Sermon on the Birthday of the 11,000 Holy Virgins

translated by Pamela Sheingorn and Marcelle Thiébaux


Three mediæval texts of the tenth and early eleventh centuries attest to the lives and deaths of the female martyrs identified as the Holy Virgins of Cologne. The earliest of these texts, the Sermo in Natali SS. Virginum XII Millium (October 21, 922),1 the "birthday" or feast-day sermon in honour of the virgins, is translated here for the first time. Eventually the legend would assemble the virgin martyrs under the leadership of the British princess, Ursula. By the time of the Legenda Aurea of Jacobus de Voragine, the women’s identities are established as St. Ursula and her Eleven Thousand Virgins.

The story in its most developed form would be this:

Ursula, the daughter of a British king of Cornwall, asks her father for a three-year period of grace before being compelled to marry the pagan prince who seeks her hand. In fact, she does not want to marry at all, since she has learned in a vision that the king of heaven desires her as his bride. Ursula makes some conditions with her father. The pagan prince shall be baptised. Ursula must have ten virgin companions, summoned from good families. Each young woman is to be accompanied by a thousand maidens, all of them to be regally outfitted.

A fleet of eleven triremes is built for the women; the two fathers, Ursula’s and her fiancé’s, provide the means. To the delight of spectators on land, the maidens perform nautical manoeuvres, simulating combat and flight, until gradually they allow themselves to drift away to sea. On shipboard, the virgins engage in games, like warriors preparing for battle. They chant divine songs in time to the boatswains’ shout. Sailing up the Rhine, they disembark to sojourn in Cologne, where Ursula receives a precise directive in a vision concerning their martyrdom when they return to the city. They set sail again to Basel, pass overland to Rome where they visit the holy shrines. Those maidens who are not yet Christians receive baptism. They return to Basel and thence to Cologne again. At Cologne they are slaughtered for offering sexual resistance to the rampaging Huns. Once they have killed the virgins, however, a miracle causes the Huns to flee, imagining that they see the virgin army of 11,000 rising up against them. The townspeople pour from the besieged city, and bury the maidens’ precious bodies. Their relics honour, protect and enrich the city.

The earliest text, however, the Sermo in Natali, does not yet mention Ursula. The anonymous preacher places the virgins under the leadership of the young noblewoman Pinnosa, who is not named until the final chapter. The Sermo, a sermon in eleven chapters on the occasion of the feast day of the eleven thousand virgins, was delivered before a community of women who moved their house to Cologne. It is, as we see, a speculative commemoration of the virgins, and a plea not to overlook their cult simply because most of the written records about them have vanished as a result of barbarian depredations. Yet their memory has survived by word of mouth among devoted Christians. Whatever can be known of them—hearsay, pious surmise, rational supposition—the preacher has gathered and given substance, structure, location, in short, has bestowed an oral and written fixity to the legend.

In less than fifty years, a second, more confident text would be generated, known as Passio I, and by the turn of the century, the full-fledged Life called Passio II would appear. This Passio II (ca. 1100) is referred to by its opening lines “Regnante domino.”2 Passio I (“Fuit tempore perve­tusto”), dated between 969 and 976, will be forthcoming under the Peregrina imprint.

As corroboration of the virgins’ existence, the preacher does have a slender text on which to base his entreaty to keep the cult alive. In Chapter 6, just midway through the sermon, he incorporates the evidence. This is the inscription carved in a limestone block (measuring about twenty by twenty-eight inches) that is today set in the wall to the right of the choir of Saint Ursula’s Church in Cologne. The inscription reads:

Clematius, a man of illustrious rank, was warned by recurrent flaming visions of the great majesty of the heavenly virgins, who urged him and drew him from the East. In fulfillment of a vow, he rebuilt this basilica from its foundation on the original site. If anyone should bury a body here, aside from the virgins, let him know that because of the basilica’s great majesty where the holy virgins spilled their blood in Christ’s name—he shall be punished with the eternal fires of Tartarus.”

[Diuinis flammeis uisionib(us) frequenter admonit(us) et uirtutis magnæ maiiestatis martyrii cælestium virgin(um) imminentium, ex partib(us) Orientis exsibitus, pro uoto, Clematius, u(ir) c(larissimus), de proprio, in loco suo, hanc basilicam uoto quod debebat, a funda­mentis restituit. Si quis autem, super tantam maiestatem huiius basilicæ ubi sanctæ uirgines pro nomine Chr(ist)i sanguinem suum fuderunt, corpus alicuiius deposuerit, exceptis uirginib(us), sciat se sempiternis tartari ignib(us) puniendum.]3

No names occur in the inscription. In fact, the holy virgins’ fates have been contained in a brief clause, subsumed within a lengthy sentence whose point is to highlight a certain Clematius who rebuilt their ruined shrine.

It is only in the ninth century that church kalendars begin to mention “holy virgins,” often along with St. Hilarion, with whom they share the feast day of October 21. Female names then appear. Saula, Martha “and others” are added in the Kalendar of Usuardus of St.-Germain-des-Prés in 875. The number of names rises to five, then eleven, then eleven thousand, indicated by a titula over the XI. In a tenth-century litany of Cologne, Pinnosa holds seventh place, and Ursula comes in eighth. The tenth century Sacramentary of Essen lists eleven names for October 21, with Ursula’s in first place: Sancti hilarionis & sanctaru– XI uirginum Ursulæ Senciæ, Gregoriæ, Pinnosæ, Marthæ, Saule, Britulæ, saturninæ, rabaciæ, saturiæ, Palladiæ.4

The Sermo was evidently composed at a time and for an occasion when Pinnosa held far greater importance, possibly because her relics were in the possession of the nuns of the Convent of the Holy Virgins. In the Sermo, the preacher gives historical veracity to the legend by naming popes and kings who converted the British, and by citing the persecutions of Diocletian. No mention is made of maidens avoiding marriage. British women flee the persecutions at home, hoping to find a haven on the continent. Their numbers are “nearly twelve thousand.” Roman soldiers, not Huns, put the women to death. And they die for their Christian belief, not because they resisted sexually, as the later legends have it. Eventually in a future study we shall consider the three texts in relation to one another.

Sermon on the Birthday of the Eleven Thousand Holy Virgins5

922 A.D.


1.

On this day we should both treasure and revere the armies of the Holy Virgins of Cologne. We say Cologne, for it is more appropriate to identify them with the city where they were born to life everlasting than with the place where they were born to confront their mortality.

It was not enough for these women to surrender, in their own land, to the glory of their Lord and their Spouse. No, they also renounced at the same time everything they owned, as well as the bodily passions which they had long ago spurned because of their love for him. They acknow­ledged no fleshly ties, either to their fathers or mothers, or other close relatives, or even to their homeland. All was for the sake of the Lord to whom they began to adhere in spirit. They were most faithful to their avowed purpose of hastening after their own radiant white and crim­soned beloved, whom they chose from among thousands.6 Ceaselessly they cried, “Draw me after you, we will run after the perfume of your good unguents.”7

And so, on their feast day—greatly honoured by us in every age—let us speak first of their worthiness, and point out finally the things that we do not know. For indeed, we know nothing about them except what is most splendid.

2.

But no one should think that their importance is diminished because the facts of their early lives and their experiences in middle life are not known to us. This is especially true since the faithful remember so well the most magnificent event of their lives.

Assuredly, some of the women among so great a number could have been married or widowed. Before their martyr­dom those women might have been denied the fruitful yield of one hundredfold that women dedicated to virginity could expect. Nevertheless, those widows and married women would have reaped sixtyfold and thirtyfold as a reward for the life they led in their home­land.8 For this life is most proper and most pleasing to God. Indeed, the very greatest yield of fruit would be reaped through the stage of martyrdom, that most potent sign of human worthiness.

Now, who could ever believe that such a throng of women—not to mention virgins alone—would have gathered together without being joined by the other sex!

Certainly we do not think that what we read about the Amazons ought to be compared to the holy virtue of this spiritual troop. For the Amazons, like their leader, aspired to victory through slaughter, while these women in following their Spouse sought victory through death. It was possible for him, yes, even easy—if he wished- to make his wondrousness known to all races and peoples through a multitude made up solely of virgins. For he had already guaranteed and granted to the faithful that all things were possible.

When he was still enveloped in the frailty of his humanity, he was able to remain in command of more than twelve legions of angels, which the Father provided him.9 How then, when he was ruling in the same flesh in eternal majesty with the Father, could he be incapable of pro­viding nearly twelve thousand virgins to follow him as the immaculate lamb!10

3.

As we said earlier, through the efforts of our ancestors, a certain amount of information about the holy virgins was handed down to us that was neither very extensive nor very detailed, but open to many interpretations.

Concerning virginity, no one should assume that any eminence is equal to it. Virginity is unique in itself and excels in safeguarding humility to the very end. But what should we say about the women’s disdaining and repudiating their parents and all their possessions, about their renouncing their friends, about the pilgrimage they took up for the sake of the truth of God’s will?

In reply, what should we say of the teaching of Truth?11 We know that in the gospel, Truth himself promised a young man that he would be made perfect simply by selling his belongings and generously giving alms, if he would follow Truth. And what should we say, since—for these same good deeds—he gave the apostles the power of judging others on Judgment Day?

To people who publicly asserted their own perfection because of their good works, Truth declared, “If you would be perfect, go sell what you have and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven. Come, and follow me.”12 To them, indeed, he solemnly promised the prize of perfec­tion when he said, “Amen, I say to you, that because you have given up everything and followed me, you shall—at the Resurrection, when the Son of Man shall sit on the seat of his majesty—you, too, shall sit on the twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel.”13

There is virtually no one who does not realise that martyrdom is so pre-eminent that religious feasts recur every day commemorating it throughout the whole world.

4.

That virgin of virgins, the Son, without a doubt drew his own virgins to himself by guiding them through the stages or degrees of excellence. He raised them up by rewarding them, he exalted them by blessing them in eternal glory. But until now he hid from us the degrees and orders of perfection by which they arrived at this citadel as they ascended from virtue to virtue. He kept this secret because he wished it. He knew that it was beyond us to com­prehend, not only with the threefold praises of these women (whose perfection is remembered on high) but even with a single praise of any kind.

O that blessed and sacred choir of virgins, most perfect in merit, incomparable in number! Joined to the milk-white throng of innocent martyrs, not only do they proclaim with all the earth that wondrous new song,14 but also that particular verse which the unique multitude of virgins sings as they follow the Lamb wherever he goes!15

5.

Now, it ought not to seem that we omit or pass over in silence what has always been preserved on the lips of our countrymen—who are most tenacious of memory!—and what is frequently spoken of in pious gatherings. We should not deny what is believable, and what is either true or very likely. For many things are expected that have been committed to writing on the basis of surmise or opinion, and no authority has ever opposed them.

It stands to reason that the sedulous and cautious man is never branded a liar. He slings his weighted net to ensnare as well as he can the truth16 that resides in the tradition of our ancestors and of very scrupulous people who are reasonable in their judgements.

Why weren’t the deeds and rewards of this heavenly band recorded from the beginning, that they might at last be transmitted quite clearly and without embellishment to the ears of posterity? But how could anyone be astonished that they were not transmitted! The cause of the neglect is wholly explicable by the common suffering inflicted on the entire populace by the barbarians’ raging, especially in these regions. It was because of this tribulation that the memory of the same holy virgins—after the torching of the Church which guarded their sacred bodies—faded first from the lips and eventually from the hearts of a people who had long been pious.

We may recall that even the Israelite nation, oppressed by the barbarous lord of Egypt, forgot their creator until divine compassion called upon Moses. Exiled and living among his kindred at the time, Moses was summoned by the burning bush that was unconsumed. After the people witnessed God’s miracles, Moses turned the inconstant from their error and bade them to return to the original spirit of their faith.17

6.

But this neglect of a most precious treasure which should have been honoured in our country continued so long among us that a man named Clematius was beckoned to Cologne from the very remote territories of the East. The outcome of the matter has revealed that Clematius—illustrious, devout and capable of honouring and adoring the burial sites of the Holy Virgins—brought both material wealth and fame to them. For he had been summoned to Cologne by frequent portents and visions, and invited by signs and warnings. These signs had exhorted him from the start while he was still in his own country. Reverently he had promised that because of his religious faith he would complete the needed repairs to the Basilica of the Holy Virgins. Their written memorials are preserved there, carved in stone. We think the words ought to be included in this sermon:

A certain Clematius, a consul in his own country, received frequent warnings in visions fiery with divinity of the great power residing in the majestic martyrdom of the heavenly virgins above. Because of the vow he was compelled to fulfill, he restored this basilica from its foundations.

The truth must be stated briefly. Investigators have not been very diligent in discovering the true sense of this in­scription, and therefore an elucidation of its whole meaning has remained obscure until now.

In that original account it is written that Clematius erected a church out of his own resources from the foundations of the sainted virgins. People believe he had his own estate here, upon which he finally rebuilt it. Although the church had been lying in ruins for a long time, there was no one who even thought of repairing it until then. But with money of his own, that same devout Clematius, journeying from afar, is thought to have restored it more sumptuously. Not only did he increase the veneration owed to the most precious bodies in their own proper place, but he also conferred great fame upon them in the foreign provinces from which he came, on account of his journeying back and forth.

7.

Because it is said that Clematius was granted a vision from the East through repeated and awe-inspiring signs, there is a theory that the holy virgins had also been drawn to this place from the East. They are alleged to have been guided here with the martyrs of the Theban company.18 They were obeying a mission, as it were, to safeguard the Pax Romana,19 or else—through the grace of prayer—they were bidden by sacred design to these regions which pagans inhabited at the time.

But there is no reason to believe that the virgins were sent from the East to the West. For if they had sought a more estimable devotion or a more unmolested life, they might have preferred to steer their course either to that site (as is likely) where the marks of God’s footprints and of his passion and his sepulchre are found,20 or (which is even more likely) to the site where the summit of the Church is located.21

To this day we recognise that this happens frequently, since we converse with the faithful traveling to all countries. When they make a pilgrimage to that place, journeying with tireless zeal from all regions of this land, we speak with them upon their return.

8.

So too with the martyrs. They desired the glory of martyrdom through the faith and the testimony of Christ that they possessed, preferring to die with an ardent mind and impatient of delay. We have no doubt they sought this in whatever place it might befall them. We believe they came here, just as we have said repeatedly. We have joyfully welcomed them, and will never cease as long as we live to revere in them the generosity of their lives. In the East, presumably, they could have gained merit more easily, for there they might have given great offense to the Prince of the Roman Empire,22 sole persecutor of the Chris­tian name. For rarely in our own regions was any persecution instigated against Christians, apart from his decree and edict at the same time.

9.

Furthermore, several people have properly directed their gaze to the rubric. That is, through the equitable principle of wisest reason, they have been led by the views of historians and by the times. These people have diligently examined the order of things and pass on the information that the island of Britain was the mother, and at the same time, the nurse of a throng “known to God,” or Deonotus.23 In this opinion they agree beyond a doubt in saying that the holy band was sent, and they heartily give thanks that they have been sustained by a great work. Indeed, in the midst of the most consistent evidence, they have fixed inscriptions for the monuments which in several places distinguish these saints, saints who are at the same time honoured and celebrated through their relics.

For even in Batavia, which the double-hornèd Rhine forms into an island when it flows around it in two streams,24 they say a foundation was established and that it has remained in place for a considerable length of time.

10.

Lucius, king of the British during the times of the emperors Antoninus and Commodus, obtained preachers of the Christian and Catholic faith from Eleutherus, fourteenth pontifex of the apostolic throne after St. Peter. The people of Britain accepted the preachers. Lucius preserved the faith inviolate in peaceful tranquillity, and all persecution was unknown up to the time of Diocletian.25 Driven by the ferocity of Diocletian, even the Roman pontifex Marcellinus,26 the twenty-eighth in order from the beginning, resisted mightily. Then once again he took up an unwavering stance and was honoured with the martyr’s crown. Immediately afterwards, the stormy waves of persecution surrounded all lands in that See without restraint. That same throne was deprived of the bishop’s helm for seven and a half years and ten days, as the chronicles state.

Britain, meanwhile, an island in the regions beyond the seas, had for a very long time reposed in the ease of daily peace. Now throughout its length and breadth, Britain was shaken under the decree of Maximian by the most atro­cious persecution of Christians. Many there were crowned with martyrdom. Many were driven from home to go on pilgrimages, many set off with a vow and fortunately escaped in some manner from the manifold disasters of their country and of their churches, from the plundering of monasteries and the devastation, from the destruction and torching, and from the killing of citizens.27

At that time also, these women, uniquely blessed by God in all things, and distinguished by their merits—this legion of virgins who are worthy of our reverence in perpetuity—were unanimously following to the East the one leader of all spouses, Christ our Lord. There they had previously received the faith. And when they learned about the rise of the persecution, they strove in yearning to behold and seize the glory prepared for them.

11.

Among these, one illustrious woman is said to have been the daughter of an eminent king of the British people. They called her Winnosa, while we call her Pinnosa.28 All the other sisters followed her, joined together in a mutual vow and desire through Christ’s love. We recognise them all, for we have been instructed by the most persistent trials in virtue and piety of all of them—even though we know very few by name. When they were impelled in readiness for battle with the Lord, directed to the sharpest contemplation of true wisdom, in heart as well as in body, how much keenness of understanding, balance of righteousness, truth of temperance and boldness of courage those women were so blissfully and calmly able to endure! We blissfully are ready to imitate their manner of conduct.

We glory in the happiness of these other women, not only on this day, but also magnificently at all times. By rising up against the cruelty of the Roman officers, they saluted this land of Colonia Agrippina. They were not merely like guests who are passing through. Here they were crowned with the victory of martyrdom, they honoured Cologne as their own, and here they remained through the outpouring of their own sainted blood. And they have brought to us, by means of their precious bodies, such great protection that many thousands are able to beg worthily as suppliants for the mercy of relief from our Redeemer, the only God our Father. And he goes wherever he will among the ranks of the holy virgin followers. Benign emotion inspires our prayers, and his merciful love prevails.

Who with the same God the Father in the Holy Spirit both, lives in one holy omnipotent God, and reigns in the world without end. Amen.