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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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[section 2.]

  [p. 285]  

Women-Saints connected with Charity and Philanthropy.

The last section showed how earnestly the religious teachers of the 12th century advocated a stricter practice of the precepts of religion. The practical outcome of this advocacy was an increased consciousness among those of the upper and authoritative classes of society of the needs and sufferings of humbler folk, and an extraordinary development of pity and tenderness for suffering generally. It can be noticed that everywhere there sprang into life the desire to help those who were in distress, and to cultivate that love and sympathy which is indifferent to rank, degree and antecedents, and especially so with regard to the diseased, despised and shunned.

The representative figures of this movement during the 13th century are St Francis of Assisi (†1226) and St Elisabeth of Thüringen († 1236), whose fame will abide wherever the precepts of Christianity in the direction of unselfishness and charitable zeal are cherished. The tendency to renounce all worldly possessions, which was a feature of the 13th century, culminated in them, and their example was followed by many men and women who on account of their altruistic sympathies are numbered among the saints. Since the practical outcome of their efforts carries in itself the beginnings of our modern charitable institutions of hospital, almshouse and infirmary, their work is well worth a somewhat detailed account, but such an account must necessarily be preceded by a few general remarks on the development of charitable zeal in the course of history.

From the earliest period Christian teachers had championed the cause of the poor and afflicted, and had upheld the sanctity of human life as such, whether in the aged, the crippled, or the unborn. Moreover the Church throughout ministered to poverty by almsgiving, and looked upon the destitute as having a special claim on her care. At two distinct periods in history these selfimposed duties were specially requisite--at the breaking up of   [p. 286]   the Roman Empire, and at the collapse of the feudal system. For under the Roman social system slavery had been a safeguard against vagrancy, but when slavery was discontinued the class of homeless outcasts became numerous. And again under the feudal system men belonged to the soil they were born on, but in proportion as serfdom ceased, beggars, and especially the diseased, increased to a great extent. In both instances efforts to stay the consequent evils to society were made by all professing Christians, but the attitudes of the 5th and the 12th centuries have distinct points of difference which it is well to bear in mind.

Glancing back along the vistas of time to the 5th century we find Severin bishop of Noricum († 482) instituting a regular and far-reaching system of charitable relief which has been described by his disciple Eugippius.[1*] In connection with Magnericus of Trier († 596), the famous opposer of idolatrous practices, the newly-developed virtues of this period are thus summed up by his biographer, the monk Eberwein († 1047):[2*] 'With him (Magnericus) the hungry found bread, the traveller found shelter, the naked found clothing, the weary found rest, and the stranger found hopefulness.' We see that the efforts of these men were directed to ministering to poverty but not to disease, for the prevalent attitude of Christian society towards disease continued for some centuries strongly self-preservative. The poor were fed, but the diseased were shunned, especially those who were visibly disfigured, and who included the vast class of those who from the 11th century were currently spoken of as lepers (leprosi).

The homogeneity of the disease lepra in this application has been called into question, and it has been shown that the 'lepers' of the Middle Ages included those suffering from cutaneous eruption brought on by St Anthony's fife, from gangrene of the limbs, such as comes through protracted use of bread containing rye spurred or diseased with ergot, and from other diseases which produce visible disfigurement. Scant provision was made for such people during early Christian ages, and lepers were numbered among social outcasts, not from fear of contagion--that was a comparatively late idea--but simply from a wish on the part of society to be spared a sorry sight. The diseased member of a family was a visible burden to his relations, and finding himself despised and shunned by his associates he took refuge with   [p. 287]   outlaws, who herded together and lived in a state of filth, misery and moral degradation terrible to recall.

It is in the treatment of these unfortunate people that the 12th century witnessed a revolution. The efforts of a few large-souled individuals overcame the general disgust felt towards disease, the restraints of a more barbarous age were broken through, the way to deal with the evil was pointed out, and gradually its mitigation was accomplished. The task these people set themselves, as so often happens in the course of social reform, absorbed them so entirely that they thought no sacrifice too great when it was a question of carrying out their ideas. It seems therefore rather gratuitous on the part of the modern scientist to say that a 'halo of morbid exaggeration surrounded the idea of leprosy in the mediaeval religious mind. We live in a time of saner and better proportioned sentiment,' etc.[3*] In point of fact an evil is removed only by putting it for a time into strong relief, when it comes to be rightly dealt with and so is gradually checked. In early Christian times nothing was done for diseased people and lepers, but in the 12th and 13th centuries first individuals, then the masses, became interested in them. It mattered little that vagrants of the worst kind felt encouraged to call themselves lepers because as such they could excite more pity, could gain admission into hospitals, or were allowed to solicit alms under royal patronage. The movement once set going in the right direction steadily did its work: and the class of lepers so prominent in the 11th and 12th centuries were rapidly disappearing by the end of the 13th.[4*]

From the earliest period monasteries and church centres offered some alleviation for the sick and distressed, but their resources were at first intended for the relief of those who belonged to the settlement. The peaceful pursuits and regular occupations of the monk naturally prolonged his term of life, and as Christianity set great store by a peaceful and happy death, when feebleness and sickness crept on the member of a convent he was relieved from his duties and tended in an outhouse by a brother told off for the purpose. The guest-house of the settlement, called hospitalis, generally stood near this outhouse for the sick, but sometimes it was identical with it, and the pilgrims and travellers who were ill were nursed with the convent inmates. While these combined houses for guests and invalids, attached to convents, were numerous   [p. 288]   from the first, the foundation of shelters intended primarily for strangers took place comparatively late. Among them must be numbered the shelters designated as hospitals (hospitales), founded in outlying districts for the reception of pilgrims (pro susceptione peregrinorum) such as the Pope urged Karl the Great († 814) to keep up in the Alps.[5*] Pilgrims were always an object of solicitude to the Church, and it was in their interest that the earliest independent road-side shelters and hospitals in cities were founded. These shelters and hospitals often consisted of no more than the protection of a roof, and the proctor, or brothers and sisters who voluntarily took charge of the house, secured the needful sustenance for themselves and those seeking their aid by going about begging.

The impulse to found these rests or hospitals naturally emanated from Rome, from a very early date the site of pilgrimages, but a new impulse was given to the movement by the foundation of two important guest-houses at Jerusalem in the 11th century, when that city also was a frequent resort of pilgrims. Of these two guest-houses or hospitals,[6*] one was intended for men and placed under the management of men, the other was for women and placed under the management of women. They were arranged according to an elaborate system which is interesting in many ways. The men were divided into three classes--the knights who looked after the interests of the house, the priests who attended to the sick, and the lay-brothers who assisted in the same work. The knights formed themselves into the religious order of St John, from the name of the church near which their headquarters lay. Similarly the women's house, which was near the chapel of St Mary Magdalen, consisted of ladies, nuns and lay servants. The fact that St John and St Mary Magdalen were so often adopted as patron saints of similar houses elsewhere was due to the chance connection of these saints with the hospitals at Jerusalem.

Looking after pilgrims and nursing the sick constituted the chief work of the order at Jerusalem, but after the conquest of that city in 1187, when the knights removed to Malta and the ladies to Spain, the care of those not belonging to their body ceased to hold the foremost place. But the existence of the hospitals at Jerusalem and the attention they had attracted in the different   [p. 289]   countries of Europe, where grants of land had been made for their support, indirectly stimulated efforts in favour of the foundation of similar shelters or hospitals.

The first idea of independent hospitals came into England from Rome, when Archbishop Lanfranc († 1089), a native of Italy, founded two hospitals in the true sense of the word, one inside, one outside Canterbury. The one situated inside the city walls is described by the historian Eadmer († 1124) in the following terms.[7*] 'He divided it into two parts; men who were sick in various ways inhabited the one, women the other part. He gave to them clothes of his own and daily sustenance; and ordered that there should be servants and masters who were to take care they should want nothing; the men had no access to the women, nor the women to the men.' A chapel was built on the other side of the way and given into the care of canons, who were to attend to the spiritual needs of the sick and to see to their burial after death.

The other hospital founded by Lanfranc was at Herbaltown, in the woods of Blean, a mile away from Canterbury; it was for those who were afflicted with scrofula (regia valetudine fluentibus), and who at a later date, in the confirming charter of Henry II, are styled lepers (leprosi).[8*]

These accounts of Lanfranc's foundations are especially interesting as they give us some of the earliest well-authenticated indications of a changed attitude towards lepers, and anticipate the efforts made in their behalf in the 12th century by the founders of the orders of combined canons and nuns, and in the 13th century by a number of women who on this account are numbered among the saints. These women, as we shall see, not only felt interested in these unfortunate beings but unhesitatingly tended them with their own hands. They knew nothing of the disgust usually felt towards wretchedness and poverty, and found their life's happiness in vanquishing sordidness and filth. In the eyes of some of their contemporaries they were chiefly bent on seeking sorry sights and coveting painful experiences, but, apart from the appreciation they found among those to whom they directly ministered, others were generous enough to recognise the heroism of their efforts.

Among these women must be numbered Matilda († 1118) the   [p. 290]   wife of Henry I of England, the daughter of St Margaret and the sister of St David of Scotland, whose education and marriage have been discussed above in connection with Romsey. Highly as Matilda was esteemed by her contemporaries, she has never been accepted as a saint, and no day is given to her in the Calendar. This omission is perhaps due to the fact that she left her nunnery against the wishes of some of the clergy, perhaps owing to her husband's quarrels with the Pope, for Matilda was beloved by high and low and early writers are unanimous in praise of her. Map speaks of her as the holy queen Matilda (sanctae Matildis reginae).[9*]

This estimate is based on the fact that Matilda was so moved by pity towards lepers that she overcame the repugnance commonly felt towards them. A well-authenticated story is told of how her brother David, coming into her apartment, found it full of lepers. She proceeded to lay aside her robe and with a towel girt about her washed and dried their feet and then kissed them, and when her brother objected she replied that in kissing the feet of lepers she was kissing the feet of the Eternal King. Ailred of Rievaux recounts the story, which he had from David, who repeatedly spoke of it to him.[10*]

This generous disposition is borne out by the fact that soon after her marriage Matilda founded the hospital of St Giles in the East for the maintenance of forty lepers, a chaplain, a clerk and a messenger.[11*] It was commonly known for a long time afterwards as the hospital of Matilda. It was founded in 1101, and Matthew Paris saw it a hundred and fifty years later and made a sketch of it which is still extant.[12*] With the exception of the house founded by Lanfranc in Herbaltown, the inmates of which were not styled lepers at the time, the hospital of St Giles, the foundation of 'good Queen Maud,' was the first institution of its kind in England and for a long time remained quite the most important.

But we must study the records of foreign countries to find the majority of those women who were actively beneficent to the sick, and who for this reason are officially accepted as saints. Probably leprosy, or the diseases collected under this designation, showed greater virulence on the Continent than they ever did in England,   [p. 291]   and the miseries of those who were repulsively disfigured were extreme, when in the first half of the 13th century a small group of women personally related to each other took pity on them. The field of their labours was in Central and South Germany and the adjoining countries, which were at that time brought under German influence.

All the women who were actuated by this new philanthropic spirit were members, either by birth or marriage, of the powerful and influential family of the Counts of Andechs and Meran.[13*] The scientist Virchow has remarked that this family, which was once most prosperous and widely spread, practically extinguished itself through its extreme ascetic tendencies.[14*] Its men joined the Crusades, and any who returned dedicated their sons to the celibacy of the bishopric and their daughters to that of the cloister; and in this way the family ceased to exist after a few generations.

Whence the first impulse towards charitable deeds came to them we know not, but we find them sometimes taking the initiative in philanthropic enterprises, and sometimes uniting their efforts to those of others who were working on similar lines to their own. Some members of the family acted as patrons to the Cistercian order, --others invited and encouraged the settlement of the Teutonic or Red Cross Knights in their lands. Others again were strongly attracted by the teachings of the Dominican and Franciscan friars, who were very influential in the first half of the 3th century. Various tendencies were represented in the different countries of Europe by the followers of St Francis of Assisi. This divergence arose partly because the rule of life promulgated in 1209 was supplanted by another in 1221, and partly from the varied interests of each country. In South Germany it was the influence of the Franciscans which primarily encouraged charitable zeal and self-denial.

Hedwig, daughter of Count Berthold, of the family of Andechs and Meran, first claims our attention on account of her charitable deeds. She married Heinrich the Bearded († 1238), first duke of Silesia, Poland and Croatia. These districts were occupied by people of the Slav race, and it was at this time that they were first brought into contact with German influence and civilization. Christianity had been introduced in the 12th century, but there   [p. 292]   were very few churches, and the conditions of life were unsettled and insecure owing to the continued feuds of the barons. Heinrich checked internal dissensions with a high hand; he was zealous in introducing German law and in encouraging German immigration, and in this way gave solidarity to this part of the Empire. His marriage with the daughter of a family which was among the wealthiest and most influential in South Germany is a proof of his German sympathies.

Hedwig is the recognised patron saint of Silesia. Grünhagen says:[15*] 'If we call to mind how far the numerous churches and charitable foundations which are referred to the Duchess Hedwig influenced civilization at that period, how the monks and nuns whom Hedwig summoned spread German culture in these districts; if we further remember how powerfully at that time the example of unselfish piety and sympathy, emanating from the throne, took hold of the mind of the people; we shall be obliged to accept as well founded the veneration Hedwig generally enjoyed, although we may not feel attracted by the traits of exaggerated asceticism insisted on by her legend.'

Hedwig[16*] was born in 1174 and sent for her education to Kizzingen, an ancient convent foundation situated in Franken on property belonging to her family. In 1186, when not yet thirteen, she was taken from the convent to be married. She brought with her into Silesia a dower of thirty thousand marks, which was forthwith devoted to religious and charitable purposes, for Hedwig appears throughout to have been filled by the belief, which she shared with her husband, that religious settlements and colonies were alone capable of introducing culture and establishing civilization in the land.

The monastic orders had only recently gained a foothold in these districts. In 1139 a band of Benedictine monks had settled near Breslau, the centre of the country, and in 1175 at the instigation of Boleslaus, the father of Hedwig's husband, some Cistercians had come to Leubus. These Cistercians were now helpful in constructing a nunnery at Trebnitz near Breslau, which Hedwig founded soon after her marriage. She summoned thither nuns from the Cistercian nunnery at Bamberg, where her sister Mathilde, afterwards abbess of Kizzingen, was being educated, and entrusted the rule   [p. 293]   of the new convent to Pietrussa († 1214), a nun from the convent of Kizzingen. The abbess and convent of Trebnitz are mentioned as early as 1202. The house was intended to promote education among girls of both noble and lowly parentage, and among them was Agnes, daughter of the king of Bohemia, of whom we shall hear more. It soon numbered a hundred inmates, and at the time when Hedwig's life was written, that is towards the close of the 13th century, it contained a hundred and twenty women.

This life of Hedwig, written some time after her death, emphasizes the ascetic habits which she embraced, and in agreement with later descriptions and pictures represents her as an emaciated person worn thin by self-denial and fasting. On the other hand the representation of her on her sarcophagus, which is of an earlier date, represents her as a vigorous, massive and comely woman.[17*] The account of her life shows that she advocated new ideas throughout. 'By marrying,' it says, 'she followed her parents' will rather than her own, as is clearly manifest from what followed, for she checked herself by self-restraint. Bound by the sacrament she was determined to live her married life as the apostle has taught, keeping his precepts of marriage worthily. She hoped to secure eternal life by giving birth to children, yet she wished also to please God by chastity, and with her husband's consent practised self-restraint. Whenever she was aware that the duties of motherhood were beginning, she avoided her husband's proximity, and firmly denied herself all intercourse until the time of her confinement. She did so from the time of first becoming a mother, that is at the age of thirteen years and thirteen weeks, and under like circumstances ever behaved in the same way. When she had become the mother of three sons, Boleslaus, Konrad, and Heinrich, and of three daughters, Agnes, Sophie, and Gertrud, she altogether embraced a life of chastity. The like observation of chastity in marriage which Mother Church has sanctioned she pressed upon every one she could.' Her conduct appears to have had her husband's sanction. Heinrich's sympathies are apparent in his granting property to the Cistercians for a monastery called after him Heinrichsau in founding an important hospital in Breslau dedicated to the Holy Ghost, and in making a foundation for canons at Neumarkt, where he   [p. 294]   erected an important leper hospital. [18*] During one of the wars which he engaged in, he was taken prisoner by the heathen Prussians, and the story is told how his wife, indifferent to every danger, went to him and procured his release.

It was in connection with the lepers who were sheltered at Neumarkt that Hedwig's conduct appeared especially wonderful to her contemporaries. Her biographer tells us that she had taken into her special care the leprous women who lived there, 'so that she sent them money, food and game (ferinas) several times a week, and gave them liberally clothes and other necessaries of life, taking care of them as though they had been her own daughters. With wonderful tenderness she attended upon those who were afflicted with bodily ills, and her affections melted towards the poor and infirm, whom she tended with great love and helpfulness.'

A series of paintings in miniature were executed at an early date which set forth the work of the pious Hedwig and of which a copy made in 1353 is extant.[19*] It forms a valuable monument of early painting, and in archaeological interest compares favourably with the work of Herrad. In these pictures we repeatedly see Hedwig in the company of the Trebnitz nuns. In one picture she leads the nuns into the convent, in another she shows them the church, and in a third she waits on them. They are represented as surrounding her in her trials and at her death, and as laying her in her tomb. In these pictures the nuns wear grey or blue gowns and a black headdress, no wimples (which are worn by lay women), and they do not seem to share the same dwelling, but to inhabit separate small huts which are pictured standing side by side round the church. Hedwig herself wears simple clothing but no convent garb- In these pictures a legendary reading is given to some incidents of her life. For example she is represented as surrounded in her hours of tribulation by hairy and grotesque demons.

A large number of these pictures show Hedwig's charitable zeal. There is one in which she is depicted urging upon her husband the cause of the poor; again she makes the gift of a house to them; she washes and kisses the feet of lepers; she feeds the sick, who are seen lying in bed; she gives food to the poor; she ministers to a prisoner; and she distributes gifts among   [p. 295]   pilgrims. Men who are in the stocks and doomed to death also rouse her pity; and she insists on feeding the poor with her own hands before she can be persuaded to sit down to meals. In these pictures we note the scarred and blotched appearance of those who are designated as lepers, the wretched appearance of the poor, and the curiously low type of countenance of all the beggars.

In her family relations Hedwig was most unfortunate, and one can but hope that her charitable zeal brought her solace or that the different basis on which family life then rested made her feel the sad fate of her relations less acutely than she would otherwise have done. Her sister Agnes married Philippe Auguste, king of France (1180--1223), but she was repudiated in consequence of the Pope's attack on the validity of her marriage, and died in misery in 1201. Her other sister Gertrud, who was the mother of St Elisabeth of Thüringen, married Bela III of Hungary, and was assassinated in 1214. Hedwig's daughter Gertrud was betrothed to Otto von Wittelsbach, who in consequence of political intrigues was tempted to murder Philip, king of Swabia, in 1208. Heinrich and Ekbert, Hedwig's two brothers, were accused of being his accomplices, and the consequence was that Heinrich saw his castle destroyed and lived for years in banishment, and Ekbert, who was bishop of Bamberg (1203--37), was obliged to fly, though he was afterwards reinstated in his see. When Otto the king-murderer was dead, Gertrud, his prospective bride, entered the nunnery at Trebnitz, where she afterwards succeeded Pietrussa as abbess.

In the year 1216, however, Hedwig had the joy of seeing her son Heinrich, who reigned conjointly with his father, married to Anna, a princess of Bohemia, whose tendencies were quite in accordance with her own. Indeed Anna's zeal was carried yet a step farther in the direction of self-imposed lowliness and humility, she readily submitted to bodily chastisement. She has no place among the saints, but we are in possession of an early account of her[20*] which speaks in great praise of her charitable deeds. Conjointly with her husband Anna made several religious foundations, and greeted the Dominican and Franciscan friars as brothers in the Lord. Inmates of the nunnery of the order of St Francis, which she had founded at Breslau, spoke with enthusiasm of her goodness and charity. She too nursed the leprous with her own hands, distributed food among the poor, and was to 'forlorn children and orphans a protector and a mother.'

  [p. 296]  

History has preserved an account of the courageous manner in which she opposed the Tartars, at whose invasion of Breslau, she, her mother-in-law Hedwig, and Gertrud, the abbess of Trebnitz, fled to Crossen. Anna's husband was killed by the enemy and his head was set on a stake outside the town to induce her to surrender, but in vain. After the defeat of the Tartars the women returned to Breslau, where they found their nunnery utterly deserted. The nuns had fled, and years passed before the settlement regained its standing--Hedwig bestowed her property Schawoine on it in the hope that this would help it to recover.

Hedwig spent the last years of her life in close connection with Trebnitz. She died in 1243 and as early as 1267 was canonized by Pope Clement IV. Her daughter-in-law, Anna, lived to a great age, and to the end of her days remained interested in her convent and charitable foundations. In 1253 she founded a hospital at Kreuzberg on the model of one previously founded by her cousin St Elisabeth. This hospital and the one founded at Neumarkt by Hedwig are still in existence, but the nunneries founded by these women have long since passed away.

The movement Hedwig had inaugurated in Silesia forthwith made itself felt in wider circles, and we find the princess Agnes of Bohemia, Anna's sister, who had lived for several years at Trebnitz, advocating after her return to Prague practices similar to those with which she had come into contact in Silesia. Agnes also is a saint of the Church,[21*] and her fame rests on her charitable works and on her indifference to position and possessions in comparison with the relief of suffering humanity. She is moreover a virgin saint. For she was to have married the emperor Friedrich II († 1250) against her wish, when her father opportunely died, leaving her free to remain single. She then devoted her patrimony, which was considerable, to founding a nunnery at Prague together with an important hospital.

Agnes was supported at home by her brother, the king of Bohemia, and by the bishop of Prague. Pope Gregory IX († 124 I) wrote to her praising her resolution to remain unmarried, and Clara, the friend of St Francis, wrote to her from Assisi to encourage her in her devotions. Clara's letters are extant, and afford an interesting glimpse of the aims which these women set before them. In one letter Clara praises Agnes for refusing marriage with the 'Caesar,'   [p. 297]   and advises her rather to follow blessed poverty and devote herself to the mortification of the flesh. Again she addresses Agnes as a second Rachel, admonishing her to turn her thoughts to eternity, and likening her to the holy St Agnes with the blessed lamb.[22*]

The Bohemian princess was further encouraged in her aims by the gift of a prayer-book, a veil, a platter and a drinking-cup which Clara had used. The accounts we have of Agnes, consisting of a longer and a shorter record lately printed from MSS preserved at Prague, give a full description of the willing humility this holy woman practised in the convent and of the tenderness she showed towards the sick.

'There you might see her,' says the longer account,[23*] 'the daughter of Premislaus III, king of Bohemia, lighting with her own hands the fire for the sisters; the sister of Wenceslaus IV, king of Bohemia, cleaning out the dirty rooms; the intended spouse of the emperor Friedrich II perspiring in the kitchen like any lowly maid. And while she did so, not by angry expression or stern face did she resent it; filled with joy she worked as a servant of Christ and proved it to those who saw her by the sweet expression she wore. She behaved in this way not only to those who were healthy, but she gladly extended her kindness to those who were ill; she spread soft beds for them, she carefully removed all that could distress eyes and nose, she prepared food with her own hands, and cooked it that it might be served to taste, with untiring energy, that the sick might be freed from ill, pains diminish, illness yield and health return. Such were her occupations inside the convent (parthenon), but she was not confined by walls. Throughout Prague her doings were apparent.' We find her visiting women who were sick or in trouble, and collecting, mending and washing the garments of lepers with her own hands.

Agnes lived till 1282 and is accepted as a saint, but has never been officially canonized. The hospital she founded at Prague is still in existence.

The fame of these women, great and abiding as it is in the countries they lived in, has not penetrated much beyond the districts which knew them during their lifetime. It is different with another woman-saint of the period who, within the span of a short life, acquired such fame that she ranks among the holy followers of Christianity who are the possession of all countries   [p. 298]   and of all ages. St Elisabeth, landgravine of Thüringen, a princess of Hungary, combined in a rare degree those qualities of love, devotion, and unselfish zeal which make Christian virtue in one aspect so attractive. The tendencies of those among whom her lot was cast and her own sad personal experiences throw her loveable qualities into even greater relief. All the qualities in Matilda, Hedwig, Anna, and Agnes which made them beloved and venerated appear to meet in Elisabeth. A loving wife, a pious mother, a faithful widow, the comforter of the sick and the protector of the poor, she stands on the threshold of a new era, indifferent to the prejudices of her age, regardless of its derogatory criticism, intent only on carrying into effect the promptings dictated by a keener sense of sympathy with suffering and a closer appreciation of the needs of others than her contemporaries could generally grasp. No woman-saint has attained a fame at all to be compared with hers. It has been computed that before the middle of this century over a hundred versions of her story were in existence, a number which has since been more than doubled. Of these accounts some are in Latin, others in French, English, Italian and Hungarian, the mass of them being of course in German. Many painters, and among them some of the greatest Italian masters, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Orcagna, Memmi and Taddeo Gaddi, have been eager to depict incidents of her life or to introduce her into their pictures.[24*]

The bulk of the literature which celebrates the name and fame of Elisabeth has scant importance from the historical point of view, which seeks a reasonable basis for her fame. For most versions of her story were dictated more by the wish to dwell on her piety than to encourage discerning appreciation of her character. Among the legendary accounts composed in her praise there is a poetical version of her life in mediaeval German, which extends over four thousand five hundred lines and contains much that is attractive.[25*] There is also in existence a modern German prose version of her story which has considerable charm.[26*] But the climax of beauty of legendary narrative is reached in her case by the account of her life written in French in the middle of this century by   [p. 299]   Montalembert.[27*] It is widely read in unadorned and in sumptuous editions in the French original and in its German translation. On the other hand its exuberance of religious colouring and legendary character have called forth an account based solely on contemporary records, which, drawn with a firm hand in clear outline, gives a picture of Elisabeth's life less fantastic, it is true, but more discerning and more truly beautiful.[28*] In the light of this work it becomes possible to fit the form of Elisabeth to the background of her age, and, by thus placing her, to appreciate to some extent her great and lasting importance. In a history of the development of philanthropic endeavour and charitable work no woman's figure more fitly represents the beauty of unselfish devotion.

Born at Presburg in Hungary in 1207, Elisabeth was related both to St Hedwig of Silesia and to St Agnes of Bohemia. For her father King Andreas II of Hungary († 1235) was uncle to Agnes, while her mother Gertrud was sister to Hedwig, so that Elisabeth was cousin to one saint and niece to the other. Her mother Gertrud, like Hedwig in Silesia, had become the centre of a small German party in Hungary, with which their two brothers Count Heinrich of Andechs and Bishop Ekbert of Bamberg sought refuge after the murder of the king of Swabia referred to above. After several years Bishop Ekbert was enabled to return to his see chiefly owing to the influence exerted in his behalf by Hermann, landgrave of Thüringen; it was no doubt owing to this connection that his niece, the princess Elisabeth, at that time a child of four, was betrothed to the son of the landgrave. This took place some time in the year 1211, and she was carried from Hungary to the Wartburg in Thüringen, there to receive her education.

At this period the customs at the court of Hungary were comparatively speaking uncivilized, and struggles were frequent. In 1214 Gertrud, Elisabeths mother, was assassinated, a victim of the revolt of the Hungarians against German ascendency. Thuringen and the Wartburg on the contrary were the seat of the greatest refinement of which the age of romance in German lands proved capable. Landgrave Hermann, a prince of uncertain politics, but a zealous patron of art, had drawn thither the lyric poets of the age, whose brilliant assemblies and contests in the eyes of posterity are surrounded with the halo of a tournament in song.

  [p. 300]  

But the temper of this gay throng had apparently no charm for the Hungarian girl, who was chiefly conscious of the levity and laxity which characterized it; conscious too that this outward brilliancy could not compensate for the hollowness which lurked beneath. A serious girl, though lively at times, she did not win general favour, least of all that of the landgravine Sophie, her prospective mother-in-law. When the news came of reverses at the Hungarian court, Sophie would have broken off the match and sent Elisabeth home or would have placed her in a nunnery. But at this juncture the attraction which Ludwig, the betrothed of Elisabeth, felt towards her asserted itself. He was conscious of a decided preference for the girl, and so he informed the noble knight Vargila, who had conducted Elisabeth from Presburg and who all along remained the staunch advocate of her interests.

Young Ludwig of Thüringen, a gentle and loveable character, of strict political integrity, is regarded as a saint on account of his numerous religious foundations and his tragic end. His chaplain has left an account of his life which throws much light on his relations to Elisabeth. He was left heir to his father's dominions in 1216, was declared of age by the emperor Friedrich II, and, in spite of the advice of his courtiers and against his mother's wish, clung to Elisabeth and married her in 1221,he being twenty and she fourteen years old at the time.

The happy married relations of the youthful pair are established beyond a doubt. Incidents are told and points insisted on by kinsfolk and friends which prove affection and tenderness on both sides, and directly contradict the statements of interested religious writers of a later date who maintain that life in a convent would have been more to Elisabeth's taste. On the contrary, whatever thoughts Elisabeth may have had afterwards on the superiority of a life of sacrifice to a life of domestic happiness, during these years she appears as the devoted wife and loving mother who combines the fulfilment of domestic duties with charitable zeal. There is a story told of her that she used to leave the Wartburg, her babe in her arms, and descend into the town of Eisenach, where she would visit the poor and the sick. Her dress on these occasions would be of a simple woollen material, and on her return she would take it off and have it given to some poor person. We hear that she frequently travelled about with her husband, and that she was sorely grieved at being separated from him when, on the summons of the emperor, he went to Italy. It was during his absence there   [p. 301]   in the spring of 1226 that the famine occurred during which Elisabeth distributed food with so lavish a hand that the granaries of the castle were emptied and she herself was severely censured by the court party, which had no sympathy with her philanthropy. The number of those whom she fed is sometimes quoted as three hundred, sometimes as nine hundred. The number may be exaggerated, but this much is certain, that Elisabeth's conduct attracted attention beyond her immediate neighbourhood. She had also opened at Eisenach a hospital or infirmary for twenty-four sick people, whom she partly tended herself. Writers of a later date tell us that at the suggestion of Cardinal Ugolino, afterwards Pope Gregory IX, St Francis of Assisi, hearing of Elisabeth's charitable work, sent her his old cloak as a sign of appreciation; but the story needs corroborative evidence.

When Ludwig returned from Italy his courtiers were loud in their complaints of his spendthrift wife, but he listened to them with good-humoured indifference. 'Let her continue giving to the poor if God so wills it,' he said, 'if but the Wartburg and the Neuburg remain to us.' He evidently appreciated and shared her philanthropic zeal; for he founded a shelter (xenodochium) for the poor, the weak and the infirm at Reinhardsbrunn, assisted his wife in founding a hospital at Gotha, and encouraged brothers of the nursing order of St Lazarus to settle in that part of the country.[29*] The interest Elisabeth felt in social outcasts evidently touched a sympathetic chord in his kindly nature, even when this interest was carried to an extreme, the meaning and social fitness of which it is not easy to appreciate. For example, the story is told that Elisabeth when staying at Neuburg tended a leper with her own hands and had him placed on her husband's bed, an action which greatly shocked Sophie, her mother-in-law. The legend-writer of later date,--not satisfied with the strong impulsiveness of feeling which alone renders such an action possible and even under certain conditions raises it above criticism, and at the same time unable to grasp the reasonableness of Sophie's point of view,--tells us that the leper suddenly assumed the form of Christ, a miracle by which her doubts were confounded.

In 1227 Ludwig, in answer to a summons from the emperor, took the cross and left for Italy, never to return. His biographer says that having received the cross he kept it in his pocket instead   [p. 302]   of displaying it on his coat, for fear of distressing his wife, who was about to give birth to their third child. But Elisabeth came across it by chance and was bowed down by grief at the thought of losing him. Together with others she started him and his followers on their journey, and travelled on with him yet another day's journey to delay the dreaded moment of separation. On her return to the Wartburg she devoted herself to her charitable work with increased zeal, and her inclination to self-denial became more accentuated owing to contact with members of the Franciscan order.

The attempt of the Franciscan friars to gain a foothold in Germany had at first been frustrated. Ekbert, bishop of Bamberg, Elisabeth's uncle, was the first to give them a gracious reception. From Bamberg they spread into the adjoining districts, and Elisabeth's favour enabled them to build a chapel at Eisenach. Konrad, one of these friars, had been nominated inquisitor by Pope Innocent III, and coming to Eisenach in 1226 soon won the affections of Ludwig and Elisabeth. At a later date Konrad of Marburg drew popular hatred on himself by his extreme rigour and anti-heretical teaching, and suffered a violent death (1233). But in earlier years he had gained much sympathy by preaching the views of St Francis on the renunciation of worldly goods and on practising unlimited charity.[30*] When Ludwig departed to the south, he entrusted Konrad with considerable authority, which he turned to account by strengthening the ascendency he had gained over Elisabeth. She accepted him as her guide in all things, and upheld his views that to levy taxes is an evil and that each person should-earn the food he requires by the work of his own hands. To carry this into practice she refused to accept any tribute and tried to earn money herself. Within a short time, however, came the news that Ludwig had died in Italy from a fever before setting sail for the East. The news came to Elisabeth as an overpowering shock. 'Dead!' she exclaimed, 'dead! so henceforth to me is the world and all things pleasant it contains.' Trials now came thick upon her. Her husband's brother, Hermann, with a usurper s determination, seized Ludwig's possessions and expelled Elisabeth, whom he had always looked upon with disapproval. She was forced to fly from the Wartburg with her children, and in the depth of a severe winter she paced the streets of Eisenach, seeking refuge with those   [p. 303]   she had formerly befriended, but no one dared to harbour her. At last her aunt Mathilde, abbess of Kizzingen, sent for her and for her two faithful waiting-women, perhaps for the children also. Elisabeth would gladly have accepted a permanent home in the convent, but her uncle Ekbert interfered. He appointed a more suitable dwelling-place---and urged upon her the desirableness of a second marriage. Elisabeth refused, and we hardly need the assurance of the legend-writer that it was because she had taken the vow of chastity, considering how recently her husband had died. However in the meantime the band of Ludwig's followers returned home bringing with them their leader's corpse, and a rapid change of affairs took place in the Wartburg. Hermann the usurper was forced to yield, Elisabeth was reinstated in her rights, and was fetched back to the castle by the noble Vargila. But her stay there was not of long duration. Her position was intolerable, and she felt that nothing could bring her solace short of the renunciation of all prerogatives of station and wealth. She would have become a recluse had not the Franciscan friar Konrad prevented this excess of humility. As it was she went to the Franciscan chapel at Eisenach, publicly renounced the world and its claims, and removed to Marburg in Hessen where she would be near Konrad and devote herself to a life of sacrifice. She refused to live in the castle, and with the two waiting-women, who throughout remained faithful to her, dwelt in a hut on the hillside, devoting all her property to constructing a hospital in the town, where she spent most of her time waiting on the sick and infirm.

Her conduct at Marburg filled the people with amazement as it had done at Eisenach, and numbers pressed thither to see her and to be tended by her. Considering that she only spent about two years there, the impression she made must have been extraordinary, for the undying memory of her fame continues to this day among the people. We hear a good deal of the asceticism she practised under Konrad's guidance during these last years of her life; how she submitted to bodily chastisement, how she admitted that her own children were not dearer to her than those of others, how she expressed regret at ever having been married, and how she suffered her faithful waiting-women, who like herself had adopted the grey dress of the order of St Francis, to be removed out of her sight. She died in 1231 at the early age of twenty-four. In accordance with the general wish she was canonized within a few years of her death by Pope Gregory IX in 1235. Immediately   [p. 304]   after her death hospitals constructed on the plan of that at Marburg and acknowledging St Elisabeth as their patron saint sprang up in many cities. With all these facts before us we cannot deny to her the achievement of lasting social importance. To this day hospitals in Germany founded both under Catholic and Protestant auspices are often dedicated to her.

The loving tribute of a later age has perpetuated her fame in many ways. It has struck medals in her memory, has surmounted fountains by her statue, and has reared to her memory the minster of Marburg, one of the finest monuments of German mediaeval architecture. In spite of the ravages of time and the robberies perpetrated during warfare her sarcophagus there remains a wondrous achievement of the art of the goldsmith. It is still an object of pious admiration and devout pilgrimage, both to the faithful believer and to the appreciative student of history and art.

Our age has witnessed a great spread of philanthropic interest and charitable zeal among women of the educated classes; a wave of feeling, similar to that which swept over mankind in the 13th century, bears down all other considerations when there are outcasts to be rescued and suffering to be alleviated. Nursing the sick has become a distinct and a respected profession; the administration of charity, an education in itself, is absorbing some of the best energies of the community, and women who seek to rescue suffering humanity are at last enabled to do so by the guiding hand of science. Certainly circumstances have changed. We live no longer in an age when the leper need display his sores to arouse pity, nor where almsgiving per se has a social value. And yet now as then the success of charitable work depends on unselfish devotion and goodness of heart in the individual, and it is in this sense that the charitable work of the women-saints of the past retains its meaning. It is not by imitating their deeds that a later age walks worthily in their footsteps and pays them the tribute of reverence, but by accepting and furthering the spirit in which these deeds were done.


[1*] A.SS. Boll.,St.Severinus, Jan. 8.

[2*] A.SS. Boll.,St. Magnericus, July 25, Vita, c. 49.

[3*] Creighton, C. History of Epidemics in England,vol. 1, 1891, p. 85.

[4*] Ibid., p. 97.

[5*] Muratori, Antiquitates Italiae, 1738. Pope Hadrian I to Karl the Great, vol. 3, p. 581.

[6*] Salles, F., Annales de l'ordre de Malte, ou des hospitaliers de St Jean de Jerrusalern, 1889.

[7*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Hospital of St Gregory,' vol. 6, p. 615, nr I.

[8*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Herbaldoun,' vol. 6, p. 653; Creighton, C., History of Epidemics, vol. 1, 1891, p. 87.

[9*] Map, W., De Nugis Curialium, 1850, p. 228.

[10*] Ailred, Opera (in Migne, Patrol. Cursus completus, vol. 195), p. 368.

[11*] Dugdale, Monasticon, St Giles in the Fields,' vol. 6, p. 635.

[12*] Creighton C., History of Epidemics in England, vol. 1, 1891, p. 88.

[13*] Hormayr, 'Die Grafen von Andechs und Tyrol,' Sämtl. Werke, vol. 3.

[14*] Virchow, R., 'Zur Geschichte des Aussatzes, besonders in Deutschland, in Archiv für pathol. Anatomie, vol. 18, article 2, p. 311.

[15*] Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, article 'Hedwig.

[16*] Stenzel, G. A. H., Scriptores rerum Siles., Breslau 1835, 'Vita St. Hedwigis' vol. 2, pp. 1--114; also A. SS. Boll., St Hedwig, Oct. 17.

[17*] Verein fur das Museum schles. Altertumer,edit. Luchs, H., 1870. Also Luchs, H., Schlesische Furstenbilder,1872

[18*] Virchow, R., 'Zur Geschichte des Aussatzes, besonders in Deutschland,' in Archiv fur pathol. Anatomie, vol. 18, article 2, p. 275.

[19*] Wolfskron, Bilder der Hedwigslegende, 1846.

[20*] Stenzel, G. A. H., Scriptores rer. Siles., 1835, 'Vita Annae ducissae Sil.' vol. 2, p. 127.

[21*] A.SS. Boll.,St. Agnes de Bohemia, March 6, print two accounts of uncertain date.

[22*] A.SS. Boll.,Ibid., print these letters.

[23*] A.SS. Boll.,Ibid., Vita 1, ch. 32.

[24*] Montalembert, C., Histoire de Ste Elisabeth de Hongrie, duchesse de Thuringe, edition de luxe 1878, with preface by Gautier, contains reproductions of some of those pictures; Potthast, A., Wegweiser, enumerates a number of accounts of the life of St Elisabeth.

[25*] Rieger, L., prints this 'Leben der heil. Elisabeth'in Literarisch. Verein, 1843, and discusses early MS accounts of her life.

[26*] Justi, C. W., Elisabeth, die Heilige, 1797.

[27*] Montalembert, C., Histoire de Ste Elisabeth de Hongrie, 1836, 7th edit. 1855.

[28*] Wegele, F. X., 'Die heil. Elisabeth von Thüringen' in Sybel, Historische Zeitschrift,1861, pp. 351-397, which I have followed in the text.

[29*] Virchow, R., 'Zur Geschichte des Aussatzes, besonders in Deutschland,' in Archiv für pathol. Anatomie,vol. 18, article 2, p. 313.

[30*] Allgemeine deutsche Biographie,article 'Konrad von Marburg.'

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