Medieval German Women Writers (1100-1450): Biographies and Sources

by Rebecca LR Garber


 

Temporal-Geographical Locations of Medieval German Women Writers

 In an effort to avoid the confusion generated by simply supplying the reader with a rather long list of women writers, I will briefly introduce the eighteen women through a temporal-geographic summary of the three major groups of writers in this survey. This should help the reader place the individual women within an historical context of their peers. This summary follows in the main the development of women's monasticism, the shift from Latin to the vernacular, as well as the women's choice in genre. It also establishes that the women, although enclosed in monasteries, did not write in isolation from their peers. A few of them lived in the same monastic communities, others traveled outside the cloister to meet other women writers, while some were acquainted only through the transmission of the texts. Regardless of how well they knew each other, all of the women participated in the literary traditions of their time.

 As one follows this chronological development, the earliest women mystical writers resided in the Rhine area of Germany. Hildegard von Bingen and Elisabeth von Schönau both lived within the Rhine Valley near Mainz, and were both Benedictine nuns. They are associated with the so-called Rhineland mysticism, which was not an organized movement, but more a religious trend in the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. While many of the women involved were beguines, a reflection of the increasing lay piety, Elisabeth and Hildegard participated in the older, organized monastic system. Hildegard and Elisabeth wrote in Latin, and some versions of their texts contain illuminations. Elisabeth is closer to the stereotypical Rhineland mystic than Hildegard, who remained suspicious of ecstatic visions, which became the hallmark of medieval women's mysticism.

Almost one hundred years later and approximately one-hundred-seventy miles (approx. 325 Km) directly north-east of Mainz and the Rhineland nuns Hildegard and Elisabeth lay Halle, and the nearby Cistercian monastery of Helfta, a center of women's mysticism under the direction of the Dominicans at Halle. During Helfta's "Golden Age," the second half of the thirteenth century, the monastery was a center for women's intellectual achievement; the writings of the Dominican theologians Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas were well known to the Helfta nuns. The scriptorium was active: Sophia von Mansfield, a descendant of the monastery founders, was a noted scribe and copyist; her sister Elisabeth was known for her painting and illuminating; Mechthild von Hackeborn wrote that the best uses for the hands were prayer and writing. This was the refuge that the beguine Mechthild von Magdeburg sought, and it was also the home of several other gifted women, two of whom are well known for their Latin writings, Mechthild von Hackeborn and Gertrud von Helfta, often surnamed "die Grosse," or the Great.

The majority of the authors of the fourteenth-century Dominican Nonnenbücher lived approximately one-hundred-fifty to one-hundred-seventy miles (approx. 225-325 Km) south of Mainz in what is today southern Germany, Alsace, and north eastern Switzerland. The two exceptions are Schwäbisch-Gmünd, approximately one-hundred miles (approx. 175 Km) south-east of Mainz, and Engelthal, approximately one-hundred-twenty miles (approx. 225 Km) east-south-east of Mainz. The monasteries of Adelhausen bei Freiburg i. B., Ulm (Gotteszell bei Schwäbisch-Gmünd), Kirchberg between Haigerloch and Sulz on the Neckar river, and Weiler bei Eßlingen lie within the present-day German state of Baden-Württemberg. Anna von Munzingen and Elisabeth von Kirchberg wrote about the Adelhausen and Kirchberg nuns, respectively. The modern Swiss canton of Zürich was home to the monasteries of Töß in Winterthur, Diessenhofen in Katherinental (officially named St. Katherinental bei Diessenhofen), and Ötenbach in Zürich. Elsbet Stagel was one of the authors of the Nonnenbuch zu Töß and may have been the friend and biographer of Heinrich Seuse. Elsbeth von Oye wrote her text of Offenbarungen in Ötenbach. The other four German and Swiss sister-book authors are anonymous. Unterlinden in Colmar lies in modern Alsace, where both Katherina von Gebersweiler and Elisabeth Kempf were nuns. Their writings frame the genre of the sister-book: Katherina wrote the first sister-book in Latin; sixty years later Elisabeth translated and extended Katherina's work. Elisabeth's extension forms the final example of the genre. Engelthal bei Nürnberg lies furthest from the upper Rhine area in present-day Bavaria. Christine Ebner and Adelheid Langmann were nuns at Engelthal; the monastery was known for the mystical visions of the nuns there. Margareta Ebner, also in modern Bavaria at the monastery of Maria-Medingen (modern Mödingen, near Dillingen an der Donau), had ties with the Swiss monastics through her friendship with Heinrich von Nördlingen. The nuns at Engelthal were also familiar with Heinrich, as well as with Johannes Tauler, who was also active in the cura monialium in the Swiss monasteries. Adelheid Langmann and Margareta Ebner did not write sister-books, but rather personal revelations. They are grouped here with the authors of the sister-books due to temporal-geographic coincidence, common literary influences, and the similarity of their work with that of Christine Ebner.

 

Sources

Almost all of the information about these women stems directly from their texts, a situation common with medieval authors. In a few cases it can be supplemented by parish records, which contain information about baptisms, marriages, religious profession (taking the veil of a nun), and deaths. Convent necrologies record information about monastic offices, the identity of the nuns (often only their names), and dates of death. City archives, especially land transactions and other contracts with the monastery, contain information about the economic status of the monastery, the secular holdings of the monastery, which abbesses were active in acquiring land and other goods, and the number of nuns and laysisters in the monastery at a certain date. Personal wills are important: although nuns technically owned no property, they could serve as witnesses or as beneficiaries of others, which is another source of information used to approximate dates of death. These types of records generally reveal the terminus ante quem non (the date before which the person could not have died), and are particularly important in those cases in which the date of death is not known. A few of the women were the subjects of Vitae that contemporaries or near-contemporaries wrote about them. However, for most of the women the only source of information lies in their texts, which were not written as historical, biographical documents; they are records of the inner, spiritual lives of the women, and contain few dates, or references to events in the world beyond the monastery walls, or even to family. Recent scholarship has focused on recuperating this information from the texts and other records.

amount of information available about specific women writers extends across the entire spectrum--from the anonymous authors of the Nonnenbücher (at Weiler, Gotteszell, Ötenbach, and Diessenhofen), about whom nothing is known, to Hildegard von Bingen, in whose letters and works biographical details can be found, and for whom there exist two extant Vitae and the canonization proceedings written shortly after her death. The fifteenth-century recompiler of the Nonnenbuch zu Adelhausen writes what amounts to an "anti-vita" about the monastery foundress (named either Williburgis Turnerin or Williburgis de Etz). In it, the author remarks that there is no information in the sister-book about the foundress of the monastery, and speculates about the fleeting quality of oral tradition, which allowed so much information to be lost.

The information thus collected varies greatly from woman to woman, depending on the number of sources that remain extant. Dates of death are sometimes available from the monastery necrologies, and are generally exact, including date and year. Information about birth years is seldom available; modern scholars have calculated backward the few known birth years from textual references. The only known birthdates are those which fell on a specific church feast.

The following information, gleaned from the sources mentioned above, is available about the women writers in this survey. It will be clear from these summaries how little information is commonly available about the individual women.

The biographies are listed chronologically by the woman's date of death, or, in those cases where the author is unknown, approximate composition date of the text. The only exception to this rule is the biography of Elisabeth von Schönau, which follows that of her older contemporary, Hildegard von Bingen, in the list. Although Elisabeth died before Hildegard, her literary activities followed her reception of Hildegard's Scivias.

 

Biographies

 

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179).

Hildegard has been called the first German mystic, although there are some who dispute this term as too narrow. She is the woman writer about whom we know the most. The information stems from the prologues to her works, her extended exchange of letters, and two Vitae. The first vita was composed by the monks Gottfried von St Disibod and Dieter von Echternach and contains memoirs dictated by Hildegard; the second vita, by Guibert de Gembloux, is fragmentary, but still contributes biographical details. It is unusual to have such a wealth of sources about the life of a medieval author.

She was born in Bermersheim-bei-Alzey, the tenth child of the noble Hildebert and Mechthild von Bermersheim. Her parents "tithed" her to the church when she was eight, giving her into the care of Jutta von Sponnheim, Inclusa (anchoress) at the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg. Out of the anchoress's cell grew a women's convent, to which Hildegard was elected Magistra following Jutta's death in 1136. Disibodenberg was a double monastery under the direction of the abbot; thus the highest office on the women's side was the Magistra. In 1151, after an extended battle for independence from the Disibodenberg abbot, Hildegard moved her nuns to the ruined monastery at Rupertsberg, which they rebuilt. She died there in 1179 at the age of 82. The process for her consecration was begun but never finished. The inquisitors did a poor job and did not record names of people or places in their descriptions of miracles attributed to Hildegard. Further legend has it that the nuns at Rupertsberg, tired of the constant disturbance of pilgrims, asked the bishop to order their patroness, under her vows of obedience, to cease working miracles.

The source of her holiness and authority was her visions, which she had experienced since childhood and prior to her entry into the church. However, she first began to write her visions down in 1141 at age 42, when the voice she heard in her visions, which she called the "Living Light" and associated with God, ordered her to do so. Even at this point she resisted, citing her feminine frailty and lack of learning. She suffered one of her frequent attacks of illness, which she assumed was punishment for her disobedience. This was confirmed to her in visions, and when she resolved to obey, she rose from her bed well, and able to write. She still suffered from insecurity, and appealed to Bernard of Clairvaux to authenticate her visions. He endorsed her gift, but with reservations. Authentication of her visionary gift and authority to record her visions in writing was finally granted her at the papal synod at Trier (1147-8) when Pope Eugenius III confirmed her gift as divine. From this point on, Hildegard writes steadily "what she sees and hears."

Hildegard was a prolific author. Her three major vision cycles record salvation history, each with a different emphasis: the Scivias is doctrinal, the Liber vitae meritorum is a psychomachia (a debate between the personified Virtues and Vices) devoted to ethics, and the De operatione Dei is a scientific work. Her interest in natural science was lifelong; her two collections of natural science observations were written in between her other works. The Physica and the Causae et curae are both encyclopedic: the former focuses on the natural properties of things, while the latter demonstrates Hildegard's interest in medicine, and the medicinal purposes of physical things. She had no formal training in music, but was extremely gifted, as is obvious from her songs, which defy traditional forms of chant in their daring leaps. Her music includes liturgical hymns, chants and sequences, and also the oldest work of "musical theater," the Ordo virtutum. She wrote a hagiographic Life of St. Disibod at the request of the monks at Disibodenberg. The most puzzling of her writings is a secret language, called the lingua ignota, which is extant as a list of more than nine hundred created words and their German equivalents. She corresponded prolifically with people from all walks of life, from emperors and popes to clerics and lay people. More than three hundred letters remain extant in various manuscript collections. Vollmar von Disibodenberg, her Provost, and a nun, Richildis von Stade, helped her in her literary endeavors, serving as her secretaries.

Despite her increasing age and her "feminine frailty," Hildegard also made four preaching tours between 1158 and 1170. She preached for clerical and monastic reform and against heresy to audiences which consisted mainly of monastics like herself, but in one instance, in Cologne, her audience was of both secular and clerical folk.

 

Elisabeth von Schönau (1129-1164/5)

Information about Elisabeth stems from monastery records and her own texts, which contain a minimum of biographical evidence. The daughter of Rheinisch nobility, Elisabeth was a sickly child. Her parents gave her at age twelve to the Benedictine monastery at Schönau. In 1147 she took the veil of a nun and was elected Magistra in 1157. Her visions began in 1152, perhaps in response to a physical and psychic crisis, which nearly drove her to suicide. Her brother Eckbert joined the monastery at her behest in 1155, and assumed the role of her spiritual overseer. Her early visions are closely tied to the liturgical calendar, and the number of demonic visions can be read as evidence of her insecurity. Her later visions, vision cycles, and letters show the influence of Eckbert: instead of waiting for her angelic visitors to reveal why they had come, she sought answers to current theological and dogmatic questions from them. Her visions continued until her death in 1164/5, probably hastened by her own frailty and her extreme ascetic practices.

Elisabeth was in some ways Hildegard's protégé. Hildegard encouraged Elisabeth, who visited her at Rupertsberg; Elisabeth's longest work, the Liber viarum Dei, echoes the title of Hildegard's first work, the Scivias. Moreover, Elisabeth's angel proclaims her able to write this work only after her visit with Hildegard. Both women shared a concern about the rise of heresy and the condition of the church and its clergy. However, there existed one major difference between the two women. The younger woman was a visionary, but she saw her visions in ecstatic trance, whereas Hildegard was conscious of both the inner and outer worlds during her visions, and suspicious of ecstatic visions, due to the possible influence of the devil on the "sleeping" mind, and to the difficulty in proving their veracity.

Elisabeth's other works include her three books of Visions; the Revelationes de sacro exercitu virginum Coloniensum, a Life and Martyrdom of St Ursula; the Visiones de resurrectione beatae Mariae virginis, revelations about the bodily ascension of Mary, and some twenty letters. The Life of Ursula and the revelations of Mary were especially popular and remained in circulation long after her death. Her works were all edited by her brother Eckbert von Schönau: indeed, a copy of her "Vision of the Ascension of Mary," now in Paris, attributes her vision to him.

 

Mechthild von Magdeburg (ca 1207-ca 1282)

There are no biographical sources about Mechthild other than her text. She was born around 1207, possibly of minor nobility of the Mittelmark. She had her first visionary experience at age twelve. At around 1230, she fled to Magdeburg, in imitation of Christ, to live an ascetic life in a town where she knew no one. She left Magdeburg around 1270, perhaps moving back to her relatives at first, but eventually landing at the Cistercian monastery of Helfta, which was a well-known center of mysticism under the direction of Gertrud von Hackeborn. In Helfta, she added a seventh book to her work, portions of which were already circulating. She died at Helfta around 1282.

After about 1250, Mechthild recorded her visions, experiences and revelations in the work now known as Das fließende Licht der Gottheit. The text is an interweaving of lyrics and prose. Her poetry shows similarities with courtly poetry from that period: her lyrics combine the forms of the liturgical sequence and hymn as well as those of the dances, love songs and laments that were current at the time. Her use of rhyme, rhythm, and erotic love metaphors, her emphasis on "minne" and the soul's individual relationship with God, and her descriptions of courtly life and knighthood all stem from the noble milieu of her family. The themes she treats--theological questions about the Trinity, the creation of souls, the recognition of the Creator in all of his creation--show the influence of the biblical exegesis and allegorical interpretations of Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Hugh and Richard of St Victor.

There is a great deal of scholarship on Mechthild and her relationship with her confessor, who has been identified as Heinrich von Halle. According to modern scholars, Heinrich was her confessor in Magdeburg. He actively encouraged her to record her experiences in writing, collected and organized the first six books of her text, remained in contact with her when she withdrew to Helfta, and translated her work into Latin after her death. Ursula Peters has cast doubts on Heinrich's involvement in Mechthild's original writing project. The German text contains only two references to Bruoder or Meister Heinrich. He does not appear as her confessor in book 4, chapter 2: the priest who commands Mechthild to write is anonymous. "Meister Heinrich" appears in book 5, chapter 12, as a cleric who is astounded by her text. He is perhaps identical with "bruoder Heinrich," who died on an Easter Monday (book 4, chapter 22). In neither of these cases are there references to Heinrich as confessor or director of her writings. Likewise, Heinrich von Halle does not appear in the Latin-German prologue to the Einsiedeln manuscript of Mechthild's text: the author of the prologue did not know the name of Mechthild's confessor. "Frater Henricus, dictus de Hallis" first appears in the Latin translation of Das fließende Licht, the "Lux Divinitas." Here he is granted a complete chapter, Book 2, chapter 22, in which he is described as Mechthild's confessor and the editor who arranged her work into six books. However, Peters argues that it is unclear whether "librum istum" refers to the German or Latin. Even if the reference indicates only the Latin translation, Heinrich's role remains inconclusive: he could have been the translator, one of several who worked on the text, or he could have commissioned the work. His later role in the transmission and circulation of the text is also unclear. One should be aware that the debate about Heinrich's involvement is far from over, and continues to this day.

In whatever manner, the complete German work (seven books) journeyed southwest after her death, where it passed through the hands of Heinrich von Nördlingen, long thought to have been its translator into Alemannisch, a high German dialect. Through him, the Dominican nuns in the Diocese of Constance, as well as the nuns in Engelthal and Medingen read Mechthild's work. Margareta's work has some rhymed sections which are perhaps due to Mechthild's influence. However, it is difficult to find evidence of Mechthild's influence on the Dominican women writers of the Nonnenbücher, because the two genres, personal revelations and sister-book, show such a disparity in emphasis and structure.

 

Mechthild von Hackeborn (1241-1298)

Mechthild was the younger sister of the abbess Gertrud von Hackeborn, not to be confused with Gertrud von Helfta. Her family was related by marriage to the imperial dynasty of the Hohenstaufen, and held lands in north Thuringia and in the Harz mountains. At age seven, she and her family visited the Cistercian monastery at Rodersdorf near Halberstadt, where her older sister Gertrud was already a nun. Mechthild also declared a vocation and refused to leave. Her parents allowed her to enter the monastery as a novice, and she later took the veil of a nun.

Mechthild first held the office of Magistra. Because she was highly gifted in music, she became the monastery's Cantrix, responsible for the singing of the liturgy in the choir and the education of the novices. She had visionary experiences throughout her life, but did not reveal them until after 1290, when she was confined to her bed by illness. According to the text, her revelations were copied down by Gertrud von Helfta and one or more of the other nuns at the instruction of the new Abbess, Sophie von Querfurt. Mechthild became aware of this process after the work was finished. At first angered by the recording, she later endorsed the accuracy of the contents, and involved herself in the writing process. She died soon after in 1298.

Her work, now known as the Liber specialis gratiae, shows some similarities with Mechthild von Magdeburg's text. Both texts are composed of a multitude of short segments, which are separated into books; both record dialogues with heavenly inhabitants, divine revelations, dreams, visions, prayers, and short contemplations enumerating the graces, gifts, or virtues of the Trinity and Mary. Similar influences color their writings: Augustine, Bede, Gregory the Great, Hugh and Richard of St Victor. Unlike the former beguine, however, the nun remains firmly within the liturgical and patristic traditions in her imagery.

 

Gertrud von Helfta or Gertrud die Grosse (1256-1301/2)

Gertrud is the last of the mystics from Helfta who left a written record of her experiences. Nothing is known about her family or her place of birth. She records only those events which occur after her entry into the monastery. She entered the Cistercian monastery at Helfta at age five. It can be said with some accuracy that she was a member of at least the minor nobility, because few others could send their children to monasteries, let alone pay for their admission at such an early age. In the monastery school she received an education in the seven liberal arts as well as theology; she laments in Book 2 of her work Legatus divinae pietatis that she was more interested in literature than in scripture.
      She records her first vision as taking place on 27 Jan. 1281, and the first divine command to write down her experiences occurred during Holy Week, 1289. She was aided in her writing by at least one other sister; Book 1, which is the prologue and introduction to her work and to herself, was probably written posthumously. Gertrud died on 17 Nov. 1301 or 1302.

 

Anna von Munzingen (d. post 1327)

Few dates are known from Anna's life, and most of them stem from non-monastic records. Her background is patrician: a Freiburg family which rose to prominence in the fourteenth century, well represented in city government, with members serving as both city councilors and mayors. Dates from land transactions record Anna as prioress at the Dominican monastery of Adelhausen in 1316, 1317, and 1327. There is no record of her birth, of her entry into the monastery, or of her vows of monastic perfection. She died after 1327. Because she appears as the donor of some recently cleared forest land (Urbar) to the convent at Adelhausen in 1327, and the latest entry in the convent necrology is the 10th of April, 1354, J. König sets her death date between 1327 and 1354.

Both Anna's patrician background and her function as prioress allow speculation that she was educated in the seven liberal arts. There is no doubt that she knew Latin, which is the original language of her sister-book. The Chronik zu Adelhausen is the only dated sister-book; the date of completion, 1318, appears in a colophon in the Freiburg Stadtarchiv manuscript Hs. 98, which was copied by Johannes Hull in 1433. The Chronik includes the lives of thirty-four nuns from the previous generation at Adelhausen.

 

Katherina von Gebersweiler (d. 22. Jan. ca. 1330)

Due to the nature of the sister-book, little is known about Katherina. The only information stems from the prologue and explicit to the Vitae sororum: she wrote the sister-book in her old age, and entered the monastery at a young age. Although she is usually given the title of prioress, there is some doubt as to whether she ever held that office. The title does not follow her name in the manuscript explicit nor in the convent necrology, neither does she appear in the list of prioresses. Katherina's association with the office stems from a manuscript of the Vitae sororum published in 1625 by a librarian in Freiburg i. B., Matthias Thanner, which was reprinted a century later by Bernard Pez. In this manuscript, the author, Katherina, is named prioress. Unfortunately, this manuscript has disappeared, so the question about Katherina's office remains open.

What is known about Katherina is that she was well educated, as demonstrated by the high quality of her Latin prose, and was probably familiar with the Vitae fratrum of Gerard de Frachete and the Legenda aurea of Jacques de Voragine. The Vitae sororum contains the oral history of the founding of her monastery and thirty-nine vitae of the early sisters and patrons. Five vitae were added by a later editor. The original text has been dated between 1310 and 1320, and alternatively between 1320 and 1330. Due to the quality of Katherina's Latin, the Vitae sororum is generally considered to be the oldest of the sister-books, which would make the earlier dates of composition more likely. Katherina died circa 1330.

 

Elsbeth von Oye (ca. 1290-1340)

Elsbeth was either born in Zürich to the family von Ouw, or in Uri to the family Unter Oyen family; neither family's claim has been substantiated or refuted. In any case, she entered the monastery at Ötenbach in Zürich at age six. At some point during her life there, she began a practice of severe physical self-chastisement which lasted for nine years. She recorded this special diziplin, along with the divine revelations she received in her text called the Puchlein des lebens und der offenbarung swester Elsbethen von Oye. She lived to be approximatedly fifty years old, and died around 1340.

With few exceptions, Elsbeth received her spiritual revelations in relation to her severe self-tortures; she endured the weight of a heavy wooden cross as well as that caused by pressing a nail-studded cross into her flesh. Descriptions of her pain flow into theological questions--some naive, some highly speculative and learned, to which she received answers while in ecstatic trance. Her writing shows influences of Eckhart's sermons, the neo-platonists, and the mysticism of the Areopagite, with little or no influence from Heinrich Seuse and Mechthild von Magdeburg.

Her complete text is extant in three Middle High German manuscripts: the Zürich manuscript contains the complete work of revelations; together the Nürnberg manuscript and the recently discovered Breslau manuscript contain the prologue and body of the text, respectively. There are also sixteen manuscripts containing fragments of her text. The Carthusian monk Matthias Tanner translated her work around 1630, and there are two extant manuscripts in Einsiedeln and Melk. The number of extant manuscripts indicates that other people shared an interest in Elsbeth's life. The Nürnberg and Breslau text portions, which form the two halves of the Ötenbach Nonnenbuch, reveal the close ties between the personal revelatory works and the sister-books. The Zürich text is considered by many to be an autograph manuscript, one of a very few that we have from a medieval author.

 

Diessenhofen Sister-book (ca. 1330-45)

Weiler Sister-book (ca. 1330-50)

Gotteszell Sister-book (ca. 1350-1450)

Ötenbach Sister-book (ca. 1340-1450)

 These four sister-books were written by a Dominican nun or nuns from each of the monasteries. Nothing is known about the authors. Structurally the sister-books from Ötenbach, Diessenhofen, and Gotteszell are similar to Anna von Munzingen's Chonik in that each includes a description of the founding of the monastery, followed by a varying number of vitae; the Weiler sister-book lacks this introduction. All four conclude in a fashion similar to the other sister-books--that the vitae are representative of the nuns of the previous generation, but they are by no means an exhaustive account of all the miraculous occurrences in that particular monastery.

 The sister-book from Ötenbach is actually extant in two volumes, one in Nürnberg, and the other in Breslau. It remains the smallest of the Nonnenbücher, with ten vitae. Six of the vitae, those of Ite von Hohenfels, Ite von Hutwil, Elsbeth von Beggenhofen, Elsbeth von Oye, Adelheid von Freiburg, and Margarethe Stülinger are quite extensive, and are reformulations of previously written individual vitae. Except for Elsbeth von Oye's text, the others are now lost. Elsbeth von Oye's vita is also unusual in that it is actually a copy of her own Leben und Offenbarungen. The sister-book was originally dated as shortly after 1340, the date given in the text for the death of Elsbeth von Beggenhofen. However, due to dated and datable events recorded in the vita of Margarethe Stülinger, a revised composition date of post-1449 for the extant text must be accepted. This new composition date does not exclude the likely possibility that the first five vitae were written in the fourteenth century and that Margaretha's was appended later. Schneider-Lastin posits Johannes Meyer as the final editor of the Ötenbach Nonnenbuch, as well as the author of Margaretha's vita.

 The sister-book for the monastery at Katherinental bei Diessenhofen is the longest of the genre, containing fifty-four vitae. Although the author made use of some written records, for example the "legenda" of Elsbeth Heinburgin, the greater portion of her information stems from events that she herself, or her trusted contemporaries, actually witnessed. Walter Blank sets the composition date at 1330/45, due to stylistic reasons. This is supported by the author's personal acquaintance with Anna Ramswag, who confessed to Meister Eckhart when he visited the monastery.

The monastery of Weiler bei Esslingen was founded in 1230 and incorporated into the Dominican Order in 1245. Because the sister-book was written "in diesen jubelzeiten," presumably the centennial of either the founding or the incorporation, Karl Bihlmeyer dates the text in 1350. The sister-book contains nineteen vitae.
      The Gotteszell sister-book is included at the end of the sister-book from Kirchberg. However, it was not written at Kirchberg, but is an independent work. The sister-book begins with a typical introduction and ends with a specific reference to Ulm as the location of the monastery. There are no vitae in common with either version of the Kirchberg sister-book. To further support the claim that this text is an independent work, the Engelthal monastic library catalogue from 1447 has entries for both sister-books, but as separate manuscripts. These entries, "Ein puchlein von eim kloster saz ligt in Ulem in Swaben von einem seligen menschen" and "Ein puchlein von der seligen samnung zu Kirchperk," are separated by the titles of four other texts, and so must refer to distinct manuscripts. Hans Peter Müller has proposed the monastery of Gotteszell bei Schwäbisch Gmünd as the location of the Dominican monastery that produced the text.

 

Margareta Ebner (ca. 1291-1351)

Margareta was born into a patrician household of the Donauwörth branch of the Ebner family. She entered the Dominican monastery of Maria Medingen near Dillingen-an-der-Donau at an early age. She first met Heinrich von Nördlingen in 1332, a visit that developed into an enduring friendship. Heinrich was very influential in her life: he interpreted her visionary experiences, encouraged her mystical tendencies, and introduced her to Johannes Tauler and the other Friends of God.

Due to political pressures, Heinrich fled Bavaria for Basel. He and Margareta remained in touch through letters, which she collected, and which now form the oldest surviving epistolary exchange in the vernacular. It was at his his urging that she began to record her experiences in 1344, which resulted in her text, the Offenbarungen. She was aided in her endeavor by Elsbeth Scheppach, who assisted Margareta in her writing even after she, Elsbeth, was elected prioress in 1345. Her involvement, as representative for the monastery, points to the official sanction and support for this type of mystical record.

The Offenbarungen record Margareta's experiences of divine grace, beginning with an extreme illness in 1312, which caused a type of "conversion" in her life: she had already professed a vocation as a Dominican nun, but she claimed her life prior to the illness was lived "without serious reflection." She gives herself up to her illness, and exists only for her suffering and extended prayers; the text records their progress as they wax and wane in a pattern which follows the liturgical year. Her symptoms included not only physical pain and weakness but also vocal outbursts, loud "outcries" similar to screams and uncontrollable "speaking" episodes, in which she might repeat the name of Jesus Christ several hundred times. She also receives visions, in which God speaks with her. Although scholars have tended to emphasize her relationship with and special devotion to the Christ-child, Christ the divine judge also plays a major role within her text.

Margareta especially venerated the Christ child and the crucifixion. During her lifetime, she was given a Christ child doll, a manger, and a crucifix; all of these items receive special mention in her revelations and served her as objects of meditation and contemplation. She died on 20 June 1351, and was buried in the Chapter House of the monastery. Shortly thereafter, the Chapter House was converted into a chapel to Margareta. Both her doll and crucifix are enshrined in the chapel, which is decorated with frescoes and paintings illuminating scenes from her visions.

 

Christine Ebner (1277-1356)

Her parents, Seyfried Ebner and Elisabeth Kuhdorf, were from the Nürnberg patrician class. Similar to Hildegard, Christine was a tenth child, which may have influenced her parents' decision to give her to the nearby monastery of Engelthal when she was twelve. Two years later she experienced her first visions, a common mystical phenomenon at Engelthal. By the age of twenty, she had developed a reputation as a visionary, and her wisdom and blessing were sought by such diverse persons as the flagellants and Emperor Karl IV. She exchanged letters with Heinrich von Nördlingen, and knew Johannes Tauler and some of the other Friends of God.

Christine is the author of two distinct texts, a personal revelatory work and a sister-book. The earlier, her Leben und Offenbarungen, was begun in 1317 at the behest of her confessor, Konrad von Füssen. For the next seven years he was closely involved with recording her experiences. After he left, she apparently continued to work on the text, which may account for the different styles that appear in the three versions of the text. Another possibility is that one or more persons reworked her notes. The first version is semi-chronologically organized, although the focus is on her experiences in her fortieth year, and, unlike the other versions, contains references to historical events. The second, although it begins with her birth and ends with her death, is thematically organized. The third is also chronological, but in the style of a hagiographical biography, beginning with a prehistory of her birth and breaking off during her fifteenth year.

She is also the author of the sister-book from Engelthal, Das Büchlein von der genaden uberlast, which contains the vitae of forty-five sisters. The style of the sister-book is so different from her Offenbarungen that early scholars were loath to believe she had written both. The sister-book is a "sober" narrative, while the Offenbarungen is much more "emotional"; scholars wanted to protect the integrity of the former from contamination by the exuberance of the latter. The original editor of the Nürnberg manuscript, Karl Schröder, proposed her as a possible author, but with "eine gewisse Reserve." The fact that he does not attribute the sister-book to her in the title of his edition speaks to his tentative identification of her as author. Direct evidence for Christine's authorship of the Genaden uberlast comes from internal references in the Vienna Schottenkloster Cod. 308. In two places, she makes reference to herself by name, "stund ich cristin ebnerin" 42,14; and "zu der selben swester (Sentence mark) cristine läß dir," 35,16. Because the Vienna codex commonly omits explicit references to the Engeltal monastery, it is unlikely that these instances were later editions to the Vienna codex. Also, in the second part of her Offenbarungen, there is a reference to her authorship of the sister-book: "Si het ein büechlein gemacht von den gotlichen gnaden di unser herr den swestern in irem closter getan het."

 

Elisabeth von Kirchberg (ca. 1300-1350)

Little is known about Elisabeth besides that which has been gleaned from her two texts, a Vita of Irmgard von Roth, and the Kirchberg sister-book. According to the Irmgard-Vita, she entered the Dominican monastery of Kirchberg at age four-and-a-half, and may have been of Jewish heritage. She had been a nun for forty-two years, and had been Irmgard's close confidante for twenty years when she began to write.

The process by which the Irmgard Vita came to be written was rather complicated, has similarities with the composition of the Vita of Heinrich Seuse and Mechthild von Hackeborn's Liber specialis gratiae, and is detailed at the end of the Vita. Elisabeth wrote about Irmgard's experiences in secret; at first she recorded them on a wax tablet, then she transferred them to parchment for a permanent record. Irmgard sensed that Elisabeth might be engaged in such an activity, and her suspicions culminated in a nocturnal visit to Elisabeth's bed in which Irmgard searched for the manuscript. After Elisabeth received a promise from Irmgard that she would not destroy the text, she produced it for her. At this point, Irmgard took an active interest and role in the writing process, and the two women corroborated closely on a final version of the Vita.

Like the Vita, there are two different versions of the sister-book. The shorter, more detailed version contains twenty-three vitae, is extant in a fifteenth-century manuscript, and was edited as the sister-book of Kirchberg bei Sulz. The longer contains sixty-four abbreviated vitae, is extant in a seventeenth-century manuscript, and was edited as Kirchberg bei Haigerloch. Walter Blank contends that both versions are independent copies of the same original, now lost. Due to continuities of style and content between the two redactions of the Irmgard-Vita--there is little doubt that Elisabeth was responsible for both renditions of the Vita--and the corresponding versions of the sister-book, Siegfried Ringler believes that Elisabeth wrote both editions of that text as well.

 

Elsbet Stagel (ca 1300-ca 1360)

Elsbet was the daughter of a prominent merchant family in Zürich. She entered the Dominican convent at Töß in her youth, where she became a nun, and later prioress. For years, she was considered the sole author of the sister-book from Töß, as well as the vita of her confessor Heinrich Seuse; recently, however, doubts have been raised about her authorial accomplishments.

According to Seuse's "Exemplar," as well as the "Vita" and "Briefsammlung," Seuse's geistliche Tochter, his daughter-in-spirit, copied down his reminiscences about his spiritual life in secret. When she revealed her work to him, he considered it spiritual theft, and burned all of the pages he could find. He was forbidden by divine command from destroying the second part, thus the remaining text was saved. After her death, Seuse completed the work in her place. This spiritual daughter also collected and edited Heinrich's letters to the nuns at Töß in the Briefbüchlein. Her efforts extended beyond mere editing; she also wrote the Schwesternbuch zu Töß. It should be noted, however, that Elsbeth never appears by name in the Seuse corpus. In the sister-book, she appears as the author of the vita of Elisabeth von Cellikon, as "die sae'lgen schwester Elsbeten Staglinum, die dis ales von ir schraib."

According to Klaus Grubmüller, Johannes Meyer (d. 1485) first identified Elsbeth as the author of the Seuse corpus and the Tößer Nonnenbuch. His vita of Elsbeth Stagel, which was appended to the sister-book in the Nünrberg manuscript Cent. V 10a, is composed of excerpts from the Seuse corpus, in which the activities and life of Seuse's spiritual daughter are recorded. The information about Seuse's spiritual daughter, Meyer's vita of Elsbeth Stagel, and the reference within the sister-book to Elsbeth as the author of the vita of Elisabeth von Cellikon combined to establish her as Seuse's spiritual daughter, the editor of his works, and the author of the Tößer Nonnenbuch. Grubmüller does not find this evidence conclusive and contends that Elsbeth's authorship of the sister-book is not as indisputable as previously thought. Ursula Peters agrees that Elsbeth wrote the vita of Elisabeth von Cellikon, but will not accept any greater claims about her activities as a writer. However, this debate is far from over: there are many who disagree with Grubmüller and Peters about Elsbeth's invovlement in the Seuse corpus and the Töß sister-book.

The Töß sister-book contains thirty-six vitae, among them Elsbet's, who is one of the two authors of a sister-book to appear in the text. In a case similar to that of Elisabeth Kempf, Elsbet's vita was appended to the beginning of the text when the sister-book was recopied by Johannes Meyer in 1454. According to Grubmüller, the text was composed in several stages: the original series of thirty-one short vitae, the framing of these vitae with the prologue and the vita of Elsbeth Bechlin, the addition of the Elisbeth von Cellikon vita written by Elsbeth Stagel, the appending of the vita of Elisabeth von Ungarn, followed by a second vita of Elisabeth von Ungarn, and finally the framing and editing by Johannes Meyer in 1454. These stages clearly demonstrate the accretive nature of the genre, as well as the tendency of the author or authors to make use of single-person vitae, which already existed. According to Alois Haas, this serial composition does not preclude a larger role for Elsbeth Stagel than merely as author of the Elisabeth von Cellikon vita. Due to the serial nature of the text, the compostion dates extend from the mid-fourteenth to the mid-fifteenth century.

 

Adelheid Langmann (1306-1375)

Information about Adelheid is found in the prologue to her Offenbarungen, and also in a third-person account by her nurse, which is embedded in the text. The Langmann family belonged to the same social group as Christina Ebner's, the Nürnberg patrician class. According to her nurse, Adelheid had always been very religious; she slept in a hair shirt and advised other children to act piously. She was formally engaged at thirteen, but the groom died before the wedding could take place. Afterwards, she overcame her family's objections and entered the monastery at Engelthal. There, Adelheid's mystical experiences were first met with skepticism, then with growing acceptance, and later with actual acclaim. People from outside the monastery sought her advice and her blessing. Engelthal was a well-known mystical center where such experiences centered on visions. Adelheid is only exceptional in that she, like Christine, wrote her experiences down in her Offenbarungen. She died on 21 Oct. 1375.

Adelheid's text was edited early and the quality of the edition made it easily accessible to other scholars. Unfortunately, this led to Adelheid being cast as "typical" of women mystics, which she is not. She focuses on the single image of herself as bride of Christ and the mystical marriage in an extreme fashion not found among other women mystics. Even Adelheid's bridal mysticism is unusual: it is almost completely asensual, which is quite unlike other women who tend to describe the unio mystica, the mystical union with the Godhead, in terms that are reminiscent of physical intercourse.

 

Elisabeth Kempf (1415-1485)

Elisabeth was born in Colmar to the prominent family of Diepolt Kempf, who achieved citizenship in Colmar in 1389: her father, uncles, and grandfather all held important city offices. At the age of six, she was given to the Dominican monastery of Unterlinden. She became a nun, and later served as prioress, from 1469 until her death on 9 Oct. 1485.

In a vita appended to the Latin Vitae sororum, Elisabeth is lauded as a translator of Latin texts into German. She translated and extended the Vitae sororum subtiliae of Katherina von Gebersweiler, adding four additional vitae and a series of miracles associated with an image of the Virgin Mary which hung on the chapel wall at Underlinden. She explains in the colophon that she translated the work for the benefit of those who could not understand Latin. Geith suggests that she was also the translator of a "Leben Jesu." The evidence that the translation is hers is found in the colophon at the end of the poem. The most likely Latin original is an unpublished "Vita Christi," recently ascribed by W. Baier to the Italian Augustine-hermit, Michael de Massa.

 

Conclusions

It would be problematic to declare these seventeen women representative of medieval women in general, or even of monastic women in particular. They wrote and their texts were copied by others; some texts remained in circulation for several centuries, others were forgotten within a generation. From their biographies it is obvious that the women shared many commonalties: they were from the highest classes of society, the nobility and the city patriciate; they were deeply religious women with strong vocations; they chose to live within the monastery walls of the Benedictine, Cistercian, and Dominican orders; their texts were considered to be edifying and predominantly didactic in nature.

The women encountered the divine in a direct manner we define as mysticism, and they were convinced that their personal, individual revelatory experiences should be made public that others could benefit. They overcame similar doubts about their authority as recipients of grace and as writers: many of them hesitated at the divine injunction to write, but all obeyed, usually after consultation with a member of the earthly clergy confirmed the veracity of the heavenly (as opposed to satanic) nature of their experiences.

Yet for all their similarities, the women do not form a uniform block of writers. Their texts also reflect their differences and the changes in society and literature. The earlier women, Hildegard von Bingen, Elisabeth von Schönau, and Mechthild von Hackeborn, were of the highest nobility and had access to greater levels of education, including the traditional seven liberal arts. They wrote in Latin, the educated language, and read and corresponded with the greatest theologians of their day. It would be incorrect to assume, as some have done, that the entry into the monasteries of women of a slightly lower class, the city patriciate, precipitated a decline in monastic education, signaled by the change to vernacular languages. Like their earlier literary sisters, these later, Dominican women also read and corresponded with famous, contemporary theologians. Allusions within their texts to works by current theologians as well as to canonical texts by the church fathers also reveal a continuing access to higher education in Latin and the vernacular.

There is, however, a change of emphasis and literary style within the genres in which they chose to write. The earliest Benedictine women wrote vision cycles. These are followed chronologically by the personal revelations, a genre that overlapped with both the earlier cycles and the Nonnenbücher. The vision cycles and the personal revelations have long literary histories: within Christian literature they extend back in time to the composition of the biblical book of Revelations. These genres were not limited to certain religious orders, nor were they limited to women authors; that they were popular with women did not preclude men from composing them as well. The genre of the sister-book, on the other hand, not only arose first in the late thirteenth century, it also remains the sole province of the Dominican women.

The texts of the eight women who wrote vision cycles and personal revelations reveal eight very different individuals. On the other hand, the nine sister-books, due to the constraints the genre placed on the author, can be read comparatively as a block of texts by an authorial school. Within the conformity of this "school," there are also individual differences among the texts that identify separate monasteries and authors: they are not simply copies of each other. These two casual groupings--individual writers and a school--reflect similar options available to male writers of the same period. These groups also reveal the multitude of voices with which the women writers spoke. It is not possible to read the texts of one woman and interpret her constructions of gender and authority as representative of a whole. None of the women writes as a representative authority; their texts reveal similarities, but also great differences. Because they do not form a singular woman's literary voice, their texts are especially valuable to a study of the multiplicity of gender constructions available to and generated by women.

Each of the women included in this survey was recognized as exemplary by her peers. These women were of noble or patrician background, intelligent and well educated. They wrote, and their texts were copied, disseminated, and translated by their monastic contemporaries, which in itself is recognition of their authority to speak. It is finally time for us to listen.

 

Copyright (C) 1996, Rebecca LR Garber. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.