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Eckenstein, Lina, d. 1931 / Woman under monasticism: chapters on saint-lore and convent life between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500 (1896)


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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   [p. 144]   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 Thuringen. 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   [p. 145]   transference of the relics of St Vitus from France to Saxon soil.[1*] 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 remodeling 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 regime; 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   [p. 146]   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 soil.[2*]

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   [p. 147]   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.[3*] 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.[4*] 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 Warm, 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.[5*] But it is characteristic of the author's dispo   [p. 148]   sition 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 Luidolf, the Pope was acting in accordance with the policy which the Franks pursued in Saxon lands.[6*]

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 time.

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,[7*] 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   [p. 149]   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 arrire-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   [p. 150]   together with valuable documents,[8*] but in her case the chronicler notes that she had developed early.[9*]

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,[10*] 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.[11*] 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.[12*] Engelhausen, a writer of the 15th century, speaking of the inmates of Saxon houses generally, says that they lived as Austin canonesses.[13*] 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.[14*] 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   [p. 151]   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.[15*]

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.[16*] 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 († 1001) and her two cousins, Adelheid and Sophie, the   [p. 152]   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.[17*] 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 abbess.[18*]

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.[19*]

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 ap   [p. 153]   pears doubtful; but in the 16th century she was only represented there.[20*]

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.[21*] Coins also are extant which were struck by abbesses of Gandersheim, whose portraits they bear.[22*]

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.[23*]

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.[24*] 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.


[1*] Widukind, Annalium libri tres, year 924.

[2*] Giesebrecht, W., Geschichte der deutschen Kaiserzeit, 4 ed. 1873, vol. I.

[3*] Ex Vita Liutbergae in Pertz, Mon. Germ. Script., vol. 4, p. 158 (Potthast, Wegweiser, written about 870).

[4*] Dümmler, E., Geschichte des ostfränkischen Reichs, 1865, vol. I, p. 348.

[5*] Translatio St Pusinnae in A. SS. Boll., April 23 (Potthast, Wegweiser, written probably by a monk of Corvei between 860--877).

[6*] Dümmler, E., Geschichte des ostfränkischen Reichs, 1865, vol. 2, p. 336.

[7*] Luentzel, Geschichte der Diöcese und Stadt Hildesheim, 1858, vol. I, p. 22.

[8*] Vita Mathildis Reg. (in Pertz, Mon. Germ. Script., vol. 4, p. 283 ff.), c. 26.

[9*] Annales Quedliburgenses, year 999.

[10*] Fritsch, Geschichte des Reichstifts Quedlinburg, 1826, vol. I, p. 45.

[11*] Luther, An den Add christl. Nation, 1520, edit. Knaake, vol. 6, p. 440.

[12*] Harenberg, Historia Ecclesiae Gandersh., 1734, vol. I, p. 529.

[13*] Engelhausen, Chronicon (in Leibnitz, Scriptores rcr. Brunsv. 1707, vol. 2), p. 978.

[14*] Comp. below, ch. 6, S. I.

[15*] Luentzel, Geschichte der Diöcese and Stadt Hildesheim, 1858, vol. I, p. 67, quoting 'Reimchronik,

'Dat Bog segt, dat se so vele Wisheit konde,
'Dat se ok wol gelerden Meistern wedderstunde.'

[16*] Harenberg, Historia Ecclesiae Gandersh., 1734, vol. I, p. 626 ff.

[17*] Luentzel, Geschichte der Diöcese und Stadt Hildesheim, vol. I, p. 319.

[18*] 'De fundatione Brunswilarensis' (in Pertz,Mon. Germ. Scriptores, vol. ii, p. 394 footnote); Adelheid was abbess of Nivelles, Mathilde of Villich and Diedenkirchen, Theofanu of Essen, Hedwig of Neuss; Sophie and Ida, to whom reference has been made in the text, are said by Pertz to have presided over Gandersheim and St Maria at Cöln.; Sophie certainly did not become abbess at Gandersheim, perhaps she went to Mainz; Ida probably presided over the convent of St Maria on the Mtinzenberg, a dependency of Gandersheim.

[19*] Waitz, G., Deutsche Verfassungigeschichte, 1868, vol. 7, p. 258.

[20*] Reichstage, 1548--1594.

[21*] Fritsch, Geschichte des Reichshfts Quedlinburg, 1828, vol. I, p. 259.

[22*] Luentzel, Geschichte der Diocese und Stadt Hildesheim, 1858, vol. I, p. 67.

[23*] Fritsch, Geschichte des Reichstifts Quedlinburg, 1828, vol. I, p. 84.

[24*] Ebert, Ad., Geschichte der Litteratur des Mittelalters, 1887, vol. 3, p. 429 footnote.

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