory VII (1073-1085). Owing to his influence the
papal power rapidly increased and took a universal colouring, for, by
identifying himself with all the wider and higher interests of humanity,
the Pope succeeded in winning for himself the recognition of his supreme
authority in matters both spiritual and temporal. There was something
grand and inspiring in this conception of the Pope as the universal
peace-maker, and of Rome as the central and supreme court of appeal of the
civilized world, but it could not last. In proportion as national life in
the different countries struggled into being, this overlordship of the
Pope was felt to weigh heavily and to hamper development, and criticisms
arose concerning his right to interfere in matters that did not appertain
directly to the Church. At the time we are speaking of--the second half of
the 12th century--there were indications of a distinction drawn between
‘sacerdotium’ and ‘imperium,’ between priestly and imperial status
considered as the rightful basis of power, with a consequent loss of
prestige to the Church. The position of the Papacy was moreover seriously
affected by continued schism. As a check to this loss of prestige, those
who were in favour of papal supremacy urged that the Church must be
strengthened in its members, and they sought an increase of influence in a
reform of the life of the clergy generally.

It has been mentioned above how from the 10th century onwards a direct
connection had grown up between the Pope and the monastic centres, and how
the founders of new religious orders had by a like direct connection
secured a safeguard against wilful interference with their prerogatives by
prince and prelate. Outside Italy it was in the monastery that the Pope
throughout the 12th century found his chief advocates, that his spiritual
supremacy was most earnestly emphasized, and that the belief was fostered
that through his influence a re-organization of society could be obtained.

In this connection no figure of the age is more remarkable than that of
Bernard of Clairvaux[675] († 1153), ‘the simple monk, clad in plain
clothes, weakened by fasting,’ whose power is felt in religious and lay
circles alike. The secret of Bernard’s influence lay in the fact that he
was in one direction the mouthpiece of the ideal aspirations of his
age--he emphasized the spiritual side of religion and insisted on the
great social and moral advantages to be obtained by accepting spiritual
direction as a guide in practical matters. By doing so he at once
increased the reverence felt for religion and gave it a practical value.
His very success commands admiration, repellent as his narrowness appears
in some particulars. It is true that he diminished schism by persuading
King Louis VI of France to recognise Pope Innocent II (1130-43), that he
won over the German Emperor Lothar († 1137) to the same course; it is true
that he founded the order of the Knights Templars, gave a new impulse to
the order of Citeaux, and preached the Crusade; but it was he who declared
the writings of Abelard († 1142) false, and who had Arnold of Brescia
expelled from Paris on the charge of heresy.

Socially and politically speaking the state of affairs in the German
Empire during the first half of the 12th century had taken a deplorable
turn through the choice of Konrad († 1152) as emperor. His vacillating
policy left party hatred rampant between the rival houses of Welf (Guelph)
and Hohenstaufen. On the slightest provocation this hatred broke out in
warfare; it was checking all possibility of material progress and
prosperity when the thought of a crusade offered a welcome diversion to
these turbulent elements. For the first crusade few recruits had been
drawn from any districts except the northern provinces of France, but the
second assumed very different proportions. As early as 1145 Pope Eugenius
was granting indulgences to those who joined it, while Bernard took up the
idea and preached it with great success all along the Rhine. Disastrous as
the undertaking itself proved to those who took part in it, its immediate
effects on the countries from which the crusaders were drawn were most
beneficial. After speaking of the terrible contentions which for years had
set the ruling powers in Poland, Saxony and Bohemia at strife, Bishop Otto
III of Freising († 1158) continues in this strain: ‘Suddenly, through the
counsel of the Most High, a speedy change was effected; and in a short
time the turmoils of war were quieted, the whole earth seemed restored to
peace, and unnumbered bands from France and from Germany received the
Cross and departed to fight against its enemies.’

When these crusaders had been sped on their way--a motley crowd in which
figured emperor and king, adventurous knight, venturesome woman, and
vagrants of every kind and of both sexes--Pope Eugenius, whose position at
Rome was insecure and who had been staying at Clairvaux with Bernard,
journeyed to Trier at the request of the archbishop to meet in council the
prelates of the neighbouring districts. Among them was Heinrich,
archbishop of Mainz (1142-53), who together with Wibald, abbot of Corvei,
had been appointed representative of the emperor during his absence. It
was on this occasion that some of Hildegard’s writings were first
submitted to the Pope, probably at the request of Archbishop Heinrich.
Judging from what Hildegard says herself, Heinrich and the church at Mainz
had accepted her writings, saying that ‘they had come through God and
through that power of prophecy by which the prophets had anciently

These writings were exhortations to faith and piety set forth in the form
of revelations. Hildegard had been at work on them for the past six years,
and they form the first part of the book ‘Scivias’ (that is ‘Sci vias,’
Know the ways[677]), as it now lies before us. The life of Hildegard,
written shortly after her death, tells us that Bernard ‘with the consent
of others urged the Pope that he should not suffer so obvious a light to
be obscured by silence, but should confirm it by authority[678].’

The time was ripe for the kind of literature which comes under the heading
of prophecies. At the time of the Second Crusade leaflets containing one
of the so-called Sibylline prophecies had had a wide circulation and had
greatly inflamed men’s minds as to coming events[679]. Simultaneously with
Hildegard the abbot Giovanni Gioachimo († after 1215) foretold coming
events, so that later writers often cited Hildegard and Joachim side by
side. There was something earnest and yet undefined, something fiery and
suggestive in these writings, which appealed to the restless imagination
of the age, for they were largely founded on the Apocalypse, and like the
Apocalypse admitted of many interpretations. Their very vagueness repels
the exact thinker, but attracts the mind that is conscious of quickened
sensibilities and roused emotions, without being able to guide them into
practical channels.

Bernard of Clairvaux unhesitatingly accepted the divine origin of
Hildegard’s writings, and in a letter to her, which seems to have been
written while the Pope’s decision was pending, he addressed her in most
respectful terms[680]: ‘They tell us that you understand the secrets of
heaven and grasp that which is above human ken through the help of the
Holy Spirit,’ he wrote among other things. ‘Therefore we beg and entreat
you to remember us before God and also those who are joined to us in
spiritual union. For the spirit in you joining itself unto God, we
believe that you can in great measure help and sustain us.’
Hildegard--with a mixture of self-assurance, and eagerness to justify that
assurance, which is thoroughly characteristic of her--replied to Bernard
in ecstatic terms[681], praised him for having preached the Cross and
spoke of him as the eagle who gazes into the sun.

The correspondence[682] of Hildegard is voluminous, for from the time when
her writings first gained approval from the Pope, many lay princes and
dignitaries of the Church, bishops and abbots, abbesses and nuns, wrote to
her, generally asking for her good opinion or for advice, but sometimes
propounding questions of speculative interest, to which Hildegard in reply
sent sometimes a few sentences, sometimes a long disquisition. It is
largely owing to this correspondence that the fame of the abbess has
spread beyond the confines of Germany. Linde, one of the few modern
students who has treated of Hildegard, enumerates many manuscript copies
of these letters which are preserved in the libraries of German cities, in
Paris, London and Oxford. The genuineness of the letters has been
questioned on the ground that all those addressed to Hildegard are
curiously alike, but Linde, after examining a number of manuscript copies,
came to the conclusion that the letters were genuine[683]. In their
present arrangement the letters do not stand in chronological order but
according to the rank of the correspondents, so that those written by
Popes to Hildegard with their replies stand first, then come those written
by archbishops, bishops, emperors, and so on. With few exceptions there is
only one letter from each correspondent, an arrangement which suggests the
work of a scribe, who for the sake of uniformity may in some instances
have selected from or summarized his material. The letters printed by
Migne are a hundred and forty-five in number, but Linde refers to a few
more in his list with the remark that parts of the correspondence exist
separately and are sometimes cited as separate works[684].

These letters of Hildegard’s, as well as her other writings, contain many
references to herself; she never fails to inform us of the circumstances
which led her to begin a work. She tells us that she was middle-aged when
she first wrote an account of her visions, but that she had been subject
to these visions from her earliest childhood, and that the mental agonies
she went through before she sought relief in writing were ever present to
her mind.

Moreover we are in possession of an account of her life written between
1181 and 1191, of which the first part is by Godefrid, who introduces
extracts from the book ‘Scivias.’ The second and third parts are by
Theodor, who uses an autobiography of Hildegard of which we have no other
mention. It appears from the Acts of Inquisition of the year 1233 which
were drafted to establish Hildegard’s claim to canonization, that both
these monks had stayed with Hildegard.

Summarizing the contents of these different accounts and the information
which the voluminous writings of the abbess supply, we gather that
Hildegard, at the time when the Pope’s attention was first drawn to her,
was between forty and fifty years of age; that she was a daughter of one
of the landed gentry, and that she had been given into the care of the
nuns of Disibodenberg at the age of seven and had made profession at
fourteen. Disibodenberg[685], situated on the river Nahe, was a monastery
of some importance and has preserved annals extending from 831 to 1200
which contain useful contributions to contemporary history. The house was
under the rule of an abbot, but a convent of nuns had been lately added to
it when Hildegard came there; this convent was under the rule of the
‘magistra’ Jutta, sister of Meginhard, Count of Sponheim. From Jutta
Hildegard received her training, which included a knowledge of books of
devotion, scripture and music. Apparently she could not write German[686],
and in Latin her acquaintance with grammatical inflection and construction
was limited[687], so that when she began to write she availed herself of
the help of a monk and afterwards of that of some nuns of her convent who
helped her to polish (limare) her sentences.

During the years she spent at Disibodenberg she seems to have been devoted
to nursing[688], and the consecration of a chapel in the infirmary about
this time leaves us to infer that there were in this monastery special
conveniences for the sick[689]. In the year 1136 she succeeded Jutta as
lady superior, and at once formed the plan of leaving Disibodenberg and
settling some distance away on the Rupertsberg near Bingen on the Rhine,
in a convent foundation of her own. But at first Kuno († 1155), abbot of
Disibodenberg, opposed her going and cast doubts on the vision in which
she declared she was divinely directed to do so[690], while many who did
not belong to the monastery, and among them the parents of girls who had
been given into her care, disapproved of their daughters being taken to a
distant and desolate neighbourhood[691]. But Hildegard persisted, for the
accommodation at the monastery was insufficient for herself and her
numerous pupils, and besides as abbess at the Rupertsberg she would have a
very different standing. She fell ill, and then, chiefly through the
intercession of friends outside who made grants of land and helped her
towards the erection of new buildings, the abbot was brought to agree to
her wishes. Among others Heinrich, archbishop of Mainz, advocated her
going, and about the year 1147 she removed to the new settlement with
eighteen young women. We have a description of the influence she exerted
over these girls, her spiritual daughters, when they were still at
Disibodenberg. In the new home Hildegard adopted the rule of St Benedict,
but she met with opposition, for some of the young women objected to the
greater restrictions put upon them by the new rule, and the abbess needed
the help and support of the better and wiser ones amongst them to overcome
the difficulty. After the labour of moving Hildegard fell ill and lay
prostrate for several years, till she was strengthened and restored by
visions of the work that still lay before her.

The Acts of Inquisition tell us that there was accommodation on the
Rupertsberg for fifty professed nuns (dominae), seven poor women and two
priests[692], but the independence of the nunnery was not easily secured
and Hildegard repeatedly travelled to Disibodenberg to settle matters. The
men’s convent continued to supply priests to the women on the Rupertsberg,
but as late as 1170 difficulties occurred in regard to their appointment,
and we find Hildegard writing to Pope Alexander begging him to admonish
the abbot of Disibodenberg in her behalf[693].

A considerable portion of ‘Scivias’ was written before Hildegard removed
to the Rupertsberg. She has described in the introduction to the book how
she was led to write it[694].

‘It was in my forty-third year, when I was trembling in fearful
anticipation of a celestial vision, that I beheld a great brightness
through which a voice from heaven addressed me: “O fragile child of earth,
ash of ashes, dust of dust, express and write that which thou seest and
hearest. Thou art timid, timid in speech, artless in explaining, unlearned
in writing, but express and write not according to art but according to
natural ability, not under the guidance of human composition but under the
guidance of that which thou seest and hearest in God’s heaven above; what
thus thou hearest proclaim, like a listener who understanding the words of
his teacher, as this teacher wills and indicates, so gives expression to
his words according to the power of his speech. Thus thou, O child of
earth, proclaim what thou seest and hearest, and put it in writing, not as
thou or others will it, but as He wills who knows, sees and disposes of
all in the depths of His mysteries.” Again I heard a voice from heaven,
saying: “Speak these wonderful things, write them in thy unlearned way,
proclaim them.” And it happened in the year 1141 of Christ’s incarnation,
when I was forty-two years and seven months old, that a fiery light of
great brilliancy streaming down from heaven entirely flooded my brain, my
heart and my breast, like a flame that flickers not but gives glowing
warmth, as the sun warms that on which he sheds his rays. Then of a sudden
I had the power of explaining Scripture, that is the Psalter, the Gospels
and the other Catholic books both of the Old and of the New Testament
(Psalterium, Evangeliorum et aliorum catholicorum tam Veteris quam Novi
Testamenti volumina), though I did not understand the inflections of
words, their division into syllables, their cases and tenses. I had been
conscious from earliest girlhood of a power of insight, and visions of
hidden and wonderful things, ever since the age of five years, then and
ever since. But I did not mention it save to a few religious persons who
followed the like observances with myself; I kept it hidden by silence
until God in His grace willed to have it made manifest.’

In this strain she tells how her visions came to her, not when she was
asleep or when she was dreaming or in any way excited, but in the most
serious of moods. They had for years perturbed her, and she had shrunk
from putting them into writing, when a sudden illness came upon her and
made her alter her mind. Then in her own words, ‘a noble high-born girl
and the man whom I had secretly sought and consulted, were witnesses to
how I set my hand to the task’--that is to the composition of ‘Scivias.’

It would lead us too far to give a summary of the contents of this
extraordinary book; it is divided into three parts, the first containing
the account of six, the second of seven, and the third of thirteen
visions, all of which seem to have taken place in the following way.
Hildegard is confronted by a bright light, which radiates over some
wonderful piece of imagery, a mountain, an abyss, some beast, man, or
building, or part of the firmament, which, with the figures that throng
around, she minutely describes, and then she gives an explanation of the
allegorical meaning of this picture vouchsafed to her from God in heaven.
The real and the unreal alike supply material for these visions, which
show great powers of imagination; in their allegorical application they
dwell upon the Creed, the Scriptures, the Incarnation, the Trinity, and
life hereafter, and other questions of doctrinal and theological interest.
The descriptions are highly coloured throughout, but their application is
often very obscure. A translation of the opening passages of one of the
visions, which turns on the protection afforded to the faithful against
the wiles of the devil, will give some idea of the character of their

‘Then I saw a shining light, wide and high as a mountain, which spreading
upwards flashed into many tongues of fire (linguas). And outside it stood
a number of men clad in white, in front of whom, like a veil, transparent
crystal extended from their breasts downwards to their feet. But before
this band, in their pathway, lay a dragon (vermis) of huge size and
length, of such terrible and threatening aspect as cannot be expressed. On
his left was as it were a market-place where the riches of this world lay
heaped, wealth delightful to the eye, where buying and selling went on;
some people passed by this place in a great hurry without buying, while
others drew near slowly and stayed to buy and sell. The dragon was black
and hairy, and covered with venomous excrescences, of which five kinds
extended from his head over his body to his feet in the shape of rings;
one was green, one white, one red, one yellow, one black, and all were
equally charged with deadly venom. His head was broken, causing his left
jaw to hang down. His eyes were red and flashed fire; his ears were round
and furred; his nostrils and mouth were those of a dragon (vipera), he had
the hands of a man, the feet of a dragon, and below a short horrible tail.
And his neck, hands and feet were bound by a chain and this chain was
fixed to the abyss, and held him so fast that he could not move away to
suit his wicked will. From his mouth poured forth four streams of flame,
of which one rose aloft, a second spread towards the children of this
world, a third towards the company of just men, the last towards the
abyss. The flames which rose aloft threatened those who aspired to heaven,
who move in three ranks, one touching the sky, the other betwixt heaven
and earth, the third close to earth, and all were crying, “We are striving
to reach heaven.” But some of them, although touched by the flames, fell
not, others barely kept their footing, yet others falling again to earth,
gathered themselves up and went forth anew.--The flames which spread
towards the children of this world reached some and burnt them to utter
blackness, of others they took hold, turning them hither and thither; yet
others burst away, and striving towards those who were nearing heaven
shouted out aloud: “Ye faithful ones, give us help!” But some remained as
though spell-bound.--The flames which ran to the company of the just
covered some with blackness; the company of the just moved in six ranks,
and those whom the cruel flames wounded not were tainted by the poison of
the dragon which issued from the green, white, red, yellow, and black
parts of its body.--The flames which sought the abyss carried various
punishments to those who had not been cleansed by baptism, who ignored the
true faith and worshipped Satan instead of God. And I further saw arrows
pouring from the dragon’s mouth, black smoke issuing from his body,
steaming liquid bubbling from his sides, and excretions going out from the
lower part of his body, like to frogs that are disastrous to man, and
which bring infection to many. And a black mist with foul odour going
forth contaminated all.

‘But lo and behold the men shining in brilliancy advanced towards this
dragon to fight and vex it, whom it could harm neither by fire nor by
poison. And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me: “God, who disposes
all in wisdom, summons His faithful band to the glory of their heritage;
the old deceiver lies in wait and tries his evil powers, but he is
overcome, his presumption is defeated; they attain their heavenly
heritage, and he suffers eternal disgrace. Therefore dost thou behold a
shining light, wide and high as a mountain, flashing upwards into many
tongues of fire, which is the justice of God, as it glows in the faith of
believers, setting forth the breadth of His holiness, the height of His
glory, by which glory are declared the wondrous powers of the divine

All the visions of the first two parts of the book are written in this
vague indefinite strain, but in the third Hildegard, conscious of the
evils that had come upon the Church through the schism in the Papacy,
became more outspoken in her views, and enlarged on the true faith being
shaken, on Holy Scripture being disregarded, and on the great works of
learned men being neglected. She says definitely that there can be no life
where the head is severed from the limbs; and such, in her estimation, is
the condition of the Church while schism continues. In common with a
current view, she expected that things would go from bad to worse till the
coming of Antichrist, whose appearance and influence she describes in
eloquent and impressive imagery[696]. The apprehensive tone of these
descriptions is in agreement with the growing consciousness of wickedness
and personal responsibility, which assumed such proportions during the
latter half of the 12th century, and made the minds of many prepared for
the altruistic doctrines spread abroad by the orders of friars.

The last vision of the book ‘Scivias’ lays stress upon the final
revolution and reconciliation which will follow the reign of Antichrist
and the times of trouble, and in this vision occur passages in dialogue,
cast into dramatic form and called a symphony (symphonia), which rank
among the finest productions of their kind[697]. The subject of this
improvised drama is ‘the Progress of the Soul on her way to heaven.’ It
opens with a lament of those Souls who are still confined in the body,
whereupon one Faithful Soul (Fidelis anima), who is set free, raises her
voice in supplication, calling on the Virtues or Divine Powers (Virtutes)
for assistance. They respond and promise help, when Divine Knowledge
(Scientia Dei) raises her voice and adds to the consciousness of
helplessness in the Faithful Soul, who is now importuned on one side by
Pride or the Devil (Diabolus) and on the other by Humility (Humilitas),
both of whom are striving to gain possession of her. But the Virtues urge
her to hold by Humility and the Devil is put to flight, whereupon the
Virtues guide the Faithful Soul upwards to Heaven where she is finally
received by Victory (Victoria). The whole ends with a hymn in praise of
Christ which is sung by the Virtues.

It is probable that only the first and second parts of the work ‘Scivias’
were laid before the Pope in 1146. He wrote to Hildegard as abbess of the
Rupertsberg, and the letter is short and curt[698]. He refers to her
wonderful powers and then continues: ‘We congratulate ourselves in this
grace of God, and we congratulate thee, but we would have thee reminded
that God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the lowly. Take good
care of this grace which is within thee in order that what thou art
spiritually (in spiritu) urged to proclaim, thou mayest proclaim with
caution.’ And he adds words to the effect that he confirms the settlement
she has founded.

The whole of the lengthy reply[699] which Hildegard sent to this letter
was written in an admonitory tone, for she considered herself the chosen
mouthpiece of God though characterizing herself as a poor lowly woman.
‘The light stays with me and glows in my soul as it has done since my
childhood,’ she says to the Pope, ‘therefore I send thee these words, a
true admonition from God.’ A mass of imagery follows, powerful and direct,
but not always clear in its application.

In one place she writes: ‘A jewel lies on the road, a bear comes, and
deeming it beautiful puts out his paw and would treasure it in his bosom’
(the bear is the German Emperor)[700]. ‘But suddenly an eagle snatches the
jewel, wraps it in the covering of his wings and bears it upwards to the
royal palace’ (the eagle represents the Pope, the palace the kingdom of
Christ). ‘The jewel gives out much light before the king, so that he
rejoices and out of love of the jewel gives to the eagle golden shoes’
(the insignia of papal authority), ‘and praises him for his goodness. Now
do thou, who art sitting in the place of Christ in care of the Church,
choose the better part; be as the eagle overcoming the bear, that with the
souls entrusted to thee thou mayest decorate the palace of the Church; so
that with golden shoes thou mayest rise aloft and be removed from thine

Other images follow. It is told how the valleys overtop the hills and then
the hills overtop the valleys, with the obvious application that no order
is maintained in the Church, since the lower clergy presume upon and the
higher abuse their powers; each one neglecting to do his duty, and class
being envious of class. ‘The poor man is very foolish who, when he knows
that his garment is soiled, looks at others and reflects on the appearance
of their clothes, instead of washing and cleaning his own.... Therefore,
do thou, great shepherd called upon to follow Christ, supply a light to
the hills, a rod to the valleys. Give to the teachers precepts, bring unto
the lowly discipline.’ And further, ‘Make all things pure and have thine
eyes everywhere.’

After settling near Bingen Hildegard completed the book ‘Scivias’ and then
engaged on the compilation of two books on medicine, one of which has
never been published[701]. The other is usually called ‘Physica’; its
amplified title runs, ‘On the nature of man, of the various elements and
of various creatures and plants, and on the way in which they are useful
to man[702].’ This book, of which the printing press issued several
editions in the 16th century, has been characterised by the scientist
Virchow as an early ‘materia medica, curiously complete considering the
age to which it belongs[703].’ Haeser, in his history of medicine, also
points out the importance of the work, saying that ‘it contains
descriptions of the medicinal properties of the best-known animals, plants
and minerals, together with directions how to improve accepted remedies
against illness in man and beast[704].’ He considers that the book has an
historical value because it is an independent German treatise based
chiefly on popular experience, for no writer except Isidor of Seville (†
636) is made use of in it. In this connection it has been further
commented on by Jessen[705].

The book consists of a collection of terse bits of description, of
sensible advice, and of old-world superstitions. It is so arranged that a
description is given first of plants (230 in number), and then of elements
(14), trees (60), stones (26), fishes (37), birds (72), animals (43), and
lastly of metals (8). The German term for each object is given and its
health-giving or obnoxious properties are mentioned. Thus the description
of the mulberry tree is followed by the information that a decoction of
its leaves forms an efficacious remedy in cases of skin disease, and after
the description of prunes comes the information that they are good for a
dry cough. When treating of the pig Hildegard states that pork is
indigestible and should be avoided in cases of sickness. While some
descriptions are excellent and obviously based on direct observation, as
for example that of the properties of soda, others are entirely
fabulous, such as that of the unicorn. We get the savour of primitive
leechcraft in the statements that carrying about a dead frog is good for
the gout, that drinking water out of a cypress bowl rids one of devils and
fantasies, and that eating raven’s flesh should be avoided since it
encourages thieving propensities. In regard to diagnosis of disease
Hildegard’s ideas are necessarily vague. The illnesses referred to are
chiefly indigestion, fevers, coughs, delusions and leprosy. Several kinds
of leprosy are distinguished, and the chief remedies prescribed are baths
in decoctions of leaves and other less savoury preparations.

In the light of information such as is contained in this book, the
wonderful cures which Hildegard and many other early saints are said to
have effected take a new meaning. It is generally allowed that the fame of
monasteries as curative centres is founded on a basis of fact which
consists in their healthy situation, abundance of pure water, and regular
diet. But evidently there is more than this. When we look through the
‘Physica,’ compiled under Hildegard’s direction if not directly by her, we
feel that, if we could only see behind the veil of the miraculous through
which all religious writers persist in looking at the alleviation of
physical and mental suffering, we should be brought face to face with much
judicious treatment and with the application of a considerable amount of
medicinal knowledge.

During the early part of her stay on the Rupertsberg Hildegard also wrote
a book of Latin texts for hymns (before 1153) which are accompanied by
musical notation[706],--certain ‘Expositions of the Gospels’ (before 1157)
for the use of her nuns, which have not been printed[707],--an explanation
‘of the rule of St Benedict[708],’--and another ‘of the symbol of St
Athanasius[709].’ In the opening sentences of this last work she describes
the difficulties she had to contend with in founding the nunnery, and
admonishes the nuns to guard against division and discord when she is no
more. Another work entitled ‘Vitae meritorum,’ consisting of moral
admonitions, was written between 1158 and 1162, but has not been
printed[710]. A series of questions was forwarded to her by Guibert of
Gembloux and was the occasion of a lengthy reply, sent to him in the form
of a letter[711]. Hildegard also either invented or perpetuated in writing
a glossary of words of a secret language, each term accompanied by its
equivalent in Latin or in German, sometimes in both. Scholars look upon
this work as containing words invented by members of the convent to be
used in the presence of strangers for the purpose of secret

These writings give proof of Hildegard’s active interest in her convent,
though at the same time she remained keenly alive to events outside. The
choice of Friedrich Barbarossa (1152-1190) as successor to Konrad proved
favourable in many respects to German lands, but the position of the
Papacy was further jeopardised when Friedrich fell out with Pope Hadrian
(1154-59). After the death of this Pope Friedrich did not support his
legitimate successor Alexander III (1159-81), but the successive
Antipopes, Victor IV († 1164), Paschalis III († 1168) and Calixtus III
(resigned 1178). The cities of northern Italy tried to secure autonomy,
and plotted against the Emperor. Again and again their rebellion obliged
him to cross the Alps and devote himself to their subjection, while
several of his powerful German prelates at home, by no means convinced of
the rightfulness of his cause, sided with Pope Alexander, some secretly,
some openly, against the Antipope and the Emperor. Hildegard joined this
party and charged the Emperor with being partly responsible for the
continued schism and for the diminished authority of the Church. With
these views she wrote a letter full of adulation to Eberhard, archbishop
of Salzburg (1147-1164), who adhered to Alexander[713], and sent dark
forebodings of impending disaster to Arnold, archbishop of Mainz
(1153-1160[714]). It would lead too far to dwell upon the numerous letters
written during these years by the abbess who, believing herself to possess
a miraculous insight into things, wrote sometimes in a threatening,
sometimes in an admonitory, and sometimes in an encouraging strain. The
outside world generally, including many clever and cultivated men, held
her to be divinely enlightened. Arnold II, archbishop of Cöln (1151-1156),
wrote to entreat her to send him her writings whatever their state[715].
The abbot of Elwangen wrote saying that she could ‘speak of the present,
uncover the past, and foresee the future[716],’ and the provost and clergy
of Trier wrote to consult her in their trouble, and declared her ‘filled
by the Holy Ghost and acquainted with things which are hidden from mankind

Many powerful prelates, abbots and abbesses sought confirmation of their
views or advice in tribulation from the learned abbess. Her fame spread
beyond the confines of Germany, for we find the patriarch of Jerusalem
addressing a letter to her, in which he said that he was living in sad
straits and begged for her prayers, and Hildegard, evidently influenced by
his exalted position, urging him to remain steadfast and assuring him that
while his faith is firm he need not despair[718].

Among the letters which refer to convent matters we note one addressed to
Heinrich, the archbishop of Mainz. In early days he had supported
Hildegard, but at a later date he advocated against her wish the promotion
of one of her nuns to the post of abbess in another convent, thus drawing
on himself Hildegard’s scorn and anger. The nun was Hiltrud of Sponheim,
who had helped Hildegard to put ‘Scivias’ into writing and whose loss was
a serious matter to her. She vented her anger by attacking the bishop and
threatening him with ruin. ‘The rod you raise is not raised in the
interest of God,’ she wrote to him[719], and ended her letter with these
words: ‘your days are numbered, remember how Nebuchadnezzar fell and lost
his crown. Many others who presumed that they would attain to heaven have
likewise fallen.’ In point of fact Heinrich was soon afterwards charged
with wasting the goods of the Church, was deposed and died in exile.

Another nun, who had also helped Hildegard with her writing and left her
against her wish, was Richardis, sister of Hartwich, bishop of Bremen
(1148-1168). The correspondence includes a letter from Hartwich to
Hildegard, telling her that his sister died shortly after accepting her
post as abbess, that she always regretted having left Hildegard and would
have returned to her if she had lived. Hildegard in reply speaks warmly of
the virtues of Richardis, and says that she finds comfort in the thought
that God has removed her from the vanities of this world[720].

Abbesses of many convents, convinced of Hildegard’s being divinely
inspired, wrote to her for advice concerning personal matters. Thus the
abbess of Altwick near Utrecht asked if she were justified in resigning
her post and becoming a recluse, and Hildegard in reply urged her not to
yield to temptation but to remain in charge of her flock[721]. The abbess
Sophie of Kizzingen had the same wish but was likewise advised to
persevere in her vocation[722]. Among numerous other letters from the
superiors of convents there is one from the abbess Adelheid of Gandersheim
(† 1184) who had been educated by Hildegard and who wrote begging for news
and saying that she was shortly coming on a visit[723].

Among the letters bearing on Hildegard’s religious attitude is one
addressed to Philip von Heinsberg, an earnest adherent of Pope Alexander.
He afterwards became archbishop of Cöln, and Hildegard wrote warning him
of the dangers to be apprehended from a sect of heretics, doubtless the
so-called Cathari, of whom more later[724]. This sect were at the time in
possession of a well-planned organization in the Rhine districts, and
aroused serious apprehension in religious circles. The archbishop of Cöln,
Reinald von Dassel (1159-1167), disputed with them; Ekbert, a monk of
Schönau to whom we shall return, directly attacked their doctrines, and in
1163 a number of them were burnt to death at Cöln. It is interesting to
note what fears they inspired and how their doctrines were interpreted. In
the eyes of Hildegard there is no doubt as to their being altogether evil.

The situation of the Rupertsberg near the Rhine, the highway of
communication in those days, kept Hildegard in touch with the outside
world. She received many visitors and took frequent journeys. We hear of
her going to Cöln, Trier, Würzburg, Bamberg and to many monasteries in the
neighbourhood, but the story that she went as far as Paris and Tours is
unfounded--the result of a misinterpreted passage in the account of her
life[725]. Personal acquaintance with Hildegard seems only to have
confirmed the belief in her superior abilities and her direct converse
with the Godhead--a curious illustration of the credulity of the age, with
its craving for signs and wonders.

Her clear-sightedness and consciousness of prophetic power increased with
age, and there is the strongest evidence of them in her last important
work, which bears the title of ‘The Book of Divine doings[726].’ It was
written between 1163 and 1170, ‘when the apostolic see was most seriously
oppressed,’ and for imaginativeness, breadth of knowledge and power of
generalization ranks highest among Hildegard’s works.

The leading idea of this book is to establish parallels, sometimes between
things divine and human, sometimes between the physical and the spiritual
world, sometimes between the facts of the Biblical narrative and their
allegorical meaning, with a view to glorifying God in His works. It
contains vivid bits of description, valuable glimpses of contemporary
scientific knowledge, and occasional brilliant similes, but the
conceptions among which it moves are so entirely those of a past age that
it is often difficult to grasp their import.

Thus in the first vision there is the description of the creation of man
in the image and the likeness of God, which is supposed to account for the
complexity of the human being. In another vision the heavenly spheres are
set forth according to the accepted astronomical theory, and their
movements within each other and mutual interdependence are described. In
each of these spheres resides a spiritual influence, such as divine grace,
good works, or repentance, and as the heavenly spheres influence each
other, so these spiritual influences control and determine the nature of
man. Many of the parallels are extremely curious, such as those between
things physical and physiological, in which the external influences of
wind, weather and the constellations are treated in connection with the
humours of the human body. For the humours in the human body are so
disposed that their undue pressure on heart, lungs or liver upsets the
balance of the constitution and produces stomachic disorders, fevers,
pleurisy, leprosy, etc., thus showing that these illnesses are indirectly
the outcome of physical surroundings.

The learned abbess also draws parallels between the configuration of the
surface of the earth with its heights and depths, and human nature with
its heights of virtue and depths of vice[727]. Forced as some of these
comparisons appear to modern ideas, the language in which they are given
shows considerable appreciation of phenomena in nature. Hildegard
amplifies her book by disquisitions on passages in Job, the Psalms, St
John, and the Apocalypse, which bear on the relation of light to life, of
the spirit to the word, and of mental to physical darkness. The moments
of the Creation are explained in their allegorical application, and give
rise to comparisons such as this[728]: that the firmament of faith, like
the firmament of nature, is illumined by two kinds of light; the greater
light, like that of day, comes through prelates and spiritual teachers,
the lesser light, like that of night, through kings and secular princes.
In another passage man is likened to the soul and woman to the body, for
the soul is of heaven and the body of earth, and their combination makes
human life possible[729]. The wickedness which preceded the Flood, the
falling away from the true faith, and the manner in which God chastised
man by means of water and fire, are described in very impressive language,
and together with a description of the Plagues of Egypt, lead up to the
last vision, which enlarges on the evils of the time and on coming events.
Here again as in ‘Scivias’ we have a description of impending changes, of
threatening disaster, and of the results of the coming of Antichrist; it
is perhaps as emphatic in the way of prophecy as anything that has ever
been written. Contemporaries were powerfully impressed by this part of the
book; even to later ages it appeared truly remarkable. Again and again in
times of trouble and difficulty men have gone to it and found
corroboration of the changes which were taking place around them. The
reader can judge for himself how men’s minds at the time of the
Reformation were likely to be affected by the perusal of passages such as
those which follow, in which the collapse of the German Empire--that is
the Roman Empire of the German nation--and the Papacy, and their falling
asunder had been described three hundred years before by the abbess of the

‘In the days to come the Emperors of the Roman See, forfeiting the power
by which they had up to that time firmly upheld the Roman Empire, will
become feeble in all their glory, so that the empire that has been given
into their hands by divine power will gradually become enfeebled and fail,
until they themselves, becoming sordid, feeble, servile and criminal in
their practices, will be altogether useless, and yet they will claim to be
respected by the people; but being indifferent to the people’s welfare,
they cannot be respected or held high. Then the kings and princes of the
various peoples, who before were subject to the Roman Empire, will cut
themselves off from it and refuse to be ruled by it. And thus the Roman
Empire will sink to decay. For each clan and each people will set up a
king unto themselves whom they will respect, alleging that the greatness
of the Roman Empire was previously more an encumbrance to them than an
advantage. But after the Imperial sceptre in this way has been divided,
never to be restored, then the dignity of the Apostolic See (infula) will
be impaired also. For neither princes nor other men, of the religious or
the lay orders, will uphold any religion in the name of the Apostolic See,
and they will violate the dignity of that name. They will appoint unto
themselves other teachers and archbishops under some other name in the
various districts, so that the Apostolic See (apostolicus), impaired in
its standing through collapse of its dignity, will barely maintain its
hold on Rome and on a few adjoining districts. This will come about partly
through the irruptions of war, partly through the common consent and unity
of religious and lay folk, who will demand of each secular prince that he
fortify and rule his kingdom and his people, and of whatever archbishop or
other spiritual teacher who is appointed that he exert discipline over
those who are subject to him, lest they again experience the evils which
by divine decree they experienced once before.’

Various interpretations have in the course of time been given to
Hildegard’s prophecies, and a number of pamphlets, some consisting of
amplified passages of her works, some entirely spurious, have circulated
under her name. In the 13th century she was held to have indicated the
threatened downfall of the Dominican friars[731], and even in England in
the ‘Creed of Piers Ploughman’ we are called to ‘hearken to
Hildegard[732].’ At the time of the Reformation the attention genuine
passages from her writings attracted was very considerable, and again in
the 17th century they were interpreted as foretelling the downfall of the
Jesuits[733]. Even in the course of the present century, passages taken
from Hildegard’s writings have been explained as foretelling the revolt of

Hildegard lived to the advanced age of eighty-two. Her last writings,
which were purely legendary, were a life of St Rupert, the patron saint
of her nunnery[735], and a life of St Disibodus, patron saint of the
monastery she had left[736]. As for Disibodus Wattenbach says that ‘there
is no mention of him previous to the 12th century[737].’ Indeed Grimm has
explained the name ‘Disiboden’ as a height hallowed to holy women (idisi),
in which case, if an early Christian dwelt there at all, he must have
taken his name from the height. In 1178 Hildegard passed away after a
short illness, and soon after her death an enquiry was instituted with a
view to her official canonization. In spite of renewed efforts this was
not accomplished, but her name was placed on the Roman Martyrology and she
is reckoned among the accepted saints of the Church[738].

Surely it is curious that no attempt has hitherto been made to submit the
writings and influence of Hildegard to a detailed critical examination.
The few accounts which tell of her, such as that of Schmelzeis[739], are
dictated solely by the wish to show how divine grace was made manifest in
her. The reprint of her chief works and a descriptive account of the
extant manuscript copies of her writings, and of genuine and
supposititious works[740], have now brought the material for such an
enquiry within reach of the student, and made it possible to obtain an
analysis of the aims and character of a woman whose influence and
popularity were far-reaching, and on whom later ages in recognition of her
powers have bestowed the epithet of the ‘Sibyl of the Rhine[741].’

It remains to cast a glance at the writings of Elisabeth, the nun at
Schönau, who contemporaneously with Hildegard was held to be divinely
inspired, and who, ‘while Hildegard acted as adviser to Emperor and Pope,
in humbler wise influenced the clergy and the people[742].’ In later ages
the names of Hildegard and Elisabeth were frequently coupled together, and
their efforts to rouse the representatives of the Church to greater
consciousness of their responsibilities were looked upon as a proof of
God’s wish to restore the supreme influence of the Church. The nun
Elisabeth dwelt in the women’s convent which was attached to the
Benedictine monastery of Schönau in the diocese of Trier. She went there
in 1141 at a youthful age, and in 1157 she became lady superior
(magistra). Her brother Ekbert († 1184) while a canon at Bonn frequently
visited her, and it was through her persuasion that he finally became a
monk at Schönau. He was a writer of some importance, well known for his
exhortations against the heretic Cathari; he had been educated with
Reinald von Dassel, afterwards archbishop of Cöln, and with him adhered to
the cause of the Emperor and the Antipope Victor. Elisabeth was inspired
by similar political sympathies. For unlike Hildegard, who was an ardent
supporter of Pope Alexander, Elisabeth was favourably inclined towards his
opponent Pope Victor--a preference which laid her open to calumny.

The ‘Visions’ of Elisabeth came to her between 1152 and 1160, and we are
told that they were sent her in the first place for her own comfort,
direction and enlightenment. They are grouped together in three books, but
there is a later work entitled ‘On the ways of God,’ which is sometimes
referred to as a fourth book of the visions[743]. She also wrote
‘Revelations on the holy band of Virgins at Cöln.’ Her collected works
fill the smaller half of a moderately sized volume.

It is supposed that Elisabeth was helped by her fellow-nuns to put the
visions of the first books into writing, and that her brother Ekbert
assisted in their circulation. The manuscript from which they were
published contains an introduction by Ekbert written after he had become
abbot at Schönau (1167), in which he says he has collected (conscripsi)
these writings and other things that have reference to them, and that he
has translated into Latin what happened to be in German[744].

The first book of the ‘Visions’ contains short accounts of how on certain
festal days during religious service Elisabeth, who was delicate and apt
to get excited at the mention of certain saints, asserts she saw them
before her bodily. It is described how she was liable at any time to fall
into trances, in which she lost consciousness of what happened around her.
In the second and third books the accounts of the visions are fuller and
more elaborate; they contain interesting bits of imagery and symbolism,
and give us occasional glimpses of the daily life in the convent. It is
curious to note how the fancied visions of the nun were in various
particulars accepted by her contemporaries as manifestations of the divine
will. The party in the Church, who were desirous of establishing the
‘Assumption of the Virgin’ as a recognised festival, greeted Elisabeth’s
vision of this incident[745] with enthusiasm. Other festivals of the
Church, for example that of Corpus Christi, owed their general acceptance
to inspired visions of nuns. For the emotional yearning of the age found
relief in representations of religious ideas, and the Church readily
ministered to the desire by elaborating the cult of relics and

It is thought that Elisabeth’s book ‘On the ways of God[746]’ was written
after she became acquainted with the ‘Scivias’ of Hildegard, and her title
looks like an imitation[747]. This work consists also of visions, but
these are given in the form of admonitions (sermones) addressed to
different classes of society; the work is wonderfully complete in plan and
execution. In simple and direct language men are urged to mend their ways,
and to listen to the admonitions which the Angel of the Lord has
vouchsafed to them through the mouth of the nun.

In this book Elisabeth sees the summit of a lofty mountain, on which
stands a man whose face is luminous, whose eyes shine like stars and from
whose mouth goes forth a sword. She sees three paths leading up this hill;
one is blue, another green, and the third purple. The blue path indicates
the use of contemplation, the green of action, and the purple of
martyrdom. But afterwards other paths appear which also lead up the hill
towards heaven: these are the paths of married people (conjugatorum), of
celibates (continentium), of prelates (prelatorum), of widows
(viduatorum), of hermits (heremitarum), of young people (adolescentum et
juvenum) and of children (infantum).

‘I was resting on my bed but not asleep,’ says Elisabeth, speaking of
those who have chosen a life of contemplation[748], ‘when the Angel
(spiritus) of the Lord visited me of a sudden and inspired me to speak as
follows: “Give heed, you, who have renounced worldly pleasures and who
have chosen to follow in the footsteps of Him who has summoned you into
His beauteous light and who Himself calls you His chosen sons, appointing
you to the end of time to judge the tribes of Israel. Consider among
yourselves in what way you should live in humility, obedience, love, and
without murmuring, without disparagement, jealousy and pride, and take
heed that you keep yourselves from other vices! Love one another, that
your Father in heaven be not blasphemed in you and be not roused to anger
at your leaving your path, the path of contemplation!” Then the Angel
(angelus) of the Lord followed up his utterances by saying: “If there be
among you wranglings, quarrels, disparagements, complaints, anger, hatred
and jealousy, spiritual pride (extollencia oculorum), desire for
advancement, boasting, ribaldry, gluttony, laziness, incontinence,
idleness and such like, in all of which you walk on, sons of this world,
what place do you give to divine contemplation?” And again he spoke and
said: “This exhortation of God is addressed to you who have chosen to
serve God whether in the clerical or in the monastic profession. You have
chosen the best part, but take heed lest it slip from you. Studiously
avoid the sinfulness of those who outwardly bear the semblance of
religion, but shame its worth by their actions. With their lips they
honour God; by their ways they blaspheme Him. Some of them strive for
knowledge of the law, but they know not how to apply it. They turn their
back on truth, and yet they boast of moving in the path of contemplation.
They make the law of God and their advocacy of it serve their pride,
avarice and desires, and from those who dwell in Jesus Christ they boldly
snatch wealth and honours, and cherish their foulness. The sanctuary of
God, and places to be hallowed by angels, they visit with pride and
pollution, and raise the adorable treasures of Christ’s sacrament in
irreverent ministration with impure hearts. They jeer at him who rebukes
them and sadden him with contempt and persecution. Those among them who
are less wicked, are yet hateful before the Lord. For they walk about with
the semblance of humility, but their hearts are far removed from it. They
multiply words, but of what use are these when in their hearts they oppose
God, neglect brotherly love, envy and disparage others, and wrangle about
position? They profess contempt of the world, but worship that which is of
the world, strut about boldly, and yield to every gust of their desires.
They have cast aside the customs of their fathers; they engage in the
business of this world and fill the Church with wranglings. Thus religion
suffers contempt, and faith is divided. But why should I enlarge on such
doings, saith the Lord? A shout is raised against them, but they listen
not and repudiate my voice of admonition in contempt....”’

And it is not only those of the religious profession whom the nun
admonishes. The address to married people[749] is especially interesting,
not only on account of her conception of the mutual obligations of husband
and wife, claiming obedience from the wife and respect for his wife’s
feelings from the husband, but because she vehemently attacks women’s love
of dress and men’s love of indulgence. The Angel of God informs Elisabeth
that now-a-days men in large numbers degrade their desires to the level of
women’s folly, and are foolish enough to adapt themselves to women’s
stupidity. ‘The love of dress, which thou dost hate and despise in the
women of the world who come to thee, has grown apace on earth, and has
become a madness, and brings down the wrath of God. They delight in
walking about, their steps hampered by the mass of their garments, and
they try to wear out to no profit what the poor sorely need. O
wretchedness, O blindness!’

It is in the course of this exhortation that Elisabeth consults the Angel
about the heretic Cathari[750], who she states are said to reject marriage
while teaching at the same time that only those marriages are valid where
both parties have preserved their virginity. The Angel cannot deny that
such marriages are most acceptable to God, but declares that they are
rare. Yet he announces that the leaders of that sect are of Satan. ‘Then,’
the nun continues, ‘I said, “Lord, what and of what kind is their faith?”
He answered: “Their faith is contemptible, their works are worse.” And I
said: “Yet they have the appearance of just men and are praised as men of
good works.” “Truly,” he replied, “they put on an appearance of just and
innocent living, through which they attract and convert many, and yet
inwardly they are full of the worst madness.”’ Considering that nothing is
known of these early dissenters except what their opponents have
preserved, these remarks are interesting as showing that though Hildegard
treated the Cathari with unhesitating contempt Elisabeth was perplexed
about them.

Another exhortation addressed to the ministers of the Church is eloquent
in its attacks on the overbearing conduct of the clergy, and on the way
they neglect their flocks. Widows are then admonished to cultivate peace
of mind and to reflect only on spiritual joys, and hermits are urged not
to carry their self-denying practices to extremes, since immoderate
fasting is productive of no good results. The book seems originally to
have ended here, for the last two exhortations are evidently the result of
an afterthought. In the first of these young people are recommended to
cultivate seriousness of mind, and the second treats of young children,
but only in a vague way, for their parents are said to be chiefly
responsible for their behaviour. The book ends with a paragraph to the
effect that the angel appeared and addressed the bishops of Trier, Cöln
and Mainz telling them to amend their ways and accept the contents of the
book. ‘Read them, and hearken to their divine admonitions,’ it says[751],
‘and receive them with an equable mind. Do not think they be the
fabrications of a woman, for they are not; they have come through God, the
Almighty Father, who is the source and origin of all goodness.’

It must have been some time after she had begun to write visions that
Elisabeth wrote the following letter to Hildegard. It is preserved in the
third book of her visions, and also in the correspondence of Hildegard,
together with the reply sent to it[752].

‘What you said had been revealed to you concerning me, I now write to
confirm; a cloud of distrust has come over my mind owing to the foolish
sayings of some people who are ever talking of me; they are not true. The
talk of the people I can easily bear, but not of those who wear clerical
garb, they bitterly oppress my spirit. For goaded on, at whose instigation
I know not, they ridicule the grace of God that is within me, and do not
hesitate rashly to condemn what they do not understand. I hear that
certain letters written in their spirit are circulating under my name.
They accuse me of having prophesied concerning the Day of Judgment, which
I surely never have presumed to do, as knowledge of its advent is denied
to mortal man.’ She goes on to explain how the angel of God had repeatedly
appeared to her, saying that the time for contrition and repentance had
come, and how she had spoken of this to others. But now a letter is
circulated, full of threats against the abbot. In her distress she begs
that Hildegard will accept this explanation, offer prayers in her behalf
and write her some words of consolation.

In her reply to this letter Hildegard admits Elisabeth’s power of
prophecy. She also is a trumpet through which the blasts of divine
admonition become audible. Another letter addressed to Hildegard by
Elisabeth shows that they remained in communication[753], though their
different church and political sympathies naturally precluded a closer

The last book Elisabeth wrote added greatly to her fame. It consists of
‘Revelations on the holy band of virgins of Cöln[754],’ the companions and
fellow-martyrs of St Ursula, the origin of which legend is shrouded in
some obscurity[755]. The story current in Elisabeth’s time in various
versions states that in the 3rd century Ursula, a British princess, went
on pilgrimage to Rome with 11,000 virgin companions, and that on their
journey homewards these virgins together with many followers were murdered
at Cöln, either by the Huns or some other heathen tribes. The name Ursula,
however, does not occur in any of the ancient martyrologies, and therefore
may be a latter-day addition to the story, while the extraordinary number
of her companions is held to have originated through misreading an
inscription which refers to eleven martyred virgins (XI M. V.). History
speaks of virgin martyrs at Cöln at an early date.

In 1156 a quantity of bones were found in an ancient cemetery outside
Cöln, and this led to the revival of the story, which now assumed gigantic
proportions. The relics of one of the virgins named Cordula were brought
to Schönau by Ekbert. Elisabeth’s imagination was roused, the progress of
St Ursula, various incidents of her journey and the character of many of
her companions, were made manifest to her in a series of visions by St
Verena, also one of the band, who repeatedly appeared to Elisabeth and
divinely enlightened her on various points in dispute. With the help of
this saint Elisabeth felt enabled to explain how Pope Cyriacus (otherwise
unknown to history) came to be of the party; how it was that archbishops,
cardinals and a king of England accompanied these women, and what caused
one of the band to bury, with some of the dead, tablets inscribed with
their names, which tablets had come to light at Cöln. The whole account,
which Elisabeth promulgated in good faith, and which her contemporaries
had no hesitation in accepting as genuine, forms a most interesting
example of mediaeval religious romance. It teems with chronological and
historical impossibilities: apart from these it bears the stamp of
truthfulness. It is pure romance, but it is romance set forth in a spirit
of conviction and with a circumstantiality of detail thoroughly convincing
to the uncritical mind.

Throughout the Rhine district these visions were greeted with acclamation.
They were welcome for two reasons; they increased the interest and traffic
in the relics at Cöln, and they fell in with current traditions and
encouraged the revived local worship of the three women-saints. The names
of these were now connected with that of St Ursula[756], and the legend of
St Ursula became the centre of many floating traditions, and has
proportionately attracted the attention of the hagiologist and the
folk-lore student. Eleven thousand became the accepted number of Ursula’s
followers and the compilers of the _Acta Sanctorum_ have actually
succeeded in making out a list containing over seven hundred names[757].

In literature the version of the legend as told by Elisabeth was accepted
in preference to earlier versions, and became popular not only in Germany,
but also in England and France, especially in Normandy. In England both
the legend and the visions were known as early as 1181 through Roger, a
monk of the Cistercian abbey at Forde in Devonshire. It is thought that he
came into personal contact with Elisabeth at Schönau, and references are
sometimes made to him as the compiler of the ‘Visions’ and as the author
of the legend of the band of 11,000 virgins[758].

Elisabeth died in 1164 at the early age of thirty-six, and her brother
Ekbert, who was staying with her at the time, wrote a full account of the
last days of her life to three nuns of the convent of St Thomas at
Andernach[759]. In this letter he describes Elisabeth’s thoughtful care
and tenderness to her companions on her deathbed, and says that she was
more than a sister to him and that his grief is proportionally greater.
Like Hildegard Elisabeth has never been officially canonized, but her name
also was inscribed in the Roman Martyrology compiled by Gregory VIII, by
which she became a recognised saint of the Church[760].

A later age witnessed other notable nuns who were divinely inspired and
who were acknowledged to be so by their contemporaries, but, as we shall
see later, their communings with God and the saints were chiefly directed
to intensifying mystic and devotional feelings in themselves. They have
neither the hold on outside events nor the wide outlook which give such a
deep interest to the writings of St Hildegard of Bingen and St Elisabeth
of Schönau.

§ 2. Women-Saints connected with Charity and Philanthropy.

The last section showed how earnestly the religious teachers of the 12th
century advocated a stricter practice of the precepts of religion. The
practical outcome of this advocacy was an increased consciousness among
those of the upper and authoritative classes of society of the needs and
sufferings of humbler folk, and an extraordinary development of pity and
tenderness for suffering generally. It can be noticed that everywhere
there sprang into life the desire to help those who were in distress, and
to cultivate that love and sympathy which is indifferent to rank, degree
and antecedents, and especially so with regard to the diseased, despised
and shunned.

The representative figures of this movement during the 13th century are St
Francis of Assisi († 1226) and St Elisabeth of Thüringen († 1231), whose
fame will abide wherever the precepts of Christianity in the direction of
unselfishness and charitable zeal are cherished. The tendency to renounce
all worldly possessions, which was a feature of the 13th century,
culminated in them, and their example was followed by many men and women
who on account of their altruistic sympathies are numbered among the
saints. Since the practical outcome of their efforts carries in itself the
beginnings of our modern charitable institutions of hospital, almshouse
and infirmary, their work is well worth a somewhat detailed account, but
such an account must necessarily be preceded by a few general remarks on
the development of charitable zeal in the course of history.

From the earliest period Christian teachers had championed the cause of
the poor and afflicted, and had upheld the sanctity of human life as such,
whether in the aged, the crippled, or the unborn. Moreover the Church
throughout ministered to poverty by almsgiving, and looked upon the
destitute as having a special claim on her care. At two distinct periods
in history these self-imposed duties were specially requisite--at the
breaking up of the Roman Empire, and at the collapse of the feudal
system. For under the Roman social system slavery had been a safeguard
against vagrancy, but when slavery was discontinued the class of homeless
outcasts became numerous. And again under the feudal system men belonged
to the soil they were born on, but in proportion as serfdom ceased,
beggars, and especially the diseased, increased to a great extent. In both
instances efforts to stay the consequent evils to society were made by all
professing Christians, but the attitudes of the 5th and the 12th centuries
have distinct points of difference which it is well to bear in mind.

Glancing back along the vistas of time to the 5th century we find Severin
bishop of Noricum († 482) instituting a regular and far-reaching system of
charitable relief which has been described by his disciple Eugippius[761].
In connection with Magnericus of Trier († 596), the famous opposer of
idolatrous practices, the newly-developed virtues of this period are thus
summed up by his biographer, the monk Eberwein († 1047)[762]: ‘With him
(Magnericus) the hungry found bread, the traveller found shelter, the
naked found clothing, the weary found rest, and the stranger found
hopefulness.’ We see that the efforts of these men were directed to
ministering to poverty but not to disease, for the prevalent attitude of
Christian society towards disease continued for some centuries strongly
self-preservative. The poor were fed, but the diseased were shunned,
especially those who were visibly disfigured, and who included the vast
class of those who from the 11th century were currently spoken of as
lepers (leprosi).

The homogeneity of the disease _lepra_ in this application has been called
into question, and it has been shown that the ‘lepers’ of the Middle Ages
included those suffering from cutaneous eruption brought on by St
Anthony’s fire, from gangrene of the limbs, such as comes through
protracted use of bread containing rye spurred or diseased with ergot, and
from other diseases which produce visible disfigurement. Scant provision
was made for such people during early Christian ages, and lepers were
numbered among social outcasts, not from fear of contagion--that was a
comparatively late idea--but simply from a wish on the part of society to
be spared a sorry sight. The diseased member of a family was a visible
burden to his relations, and finding himself despised and shunned by his
associates he took refuge with outlaws, who herded together and lived in
a state of filth, misery and moral degradation terrible to recall.

It is in the treatment of these unfortunate people that the 12th century
witnessed a revolution. The efforts of a few large-souled individuals
overcame the general disgust felt towards disease, the restraints of a
more barbarous age were broken through, the way to deal with the evil was
pointed out, and gradually its mitigation was accomplished. The task these
people set themselves, as so often happens in the course of social reform,
absorbed them so entirely that they thought no sacrifice too great when it
was a question of carrying out their ideas. It seems therefore rather
gratuitous on the part of the modern scientist to say that a ‘halo of
morbid exaggeration surrounded the idea of leprosy in the mediaeval
religious mind. We live in a time of saner and better proportioned
sentiment,’ etc.[763] In point of fact an evil is removed only by putting
it for a time into strong relief, when it comes to be rightly dealt with
and so is gradually checked. In early Christian times nothing was done for
diseased people and lepers, but in the 12th and 13th centuries first
individuals, then the masses, became interested in them. It mattered
little that vagrants of the worst kind felt encouraged to call themselves
lepers because as such they could excite more pity, could gain admission
into hospitals, or were allowed to solicit alms under royal patronage. The
movement once set going in the right direction steadily did its work: and
the class of lepers so prominent in the 11th and 12th centuries were
rapidly disappearing by the end of the 13th[764].

From the earliest period monasteries and church centres offered some
alleviation for the sick and distressed, but their resources were at first
intended for the relief of those who belonged to the settlement. The
peaceful pursuits and regular occupations of the monk naturally prolonged
his term of life, and as Christianity set great store by a peaceful and
happy death, when feebleness and sickness crept on the member of a convent
he was relieved from his duties and tended in an outhouse by a brother
told off for the purpose. The guest-house of the settlement, called
_hospitalis_, generally stood near this outhouse for the sick, but
sometimes it was identical with it, and the pilgrims and travellers who
were ill were nursed with the convent inmates. While these combined houses
for guests and invalids, attached to convents, were numerous from the
first, the foundation of shelters intended primarily for strangers took
place comparatively late. Among them must be numbered the shelters
designated as hospitals (hospitales), founded in outlying districts for
the reception of pilgrims (pro susceptione peregrinorum) such as the Pope
urged Karl the Great († 814) to keep up in the Alps[765]. Pilgrims were
always an object of solicitude to the Church, and it was in their interest
that the earliest independent road-side shelters and hospitals in cities
were founded. These shelters and hospitals often consisted of no more than
the protection of a roof, and the proctor, or brothers and sisters who
voluntarily took charge of the house, secured the needful sustenance for
themselves and those seeking their aid by going about begging.

The impulse to found these rests or hospitals naturally emanated from
Rome, from a very early date the site of pilgrimages, but a new impulse
was given to the movement by the foundation of two important guest-houses
at Jerusalem in the 11th century, when that city also was a frequent
resort of pilgrims. Of these two guest-houses or hospitals[766], one was
intended for men and placed under the management of men, the other was for
women and placed under the management of women. They were arranged
according to an elaborate system which is interesting in many ways. The
men were divided into three classes--the knights who looked after the
interests of the house, the priests who attended to the sick, and the
lay-brothers who assisted in the same work. The knights formed themselves
into the religious order of St John, from the name of the church near
which their headquarters lay. Similarly the women’s house, which was near
the chapel of St Mary Magdalen, consisted of ladies, nuns and lay
servants. The fact that St John and St Mary Magdalen were so often adopted
as patron saints of similar houses elsewhere was due to the chance
connection of these saints with the hospitals at Jerusalem.

Looking after pilgrims and nursing the sick constituted the chief work of
the order at Jerusalem, but after the conquest of that city in 1187, when
the knights removed to Malta and the ladies to Spain, the care of those
not belonging to their body ceased to hold the foremost place. But the
existence of the hospitals at Jerusalem and the attention they had
attracted in the different countries of Europe, where grants of land had
been made for their support, indirectly stimulated efforts in favour of
the foundation of similar shelters or hospitals.

The first idea of independent hospitals came into England from Rome, when
Archbishop Lanfranc († 1089), a native of Italy, founded two hospitals in
the true sense of the word, one inside, one outside Canterbury. The one
situated inside the city walls is described by the historian Eadmer (†
1124) in the following terms[767]. ‘He divided it into two parts; men who
were sick in various ways inhabited the one, women the other part. He gave
to them clothes of his own and daily sustenance; and ordered that there
should be servants and masters who were to take care they should want
nothing; the men had no access to the women, nor the women to the men.’ A
chapel was built on the other side of the way and given into the care of
canons, who were to attend to the spiritual needs of the sick and to see
to their burial after death.

The other hospital founded by Lanfranc was at Herbaltown, in the woods of
Blean, a mile away from Canterbury; it was for those who were afflicted
with scrofula (regia valetudine fluentibus), and who at a later date, in
the confirming charter of Henry II, are styled lepers (leprosi)[768].

These accounts of Lanfranc’s foundations are especially interesting as
they give us some of the earliest well-authenticated indications of a
changed attitude towards lepers, and anticipate the efforts made in their
behalf in the 12th century by the founders of the orders of combined
canons and nuns, and in the 13th century by a number of women who on this
account are numbered among the saints. These women, as we shall see, not
only felt interested in these unfortunate beings but unhesitatingly tended
them with their own hands. They knew nothing of the disgust usually felt
towards wretchedness and poverty, and found their life’s happiness in
vanquishing sordidness and filth. In the eyes of some of their
contemporaries they were chiefly bent on seeking sorry sights and coveting
painful experiences, but, apart from the appreciation they found among
those to whom they directly ministered, others were generous enough to
recognise the heroism of their efforts.

Among these women must be numbered Matilda († 1118) the wife of Henry I
of England, the daughter of St Margaret and the sister of St David of
Scotland, whose education and marriage have been discussed above in
connection with Romsey. Highly as Matilda was esteemed by her
contemporaries, she has never been accepted as a saint, and no day is
given to her in the Calendar. This omission is perhaps due to the fact
that she left her nunnery against the wishes of some of the clergy,
perhaps owing to her husband’s quarrels with the Pope, for Matilda was
beloved by high and low and early writers are unanimous in praise of her.
Map speaks of her as the holy queen Matilda (sanctae Matildis

This estimate is based on the fact that Matilda was so moved by pity
towards lepers that she overcame the repugnance commonly felt towards
them. A well-authenticated story is told of how her brother David, coming
into her apartment, found it full of lepers. She proceeded to lay aside
her robe and with a towel girt about her washed and dried their feet and
then kissed them, and when her brother objected she replied that in
kissing the feet of lepers she was kissing the feet of the Eternal King.
Ailred of Rievaux recounts the story, which he had from David, who
repeatedly spoke of it to him[770].

This generous disposition is borne out by the fact that soon after her
marriage Matilda founded the hospital of St Giles in the East for the
maintenance of forty lepers, a chaplain, a clerk and a messenger[771]. It
was commonly known for a long time afterwards as the hospital of Matilda.
It was founded in 1101, and Matthew Paris saw it a hundred and fifty years
later and made a sketch of it which is still extant[772]. With the
exception of the house founded by Lanfranc in Herbaltown, the inmates of
which were not styled lepers at the time, the hospital of St Giles, the
foundation of ‘good Queen Maud,’ was the first institution of its kind in
England and for a long time remained quite the most important.

But we must study the records of foreign countries to find the majority of
those women who were actively beneficent to the sick, and who for this
reason are officially accepted as saints. Probably leprosy, or the
diseases collected under this designation, showed greater virulence on the
Continent than they ever did in England, and the miseries of those who
were repulsively disfigured were extreme, when in the first half of the
13th century a small group of women personally related to each other took
pity on them. The field of their labours was in Central and South Germany
and the adjoining countries, which were at that time brought under German

All the women who were actuated by this new philanthropic spirit were
members, either by birth or marriage, of the powerful and influential
family of the Counts of Andechs and Meran[773]. The scientist Virchow has
remarked that this family, which was once most prosperous and widely
spread, practically extinguished itself through its extreme ascetic
tendencies[774]. Its men joined the Crusades, and any who returned
dedicated their sons to the celibacy of the bishopric and their daughters
to that of the cloister; and in this way the family ceased to exist after
a few generations.

Whence the first impulse towards charitable deeds came to them we know
not, but we find them sometimes taking the initiative in philanthropic
enterprises, and sometimes uniting their efforts to those of others who
were working on similar lines to their own. Some members of the family
acted as patrons to the Cistercian order,--others invited and encouraged
the settlement of the Teutonic or Red Cross Knights in their lands. Others
again were strongly attracted by the teachings of the Dominican and
Franciscan friars, who were very influential in the first half of the 13th
century. Various tendencies were represented in the different countries of
Europe by the followers of St Francis of Assisi. This divergence arose
partly because the rule of life promulgated in 1209 was supplanted by
another in 1221, and partly from the varied interests of each country. In
South Germany it was the influence of the Franciscans which primarily
encouraged charitable zeal and self-denial.

Hedwig, daughter of Count Berthold, of the family of Andechs and Meran,
first claims our attention on account of her charitable deeds. She married
Heinrich the Bearded († 1238), first duke of Silesia, Poland and Croatia.
These districts were occupied by people of the Slav race, and it was at
this time that they were first brought into contact with German influence
and civilization. Christianity had been introduced in the 12th century,
but there were very few churches, and the conditions of life were
unsettled and insecure owing to the continued feuds of the barons.
Heinrich checked internal dissensions with a high hand; he was zealous in
introducing German law and in encouraging German immigration, and in this
way gave solidarity to this part of the Empire. His marriage with the
daughter of a family which was among the wealthiest and most influential
in South Germany is a proof of his German sympathies.

Hedwig is the recognised patron saint of Silesia. Grünhagen says[775]: ‘If
we call to mind how far the numerous churches and charitable foundations
which are referred to the Duchess Hedwig influenced civilization at that
period, how the monks and nuns whom Hedwig summoned spread German culture
in these districts; if we further remember how powerfully at that time the
example of unselfish piety and sympathy, emanating from the throne, took
hold of the mind of the people; we shall be obliged to accept as well
founded the veneration Hedwig generally enjoyed, although we may not feel
attracted by the traits of exaggerated asceticism insisted on by her

Hedwig[776] was born in 1174 and sent for her education to Kizzingen, an
ancient convent foundation situated in Franken on property belonging to
her family. In 1186, when not yet thirteen, she was taken from the convent
to be married. She brought with her into Silesia a dower of thirty
thousand marks, which was forthwith devoted to religious and charitable
purposes, for Hedwig appears throughout to have been filled by the belief,
which she shared with her husband, that religious settlements and colonies
were alone capable of introducing culture and establishing civilization in
the land.

The monastic orders had only recently gained a foothold in these
districts. In 1139 a band of Benedictine monks had settled near Breslau,
the centre of the country, and in 1175 at the instigation of Boleslaus,
the father of Hedwig’s husband, some Cistercians had come to Leubus. These
Cistercians were now helpful in constructing a nunnery at Trebnitz near
Breslau, which Hedwig founded soon after her marriage. She summoned
thither nuns from the Cistercian nunnery at Bamberg, where her sister
Mathilde, afterwards abbess of Kizzingen, was being educated, and
entrusted the rule of the new convent to Pietrussa († 1214), a nun from
the convent of Kizzingen. The abbess and convent of Trebnitz are mentioned
as early as 1202. The house was intended to promote education among girls
of both noble and lowly parentage, and among them was Agnes, daughter of
the king of Bohemia, of whom we shall hear more. It soon numbered a
hundred inmates, and at the time when Hedwig’s life was written, that is
towards the close of the 13th century, it contained a hundred and twenty

This life of Hedwig, written some time after her death, emphasizes the
ascetic habits which she embraced, and in agreement with later
descriptions and pictures represents her as an emaciated person worn thin
by self-denial and fasting. On the other hand the representation of her on
her sarcophagus, which is of an earlier date, represents her as a
vigorous, massive and comely woman[777]. The account of her life shows
that she advocated new ideas throughout. ‘By marrying,’ it says, ‘she
followed her parents’ will rather than her own, as is clearly manifest
from what followed, for she checked herself by self-restraint. Bound by
the sacrament she was determined to live her married life as the apostle
has taught, keeping his precepts of marriage worthily. She hoped to secure
eternal life by giving birth to children, yet she wished also to please
God by chastity, and with her husband’s consent practised self-restraint.
Whenever she was aware that the duties of motherhood were beginning, she
avoided her husband’s proximity, and firmly denied herself all intercourse
until the time of her confinement. She did so from the time of first
becoming a mother, that is at the age of thirteen years and thirteen
weeks, and under like circumstances ever behaved in the same way. When she
had become the mother of three sons, Boleslaus, Konrad, and Heinrich, and
of three daughters, Agnes, Sophie, and Gertrud, she altogether embraced a
life of chastity. The like observation of chastity in marriage which
Mother Church has sanctioned she pressed upon every one she could.’ Her
conduct appears to have had her husband’s sanction. Heinrich’s sympathies
are apparent in his granting property to the Cistercians for a monastery
called after him Heinrichsau, in founding an important hospital in Breslau
dedicated to the Holy Ghost, and in making a foundation for canons at
Neumarkt, where he erected an important leper hospital[778]. During one
of the wars which he engaged in, he was taken prisoner by the heathen
Prussians, and the story is told how his wife, indifferent to every
danger, went to him and procured his release.

It was in connection with the lepers who were sheltered at Neumarkt that
Hedwig’s conduct appeared especially wonderful to her contemporaries. Her
biographer tells us that she had taken into her special care the leprous
women who lived there, ‘so that she sent them money, food and game
(ferinas) several times a week, and gave them liberally clothes and other
necessaries of life, taking care of them as though they had been her own
daughters. With wonderful tenderness she attended upon those who were
afflicted with bodily ills, and her affections melted towards the poor and
infirm, whom she tended with great love and helpfulness.’

A series of paintings in miniature were executed at an early date which
set forth the work of the pious Hedwig and of which a copy made in 1353 is
extant[779]. It forms a valuable monument of early painting, and in
archaeological interest compares favourably with the work of Herrad. In
these pictures we repeatedly see Hedwig in the company of the Trebnitz
nuns. In one picture she leads the nuns into the convent, in another she
shows them the church, and in a third she waits on them. They are
represented as surrounding her in her trials and at her death, and as
laying her in her tomb. In these pictures the nuns wear grey or blue gowns
and a black headdress, no wimples (which are worn by lay women), and they
do not seem to share the same dwelling, but to inhabit separate small huts
which are pictured standing side by side round the church. Hedwig herself
wears simple clothing but no convent garb. In these pictures a legendary
reading is given to some incidents of her life. For example she is
represented as surrounded in her hours of tribulation by hairy and
grotesque demons.

A large number of these pictures show Hedwig’s charitable zeal. There is
one in which she is depicted urging upon her husband the cause of the
poor; again she makes the gift of a house to them; she washes and kisses
the feet of lepers; she feeds the sick, who are seen lying in bed; she
gives food to the poor; she ministers to a prisoner; and she distributes
gifts among pilgrims. Men who are in the stocks and doomed to death also
rouse her pity; and she insists on feeding the poor with her own hands
before she can be persuaded to sit down to meals. In these pictures we
note the scarred and blotched appearance of those who are designated as
lepers, the wretched appearance of the poor, and the curiously low type of
countenance of all the beggars.

In her family relations Hedwig was most unfortunate, and one can but hope
that her charitable zeal brought her solace or that the different basis on
which family life then rested made her feel the sad fate of her relations
less acutely than she would otherwise have done. Her sister Agnes married
Philippe Auguste, king of France (1180-1223), but she was repudiated in
consequence of the Pope’s attack on the validity of her marriage, and died
in misery in 1201. Her other sister Gertrud, who was the mother of St
Elisabeth of Thüringen, married Bela III of Hungary, and was assassinated
in 1214. Hedwig’s daughter Gertrud was betrothed to Otto von Wittelsbach,
who in consequence of political intrigues was tempted to murder Philip,
king of Swabia, in 1208. Heinrich and Ekbert, Hedwig’s two brothers, were
accused of being his accomplices, and the consequence was that Heinrich
saw his castle destroyed and lived for years in banishment, and Ekbert,
who was bishop of Bamberg (1203-37), was obliged to fly, though he was
afterwards reinstated in his see. When Otto the king-murderer was dead,
Gertrud, his prospective bride, entered the nunnery at Trebnitz, where she
afterwards succeeded Pietrussa as abbess.

In the year 1216, however, Hedwig had the joy of seeing her son Heinrich,
who reigned conjointly with his father, married to Anna, a princess of
Bohemia, whose tendencies were quite in accordance with her own. Indeed
Anna’s zeal was carried yet a step farther in the direction of
self-imposed lowliness and humility, she readily submitted to bodily
chastisement. She has no place among the saints, but we are in possession
of an early account of her[780] which speaks in great praise of her
charitable deeds. Conjointly with her husband Anna made several religious
foundations, and greeted the Dominican and Franciscan friars as brothers
in the Lord. Inmates of the nunnery of the order of St Francis, which she
had founded at Breslau, spoke with enthusiasm of her goodness and charity.
She too nursed the leprous with her own hands, distributed food among the
poor, and was to ‘forlorn children and orphans a protector and a mother.’

History has preserved an account of the courageous manner in which she
opposed the Tartars, at whose invasion of Breslau, she, her mother-in-law
Hedwig, and Gertrud, the abbess of Trebnitz, fled to Crossen. Anna’s
husband was killed by the enemy and his head was set on a stake outside
the town to induce her to surrender, but in vain. After the defeat of the
Tartars the women returned to Breslau, where they found their nunnery
utterly deserted. The nuns had fled, and years passed before the
settlement regained its standing--Hedwig bestowed her property Schawoine
on it in the hope that this would help it to recover.

Hedwig spent the last years of her life in close connection with Trebnitz.
She died in 1243 and as early as 1267 was canonized by Pope Clement IV.
Her daughter-in-law, Anna, lived to a great age, and to the end of her
days remained interested in her convent and charitable foundations. In
1253 she founded a hospital at Kreuzberg on the model of one previously
founded by her cousin St Elisabeth. This hospital and the one founded at
Neumarkt by Hedwig are still in existence, but the nunneries founded by
these women have long since passed away.

The movement Hedwig had inaugurated in Silesia forthwith made itself felt
in wider circles, and we find the princess Agnes of Bohemia, Anna’s
sister, who had lived for several years at Trebnitz, advocating after her
return to Prague practices similar to those with which she had come into
contact in Silesia. Agnes also is a saint of the Church[781], and her fame
rests on her charitable works and on her indifference to position and
possessions in comparison with the relief of suffering humanity. She is
moreover a virgin saint. For she was to have married the emperor Friedrich
II († 1250) against her wish, when her father opportunely died, leaving
her free to remain single. She then devoted her patrimony, which was
considerable, to founding a nunnery at Prague together with an important

Agnes was supported at home by her brother, the king of Bohemia, and by
the bishop of Prague. Pope Gregory IX († 1241) wrote to her praising her
resolution to remain unmarried, and Clara, the friend of St Francis, wrote
to her from Assisi to encourage her in her devotions. Clara’s letters are
extant, and afford an interesting glimpse of the aims which these women
set before them. In one letter Clara praises Agnes for refusing marriage
with the ‘Caesar,’ and advises her rather to follow blessed poverty and
devote herself to the mortification of the flesh. Again she addresses
Agnes as a second Rachel, admonishing her to turn her thoughts to
eternity, and likening her to the holy St Agnes with the blessed

The Bohemian princess was further encouraged in her aims by the gift of a
prayer-book, a veil, a platter and a drinking-cup which Clara had used.
The accounts we have of Agnes, consisting of a longer and a shorter record
lately printed from MSS. preserved at Prague, give a full description of
the willing humility this holy woman practised in the convent and of the
tenderness she showed towards the sick.

‘There you might see her,’ says the longer account[783], ‘the daughter of
Premislaus III, king of Bohemia, lighting with her own hands the fire for
the sisters; the sister of Wenceslaus IV, king of Bohemia, cleaning out
the dirty rooms; the intended spouse of the emperor Friedrich II
perspiring in the kitchen like any lowly maid. And while she did so, not
by angry expression or stern face did she resent it; filled with joy she
worked as a servant of Christ and proved it to those who saw her by the
sweet expression she wore. She behaved in this way not only to those who
were healthy, but she gladly extended her kindness to those who were ill;
she spread soft beds for them, she carefully removed all that could
distress eyes and nose, she prepared food with her own hands, and cooked
it that it might be served to taste, with untiring energy, that the sick
might be freed from ill, pains diminish, illness yield and health return.
Such were her occupations inside the convent (parthenon), but she was not
confined by walls. Throughout Prague her doings were apparent.’ We find
her visiting women who were sick or in trouble, and collecting, mending
and washing the garments of lepers with her own hands.

Agnes lived till 1282 and is accepted as a saint, but has never been
officially canonized. The hospital she founded at Prague is still in

The fame of these women, great and abiding as it is in the countries they
lived in, has not penetrated much beyond the districts which knew them
during their lifetime. It is different with another woman-saint of the
period who, within the span of a short life, acquired such fame that she
ranks among the holy followers of Christianity who are the possession of
all countries and of all ages. St Elisabeth, landgravine of Thüringen, a
princess of Hungary, combined in a rare degree those qualities of love,
devotion, and unselfish zeal which make Christian virtue in one aspect so
attractive. The tendencies of those among whom her lot was cast and her
own sad personal experiences throw her loveable qualities into even
greater relief. All the qualities in Matilda, Hedwig, Anna, and Agnes
which made them beloved and venerated appear to meet in Elisabeth. A
loving wife, a pious mother, a faithful widow, the comforter of the sick
and the protector of the poor, she stands on the threshold of a new era,
indifferent to the prejudices of her age, regardless of its derogatory
criticism, intent only on carrying into effect the promptings dictated by
a keener sense of sympathy with suffering and a closer appreciation of the
needs of others than her contemporaries could generally grasp. No
woman-saint has attained a fame at all to be compared with hers. It has
been computed that before the middle of this century over a hundred
versions of her story were in existence, a number which has since been
more than doubled. Of these accounts some are in Latin, others in French,
English, Italian and Hungarian, the mass of them being of course in
German. Many painters, and among them some of the greatest Italian
masters, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Orcagna, Memmi and Taddeo Gaddi, have
been eager to depict incidents of her life or to introduce her into their

The bulk of the literature which celebrates the name and fame of Elisabeth
has scant importance from the historical point of view, which seeks a
reasonable basis for her fame. For most versions of her story were
dictated more by the wish to dwell on her piety than to encourage
discerning appreciation of her character. Among the legendary accounts
composed in her praise there is a poetical version of her life in
mediaeval German, which extends over four thousand five hundred lines and
contains much that is attractive[785]. There is also in existence a modern
German prose version of her story which has considerable charm[786]. But
the climax of beauty of legendary narrative is reached in her case by the
account of her life written in French in the middle of this century by
Montalembert[787]. It is widely read in unadorned and in sumptuous
editions in the French original and in its German translation. On the
other hand its exuberance of religious colouring and legendary character
have called forth an account based solely on contemporary records, which,
drawn with a firm hand in clear outline, gives a picture of Elisabeth’s
life less fantastic, it is true, but more discerning and more truly
beautiful[788]. In the light of this work it becomes possible to fit the
form of Elisabeth to the background of her age, and, by thus placing her,
to appreciate to some extent her great and lasting importance. In a
history of the development of philanthropic endeavour and charitable work
no woman’s figure more fitly represents the beauty of unselfish devotion.

Born at Presburg in Hungary in 1207, Elisabeth was related both to St
Hedwig of Silesia and to St Agnes of Bohemia. For her father King Andreas
II of Hungary († 1235) was uncle to Agnes, while her mother Gertrud was
sister to Hedwig, so that Elisabeth was cousin to one saint and niece to
the other. Her mother Gertrud, like Hedwig in Silesia, had become the
centre of a small German party in Hungary, with which their two brothers
Count Heinrich of Andechs and Bishop Ekbert of Bamberg sought refuge after
the murder of the king of Swabia referred to above. After several years
Bishop Ekbert was enabled to return to his see chiefly owing to the
influence exerted in his behalf by Hermann, landgrave of Thüringen; it was
no doubt owing to this connection that his niece, the princess Elisabeth,
at that time a child of four, was betrothed to the son of the landgrave.
This took place some time in the year 1211, and she was carried from
Hungary to the Wartburg in Thüringen, there to receive her education.

At this period the customs at the court of Hungary were comparatively
speaking uncivilized, and struggles were frequent. In 1214 Gertrud,
Elisabeth’s mother, was assassinated, a victim of the revolt of the
Hungarians against German ascendency. Thüringen and the Wartburg on the
contrary were the seat of the greatest refinement of which the age of
romance in German lands proved capable. Landgrave Hermann, a prince of
uncertain politics, but a zealous patron of art, had drawn thither the
lyric poets of the age, whose brilliant assemblies and contests in the
eyes of posterity are surrounded with the halo of a tournament in song.

But the temper of this gay throng had apparently no charm for the
Hungarian girl, who was chiefly conscious of the levity and laxity which
characterized it; conscious too that this outward brilliancy could not
compensate for the hollowness which lurked beneath. A serious girl, though
lively at times, she did not win general favour, least of all that of the
landgravine Sophie, her prospective mother-in-law. When the news came of
reverses at the Hungarian court, Sophie would have broken off the match
and sent Elisabeth home or would have placed her in a nunnery. But at this
juncture the attraction which Ludwig, the betrothed of Elisabeth, felt
towards her asserted itself. He was conscious of a decided preference for
the girl, and so he informed the noble knight Vargila, who had conducted
Elisabeth from Presburg and who all along remained the staunch advocate of
her interests.

Young Ludwig of Thüringen, a gentle and loveable character, of strict
political integrity, is regarded as a saint on account of his numerous
religious foundations and his tragic end. His chaplain has left an account
of his life which throws much light on his relations to Elisabeth. He was
left heir to his father’s dominions in 1216, was declared of age by the
emperor Friedrich II, and, in spite of the advice of his courtiers and
against his mother’s wish, clung to Elisabeth and married her in 1221, he
being twenty and she fourteen years old at the time.

The happy married relations of the youthful pair are established beyond a
doubt. Incidents are told and points insisted on by kinsfolk and friends
which prove affection and tenderness on both sides, and directly
contradict the statements of interested religious writers of a later date
who maintain that life in a convent would have been more to Elisabeth’s
taste. On the contrary, whatever thoughts Elisabeth may have had
afterwards on the superiority of a life of sacrifice to a life of domestic
happiness, during these years she appears as the devoted wife and loving
mother who combines the fulfilment of domestic duties with charitable
zeal. There is a story told of her that she used to leave the Wartburg,
her babe in her arms, and descend into the town of Eisenach, where she
would visit the poor and the sick. Her dress on these occasions would be
of a simple woollen material, and on her return she would take it off and
have it given to some poor person. We hear that she frequently travelled
about with her husband, and that she was sorely grieved at being separated
from him when, on the summons of the emperor, he went to Italy. It was
during his absence there in the spring of 1226 that the famine occurred
during which Elisabeth distributed food with so lavish a hand that the
granaries of the castle were emptied and she herself was severely censured
by the court party, which had no sympathy with her philanthropy. The
number of those whom she fed is sometimes quoted as three hundred,
sometimes as nine hundred. The number may be exaggerated, but this much is
certain, that Elisabeth’s conduct attracted attention beyond her immediate
neighbourhood. She had also opened at Eisenach a hospital or infirmary for
twenty-four sick people, whom she partly tended herself. Writers of a
later date tell us that at the suggestion of Cardinal Ugolino, afterwards
Pope Gregory IX, St Francis of Assisi, hearing of Elisabeth’s charitable
work, sent her his old cloak as a sign of appreciation; but the story
needs corroborative evidence.

When Ludwig returned from Italy his courtiers were loud in their
complaints of his spendthrift wife, but he listened to them with
good-humoured indifference. ‘Let her continue giving to the poor if God so
wills it,’ he said, ‘if but the Wartburg and the Neuburg remain to us.’ He
evidently appreciated and shared her philanthropic zeal; for he founded a
shelter (xenodochium) for the poor, the weak and the infirm at
Reinhardsbrunn, assisted his wife in founding a hospital at Gotha, and
encouraged brothers of the nursing order of St Lazarus to settle in that
part of the country[789]. The interest Elisabeth felt in social outcasts
evidently touched a sympathetic chord in his kindly nature, even when this
interest was carried to an extreme, the meaning and social fitness of
which it is not easy to appreciate. For example, the story is told that
Elisabeth when staying at Neuburg tended a leper with her own hands and
had him placed on her husband’s bed, an action which greatly shocked
Sophie, her mother-in-law. The legend-writer of later date,--not satisfied
with the strong impulsiveness of feeling which alone renders such an
action possible and even under certain conditions raises it above
criticism, and at the same time unable to grasp the reasonableness of
Sophie’s point of view,--tells us that the leper suddenly assumed the form
of Christ, a miracle by which her doubts were confounded.

In 1227 Ludwig, in answer to a summons from the emperor, took the cross
and left for Italy, never to return. His biographer says that having
received the cross he kept it in his pocket instead of displaying it on
his coat, for fear of distressing his wife, who was about to give birth to
their third child. But Elisabeth came across it by chance and was bowed
down by grief at the thought of losing him. Together with others she
started him and his followers on their journey, and travelled on with him
yet another day’s journey to delay the dreaded moment of separation. On
her return to the Wartburg she devoted herself to her charitable work with
increased zeal, and her inclination to self-denial became more accentuated
owing to contact with members of the Franciscan order.

The attempt of the Franciscan friars to gain a foothold in Germany had at
first been frustrated. Ekbert, bishop of Bamberg, Elisabeth’s uncle, was
the first to give them a gracious reception. From Bamberg they spread into
the adjoining districts, and Elisabeth’s favour enabled them to build a
chapel at Eisenach. Konrad, one of these friars, had been nominated
inquisitor by Pope Innocent III, and coming to Eisenach in 1226 soon won
the affections of Ludwig and Elisabeth. At a later date Konrad of Marburg
drew popular hatred on himself by his extreme rigour and anti-heretical
teaching, and suffered a violent death (1233). But in earlier years he had
gained much sympathy by preaching the views of St Francis on the
renunciation of worldly goods and on practising unlimited charity[790].
When Ludwig departed to the south, he entrusted Konrad with considerable
authority, which he turned to account by strengthening the ascendency he
had gained over Elisabeth. She accepted him as her guide in all things,
and upheld his views that to levy taxes is an evil and that each person
should earn the food he requires by the work of his own hands. To carry
this into practice she refused to accept any tribute and tried to earn
money herself. Within a short time, however, came the news that Ludwig had
died in Italy from a fever before setting sail for the East. The news came
to Elisabeth as an overpowering shock. ‘Dead!’ she exclaimed, ‘dead! so
henceforth to me is the world and all things pleasant it contains.’ Trials
now came thick upon her. Her husband’s brother, Hermann, with a usurper’s
determination, seized Ludwig’s possessions and expelled Elisabeth, whom he
had always looked upon with disapproval. She was forced to fly from the
Wartburg with her children, and in the depth of a severe winter she paced
the streets of Eisenach, seeking refuge with those she had formerly
befriended, but no one dared to harbour her. At last her aunt Mathilde,
abbess of Kizzingen, sent for her and for her two faithful waiting-women,
perhaps for the children also. Elisabeth would gladly have accepted a
permanent home in the convent, but her uncle Ekbert interfered. He
appointed a more suitable dwelling-place--and urged upon her the
desirableness of a second marriage. Elisabeth refused, and we hardly need
the assurance of the legend-writer that it was because she had taken the
vow of chastity, considering how recently her husband had died. However in
the meantime the band of Ludwig’s followers returned home bringing with
them their leader’s corpse, and a rapid change of affairs took place in
the Wartburg. Hermann the usurper was forced to yield, Elisabeth was
reinstated in her rights, and was fetched back to the castle by the noble
Vargila. But her stay there was not of long duration. Her position was
intolerable, and she felt that nothing could bring her solace short of the
renunciation of all prerogatives of station and wealth. She would have
become a recluse had not the Franciscan friar Konrad prevented this excess
of humility. As it was she went to the Franciscan chapel at Eisenach,
publicly renounced the world and its claims, and removed to Marburg in
Hessen where she would be near Konrad and devote herself to a life of
sacrifice. She refused to live in the castle, and with the two
waiting-women, who throughout remained faithful to her, dwelt in a hut on
the hillside, devoting all her property to constructing a hospital in the
town, where she spent most of her time waiting on the sick and infirm.

Her conduct at Marburg filled the people with amazement as it had done at
Eisenach, and numbers pressed thither to see her and to be tended by her.
Considering that she only spent about two years there, the impression she
made must have been extraordinary, for the undying memory of her fame
continues to this day among the people. We hear a good deal of the
asceticism she practised under Konrad’s guidance during these last years
of her life; how she submitted to bodily chastisement, how she admitted
that her own children were not dearer to her than those of others, how she
expressed regret at ever having been married, and how she suffered her
faithful waiting-women, who like herself had adopted the grey dress of the
order of St Francis, to be removed out of her sight. She died in 1231 at
the early age of twenty-four. In accordance with the general wish she was
canonized within a few years of her death by Pope Gregory IX in 1235.
Immediately after her death hospitals constructed on the plan of that at
Marburg and acknowledging St Elisabeth as their patron saint sprang up in
many cities. With all these facts before us we cannot deny to her the
achievement of lasting social importance. To this day hospitals in Germany
founded both under Catholic and Protestant auspices are often dedicated to

The loving tribute of a later age has perpetuated her fame in many ways.
It has struck medals in her memory, has surmounted fountains by her
statue, and has reared to her memory the minster of Marburg, one of the
finest monuments of German mediaeval architecture. In spite of the ravages
of time and the robberies perpetrated during warfare her sarcophagus there
remains a wondrous achievement of the art of the goldsmith. It is still an
object of pious admiration and devout pilgrimage, both to the faithful
believer and to the appreciative student of history and art.

Our age has witnessed a great spread of philanthropic interest and
charitable zeal among women of the educated classes; a wave of feeling,
similar to that which swept over mankind in the 13th century, bears down
all other considerations when there are outcasts to be rescued and
suffering to be alleviated. Nursing the sick has become a distinct and a
respected profession; the administration of charity, an education in
itself, is absorbing some of the best energies of the community, and women
who seek to rescue suffering humanity are at last enabled to do so by the
guiding hand of science. Certainly circumstances have changed. We live no
longer in an age when the leper need display his sores to arouse pity, nor
where almsgiving _per se_ has a social value. And yet now as then the
success of charitable work depends on unselfish devotion and goodness of
heart in the individual, and it is in this sense that the charitable work
of the women-saints of the past retains its meaning. It is not by
imitating their deeds that a later age walks worthily in their footsteps
and pays them the tribute of reverence, but by accepting and furthering
the spirit in which these deeds were done.



  ‘Die tumpheit behaget ir alleine selbe,
  die weisheit kan niemer volle leren.’
                                (_Mechthild the beguine._)

§ 1. Mystic writings for women in England.

The last chapter, in dealing with some of the women who distinguished
themselves in the cause of charity and philanthropy, has suggested in what
direction the determining feature of the religious life of women in the
13th century must be sought. Outward events, stirring political changes,
and awakening confidence in national strength, had largely increased human
sympathies and widened the mental horizon. In regard to women, who sought
their vocation outside the circle of home, this had led on the one hand to
efforts for alleviating human want and human suffering, on the other to a
stirring of the imagination in the direction of speculation on the value
and the help afforded by religious belief.

The different beauties of the active and the contemplative life had all
along been realized, and were currently represented by the figures of Mary
and Martha, types of divergent tendencies which were attractive in
different ways. The busy Martha with her charitable devotion was the ideal
of many women, since rescuing the needy, assisting the helpless, and
ministering to the sick constituted the vocation of women in a special
sense. But a peculiar charm of a different kind hung at all times round
the thoughtful and studious Mary, who set the claims and realities of life
at nought compared with the greater reality of the eternal life
hereafter. At the beginning of the 13th century, when the increase in
religious enthusiasm deepened yearnings for the apprehension of the
divine, men in their individual capacities began to seek a personal and
closer communion with God. The absorption by things spiritual as
contrasted with things material took a new departure. On one side was the
learned thinker who, trained in the knowledge of the schools, sought to
fathom his own powers and through them the powers of mankind so as to
transcend the limits of sensible existence, and who gave a new development
to mysticism in its technical sense. On the other side was the large
number of those who, no longer satisfied with the mediation of appointed
ministers of the Church, sought a personal relation to God, the effect of
which on themselves would be moral regeneration. It was in connection with
these that a number of writings were composed which represent mysticism in
its popular sense: the steps by which the divine can be approached, set
forth under the form of an allegory.

The allegorical mysticism of the Middle Ages culminates in Dante
(1260-1321). It is well to bear this in mind in the presence of minor
lights. For while there is much that is strangely fascinating in the 13th
century mystic, and touches of simple good faith and of honest directness
of purpose abound, the conditions under which he works and the language in
which he expresses himself cannot pass without criticism. Cloistered
seclusion, estrangement from the outside world, the cult of asceticism,
and insistence on the emotional side of life, if judged by the standard of
to-day, are not conducive to mental and moral welfare. Moreover a later
age always finds it difficult to understand that an earlier one had its
own notions in regard to the fitness and beauty of the surroundings it
made for itself. But productive genius at all times freely makes for
itself surroundings that cannot be called absolutely healthy. It needs a
certain effort to realise on what ground the 13th century mystic stands.
But when once we are able to follow him, moving in his world is like
walking in an enchanted garden,--enchanted to us, but real to him, where
each growing sentiment and each budding thought has its peculiar charm.

It is the same with regard to the language in which the mystic expresses
himself. The close communion he seeks with the Godhead leads him to use
terms which are directly adopted from those which express the experiences
and feelings of ordinary life. There is in him no shrinking from holding
God and the saints as personalities, and no hesitation in expressing
desire for things spiritual in language currently used for expressing the
promptings of desire for things of this world; for he is a realist in the
view he takes of God and the saints. The old interpretation of the Song of
Solomon supplied him with a model after which to form his conceptions, and
by a further adaptation it led every nun to greet her bridegroom in Christ
and every monk to greet his bride in the Virgin. Outside the convent the
age of romance had brought a new element into the relations of the sexes
and had accepted years of service and continued wooing as the steps which
led to the consummation of desire. This idea transferred to spiritual
relations now caused the mystic to dwell on the steps by which the Divine
can be approached. The poetry of romance and the poetry of mysticism have
much in common; both appear to have been the outcome of the same
sentiments differently applied in convent and court. And as the language
of real life made it possible for the mystic to formulate his feelings, so
his religious aspirations in their turn helped to spiritualise the
relations of real life.

It deserves special attention that some of the writings of these early
mystics are in the vernacular and include some of the most beautiful
productions in Middle English and in early German. Their philological
interest has recently led to their publication, but their social
importance is equally great. For in them we see how the high estimation of
virgin purity, which was in the fore-ground of the moral consciousness of
the age, was advocated by the leaders of thought and came to influence the
lives of individual women, and how the asexual existence which hitherto
had been accepted as praiseworthy was extolled as virtue in itself.

Again it is difficult for a later age to rate this conception at its just
value, for the depreciation of the relationship of sex is to the modern
mind not only misplaced but misleading. It is only when we think of the
gain this depreciation has helped to secure in self-control and
self-respect that it appears at all reasonable.

Of the early productions of the mystic school, which are distinctly moral
in tendency and personal in tone, none offer greater attractions than
works written in England during the first half of the 13th century for the
use of women who were vowed to religion. All these writings, some of which
will here be considered, are in the vernacular, and owing to their
measured grace and tone of delicate refinement are among the most
attractive monuments of Middle English. They are chiefly productions of
the south of England where the Saxon element had been preserved in its
integrity. Scholars have remarked how a certain roughness of diction and a
heroic element opposed to softness of sentiment lingered on in the north
and precluded the utterance of gentler strains, while the south used a
language of combined vigour and grace and became the cradle of lyric
poetry. Moreover the south at this period cultivated the qualities which
give to a movement its moral stamina. We find loyalty to the king coupled
with distaste for court pleasures, and strong religious feeling combined
with that insistence on nationality which precluded servile submission to
the Pope. The south was also in connection with the best intellectual
forces of the age as represented by the growing schools at Oxford, and
Oxford in its turn was in direct touch with Paris, which remained
throughout the 12th century the most important centre of learning and
education in Europe.

A few words must be given to this connection and its results, for it was
in Paris that the master-minds of Oxford acquired that enthusiasm for
study which, applied to the realities of life, became zeal for reform and
desire for moral regeneration.

Two lines of study are apparent in Paris. There is the mysticism of the
school of St Victor, represented by men of such mental calibre as Hugo (†
1141), a native of Germany, and his pupil Richard († 1173), a native of
Scotland. The combined influence of these two men on the English mind was
very great, for many productions of the English mystical school were
inspired by or adapted from their Latin mystical works. The writings of
Richard translated into English are frequently found in manuscripts by the
side of the works of the later English mystics, Richard Rolle († 1349),
and Walter Hylton († 1395).

On the other hand Paris was the first to experience the vivifying
influence of the renewed study of Greek philosophy, especially of the
Aristotelian _corpus_, together with its comments by Arabian philosophers,
especially with those of Averroes (fl. 1150). Jews from the south of
France had introduced these writings, which, repeatedly condemned but as
often advocated, had the effect on speculative minds of the introduction
of a new science[791]. Christian theology, rising to the occasion, adopted
their metaphysical views, though so radically divergent from its own, and
the result was the birth of scholastic philosophy. But where the
incompatibility of the union was felt scholars left the halls of
discussion and turned their energies to grappling with the problems of
active life.

In Oxford as early as 1133 Robert Pullen, who had studied in Paris, was
lecturing on week days and preaching on Sundays to the people, and during
the course of the 13th century a number of men who had won the highest
distinctions at the university,--such as Edmund Rich († 1240), Adam Marsh
(† 1257-8), and Robert Grosseteste (afterwards bishop of Lincoln, † 1253),
followed in his footsteps. Their efforts fell in with those of the newly
founded orders of friars, and they greeted as brothers in the spirit the
twelve Dominicans who arrived at Oxford in 1221 and the Franciscans who
came in 1224. These maintained an utter distrust of learning, which led to
much argument between them and the students, but all alike were zealous in
working for the welfare of the uneducated classes.

We are indebted to Thomas de Hales[792] for one of the earliest and most
beautiful poems written for the use of a nun. He was a native of Hales in
Gloucestershire, studied both at Oxford and Paris, and was under the
influence of the Franciscan movement. Wadding says in his annals of the
Franciscan order that ‘Thomas de Hales, created a doctor of the Sorbonne,
was most celebrated and is known not only in England, but also in France,
Germany, and Italy.’ Thomas was on friendly terms with Adam Marsh who had
become a Franciscan friar, and he joined this order himself as is apparent
from the superscription of his English poem[793]. Various facts suggest
possibilities as to his career, for Hales in Gloucestershire was the home
also of Alexander de Hales († 1245) who went to Paris and spent his
energies in compiling a work on scholasticism which secured him the title
of _doctor irrefragabilis_. Moreover in 1246 Hales became the seat of a
Cistercian monastery founded by Henry III.’s brother, Richard, earl of
Cornwall, who was intimately connected with the circle of men at Oxford
and a friend and patron of the Franciscans. It is possible that Thomas
owed encouragement to the learned Alexander or to Earl Richard. The year
1250 is accepted as the date when he flourished, but his English poem was
probably written somewhat earlier. This is suggested by the praise
bestowed in it on King Henry and his wealth, which could hardly have been
accorded later than 1240, for it was then that the king began to alienate
his people’s affection by tampering with the coinage and by countenancing
foreign influences at court and in the Church, in compliance with the
wishes of his wife, Eleanor of Provence.

The poem of Thomas is called a _Luve Ron_, that is a love song; it
consists of twenty-six rhymed stanzas with much alliterative assonance.
Falling in with the tendencies of the age it treats of the happiness in
store for women who accept Christ as their spouse. Thomas describes how he
came to advise a nun in her choice of a lover. As the translation of the
poem into modern English rhyme sacrifices much of its directness, the
stanzas which follow have been rendered as prose.

  ‘A maid of Christ bade me earnestly to make her a love-song,
  That she might best learn how to take a faithful lover,
  Most faithful of all, and best suited to a free woman;
  I will not refuse her, but direct her as best I can.

  Maiden, thou must understand that this world’s love is rare,
  In many ways fickle, worthless, weak, deceiving,
  Men that are bold here pass away as the winds blow;
  Under the earth they lie cold, fallen away as meadow grass.

  No one enters life who is certain to remain,
  For here man has many sorrows, neither repose nor rest;
  Towards his end he hastens, abiding but a short time,
  Pain and death hurry him away when most he clings to life.

  None is so rich nor yet so free but he soon must go;
  Gold and silver, pomp and ermine give him no surety;
  Swift though he be, he cannot escape, nor lengthen his life by a day,
  Thus, thou seest, this world as a shadow glides past.’

The poet then enlarges on the transitoriness of terrestrial love. Where
are Paris and Helen, Amadis, Tristram, and others famous for their love?
‘They have glided from this world as the shaft that has left the
bow-string.’ Wealth such as King Henry’s, beauty such as Absalom’s availed
them nought. But the poet knows of a true king whose love abides.

  ‘Ah sweet, if thou knewest but this one’s virtues!
  He is fair and bright, of glad cheer, mild of mood,
  Lovely through joy, true of trust, free of heart, full of wisdom;
  Never wouldst thou regret it if once thou wert given into his care.

  He is the richest man in the land as far as men have the power of speech,
  All is given into his hand, east, west, north and south.
  Henry the king holds of him and bows to him.
  Maiden, to thee he sends the message that he would be beloved by thee.’

The beauty of this lover, Christ, is thus described, and the fairness of
his dwelling, where hate, pride and envy enter not, and where all rejoice
with the angels. ‘Are not those in a good way who love such a lord?’ the
poet asks. In return for the bliss Christ grants, He asks only that the
maiden keep bright the jewel of maidenhood which He has entrusted to her.
The poem ends thus:

  ‘This poem, maiden, I send thee open and without a seal,
  Bidding thee unroll it and learn each part by heart,
  Then be very gracious and teach it faithfully to other maidens.
  Who knows the whole right well will be comforted by it.

  If ever thou sittest lonely, draw forth this little writing,
  Sing it with sweet tones, and do as I bid thee.
  He who has sent thee a greeting, God Almighty, be with thee,
  And receive thee in his bower high up in heaven where He sits.
  And may he have good ending, who has written this little song.’

From this poem we turn to the prose works written at this period for
religious women, which are inspired by the same spirit of earnest
devotion, and contain thoughts as tender, refined, and gentle as the poem
of Thomas de Hales. The prose treatise known as the _Ancren Riwle_[794],
the rule for recluses, is by far the most important of these works, and
from the present point of view deserves close attention, for it gives a
direct insight into the moral beauties of the religious attitude, and
enables us to form some idea of the high degree of culture and refinement
which the 13th century mystic attained.

A few words of criticism on the purpose of the book and on its authorship
are here necessary. We have before us a work written not for the regular
inmates of a nunnery, not for nuns who lived under the rule of a prioress
or abbess, but for religious women who, after being trained in a nunnery,
left it to continue a chaste and secluded life outside. The Church at all
times gave most honour to those monks and nuns who were members of a
convent and lived under the rule of a superior, but it did not deny the
credit of holy living, or the appellations monk and nun, to those who
either alone or with a few companions devoted themselves to religion, and
dwelt sometimes near a chapel or sanctuary, sometimes in a churchyard.
From the earliest times the people had held such male and female recluses
in special reverence, and the Church, yielding to popular feeling,
accepted them as holy, and in some instances countenanced their being
ranked as saints.

With reference to the distinction made from the earliest period between
the different classes of those who professed religion, and their
respective claims to holiness, it seems well to quote from the
introductory chapter of the rule of St Benedict. The following passages
occur in all the prose versions of the rule known to me, whether written
for the use of men, or adapted to the use of women.

The Anglo-Saxon version of the rule of St Benedict made in the 10th or
11th century, which is based on the version written by Aethelwold about
the year 961, runs thus[795]: ‘There are four kinds of monks, _muneca_;
the first kind are those in monasteries, _mynstermonna_, who live under a
rule or an abbot. The second kind are the hermits, _ancrena_, that is
settlers in the wilds (_westen-setlena_), who, not in the first fervour of
religious life, but after probation in the monastery, have learned by the
help and experience of others to fight against the devil, and going forth
well armed from the ranks of their brethren to the single-handed combat of
the wilderness, are able without the support of others to fight by the
strength of their own arm and the help of God against the vices of the
flesh and their evil thoughts. A third and most baneful kind of monk are
the self-appointed ones, _sylfdemena_, who have been tried by no rule nor
by the experience of a master, as gold in the furnace, but being soft as
lead and still serving the world in their works, are known by their
tonsure to lie to God. These, in twos or threes or even singly without a
shepherd, not enclosed in the Lord’s sheepfold, follow the enjoyment of
their will instead of a rule; whatever they think fit or choose to do they
call holy, and what they like not they condemn as unlawful. There is a
fourth kind of monk called wandering, _widscrithul_, who spend all their
life wandering about, staying in different cells for three or four days at
a time, ever roaming, given up to their own pleasures and the evils of
gluttony, and worse in all ways than the self-appointed ones.’

In the English versions of the rule for women, two of which, drafted
respectively in the 13th and in the 15th century, are extant, the same
distinctions are drawn between different kinds of nuns. The 13th century
version states[796] that there are the nuns living in a monastery under an
abbess, _mynecene_,--a kind of nun called _ancre_ or recluse,--the
self-appointed nuns,--and the wandering nuns who are declared altogether

The difference between the nun and the _ancre_ is made clear by these
passages. The _ancre_ or recluse, called in Latin _inclusa_, is the nun
who after receiving a convent education lives a holy life away from the
nunnery, and it is for _ancren_ or nuns of this kind that the book we are
about to discuss was written. Fortunately the work does not stand alone as
an exhortation to women recluses. We are in possession of a letter from
Ailred of Rievaulx, written between 1131 and 1161, and addressed to his
sister (sic), which was written for a similar purpose though covering very
much narrower ground, and contains advice analogous to that contained in
the _Ancren Riwle_. The original is in Latin[797], and in this form it was
probably known to the author of the _Ancren Riwle_, who refers to it,
saying how Ailred had already insisted that purity of life can be
maintained only by observing two things, a certain hardness of bodily life
and a careful cultivation of moral qualities.

The letter of Ailred is in the form of a series of short chapters and is
divided into two parts, the first of which (c. 1-20) treats of the outward
rule. It gives advice as to whom the _inclusa_ should converse with, and
whom she should admit into her presence; it tells her that she should not
own flocks, which leads to buying and selling; that she should live by the
work of her hands, not accepting as a gift more food than she needs for
herself and her servants; and that she must not do as some recluses do,
who busy themselves with ‘teaching girls and boys and turn their cells
into a school.’ It also directs her about divine service, and about her
food and clothes.

Having so far dealt with outward things Ailred (c. 21-46) dwells on the
inward life, on virginity, on the dangers of temptation and on the
beauties of humility and love. His sentences are short and are illustrated
by quotations from scripture, by reference to the holy virgin St Agnes,
and by remarks on the respective merits of Mary and Martha. The concluding
chapters (c. 47-78) are found also in the works of Anselm, archbishop of
Canterbury († 1109)[798], and appear to have been borrowed from him.

The letter of Ailred proves that the conduct of the recluse was attracting
attention in the 12th century. Part of his letter was translated into
Middle English by one Thomas N. in the 13th century, about the same time
when the _Ancren Riwle_ was drawn up, and in its superscription it is
designated as the ‘information’ which Ailred, abbot of Rievaulx, wrote for
his sister the _inclusa_[799]. In this translation, however, the opening
parts of the work which treat of the outward rule (c. 1-20) are omitted,
evidently because the translation was intended not for recluses but for
nuns, to whom directions about domestic matters, such as buying, selling,
clothing and eating, would not apply.

Further evidence can be adduced to show that women recluses in the 13th
century occupied public attention to an increasing degree. Hitherto they
had been left to dwell where they pleased, supported by chance gifts from
the people, but in the 13th century it became usual to leave them
legacies. A mass of information on the subject has been collected by
Cutts[800], who describes how women recluses occupied sometimes a range of
cells, sometimes a commodious house; and how they kept one or more
servants to run on their errands. In 1246 the bishop of Chichester issued
an injunction which shows that his attention had been drawn to these
women, and that in his mind there was a distinct difference between them
and regular nuns. Under the heading ‘On recluses’ (_inclusis_) it
says[801]: ‘Also we ordain that recluses shall not receive or keep any
person in their house concerning whom sinister suspicions may arise. Also
that they have narrow and proper windows; and we permit them to have
secret communication with those persons only whose gravity and honesty do
not admit of suspicion. Women recluses should not be entrusted with the
care of church vestments; if necessity compels it, we command it to be
done with caution, that he who carries them may have no communication with
the recluses.’

Taking these various remarks into consideration and comparing them with
what is said in the _Ancren Riwle_ itself, the author of which keeps clear
in his mind the difference between recluse and nun, I think the idea that
this work was originally written for the Cistercian nunnery at Tarent in
Dorsetshire, as is usually alleged[802], will be abandoned. This
assumption is based on the superscription of a Latin copy of the book,
which states that Simon of Ghent wrote it for his sisters the anchoresses
near Tarent (apud Tarente). But the theory that the book was originally in
Latin, and that it was written by Simon, archdeacon at Oxford in 1284, and
bishop of Salisbury between 1307-1315, has long been abandoned. The idea
that it was written for the nunnery at Tarent may also be discarded, for
Tarent was a house founded by Ralph de Kahaines in the time of Richard I.
Therefore at the time when Simon lived, and doubtless also at the time
when the book was written (1225-1250), the settlement must have consisted
of more than three women recluses and their servants. Women recluses might
be living at Tarent as elsewhere, since Simon forwarded the book to
recluses there, but they would not be members of the Cistercian convent.
It may be noticed in passing that the other Latin copy of the rule, which
was destroyed by fire in 1731, had a superscription saying that Robert
Thornton, at one time prior, gave it to the recluses (_claustralibus_) of
Bardney, which is a Benedictine abbey for men in Lincolnshire.

To relinquish the idea that the _Ancren Riwle_ was written originally for
the Cistercian nunnery at Tarent is to relinquish also the
supposition[803] that it is the work of Richard Poor, dean of Salisbury,
and afterwards bishop successively of Chichester and Durham († 1237), for
the theory of his authorship rests only on his interest in this nunnery,
to which he added a chapel and where his heart lies buried. A fuller
knowledge of the English writings of the time may reveal by whom and for
whom the book was written. The dialect proves it to be the production of a
native of the south-western part of England, while its tone reveals a
connection with Paris and Oxford. The writer must have had a high degree
of culture, and was familiar with French, with court poetry, and with the
similes so frequent in the stories of romance. He had a sound theological
training, with a knowledge of the works of Jerome, Augustine, Gregory,
Anselm, and notably of Bernard, from whom he frequently quotes. He had
strong religious sympathies, but imperfect sympathy with the established
church,--these latter facts tend to prove that he was in some measure
connected with the friars. His references to ‘our lay brethren,’ and his
description of the ‘hours’ as said by them, may serve as a clue to his

The _Ancren Riwle_ or rule for recluses, fills a moderately sized volume
and is extant in eight manuscript copies, of which five are in English,
that is four in the dialect of the south and one in that of the
north,--two in Latin, and one in French. The work is divided into eight
parts, a short analysis of which will give an idea of the importance of
the book and of the wide range of its author’s sympathies. As he says
himself the book was written for three sisters who in the bloom of their
youth had forsaken the world to become anchoresses, but he expects it will
be read by others. He assumes that his readers know Latin and French as
well as English, a fact which in itself proves that like the _ancren_
referred to above, the _ancren_ here addressed had received their
education in a nunnery.

In the short introduction which precedes the work the author says he will
accede to the request of the women who have importuned him for a rule.

‘Do you now ask what rule you recluses should observe?’ he asks (p.
5)[805]. ‘You should always keep the inward rule well with all your might
and strength for its own sake. The inward rule is ever alike; the outward
varies.... No recluse by my advice shall make profession, that is promise
to keep anything commanded, save three things, obedience, chastity and
stedfastness; she shall not change her home save by need, such as
compulsion, fear of death or obedience to her bishop, or her master
(herre). For she who undertakes anything and promises to do it at God’s
command, is bound to it and sins mortally in breaking her promise by will
or wish. If she has not promised she may do it and leave it off as she
will, as of meat and drink, abstaining from flesh and fish and other like
things relating to dress, rest, hours and prayers. Let her say as many of
these as she pleases, and in what way she pleases. These and other such
things are all in our free choice to do or let alone whenever we choose,
unless they are promised. But charity, that is love, and meekness and
patience, truthfulness and keeping the ten ancient commandments,
confession and penitence, these and such as these, some of which are of
the old law, some of the new, are not of man’s invention.’

He then goes on to tell them that if asked to what order they belong, they
must say, to the order of St James, who was God’s apostle (and who wrote a
canonical epistle). He dilates upon early Christian hermits and recluses,
saying that they were of the order of St James, for in his mind St James
the apostle is identical with St James the hermit.

He then describes the contents of his work, saying the first part only
shall treat of the outward rule, all the others of the inward.

The first part accordingly (pp. 15-48) is on religious service, and in it
the women are advised what prayers they shall say and at what time of the
day: ‘Let everyone say her hours as she has written them,’ and as a guide
take what ‘hours’ are kept by ‘our lay brethren.’ The sick, the sorrowful,
prisoners, and Christians who are among the heathen shall be called to
mind. The tone which the author occasionally takes has the full personal
ring of 13th century mysticism. (p. 35) ‘After the kiss of peace in the
mass, when the priest consecrates, forget there all the world, and there
be entirely out of the body, there in glowing love embrace your beloved
spouse (leofman) Christ, who is come down from heaven into the bower of
your breast, and hold him fast till he have granted all that you wish.’
Several prayers follow, one in Latin on the adoration of the cross, and
several in English which are addressed to the sweet lady St Mary.

Outward observances being disposed of, the author then advises the women
how to keep guard over the heart, ‘wherein is order, religion and the life
of the soul,’ against the temptations of the five senses (pp. 48-117). The
different senses and the dangers attending them are discussed, sometimes
casually, sometimes in a systematic manner. In connection with Sight we
get interesting details on the arrangement of the building in which the
recluses dwelt. Its windows are hung with black cloth on which is a white
cross. The black cloth is impervious to the wind and difficult to see
through; the white of the cross is more transparent and emblematic of
purity, by the help of which it becomes safe to look abroad. Looking
abroad, however, is generally attended with danger. ‘I write more
particularly for others,’ the author here remarks, ‘nothing of the kind
touches you, my dear sisters, for you have not the name, nor shall you
have it by the grace of God, of staring recluses, whose profession is
unrecognisable through their unseemly conduct, as is the case with some,

Speech too should be wisely controlled, talking out of church windows
should be avoided, and conversation generally should be indulged in only
through the ‘house’ window and the parlour window. ‘Silence always at
meals,’ says the author, and quotes from Seneca and Solomon on the evil
effects of idle prattling. Hearing, that is listening too readily, also
has its dangers, for it leads to spreading untruths. ‘She who moves her
tongue in lying makes it a cradle to the devil’s child, and rocketh it
diligently as a nurse.’ In passages which show a keen insight into human
nature and which are dictated by a wise and kindly spirit, the author
among other examples describes how anyone seeking the recluse’s sympathy
for bad ends would approach her in plaintive strains, deploring that he is
drawn to her, and assuring her that he desires nothing but her
forgiveness, and thus by engrossing her thoughts more and more, would
perturb her mind by rousing her personal sympathy.

The sense of Smell also has its dangers; but in regard to the fifth sense,
Feeling, there is most need, the author thinks, of comfort, ‘for in it the
pain is greatest, and the pleasure also if it so happen.’ The sufferings
of Christ are analysed and it is shown how he suffered in all his senses
but especially in feeling.

The next part of the work (pp. 118-177) contains moral lessons and
examples. The peevish recluse finds her counterpart in the pelican which
kills her own young ones when they molest her. Like the bird, the recluse
in anger kills her works, then repents and makes great moan. There are
some fine passages on the effects of anger which is likened to a sorceress
(uorschup-pild) and transforms the recluse, Christ’s spouse, into a
she-wolf (wulvene). That women devotees often behaved very differently
from what they ought is evident from these passages, for false recluses
are likened unto foxes who live in holes and are thievish, ravenous and
yelping, but ‘the true recluses are indeed birds of heaven, that fly aloft
and sit on the green boughs singing merrily; that is, they meditate,
enraptured, upon the blessedness of heaven that never fadeth but is ever
green, singing right merrily; that is in such meditation they rest in
peace and have gladness of heart as those who sing.’ In one passage,
where the flight of birds is described, it says, ‘the wings that bear the
recluses upwards are good principles, which they must move unto good works
as a bird that would fly moveth its wings.’ From dumb animals wisdom and
knowledge can be learnt, says the author, giving as an example the eagle,
which deposits in his nest a precious stone called agate, which wards off
harm, and thus Jesus Christ should be cherished to keep off evil. In
another passage the author plays on the words _ancre_ and anchor, saying
that the _ancre_ or recluse is anchored to the Church as the anchor to the
ship, that storms may not overwhelm it. The reasons for solitary life are
then enumerated under separate headings, and passages from the Old and the
New Testament are freely quoted in illustration and corroboration of the
statements made.

The fourth part of the book (pp. 178-298) dilates on temptation, in regard
to which the writer holds that greater holiness brings increased
difficulties. ‘As the hill of holy and pious life is greater and higher,
so the fiend’s puffs which are the winds of temptation are stronger
thereon and more frequent.’ Patience and meekness are chiefly required to
resist the troubles of sickness, and wisdom and spiritual strength must
resist grief of heart, anger and wrath. Again the recluses for whom the
book is written are assured that they have least need to be fortified
against temptations and trials, sickness only excepted.

The imagery in which the author goes on to describe the seven chief sins
is graphic and powerful. They are personified as the Lion of Pride, the
Serpent of Envy, the Unicorn of Wrath, the Bear of Sloth, the Fox of
Covetousness, the Swine of Gluttony, and the Scorpion of Lust, each with
its offspring. Of the Scorpion’s progeny we are told that ‘it doth not
become a modest mouth to name the name of some of them,’ while the
Scorpion itself is a kind of worm, that has a face somewhat like that of a
woman, but its hinder parts are those of a serpent. It puts on a pleasant
countenance and fawns upon you with its head but stings with its tail.
Again, the sins are likened to seven hags (heggen), to whom men who serve
in the devil’s court are married. The description of these men as
jugglers, jesters, ash-gatherers and devil’s purveyors, gives interesting
details on the characters in real life by which they were suggested. Of
the comforting thoughts which the recluse is to dwell upon the following
give a fine example.

‘The sixth comfort is that our Lord, when he suffereth us to be tempted,
playeth with us as the mother with her young darling: she fleeth from him
and hides herself, and lets him sit alone, look anxiously around calling
Dame, dame! and weep awhile, and then she leapeth forth laughing with
outspread arms and embraceth and kisseth him and wipeth his eyes. Just so
our Lord leaveth us sometimes alone, and withdraweth his grace and comfort
and support, so that we find no sweetness in any good we do, nor
satisfaction of heart; and yet all the while our dear father loveth us
none the less, but doeth it for the great love he hath for us.’

In times of tribulation the recluse is directed to meditate on God and His
works, on the Virgin and the saints, and the temptations they withstood,
such as are related in an English book on St Margaret. Again and again the
writer, who does not tire of this part of his theme, dwells on the various
sins separately, and on the best way of meeting them.

The next part of the book (pp. 298-348) is devoted to an analysis of the
use and the manner of confession, the theory and practice of which in the
Church of Rome are ancient, but which the religious enthusiasm of the
Middle Ages elaborated into a hard and fast system. That
self-introspection and analysis are helpful in developing and
strengthening conscientiousness no one will deny, but the habitual
disclosure of one’s thoughts and criticisms of self to another, though it
may still afford support to some, has ceased to appear generally
advisable. Granted that the practice in the past served a good purpose,
the advice given in this book for recluses appears dictated by a strong
sense of fitness and moderation. The author considers confession powerful
in three directions: it ‘confoundeth the devil,’ it gives us back all the
good we have lost, and it ‘maketh us children of God.’ Under these
headings there is a long and systematic elaboration of the sixteen ways in
which confession should be made, viz. it should be accusatory, bitter,
complete, candid, and it should be made often, and speedily, humbly and
hopefully, etc. Stories out of the Bible and parables of a later age are
introduced in corroboration of each injunction. Under the heading of
candid confession the words to be used in self-accusation are interesting,
because it is obvious that a higher moral standard is claimed from women
than from men. The person who has committed sin is to address the father
confessor (schrift feder) in these words: ‘I am a woman, and ought by
right to have been more modest than to speak as I have spoken, or to do
as I have done; and therefore my sin is greater than if a man had done it,
for it became me worse.’ From the Gospels and the Fathers the writer
adduces strings of wise sayings which bear on the points he would impress
upon his readers. This fifth part of the book, he says, belongs to all men
alike, not to recluses in particular, and he ends by admonishing the
sisters in this way: ‘Take to your profit this short and concluding
summary of all mentioned and known sins, as of pride, ambition,
presumption, envy, wrath, sloth, carelessness, idle words, immoral
thoughts, any idle hearing, any false joy or heavy mourning, hypocrisy,
the taking too much or too little meat or drink, grumbling, being of
morose countenance, breaking silence, sitting too long at the parlour
window, saying hours badly or without attention of heart or at a wrong
time, any false word or oath, play, scornful laughter, wasting crumbs, or
spilling ale or letting things grow mouldy or rusty or rotten; leaving
clothes not sewed, wet with rain, or unwashed; breaking a cup or a dish,
or carelessly looking after any thing which we own and should take care
of; or cutting or damaging through heedlessness.’ These in the writer’s
eyes are the likely sins among the recluses whom he addresses and against
which he warns them to be on their guard. If they have committed them they
must forthwith confess, but trivial faults should be wiped away by prayers
said before the altar the moment the recluse is conscious of them.

Passing from the subject of Confession to that of Penance (pp. 348-383)
the author as he says borrows much from the Sentences of Bernard, the
general drift of which is in favour of self-discipline and implies
mortification of the flesh. In this context comes the reference to
Ailred’s (Seint Aldret’s) advice to his sister, who also was directed to
give the body pain by fasting, watching, and discipline, by having coarse
garments and a hard bed, and by bearing evil and working hard. But here
again the recluses addressed are told that in the eyes of their adviser
they incline rather to over-much self-denial than to over-much

The seventh part of the book (pp. 384-410) treats of the pure heart or of
love and is attractive in many ways. The sentiments developed and the
pictures described give one the highest opinion of the feelings of which
the age was capable, as reflected in this writer’s innermost being. The
beautiful parable where Christ woos the soul in guise of a king is well
worth repeating, for there we see the courtly attitude, which the age of
romance had developed in real life, receiving a spiritual adaptation.

‘There was a lady who was besieged by her foes within an earthly castle,
and her land was all destroyed and herself quite poor. The love of a
powerful king was however fixed upon her with such boundless affection
that to solicit her love he sent his messengers one after the other, and
often many together, and sent her trinkets both many and fair, and
supplies of victuals and help of his high retinue to hold her castle. She
received them all as a careless creature with so hard a heart that he
could never get nearer to her love. What would’st thou more? He came
himself at last and showed her his fair face, since he was of all men the
fairest to behold, and spoke so sweetly and with such gentle words that
they might have raised the dead from death to life. And he wrought many
wonders, and did many wondrous deeds before her eyes, and showed her his
power and told her of his kingdom, and offered to make her queen of all
that he owned. But all availed him nought. Was not this surprising
mockery? For she was not worthy to have been his servant. But owing to his
goodness love so mastered him that he said at last: “Lady, thou art
attacked, and thine enemies are so strong that thou canst not without my
help escape their hands that thou mayest not be put to a shameful death. I
am prompted by love of thee to undertake this fight, and rid thee of those
that seek thy death. I know well that I shall receive a mortal wound, but
I will do it gladly to win thy heart. Now I beseech thee for the love I
bear thee that thou love me at least after my death, since thou would’st
not in my lifetime.” Thus did the king. He freed her of her enemies and
was himself wounded and slain in the end. Through a miracle he arose from
death to life. Would not that same lady be of an evil kind if she did not
love him above all things after this?’

‘The king is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who in this wise wooed our Soul
which the devils had beset. And He as a noble wooer, after many messengers
and many good deeds, came to prove His love and showed through knighthood
that He was worthy of love, as sometime knights were wont to do. He
entered in a tournament, and as a bold knight had His shield pierced
everywhere in the fight for His lady’s love.’

The likeness between the shield and Christ’s body is further dwelt upon.
The image of His crucified form hangs suspended in church, as ‘after the
death of a valiant knight, men hang up his shield high in church to his

There is more on the theme of love that is very fine. The ideas generated
by knighthood are obviously present to the mind of the writer.

Interesting also is his classification of the different kinds of love. The
love of good friends (gode iueren) is first mentioned, but higher than
that is the love between man and woman, and even higher still that between
mother and child, for the mother to cure her child of disease is ready to
make a bath of her blood for it. Higher again is the love of the body to
the soul, but the love which Christ bears to His dear spouse, the soul,
surpasses them all.

‘Thy love,’ says our Lord, ‘is either to be freely given or it is to be
sold, or it is to be stolen and to be taken with force. If it is to be
given, where could’st thou bestow it better than on me? Am I not of all
the fairest? Am I not the richest king? Am I not of noblest birth? Am I
not in wealth the wisest? Am I not the most courteous? Am I not the most
liberal of men? For so it is said of a liberal man that he can withhold
nothing; that his hands are perforated as mine are. Am I not of all the
sweetest and most gentle? Thus in me all reasons thou may’st find for
bestowing thy love, if thou lovest chaste purity; for no one can love me
save she hold by that.--But if thy love is not to be given but is to be
sold, say at what price; either for other love or for something else? Love
is well sold for love, and so love should be sold and for nought else. If
thy love is thus to be sold, I have bought it with love surpassing all
other. For of the four kinds of love, I have shown thee the best of them
all. And if thou sayest that thou wilt not let it go cheaply and askest
for more, name what it shall be. Set a price on thy love. Thou canst not
name so much but I will give thee for thy love much more. Wouldest thou
have castles and kingdoms? Wouldest thou govern the world? I am purposed
to do better; I am purposed to make thee withal queen of heaven. Thou
shalt be sevenfold brighter than the sun; no evil shall harm thee, no
creature shall vex thee, no joy shall be wanting to thee; thy will shall
be done in heaven and on earth; yea, even in hell.’

And in a further development of this idea all imaginable good, Croesus’
wealth, Absalom’s beauty, Asahel’s swiftness, Samson’s strength, are held
out as a reward to the soul who responds to the wooing of Christ and
gives herself entirely into His keeping. ‘This love,’ says the author in
conclusion, ‘is the rule which governs the heart.’

The last part of the book (pp. 410-431) appears to be appended as an
after-thought, as it treats once more of domestic matters. ‘I said before
at the beginning,’ says the author, ‘that ye ought not, like unwise
people, to promise to keep any of the outward rules. I say the same still,
nor do I write them save for you alone. I say this in order that recluses
may not say that I by my authority make new rules for them. Nor do I
command that they shall hold them, and you may change them whenever you
will for better ones. Of things that have been in use before it matters
little.’ Practical directions follow which throw a further light on the
position and conduct of the recluse, and which in many particulars are
curiously like the injunctions which form the opening part of the letter
of Ailred. The recluses shall partake of Communion on fifteen days of the
year; they shall eat twice a day between Easter and Roodmass (September
14), during the other half year they shall fast save on Sundays; and they
shall not eat flesh or lard except in sickness. ‘There are recluses,’ says
the writer, ‘who have meals with their friends outside. That is too much
friendship; for all orders it is unsuitable, but chiefly for the order of
recluses who are dead to the world.’ A recluse shall not be liberal of
other men’s alms, for housewifery is Martha’s part and not hers. ‘Martha’s
office is to feed and clothe poor men as the mistress of a house; Mary
ought not to intermeddle in it, and if any one blame her, God Himself the
supreme defends her for it, as holy writ bears witness. On the other hand
a recluse ought only to take sparingly that which is necessary for her.
Whereof, then, may she make herself liberal? She must live upon alms as
frugally as ever she can, and not gather that she may give it away
afterwards. She is not a housewife but a Church ancre. If she can spare
any fragments to the poor, let her send them quietly out of her dwelling.
Sin is oft concealed under the semblance of goodness. And how shall those
rich anchoresses who are tillers of the ground, or have fixed rents, do
their alms privately to poor neighbours? Desire not to have the reputation
of bountiful anchoresses, nor, in order to give much, be too eager to
possess more. Greediness is at the root of bitterness: all the boughs that
spring from it are bitter. To beg in order to give away is not the part of
a recluse. From the courtesy of a recluse and from her liberality, sin
and shame have often come in the end.’

This idea, that the recluse shall follow the example of Mary and not that
of Martha, occurs also in Ailred’s letter, though it is more briefly
stated (c. 41 ff.).

‘You shall possess no beast, my dear sisters,’ says the author of the
_Ancren Riwle_, ‘except only a cat. A recluse who has cattle appears as
Martha was.’ She thinks of the fodder, of the herdsman, thoughts which
bring with them traffic. ‘A recluse who is a buyer and seller (cheapild)
selleth her soul to the chapman of hell.’ Ailred similarly warned his
‘sister’ against keeping flocks (c. 5 ff.). But the author of the _Riwle_
allows the recluse to keep a cow if need be. ‘Do not take charge,’ he
says, ‘of other men’s things in your house, nor of their property, nor of
their clothes, neither receive under your care the church vestments nor
the chalice, unless compelled thereto, for oftentimes much harm has come
from such caretaking.’ The clothes the sisters wear shall be warm and
simple, ‘be they white, be they black; only see that they be plain and
warm and well-made.’ He warns them against severe discipline by the use of
hair-cloth and hedgehog-skins, and against scourging with a leathern
thong. He desires them to have all needful clothing, but forbids wearing
rings, brooches, ornamented girdles and gloves. The recluse shall ‘make no
purses to gain friends therewith, nor blodbendes[806] of silk; but shape
and sew and mend church vestments, and poor people’s clothes.’ The point
Ailred in his rule strongly insisted upon, the command that the recluse
shall not keep a school as some recluses do, is reiterated by the author
of the _Ancren Riwle_, for the excitement it brings and the personal
affection it creates between teacher and pupil are felt to be fraught with
danger. If there be a girl who needs to be taught, the recluse shall cause
her to be instructed by her servant, for she shall keep two servants, the
one to stay at home, the other to go abroad, ‘whose garments shall be of
such shape and their attire such that their calling be obvious.’ The
recluse shall read the concluding part of this book to her women once a
week, but she herself is to read in it daily if she have leisure.

Such in brief outline is the _Ancren Riwle_, a book which above all others
gives an insight into the religious life as apprehended in the 13th
century in England; a book which, written for women--the number of whom
can never have been great, contains much that remains wise and instructive
to this day, owing to its wide outlook and liberal spirit. It gives the
very highest opinion of the author’s gentleness and refinement, and of the
exalted sentiments of the women he was addressing.

       *       *       *       *       *

This is not the place to dwell on the numerous spiritual love-songs which
were written in English at this period under the influence of mystic
tendencies; but it must be pointed out that those which breathe the love
of a woman’s soul to Christ were presumably written in the interest of
nuns. Among them is one in prose, entitled the ‘Wooing of Our Lord[807],’
written by its author for his ‘sister,’ which has a certain likeness to
the ‘Ancren Riwle,’ and on this ground has been ascribed to the same
author. Probably it is a paraphrase of part of it, but it has none of the
harmonious flow of the treatise itself, and its tone is so much more
emotional, that it looks like the production of a later age.

The idea of the exaltation of virginity at this period further led to the
re-writing in English of the legends of women-saints whose stories turn on
the might of virginity in conflict with the evil powers of this world.
Among them the legends of St Margaret, St Juliana and St Cecilia, are
extant in a manuscript of about the year 1230. Their authorship is
unknown, but they were evidently written in the first place for religious

In conclusion a few words must be said on a treatise written about the
same time called ‘Holy Maidenhood’ (Hali Meidenhad), the interest of which
lies in the fact that while advocating the same cause as the writings
discussed above, it is quite untouched by their spirit[808]. Here also the
advantages of the love of Christ over love for earthly things are enlarged
on, and the superiority of the ‘free’ maiden over her who has embraced
family life is upheld. But this is done in a broad familiar strain and
with repeated fierce attacks on marriage.

The author ornaments his treatise with Biblical quotations, but he
possesses none of the courtly grace and elegance of diction of Thomas de
Hales and the author of the _Ancren Riwle_. In form the treatise answers
to its drift, for it is written in an alliterative homely style which
gives it a peculiar interest from the philological point of view. Looked
at from the religious standpoint it yields a curious example of what the
tone and temper would be of one who, grasping the moral drift of the age,
remained a stranger to its tenderer strains. At the same time its author
is not without considerable insight into the realities of life and has a
sense of humour usually absent in mystic writings. The following passage
which dwells on some of the annoyances of married life give a good example
of this (p. 37).

‘And how I ask, though it may seem odious, how does the wife stand who
when she comes in hears her child scream, sees the cat at the flitch, and
the hound at the hide? Her cake is burning on the stone hearth, her calf
is sucking up the milk, the earthen pot is overflowing into the fire and
the churl is scolding. Though it be an odious tale, it ought, maiden, to
deter thee more strongly from marriage, for it does not seem easy to her
who has tried it. Thou, happy maiden, who hast fully removed thyself out
of that servitude as a free daughter of God and as His Son’s spouse,
needest not suffer anything of the kind. Therefore, happy maiden, forsake
all such sorrow for the reward reserved to thee as thou oughtest to do
without any reward. Now I have kept my promise, that I would show that to
be glozed over with falsehood, which some may say and think of as true:
the happiness and sweetness which the wedded have. For it fares not as
those think who look at it from the outside; it happens far otherwise with
the poor and the rich, with those who loathe and those who love each
other, but the vexation in every case exceeds the joy, and the loss
altogether surpasses the gain.’

The writer then recommends Christ as a spouse and gives a graphic
description of pride, which he considers a power equal to that of the
devil. He has such a lively horror of pride and thinks its effects so
baneful that, should the maidenhood he has been extolling be touched by
it, its prerogative, he says, forthwith breaks down. ‘A maid as regards
the grace of maidenhood surpasses the widowed and the wedded, but a mild
wife or meek widow is better than a proud maiden,’--a distinction which is
curious and I believe stands alone at this early period. The saints
Catharine, Margaret, Agnes, Juliana and Cecilia are quoted as maidens of
irreproachable meekness.

The treatise ‘Hali Meidenhad’ exists in one copy only, and there is no
evidence as to how much it was read. Its obvious purpose is to encourage
girls to become nuns, and this not so much on account of the beauties of
convent life, as because of the troubles in worldly life they would escape
by doing so.

§ 2. The Convent of Helfta and its Literary Nuns[809].

The mystic writings with which the present chapter has hitherto dealt are
works written for nuns, not by them, for of all the English mystic
writings of the 13th century, womanly though they often are in tone, none
can claim to be the production of a woman. It is different on the
Continent, where the mystic literature of the 13th century is largely the
production of nuns, some of whom have secured wide literary fame. Their
writings, which were looked upon by their contemporaries as divinely
inspired, are among the most impassioned books of the age. They claim the
attention both of the student of art and the student of literature. For
strong natures who rebelled against the conditions of ordinary life, but
were shut out from the arena of intellectual competition, found an outlet
for their aspirations in intensified emotionalism, and this emotionalism
led to the development of a wealth of varying imagery which subsequently
became the subject-matter of pictorial art. In course of time the series
of images offered and suggested by Scripture had been supplemented by a
thousand floating fancies and a mass of legendary conceits, which were
often based on heathen conceptions; and the 13th century mystic first
tried to fix and interpret these in their spiritual application. His
endeavours may appear to some a dwelling on fruitless fancies, but since
this imagery in its later representations, especially in painting, has
become a thing of so much wonder and delight, the writers who first tried
to realise and describe these conceptions deserve at least respectful

The convent of Helfta near Eisleben in Saxony stands out during the 13th
century as a centre of these mystic tendencies and of contemporary
culture, owing to the literary activity of its nuns. All the qualities
which make early mysticism attractive,--moral elevation, impassioned
fervour, intense realism and an almost boundless imagination,--are here
found reflected in the writings of three women, who were inmates of the
same convent, and worked and wrote contemporaneously.

The convent to which these women belonged was of the Benedictine order. It
had been founded in 1229 by Burkhardt, Count von Mansfeld, and his wife
Elisabeth, for the use of their two daughters and for other women who
wished to join them in a religious life. So many of the daughters of the
Thuringian nobility flocked thither that the convent was removed in 1234
to more spacious accommodation at Rodardesdorf, and again in 1258 to a
pleasanter and more suitable site at Helfta.

The convent was then under the abbess Gertrud[810] of the noble family of
Hackeborn, whose rule (1251-1291) marks a climax in the prosperity and
influence of the house. The convent numbered over a hundred nuns, and
among them were women distinguished in other ways besides writing. In the
annals of the house mention is made of Elisabeth and Sophie, daughters of
Hermann von Mansfeld;--the former was a good painter, and the latter
transcribed numerous books and held the office of prioress for many years
before she succeeded Gertrud as abbess. Reference is also made to the nun
Mechthild von Wippra († c. 1300), who taught singing, an art zealously
cultivated by these nuns.

This enthusiasm for studies of all kinds was inspired in the first place
by the abbess Gertrud, of whose wonderful liberality of mind and zeal for
the advance of knowledge we read in an account written soon after her
death by members of her convent[811]. She was endlessly zealous in
collecting books and in setting her nuns to transcribe them. ‘This too she
insisted on,’ says the account, ‘that the girls should be instructed in
the liberal arts, for she said that if the pursuit of knowledge (studium
scientiae) were to perish, they would no longer be able to understand holy
writ, and religion together with devotion would disappear.’ Latin was well
taught and written with ease by various members of the convent. The three
women writers who have given the house lasting fame were Mechthild,--who
was not educated at the convent but came there about the year 1268, and
who is usually spoken of as the beguine or sister Mechthild,--the nun and
saint Mechthild von Hackeborn, the sister of the abbess Gertrud, who was
educated in the convent and there had visions between 1280 and 1300,--and
Gertrud--known in literature as Gertrud the Great. Her name being the
same as that of the abbess caused at one time a confusion between them.

The writings of these nuns were composed under the influence of the same
mystic movement which was spreading over many districts of Europe, and
therefore they contain ideas and descriptions which, forming part of the
imaginative wealth of the age, are nearly related to what is
contemporaneously found elsewhere. In numerous particulars the writings of
these nuns bear a striking resemblance to the imagery and descriptions
introduced into the Divine Comedy by Dante. Struck by this likeness, and
bent upon connecting _Matelda_ of the _Purgatorio_ with a real person,
several modern students have recognised her prototype in one of the
writers named Mechthild[812].

The writings of both these women are anterior in date to the composition
of the Divine Comedy, and as they were accepted by the Dominicans,
certainly had a chance of being carried into distant districts. But there
is no proof that Dante had either of these writers in his mind when he
wrote in the _Purgatorio_ of Matelda as appearing in an earthly paradise
to the poet on the other side of the river Lethe.

  ‘A lady all alone, she went along
  Singing and culling flower after flower,
  With which the pathway was all studded o’er.
  “Ah, beauteous lady, who in rays of love
  Dost warm thyself, if I may trust to looks,
  Which the heart’s witnesses are wont to be,
  May the desire come unto thee to draw
  Near to this river’s bank,” I said to her,
  “So much that I may hear what thou art singing.”’

It is she who makes the triumph of the Church apparent to the poet while
Beatrice descends to him from heaven.

Without entering into this controversy, it is interesting to note the
similarity of the visions in which Mechthild von Hackeborn describes
heaven, and those which Mechthild of Magdeburg draws of hell, to the
descriptions of the greatest of Italian poets.

       *       *       *       *       *

In order to gain an idea of the interests which were prominent at the
convent at Helfta it will be well to treat of the lives, history and
writings of its three women writers in succession,--the beguine
Mechthild,--the nun Mechthild,--and the nun Gertrud. Their characters and
compositions bear marked points of difference.

Mechthild the beguine[813] was born about 1212 and lived in contact with
the world, perhaps at some court, till the age of twenty-three, when she
left her people and came to Magdeburg to adopt the religious life. She was
led to take this step by a troubled conscience, which was no doubt
occasioned by her coming into contact with Dominican friars. At this time
they were making a great stir in Saxony, and Mechthild’s brother Balduin
joined their order. Mechthild lived at Magdeburg for many years in a poor
and humble way in a settlement of beguines, but at last she was obliged to
seek protection in a nunnery, because she had drawn upon herself the
hatred of the clergy.

The origin and position of the bands of women called beguines[814] deserve
attention, for the provisions made for them are evidently the outcome of a
charitable wish to provide for homeless women, and to prevent their
vagrancy and moral degradation. The name given to these women lies in
great obscurity. It is sometimes connected with a priest of Liège
(Lüttich) Lambert le Bègue (the stammerer, † 1172), a reformer in his way
whose work recalls that of the founders of orders of combined canons and
nuns, and who was very popular among women of all classes and advocated
their association. Many settlements of beguines were founded in the towns
of Flanders and Brabant, some of which have survived to this day; and in
German towns also the plan was readily adopted of setting aside a house in
the town, for the use of poor women who, being thus provided with a roof
over their heads, were then left to support themselves as best they could,
by begging, or by sick nursing, or by the work of their hands. These women
were not bound by any vow to remain in the house where they dwelt, and
were not tied down to any special routine. This freedom led to different
results among them. In some instances they were attracted by mysticism; in
others they advocated ideas which drew on them the reproach of heresy and
gave rise to Papal decrees condemning them; in others again they drifted
into ways which were little to their credit and caused them to be classed
with loose women.

In one of the houses allotted to these women in Magdeburg Mechthild spent
the years between 1235 and 1268, and during that time, under the
encouragement of the Dominican friars, she wrote prayers, meditations,
reflections on the times, and short accounts of spiritual visions, some in
prose, some in verse, which had a wide circulation. The fact of their
being written in German at a time when writings of the kind in German were
few, was the cause of their being read in lay as well as in religious
circles. These writings were afterwards collected, presumably in the order
of their composition, by a Dominican friar who issued them under the title
of ‘The Flowing Light of Divinity.’ Six of the seven books into which the
work is divided were composed before Mechthild went to Helfta, and the
visions and reflections she wrote after her admission were grouped
together in the seventh book. These writings were originally issued in the
German of the north, but the only German copy now extant is a south German
transcript, which was written for the mystics of Switzerland. The work was
translated into Latin during Mechthild’s lifetime by a Dominican friar,
but his collection only contains the first six books, the contents of
which are arranged in a different order. Both the German and the Latin
versions have recently been reprinted[815].

Among these writings were several severely critical and condemnatory of
the clergy of Magdeburg, who resented these attacks and persecuted
Mechthild. On this account she sought admission at Helfta, which was not
far distant from Halle, where her special friend the Dominican friar
Heinrich was living[816]. The nuns at Helfta were on friendly terms with
the Dominicans, who frequently visited them[817], and it appears that the
nun Gertrud the Great knew of the writings of the beguine and advocated
her admission to the nunnery. She came there in 1268 and lived there for
about twelve years; passages in the writings of her fellow nuns refer to
her death and burial[818].

With regard to her writings we are struck by their diversified contents,
by their variety in form, and by their many-sided sympathies. The ‘Flowing
Light of Divinity’ (Fliessende Licht der Gottheit), consists of a
collection of shorter and longer compositions, some in poetry, some in
prose, which may be roughly classed as spiritual poems and love-songs,
allegories, visions, and moral reflections or aphorisms. Against mysticism
the charge has been brought that it led to no activity in theological
thought and did not produce any religious reformation, but surely
enquiries into the nature of the soul and its relation to God such as
these are full of speculative interest, and have played no small part in
paving the way towards a more rational interpretation of the position of
man with regard to faith, to merit, to retribution and to the other great
questions of dogma.

Turning first to the poems which treat of spiritual love, many are in
dialogue, a form much used by the Minnesingers of the age but rarely by
its religious poets. Among them is a dialogue[819] between the Soul and
the queen Love, who sits enthroned. The Soul accuses Love (spiritual love
of course) of robbing her of a liking for the goods of this world, but
Love justifies herself by saying that she has given to the Soul instead
all that constitutes her true happiness. In another dialogue[820] the Soul
exclaims in wonder at Love, who in eloquent strains describes the power
that is within her. By this power she drove Christ from heaven to earth;
is it then to be wondered at that she can capture and hold fast a soul?

One of the longer pieces[821], less complete in form but more complex in
ideas, describes how a call comes to the Soul, and how she urges her
servants the Senses to help her to adorn herself to go forth to the dance,
that her craving for joy may be satisfied. The Soul justifies her desire
in strains such as these:

  ‘The fish in the water do not drown, the birds in the air are not lost,
  The gold in the furnace does not vanish but there attains its glow.
  God has given to every creature to live according to its desire,
  Why then should I resist mine?’

The Soul then describes the various experiences which led to her union
with Christ, which she expresses in passionate strains suggestive of the
Song of Solomon.

Again, we have the Soul[822] complaining to Love of the ties which bind
her to the body, and Love directs her how to overcome them. Understanding
too discourses with the Soul[823], and the Soul admits the greater
capacities of Understanding, but she insists that Understanding owes to
her the capacity both of contemplation and spiritual enjoyment. In other
poems like points of abstract interest are touched upon. One of the most
curious of these productions is a dialogue in which Understanding
converses with Conscience[824] and expresses surprise at Conscience, whose
attitude is one of proud humility. Conscience explains that her pride
comes through her contact with God, and that her humility is due to her
contrition at having done so few good works.

The question of how far good works are necessary to salvation, in other
words justification by faith _versus_ justification by works, is a thought
prominent in the beguine’s mind, and gives the keynote to a curious and
interesting allegory on admission to the communion of the saints[825]. A
poor girl longing to hear mass felt herself transported into the church of
heaven, where at first she could see no one. Presently youths entered
strewing flowers,--white flowers beneath the church tower, violets along
the nave, roses before the Virgin’s altar, and lilies throughout the
choir. Others came and lighted candles, and then John the Baptist entered
bearing the lamb, which he set on the altar and prepared to read mass.
John the Evangelist came next, St Peter and so many more of heaven’s
inmates that the poor girl felt there was no room left for her in the nave
of the church. She went and stood beneath the tower among people who wore
crowns, ‘but the beauty of hair, which comes from good works, they had
not. How had they come into heaven? Through repentance and good
intention.’ There were others with them so richly clad that the girl felt
ashamed of her appearance and went into the choir, where she saw the
Virgin, St Catherine, holy Cecilia, bishops, martyrs and angels. But
suddenly she too was decked with a splendid cloak, and the Virgin beckoned
to her to stand by her side. Prompted by the Virgin she then took part in
the religious service and was led to the altar, where John the Baptist let
her kiss the wounds of the lamb. ‘She to whom this happened is dead,’
says the writer, ‘but we hope to find her again among the choir of

This allegory was severely censured, and in a later chapter[826] Mechthild
says that a ‘Pharisee’ argued that it was forbidden for a layman, like
John the Baptist, to hold mass. Mechthild’s arguments in reply to the
charge are somewhat involved, but she boldly declares that John, who was
in close communion with God, was better fitted in some respects to say
mass than Pope, bishop or priest.

With Mechthild, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and St Peter, patron
saint of the Dominicans, stand foremost among the saints of heaven. There
is a beautiful account[827] of a Soul who found herself in company with
God and the saints, who each in turn explained how they had helped to
bring her there.

Glimpses of heaven and hell are frequent in these writings, and a full
description of hell[828] and one of paradise[829] deserve special
attention from the point of view of mediæval imagery. Hell is here
characterised as the seat of Eternal Hatred, which is built in the deepest
depths from stones of manifold wickedness. Pride, as shown in Lucifer,
forms the foundation-stone; then come the stones of disobedience,
covetousness, hatred and lewdness, brought thither through acts of Adam.
Cain brought anger, ferocity, and warfare, and Judas brought lying,
betrayal, despair and suicide. The building formed by these stones is so
arranged that each part of it is occupied by those who were specially
prone to the various sins. In its depths sits Lucifer, above him
Christians, Jews and heathens, according to the kind of crime committed by
each. The horrors of their sufferings recall those pictured by Herrad, and
at a later period by Dante and Orcagna. The usurer is gnawed, the thief
hangs suspended by his feet, murderers continually receive wounds, and
gluttons swallow red-hot stones and drink sulphur and pitch. ‘What seemed
sweetness here is there turned into bitterness. The sluggard is loaded
with grief, the wrathful are struck with fiery thongs. The poor musician,
who had gleefully fed wicked vanity, weeps more tears in hell than there
is water in the sea.’ Many horrible and impressive scenes, such as the
mediæval mind loved to dwell upon, are depicted.

The picture drawn of paradise is correspondingly fair. According to the
beguine there is an earthly and a heavenly paradise. Regarding the earthly
paradise she says: ‘There is no limit to its length and breadth. First I
reached a spot lying on the confines of this world and paradise. There I
saw trees and leaves and grass, but of weeds there were none. Some trees
bore fruit, but most of them sweet-scented leaves. Rapid streams cut
through the earth, and warm winds blew from the south. In the waters
mingled earth’s sweetness and heaven’s delight. The air was sweet beyond
expression. But of birds and animals there were none, for God has reserved
this garden for human beings to dwell there undisturbed,’ In this garden
Mechthild finds Enoch and Elias who explain what keeps them there. Then
she sees the higher regions of paradise in which dwell the souls who are
waiting to enter the kingdom of God, ‘floating in joy as the air floats in
the sunshine,’ says Mechthild; and she goes on to explain how on the Day
of Judgment paradise will altogether cease to exist and its inhabitants
will be absorbed into heaven.

The beguine’s writings contain various references to herself and her
compositions, and considerable praise of the Dominican friars. In one
place[830] she describes how she was told that her writings deserved to be
burnt, but she turned in prayer to God as was her wont from childhood, and
He told her not to doubt her powers for they came through Him. ‘Ah Lord,’
she exclaimed in reply, ‘were I a learned man, a priest, in whom thou
hadst made manifest this power, thou would’st see him honoured, but how
can they believe that on such unworthy ground thou hast raised a golden
house?... Lord, I fail to see the reason of it.’ But the attacks against
her roused her to anger, and she closes the poem with a stern invective
against those who are false.

Another passage contains an autobiographical sketch of Mechthild’s early
experiences[831]. She says that when she was twelve years old she felt
drawn to things divine, and from that time to the present, a period of
thirty-one years, she had been conscious of God’s grace and had been saved
from going astray. ‘God is witness,’ she continues, ‘that I never
consciously prayed to be told what is written in this book; it never
occurred to me that such things could come to anyone. While I spent my
youth with friends and relations to whom I was most dear, I had no
knowledge of such things. Yet I always wished to be humble, and from love
of God I came to a place (Magdeburg) where with one exception I had no
friends.’ She describes how at that time two angels and two devils were
her companions, and were to her the representatives of the good and evil
tendencies of which she was conscious. The devils spoke to her of her
physical beauty, promised fame ‘such as has led astray many an
unbeliever,’ and prompted her to rebellion and unchastity. Obviously her
passionate nature rose against the mode of life she had adopted, but the
thought of Christ’s sufferings at last brought her comfort. She was much
perturbed by her power of writing. ‘Why not give it to learned folk?’ she
asked of God, but God was angered with her, and her father-confessor
pressed upon her that writing was her vocation. In another impassioned
account she describes how she was oppressed by a devil[832].

In the third book of her writings Mechthild says[833] that God pointed out
to her the seven virtues which priests ought to cultivate, and we gather
from this that she did not consider the clergy devout or pure-minded. In
further passages[834] she dilates on the duties of prelate, prior and
prioress, and severely attacks the conduct of a deacon of Magdeburg. Even
more explicit in its severity to the priesthood is an account[835] of how
God spoke to her, and told her that He would touch the Pope’s heart and
make him utter a prayer, which is given, and in which the Pope declaims
against the conduct of his clergy who are ‘straightway going to hell.’ In
the Latin translation God’s admonition is amplified by the following
passages: ‘For thus says the Lord: I will open the ear of the highest
priest and touch his heart with the woe of my wrath, because my shepherds
of Jerusalem have become robbers and wolves before my very eyes. With
cruelty they murder my lambs and devour them. The sheep also are worn and
weary because you call them from healthy pastures, in your godlessness do
not suffer them to graze on the heights on green herbs, and with threats
and reproof prevent their being tended with healthful teaching and
healthful advice by those men who are supported by faith and knowledge. He
who knows not the way that leads to hell and would know it, let him look
at the life and morals of the base and degenerate clergy, who, given to
luxury and other sins, through their impious ways are inevitably going the
way to hell[836].’

The friars, it is said, must come to the rescue and reform the world, and
Mechthild being especially inclined to the Dominicans dwells on their
usefulness to true faith in a number of passages[837]. There is a long
description of how God saw that His Son, with the apostles, martyrs,
confessors and virgins, was unable to lead back the people who had gone
astray, and therefore He sent into the world two other children, that is
the two orders of friars, to save them. In another vision[838] God
explains to Mechthild the special purpose for which He has lately sent
five new saints into the world, one of whom is Elisabeth of Thüringen
‘whom I sent,’ said the Lord, ‘to those wretched ladies who sit in castles
with much unchastity, puffed up with conceit, and so absorbed by vanities
that they ought to be cast into the nether regions. Many a lady however
has now followed her example in what measure she would or could.’ The
other saints are Dominic, who has been sent to reclaim
unbelievers,--Francis, who has come as a warning to covetous priests and
conceited laymen,--a new St Peter, the Martyr († 1252),--and the sister
Jutta von Sangershausen. History tells us of Peter that he was appointed
inquisitor against the heretics in Lombardy and murdered at their
instigation[839]; and of Jutta that, having lost her husband in 1260, she
placed her children in convents and went among the heathen Prussians where
she tended the leprous till her death four years afterwards[840]. From
later passages in the writings of Mechthild, written after she had come to
live at Helfta[841], it appears that she felt that faith was not
increasing in the world; perhaps she was disappointed in her exalted
anticipations of the influence of the friars.

The writings of Mechthild of this later period are more mystic and
visionary than those of earlier days. She is distressed at the troublous
times that have come to Saxony and Thüringen, and tells[842] how she fell
ill and was so perturbed that she lost the power of prayer for seventeen
days. Many prayers and visions, some of great sweetness and beauty, were
the production of these later days. A long allegory called the ‘Spiritual
Convent or Ghostly Abbey[843]’ shows the high opinion she had of life in a
nunnery. In this poem the inmates of the convent are personified as the
Virtues, an idea occasionally used during the Middle Ages, and one which
at a later date in England, as we shall hear afterwards[844], was handled
in a very different manner, the convent inmates being represented as the
Vices. In Mechthild’s convent Charity is abbess, Meekness is chaplain,
Peace is prioress, Kindliness is sub-prioress, and among the inmates of
the convent there is Hope the singing-mistress, and Wisdom the
schoolmistress ‘who with good counsel carefully instructs the ignorant, so
that the nunnery is held holy and honoured.’ Bounty is cellaress, Mercy
sees to the clothes, Pity tends the sick, and Dread sits at the gate. The
provost or priest is Obedience, ‘to whom all these Virtues are subject.
Thus does the convent abide before God,’ the poem ends, ‘... happy are
they who dwell there.’

The writings of Mechthild offer many more points of interest. Not the
least curious among her compositions are the amplified descriptions of
Biblical history, as of the Creation, the Nativity, and the early
experiences of the Virgin[845], which enter minutely into the feelings and
emotions of those immediately concerned and give them an allegorical and
spiritualised application. Short spiritual poems are also numerous, but so
much depends on their form that a translation cannot convey their chief
beauty. Their general drift is exemplified by the two following[846].

‘It is a wondrous journeying onwards, this progress of the Soul, who
guides the Senses as the man who sees leads him who is blind. Fearlessly
the Soul wanders on without grief of heart, for she desires nought but
what the Lord wills who leads all to the best.’

And again[847], ‘My Soul spake to her Spouse: Lord, thy tenderness is to
my body delightful ministration; thy compassion is to my spiritual nature
wondrous comfort; and thy love is to my whole being rest eternal.’

Thoughts such as these are found scattered up and down in the beguine’s
writings, and give one a high estimation of her poetic power, her ready
imagination and her mastery of language. Her vigorous nature guided into
the channel of spiritual aspirations frequently filled her poems with a
passionate eloquence.

In conclusion may stand a few of the beguine’s moral reflections, which,
if they are not borrowed from elsewhere, argue well for her power of
condensing thoughts into short sentences; but here also it is not easy to
find the exact words in which to render the chief points of these

  ‘Vanity does not stop to think what she is losing;
  Perseverance is laden with virtues.
  Stupidity is ever self-sufficient;
  The wisest never comes to the end of what he would say.
  Anger brings darkness unto the soul;
  Gentleness is ever sure of attaining grace.
  Pride would ever raise herself aloft;
  Lowliness is ever ready to yield ...
  Sluggishness will never gain wealth;
  The industrious seeks more than his immediate advantage.’

And the following,--which are the product of a later period and have in
them the ring of a deeper experience[849]--‘None knows how firm he stands,
until he has experienced the prompting of desire; none how strong he is,
until hatred has attacked him; none how good he is, before he has attained
a happy end.’

       *       *       *       *       *

From the writings of the beguine Mechthild we pass to those of her
companion at Helfta, the nun Mechthild von Hackeborn. Her ‘Book of Special
Grace[850]’ consists entirely of visions or revelations described by her
and put into writing by her fellow-nuns; it was widely read, and gave rise
to similar productions in other nunneries. There are many early manuscript
copies of the book in existence; it was originally written in Latin, but
has been translated into German, English, Italian and French, and has
repeatedly been printed.

The visions are so arranged that those contained in the first part of the
book have reference to festal days of the Church, to Christ, Mary and the
saints. The second part treats of the manifestations of divine grace of
which Mechthild was conscious in herself, and the third and fourth
describe how God should be praised and what is conducive to salvation or
‘soul-hele.’ In the fifth part Mechthild holds converse with those who
have departed this life, chiefly members of the convent, for the belief
that it was possible to hold communion with the souls of the departed was
readily accepted at Helfta as in other religious houses.

A sixth and seventh part were added to Mechthild’s book after her death by
her fellow-nuns and contain information about her sister, the abbess
Gertrud, and details about Mechthild’s death and the visions other nuns
had of her.

The nun Mechthild von Hackeborn, who was nine years younger than her
sister Gertrud, had come to the house as a child on a visit with her
mother, and was so much attracted to it that she remained there. She is
described by her fellow-nuns as a person of tender and delicate
refinement, whose religious fervour was remarkable, and these
characteristics are reflected in her writings. She was often suffering,
noticeably at the time when her sister, the abbess Gertrud, died (1291).
She is praised for her lovely voice, and references to music and singing
in her visions are frequent. It is not quite clear when her fellow-nuns
began to put her visions into writing, presumably between 1280 and 1300,
and authorities also differ on the year of her death, which the
Benedictines of Solesmes accept as 1298[851], whereas Preger defers it
till 1310[852].

In the description of her visions Mechthild von Hackeborn appears
throughout as a person of even temper and great sweetness of disposition,
one who was not visited by picturesque temptations, troubles and doubts,
and who therefore insisted chiefly on the beautiful side of things; for
hell with its torments and the whole mise-en-scène of the nether regions
have no meaning and no attraction for her. In her revelations Christ, the
Virgin, and other members of the vast hierarchy of heaven enter as living
realities. She is particularly fond of the angels, whom she loves to
picture as the associates of men on earth and in heaven. In conformity
with the conceptions of her age Christ is to her the wooer of the soul,
the chosen bridegroom, who combines all that makes humanity attractive and
divinity sublime. Christ and the Virgin love to confer with Mechthild, or
rather with her Soul,--the terms are used indiscriminately,--and enter
into converse with her whenever she seeks enlightenment. Flowers and
precious stones, the splendour of vestments, and occasionally some homely
object, supply her with similes and comparisons.

The following descriptions occurring in visions will give some idea of the
spirit in which Mechthild wrote[853].

‘After the feast of St Michael ... she saw a golden ascent divided into
nine grades, crowded by a multitude of angels, and the first grade was
presided over by angels, the second by archangels and so on upwards, each
order of angels presiding over one grade. She was divinely informed that
this ascent represented the abode of men in this way,--that whoever
faithfully, humbly, and devotedly fulfils his duty to the Church of God,
and for God’s sake, to the infirm, to the poor and to travellers, abides
in the first grade, consorting with the angels. Again, they who by prayer
and devotion are closer to God and in nearness to Him, are devoted to
knowledge of Him, to His teaching and help, are in the next grade and are
the companions of the archangels. Those again who practise patience,
obedience, voluntary poverty, humility, and bravely perform all virtues,
mount to the next grade with the Virtues. And those who, opposing vice and
greed, hold the fiend and all his suggestions in contempt, in the fourth
grade share the triumph of glory with the Powers. Prelates who fully
respond to the duties the Church has entrusted to them, who watch day and
night over the salvation of souls and discreetly give back twofold the
talent entrusted to them,--these in the fifth grade hold the glory of
heaven as a recompense of their work with the Pre-eminences. Again, those
who with complete submission bow before the majesty of the Divine, and who
out of love for Him love the Creator in the created, and love themselves
because they are fashioned after the image of God, who conform to Him as
far as human weakness permits, and, holding the flesh subservient to the
spirit, triumph over their mind by transferring it to things celestial,
these glory in the sixth grade with the Rulers. But those who are
steadfast in meditation and contemplation, who embracing pureness of heart
and peace of mind make of themselves a temple meet for God, which truly
may be called a paradise, according to Proverbs (viii. 31) “my delights
were with the sons of men,” and about which it is said (2 Cor. vi. 16) “I
will dwell in them and walk in them,” these dwell in the seventh grade
with the Enthroned. Those who outstrip others in knowledge and
apprehension, who by a singular blessedness hold God in their minds as it
were face to face and give back what they have drawn from the fountain of
all wisdom, by teaching and explaining to others, these abide in the
eighth grade of the ascent together with the Cherubim. And those who love
God with heart and soul, who place their whole being in the eternal fire
which is God itself, love Him not with their own but with divine love
being the chosen ones of God, who see all creatures in God and love them
for His sake, friends as well as enemies, those whom nothing can divide
from God nor stay in their ascent--for the more their enemies attack them
the more they grow in love,--those who, fervent themselves, awake fervour
in others, so that if they could they would make all mankind perfect in
love, who weep for the sins and faults of others, because, indifferent to
their own glory, they seek but the glory of God, these shall for evermore
dwell in the ninth grade with the Seraphim, between whom and God there is
nought in closer nearness to Him.

‘During mass she (Mechthild) saw that a large number of angels were
present, and each angel in guise of a lovely youth stood by the side of
the maiden entrusted to his care. Some held flowering sceptres, others
golden flowers. And as the maidens bowed they pressed the flowers to their
lips in sign of everlasting peace. Thus angels assisted at the entire

‘And as the maidens advanced to partake of the communion, each of the
angels led her who was entrusted to his care. And the King of Glory stood
in the place of the priest surrounded by shining splendour, on His breast
an ornament in the shape of a branched tree, and from His heart, in which
lies hidden the wealth of wisdom and knowledge, flowed a stream which
encompassed those who advanced with a flood of heavenly joy.’

In the preceding passages we see Mechthild in the state of rapture called
forth by the moments of celebration and service; the extracts which follow
describe one of the divine visitations which came to her as a special
manifestation of grace[854].

‘On a certain Sunday, while they were singing the _Asperges me, Domine_,
she said “Lord, in what wilt thou now bathe and cleanse my heart?”
Straightway the Lord with love unutterable bending to her as a mother
would to her son, embraced her saying: “In the love of my divine heart I
will bathe thee.” And He opened the door of His heart, the treasure-house
of flowing holiness, and she entered into it as though into a vineyard.
There she saw a river of living water flowing from the east to the west,
and round about the river there were twelve trees bearing twelve kinds of
fruit, that is the virtues which the blessed Paul enumerates in his
epistle: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness,
benignity, meekness, faith, modesty, temperance, chastity[855]. This water
is called the river of love; thereunto the soul entered and was cleansed
of every stain. In this river there were numerous fish with golden scales,
which signified those loving souls which, separated from earthly delights,
have plunged themselves in the very well-spring of all good, that is, into
Jesus. In the vineyard palm-trees were planted, some of which stood erect,
while others were bent to the ground. The palms that stand erect are those
who despised the world with its flowers, and who turned their minds to
things divine; and the palms that are bent down are those wretched ones
who lie in the earthly dust of their misdeeds. The Lord in likeness of a
gardener was digging in the earth, and she said: “O Lord, what is thy
spade?” And He answered: “My fear.”--Now in certain places the earth was
hard, in others soft. The hard earth signified the hearts of those who are
hardened in sin and who know not how to be corrected either by advice or
by reproof; the soft earth the hearts of those who are softened by tears
and true contrition. And our Lord said: “This vineyard is my Catholic
Church, in which for thirty-three years I laboured with my sweat; do thou
labour with me in this vineyard.” And she said: “How?” To whom the Lord
replied: “By watering it.” And straightway the Soul ran eagerly to the
river and set a vessel filled with water on her shoulders, and as it was
heavy, the Lord came and helped her, and its burden was lightened. And the
Lord said: “Thus when I give grace to men, do all things performed or
borne for my sake seem light and easy. But if I withdraw my grace, then do
all things seem burdensome.” Moreover round about the palms she saw a
multitude of angels like unto a wall....’

In a similar strain the visions of Mechthild proceed, always gentle and
rarely impassioned but shining with the glow of endlessly changing
imagery. There is no limit to the pictures which rise before her mental
eye or to the points which suggest analogy with things divine[856].

‘To rouse the piety of believers in relation to the glorious image of our
Saviour Jesus Christ, on the Sunday _Omnis terra_ (the second after
Epiphany), that is on the day when the exposition at Rome of the image of
Christ takes place, she was granted this vision. On a mountain overgrown
with flowers she beheld our Lord seated on a throne of jasper decorated
with gold and red stone. The jasper which is green is typical of the power
of eternal divinity, gold represents love, and the red stone the
sufferings which He endured through love of us. The mountain was
surrounded by beautiful trees covered with fruit. Under these trees rested
the souls of the saints, each of whom had a tent of cloth of gold, and
they ate of the fruit with great enjoyment. The hill is emblematic of the
mortal life of Christ, the trees are His virtues, love, pity and others.
The saints rest under different trees according as they adhered to the
Lord’s different virtues; those who followed Him in charity, eat of the
fruit of the tree of charity; those who were full of pity, eat of the
fruit of the tree of pity, and so on according to the virtue each has

‘Then those who were ready to honour the holy face with a special prayer
approached the Lord, carrying on their shoulders their sins, which they
laid at His feet; and they were forthwith transformed into jewels of
glowing gold (xenia aurea). Those whose repentance had come out of love,
because they were sad at having offended God without having been punished,
saw their sins changed into golden necklaces. Others who had redeemed them
by saying the psalms and other prayers, had them transformed into golden
rings such as are used at festivals (Dominicalibus). Those who had made
restitution for their sins by their own efforts, saw before them lovely
golden shields; while those who had purified their sins by bodily
suffering, beheld them as so many golden censers, for bodily chastisement
before God is like the sweetness of thyme.’

The following is an example of a homely simile[857].

‘On a certain occasion she was conscious of having received an unusual
gift through the Lord’s bounty, when feeling her inadequacy she humbly
said: “O bounteous King, this gift, does it befit me who deem myself
unworthy of entering thy kitchen and washing thy platters?” Whereupon the
Lord: “Where is my kitchen and where are the platters thou wouldst wash?”
She was confounded and said nothing. But the Lord, who puts questions not
that they may be answered but that He may give answer unto them Himself,
made her rejoice by His reply. He said: “My kitchen is my heart which,
like unto a kitchen that is a common room of the house and open alike to
servants and masters, is ever open to all and for the benefit of all. The
cook in this kitchen is the Holy Ghost, who kindly without intermission
provides things in abundance and by replenishing them makes things abound
again. My platters are the hearts of saints and of chosen ones, which are
filled from the overflow of the sweetness of my divine heart.”’

From a passage in these books[858] we learn that a large number of
Mechthild’s visions had been put into writing by her fellow-nuns before
she was made acquainted with the fact. For a time she was sorely troubled,
then she gained confidence, reflecting that her power to see visions had
come from God, and indeed she heard a voice from heaven informing her that
her book should be called the ‘Book of Special Grace.’

She had all her life been distressed by physical suffering. During her
last illness she was generally unconscious and her fellow-nuns crowded
about her praying that she would intercede with God in their behalf.

       *       *       *       *       *

Neither of the Mechthilds makes any reference in her writings to the nun
Gertrud, but Gertrud’s works contain various references to her
fellow-nuns[859], and it is surmised that Gertrud helped to put the nun
Mechthild’s visions into writing before she wrote on her own account. A
passage in her own book of visions[860] refers to revelations generally,
and the Lord explains to her how it is that visions are sometimes written
in one, sometimes in another language. This idea may have been suggested
by the fact that the beguine Mechthild’s writings were in German and the
nun Mechthild’s in Latin.

Gertrud was very different from both of these writers in disposition[861].
Probably of humble origin, she had been given into the care of the convent
as a child (in 1261), and in her development was greatly influenced by the
sisters Gertrud the abbess, and the nun Mechthild von Hackeborn. Of a
passionate and ambitious nature, she devoted all her energies to mastering
the liberal arts, but in consequence of a vision that came to her at
twenty-five, she cast them aside and plunged into religious study. She
mastered the spirit and contents of Holy Writ so rapidly that she began to
expound them to others. Then she made extracts and collections of passages
from the Fathers, out of which we are told she made many books. The
influence of her personality was such that ‘none conversed with her who
did not afterwards declare they had profited by it.’ The admiration she
aroused among her fellow-nuns was so great that they declared that God had
compared her to the nun Mechthild and that He said: ‘In this one have I
accomplished great things, but greater things will I accomplish in
Gertrud[862].’ As a proof of her industry we are told[863] that she was
occupied from morning till night translating from Latin (into German),
shortening some passages, amplifying others ‘to the greater advantage of
her readers.’ From another passage it appears that she compiled a poem
(carmen) from the sayings (dictis) of the saints[864], and as an
illustration of her moral attitude we are told that when she was reading
the Scriptures aloud and ‘as it happened,’ passages occurred which shocked
her by their allusions, she hurried them over quickly or pretended not to
understand them. ‘But when it became needful to speak of such things for
some reason of salvation, it was as though she did not mind, and she
overcame her hesitation[865].’ Her great modesty in regard to her own
requirements is insisted on by her biographer. Many bore witness to the
fact that they were more impressed by her words than by those of
celebrated preachers, for she frequently moved her audience to tears[866].
In addition the writer feels called upon to mention a few incidents that
happened to Gertrud, giving them a miraculous rendering, no doubt from a
wish to enhance her worth.

The information about Gertrud is supplied by the first part of her book
called ‘The Legacy of Divine Piety[867],’ which as it does not mention
Gertrud’s death, seems to have been written while she was alive, perhaps
as a preface to a copy of her revelations. It was only after many years of
study and literary activity that she determined to write down her personal
experiences, and these accounts, written between 1289 and 1290, form the
second part of the book as it stands at present and constitute its chief
and abiding interest.

The admiration bestowed on the ‘Legacy of Divine Piety’ was almost greater
than that given to the writings of the nun Mechthild. The perusal of a
chapter will show Gertrud’s attitude of mind. Starting from the occasion
when she first became conscious of a living communion with God, she
describes how step by step she realised an approximation to things divine,
such as reverence, love, and the desire of knowledge alone can secure. She
speaks of experiencing in herself a deeper religious consciousness which
reacted in making her feel herself unworthy of the special attention of
her Creator, and she continues in this strain[868]:

‘If I look back on what the tone of my life was before and afterwards, in
truth I declare that this is grace I am grateful for and yet unworthy of
receiving. For thou, O Lord, didst grant unto me of the clear light of thy
knowledge to which the sweetness of thy love prompted me more than any
deserved correction of my faults could have done. I do not recall having
felt such happiness save on the days when thou didst bid me to the
delights of thy royal table. Whether thy wise forethought had so ordained,
or my continued shortcomings were the reason of it, I cannot decide.

‘Thus didst thou deal with and rouse my soul on a day between Resurrection
and Ascension when I had entered the courtyard at an early hour before
Prime, and sitting down by the fishpond was enjoying the beauties of the
surroundings which charmed me by the clearness of the flowing water, the
green of the trees that stood around, and the free flight of the birds,
especially the doves, but above all by the reposeful quiet of the retired
situation. My mind turned on what in such surroundings would make my joy
perfect, and I wished for a friend, a loving, affectionate and suitable
companion, who would sweeten my solitude. Then thou, O God, author of joy
unspeakable, who as I hope didst favour the beginning of my meditation and
didst complete it, thou didst inspire me with the thought that if,
conscious of thy grace, I flow back to be joined to thee like the water;
if, growing in the knowledge of virtue like unto these trees, I flower in
the greenness of good deeds; if, looking down on things earthly in free
flight like these doves, I approach heaven, and, with my bodily senses
removed from external turmoil, apprehend thee with my whole mind, then in
joyfulness my heart will make for thee a habitation.

‘My thoughts during the day dwelt on these matters, and at night, as I
knelt in prayer in the dormitory, suddenly this passage from the Gospel
occurred to me (John xiv. 23), “If a man love me, he will keep my words;
and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode
with him.” And my impure heart felt thee present therein. O would that an
ocean of blood passed over my head that my miserable inadequacy were
washed out now that thou hast made thy abode with me in dignity
inscrutable! Or that my heart snatched from my body were given to me to
cleanse with glowing coal, so that, freed of its dross, it might offer
thee if not indeed a worthy abode, yet one not altogether unworthy. Thus,
O God, didst thou show thyself from that hour onwards, sometimes kindly,
sometimes stern, in accordance with my improved or neglectful way of life;
though I must admit that the utmost improvement to which I sometimes
momentarily attained, had it lasted all my life, never had made me worthy
of the least part of the sustenance which I received in spite of many sins
and, alas! of great wickedness. For thy extreme tenderness shows me thee
more grieved than angered by my shortcomings, a proof to me that the
amount of thy forbearance is greater when thou dost bear with me in my
failings, than during thy mortal life, when thou didst bear with the
betrayer Judas.

‘When I strayed in mind, tempted away by some deceitful attraction, and
after hours, or alas! after days, or woe is me! after weeks, returned to
my heart, always did I find thee there, so that I cannot say that thou
hast withdrawn thyself from me from that hour, nine years ago, till eleven
days before the feast of John the Baptist, save on one occasion, when it
happened through some worldly dispute, I believe, and lasted from Thursday
(the fifth feria) to Tuesday (the second feria). Then on the vigil of St
John the Baptist, after the mass _Nec timeas etc._, thy sweetness and
great charity came back to me, finding me so forlorn in mind that I was
not even conscious of having lost a treasure, nor thought of grieving for
it, nor was desirous of having it returned, so that I cannot account for
the madness that possessed my mind, unless indeed it so happened because
thou didst wish me to experience in myself these words of St Bernard: “We
fly and thou pursuest us; we turn our back on thee, thou comest before us;
thou dost ask and art refused; but no madness, no contempt of ours makes
thee turn away who never art weary, and thou dost draw us on to the joy of
which it is said (1 Cor. ii. 9), ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard it,
neither has it entered into the heart of man.’”’

These passages must suffice. Anyone desirous of following Gertrud through
the further experiences which guided her to the knowledge of God and gave
her an insight into the working of spiritual love must turn to her
writings, which bear the reader onwards in continuous flow, and with much
self-analysis and self-realisation give evidence of the conscious joy
which develops into rapture in the presence of the Divine. A passage
contained in the last chapter of the book describes Gertrud’s hopes
regarding her work, and fitly summarises her aspirations[869].

‘Behold, beloved God,’ she writes, ‘I here deposit the talent of thy most
gracious friendship, which, entrusted to me, the lowliest and least worthy
of thy creatures, I have set forth to the increase of thy power; for I
believe and dare affirm that no reason prompted me to write and speak but
obedience to thy will, desire for thy glory, and zeal for the salvation of
souls. I take thee to witness that I wish thee praise and thanks, for thy
abundant grace withdrew itself not from me on account of my unworthiness.
And herein also shalt thou find praise, that readers of this book will
rejoice in the sweetness of thy bounty, and, drawn to thee, learn greater
things through it; for as students progress from first learning the
alphabet to acquaintance with logic (logica), by means of the imagery here
described they will be led to taste of that hidden divine sustenance
(manna) which cannot be expressed even by allegory.... Meanwhile in
accordance with thy faithful promise and my humble request, grant to all
who read this book in lowliness that they rejoice in thy love, bear with
my inadequacy, and feel true contrition themselves, in order that from the
golden censers of their loving hearts a sweet odour may be wafted upwards
to thee, making full amends for my carelessness and shortcomings.’

Before the personal interest of this portion of the book the other parts
written by fellow-nuns fade into insignificance. They contain accounts of
Gertrud’s thoughts on various occasions, and are chiefly interesting for
the comments they contain on various accepted saints; we here see what
thoughts were suggested to the Helfta nuns by the personalities of St
Benedict, St Bernard, St Augustine, St Dominic, St Francis, St Elisabeth,
and others. Thus the feast of St John the Apostle gives rise to an account
of him[870] sitting in heaven, where he keeps the holy record, and writes
in different colours, sometimes in red, sometimes in black, sometimes in
letters of gold--a simile which recalls the art of writing. The ‘Legacy of
Divine Piety’ of Gertrud has repeatedly been printed in the original
Latin, sometimes in conjunction with the ‘Book of Special Grace’ of the
nun Mechthild, and, like the revelations of Mechthild, the writings of
Gertrud have been translated into German and English. Both in their
original form and in selections the writings of these nuns are used as
books of devotion among Catholics to this day, but neither Gertrud nor
Mechthild have till now been given a place in the _Acta Sanctorum_.

Gertrud outlived her distinguished contemporaries at Helfta; she died in
1311[871], her thoughts having been engrossed by the anticipation of death
for some time before. During these last years of her life she composed a
number of prayers called ‘Spiritual Exercises’[872] for the use of her
fellow-nuns, the religious fervour of which has perhaps rarely been

They are written in rhyme but in varying rhythm; perhaps they are best
designated as rhymed prose. Only the original Latin can give an idea of
their eloquence, but, in the interest of the general reader I have added
one in English prose. It is one of the series designated as ‘a
supplication for sinfulness and a preparation for death.’ There is one
prayer for every canonical hour; the following[873] is intended for
repetition after the hour of prime, ‘when the Soul holds converse with
Love and Truth; and when the thought of eternal judgment, at which Truth
will preside, causes the Soul to beseech Love to help her to secure Jesus
as her advocate.’

‘And thus shalt thou begin to effect a reconciliation with God.

‘O shining Truth, O just Equity of God, how shall I appear before thy
face, bearing my imperfections, conscious of the burden of my wasted
life, and of the weight of my great negligence? Woe, woe is unto me; I did
not make the payment of a Christian’s faith and of a spiritual life there
where the treasures of love are stored, that thou mightest receive it back
with manifold increase of interest. The talent of life entrusted to me,
not only have I left it unused; but I have forfeited it, debased it, lost
it. Where shall I go, whither shall I turn, how can I escape from thy

‘O Truth, in thee undivided abide justice and equity. In accordance with
number, weight and measure dost thou give judgment. Whatever thou dost
handle is weighed in truly even scales. Woe is unto me, a thousand times
woe, if I be given over to thee with none to intercede in my behalf! O
Love, do thou speak for me, answer for me, secure for me remission. Take
up my cause, that through thy grace I may find eternal life.

‘I know what I must do. The chalice of salvation I will take; the chalice,
Jesus, I will place on the unweighted scale of Truth. Thus, thus can I
supply all that is wanting; thus can I outweigh the balance of my sins. By
that chalice can I counterbalance all my defects. By that chalice I can
more than counterpoise my sins.

‘Hail, O Love, thy royal bondservant Jesus, moved in His inmost being,
whom thou didst drag at this hour before the tribunal, where the sins of
the whole world were laid on Him who was without spot or blemish, save
that out of pity of me He charged Himself with my sins,--Him the most
innocent, Him the most beloved, condemned for love through my love of Him
and suffering death for me, Him I would receive from thee to-day, O Love
Divine, that He may be my advocate. Grant me this security that in this
cause I have Him as my defender.

‘O beloved Truth! I could not come before thee without my Jesus, but with
Jesus to come before thee is joyful and pleasant. Ah Truth, now sit thee
on the seat of judgment, enter on the course of justice and bring against
me what thou wilt, I fear no evil, for I know, I know thy countenance
cannot confound me, now that He is on my side who is my great hope and my
whole confidence. Verily, I long for thy judgment now Jesus is with me, He
the most beloved, the most faithful, He who has taken on Himself my misery
that He may move thee to compassion.

‘Ah, sweetest Jesus, thou loving pledge of my deliverance, come with me to
the judgment court. There let us stand together side by side. Be thou my
counsel and my advocate. Declare what thou hast done for me, how well
thou hast thought upon me, how lovingly thou hast added to me that I might
be sanctified through thee. Thou hast lived for me that I may not perish.
Thou hast borne the burden of my sins. Thou hast died for me that I might
not die an eternal death. All that thou hadst thou gavest for me, that
through the wealth of thy merit I might be made rich.

‘Verily in the hour of death judge me on the basis of that innocence, of
that purity which came to me through thee when thou didst make atonement
for my sins with thine own self, judged and condemned for my sake, so that
I, who am poor and destitute in myself, through thee may be wealthy beyond



  ‘All that wons in religioun
  aw to haue sum ocupacioun,
  outher in kirk or hali bedes,
  or stodying in oder stedes;
  ffor ydilnes, os sais sant paul
  es grete enmy unto the soul.’
            _Rule of St Benedict translated into English for the use
                of women_, 1400-1425 (ll. 1887 ff.).

§ 1. The External Relations of the Convent.

From consideration of affairs on the Continent we return once more to
England, to consider the external relations of the convent and the
purposes these institutions fulfilled during the later Middle Ages.
Speaking generally the monasteries maintained their standing unimpaired
till the beginning of the 14th century; then their character began to
change and for quite a century they ceased to be attractive to progressive
and original minds. The range of occupations cultivated by their inmates
was restricted, and these inmates gradually came to regard everything with
indifference except their own narrow religious interests.

The previous chapters have shown that monasteries at different periods had
served a variety of purposes and had inaugurated progress in various
directions; but after the year 1350 few if any new developments are
recorded. As agricultural centres they continued prosperous on the whole;
the abbot and the abbess retained their character as good landlords;
charity and hospitality continued to be practised by them. But as
intellectual centres the monasteries had found their rival in the growing
townships. The townships at the beginning of the 14th century were so well
established that they were able to protect and further pursuits and
industries which had hitherto flourished under the protection of monastic
centres. Book-learning and science were cultivated in a more liberal
spirit at the universities, where the friars of different orders had
established houses; and the arts and crafts flourished on more fruitful
soil under the protection of the town. The progress of the English nation
during the 14th and 15th centuries is uncontested; but little of it, if
any, was due to the influence of monks. On the whole monasteries continued
to be favourably regarded by the nation, and the system of which they
formed part was not attacked, but while the friar freely moved from city
to city and for a while became the representative of learning and art, the
monk bound to his convent home showed an increasing want of intellectual

The change was part of the great revolution which was taking place in
feudal institutions generally. The age of chivalry was a thing of the
past, and though the romantic ideas it had engendered had not ceased to
influence mankind, they no longer possessed the transforming power of
innovation. Similarly, mysticism which had been so largely cultivated
inside convent walls had done its work in ushering in a spiritualised
interpretation of religion; during the 14th century it was spread abroad
and popularised by the friars, who gave it a new development, the monk’s
interest in it seemed to cease. But the ceremonial and ritual which the
mystic had helped to elaborate, and the many observances by which the
Catholicism of the Middle Ages had secured a hold on the concerns of daily
life, continued in undisturbed prominence,--with this difference, that
from elevating the few the ritual had now come to impress the many.

It is often insisted on that during the later Middle Ages monasteries were
homes of superstition and idolatry, and that practices in devotional
ritual and in the cult of the miraculous were kept up by them to the
extent of making them a hindrance to moral and intellectual development,
and obnoxious to the advocates of more liberal and advanced views. The
fact must be taken as part of the conservative attitude of these houses,
which had strengthened their hold on outside attention by observances with
which their existence was indissolubly bound up. Certainly a later age may
be excused for condemning what had become a mischief and a hindrance; but
it is well to recall that it was precisely those usages and tendencies
which a later period condemned as superstitious, that had been elaborated
at an early period by leaders in thought, who saw in them the means of
setting forth the principles of the Christian faith. And the elaborate
cult, the processions and imagery of mediæval Christianity, have a deeply
significant side if we think of them in connection with the poetic,
pictorial, dramatic and architectural arts of the later Middle Ages.

Convents retained some importance for the education of women during these
ages. Attention must be given to them in this connection, though the
standard of tuition they offered was not high. Compared with the level
they had reached during an earlier period convents showed signs of
retrogression rather than of advance, and compared with what was
contemporaneously attained at the universities, the training women
received in the convent was poor in substance, cramped in method, and
insufficient in application. But, as far as I have been able to ascertain,
a convent education remained the sole training of which a girl could avail
herself outside the home circle. For the universities absolutely ignored
the existence of woman as a being desirous or capable of acquiring
knowledge, and the teaching at the mediæval university was so ordered that
students ranged in age from the merest boyhood to manhood. These centres
then, by ignoring the existence of women, appropriated to men not only the
privileges of a higher education, but also all knowledge from its
rudiments upwards.

The standard of education in the average nunnery was deteriorating because
devotional interests were cultivated to the exclusion of everything else.
In early Christian times we saw monk and nun promoting intellectual
acquirements generally, but the separation of the sexes, and the growing
feeling in favour of the stricter confinement of nuns within convent
precincts, advocated by a later age in the interests of a stricter
morality, more and more cut off the nun from contact with secular
learning. In the 12th century we saw Queen Matilda, the pupil of a Wessex
house, writing fluent Latin and speaking not only of the Fathers of the
Church but quoting from classical writers of whom she evidently knew more
than the name. But in the later Middle Ages the class of writers who were
read in the convent was restricted; service books, the legends of the
saints, theological works, and some amount of scripture, comprised the
range of the nun’s usual studies. The remarks of contemporary writers bear
out the inferences to be drawn from such a narrowed curriculum of study.
The nun is represented as a person careful in her devotions, pious in her
intent, of good manners and gentle breeding, but one-sided in the view she
takes of life.

The author of the _Ancren Riwle_, as mentioned above, left us to infer
that the women he was addressing were acquainted with English, French, and
Latin, and their education must have been given them in convents. His work
was written in the early half of the 13th century. In all convents down to
the Reformation Latin continued to be studied to some extent, if only so
far as to enable the nun to repeat her prayers, to follow mass and to
transcribe a book of devotion. The lady superior, by the terms of her
appointment and on account of the duties of her station, was bound to have
some knowledge of it. But at the same time one comes across remarks which
lead one to suppose that Latin was falling into disuse in nunneries,
especially in the south of England, and that French was taking its place.
Corroboration of this view is afforded by a list of injunctions sent by
the bishop of Winchester to the convent at Romsey, in consequence of an
episcopal visitation in 1310; they were drawn up in Latin, but a literal
translation into French was appended for the greater convenience of the
nuns[874]. The rules and ordinances prescribed by Archbishop Walter
Reynolds to the convent of Davington in Kent about the year 1326 were
written in French[875], and so were the set of rules forwarded by the
abbot of St Albans to the convent of Sopwell in 1338[876]. On the other
hand injunctions written in Latin were sent to Godstow in Oxfordshire in
1279 and to Nun-Monkton in Yorkshire in 1397.

French down to the middle of the 14th century was the language of the
upper classes as well as the legal language[877], and many literary
products of the time are in French. A ‘Life of St Katherine’ written in
Norman French by Clemence, a nun at Barking, is extant in two MSS. Only
its opening lines have been published in which the nun informs her readers
that she has translated this life from Latin into ‘romans[878].’ Letters
written by ladies superior during this period were usually in French. Thus
the prioress and convent of Ankerwyke in Buckinghamshire addressed a
petition to King Edward III. in French[879], and the abbess of Shaftesbury
in 1382 petitioned King Richard II. in the same language[880]. Various
documents and year-books which were kept in religious houses show that
entries made during the early period were in Latin, but in the 14th
century French frequently occurs. In the 15th century both Latin and
French were abandoned and the use of English became general. The documents
of Barking, a most important Benedictine nunnery, are partly in Latin,
partly in French, and partly in English[881]. The extant charters of Legh
or Minchenlegh in Devonshire are exclusively in Latin, but the rubrics of
the 14th century are in French[882]. In the register of Crabhouse[883], an
Austin settlement of nuns in Norfolk, all three languages are used.

In the nunneries of the south of England French maintained itself longest,
but it was Norman French, which continued in use after the change abroad
which made the French spoken on this side of the Channel (except that of
court circles) sound unfamiliar to a Frenchman. In the Prologue to his
_Canterbury Tales_, written about 1386, Chaucer introduces a prioress who
was one of the pilgrims _en route_ for Canterbury, and remarks on the kind
of French which she spoke (l. 124):

  ‘And Frenche she spake full fayre and fetisly
    After the scole of Stratford atte Bow,
    For Frenche of Paris was to hire unknowe.’

Evidently he is referring to the French which was generally in use at the
nunneries. Stratford, otherwise St Leonard’s, Bromley, was situated in

English was first heard at the opening of the session at Westminster in
1363, and in 1404 French was unintelligible to the English ambassadors in
Flanders. I have come across few French documents relating to nunneries
which are later than the year 1400; in fact a petition in French written
in 1433 by the prioress of Littlemore in Oxfordshire stands almost

There is extant a highly interesting rhymed version of the rule of St
Benedict written for the use of nuns in the English dialect of the north
between 1400 and 1425[885]. It is not the earliest version in English
made for the use of nuns; there is a translation, known as the Winteney
version, which was written for them and is preserved in a copy of the 13th
century; and it is possible that the earliest Benedictine rule in
Anglo-Saxon for monks was adapted from a version in the vernacular written
for women[886]. However the author of the rhymed version of the 15th
century is conscious of women’s comparative ignorance of Latin. He
prefaces his rule with the reason which prompted him to make it. ‘Monks
and learned men,’ he says, ‘may know the rule in Latin and gather from it
how to work, serving God and Holy Church; it is for the purpose of making
it intelligible to women who learnt no Latin in their youth that it is
here set into English that they may easily learn it....’

The name of this translator is unknown. On the ground of certain passages
referring to singing in choir (line 1188 ff.) it has been supposed, but
with slight probability, that the translation was the work of a woman.

Another proof of the growing unfamiliarity with Latin in nunneries is
afforded by the introduction to the register of Godstow, which was one of
the wealthier English Benedictine nunneries. This register was written
under the abbess Alice Henley, who is known to have been ruling in the
year 1464, and consists of 126 folio leaves of vellum. According to
Dugdale[887] it comprises ‘an account of the foundation of the house, an
A. B. C. of devotion, a kalendar of the year, and all the charters of the
house translated into English.’ The translator has left an introduction to
his work which in modern English runs as follows: ‘The wise man taught his
child to read books gladly and to understand them well, for lack of such
understanding has often caused negligence, hurt, harm and hindrance, as
experience proves; and since women of religion in reading Latin books are
excused from much understanding where it is not their mother tongue,
therefore if they read their books of remembrance and of gifts written in
Latin, for want of understanding they often take hurt and hindrance; and
since for want of truly learned men who are ready to teach and counsel
them, and for fear also of publishing the evidence of their titles which
has often caused mischief, it seems right needful to the understanding of
these religious women that they have besides their Latin books some
written in their mother tongue, by which they may secure better knowledge
of their property and more clearly give information to their servants,
rent-gatherers and receivers in the absence of their learned counsellors;
therefore I, a poor brother, and ‘wellwyller’ to the abbess of Godstow
Dame Alice Henley and to all her convent, which are for the most part well
learned in English books ... have undertaken to make this translation for
them from Latin into English.’

I have come across very few references to books which have come from
nunneries. A celebrated manuscript in Latin, which contains a collection
of the lives of the saints and is written on vellum, belonged to the
convent at Romsey[888]; a copy of ‘The life of St Katherine of Alexandria’
by Capgrave (in English verse of the 15th century), which has lately been
printed, is designated as belonging to Katherine Babington, subprioress of
Campsey in Suffolk[889]; and the famous Vernon manuscript which contains
the most complete collection of writings in Middle English on salvation or
‘soul-hele’ probably came from a nunnery.

The inventories taken of the goods and chattels belonging to convents at
the time of the dissolution contain few references to books. Probably only
books of devotion were numerous, and these were looked upon by the nuns as
their personal property like their clothes, and were taken away with them
when they left. The inventory of the nunnery of Kilburn mentions that two
copies of the _Legenda Aurea_, the one written, the other printed, were
kept in the chamber of the church[890]. In connection with Sion, the only
house in England of the order of St Bridget, we shall hear of a splendid
collection of books, all I believe of a devotional character.

An inventory of the goods of the comparatively insignificant priory of
Easebourne in Sussex, which never numbered more than five or six nuns, was
taken in the year 1450 and shows what books of devotion were then in its
possession. The following are enumerated: two missals, two breviaries,
four antiphonies, one large _legenda_ or book of the histories of the
saints, eight psalters, one book of collects, one _tropon_ or book of
chants, one French Bible, two _ordinalia_ or books of divine office, in
French, one book of the Gospels, and one martyrology[891]. It is in
accordance with the exclusively pious training shown by the possession of
books such as these that Chaucer lets his prioress, when called upon to
contribute a tale, recount the legend of a boy-martyr who was murdered at
Alexandria, and the nun who was with her tell the legend of St Cecilia.
The prioress in this case did not fail to impress her hearers, while the
monk, who was also of the party and told of worthies of biblical and of
classical repute, roused no interest.

In the eyes of Chaucer the prioress was a thoroughly estimable person.
‘Madame Eglentine,’ whose smiling was ‘ful simple and coy,’ and who spoke
French fluently, was distinguished also for elegance of manners at table.
She neither dropped her food, nor steeped her fingers in the sauce, nor
neglected to wipe her mouth, and throughout affected a certain courtly
breeding which went well with her station.

  ‘And sikerly she was of grete disport,
  And ful plesant, and amiable of port,
  And peined hire to contrefeten chere
  Of court, and ben estatelich of manere,
  And to ben holden digne of reverence.’

Her sensitiveness was so great that she wept on seeing a mouse caught in a
trap, and the death of one of the small dogs she kept caused her great
grief. She could not bear to see one of them beaten, for in her ‘all was
conscience and tendre herte.’ The only ornament she wore was a brooch
which was attached to her beads and on which were inscribed the words
_Amor vincit omnia_. The poet’s designating her companion as the ‘other
nun,’ suggests that the prioress in this case was a nun herself, that is
that she was not the superior of a priory, but prioress and member of a
convent which was under an abbess.

Education in a nunnery at this period secured the privilege of being
addressed as ‘Madame,’ the title of a woman of the upper classes.
Directions in English about the consecration of nuns which were in use in
the diocese of Lincoln about the year 1480 are in existence[892]. In these
the bishop at the conclusion of the service is directed to offer words of
advice to the newly professed nuns, which begin as follows: ‘Daughters and
virgins, now that you are married and espoused to Him that is above king
and ‘kaysor,’ Jesus Christ, meet it is and so must you from henceforth in
token of the same be called ‘madame or ladye[892].’

Judging from a passage in Chaucer (l. 3940) this privilege was apparently
kept by those who had been educated in a nunnery and returned to the
world. The reeve tells about the miller’s wife who was ‘come of noble kyn;
she was i-fostryd in a nonnerye,’ and on account of her kindred and the
‘nostelry’ she had learned, no one durst call her but ‘Madame.’

       *       *       *       *       *

It remains to note how far the standing of nunneries was directly affected
in the later Middle Ages by external social and political changes. Various
conditions combined to curtail the privileges of religious houses, which
when once lost were never recovered.

The reign of Edward I (1272-1307) was marked by many legal innovations.
One of the first acts of the king was to appoint a commission to enquire
into jurisdictions, and a general survey of the whole kingdom was taken to
obtain correct knowledge of the rights by which property was held. Local
and manorial rights were throughout called into question, which in many
instances resulted in their being curtailed to the advantage of the king.
In common with other holders of property, the heads of monasteries
incurred direct losses, especially the heads of smaller settlements, where
the property was not so well managed and the superior could not afford to
have a legal adviser.

Among those cited before the justices in eyre were the abbesses and
prioresses of convents of various orders, who as we gather from the
account of these pleas[893] sometimes appeared in person, sometimes
through an attorney, to justify their claims and to seek re-establishment
of their rights. The superiors of smaller settlements, whose property lay
near their house, generally appeared in person, but the superiors of
larger houses, where the jurisdiction over property which lay at a
distance was called into question, appeared by an attorney. Thus the
abbess of Barking which lies in Essex appeared by an attorney at Bedford
and in Buckinghamshire, but in Essex she appeared in person to defend
certain rights connected with property she held at Chelmsford[894]. The
abbess of Malling in Kent appeared by attorney at Canterbury, where she
secured renewal of her rights before the king’s justiciaries not only to
liberties and franchises of the most extensive kind in East and West
Malling, but to the holding of a market twice a week, and of three fairs
in the year[895].

On the other hand we find the prioress of Stratford appearing in person
before the judges in eyre at the Stone Cross, bringing her charters with
her[896]. The prioress of Wroxhall at first refused to answer the summons
to appear at Warwick. Afterwards she appeared in person and succeeded in
establishing her claim to her possessions in Hatton and Wroxhall together
with many privileges and immunities which had been confirmed to her priory
by Henry II, Richard I, John and Henry III, as appears in the charters
granted by those monarchs[897].

But not all were so successful. The prioress of Redlingfield in Suffolk
also came in person to justify a right which was held to belong to the
crown, but which she claimed that she and all her predecessors had held
time out of mind. But as she could show no special warrant, William de
Gyselham prayed judgment for the king. A day was appointed for further
hearing of the case at Westminster, but no further proceedings
appear[898]. Frequently a case was adjourned to Westminster and we hear no
more of it; sometimes also the king’s attorney did not choose to prosecute
his suit further.

A closer analysis of these pleas helps us to understand the various and
complicated rights, immunities and privileges which abbess and prioress
had acquired in common with feudal lords at an early period, and which the
larger houses retained with few abatements down to the time of the
dissolution. The study of these rights shows that a considerable business
capacity and no small amount of attention were required to protect a
settlement against deterioration and decay.

The number of religious houses[899] for women which existed at this
period, including those of all orders, was close upon a hundred and
thirty. Their number can be estimated only approximately, because some
fell to decay and were abandoned as we shall see later, while, regarding
Gilbertine settlements, it is unknown at what period nuns ceased to
inhabit some of them. The number of monasteries for men including those of
all monkish and canonical orders, at the same period was over four
hundred; while the friars, the number of whose houses fluctuated, at the
time of the dissolution owned about two hundred houses.

Of the settlements of nuns eighty-two belonged to the order of St
Benedict, and twenty-seven (including two houses which had been founded by
the order of Cluni) to Cistercian nuns. Fourteen houses were inhabited by
Austin nuns or canonesses (including Sion), and two by nuns of the order
of Prémontré.

In England only the orders of friars of St Francis and St Dominic had
houses for women attached to them. The nuns of the order of St Clare,
called also Poor Clares or Nuns Minoresses, had been established in
connection with the Franciscan friars, and owned three houses, of which
the house in London, known as the Minories, was of considerable
importance. Only one house of Dominican nuns existed in England. The nuns
both of the Dominican and the Franciscan orders differed in many
particulars from other nuns and are usually spoken of not as nuns but as
sisters[900]. They observed strict seclusion, and as a rule took no
interest in anything save devotion. A set of rules for the nuns of St
Clare was written by St Francis himself, and gives a fair idea of the
narrow interests to which women who embraced religion under his auspices
were confined[901].

Regarding the wealth of the settlements of different orders, the houses of
the Benedictine order owned most property and drew the largest incomes;
the houses owned by monks were throughout wealthier than those owned by
nuns. Judging by the computations made at the time of the dissolution the
Cistercian houses for men, and the houses of Austin and of Premonstrant
Canons, were comparatively rich, whereas the houses of Cistercian and of
Premonstrant nuns were poor, but the income of the Austin nunnery,
Buckland in Somersetshire, compared favourably with that of the wealthier
Benedictine houses for women. We shall have occasion to speak more fully
of the house of Sion, which was of the order of St Bridget, and the wealth
of which at the time of the dissolution exceeded that of any other

§ 2. The Internal Arrangements of the Convent.

At this point of our enquiry it seems well to pause for a while to
describe the inner arrangements of a nunnery as they present themselves
during the later Middle Ages, the offices which fell to the several
members of the convent, and the daily life of the nun. The material at the
disposal of the student lies scattered in the convent registers, in the
accounts of visitations, and in contemporary literature, and is
supplemented by the study of ruins. The inventories of monasteries made
during the reign of Henry VIII at the time of the dissolution (c.
1536-1538) further add to this information. For no religious settlement
for women was founded after the death of Edward III (1377) with the sole
exception of Sion, and no important changes were made in the routine of
existing houses, so that the state of things which survived at the
dissolution may be taken with slight reservations as supplementing our
information concerning the arrangements during the earlier period.

Regarding the position and duties of the lady superior, it has been
mentioned before[902] that comparatively few of the Benedictine nunneries
had the standing of abbeys, most of them being priories, and that the
abbesses of four houses had the additional title of baroness by reason of
the property they held of the king. They were called upon to fulfil duties
in accordance with their station, and like secular barons found knights
for the king’s service. In 1257 Agnes Ferrar, abbess of Shaftesbury, was
summoned to Chester to take part in the expedition against Llewellin ap
Griffith, and again in 1277 Juliana Bauceyn was summoned for a like

The lady superior of a house in the 14th and 15th centuries was frequently
seen outside the convent; pleasure as well as business might take her from
home. It has been mentioned that the heads of convents sometimes appeared
in person before the justices in eyre. Dame Christina Basset, prioress of
the Benedictine nunnery of St Mary Prée in Hertfordshire, in the account
of her expenditure between 1487-1489 had the following entry made: ‘when I
rode to London for the suit that was taken[904].’ In 1368 the bishop of
Sarum, in whose diocese Shaftesbury was, granted a dispensation to Joan
Formage to go from her monastery to one of her manors to take the air and
to divert herself[905]. Complaints were made of the too frequent absence
of their prioress by members of the Benedictine nunnery of Easebourne, at
the visitation in 1441, when it was alleged that the prioress was in the
habit of riding about and staying away on pretence of business more often
than was deemed advantageous to the convent[906].

After her election by the convent, the lady superior made profession of
canonical obedience to the bishop of her diocese and in some cases waited
upon the patron of her house. The nunnery of St Mary’s, Winchester, was
one of the houses that held of the king. In 1265 Eufemia was received by
Henry III, and her successor Lucia went to Winchester castle to be
presented[907]. In houses which held of the king it was part of the royal
prerogative that on his coronation the king should recommend a nun to the
convent. In connection with Shaftesbury we find this on record in the
first year of Richard II (1377-1399) and again in the first of Henry V. In
1428, several years after the accession of Henry VI, who became king when
a child, a royal mandate was issued to the abbess of Shaftesbury to admit
Joan Ashcomb as a nun[908]. And in 1430 the same king nominated Godam
Hampton to be received as a nun at Barking[909].

All the versions of the Benedictine rule known to me speak of the head of
the monastery as the abbot, and in the Winteney version, which was written
for nuns in the 13th century, the head of the women’s house is accordingly
designated as abbess[910]. But, probably because the number of abbesses
was comparatively small, the translator of the rule of St Benedict, in the
rhymed English version of the 15th century, speaks throughout of the
prioress as head of the nunnery[911]. It is the prioress (l. 337 ff.) who
is to be honoured inside the abbey (sic) and out of it wherever she goes
or rides, who shall be law in herself, who shall have no pride in her
heart but ever love God, and who is responsible as a shepherd or herdsman
for the women given into her care. All these injunctions are given in
other versions of the rule to the abbot or abbess. It further says that
the prioress shall not favour any one nun by letting her travel more than
the rest,--a command evidently added by the translator. In another passage
(l. 2116 ff.) closely following the original text it is enjoined that the
prioress shall liberally entertain guests, but if it happens that there be
none, she shall invite some of the older sisters to dine with her.

A detailed account is preserved of the formalities of the appointment of a
prioress to the convent of St Radegund’s at Cambridge[912]. This
settlement, founded about the middle of the 12th century, had experienced
many vicissitudes, but was comparatively prosperous in the year 1457, when
the death of the prioress, Agnes Seyntel, on September 8th, left its
twelve inmates without a head. We gather from a charter that the first
step taken after her demise was that the subprioress, Matilda Sudbury, and
the convent sent information to the bishop of Ely asking for permission to
appoint a successor. This being granted the nuns assembled on Sept. 23rd
and fixed the 27th as the day of the election. On this day all the nuns
were present at mass, and then three of them were chosen arbiters
(_compromissarias_). These were Joan Lancaster, Elizabeth Walton and
Katherine Sayntlow, who took the oath and gave their votes, and then they
administered the oath to the other nuns, who gave their votes also. The
form of administration of the oath and the oath itself are both given in
Latin. The nuns were adjured ‘by the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,
at the peril of their soul, according to God and their conscience, to name
and choose her as prioress who was most needful to the priory.’ The form
of oath corresponds to this adjuration.

The votes being then counted it was found that a majority of seven were in
favour of the appointment of Joan Lancaster, whereupon Elizabeth Walton,
being called upon by the others, declared the result of the election. The
_Te Deum_ was then sung and the prospective prioress, reluctantly in this
case it seems, was led to the chief altar of the convent church, where she
was left, while the result of the election was proclaimed to the people
outside ‘in the vulgar tongue.’ All this happened before noon, when the
nuns returned to the chapter-house and called upon Elizabeth Walton and
Katherine Sayntlow to draw up the deeds of the election, and to lay them
before the newly appointed prioress, who was requested to affirm her
election at four o’clock in the vestibule of the church. After much
persuasion Joan Lancaster yielded and accepted the election. The words of
her speech are given; in them she declares that she is a free woman and
legitimate, born in lawful wedlock, and therefore entitled to proffer her
consent and assent. Eleven nuns put their signatures to this document, one
of whom designates herself as subprioress and president, another as leader
of the choir, _succentrix_, another as cellaress, _celeraria_, and another
calls herself treasurer, _thesaurissa_.

In connection with the Benedictine convent of Langley, in Leicestershire,
a further formality is recorded at the election of a new prioress. The
permission of the patron of the house having been obtained, the nuns
proceeded to elect a new prioress, and a page with a white staff sent by
the patron guarded the door of the priory till the election was made. ‘For
which in right of his master he was to have his diet but nothing

The form of consent by which an abbess accepted office is entered in the
register of Bishop Lacy of Exeter. In 1449 Johan or Jane Arundell was
appointed abbess of the Austin settlement of Legh or Canonlegh, in
Devonshire[914]. Her consent is drawn up in English, and in it she speaks
of herself as sister Johan Arundell, _mynchyn_, an ancient word for nun
which continued in use in the south of England till the time of the

A previous chapter has shown that the appointment of a prioress in those
nunneries which were cells to an abbey, depended on the abbot[915]. In the
houses which were independent and elected their own head, a licence from
the bishop had to be secured. And if the nuns neglected to secure this
licence before electing a superior difficulties were apt to occur. In the
case of Catesby, a Benedictine house in Northamptonshire, such
difficulties are repeatedly recorded. At the death of the prioress Johanna
de Northampton (1291), the cellaress of the house was elected in her stead
by the nuns; but the election having been made without a licence, the
bishop of Lincoln declared it void. Afterwards however he confirmed it in
consideration of the merits of the person elected. At her death similar
neglect on the one side was followed by similar opposition on the other;
the bishop first declared the election void and then confirmed it. The
relation of Catesby to the diocesan continued to be a source of
difficulties. In 1444 the prioress Agnes Terry was suspended from the
conduct of all business relating to the revenues of the house during the
bishop’s pleasure, and a commission was granted to the abbot of St James
in Northampton to inspect the accounts of the nunnery[916].

Sometimes neglect of the administration of the property of the house was
the cause of the voluntary or forced resignation of a superior. Love of
finery is represented as the cause of the ruin of the prioress Juliana of
Bromhall in Berkshire, into whose conduct an enquiry was instituted in
1404. It was found on this occasion that she ‘had injured the convent and
her own character in that she had converted to her nefarious use,
alienated and wasted chalices, books, jewelry (_jocalia_), the income and
possessions’ of the priory[917]. She resigned, but it is not recorded
whether she remained in the house. In several instances a deposed lady
superior did remain in the convent. Thus Margaret Punder, prioress of
Flixton, an Austin convent, resigned because of complaints of her
negligence, but she remained in the house as a member of the convent[918].

The dignitaries of the Church took upon themselves to protect the abbess
or prioress against violation of her rights by laymen; under social
arrangements which made the nunnery the one place of safety for the
unmarried daughters of the gentry, it is obvious that ecclesiastical and
lay authorities would be of one mind in severely punishing those who
failed to respect the nun’s privileges.

In 1285 a knight carried off two nuns from the settlement at Wilton,
‘which coming to the archbishop’s ears he first excommunicated him, and
subsequently absolved him on these conditions,--first that he should never
afterwards come within a nunnery or be in the company of a nun; then that
on three Sundays running he should be whipped in the parish church of
Wilton, and likewise three other days in the market and church of
Shaftesbury; that he should fast a certain number of months; that he
should not wear a shirt for three years; and lastly that he should not
any more take the habit and title of a knight, but wear apparel of a
russet colour until he had spent three years in the Holy Land[919].’

Where an abbess was at the head of a nunnery, the prioress and
sub-prioress, and sometimes a second prioress and sub-prioress were
appointed by her; where the settlement was ruled by a prioress it was she
who appointed the sub-prioress. This is in accordance with the written
rule of St Benedict, where the abbot nominates the _praepositus_ or
provost whose duties correspond to those of the prioress or
sub-prioress[920]. The rhymed version of the rule, in which the prioress
is treated as chief in authority, says the sub-prioress (l. 1406 ff.)
shall be appointed by the prioress, ‘for if it were done otherwise strife
and debate might easily arise.’ This provision was dictated by the feeling
that, if chosen by the convent, the person second in authority might
presume. For this reason ‘the sub-prioress, sexton and other such officers
shall not be chosen but appointed as the prioress desires,’ and if the
sub-prioress does wrong and refuses to mend her ways ‘out of the flock she
shall be fled.’

The duties of the person second in authority consisted in seeing that the
hours of divine service were rightly kept. A manuscript now at Oxford,
written in English, which came from Barking nunnery gives directions as to
the formal appointment of the prioress in that house[921]. It belongs to
the end of the 14th century. Barking it will be remembered was one of the
chief abbeys for women. The manner in which the abbess appointed the
person second to her in authority is described in the following passage:
‘When a prioress is to be made, the abbess shall commend the rule to her,
enjoining that she be helpful to her and maintain religion in accordance
with the rule. And she shall set her in her seat. And then shall come the
chaplain with incense towards her. And the abbess and she shall go before
the convent into the choir. And then shall they go to St Alburgh, and the
convent shall say the _Levavi_ (Ps. 121, _Levavi oculos meos_, ‘I lifted
up my eyes’); and the prioress shall lie prostrate, and the abbess shall
say the prayers aforesaid with the orison _Oremus_, etc. Then shall the
prioress go to the choir; the chapter mass being _Spiritus Domini_. And
the same day shall be given to the convent a pittance or allowance of
good fish. And when she dies, she must give to the convent....’ Here the
manuscript closes abruptly.

In houses of the Benedictine order the lady superior of the house, whether
abbess or prioress, usually dwelt apart from the convent in a set of
chambers or a small house of her own, where she received visitors and
transacted business. In some of the largest houses the prioress,
sub-prioress and sexton also had establishments of their own as we shall
see presently. In Cistercian houses the arrangements seem to have varied,
but in the majority of houses of the order, usually among Austin nuns and
always among the nuns of St Clare, the head of the house lived in closer
contact with the members of her convent and took her meals at the same
table as the nuns.

The lady superior managed all the business of the house and presided at
the meetings of the convent, the members of which fulfilled a number of
functions which we will pass in rapid review. The full complement of
offices was of course found in the larger houses only; in the smaller
houses several posts were frequently held by one and the same person.
Reference is most frequently made to the offices of sexton, cellaress, and
chaplain,--these seem to have existed in almost every house.

The rhymed version of St Benedict’s rule gives the following injunctions
about the duties of the sexton (l. 1521 ff.):--‘She shall ring the bells
to all the services night and day, and keep the ornaments of the church,
the chalice, books, vestments, relics, and wax and annual rents. She shall
preserve the vessels of the altar and keep them clean.’

Other versions of the rule, as far as I am aware, contain nothing about
these duties. The sexton at Barking at the time of the Reformation was
responsible for the receipt of considerable sums[922].

Duties of great importance devolved on the cellaress, who managed the
receipts and expenditure appertaining to the food; certainly no light task
and one that required considerable powers of management. On this point the
versified rule of St Benedict closely follows the original rule. We are
told (l. 1467 ff.) that the cellaress ‘shall be chosen by counsel out of
the community’; she shall be wise and gentle and of mild ways, not hard
like a shrew, nor slow nor mean in her dealings (grochand in hir dede),
but gladly do her office and take special care of young children, poor
guests and others that ask at her door, knowing that on the day of
judgment she will have to render account.

Fortunately we are in possession of an extremely interesting document
written in English about the year 1400. It came from Barking nunnery, and
enables us to form some idea of the duties devolving on the
cellaress[923]. It is entitled ‘Charthe longynge to the office of the
celeresse,’ and describes the duties of buying and selling, illustrating
the economic condition of the house no less than the standard of living at
that convent. From the manuscript the inference can be drawn that more
than one cellaress was appointed at a time. The one whose duties are
described in the ‘Charthe’ provides and deals out the food, and manages
the receipts from the home farm. The ‘Charthe’ opens with injunctions how
the cellaress, when she comes into office, must look after what is owing
to the office by divers farmers and rent-gatherers and see that it be paid
as soon as may be. A list follows of the sums she receives annually from
various sources,--farms and rent for various tenements in London and
elsewhere. She receives ‘of the canons of St Paul’s in London for a yearly
rent by the year 22 shillings; and of the prior of the convent of St
Bartholomew’s in London by the year 17 shillings.’ The following entries
are curious. ‘She should receive yearly of a tenement in Friday Street,
London, but it is not known where it stands, 23 shillings and four pence;
and she should receive 30 shillings of the rent of Tyburn, but it is not

A list follows of the things she is to be charged with, from which it is
evident that the duties of selling as well as of buying devolved on her.
She is to be charged with the ox-skins she sells, also with the ‘inwards’
of oxen, and with tallow and messes of beef; ‘and all these be called the
issues of the larder.’ If she sells hay from any farm belonging to her
office, she must charge herself with it or let it be called ‘the foreign

She is then directed as to the stores she has to provide, which may be
grouped under the headings of grain, flesh, fish, and condiments.

The grains include malt, of which she provides three quarters yearly for
the ‘tounes’ of St Alburgh and Christmas, and she pays twenty pence to the
brewer of each ‘toune’;--and wheat, of which a quarter and seven bushels
are required, which go to the allowance or pittance of the four men and
dames resident in the monastery, for making ‘russeaulx,’ perhaps some
kind of cake, during Lent, and for baking eels on Shere Tuesday (Tuesday
preceding Good Friday). She provides two bushels of peas every year in
Lent, and one bushel of beans for the convent against Midsummer. Both peas
and beans are evidently dried.

Under the heading ‘buying of store’ the only item she is mentioned as
providing is twenty-two oxen a year, which she evidently feeds on her
pasture. Another passage tells us that ‘she shall slay but every fortnight
if she be a good housewife.’ A passage further on refers to her buying
pigs and possibly sheep. Geese and fowls she apparently received from her
own farm.

She buys fish in large quantities, principally herrings, some white,--that
is fresh or slightly salted, some red,--that is salted, by the cade or by
the barrel. A note at the end of the ‘Charthe’ states that a cask or ‘cade
of herrings is six hundred herrings,’ ‘the barrel of herrings is one
thousand herrings.’ Seven cades of white herrings and three barrels of the
same she buys for Lent.

Also she must provide eighteen salt fish and fourteen or fifteen salt
salmon for the convent in Lent. Eels are mentioned, but not that she
bought them; no doubt they were caught on the convent property.

Of condiments the cellaress has to provide almonds, twelve lbs. for Lent;
figs, three pieces[924] and twenty-four lbs.; raisins, one piece; rice,
twenty-eight lbs.; and mustard eight gallons. There is no mention of salt
or of sugar as being provided for the nuns.

We are next informed of the cellaress’ expenses in money. Here the
peculiar word ‘russeaulx’ figures again, variously spelt. All the ladies
of the convent, who at the time numbered thirty-six, are in receipt of
‘ruscheauw sylver,’ payable sixteen times in the year, ‘but it is paid
only twice now, at Easter and at Michaelmas.’ The ladies also receive
twopence each for crisps and crumcakes at Shrovetide. Wherever there is
question of paying money or providing food in portions, the cellaress has
to give double to the chief officers of the house, such as the prioress,
the cellaress, etc., which suggests that they had a double ration either
to enable them to feed their servant, or perhaps a visitor.

The cellaress further pays five annuities called ‘anniversaries,’ namely,
to Sir William, vicar, to Dame Alice Merton, to Dame Maud, the king’s
daughter, to Dame Maud Loveland, and to William Dunn, who are residing in
the monastery. William Dunn moreover receives twelve gallons of good ale
with his annuity.

In ‘offerings and wages’ the cellaress shall pay twelve pence to the two
cellaresses; to the steward of the household what time he brings money
home from the courts 20 pence, and again at Christmas 20 pence; to my
lady’s (the abbess’) gentlewoman 20 pence; ‘to every gentleman 16 pence
and to every yeoman as it pleases her to do, and grooms in like case.’ The
abbess receives a sugar-loaf at Christmas; her clerk is paid thirteen
shillings and fourpence, her yeoman cook 26 shillings and eightpence for
their wages. Her groom cook and her pudding wife (grom coke and poding
wief) receive the gift of one gown a year of the value of two shillings.

A description follows of the food which the cellaress has to provide for
the convent on special days in the year. ‘A pece of whete’ and three
gallons of milk for ‘frimete on St Alburgh’s day’; four bacon hogs twice
in winter, ‘and she must buy six grecys (young pigs), six sowcys (perhaps
‘sowkin,’ diminutive for young female hog, or else ‘sowthes,’ Middle
English for sheep) for the convent and also six inwardys and 100 (?) egges
to make white puddings’; also bread, pepper and saffron for the same
puddings, also three gallons of good ale for ‘besons.’ Other directions
follow which are perplexing, such as ‘mary bones to make white
wortys’--can it be marrowbones to make white soup, or does ‘bones’ stand
for buns? Again we hear of ‘cripcis and crumcakes,’ chickens, bonnes
(buns?) at Shrovetide, and of ‘12 stubbe elles and 60 shafte[925] elles,’
to bake for the convent on Shere Thursday. When the abbess receives a
bottle of Tyre (wine) at Easter time the convent receives two gallons of
red wine. The convent receives three gallons of ale every week. Regarding
the wine it is well to recall that grapes were grown to some extent in
mediæval England, and that after the dissolution, a vineyard of five acres
is scheduled as part of the possessions of Barking nunnery[926].

A paragraph is devoted to the giving out of eggs. The thirty-seven ladies
sometimes receive money instead of eggs, ‘ey sylver,’ as it is called; in
one case the alternative is open to the cellaress of giving thirty-two
eggs or of paying twopence. Butter also forms an important item in the
‘Charthe’; it is given out in ‘cobbets,’ three cobbets going to a dish.

It likewise falls to the cellaress to hire pasture, to see to the mowing
of her hay, to see that all manner of houses within her office be duly
repaired, not only within the monastery but without, on her farms and

The ‘Charthe’ returns to directions about food, and mentions among other
things pork, mutton, geese, hens, bacon and oatmeal.

The following passages will give some idea of the language in which these
directions are couched.

‘And the under-celaress must remember at each principal feast, that my
lady (the abbess) sits in the refectory, that is to wit five times in the
year, at each time shall (she) ask the clerk of the kitchen (for) supper
eggs for the convent, at Easter, Whitsuntide, the Assumption of Our Lady,
at St Alburgh, and at Christmas; at each time to every lady two eggs, and
each (person receiving) double that is the prioress, celaress and

‘Also to remember to ask of the kitchen at St Alburgh’s time, for every
lady of the convent half a goose ... also to ask at the said feast of St
Alburgh of the said clerk for every lady of the convent one hen, or else a
cock.’ The manuscript, which is corrected in several places and has
additions made by another hand, closes abruptly.

It is interesting to compare the directions about food found in the rule
of St Benedict with the high standard of living suggested by the ‘Charthe’
of Barking. The rhymed version says (l. 1620) that she who is seeing to
the kitchen shall provide each day two kinds of ‘mete,’ so that she who
will not eat of one kind may take the other. The convent is also to be
supplied with two kinds of pottage (thick soup?) daily. If they have
apples of their own growing they shall partake of them; also each lady is
to be given a pound of bread each day, which is to serve her for her three
meals. The rule adds words to the effect that the ‘celerer’ may give an
extra allowance of food if she sees need though always with caution for
fear of gluttony. In regard to drink, wine and ale shall be ‘softly’

It appears probable from this ‘Charthe’ to the cellaress that the office
of Kitchener at Barking was a permanent appointment, which is curious
considering that in an ordinary way the members of the convent were bound
to serve in the convent kitchen as cook, each for the term of a week. The
injunction is repeated in every version of the Benedictine rule known to
me. According to the rhymed version of the north the nun who has served
her term in the kitchen is directed to leave the kitchen and the vessels
clean for her who succeeded her in office. When her time is up she shall
kneel before the assembled members of the convent saying, ‘Blessed be the
Lord that has never failed me,’ whereupon the nun who is to act as cook
shall say, ‘Lord, to my helping take thou heed.’ But this injunction was
evidently disregarded in the wealthier houses at a later date, for in
connection with St Mary’s, Winchester, we read of a convent-cook and an
under convent-cook[927]. A nun of Campsey, an Austin house consisting at
the time of a prioress and eighteen nuns, complained at the visitation of
the house in 1532 of the unpunctuality of the meals, which she ascribed to
the fault of the cook (culpa coci),--using a term which suggests that the
cook in this case was a man[928].

An appointment in the nunnery which has led to some controversy is that of
chaplain, it being alleged by some writers that the chaplain of the
convent was necessarily a man. Certainly in most houses, especially in the
wealthier ones, there were men chaplains; for example at the nunnery of
Shaftesbury, where men chaplains are mentioned by the side of the abbess
in various early charters and played an important part[929]. Again at St
Mary’s, Winchester, at the time of the dissolution, men chaplains were
among those who are described as resident in the monastery[930]; at
Kilburn nunnery the fact that the chaplain who dwelt on the premises was a
man is evident from the arrangement of the dwellings,--three chambers
which lie together being designated as set apart for the chaplain and the
hinds or herdsmen[931]. But the fact that the chaplain’s office could be
and was held by a woman is established beyond a doubt by the following
information. In consequence of an episcopal visitation (1478) of the
Benedictine convent of Easebourne, injunctions were sent to the prioress,
one of which directs that ‘every week, beginning with the eldest,
excepting the sub-prioress, she shall select for herself in due course and
in turns one of her nuns as chaplain (capellanissam) for divine service
and to wait upon herself[932].’ This injunction is in accordance with the
words of Chaucer, who says that the prioress who was on a pilgrimage to
Canterbury had with her a nun who acted as chaplain to her (l. 163):

  ‘Another Nonne also with hire hadde she
  That was hire chapelleine, and preestes thre.’

In the accounts of visitations in the diocese of Norwich between 1492 and
1532 the designation chaplain applied to an inmate of a nunnery appears in
the Benedictine house of Redlingfield, in the Austin priory of Campsey and
in others. In Redlingfield at the visitation of 1514 the complaint is made
against the prioress that she does not change her chaplain, and at Flixton
in 1520 it is alleged that the prioress has no chaplain and sleeps by
herself in her chamber away from the dormitory[933]. At Elstow in
Bedfordshire at the time of the surrender Katheryne Wyngate adds the
designation ‘chapellain’ to her name[934], and among the nuns of Barking
who were still in receipt of their pension in 1553 was Mathea Fabyan who
is styled chaplain (capellan)[935]. How far the woman chaplain performed
the same offices as the man chaplain seems impossible to tell; probably
she recited the inferior services in the chapel of the nunnery.

In the rhymed version of the rule of St Benedict the office of chaplain is
passed over, but in the poem of the ‘Spiritual Convent’ written by the
beguine Mechthild, of which a former chapter has given an account, the
chaplain is a woman. And similarly the English version of this poem called
the ‘Ghostly Abbey’ which is attributed to John Alcock, bishop of Ely (†
1500), refers to women chaplains. It says God had ordered His four
daughters to come and dwell in the abbey; Charity was made abbess and to
her Mercy and Truth were to be as ‘chapeleyns,’ going about with her
wherever she goes. He bade also that Righteousness should be with Wisdom
who was prioress, and Peace with Mekeness who was sub-prioress, Charity,
Wisdom and Mekeness having chaplains because they were ‘most of

I have found very little information about the arrangements made in the
nunnery for the young people who boarded with and were taught by the nuns,
and hardly a clue is to be had as to the number of those who might stay
in one house at the same time. The only allusion on this point is to St
Mary’s, Winchester, where twenty-six girls, mostly daughters of knights,
were staying at the time of the dissolution. Rogers refers to a roll of
expenditure of the Cistercian priory, Swine, in Yorkshire, on which he
says are enumerated a number of young persons, daughters of the
surrounding gentlefolk, who lived ‘en pension’ in this small
community[937]; and Rye has compiled a list of those who boarded at Carrow
at different times[938]. From ‘The Death of Philip Sparrow,’ a poem
written by John Skelton († 1529), we gather that the girl who is
represented as intoning the lament over a tame bird, lived and boarded
with the ‘Nuns Black’ at Carrow, where her sparrow was devoured by the
cat, whereupon she took out a sampler and worked the sparrow in stitches
of silk for her solace[939]. Apparently not only girls, but boys also,
were given into the care of nuns, for injunctions forwarded to Romsey in
1310 by the bishop of Winchester forbade that boys and girls should sleep
with the nuns or be taken by them into the choir during divine
service[940]. Injunctions sent to Redlingfield in 1514 also directed that
boys should not sleep in the dormitory[941]; and Bishop Kentwode in the
directions he sent to St Helen’s in London ordered that none but ‘mayd
learners’ should be received into that nunnery[942]. In the year 1433
Catherine de la Pole, abbess of Barking, petitioned Henry V. for a sum of
money due to her for the maintenance of Edward and Jasper Tudor, sons of
Catherine, the queen dowager, by Owen Tudor. It seems that these boys were
receiving their education at this abbey[943]. But the popularity of the
convent even as an educational establishment began to decrease at the
close of the 14th century. Judging from the Paston Letters it was no
longer customary in Norfolk to send girls to board with the nuns; they
were sent to stay away from home with some other country family.

Other offices held by members of the convent are as follows:
_thesaurissa_,--the nun bursar who was responsible for the revenues coming
through the Church; the _precentrix_ and _succentrix_,--the leaders and
teachers of the choir, who are sometimes mentioned together (Campsey); the
_cameraria_ or chambress,--who saw to the wardrobe; the _infirmaria_ or
keeper of the infirmary,--who took charge of the sick nuns; the
_refectuaria_,--who had the care of the refectory or dining hall; the
_elemosinaria_,--who distributed alms; the _magistra noviciarum_,--who
taught the novices. The _cantarista_ occurs in connection with Sheppey; no
doubt she is identical with the _precentrix_ of other places. The further
designations of _tutrix_, or teacher, occurs in connection with
Shaftesbury, and _eruditrix_, instructress, in connection with Thetford; I
have not come across these terms elsewhere.

All these appointments were made by the superior of the house and declared
in the presence of the convent, and all except those of chaplain and
kitchener seem to have been permanent. The chaplain was probably changed
because it was a privilege to go about with the abbess, and the kitchener
because of the hard work her duties involved. On the death of the abbess
often the prioress, sometimes the cellaress, was appointed to succeed her,
but not necessarily so.

Having so far treated of the duties of the convent inmates, we will
examine the form of admission for novices and the daily routine of the

According to the rhymed rule of St Benedict (l. 2155) the girl who was old
enough to be admitted as nun into a religious community was granted entry
as a novice and after two months had ‘the law’ read to her, and then the
question was put if she wished to stay or to go. If she stayed, it was for
six months; after which, if still desirous of being received, she
proffered her petition to the abbess. If after twelve months she still
persisted in her resolution, she was received as a member of the convent
and pronounced these words before the altar: ‘Suscipe me, domine, secundum
eloquium tuum, et vivam. Et non confundas me in expectatione mea.’ The
formal profession or consecration was undertaken by the bishop, who
visited the nunnery periodically, but as these visits were often years
apart, it is probable that the declaration made before the superior of a
house and the priest constituted a novice a member of a convent, and for
all practical purposes made her a nun. Fosbroke is of opinion that the
girl who entered at the age of twelve made profession after she had passed
a year in the community: he adds that she was consecrated by the bishop
when she had reached the age of twenty-five and not before[944]. But it
is impossible to draw a line between profession and consecration, as the
‘non-professed’ nun was invariably the nun who had not been installed by
the bishop. In 1521 at the visitation of Rusper the settlement consisted
of the prioress, one professed nun and two nuns entered on the list as not
professed, of whom one declared that she had lived there awaiting
profession for twelve years, the other for three[945]. Women who had been
professed at one house were sometimes inmates of another; and I have not
found any remark which leads to the inference that this was thought
objectionable. A nun residing at Rusper was afterwards prioress of
Easebourne. The record of a visitation at Davington in Kent (1511) shows
that the convent contained four inmates, of whom two were professed nuns.
The one, professed at Cambridge, had been there for twenty years; the
other, professed at Malling, had been there for ten. The other two inmates
entered on the list as not professed were girls of ten and fifteen[946].

The consecration of nuns was a very ancient and solemn rite. Several forms
of the office as celebrated in England are in existence[947]. One comes
from the monastery of St Mary’s, Winchester, and is contained in a
manuscript written probably soon after 1500; the directions are in
English, but the words in which the bishop addressed the maidens and their
answers are in Latin. Another manuscript written about 1480 contains the
office as used in the diocese of Lincoln, with prayers in English and
rubrics in Latin; it contains also various directions and addresses
omitted in the other manuscript. A third is throughout in English.

These forms of consecration show that after the celebration of the office
of high mass in church the prospective nuns entered, each bearing a habit,
a veil, a ring and a scroll. The form of interrogation they were put
through and the prayers they recited during the installation are given.
The declaration was made by the nuns in Latin and runs as follows: ‘I,
sister ..., promise steadfastness (stabilitatem), continuance in virtue
(conversionem morum meorum), and obedience before God and all His saints.’
We also have the declaration of four nuns who were installed by the
bishop of Ely at Chatteris, which is couched in similar terms[948]. The
nun in this case made her promise ‘in accordance with the rule of St
Benedict in this place, Chatteris, built in honour of St Mary, in the
presence of the reverend father in Christ, William, bishop of Ely,’ adding
‘I subscribe this with my own hand,’ whereupon she made the sign of the
cross on the scroll which she carried in her hand and from which she had
read her declaration. The form of declaration made at Rusper in Sussex in
the year 1484 is similar, but the nun further promises ‘to live without
property (sine proprio)’ of her own[949].

For several days after her consecration the nun lived in retirement,
strictly observing the rule of silence. She then resumed her ordinary
duties in church, cloister, refectory and dormitory. She usually kept
within the convent close, but she was not altogether cut off from
intercourse with the outside world. The rhymed rule of St Benedict of the
north, transcribing the passages which refer to the monk’s going abroad if
need be, adapts them to the use of the nun (l. 2450), ‘when a sister is
going to her father, mother, or other friends, she shall take formal leave
of the convent.’ And if she is away on an errand (l. 1967), she shall not
stay away for a meal though invited to do so unless she has asked leave
before going. And again (l. 1957) if she be away during Lent and cannot
attend service in church she shall not forget to keep the hours by saying
her prayers. And again (l. 2094), when nuns go away into the country they
shall wear ‘more honest’ clothes (that is clothes more clearly showing
their profession), which they can take off on coming home for simpler
ones. From passages such as these we gather that nuns sometimes stayed
away from their convent, leave of absence having been procured; and that
besides pilgrimages and business, friendly intercourse with their
relatives might take them away from the convent for a time.

The day at the convent was divided by the canonical hours, stated times
fixed by ecclesiastical law for prayer and devotion[950]. The hours since
the 6th century were seven in number, viz. matins, prime, tierce, sext,
none, vespers or evensong, and compline.

During winter a night office was said in church at the eighth hour, that
is at two o’clock in the morning, when the _matutinae laudes_ were sung,
but the time for that was variable. ‘Then shall they rise to sing and
read, and after that she who has need may have meditations’ (Rhymed rule,
l. 1166). Between Easter and winter however the rule says ‘that the nuns
shall unto matins rise when the day begins to dawn that they their letters
well may know.’ Injunctions sent to Easebourne in 1524 direct the prioress
to hold matins at the sixth hour, that is at midnight. Matins were
followed by a period of rest, probably till five o’clock, when the nuns
rose and assembled in the choir to celebrate the office of prime. This was
followed by business transacted in the chapter house, by a meal and by
work. According to the prose versions of the Benedictine rule children
were taught between prime and tierce.

At tierce a short chapter-mass was sung followed by continued study; ‘from
terce to sext the nuns shall read lessons’ (l. 1905). At eight the nuns
assembled in the choir for the celebration of High Mass, the principal
service of the day, after which came the chief meal. This was served in
the refectory; ‘the convent when they sit at meat for to read shall not
forget’ (l. 1739); and while reading went on ‘if any of them need aught
softly with signs they shall it crave’ (l. 1754). The time of the meal was
moveable. In summer the nuns were to eat at the sext, but on Wednesdays
and Fridays they were to fast till nones, that is noon, except ‘they swink
and sweat in hay or corn with travail great’ (l. 1768), when the time
might be altered at the will of the superior. Between December and Lent
they always ate at nones. If they eat early ‘then shall they sleep and
silence keep’ (l. 1910) till nones, from which time till evensong work was

About three o’clock, vespers, that is evensong, once more assembled the
convent inmates in church. The celebration of evensong partook of the
solemnity of the celebration of high mass. In the monks’ houses at high
mass and at vespers the youths who were supported there for the purpose
attended and joined the brethren in their choral service. In the nuns’
houses the arrangements for the girls who dwelt with the nuns were
similar, at least in some cases. After vespers came supper, and then ‘the
nuns could sit where they would and read lessons of holy writ or else the
lives of holy men’ (l. 1791), until the tolling of the bell summoned them
to the chapter-house, where they joined their superior. Compline
completed the religious exercises of the day. After this the nuns retired
to the dormitory, where silence unbroken was to be observed. Inside the
dormitory, curtains, in some houses if not in all, were hung so as to
separate bed from bed.

The celebration of the hours formed at all times the great feature of
monastic life, and in itself involved a considerable amount of labour,
especially during the later period, when the ritual of service had become
very elaborate. Indolence and ease might creep in between whiles,
deterioration might take place in the occupations of the nuns between
hours, but the observance of the hours themselves constituted the nun’s
privilege and her _raison d’être_, and was at all times zealously upheld.

§ 3. The Foundation and Internal Arrangements of Sion[951].

Before leaving the subject of women’s convent life in England in the later
Middle Ages, it will be interesting to devote some attention to the
foundation and interior arrangements of Sion, a convent founded under
peculiar circumstances at a time when it was no longer usual to found or
endow religious settlements. The information relating to Sion has been
characterised as the most valuable record we possess of monastic life in
the 15th century. It refers to one short period only and bears out what
has already been put forward with regard to other nunneries. The interests
of the women who joined this convent centred round devotional practices
and a highly elaborated convent routine.

The settlement of Sion belonged to the order of St Bridget of Sweden, and
was the only house of its kind in England. It was situated in beautiful
surroundings near Isleworth on the Thames, and was so richly endowed that
at the time of the dissolution its income far exceeded that of any other
nunnery, not excepting the time-honoured settlements of Shaftesbury and
Barking. It was the only English community of women which escaped being
scattered at the time of the Reformation. Its convent of nuns removed to
Holland, but returned to the old house for a time after the accession of
Queen Mary. At the close of her reign the nuns again went abroad and after
various vicissitudes settled at Lisbon, where the convent continued to be
recruited from English homes till the beginning of this century. Then the
nine sisters of which the convent consisted came to England, and settled
at Chudleigh, near Newton-Abbot, in Devonshire.

A few words in passing must be devoted to the nun and saint Bridget[952]
of Sweden, founder of the order which took her name--a woman of
acquirements and influence. She was born of a kingly race in 1304, and
from the house of a powerful father passed to that of a powerful husband;
but the responsibilities of a large household and the care of a family of
seven children did not draw her attention from social and political
affairs. She was strongly imbued with the need of reform in religion, and
believed in the possibility of effecting a change by encouraging
monasticism. A large part of her property and much of her time were
devoted to enlarging the religious settlement of Wadstena. She then went
on a pilgrimage to Santiago in Spain, after which husband and wife
separated, each to embrace convent life. Bridget, or Birgitta as her
people called her, dwelt at Wadstena, which she reformed according to
rules which she believed she had received direct from heaven. She also
wrote some ‘Revelations,’ which in their strong invective recall the
Revelations of St Hildegard of Bingen with this difference, that St
Bridget with open directness spoke of the dangers which she thought were
gathering around Sweden. The tone of these writings brought her into
difficulties. She escaped from them by removing to Rome in 1350, where she
lived for over twenty years. Here she was looked upon as the
representative of the Church party which strongly censured the Pope for
continuing to dwell at Avignon. This party looked upon Bridget as the
chosen mouthpiece of God. Her power of prophecy was generally recognised
after her threatening visions about the state of things in Sweden had
proved true. Settlements on the plan of that of Wadstena rapidly
multiplied during her lifetime in Sweden and in North Germany. It was
partly owing to her influence that the first attempt was made to translate
the Bible into Swedish, and she is looked upon by the Swedes as one of
that faithful band who worked for their national regeneration. She died in
1372 and was officially canonised a saint in 1391[953].

A great feature of the order of St Bridget was that its settlements
consisted of a double community of men and women who combined for purposes
of divine service, but were otherwise separate, each community having its
own conventual buildings separately enclosed. The convent of nuns,
according to Bridget’s stipulation, numbered sixty women including the
abbess, and in accordance with a fanciful notion, such as one comes across
in the Middle Ages, these women had associated with them thirteen priests,
who represented the apostles, four deacons who represented the great
doctors of the Church, and eight lay brothers; the lady abbess was at the
head of this double community. The order in its development abroad
endeavoured to influence all classes. It encouraged charity, promoted
education and collected books. But in England its tone fell in with that
of other nunneries in the 15th century; the interests of Sion were
entirely devotional and its large library seems to have contained
religious works only.

I am not aware of any mention of Bridget in contemporary English
literature previous to the introduction of her order into this country,
which took place at the beginning of the 15th century. In the year 1406
Philippa, daughter of Henry IV, was sent to Lund in Sweden to be married
to King Eric XIII (1382-1445), under whose rule the crowns of Sweden,
Denmark and Norway were united. The princess travelled under the charge of
Henry, third Baron Fitzhugh, who held an important position at the court
of Henry IV; he was made Constable of England at the coronation of Henry
V, and seems to have been on terms of intimacy with both these monarchs.
By some means Fitzhugh’s attention was drawn to the monastery of Wadstena,
the chronicle of which records his visit to it. He volunteered to found a
branch of the order of St Bridget in England, and promised the gift of a
manor, Hinton near Cambridge, on condition that some of the order took
possession of it within three years.

In consequence of Fitzhugh’s visit and offer a priest and two deacons
professing the order of St Bridget were elected at Wadstena in 1408, and
sent to England. Blunt considers it probable[954] that it was by the
advice of Fitzhugh that Henry V about this time devoted manors at Sheen
and Isleworth to religious purposes. Carthusian monks were settled at
Sheen, nuns of St Bridget were settled at Isleworth,--and the two
settlements were called respectively Bethlehem and Sion. In February of
1415 Henry V in the presence of the bishop of London laid the foundation
stone of a building destined for the nuns near Twickenham, and in March
the royal charter was drawn up and signed. By this the members of the new
settlement were bound ‘to celebrate Divine Service for ever for our
healthful estate while we live and for our souls when we shall have
departed this life, and for the souls of our most dear lord and father
(Henry IV) late king of England, and Mary his late wife, etc.’ Before the
close of the year four consecrated Swedish sisters, three novices and two
brothers arrived in England from Wadstena. They were sent by the king and
queen of Sweden and were sped on their way by the archbishop of Lund and
other dignitaries.

The settlement at Sion had been granted an income of a thousand marks, to
be drawn from the royal exchequer until the permanent endowments made to
it should amount to that sum. In 1418 Pope Martin V received the house
under his special protection; the first profession or monastic engagement
took place two years later. Twenty-four nuns, five priests, two deacons
and four lay brothers pronounced their vows before archbishop Chicheley of
Canterbury (1420). And before the close of Henry’s reign (1422) the house
was endowed with manors and spiritualities, scattered over the land from
Kent to the Lake district, which were chiefly appropriated from the
possessions of alien priories.

The appropriation of alien priories forms an interesting episode in the
history of English monasticism, for it constitutes a prelude to the
dissolution of monasteries generally. While men were becoming critical of
religious institutions owing to the spread of Lollard doctrines, the
Lancastrian kings appropriated the lands and the revenues of alien
priories and made use of them to fortify the Church and monasticism, thus
counteracting influences which in the first instance had made the
appropriation of these houses possible.

The number of alien priories in England is differently quoted as a hundred
and a hundred and forty[955]. Most of them had been founded soon after the
Conquest, when the gift of a manor on English soil to a foreign house had
brought over from France a few monks and nuns, who after defraying the
expenses of their houses remitted any surplus revenue or else forwarded a
sum of money in lieu of it to the parent house. When the relations between
France and England became strained it appeared advisable to sever the
connection between the foreign house and its English colonies. Edward I,
when he determined on war with France, appropriated the revenues of alien
priories for a time, and his successors frequently did the same; the
dangers to which these cells were exposed causing some foreign houses to
sever the connection by selling their English property.

The alien cells occupied by nuns were very few. Amesbury, which had been
constituted a cell to Fontevraud, regained its independent standing during
the wars with France[956]; Westwood[957], another cell of Fontevraud, and
Levenestre or Liminster in Surrey, a cell of Almanache in Normandy, were
dispersed, and the abbess of Almanache treated for the sale of the

After many attempts to interfere with foreign cells Henry V resolved on
their final sequestration (1414), and it was part of the property thus
appropriated which was bestowed on the houses called Bethlehem and Sion.

The chief information we have on the conventual life of the women
assembled at Sion is contained in a set of ‘additional rules’ written in
English ‘for the sisters of the order of St Saviour and St Bridget’[959].
The same rules exist in a manuscript of contemporaneous date adapted to
the use of the brothers, whose duties, save in a few particulars, were
similar. They acted as priests and confessors to the double community. The
chapel had a double chancel, each with its separate stalls; it was divided
by a ‘crate’ or grille which did not prevent the brothers and sisters from
being visible to each other during divine service. The gate of this grille
was kept locked, and was only opened for the entrance and departure of the
clergy when they said mass at the altar of the sisters’ chapel. The lay
brothers of the settlement acted as labourers, and had no part in the
government of the house.

The additional rules for the sisters are grouped together in fifty-nine
chapters, and contain most elaborate directions not only as to the
occupation, behaviour and special duties of the various inmates of the
convent, but for exigencies of every kind. After directions about the
holding of the Chapter, lists of defaults are worked out, grouped under
the headings of light, grievous, more grievous and most grievous (c. 1-7).
‘A careful consideration of this code of “defaultes” and their penalties,’
says Blunt[960], ‘leads to the conclusion that it was intended as an
exhaustive list of _possible_ crimes, and that it offers no ground for
believing that the Sisters of Sion were ever guilty of them or ever
incurred the severer punishments enjoined in connection with them.’ Among
‘light defaults’ we note such as neglect in religious observance and in
washing; among ‘grievous defaults,’ despising the common doctrine as
taught by the holy fathers, and going unconfessed for fourteen days. ‘More
grievous defaults’ are such as sowing discord, theft, and using sorcery or
witchcraft; ‘most grievous defaults’ are manslaughter, fleshly sin, and
blasphemy. We gather from the directions that one mode of severe
punishment was imprisonment, whereas ‘discipline’ was administered
regularly by the sisters to each other. The power of the abbess over the
members of the convent was absolute; she is spoken of in these rules
sometimes as sovereign, sometimes as majesty. It was she who decreed
punishment and penance, and when the bishop enjoined correction in
consequence of an enquiry, she decided upon and administered it.
Twenty-eight questions, which the bishop on the occasion of his visitation
was allowed to put to the abbess and the convent, are given (c. 10). They
refer to devotional duties, to the observance of fasts, etc. One question
(nr 10) enquires of the sisters how they are occupied when they are not at
divine service or at conventual observances; another (nr 18) if there be
an inventory or register of the books of the library, and how they and
other books of study are kept; again another (nr 26) enquires as to the
state of the infirmary.

A caution against slander suggests a curious idea of equity. If any sister
bring an accusation against another before the bishop, she shall not be
heard ‘unless bound to the pain if she fail in proof, that she whom she
accuses shall have, if she be found guilty.’

Among the men who necessarily had access to the women’s conventual
buildings, physicians, workmen and labourers are enumerated.

The election of a new abbess (c. 12) was effected by the sisters alone
within three days of the occurrence of a vacancy. It was not managed in
quite the same way as elsewhere. The prioress proposed a name, and if the
sisters voted unanimously in favour of it, the election was called ‘by the
way of the Holy Ghost.’ But if they did not agree, they named a candidate
and the ballot was repeated till a sufficient majority was obtained. The
election was not valid unless confirmed by the bishop. When the abbess
pronounced the words of her ‘obedience’ she was supported by a learned man
of law or notary, besides the confessor of the house and two brothers. The
confessor was appointed at the discretion of the abbess herself, the
‘sadder’ or elderly sisters and the brothers; but the other appointments
were made by the abbess alone (c. 13). She appointed the sisters to office
and could remove them. As elsewhere, she was obliged to do so in the
chapter-house in the presence of the convent.

The rules of keeping silence, the year of proof, and the instruction and
profession of novices, are fully discussed (c. 15). The account of how the
sisters were professed is supplemented by Aungier[961]. He gives an
additional description of the ceremony in church, probably of somewhat
later date, and of the interrogatory through which the bishop put the
prospective nun. The first question which he put was to this effect: ‘Art
thou free and unfettered by any bond of the Church, or of wedlock; of vow,
or of excommunication?’ to which she made answer, ‘I am truly free.’ The
bishop then asked: ‘Does not shame, or perchance grief of worldly
adversity, urge thee to a religious profession, or perhaps the multitude
of thy debts compel thee?’ To which she answered: ‘Neither grief nor shame
incites me to this, but a fervent love of Christ; and I have already paid
all my debts according to my power,’ etc. I have not met with similar
questions in any other place.

In the additional rules directions are also given about singing and
keeping the hours and the festivals (c. 18-44). The day at Sion was
divided by the seven ‘hours’ in the usual way. At the hours in chapel the
‘sadder’ or elder sisters sang together with the younger ones or
‘song-sisters.’ The ‘observance of the altar’ at both masses belonged to
the brothers; it was so arranged that the brothers’ service came first and
the sisters’ began when that of the brothers ended. In addition to the
usual hours and masses two ceremonies were daily observed at Sion. One was
the singing of the psalm _De Profundis_ at an open grave to which the
whole convent wended its way after tierce. The other consisted of a prayer
addressed to Mary in chapel before evensong, from which none of the
sisters was to absent herself except for an important reason.

A number of festivals were celebrated at Sion with special services and
processions (c. 29). Among them were the feast of the Circumcision, the
translation of St Bridget and the day of St John the Baptist ‘when their
feasts fall on Sunday and not else’; also Palm Sunday, St Mark’s day,
Rogation Sunday, St Peter and St Paul, St Anne’s, Michaelmas, all the
feasts of Our Lady and all the principal or high double feasts of the
year. On these occasions the sisters walked two and two in procession, and
the sister who was sexton bore the ‘image of our lady’ after the cross,
and two torches were carried on either side a little before the image. The
additional rules contain directions to the sisters on the arrangement of
divine service on these occasions, and further directions in the rule for
the brothers minutely describe the elaborate ritual which took place.

The additional rules also contain a full description of the duties of each
appointment in the convent (c. 45). The choir in church was led by a
_chauntres_ and _subchauntres_ who should be ‘cunning and perfect in
reading and singing.’ It was the duty of the _ebdomary_, or weekly
appointed nun (c. 46), to be one of the first in choir; she was ‘to
abstayn and withdrawe herself from alle thynges that wyke that myght lette
her to performe her office.’ When the abbess did not execute the service
the ebdomary began the _Invitatory_; and she always gave the third
blessing after the abbess had read the third lesson. She also fulfilled
the office of the abbess at the principal feasts, except in such things as
belonged exclusively to the abbess.

We hear also of the duties of the sexton, _sexteyne_ (c. 48), who kept the
church ornaments and the altar ‘whole and sound, fair, clean and honest,’
and who saw to the washing of altar-cloths, _awbes_ or surplices. She was
not allowed to touch or wash the hallowed _corporas_ or cloths with bare
hands, but was obliged to wear linen gloves, and in starching the cloths
she was directed to use starch made of herbs only. The sexton had in her
keeping wax, lamps, oil and all other things belonging to the church; she
had to provide for the church _syngynge_ or communion _brede_, _sudarys_,
wax-candles, tallow-candles, wax rolls, tapers, torches, mats, _uattes_,
and _roundlettes_; and she provided for the _penners_, pens, ink,
inkhorns, tables, and all else that the abbess asked of her. Also she
opened and shut the doors and windows of the sisters’ choir and common
places, lighted and extinguished tapers and candles, and snuffed them ‘in
such wise and in such time that the sisters be not grieved with the

It was the duty of the sexton to ring the bells in the women’s part of the
house; the ringing of a bell regulated throughout the life of those
assembled at Sion. It roused the brothers and sisters from sleep, summoned
them to church, called them to meals, and ever and anon gave notice for a
devotional pause in whatever occupation was going on at the moment. When
one of the community passed away from life the large or curfew bell was
tolled continuously.

Another appointment in the women’s convent was that of the _legister_ or
reader at meals (c. 50), who was directed to read out distinctly and
openly, that all might understand, whatever the abbess or chauntress had
assigned. On one day of the week she read out the rule. Absolute silence
reigned during meals. If anyone had a communication to make, this was done
by means of signs, used also at other times when silence was to be
observed. A curious ‘table of signs used during the hours of silence by
the sisters and brothers in the monastery of Sion’ was drawn up by Thomas
Betsone[962], one of the brothers. Together with other tables of the kind,
it suggests the origin of the method by which the deaf and dumb were
formerly taught.

At Sion the abbess had her meals with the sisters, sitting at a high table
while they sat at side tables (c. 51-52), and the servitors or lay sisters
waited. When they had done the sisters wiped their knives and spoons on
the napkins (without washing them?); they were to guard against spotting
the cloth, and spilling the food, and were directed to put away their cups
and spoons honest and clean (without washing them?) into the ‘coffyns’
which were kept underneath the table, or in some other place ordered by
the abbess. At the end of a meal the sisters swept together the crumbs
with their napkins, and then, at a sign from the abbess, they bore the
food away to the serving-house. The youngest sister took the first dish,
and each one carried away something according to age. The language in
which the utensils are described presents some difficulties. They carried
away the drink and then ‘the garnapes that they sette on, ther pottes and
cruses, after thys, brede, hole, kytte, cantelles, ande crommes, and laste
of alle salt,’ ending evermore with the abbess or president, and inclining
to each sister as they took them up and they again to them.

The behaviour of the sisters to each other and to the abbess in the
refectory, the dormitory, the chapter-house, etc. was carefully regulated
(c. 53). The sisters when they met the abbess bowed to her, ‘for love
without reverence is but childish love.’ The desire for refinement in
bearing and behaviour is manifested throughout by these directions, and
some of them are curious. Thus the sister who washed her hands was
directed not to ‘jutte up’ the water on another, nor to spit in the
lavatory, nor to presume to go without her veil and crown upon her head,
except only in her cell, washing-house, etc. Judging from this reference
to cells, the dormitory at Sion was divided by partitions or curtains, so
that each sister practically had a room to herself.

Many details are then given concerning the duties of the prioress and
other appointments. The nuns appointed to enquire into shortcomings are
here designated as _serchers_ (c. 55). The treasurer and her fellow kept
the muniments of the monastery and its possessions in gold and silver in
the treasury, in a large chest to which there were two keys, one kept by
the treasurer and the other by her fellow (c. 56). These sisters also
provided and paid for all necessary medicines, spices and powders, etc.

Duties of no small importance devolved on the _chambres_, or mistress of
the wardrobe, who saw to the raiment of the sisters and the brothers, both
in regard to linen and to woollen clothes, shaping, sewing, making,
repairing and keeping them from ‘wormes,’ and shaking them with ‘the help
of other sisters.’ I transcribe in the original spelling the things she is
told to provide: ‘_canuas for bedyng_, _fryses_, _blankettes_, _shetes_,
_bolsters_, _pelowes_, _couerlites_, _cuschens_, _basens_, _stamens_,
_rewle cotes_, _cowles_, _mantelles_, _wymples_, _veyles_, _crownes_,
_pynnes_, _cappes_, _nyght kerchyfes_, _pylches_, _mantel furres_,
_cuffes_, _gloues_, _hoses_, _shoes_, _botes_, _soles_, _sokkes_,
_mugdors_ (sic), _gyrdelles_, _purses_, _knyues_, _laces_, _poyntes_,
_nedelles_, _threde_,--_waschyng bolles and sope_,--(written in the
margin) and for all other necessaries, as directed by the abbess, which
shall not be over curious but plain and homely, without wearing of any
strange colours of silk, gold or silver, having all things of honesty and
profit and nothing of vanity after the rule, their knives unpointed and
purses being double of linen cloth, and not silk.’

In illustration of the office of the chambress, Blunt has published a
document preserved in the Record Office, which contains the account of
Dame Bridget Belgrave, chambress at Sion from Michaelmas 1536 to
Michaelmas 1537, the year preceding the dissolution[963]. This shows that
the chambress provided the material for the dress of the sisters and
other items. She buys _russettes_, white cloth, _kerseys_, fryce, Holland
cloth and other linen cloth mostly by the piece, which varies in the
number of its yards; she provides soap, calf-skins, thread, needles and
thimbles; she purchases new spectacles and has old ones mended. Among many
other items of interest we find fox-skins, paper, and pins of divers
sorts; she sets down a sum for burying poor folks, and ‘expences at
London,’ from which we gather that she had been there; and pays ‘rewards’
and ‘wages’ to the _grome_, the _skynner_, and the _shumakers_.

The duties of the cellaress stand next in the additional rules (c. 56),
and they recall the complex duties belonging to the same post at Barking.
Blunt has also illustrated these duties by publishing the accounts,
rendered by Dame Agnes Merrett, for the last year preceding the
dissolution[964]. This cellaress also charged herself with various sums
received for hides, calf-skins and wool-felles or sheep-skins. She
received payment for boarding My Lady Kyngeston and her servants, and
sister Elizabeth Nelson. She received rent from various tenants and
managed the home farm at Isleworth. We hear of her buying horses, cattle,
hogs and peacocks for its storing. Its dairy was managed by paid servants.
This cellaress, like her fellow at Barking, purchased provisions and fish
for the use of the convent, but her entries are more numerous and infer a
higher standard of living, perhaps due to the fact that these accounts are
more than a hundred years later than the ‘charge of the cellaress at
Barking.’ The cellaress at Sion also bought salt salmon, herrings by the
barrel, and red herrings by the ‘caade’; also _stubbe_ eels. She further
bought spices, fruits, sugar, nutmegs, almonds, currants, ginger,
isinglass, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, mace, _figge doodes_ (sic),
_topnettes_ (sic), great raisins, prunes, saffron and rice. Her ‘foreign
payments’ include seed for the garden, boat-hire, and expenses at London,
by which we see that she too, like the chambress of the house, had been
there. Among her other expenses are _rewards_ to the ‘clerke of the
kechyn,’ the ‘baily of the husbandry,’ the ‘keper of the covent (convent)
garden,’ and the ‘cookes.’ Members of the convent were deputed by the
abbess to look after the sick (c. 57), and the writer insists upon the
need of gentleness and patience in dealing with them.

‘Often change their beds and clothes,’ he says, ‘give them medicines, lay
to them plaisters and minister to them meat and drink, fire and water,
and all other necessaries night and day, as need requires after the
counsel of the physicians, and precept of the sovereign; do not be
squeamish in washing and wiping them by avoiding them, be not angry nor
hasty, nor impatient though one have the vomit, another the flux, another
the frenzy, and now sings, now cries, now laughs, now weeps, now chides,
now is frightened, now is wroth, now well apayde, for there be some
sickness vexing the sick so greatly and provoking them to ire that the
matter drawn up to the brain alienates the mind. And therefore those in
attendance should have much patience with them, that thereby they may
secure an everlasting crown.’

Aungier has also reprinted lists of the capabilities of indulgence granted
to Sion, and of the pardons secured by those who offered prayers in the
chapel there[965]. This shows one of the means by which money was secured
to religious houses in the 15th century. Indulgences were granted at Sion
on almost every festival in the year. By ‘devoutly giving somewhat to the
reparation of the said monastery’ and offering prayers on Midlent Sunday,
the visitor at Sion might secure pardon extending from a hundred days to
‘clean remission of all sin except in the points which are reserved to the
Pope.’ To give alms on the feast of St Bridget, the patron saint of the
house, secured to him who sought help ‘pardon and clean remission in all
cases reserved and unreserved,’ according to the wording of the document.
This power, as the manuscript informs us, had been granted ‘by diverse
holy fathers, popes at Rome, archbishops, bishops, cardinals and legates.’
Aungier supplements it by printing a document which came from Norfolk on
the capabilities of pardon possessed by different religious houses[966].
There are entries in this referring to the ‘pardoun of beyds’ of the
Charterhouse of Mount Grace and of the Charterhouse at Sheen, and to the
pardon of beads at Sion and at the ‘Crossed Friars’ beside London Tower.

A number of devotional books were written for the nuns at Sion; some in
Latin, some in English. A few of the service books of the house have been
preserved. Among them is the Martyrology which was in daily use among the
brothers and which contains historical memoranda, accounts of the saints,
the records of the deaths of the sisters, brothers and benefactors of the
house between 1422 and 1639, and extracts from religious writers. This
martyrology accompanied the women’s convent on their wanderings, and since
their return it has been acquired by the British Museum[967]. A
translation of it into English was made by Richard Whytford († 1542), a
brother of Sion, ‘for the edificacyon of certayn religyous persones
unlerned that dayly dyd rede the same martiloge in Latyn not
understandynge what they redde[968].’ Whytford wrote other religious
books, among them the ‘Pype or Tonne of Perfection’; the ‘Fruyte of
redempcyon,’ which is now held to be by ‘Simon, the anker of London,’ has
been attributed to him.

Among other books written for the nuns is a curious discourse in English
by Thomas Fishbourne, father confessor in 1420, to which is added a
portion of the gospel of St Peter ad Vincula[969]. It contains a
discussion on the nature of pardons and indulgences, particularly of those
procured at Rome. Symon Wynter, another brother of the house (1428), wrote
a treatise for them in praise of the Virgin (Regina Coeli)[970]; and
Thomas Prestius wrote instructions for the novices[971]. The house owned a
large library, to the celebrity of which Sir Richard Sutton added by a
splendid work printed at his expense by Wynkyn de Worde in 1519 and called
in honour of the monastery ‘The Orchard of Syon[972]’.

The most important work in English however compiled for the nuns was a
devotional treatise on divine service with a translation into English of
the Offices, called the ‘Mirror of Our Lady,’ first printed in 1530, the
authorship of which is attributed by its latest editor, Blunt, to Thomas
Gascoigne (1403-1458)[973]. Gascoigne was an eminent divine, at one time
Chancellor of the University of Oxford; he caused the life of St Bridget
to be translated into English and bequeathed most of his books by will to
the sisters at Sion. The Offices in this book are amplified, and Blunt was
much struck by the similarity of many passages to the Book of Common
Prayer. The purpose of the writer is expressed in the following

‘As many of you, though you can sing and read, yet you cannot see what
the meaning thereof is.... I have drawn your legend and all your service
into English, that you see by the understanding thereof, how worthy and
holy praising of our glorious Lady is contained therein, and the more
devoutly and knowingly sing it and read it, and say it to her worship.’

The ‘Mirror of Our Lady’ is very instructive with regard to the just
estimation of the position and feelings of religious women during the
later Middle Ages. There is much in it that is eloquent, refined, and
beautiful, but its insistence on detail is sometimes wearisome. The style
of the writer is fitly illustrated by the following passages, which are
taken from the introductory treatise on the reading of religious
books[975]. The wording of the original is retained as closely as
possible, but the spelling is modernized.

‘Devout reading of holy books is called one of the parts of contemplation,
for it causes much grace and comfort to the soul if it be well and
discreetly used. And much reading is often lost for lack of diligence,
that it is not intended as it ought to be. Therefore if you will profit in
reading you must keep these five things. First you ought to take heed what
you read, that it be such thing as is speedwell for you to read and
convenient to the degree you stand in. For you ought to read no worldly
matters nor worldly books, namely such as are without reason of ghostly
edification or belong not to the need of the house; you ought also to read
no books that speak of vanities and trifles, and much less no books of
evil or occasion to evil. For since your holy rule forbids you all vain
and idle words in all times and places, by the same it forbids you reading
of all vain and idle things, for reading is a manner of speaking. The
second, when you begin to read or to hear such books of ghostly fruit as
accord for you to read or to hear, that then you dispose yourselves
thereto with meek reverence and devotion.... The third that you labour to
understand the same thing that you read. For Cato taught his son to read
so his precepts that he understand them. For it is, he says, great
negligence to read and not to understand. And therefore when you read by
yourself alone you ought not to be hasty to read much at once but you
ought to abide thereupon, and sometimes read a thing again twice or thrice
or oftener till you understand it clearly. For St Austin said that no man
should ween to understand a thing sufficiently in any wise by once
reading. And if you cannot understand what you read, ask of others that
can teach you. And they that can ought not to be loth to teach others....
The fourth thing that is to be kept in reading is that you dress so your
intent that your reading and study be not only for to be cunning or for to
be able to speak it forth to others, but principally to inform yourself
and to set it forth in your own living.... The fifth thing is discretion.
So that according to the matter you arrange your reading. For you must
understand that different books speak in different wise. For some books
are made to inform the understanding and to tell how spiritual persons
ought to be governed in all their living that they may know how they shall
live and what they shall do, how they shall labour in cleansing their
conscience and in getting virtues, how they shall withstand temptation and
suffer tribulations, and how they shall pray and occupy themselves with
ghostly exercise, with many such other full holy doctrines.... Other books
there be that are made to quicken and to stir up the affections of the
soul, as some that tell of the sorrows and dreads of death and of doom and
of pains, to stir up the affection of dread and of sorrow for sin. Some
tell of the great benefits of our Lord God, how He made us and bought us
and what love and mercy He shewed continually to us to stir up our
affections of love and of hope in Him. Some tell of the joys of heaven, to
stir up the affections of joy to desire thitherward. And some tell of the
foulness and wretchedness of sin, to stir up the affections of hate and
loathing thereagainst.’



  ‘For sum (nunnes) bene devowte, holy, and towarde,
  And holden the ryght way to blysse;
  And sum bene feble, lewde, and frowarde,
  Now god amend that ys amys!’
                              (_From_ ‘_Why I cannot be a nun_,’ l. 311.)

§ 1. Visitations of Nunneries in England.

The changes which came over convent life towards the close of the Middle
Ages and modified its tenor can be studied in the efforts made to reform
monastic life in the centuries preceding the Reformation. Both in England
and abroad the heads of many houses were zealous in removing abuses which
their predecessors had suffered to creep in, and in checking tendencies
the deteriorating effect of which now first came to be realized. The bull
promulgated by Pope Benedict XII in 1336 with a view to reforming the
Benedictine order had been accepted with a reservation in England and had
left matters in Germany practically untouched. But in the 15th century a
movement in favour of reform was inaugurated within the religious orders
themselves; it was increased by pressure brought to bear on monastic
houses from without. For the prelates of the Church as well as others were
eager to interfere with monastic settlements, all the more as such
interference frequently tended to the increase of their own prerogative.
But in spite of the devoted earnestness of many individuals and the
readiness of convents to accept correction, the movement failed to restore
its former glory to an institution which in common with other influential
institutions of the Middle Ages appeared doomed to decay.

The attempts of the monastic orders to restore vigour to themselves, and
the efforts of the Church to promote monastic reform, were largely
furthered by the desire to counteract the dangers to the established
religion which threatened from the spread of heretical teaching.

In England a critical attitude towards monastic institutions and the
Church was the outcome of Wyclif’s († 1384) influence. It was checked for
the time being by the alliance of the Church with the Lancastrian kings
(after 1399) in favour of a reactionary policy. Several monasteries were
endowed by these kings, among them houses of Carthusian monks and Sion, as
mentioned above. Reforms were instituted and the prelates of the Church
eagerly resumed their powers of visitation. By so doing they succeeded in
checking monastic abuses, which continued to exist for a longer period on
the Continent and there assumed much greater proportions.

In Germany, owing partly to its scattered provinces, partly to the want of
concerted action between the dignitaries of Church and State, monasteries
throughout the 14th century were left to drift in the way they listed,
often in the direction of indifferentism, often in that of positive evil.
The abuses of convent life at the beginning of the 15th century were far
greater there than in England, and the efforts at reform were
proportionally greater and more strenuous. In Germany also the effort to
counteract the effect of heretical doctrines by way of reform was
decisive. For, as we shall see later on, monastic reforms on a large scale
were instituted immediately after the Church Council at Constance (1415)
which condemned Hus to the stake.

The accounts of visitations instituted by the diocesan give us an insight
into the abuses which threatened life in the nunnery at different periods.
The diocesan was bound to visit the religious settlements situated within
his diocese periodically, with the exception of those which had secured
exemption through the Pope. For some time before the movement in favour of
monastic reform began, these visitations appear to have taken place at
irregular intervals and at periods often many years apart. But afterwards
they became frequent, and called forth injunctions which give us an idea
of the abuses which needed correction. Later still these powers of
visitation of the diocesan were extended by means of special permits
secured from Rome. Towards the close of the 15th century we find the
prelates of the Church eager to interfere with monasteries, and regain a
hold on those which had been removed from their influence.

The visitation of a religious house in all cases was so conducted that the
diocesan previously sent word to the convent announcing his arrival. After
assisting at mass in the chapel, he repaired to the chapter-house and
there severally interrogated the superior of the house and its inmates as
to the state of affairs. Their depositions were taken down in writing and
were discussed at headquarters. A list of injunctions rectifying such
matters as called for correction was then forwarded in writing to the
superior of the house.

Among the earliest injunctions forwarded to a nunnery which I have come
across are those sent to Godstow after a visitation held in 1279 by John
Peckham, archbishop of Canterbury[976]. The first part treats of the
celebration of the divine offices and of the part novices are to take in
the singing. The feast of St John which is celebrated by childish
festivities (puerilia solemnia), no doubt in accordance with an ancient
folk custom, is not to be extended to a second day. Directions are then
given about going outside precincts and staying away on business. The nuns
are directed not to converse with the neighbouring students at Oxford
(scholares Oxonii) unless they have permission to do so from the abbess,
and to knit no bonds of friendship with them, ‘because such affection
often brings harmful thoughts.’

The attraction which the students at Oxford exerted on the nuns of Godstow
has a counterpart at a later date in the effect which intercourse with the
students at Cambridge had on the nuns of St Radegund’s. When John Alcock,
bishop of Ely († 1500), proposed the dissolution of this nunnery he urged
that the nearness of the university had led to the demoralisation of the
prioress and the nuns[977].

In the directions forwarded to Godstow we also find it enjoined that
secular and religious visitors shall dine in the guest-house (hospitalaria
communi) or in the chamber of the abbess, and on no account within the
convent precincts with the nuns. Directions are also given as to the
wearing of simple clothes, in which matter ‘the rule of Benedict’ (sic)
shall be observed. These directions are not easy to understand. ‘Linings
of dyed woollen (imposterum burneto[978]),’ say they, ‘shall not be worn;
nor red dresses (rugatas tunicas) nor other unseemly clothes wide at the

Archbishop Peckham, who reformed abuses at Godstow, addressed a mandate
to the abbess of Romsey in 1286 against a certain prebendary William
Shyrlock, who seems to have been one of the residential canons of the
place. He is not to presume to enter the cloister or the church while
suspicions are entertained against him, and the nuns are not to converse
with him in the house or elsewhere, for he is accused of living a
dishonest and dissolute life[979]. No aspersion in this case is cast on
the doings of the nuns.

A serious scandal is said to have occurred about the year 1303 in the
Cistercian nunnery of Swine in Yorkshire, but details concerning its
nature are not forthcoming. In consequence of an enquiry into the state of
the house the prioress resigned, and her successor also absented herself,
it is alleged, on account of some scandal[980].

The nunneries which were cells to abbeys of men were exempt from the
visitation of the diocesan; they were inspected by the abbot of the parent
house, who enquired into abuses and enjoined corrections. A mandate of
this description which was forwarded to Sopwell nunnery, a cell of St
Alban’s, by the abbot in 1338 is in existence. The nuns are directed to
observe silence in the church, the cloister, the refectory, and the
dormitory. No sister shall hold converse with secular persons in the
parlour unless she is wearing a cowl and a veil; and tailors and others
who are employed shall work in some place assigned to them outside the
convent precincts[981].

Among the injunctions sent to Chatteris in Cambridgeshire in the year 1345
the following are worth noticing: Nuns shall not keep fowls, dogs or small
birds (aviculae) within the convent precincts, nor bring them into church
during divine service, and they shall not, from a wish to reform them,
take into their employ servants who are known for their bad ways[982].

In April of the year 1397 a visitation of the nunnery of Nun-Monkton in
Yorkshire was conducted by Thomas Dalby, archdeacon of Richmond, who acted
for the archbishop of York[983]. He accused the prioress Margaret Fairfax
of allowing various kinds of fur to be worn in her house, especially grey
fur. He also objected to the wearing of silk veils and to the prioress
herself acting as treasurer (bursaria) of the house, and charged her with
having alienated its property to the value of a hundred marks. He
censured her for entertaining John Munkton, and inviting him to dinner in
her chamber, and for allowing the use of unusual vestments and clothes;
for too readily receiving back nuns who had disgraced their profession
(lapsae fornicatione); and for allowing nuns to receive gifts from friends
to support them. He also complained that John Munkton behaved badly, had
dallied (ludit) with the prioress at meals in her chamber, and had been
served there with drink.

Injunctions were forwarded in the following July to rectify these matters,
and directing the prioress to have no communication with _Dominus_ John
Munkton, William Snowe or Thomas Pape, except in the presence of the nuns.
The usual vestments were to be worn in church, and the nuns were enjoined
not to wear silk garments (paneis), silk veils, precious furs, finger
rings, and embroidered or ornamental _jupes_, in English called gowns,
like secular women. They were not to neglect the commemoration of the dead
under penalty of being deprived of special clothes (carentiae camisarum?)
for two whole weeks.

The general tenor of these injunctions argues a want of management on the
part of the lady superior and a tendency to luxury among the nuns. As time
wore on complaints about mismanagement of revenues became more frequent,
but they were accompanied by evidence of increasing poverty, especially in
the smaller houses, which shows that the lady superior was labouring under
difficulties for which she was not altogether responsible.

A serious blow was dealt to the monastic system by the Black Death, which
began in 1349. It produced a temporary collapse of discipline and
indifference to religion[984], and resulted in changes in the state of
agriculture and the position of the labourer, which affected the poorer
and smaller houses in a disastrous manner.

Thus we read about Thetford, a small Benedictine nunnery in Norfolk[985],
that the nuns’ revenues had much decreased through mortality and
inundation since 1349, and that when Henry V levied a tax on religious
houses, Thetford, which consisted at the time of a prioress and nine nuns,
was excused on the plea of poverty. The increasing poverty of the house is
evident from accounts of visitations between 1514 1520[986]. On one
occasion the nuns declared they were short of service books; on another
that the prioress received illiterate and deformed persons (indoctae et
deformes) into the house; and again that there was great poverty and that
the few novices had no teacher.

Again we read of Malling in Kent that it was excused from payments in
1404; in 1349 the bishop of Rochester had found it so decayed as to be
hardly capable of restoration[987]. Two abbesses had died of the
pestilence; there were only eight inmates left in the house, four of whom
were professed and four non-professed.

Malling recovered itself, but not so Wyrthorp in Northamptonshire, where
Emma de Pinchbeck and many of the Austin nuns fell victims to the
pestilence[988]. The archbishop appointed Agnes Bowes as prioress, but the
convent was beyond recovery. In 1354 Sir Th. Holland, the patron of the
house, petitioned that it should be united to the nunnery at Stamford, to
which its prioress and the one remaining nun removed[989]. In the royal
licence which secured this change it is stated ‘that the convent being
poorly endowed was by the pestilence which lately prevailed reduced to
such poverty that all the nuns but one on account of penury had
dispersed.’ In the course of the 14th century other nunneries complained
of insufficient revenue and poverty, among them Seton in Cumberland[990],
St Sepulchre’s at Canterbury in 1359[991], and Rusper and Easebourne which
were both situated in Sussex.

In a few cases accounts are preserved of successive visitations to the
same nunnery extending over a number of years, which afford a valuable
record of part of the life-history of the house. The visitations conducted
between 1442 and 1527 at Rusper and at Easebourne are most instructive as
showing the gradual collapse which many of the smaller houses experienced.

The chief complaint made during the visitation of Rusper in 1442 was that
the prioress of the house had failed to render account to the sisterhood
during the term she had held office[992]. She was consequently enjoined by
the bishop of Chichester to produce an account year by year and submit it
to him and to the sisterhood. Some thirty years later in 1478 upon enquiry
it was found that the convent was in debt, and the bishop asked for an
inventory of the house, which was drawn up for him. The community at this
time consisted of the prioress and five nuns, four of whom are entered as
professed, one as non-professed.

Again in 1484 the bishop visited Rusper, and three nuns were consecrated
on this occasion. But the house had entered on a downward course of
poverty and decay. In 1485 Rusper was exempted from paying subsidy on the
plea of poverty. During the visitation of 1521 the nuns referred their
pecuniary poverty to the onerous expenses caused by the too frequent
visits of friends and relations who came to stay with the prioress, while
the prioress herself referred the poverty to other reasons, but agreed
that the house was fast going to ruin. No complaints were made at the
visitation three years later (1524), except against a certain William
Tychen, who sowed discord. Again in 1527 the prioress and nuns deposed
that all was well in the house, but that its poverty was extreme and that
it was on the brink of ruin.

The accounts of the visitations to Easebourne[993] are even more
instructive, for there the deteriorating effects of mismanagement and
poverty were increased by want of discipline and quarrelsomeness among the
nuns. In 1414 the community consisted of the prioress and six or seven
nuns. In 1437 and 1439 its poverty was already so great that letters
patent were secured on the plea of insufficient revenue, exonerating the
prioress and her convent from certain payments called for by the clergy.
In 1441 the house was in debt to the amount of £40, and here also the
convent cast the blame of mismanagement on the head of the house,
referring the debts to ‘costly expenses of the prioress, who frequently
rides abroad, and pretends she does so on the common business of the
house, though it is not so, with a train of attendants much too large, and
tarries long abroad, and she feasts sumptuously both at home and
abroad.... And while she does so the members of the convent are made to
work like hired workwomen, and they receive nothing whatever for their own
use from their work, but the prioress takes the whole profit.’

In reply to their complaints the bishop forbade the prioress to compel the
sisters to continual work; ‘and if they should wish of their own accord to
work, they shall be free to do so, but yet so that they may receive for
themselves the half part of what they gain by their hands; the other part
shall be converted to the advantage of the house and unburdening its
debts.’ But discharging those debts was no easy matter. The prioress was
commanded to sell her costly fur trimmings for the advantage of the house,
and if she rode abroad to spend only what was needful, and to content
herself with four horses. The administration of temporal goods was taken
from her altogether and given to ‘Master Thomas Boleyn and John Lylis,
Esquire.’ But under their management the debt of £40 had increased in nine
years to £66; and in 1475, as again in 1485 and 1489, the house had to be
excused from payments. Rumours of an unfavourable character about what
went on in the house now reached the bishop, and before the next
visitation in 1478, the prioress Agnes Tauke was summoned to Chichester,
where she promised on her oath before the bishop and others to resign her
office if called upon to do so.

The deposition made by her nuns during the ensuing visitation confirmed
the unfavourable rumours; two nuns had left the priory ostensibly for
their health and were abroad in apostasy. One nun referred this conduct to
neglect on the part of the prioress, another to that of the chaplain, John
Smyth, who confessed to having sealed or caused to be sealed a licence to
one of the nuns to go out of the priory after having had criminal
intercourse with her. Other complaints were made against the prioress,
‘that she had her kinsmen staying with her for weeks at the priory and
gave them the best food, while the nuns had the worst’; also that she was
herself of bad character. But these recriminations were not accepted by
the bishop. The desire of Agnes Tauke to improve matters was accepted as
genuine and she was not called upon to resign.

Discontent however remained a standing characteristic of the nuns at
Easebourne. At the visitation of 1521 the prioress deposed that the nuns
lived honestly and religiously according to the rule of St Augustine (sic)
and were sufficiently obedient to her, but the nun sexton blamed the
prioress for ‘not making up any account annually as she ought in presence
of the sisters concerning her administration of goods,’ and another nun
deposed that she neglected to provide for the sisters the sum of thirteen
shillings and four pence in money to which they were entitled. Again in
1524 the prioress deposed that all was well, but the sub-prioress
complained of disobedience, both among the professed and the non-professed
nuns, who on their side complained of harshness of treatment. The bishop
believed the complaints of the latter and blamed the behaviour of the
sub-prioress, who submitted to correction.

The recriminations of the nuns at Easebourne recall a picture drawn about
this time by Langland (c. 1390) in the _Vision of Piers the Ploughman_, in
which Wrath personified as a friar describes how he stirred up quarrels in
a nunnery. In its earliest version the poem omits these passages; and
Langland, so ready to abuse and ridicule monk and friar, is chary in his
references to nuns. In the later versions of his poem (text B and C)
‘Wrath’ is described as acting first as gardener and then as cook in a
nunnery, where in the character of ‘the prioress’ potager and of ‘other
poor ladies,’ he ‘made them broths of various scandals.’ Among the stories
he set going was

              ... ‘that Dame Johane was a bastard
  And Dame Clarice a knight’s daughter, a cuckold was her sire,
  And Dame Purnell a priest’s concubine, she will never become prioress,
  For she had a child in cherry time, all our chapter it wist.’

In consequence the nuns fall to quarrelling among themselves and end with
attacking one another bodily. The picture, even if overdrawn, proves, in
conjunction with the temper of the nuns at Easebourne, that peaceableness
no longer formed the invariable concomitant of convent life during the
15th century.

Various particulars in the history of men’s houses corroborate the fact
that considerable changes were going on inside the monastic body during
the 15th century.

Reference has been made to the fluctuations in the history of alien
priories. Some of the foreign houses, aware of the dangers to which their
English colonies were exposed, advocated the sale of their property in
England. Numerous grammar-schools and colleges profited by the change or
owed their foundation directly to it. As early as 1390 William Wykeham
bought estates of alien priories for New College, his foundation at
Oxford. Waynfleet, bishop of Worcester, who in 1415 founded St Mary
Magdalen College at Oxford, annexed to it Sele, an alien priory which had
been admitted to denizenship[994]. It is noteworthy that some religious
houses about this time dissolved of their own accord. Thus the master and
brethren of St John’s hospital at Oxford obtained leave from Henry VI to
convey their house to Waynfleet[995]. The Austin priory of Selborne,
which ‘had become a desert convent without canons or prior,’ was likewise
annexed to St Mary Magdalen College, a change which was ratified by a bull
from Innocent VIII in 1486[996].

It has already been said that a change of attitude towards religious
institutions on the part of the public was the direct outcome of the
spread of Wyclif’s teaching. In 1410 Sir John Oldcastle, the so-called
leader of the Lollards, who was burnt for heresy eight years later, made a
proposal in the House of Commons which is curious in various ways. It was
to the effect that their temporalities should be taken from bishop, abbot
and prior, and the revenues of their possessions employed to pay a
standing army, to augment the income of the noblemen and gentry, to endow
a hundred hospitals and to make small payments to the clergy[997]. No
notice in this case was taken of the donors or representatives of the
settlement, to whom land and tenements upon default, or neglect of those
to whom they were granted, otherwise reverted. The proposal was
accompanied by a list of monasteries which might be appropriated, but the
proposal was summarily quashed.

The Church Council held at Basel (from 1418), at which English prelates
also were present, was emphatic in urging the need of monastic reform. It
would be interesting to ascertain if this was prompted solely by the
feeling that the recognised abuses of convent life lowered religion in
general estimation, or if suspicions were entertained that religious
houses might be harbouring unorthodox elements. Great efforts at reform
were made within the Benedictine order; chapters were held by the abbots
at regular intervals and the system of visitations formulated for mutual
supervision and control by the various monasteries once more received
attention. We shall see this system in full operation on the Continent. In
England we have accounts of several chapters of Benedictine abbots held
between 1422 and 1426, in which reports of extensive visitations were
given[998]. The chapter of 1473 appointed the abbot of St Albans (Alboin,
1464-1476) to visit at Glastonbury, and the abbot of Eynsham to visit at
St Albans[999].

Churchmen on all sides were eager to promote monastic reforms and
interfere with monastic privileges. In 1418 Pope Martin V sent a bull to
the archbishop of Canterbury bidding him hold visitations regularly[1000].
But the story of the gradual encroachment of the Church on monastic
privilege and property is less striking in England than abroad, for the
independent spirit of individual houses was less strong, and convents
generally, especially those of women, seem to have yielded without
opposition to the claims made by energetic churchmen. Some monasteries of
men, however, resented interference and maintained their rights. An
episode in this struggle deserves attention, as it reflects unfavourably
on two nunneries which were dependencies of the abbey of St Albans. There
was a long-standing jealousy between the lord abbot of St Albans and the
lord primate of Canterbury, renewed by a quarrel between Abbot Wallingford
and Archbishop Bourchier, which had been decided in favour of the former.
The abbey enjoyed exemption from episcopal visitation, not only for itself
but for its dependencies or cells, among which were the nunneries of
Sopwell and St Mary Prée. In 1489 Archbishop Morton of Canterbury secured
a Papal bull[1001] which empowered him to visit all the monasteries of his
diocese, those subject to his visitation and those exempt from it. And
this, as the document says, ‘not only because the former strictness of
life is abandoned ... but also because life is luxurious and dissolute.’

In consequence of the authority conferred by this bull the primate penned
a letter[1002] to the abbot of St Albans containing charges of a serious
nature. After a few opening sentences it continues in the following

‘... Moreover, among other grave enormities and wicked crimes of which you
are accused and for which you are noted and defamed, you admitted a
certain married woman named Elena Germyn, who some time ago wrongfully
left her husband and lived in adultery with another man, to be sister and
nun in the house or priory of Pré, which you hold to be in your
jurisdiction; and there you appointed her prioress notwithstanding her
husband was living and is alive now. Further, brother Thomas Sudbury, your
fellow-monk, publicly and notoriously and without interference or
punishment from you, associated and still associates with this woman on
terms of intimacy, like others among your brethren and fellow-monks who
had access and still have access to her and to others elsewhere as to a
brothel or house of ill fame. And not only in the house of Pré but also in
the nunnery of Sopwell, which you contend is under your jurisdiction also,
you change the prioresses and superiors (praesidentes) again and again at
your will and caprice, deposing good and religious women and promoting to
the highest dignity the worthless and wicked, so that religion is cast
aside, virtue is neglected, and many expenses are incurred by
reprehensible practices through your introducing certain of your brethren
who are thieves and notorious villains to preside there as guardians to
manage the goods of the priories, which more correctly speaking are
wasted, and those places which were religious are rendered and reputed
profane and impious, and so far impoverished by your doings and the doings
of those with you as to be brought to the verge of ruin.

‘Similarly in dealing with other cells of monks which you say are subject
to you within the monastery of the glorious protomartyr Alban, you have
dilapidated the common property in its possessions and jewels; you have
cut down, sold and alienated indiscriminately copses, woods, underwood,
oaks and other forest trees to the value of 8000 marks and more; while
those of your brethren and fellow-monks, who, as is reported, are given
over to all the evils of the world, neglecting the service of God, and
openly and continually consorting with harlots and loose women within the
precincts and without, you knowingly defend instead of punishing them;
others too you protect who are covetous of honour and promotion and bent
on ministering to your cupidity, and who steal and make away with chalices
and other jewels of the church, going so far as to extract sacrilegiously
precious stones from the very shrine of St Alban.’

This letter is dated 1490, and is addressed to William, presumably William
Wallingford, as he became abbot in 1476; it is however confidently
asserted that he died in 1484. But this date may need revision. For he was
succeeded by his prior Thomas Ramryge, who was not elected till 1492; ‘at
all events this period of eight years is very obscure,’ says the historian
of St Albans[1003]. Concerning William Wallingford we know that the
chapter of Benedictine abbots held at Northampton in 1480 appointed him to
visit all the monasteries situated in the diocese of Lincoln, but that he
deputed two of his convent to do so[1004]. His successor Ramryge wrote a
book ‘on the doings of the abbots, monks and benefactors of the monastery
of St Albans’ in which Wallingford appears of a character very different
from that suggested by Morton’s letter. ‘Prudent and wise in the
management of his abbey and resolute in the defence of its rights,’ says
Dugdale on the authority of Ramryge, ‘he was successful too in resisting
the claims of Archbishop Bourchier (Morton’s predecessor) which upon
appeal to Rome were decided in his favour.’ He completed the high altar at
St Albans and set up a printing-press in his monastery between 1480 and

In face of this evidence the language used by Morton appears somewhat
violent. Unfortunately no additional information is forthcoming from the
nunneries of St Mary Prée and Sopwell. We have an account rendered by the
prioress Christina Basset of Prée for the year 1485-1486, four years
previous to the date of Morton’s letter, entries in which show that
Christina Basset had succeeded Alice Wafer, who had been deposed for
mismanagement of the revenues, but continued to live in the convent[1005].
About Sopwell we only know that Wallingford appointed a commission in 1480
to set aside the prioress Joan Chapell on account of old age and infirmity
in favour of Elizabeth Webb, one of the nuns[1006].

It were idle to deny that the state of discipline in many houses was bad,
but the circumstances under which Morton’s letter was penned argue that
the charges made in it should be accepted with some reservation.

It remains to cast a glance on the views expressed on the state of
monasteries in general literature in the 15th century, from which we
gather that the religious settlement was fast sinking in popular
estimation. Two poems in this connection deserve especial attention, the
‘Land of Cockayne,’ a spirited satire on monastic life generally, written
about 1430, and a poem of somewhat later date preserved in fragments only,
which has been published under the title, ‘Why I cannot be a nun.’

The ‘Land of Cockayne’[1007] describes in flowing rhyme a country ‘of joy
and bliss,’ where flow rivers of oil, milk, honey and wine, and where
stands a fair abbey of white and grey monks. Their house in accordance
with the popular fancy is a delightful abode constructed out of food and
sweetmeats with shingles of ‘flour-cakes’, and the cloister is of crystal
with a garden in which spices and flowers grow. The monks dwell here in
the greatest comfort; some are old, some are young; at times they are
engaged in prayer, at times they seek diversion away from home. Another
abbey, ‘a fair nunnery,’ stands at no great distance, the inmates of which
live in the like ease and carelessness. Here too there is a river of milk,
the nuns wear silken clothing, and when it is hot they take a boat and go
to bathe in the river. They here meet the monks and disport themselves
together, throwing off all restraint.

Clever and much to the point as this poem appeared to the laymen who had
come to look upon convent life as a life of idleness and self-indulgence,
its historical importance is exceeded by the poem, ‘Why I cannot be a
nun[1008].’ It is generally spoken of as the production of a woman on the
ground of its reflecting a woman’s experiences, but there is no direct
evidence on the point; its author writes as one unattached to a nunnery,
and by the remark that he knows more than he chooses to tell is perhaps
concealing his ignorance.

It consists of an adaptation to a different purpose of the story of the
‘Ghostly Abbey,’ which was peopled with personified Virtues[1009], and to
which reference has been made in previous chapters of this work. Here
personified Vices are described as having taken possession of the abbey.
The poem is divided into two parts, of which it seems doubtful through the
state of the manuscript which ought to come first. As it stands printed it
begins abruptly with a description of how commissioners received the
charge to ride all over England to seek out nunneries and enquire into
their state. They visited the houses of Kent and are represented as
returning to the father of the writer, who asks them how they have sped
and how the nuns fared (l. 28). When he has heard their report he tells
his daughter, who wishes to become a nun, that he will have none of it.
The girl is sore aggrieved; she deplores her ill-luck and continues in
this strain:

  ‘Then it befell on a morn of May
  In the same year as I said before,
  My pensiveness would not away
  But ever waxed more and more.
  I walked alone and wept full sore
  With sighings and with mourning.
  I said but little and thought the more
  But what I thought no man need hear.
  And in a garden I disported me
  Every day at divers hours
  To behold and for to see
  The sweet effect of April flowers.
  The fair herbs and gentle flowers
  And birds singing on every spray;
  But my longing and sadness
  For all this sport would not away.’

She kneels to Jesus, the king of heavenly bliss, and tells Him how she is
destitute of good counsel and would commit her cause to Him. She then
falls asleep and a fair lady appears to her, who calls her by name
(Kateryne, l. 122), and who on being asked says her name is Experience,
and that she has come with the help of Christ Jesus, adding ‘such things
as I shall show thee I trust shall set thy heart at rest.’ She takes the
girl by the hand and leads her through a meadow fair and green to a house
of ‘women regular,’ a cloister, ‘a house of nuns in truth of divers orders
old and young, but not well governed,’ for here self-will reigns instead
of discipline. ‘Perhaps you would like to know who was dwelling here; of
some I will tell you, of others keep counsel; so I was taught when I was
young,’ says the writer. The first lady they encounter in the house is
Dame Pride, who is held in great repute, while poor Dame Meekness sits
alone and forsaken. Dame Hypocrite sits there with her book, while Dame
Devout and her few companions have been put outside by Dame Sloth and Dame
Vainglory. In the convent remain Dame Envy ‘who can sow strife in every
state,’ Dame Love-Inordinate, Dame Lust, Dame Wanton and Dame Nice, all of
whom take scant heed of God’s service. ‘Dame Chastity, I dare well say,
in that convent had little cheer, she was often on the point of going her
way, she was so little beloved there; some loved her in their hearts full
dear, but others did not and set nothing by her, but gave her good leave
to go.’ Walking about under the guidance of Experience the writer also
comes upon Dame Envy who bore the keys and seldom went from home. In vain
she sought for Dame Patience and Dame Charity; they were not in the
convent but dwelt outside ‘without strife’ in a chamber where good women
sought their company. Meanwhile Dame Disobedient set the prioress at
nought; a fact especially distressing to the writer, ‘for subjects should
ever be diligent in word, in will, in deed, to please their sovereign’ (l.
273). Indeed she declared, when she saw no reverence, she would stay in
the house no longer. She and Experience left and sat down on the grass
outside the gates to discuss what they had seen. Experience explained that
for the most part nuns are such as they have seen (l. 310); not all, she
adds; ‘some are devout, holy and blessed, and hold the right way to bliss,
but some are weak, lewd, and forward; God amend what is amiss.’ She passed
away and the writer awakes, convinced that she certainly does not care to
go and live in a nunnery. ‘Peradventure,’ the writer adds, ‘some man will
say and so it really seems to him that I soon forsook the perfect way for
a fantasy or a dream, but dream it was not, nor a fantasy, but unto me
welcome information (gratius mene).’

The other part of the poem advises the ‘ladies dear,’ who have taken the
habit which is a holy thing, to let their lives correspond with their
outward array. The writer enlarges on the good conversation and the
virtues of the holy women who were professed in the past, and enumerates
as models of virtuous living a number of women saints chiefly of English

Productions such as this clearly show in what direction the estimation of
religious houses and their inmates was tending. The nature of devotional
pursuits and keeping the houses was not yet called into question, but
apart from its religious significance the nunnery had little to recommend
it. As places of residence these houses still attracted a certain number
of unmarried women, and as centres of education still exerted some
influence, but the high standard they had at one period maintained was a
thing of the past.

§ 2. Reforms in Germany.

The history of monastic reform on the Continent previous to the
Reformation supplies us with many interesting particulars both of the
position of monasteries generally and of the convent life of women. Though
religious settlements had been little interfered with before the Church
Council at Constance, extensive reforms were undertaken subsequent to it
in order to secure a return of discipline. The movement was inaugurated
from within the religious orders, and led to the union of different houses
into so-called congregations. But its peaceable character was soon marred
by the introduction of political and party interests. Thirty years after
the first convent reforms, it was no longer a question of how far the
well-being and right living of monk and nun should be secured, but how far
religious settlements could be made amenable to external interference and
who should have the right of interfering with them.

For this complication the instability of political life is partly
responsible. The authority of the Pope had greatly decreased, and, at the
beginning of the 15th century, the Emperor no longer kept the balance
between the contending parties. The prelates of the Church, many of whom
were independent temporal princes, had succeeded in allying themselves to
the impoverished, but influential, nobility. In South Germany especially
the Church was becoming more and more aristocratic; birth, not merit,
secured admission and promotion in the ecclesiastical body. The townships
were generally opposed to the Church and the nobility; they emphatically
insisted on their rights, but their combined efforts to make their
influence felt in the constitution had signally failed. Apart from them
stood the princes and minor potentates, who tried to coerce the nobility,
in many cases succeeded in depriving their prelates of their rights, and
availed themselves of the general relaxation of authority to promote their
own selfish ends.

To these different representatives of power the monastery became debatable
ground, where the diocesan, the township and the prince of the land in
turn claimed the right of interference and where in many instances their
interests clashed. The greater settlements, which held directly from the
Emperor, were not drawn into the conflict; it was round the lesser ones
that contention chiefly raged.

One of the most interesting movements in the direction of monastic reform
is associated with the Benedictine monk Johannes von Minden († 1439) who,
as representative of the abbot of the house of Reinhausen near Göttingen,
was present at the general chapter of Benedictine abbots held near
Constance in 1417[1010]. Johannes returned to his convent burning with
reformatory zeal, which his abbot and fellow-monks would not countenance.
He left his convent and after many hardships was enabled by the help of a
rich patroness to settle at Bursfeld, where he realized some of his
ideas[1011]. His views agreed with those of Johannes Rode († 1439), a
Carthusian, who had become abbot of the Benedictine monastery of St
Matthias at Trier, and the joint efforts of these men resulted in a scheme
of mutual supervision and control of different houses by means of
periodical visitations undertaken by members of the Benedictine order. The
settlements which agreed to the innovation joined in a union or so-called
congregation, to which Bursfeld gave its name. The union or congregation
of Bursfeld was eventually joined by one hundred and thirty-six
monasteries of men and sixty-four of women. The purpose of the union was
not to attempt any new departure, but to guarantee the maintenance of
discipline as a means of securing the return of prosperity.

The nunnery of Langendorf, near Weissenfels in Saxony, was incorporated
into the union of Bursfeld, and a comprehensive scheme of rules[1012],
which gives us an insight into the tone and tendency of the German
mediæval nunnery on the reformed plan, was drawn up for its use. The rules
recall those contemporaneously drafted for the monastery of Sion in
England. We have in them similar directions concerning an elaborate
ritual, similar exhortations to soberness of living and gentleness of
manner; the information on convent life and daily routine is equally
explicit; and we hear of the different appointments inside the convent,
and of the several duties of its members. There is also an exhaustive list
of possible failings and crimes, followed by directions as to correction
and punishment. Cats, dogs and other animals are not to be kept by the
nuns, as they detract from seriousness; if a nun feels sleepy during
hours, she shall ask leave to withdraw rather than fall asleep; if a nun
dies of an infectious disease, her corpse shall not be carried into
church, but the burial service shall take place outside. No member of the
convent shall be chosen abbess unless she has attained the age of
twenty-nine,--a provision which I have not come across elsewhere. The
abbess has under her the same staff of officers whose duties have already
been described. There is the prioress, the sub-prioress, the teacher of
the novices, the cellaress, the chauntress, the sub-chauntress, the
sexton, the keeper of books, the chambress, the infirmaress, the portress
and others. We are told how novices made profession and how the hours of
the Virgin were to be kept. We are also informed of the occupations of the
nuns between hours, and learn that they were active in many ways. There
are references to the transcribing of books, to binding books, to
preparing parchment, and also to spinning and weaving; but the
transcribing of books is pronounced the more important work, since it is
more akin to spiritual interests. Further we hear about visits paid by the
nuns, and about the reception of visitors. Only professed religious women
were to be received on a visit inside the convent precincts; other
visitors were to dwell and take their meals outside.

In the case of this nunnery it is unknown how far the convent showed
readiness to join the congregation of Bursfeld, or how far it was
persuaded or coerced into doing so. The movement in favour of monastic
reform entered on a new stage with the advent of the zealous and
influential reformer, Johann Busch († after 1479), the promoter of the
congregation of Windesheim. The work of Busch is the more interesting as
he has left a detailed account of it. His book ‘On monastic reform’
describes the changes he advocated and the means by which he effected them
during a contest of over thirty years[1013]. He was a native of Zwolle in
the Netherlands and entered the Austin convent of Windesheim, where he
attracted so much attention that he was summoned to Wittenberg in Saxony
(1437), and there conducted monastic reforms at the desire of the prior.
He remained in Saxony for many years, residing sometimes at one place,
sometimes at another, and pursued his plans so ardently that he
occasionally transcended the limits of his authority[1014]. His success in
persuading convents to reconsider their tenor of life and in inducing lay
princes and prelates to assist him in his efforts was so great that
Cardinal Cusanus, of whom we shall hear more, pronounced him especially
fitted to act as a monastic reformer (1451). His book contains a detailed
account of his work in connection with about twenty nunneries. His great
merit and that of the congregation of Windesheim was the introduction of
German devotional books.

From these and other descriptions we gather that many nunneries willingly
accepted the proposed changes in so far as they were designed to raise the
standard of teaching and to improve the system of discipline, but that
opposition was made where the changes tended to interfere with the
position and prestige of the settlement. In some cases a compromise was
effected by the energetic and intelligent conduct of the lady superior; in
others the direct refusal of the nuns to conform resulted in open force
being brought to bear on them. Scenes were enacted which recall the
turbulence of early Christian times, and show how strong a sense of
independence still lived in some convents.

Among the Austin nunneries which gave Busch endless trouble was that of
Derneburg, near Hildesheim, where he was appointed to visit as father
confessor between 1440 and 1442[1015]. The nuns there were in the habit of
dining out continually, and when exception was taken to this, gave as an
excuse that relatives and friends were always ready to entertain them at
meals, but refused to furnish contributions in kind towards the support of
the convent. Busch got over this difficulty by pleading with the lay
people, but his action in the matter still further roused the rebellious
spirit of the nuns. On one occasion his life was attempted at their
instigation; on another, when he went to inspect their cellar, they locked
him in and left him there. As a consequence of this he refused from that
time forward to be the first to go on any tour of inspection. His efforts
to impress these nuns were in vain, and finally he asked for the
assistance of the bishop of Hildesheim and the abbot of the Cistercian
house of Marienrode; as a consequence the rebels were conveyed away from
Derneburg to other convents, and their house was given into the hands of
Cistercian nuns. Similar difficulties occurred at Wennigsen, at Mariensee
and at Werder, where the Duke of Hannover interfered in the most arbitrary
manner[1016]. At Wienhausen the abbess and convent refused to conform to
the rule of St Benedict, though the additional authority of their diocesan
and of Duke Otto of Brunswick was brought to bear on them[1017]. Forcible
measures were resorted to in this case also. The abbess was deposed and
she and her nuns were carried away in a chariot to other nunneries, and
nuns from the reformed house of Derneburg were installed in their place.

At the Cistercian nunnery of St Georg, near Halle, the nuns at first
declared that they were exempt from the visits of the diocesan, and
refused admission to the delegates. After prolonged opposition they
yielded to Busch[1018]. At Heiningen the nuns pleaded poverty as an excuse
for staying away from home[1019]. Many settlements complained of poverty
and insufficient revenue, among which was Frankenberg, near Goslar[1020].
The nuns of Dorstad earned money by taking pupils from outside the
precincts[1021], and other houses, among them that of Neuwerk, received
girls and boarded and educated them. Busch however forbade their doing so
on the ground that intercourse with secular interests was harmful. At
Neuwerk, which was a Cistercian nunnery at Erfurt[1022], the wealth of the
community in vessels, vestments, and books was quite a revelation to
Busch. The house owned thirty books of devotion (the convent at the time
consisted of thirty inmates), a number which appeared to Busch so
considerable that he did not insist on the nuns adopting the service-book
in use at Windesheim, as this change would have rendered their books
useless to them.

The nuns at Neuwerk readily accepted the proposed reforms, and received
nuns from the reformed nunnery of Heiningen who dwelt with them for three
years and helped them to restore their system of religious discipline and
teaching. The abbess Armengard von Rheden, of the wealthy Benedictine
nunnery of Fischbeck on the Weser[1023], also agreed to receive nuns from
a reformed house into her establishment as teachers.

Full details are preserved of the reform of the nunnery of
Marienberg[1024] near Helmstädt in Saxony, the prioress of which, Helena
von Iltzen, hearing of the work of Busch, sought his assistance in matters
of reform. Her house is said to have belonged to no order in particular.
When she applied to Busch he was resident provost (after 1459) of the
Austin canonry of Sülte near Hildesheim. He travelled to Bronopie, a
nunnery situated outside Campen on the confines of Holland, to consult
with the prioress, who accordingly deputed two nuns of her convent, Ida
and Tecla, and one lay sister Aleydis, to repair with him to Marienberg.
Of the two nuns Ida had been chosen for her knowledge of religious
service, Tecla for her powers of instruction. Busch describes how he
travelled across Germany with these women in a waggon drawn by four
horses, and how on their arrival at Marienberg Ida was appointed to act as
sub-prioress, and Tecla as teacher, and how the prioress of the house
reserved to herself the management of temporal affairs only. Tecla is
described as well versed in grammar (grammatica competenter docta); she
instructed the inmates of the house in scholastic knowledge (scientiis
scholasticalibus) with such success that her pupils after three years were
able to read Holy Writ, and readily composed letters and missives in
correct Latin (litteras sive missas in bona latina magistraliter
dictarent). ‘I have seen and examined these myself,’ says Busch.

After three years the illness of Ida made the nuns desirous of returning
to their own convent, and Busch again undertook to escort them. A proof of
the affection they had won during their stay and of the regret that was
felt at their departure is afforded by the letters which passed between
them and their friends. They were staying for some nights at the nunnery
of Heiningen on their journey home when two letters reached them. In one
the nuns wrote describing their grief. ‘When we see your empty places in
the choir, the refectory, and the dormitory, we are filled with sorrow and
weep.’ And they wish that the distance which separates them were not so
great, then at least they might go to visit their friends. When Tecla’s
pupils (the letter says) entered the schoolroom for their lessons on the
Saturday, they wept so much that the prioress, who was in great grief
herself, was constrained to try to comfort them. The other letter, a short
one specially addressed to Tecla, was written by these pupils: this
accompanied the longer letter, and in it they assured her of their
continued admiration and devotion. Ida, Tecla and Aleydis in reply sent
two letters to Marienberg. A longer one was addressed by them to the
convent collectively, and a shorter one by Tecla to her pupils, in which
she praises them for having written such a good Latin letter and assures
them that she is glad to think of her stay with them, since it has been
productive of such good results.

The nunnery of Marienberg, which had so readily accepted reforms, acted as
advocate of similar changes to other houses. Busch tells us that the
nunnery of Marienborn situated not far from it, and the nunnery at Stendal
in Brandenburg, accepted reforms at its instigation[1025].

In the records of Busch comparatively few charges of a coarse nature are
brought against nunneries, but he adds an account of two nuns who were in
apostasy, and who were persuaded by him to return to their convents. One
had left her convent and had adopted lay clothing[1026]; the story of the
other, Sophie, an illegitimate daughter of Wilhelm, duke of Brunswick,
reads like a romance[1027]. The girl had been stowed away in the convent
of Mariensee by her relatives for convenience, but indifferent to vows
unwillingly accepted, she ran away and for seven years lived in the world,
tasting few of the sweets of life and much of its bitterness. At last,
broken in spirit by the loss of her child, she was persuaded by Busch to
come and live in the convent of Derneburg, the members of which received
her with tender pity for her sufferings and treated her with loving care.
Finally she agreed to return to the nunnery she had originally left, glad
of the peace which she found there.

Some of the nunneries on which pressure was brought to bear by the
monastic reformers altogether ceased to exist. The historian of the
diocese of Speyer (Rheinbayern) tells us that the Benedictine nunnery of
Schönfeld was interfered with in 1443 and fell into decay, and that its
property was appropriated; that the Cistercian nunnery of Ramsen also
ceased to exist, owing to feuds between Count Johann II of Nassau and the
abbot of Morimund, who both claimed the right of interference; and that
the dissolution of Kleinfrankenthal, a settlement of Austin nuns situated
in the same diocese, was declared in 1431 by Pope Eugenius IV on account
of the evil ways of the nuns[1028].

The historian of the reforms undertaken in the diocese of Trier notifies
many important changes[1029]. He considers that the nuns in many convents
had drifted away from the former strictness of discipline and lived as
Austin canonesses, returning to the world if they chose to get married.
Many of these settlements now accepted stricter rules of life, and among
them were the nunnery of Marienberg (diocese of Trier), the abbess of
which, Isengard von Greiffenklau († 1469), had come under the influence of
Johannes Rode--and Oberwerth, which owed reform to its abbess Adelheid
Helchen (1468-1505).

On the other hand Elisabeth von Seckendorff, abbess of the time-honoured
nunnery of St Walburg at Eichstätt, refused to see that a changed
condition of things demanded reform. The bishop of Eichstätt made his
power felt; she was deposed, and Sophie was summoned from the nunnery of
St Maria at Cöln, and made abbess in her stead (1456-1475)[1030].

We have detailed accounts of reforms in South Germany from the pen of
another contemporary writer, Felix Fabri († 1502), a Dominican friar of
Ulm[1031]. He tells us how Elisabeth Krelin († 1480), abbess of the
important Cistercian nunnery, Heggbach, a woman of great intelligence and
strong character, effected reforms in her house on her sole
responsibility. These changes were productive of such good results that
many nuns left the houses to which they belonged and came to live under
her. Gredanna von Freyberg († 1481), abbess of the ancient and wealthy
Benedictine nunnery of Urspring, hearing of these changes, came on a visit
to Heggbach, where she made friends with the abbess, and when she left she
was bent on carrying out similar changes in her own convent. But here she
met with opposition. Her nuns, who were members of the nobility, aware
that the changes advocated meant interference with the liberty they
enjoyed, divided for and against her, and those who were against her
appealed to their relatives for support. Gredanna in vain asked for help
from the abbot of the monastery of St Georg in the Black Forest to which
her house was allied; he dared not interfere, and it was only when the
archduchess Mechthild of Austria called upon him to do so, that he
summoned nuns from the reformed nunnery of St Walburg at Eichstätt and
with them and some monks came to Urspring. But the rebellious nuns,
nothing daunted, shut themselves up in the outlying buildings of the
infirmary, which they barricaded; the soldiers were called out but from a
religious dread refused to attack them. Nothing remained short of placing
these ‘amazons’ as Fabri calls them in a state of siege; the pangs of
hunger at last forced them to yield. The reforms which Gredanna then
effected were productive of such beneficial results that the house
regained a high standing.

The reform of Söflingen near Ulm[1032], an account of which we also owe to
Fabri, affords one more of many examples of the tyranny of interference.
This house belonged to the order of St Clare, and like all the houses of
this order was subject to the Franciscan friars, who had the exclusive
right of control over them.

The Franciscans of Ulm having accepted reforms in consequence of the papal
bull of 1484, the town authorities of Ulm called upon the nuns to do the
same, and Fabri relates how ‘a number of burghers accompanied by religious
doctors of various orders, by noblemen, their followers, and by members of
the town-gilds, armed and unarmed, marched upon Söflingen in a great
crowd, as though to fight for the glory of God.’ They conveyed with them a
new abbess and a number of nuns of the reformed order of St Clare, whom
they meant to instal at Söflingen. But here they were met by open
defiance. The lady superior, Christine Strölin († 1489), shouted that she
could not and would not be deposed, and her nuns vented their indignation
in threats and blasphemy. Not by promises, not by threats, could they be
persuaded to leave their lady superior. They rushed through the buildings,
snatched up coffers and boxes, and followed Christine out of the house.
Their loyalty and unanimity in defending their rights awaken feelings in
their favour which are confirmed when we find the bishop of the diocese
disapproving of the forcible measures resorted to by the citizens; endless
quarrels and discussions ensued. The abbess Christine, after staying at
various places, returned to Söflingen and was reinstated in her rights, on
condition of adopting certain reforms; some of her nuns came back with
her, but others refused to do so and went to live in other nunneries.

Details concerning the ‘reform’ of one other nunnery are worth recording
because they show how a representative of the Church openly attempted to
curtail the privileges of a powerful nunnery. The struggle of the nunnery
of Sonnenburg in the Tyrol with the Cardinal Legate Nicolas Cusanus (†
1464), bishop of Brixen, has been the subject of close historical enquiry,
as its importance far exceeds the interests of those immediately
concerned[1033]. In this struggle the representative of the Pope came into
open conflict with the prince of the land, Sigmund, archduke of Austria
and duke of Tyrol, who defied the Cardinal and obliged him to flee the
country and seek refuge at Rome. The quarrel which began over the nunnery
ended with the ban of excommunication being pronounced against Sigmund,
and with his appeal to a Church Council against the authority of the Papal

Sonnenburg was the wealthiest and most influential Benedictine settlement
of women in the land. It was in existence as early as the 11th century and
had extensive powers of jurisdiction which repeatedly brought its abbess
into conflict with her rival in power, the bishop of Brixen. Against him
she had sought and secured the protection of the archduke; but at the time
of the appointment of Cusanus as bishop, the settlement of a matter of
temporal administration between herself and the bishopric was pending.
Cusanus had obtained from Rome exceptional powers of monastic visitation,
powers such as were conferred at a later date on the Cardinal Legate
Ximenes in Spain and on the Cardinal Legate Wolsey in England. By virtue
of these powers Cusanus at once transferred the affair with the abbess
from the temporal domain to the spiritual, and in his character of
monastic visitor and reformer sent a manifesto to the abbess and nuns to
the effect that after the coming festival of Corpus Christi they were on
no account to absent themselves from the convent or to receive visitors.
The abbess, Verena von Stuben, and her convent, which consisted at the
time of seven nuns, ignored this command, obedience to which would have
cut off intercourse with the archduke and made attention to the pending
matter of business impossible. More closely pressed, the abbess gave an
evasive answer and lodged a complaint with Sigmund, in which she and the
convent declared themselves ready to accept the desired change (p.
66[1034]) but said that they were convinced that such a course at the
present moment would be fatal to their position. It was clear to them that
Cusanus was bent on their ruin. The archduke to whom they appealed
declared that the prelate was transgressing the limits of his authority,
and intimated to him that he would not have the temporalities of the
house interfered with,--a decision to which Cusanus for the moment

The documents relating to the further progress of this quarrel are
numerous. A kind of chronicle was kept at Sonnenburg written partly by the
nuns, partly by the abbess, into which copies of over two hundred letters
and documents were inserted. It bears the title ‘On what occurred between
Cardinal Cusanus and the abbess Verena,’ and is now in the library at

Foiled in his first attempt to gain control over Sonnenburg, Cusanus now
devoted his attention to other religious communities. He took under his
protection a number of recluses, called sylvan sisters, ‘Waldschwestern’
(p. 63), and having secured further powers from Rome, attempted to
interfere with the convent of Minoresses or Poor Clares at Brixen (p. 87).
But these nuns, though they were low-born and uneducated, were as stubborn
as their high-born and learned sisters on the Sonnenburg; Verena’s conduct
may have given them the courage to oppose the Cardinal. Their lady
superior was forcibly removed at his instigation, but they appealed
against him at Rome, and though their opposition was censured, Cusanus was
directed to place the matter in the hands of the Franciscans at Nürnberg,
who declared themselves willing to institute the desired reforms. Nuns
from the convent of St Clare at Nürnberg were despatched to Brixen, and
the tone of the house was raised without its privileges being forfeited.

On the strength of his increased visitatorial powers Cusanus (1453)
returned to the charge at Sonnenburg, but its inmates would give no
official declaration of their intentions (p. 90). Accordingly the bishop
of Eichstätt was summoned to hold a visitation there, but he was refused
admission by the nuns. However a second deputation came which could not be
warded off, and the convent gave the desired information; the result of
which was that injunctions were forwarded confining the authority of the
abbess to the control of the nuns, and practically despoiling her of her
property. Strict seclusion was to be observed, and the house was to be
furnished with a key, which was to be given to a person appointed by
Cusanus. The management of the monastic property was to be in the hands of
a bailiff who was to render account to the bishop direct, not to the
abbess. Scant wonder that the abbess Verena, indignant at the order and
despairing of help from without, offered to resign. Her offer delighted
the legate, who forthwith despatched Afra von Velseck to undertake the
management of affairs at the convent, with the command that she was to
take no step without previously consulting him (p. 94). It seems that
Cusanus entertained the idea of appropriating the temporalities of the
nunnery altogether, and transferring them to the use of monks, who were to
be subject to his friend and ally, the abbot of Tegernsee (p. 95). He
afterwards gave up the plan, ‘since the nobility,’ as he wrote (p. 127),
‘look upon this house as a home for their daughters and are opposed to my

At this juncture things took an unexpected turn. Verena consulted with her
friends in the matter of the pension on which she was to retire (p. 109);
and Cusanus was angered by the objections they raised to his proposals.
There was a stormy interchange of letters between him and the abbess (p.
124), which ended in Verena’s resuming her authority, and in Afra’s
deposition. Cusanus sent an armed escort to fetch away his protégée and
threatened excommunication to the convent. In vain was a complaint against
him sent by the nuns to Rome; Cusanus had anticipated them. The Pope
censured the nuns’ conduct, affirmed Cusanus’ authority, and cast
imputations on the character of the abbess, which were indignantly
resented in a second letter forwarded to the Pope by the nuns.

The archduke Sigmund now tried to interfere in the interest of peace. A
second visitation was undertaken, and a list of injunctions was drawn up
for the nuns (p. 133). Among these we note that nuns from a reformed
convent were to come and live as teachers at Sonnenburg; the abbess was
henceforth to have no separate household, she was forbidden to go out
without asking leave from the diocesan, she was not to go on pilgrimages
or visit health resorts, and she was not to be present at weddings.

But the abbess and the convent refused to accept these injunctions, and
they were accordingly placed under an interdict. The hospital belonging to
the house and its property were confiscated, the chaplains were forbidden
to celebrate mass, and the ban of excommunication was pronounced against
the nuns and was reiterated by the priest of the nearest church on feast
days and on Sundays. This was a great humiliation to the nuns and helped
to lower them in general estimation.

Sigmund was absent at the time. Soon after his return Pope Nicolas V, the
patron of Cusanus, died (1455), and his successor Calixtus III warned the
Cardinal against pushing things to extremes (p. 161). Sigmund also
pleaded in favour of the nuns that they were staying within precincts, and
that Verena was an estimable woman. Cusanus in answer contended that what
he had done, he had done with the sanction of Rome, and that he had
excommunicated and deposed Verena solely on account of her disobedience;
and he then acknowledged that she was a thoroughly honest and excellent
manager. In his letters to the abbot of Tegernsee, written about the same
time, he speaks of Verena as a very Jezebel who is full of wiles against
him (p. 153). ‘Maybe she will pretend obedience to deceive me,’ he wrote
among other things, ‘but the devil of pride has her soul in his possession
and will prevent her from really humbling herself.’ But the relations
between Sigmund and his bishop were becoming strained in other respects.
The first breach of the peace occurred when the abbess came to Innsbruck
to seek support. Cusanus despatched a deacon to prevent her being
received, and Sigmund had the deacon cast into prison.

The nuns on the Sonnenburg were in a sorry plight. They dared not leave
the house, the usual tithes were not brought to them and there had been no
ingathering of the produce of their own harvest, for Cusanus threatened
excommunication to anyone having intercourse with them or looking after
their interests. They were nigh upon starvation (p. 277), and had recourse
to an unlawful step. They took a band of armed men into their service and
directed them to gather the tribute due to them. But the soldiers sent by
the archbishop put these men to flight and then stormed the cloister. The
nuns fled into the adjoining woods and found refuge in a house. ‘But we
were betrayed and had to fly again,’ they wrote in their chronicle;
‘during three days we were pursued and sought by the troops, repeatedly we
were so near to them that we saw them and they saw us. But the Virgin Mary
helped us to escape from them.’ Afra von Velseck had been put in
possession of their empty house, but Cusanus could not support her;
fearful of Sigmund he had fled from his bishopric and repaired to Rome.
The archduke conducted the nuns back and begged Verena to resign, offering
her a house near Innsbruck (p. 309). An envoy was accordingly despatched
to Rome to proffer terms of submission to Cusanus if only he would take
the ban of excommunication from the nuns. The bishop at last yielded to
the Pope’s command, though with a sufficiently bad grace. ‘I send you a
copy of Verena’s letter to me,’ he wrote to the envoy Natz, ‘she tells
lies as usual.’ And on the margin of her letter, as a comment on her
declaration that she had repeatedly sought absolution, he added the words,
‘this is a lie.’

Penance in its extreme form was undergone by the convent (p. 311), but as
Cusanus persistently denied to Sigmund the right of appointing a new
abbess, many letters passed before the conditions of peace were settled
and ratified. The correspondence, as Jäger remarks (p. 315), throws an
interesting light on the character of the women concerned. Verena, who
throughout maintained a proud dignity, retired from the convent on a
pension; Afra, who had resorted to various intrigues, finally renounced
all claims, and Barbara Schöndorfer came over from Brixen and was
installed as abbess.

Thus ended the quarrel about the privileges of Sonnenburg, which lasted
six years and led to the curtailment of many of its rights. The story
proves the inability of convents to preserve their independence, and shows
how their weakness was made the excuse for interference from without to
the detriment of the abbess in her position as landowner.

It remains to enquire how far the improvements effected in monastic life
by peaceful and by forcible means were lasting, and in what position the
nunnery stood at the beginning of the 16th century.

Some valuable information is given on the general state of monasticism by
a number of addresses delivered by Tritheim, abbot of Sponheim († 1516),
before the assembled chapter of Benedictine abbots between 1490 and
1492[1036]. Tritheim takes high rank among the older humanists; he was an
enlightened man according to the notions of his age, and collected a
wonderful and comprehensive library of books in many languages at
Sponheim. His interest in necromancy afterwards brought reproach on him
and he left his convent, but at the time when he pleaded before the
assembled abbots he was full of enthusiasm for his order and full of
regrets concerning it. In his address ‘on the ruin of the Benedictine
order,’ he pointed out how effectually the Bursfeld and other
congregations had worked in the past, but the beneficial results they
effected had passed away and little of their influence remained. If only
those who are vowed to religion, says Tritheim, would care more for
learning, which has been made so much more accessible by the invention of
printing, the outlook would not be so utterly hopeless.

In these addresses Tritheim takes no account of nunneries, but we can
discover his attitude towards nuns in an address to a convent[1037], the
keynote of which is that the women assembled there should cultivate love,
lowliness and patience under tribulation. The address is gentle and
dignified, but it shows that Tritheim, in common with other men of the
time, attached importance to nunneries chiefly for the piety they
cultivated. His belief in this respect is shared by the zealous reformer
Geiler von Kaisersberg († 1500), who preached many sermons before the nuns
of the convents of St Mary Magdalen (Reuerinnen), and of St Stephan at
Strasburg, and who likewise saw the beauty of a nun’s vocation only in her
devotional and contemplative attitude. We gather from his sermons, many of
which are preserved in the form in which they were written out by
nuns[1038], that a clear line of demarcation existed in his mind between
reformed and unreformed convents, and that while emphatic in denouncing
the ungodly ways of the inmates of unreformed houses, life in a reformed
house was comparable in his eyes to Paradise. Geiler’s efforts as a
reformer were so far crowned by success that the convent of St Mary
Magdalen to which he had devoted his efforts, outlived the attacks to
which it was exposed at the time of the Reformation.

The fact that Tritheim insists only on the devotional attitude of nuns is
the more noticeable as he visited at the convent of Seebach, the abbess of
which, Richmondis van der Horst, was equally praised for her own abilities
and the superior tone she maintained in her convent. For instances were
not wanting which show that intellectual tastes were still strong in some
nunneries and that women living the convent life were themselves authors
and took a certain amount of interest in the revival of classical
learning, as we shall see later.

Thus Butzbach (called Premontanus, † 1526), a pupil of Hegius, who became
a monk at Laach and was an admirer of Tritheim, was in correspondence with
Aleydis Ruyskop († 1507), a nun at Rolandswerth, who had written seven
homilies on St Paul in Latin and translated a German treatise on the mass
into Latin. He dedicated to her his work on ‘Distinguished learned women,’
which he took from the work of the Italian Benedictine Jacopo of Bergamo,
but from delicacy of feeling he omitted what Jacopo had inserted in praise
of women’s influence as wives and mothers[1039]. In this work Butzbach
compares Aleydis to Hrotsvith, to Hildegard and to Elisabeth of Schönau.
He also wrote to Gertrud von Büchel, a nun who practised the art of
painting at Rolandswerth, and he refers to Barbara Dalberg, niece of the
bishop of Worms, who was a nun at Marienberg, and to Ursula Cantor, who,
he declares, was without equal in her knowledge of theology.

But in spite of these instances and others, a growing indifference is
apparent, both among the advocates of the new culture and in the outer
world generally, to the intellectual occupation of women, and the training
of girls. In their far-reaching plans for an improved system of education
the humanists leave girls out of count, and dwell on their qualities of
heart rather than on their qualities of mind. That the training of the
mental faculties must be profitable in all cases for women does not occur
to them, though the idea is advanced with regard to men.

At the close of the 15th century Wimpheling († 1528) wrote a work on
matters of education entitled _Germania_. It is a conception of ideal
citizenship, and in it he insists that the burghers of Strasburg must let
their sons receive a higher education and learn Latin in the ‘gymnasium,’
of which he gives his plan, regardless of the vocation they intend to
embrace. Only a short chapter[1040] of the book refers to the training of
girls. Their parents are cautioned against placing them in nunneries,
which in the writer’s mind are little better than brothels. He advises
their being trained at home for domestic life and made to spin and weave
like the daughters of Augustus.

Similar tendencies are reflected in the works of Erasmus († 1536). His
Colloquies or Conversations introduce us to a number of women under
various aspects; and the want of purpose in convent life, the danger of
masterfulness in wives, the anomalous position of loose women, and the
general need there was of cultivating domestic qualities, are all in turn

Two Colloquies turn on the convent life of women. In the first[1041] a
girl of seventeen declares herself averse to matrimony, and expresses her
intention of becoming a nun. The man who argues with her represents to her
that if she be resolved to keep her maidenhood, she can do so by remaining
with her parents and need not make herself from a free woman into a slave.
‘If you have a mind to read, pray or sing,’ he says, ‘you can go into your
chamber as much and as often as you please. When you have enough of
retirement, you can go to church, hear anthems, prayers, and sermons, and
if you see any matron or virgin remarkable for piety in whose company you
may get good, or any man who is endowed with singular probity from whom
you can gain for your bettering, you can have their conversation, and
choose the preacher who preaches Christ most purely. When once you are in
the cloister, all these things, which are of great assistance in promoting
true piety, you lose at once.’ And he enlarges on the formalities of
convent life, ‘which of themselves signify nothing to the advancement of
piety and make no one more acceptable in the eyes of Christ, who only
looks to purity of mind.’ The girl asks him if he be against the
institution of monastic life. He replies, ‘By no means. But as I will not
persuade anyone against it who is already in it, so I would undoubtedly
caution all young women, especially those of a generous temper, not to
precipitate themselves unadvisedly into that state from which there is no
getting out afterwards, and the more so because their chastity is more in
danger in the cloister than out of it, and you may do whatever is done
there as well at home.’

His arguments however are in vain; the girl goes into a convent. But the
next Colloquy, called the ‘Penitent Virgin[1042],’ describes how she
changed her mind and came out again. She was intimidated by the nuns
through feigned apparitions, and when she had been in the house six days
she sent for her parents and declared that she would sooner die than
remain there.

Another Colloquy[1043] shows how masterfulness in a wife destroyed all
possibility of domestic peace and happiness; yet another[1044] how a woman
of loose life was persuaded to adopt other ways on purely reasonable
grounds. Again we have a young mother who is persuaded to tend her child
herself, since the promotion of its bodily welfare does much towards
saving its soul[1045]. The most striking illustration however of the fact
that in the eyes of Erasmus the position of woman was changing is afforded
by the ‘Parliament of Women[1046],’ in which a great deal of talk leads to
no result. Cornelia opens and closes the sitting, and urges that it is
advisable that women should reconsider their position, for men, she says,
are excluding women from all honourable employments and making them ‘into
their laundresses and cooks, while they manage everything according to
their own pleasure.’ But the assembled women dwell on irrelevant detail
and harp on the distributions of class in a manner which shows that those
qualities which made their participation in public affairs possible or
advisable were utterly wanting among them. Erasmus passes no remarks
derogatory to women as such, and yet he leaves us to infer that they
cannot do better than devote their attention exclusively to domestic

Judging by his writings and those of others who were active in the cause
of progress, there was a growing feeling that the domestic virtues needed
cultivation. A change in the position of women was not only imminent but
was felt to be desirable, and probably it was in conformity with what
women themselves wished. Both in England and on the Continent the idea
that virginity was in itself pleasing to God was no longer in the
foreground of the moral consciousness of the age; it was felt that the
duties of a mother took higher rank, and that the truest vocation of woman
was to be found in the circle of home. This view, as we shall see
presently, tallied with the views taken by the Protestant reformers and
prepared the way for the dissolution of nunneries.



  ‘In church, chapell and priory
  Abby, hospitall and nunry,
      Sparing nother man nor woman,
  Coopes, albes, holy ornamentes,
  Crosses, chalecys, sensurs and rentes,
  Convertyng all to usys prophane.’
                          _The Blaspheming English Lutherans_, verse 33.

  ‘The Abbaies went doune because of there pride,
  And made the more covetus riche for a tyme,
  There leivenges dispercid one everi syde,
  Where wonce was somme praier, now placis for swyne.’
                          Quoted by Furnival from Douce MS. 365, l. 95.

§ 1. The Dissolution in England.

The movement of the 16th century commonly spoken of as the Reformation was
the forcible manifestation of a revolution in thought which had long been
preparing. This period may fitly be likened to a watershed between the
socialistic tendencies of the Middle Ages and the individualistic
tendencies which have mainly prevailed since. It forms the height which
limits average modern conceptions, but which can be made the standpoint
from which a more comprehensive view of things past and present becomes
possible. Like other great epochs in history it is characterised by a
sense of assurance, aspiration, and optimism,--and by wasted possibilities
which give its study an ever renewed interest. The political, social, and
intellectual changes which accompanied the Reformation are especially
interesting nowadays when the standards which were then formulated are
felt to be no longer final. The progressive thought of to-day, heretical
though the assertion may sound to some, has become markedly insensible to
the tenets which the reformers of the 16th century propounded and in which
Protestantism found its strength and its safeguard. While paying due
deference to the courage of the men who heralded what was advance if
measured by such needs as they realised, the thinker of to-day dwells not
so much on the factors of civilisation which those men turned to account
as on those which they disregarded;--he is attracted by Erasmus, not by
Luther, and looks more to him who worked in the interest of reform than to
him who worked in the interest of the Reformation.

Among the important social changes effected by the Reformation the
dissolution of the monasteries forms a small but a significant feature, a
feature pregnant with meaning if considered in the light of the changing
standards of family and sex morality. For those who attacked the Church of
Rome in her fundamentals, while differing in points of doctrine, were at
one in the belief that the state of morality needed amendment, and that
marriage supplied the means of effecting the desired change. In open
antagonism to principles which formed the groundwork of monasticism, they