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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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The Memoir of Charitas Pirckheimer.

A memoir is extant from the pen of the abbess of a convent at Nürnberg. It was written (1524--28) during the stormy period following upon the outbreak of the Lutheran agitation, and it helps us to realize the effect which the rupture with Rome had on a convent of nuns. Charitas Pirckheimer, the author of this memoir, was the sister of Wilibald Pirckheimer († 1530), a well-known humanist, and through him she was in touch with some of the leading representatives of learning and art of her day. She was well advanced in life and had many years of active influence behind her when the troubles began of which she has left a graphic description.

An examination of the contents of her memoir must stand as a specimen of the effects which the Reformation had on women's convent life on the Continent, effects which varied in almost every town and every province. For the breaking up of the monastic system abroad had none of the continuity and completeness it had in England. The absence of centralised temporal and spiritual authority left the separate townships and principalities free to accept or reject the change of faith as they chose. The towns were ruled by councils on which the decision in the first place depended, and in the principalities the change depended on the attitude of prince and magnate, so that the succession of the prince of a different faith, or the conquest of one province by another, repeatedly led to a change of religion. In some districts the first stormy outbreak was followed by a reaction in favour of Rome, and convents which had disbanded were restored on a narrowed basis; in others the monastic system which had received a severe shock continued prostrate for many years. But even in those districts where the change of faith was permanently accepted, its influence on conventual establishments was so varied that an account of the way in which it put an end to nunneries lies beyond the scope of this work. It must suffice to point out that some convents, chiefly unreformed ones, disbanded or surrendered under the general feeling of restlessness; and that others were attacked and destroyed during the atrocities of the Peasants' War. The heads of others again, with a clearsightedness one cannot but admire, rejected Romish usages and beliefs in favour of the Lutheran faith, and their houses have continued to this day as homes for unmar   [p. 459]   ried women of the aristocracy. Others were suffered to remain under the condition that no new members should be admitted, but that the old ones should be left in possession of their house till they died. To this latter class belonged the convent of St Clara at Nürnberg which we are about to discuss.

The convent dated its existence from the year 1279, in which several nuns from Söflingen, near Ulm, joined a number of religious women who were living together at Nürnberg, and prevailed upon them to adopt the rule of St Clara and place themselves under the guardianship of the Franciscan friars who had settled in Nürnberg in 1226.[1*] It has been mentioned above that the nuns of this order, usually designated as Poor Clares, did not themselves manage that property of theirs which lay outside the precincts; they observed strict seclusion and were chiefly absorbed by devotional pursuits. Under the influence of the movement of monastic reform described in a previous chapter, Clara Gundelfingen (1450--1460), abbess of the house at Nürnberg, had greatly improved its discipline, and nuns were despatched from thence to convents at Brixen, Bamberg and other places to effect similar changes. There was another convent of nuns at Nürnberg dedicated to St Katherine which was under the supervision of the Dominican friars, but the convent of St Clara was the more important one and seems to have been largely recruited from members of wealthy burgher families. In 1476 it secured a bull from the Pope by which its use was altogether reserved to women who were born in Nürnberg.

Charitas Pirckheimer came to live in the house (1478) at the age of twelve. She was one of a family of seven sisters and one brother; all the sisters entered convents, excepting one who married, and they were in time joined by three of the five daughters of their brother.[2*] These facts show that the women of most cultivated and influential families still felt convent life congenial. The Dominican writer Nider (t 1438), speaking of convent life in the districts about Nürnberg, remarks that he had nowhere else found so many virtuous, chaste and industrious virgins.[3*] Of the members of the Pirckheimer family who became nuns, Clara († 1533) joined her sister Charitas and acted as secretary to her for many years; her letters show her to have   [p. 460]   been of a lively and sanguine disposition.[4*] Walpurg, another sister, lived as a nun in the convent of St Clara at Munich; Katharina became prioress at Geisenfeld, and Sabina and Euphemia entered the ancient Benedictine settlement of Bergen near Neuburg, of which they successively became abbesses. Sabina (1521--29), like her sister Charitas, was a great admirer of Albrecht Durer, whom she consulted on the subject of illuminations done at her house.[5*] A number of her letters remain to show that she held opinions of her own on some points of doctrine and watched the progress of affairs at Nürnberg with interest.[6*] Her sister Euphemia (1529--47), who succeeded her, experienced even greater hardships than Charitas, for when Palgrave, Otto Heinrich of Neuburg, accepted the Protestant faith (1544), she and her nuns were expelled from their convent, and spent several years staying first at one place then at another, till the victory which the emperor Karl V won at Mühlberg (1547) made it possible for them to return to Bergen.

Charitas on entering the house at Nürnberg found herself among the daughters of family friends and relations. She contracted a lasting friendship with Apollonia Tucher, who was afterwards elected to the office of prioress, which she held for many years. Apollonia was nearly related to Anton Tucher († 1524), one of the wealthiest and most influential men of the town, and to Sixtus Tucher († 1507), a learned divine who was made provost of the church of St Lorenz, and in this capacity instructed the nuns of St Clara and provided them with religious literature. Scheurl († 1542), a nephew of Apollonia and a distinguished jurist, who came to settle at Nürnberg, greatly admired Charitas. We shall return to him later on.

Felicitas Grundherrin, another nun, who was made fortress in 1503, wrote letters to her father which throw an additional light on the conduct and the experiences of the nuns during the period of religious contention. There were sixty inmates at that time, and among them we find the chief families of the town represented.

We are not informed at what age Charitas made profession.   [p. 461]   In 1494 she was joined by her sister Clara, and a few years later, when we first hear of her and her sister in connection with their brother, she was engaged in teaching the novices.

The career of Wilibald Pirckheimer, a man of considerable literary ability, is interesting, as it forms the centre of the intellectual and artistic life of Nürnberg, which at that time was achieving some of its greatest triumphs. The friend of Albrecht Dürer and of the leading humanists, he was himself full of enthusiasm for the revived interest in classic culture, and filled with that liberal appreciation of merit regardless of origin and nationality which is one of the attractive traits of the movement. In compliance with the taste of his age he had studied in Italy, and shortly after his return to Nürnberg, on the occasion of their father's death (1501), he lent his sisters, Charitas and Clara, a copy of the hymns of the Christian poet Prudentius, and an unnamed portion of Jerome's works, for their comfort and perusal; Charitas thanked him for the loan in a Latin letter in which we get our first glimpse of her.[7*] She says that she has been interested to find among the hymns some which are habitually sung in the choir and the authorship of which was unknown to her, and she begs she may keep Jerome's writings for some time longer, as they afford her so much delight. She refers to the frequent loans of books from her brother and assures him how much she depends on him for her education, begging him to visit and further instruct her. She has some knowledge of scripture, she says, but barely enough to instruct the novices.

In the year 1487 Celtes († 1508), a celebrated Latin scholar and poet, was crowned poet laureate by the Emperor Friedrich III at Nürnberg, and received at his hands the doctor's degree and a laurel wreath. Afterwards he travelled about in Germany, rousing interest in the revival of classical studies wherever he went, and encouraging those who were interested in learning to band together in societies (sodalitates) for the purpose of editing and publishing the classics. During a stay at a monastery in Regensburg (1501) he had come across the forgotten dramas of the nun Hrotsvith. They seemed to him so worthy of attention that he had them published at Nürnberg in a beautiful illustrated edition. We do not know if he was previously acquainted with   [p. 462]   Charitas; but he sent her a copy of the dramas, and she wrote a grateful reply.[8*] She begins by deploring the news she has heard that Celtes has been attacked and plunder ed by robbers. 'A few days ago,' she writes, 'I received the interesting writings of the learned virgin Hrotsvith, sent to me by you for no merits of my own, for which I express and owe you eternal gratitude. I rejoice that He who bestows powers of mind (largitor ingenii) and grants wisdom to men who are great and learned in the law, should not have denied to the frail and humbler sex some of the crumbs from the tables of wisdom. In this learned virgin the words of the apostle are verified that God chooses the humble to confound the strong....'

Celtes was charmed by this letter, and was inspired to compose a Latin ode[9*] in praise of Charitas. In it he addressed her as the crown and star of womanhood, praised her for her knowledge of Latin, in which she worthily followed in the steps of a learned father and a learned brother, and enlarged on the pleasure her letter had brought. With the ode he sent a copy of a work on the city of Nürnberg lately published by him, and Charitas in reply sent a long letter which is most instructive in regard to the light it throws on her general attitude towards humanist culture.[10*] While delighted by the gifts and the attentions of so distinguished a man as Celtes, she felt critical towards the heathen element in him, which seemed to her incompatible with the claims of a higher morality. The letter is too long to reproduce in full, but the following are some of its most noteworthy passages. 'I am your unworthy pupil, but a great admirer of yours and a well-wisher for your salvation, and as such I would earnestly and with all my heart entreat you not indeed to give up the pursuit of worldly wisdom, but to put it to higher uses, that is to pass from heathen writings to holy scripture, from what is earthly to what is divine, from the created to the Creator.... Indeed neither knowledge nor any subject of investigation which is from God is to be contemned, but mystic theology and a good virtuous life must be ranked highest. For human understanding is weak and may fail us, but true faith and a good conscience never can. I therefore put before you, most learned doctor, when you have enquired into all under the sun, that the wisest of men said, Vanity of vanities.... In the same   [p. 463]   friendly spirit I would beg you to give up celebrating the unseemly tales of Jupiter, Venus, Diana, and other heathen beings whose souls are burning in Gehenna and who are condemned by right-minded men as detestable and deserving of oblivion; make the saints of God your friends by honouring their names and their memory, that they may guide you to the eternal home when you leave this earth.'

At the end of her letter she begged to be excused writing in this strain in words which suggest that her brother had urged her to speak out her mind, and a further letter of hers addressed to Wilibald says that she is forwarding to him a copy of her letter to Celtes.[11*] She begs he will not bring him to the grating without sending her word previously, and expresses the belief that Celtes will not take umbrage.

We hear no more of their intercourse. Celtes soon afterwards left Nürnberg, and when Helena Meichnerin, abbess of the convent, resigned on account of some complaints of the town council, Charitas was chosen abbess (1503). Her acceptance of the post was made conditional by the Franciscan friars on her giving up her Latin correspondence,[12*] and there can be no doubt that this prohibition was primarily aimed at her intercourse with men like Celtes, who was known to be very lax in his morality, and whose sympathies in regard to learning were in direct opposition to the narrow religious views of the friars. Charitas conformed, but Wilibald's anger was roused, and he wrote to Celtes: 'You know that my sister Charitas has been chosen abbess. Imagine, those soft-footed men (Χυλόποδεζ) have forbidden her to write Latin for the future. Observe their caution, not to say roguery.'[13*]

Charitas apparently wrote no more Latin letters, but her brother's friends continued to take an interest in her. Wilibald had a sincere regard for her abilities and frequently wrote of her to his friends. Other members of the humanist circle sought her out. Scheurl, the young jurist mentioned above, sent her from Bologna a copy of his 'Uses of the mass' (Utilitates missae) with a flattering letter which was presented to her by the provost Tucher (1506).[14*] It is overflowing with youthful enthusiasm, and says that of all the women he has met there are only two who are distinguished by abilities and intellect, knowledge and wealth,   [p. 464]   virtue and beauty, and are comparable to the daughters of Laelius and Hortensius and to Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi; the one is Cassandra (Fedele, poetess[15*] ) in Venice, the other is Charitas in Nürnberg. He expatiates on the merits of the Pirckheimer family generally, and says Charitas is following the example of her relatives in preferring a book to wool, a pen to the distaff, a stilus to a needle. At a later stage of his career (1515) Scheurl wrote that it was usual for men who were distinguished in mind and power to admire and respect the abilities, learning and moral excellence of this abbess.[16*]

In 1513 Wilibald published an edition of Plutarch's essay 'On retribution' which he had translated from Greek into Latin, and dedicated it to his sister Charitas in a long and flattering epistle.[17*] Mindful no doubt of the influences about her and referring to difficulties in his own career, he spoke in the highest terms of the Stoic philosophers and of the help their writings afforded. 'Accept this gift on paper which, if I judge rightly, will not be displeasing to you,' he says, 'and carefully peruse the writings of this pagan author (gentilis). And you will soon see that the philosophers of antiquity did not stray far from the truth.' Charitas was able to appreciate this point of view and admitted in her reply that he had sent her a jewel more precious than gold and silver.[18*] Speaking of Plutarch she confessed that 'he writes not like an unbelieving heathen but like a learned divine and imitator of Christian perfection. It is a wonderful circumstance which has filled me with joy and surprise.' But she thought her brother's praise of her excessive. 'I am not learned myself, only the friend of those who are learned; I am no writer, I only enjoy reading the writings of others; I am unworthy of so precious a gift, though in truth you have done well and wisely in placing the word Charitas at the head of your work. For Charity is the virtue which makes all good things to be shared, and that Charity which is the Divine Spirit itself will reward you here and in the life to come, where honest efforts will be fully requited.'

A short time afterwards Pirckheimer dedicated to his sister Clara, who was now teaching the novices, a 'Collection of the   [p. 465]   Moral Sentences of Nilus.' It was a translation from Greek and Latin, and the title was ornamented with a design by Dürer.[19*] He sent it 'to prevent her feeling any jealousy of her sister.' Clara shared her sister's tastes and was herself an ardent reader. When the New Testament edited by Erasmus appeared, Pirckheimer wrote to him that his sisters, who zealously read his writings, took great delight in this book also, and he says that they had greater insight into it than many men who were proud of their learning. They would have written themselves, he adds, if they had not felt shy of so great a man. Erasmus on one occasion compared the daughters of Sir Thomas More to the sisters of Wilibald Pirckheimer. Some writings of the humanist Reuchlin were also perused by them.[20*]

Wilibald further dedicated to Charitas his edition of the works of Fulgentius (1519), in a long preface in which he describes the difficulty he had had in procuring the manuscript from the library of his friend Tritheim, how he had despaired of deciphering it till the learned Cochlaeus came to his rescue, and how sure he felt that his sister would look upon the book as a treasure.[21*] The translation of the sermons of Gregorius Nazianzenus, an important undertaking, he also accomplished mainly for the use of his sisters.[22*]

Besides their devotional and intellectual interests, the nuns at St Clara made their own clothes, and seem to have had some ability in sewing, for when the imperial robes which were kept at Nürnberg were to be carried to Aachen for the coronation of the Emperor Karl V, they were first given into the hands of the nuns to be looked over and mended.[23*]

An interesting light is thrown on the less serious side of the character of Charitas by an amusing German letter which she wrote to Dürer and two envoys of Nürnberg who were staying at Augsburg in 1518 on the occasion of the Imperial Diet. From there they had sent her a missive penned in a jovial hour, and Charitas in reply wrote:[24*] 'I received your friendly letter with special delight and read it with such attention that my eyes were often brim full, but more from laughing than any other emotion. Many thanks to you that in spite of your great business and your amusements you should have taken the trouble to give directions   [p. 466]   to this little nun about cloister-life, of which you have a clear mirror before you at present....' And she begs the envoy Spengler to study accounts with a view to advising her how to waste everything till nothing remains, and begs Dürer, 'who is such a draughts-man and genius,' to give his attention to the buildings, so that when she has the choir rebuilt he may help and advise her how to introduce larger windows so that the nuns' eyes may be less dim.

From these various notices we conclude that time passed not unpleasantly or unprofitably with the abbess of St Clara before those contentions began which followed upon the attack made on the established religion by Luther. In Nürnberg, as in most other cities, the feeling was general that the life of the prelacy was degenerate and that the Papacy was a hotbed of abuse. Luther's opposition to the Pope was therefore greeted with acclamation both by the enlightened men of the town, who felt that the tyranny of the Church was a stumblingblock in the way of progress, and by the people, who readily seized the idea that the means were now given them to break through class tyranny. Wilibald Pirckheimer was among those who without hesitation sided with the Lutheran agitation, but Charitas thought otherwise. The abbess of the convent of St Clara at Eger forwarded to her some of the fierce attacks on Luther from the pen of Emser († 1527), and Charitas was so delighted with them that she had them read out aloud to the nuns during meals, and was prompted to write a letter to their author.[25*]

This letter became a source of great annoyance to her. It fell into the hands of Emser s enemies, and was published with an abusive running comment on Charitas.[26*] Even Wilibald was annoyed and declared she would have done better not to have written it. He strongly supported the Lutheran agitation at the time, and Eck, who suspected him of having written the attack on himself, entitled 'Eccius Dedolatus,' for personal reasons inscribed Wilibald's name on the Papal ban. There is extant from Wilibald's pen a fragment in which he expresses doubts as to the rightfulness of convent life generally,[27*] but he gradually modified his views, The violence and narrowness of the representatives of the party of progress in Nürnberg were little to his taste. On the plea of ill-health he withdrew from the council, and took no part in the stormy discussions of 1523, when the rupture with Rome was   [p. 467]   declared complete and decisions arrived at, momentous for the future of the new faith not only in Nürnberg, but in Germany generally.

At this juncture the memoir of Charitas[28*] begins. She describes the effect of the Lutheran teaching; how ceremonies are being abolished, rules and vows declared vain, so that many monks and nuns are leaving their cloisters, putting off convent garb and marrying and otherwise doing as they choose.

'These various reasons brought us many troubles and difficulties,' she writes (p. 2), 'for many powerful and evil-minded persons came to see the friends they had in our cloister, and argued with them and told them of the new teaching, how the religious profession was a thing of evil and temptation in which it was not possible to keep holy, and that we were all of the devil. Some would take their children, sisters and relatives out of the cloister by force and by the help of admonitions and promises of which they doubtless would not have kept half. This arguing and disputing went on for a long time and was often accompanied by great anger and abuse. But since none of the nuns by God's grace was moved to go, the fault was laid on the Franciscans, and everyone said they encouraged us, so that it would be impossible to convince us of the new belief while we had them as preachers and confessors.'

The friars had long been odious for their determined class feeling, religious intolerance, and encouragement of superstitions; it was obvious that the advocates of change would direct their attacks against them. Charitas, fully aware of the emergency, assembled the nuns and put before them the danger of being given over to 'wild priests and apostate monks,' and with their consent decided to hand in a 'supplication' to the town council. This council was presided over by three leading men (triumviri), of whom one named Nützel was the so-called representative (pfleger) of the convent, another named Ebner had a daughter among the nuns, and the third, Geuder, was the brother-in-law of Charitas. She consulted Wilibald on the matter of the supplication, but forthwith wrote and despatched a letter to each of these three men, begging and claiming the protection of her privileges.

The supplication itself (p. 12) was carefully worded, and re   [p. 468]   quested that the connection between the Franciscans and the nuns might not be severed, contradicting the charges which were brought against the former. They do not forbid the nuns to read the Evangels and other books, Charitas says,--' if they did so we should not obey them.' The nuns have the Old and the New Testament in daily use in the German and the Latin versions. Charitas denies despising the married state or retaining nuns by force. 'But as we compel no one, so too we claim not to be compelled, and to remain free in mind as well as in body. But this cannot be if we are given over to strange priests, which would be destruction to our community...,' and more to a like purpose.

The supplication was handed in at the beginning of 1524, but after considerable delay the councillors postponed giving a definite reply to it. In the meantime Charitas was much annoyed by the mother of one of her nuns who tried to persuade her daughter to leave the convent, and finding her words of no avail, appealed to the town council (p. 19) for an order to take her 'out of this prison' as she called it, into which she had sent her nine years before at the age of fourteen. Charitas also sent in a statement of the case (p. 28), but again no reply was vouchsafed her.

The letters which Clara wrote to her brother about this time help us to realise the situation. All her letters are undated, but in one she thanks Wilibald for his advice about the supplication, and says that if divine service should really be abolished she means to devote herself more to reading, for 'the dear beloved old writers surely were no fools.'[29*] In another she thanks him for the loan of books and says a work of Erasmus (probably De libero arbitrio has pleased the sisters by its moderation. As to Charitas 'she finds great comfort in her beloved old Cyprian, in whose writings she reads day and night. She sends greetings and the message that she prefers Cyprian to all these new evangelists who strut about in cut garments and golden chains.'[30*]

Though Clara did not lose her cheerfulness, Charitas, who saw further, was full of apprehension. From what her sister says she regretted the severe tone of her letter to Geuder.[31*] On other occasions also she was led to indignant utterances which she afterwards regretted.[32*]

  [p. 469]  

A gap occurs at this period in her memoir which she resumed writing in March 1525, after the religious disputation had taken place at Nürnberg. After many stormy scenes, 'the preachers of the Evangel,' as they called themselves, decided to carry out their intentions without waiting for the decision of a Church Council. The immediate result of the decision was an attack on all religious houses. But in the convent of St Clara the determined and reckless energy of the reformers was matched by indignant protest and unyielding opposition on the part of the abbess.

Charitas has described in full (p. 33) how a deputation from the town council asked to be admitted into her house, and how they informed her and the assembled nuns that their connection with the Franciscans was at an end; a 'reformed' preacher had been appointed to preach in the church of the nuns, and they were left the choice among several men who would act to them as confessors. Much argument followed, but Charitas maintained that her house and the Franciscans had always been closely connected. If ve yield it is only to force and we turn to God,' she said, 'and before Him we lodge a protest and declare that we are forced against our will, and that we reject and discountenance all your proposals.' The assembled nuns rose to their feet to shew their approval of her speech, and the deputation in vain tried the effect of persuasion. Charitas scorned the idea of having anything to do with apostate monks; and the deputation retired after blaming the women for behaving in a most ungrateful manner. A second visit led to similar results; Charitas abode by her decision, the nuns wept, and the deputation retired after venting their indignation in threats.

The hopes of the convent now centred in Niitzel, their representative in the town council, and Charitas with her brother's approval wrote to him (p. 41) begging him to come to her. But the first words Nützel spoke dispelled every hope of assistance from that quarter; he blamed the nuns for opposing the council, and urged the advisability of their giving way. Charitas was most indignant and declared she was well aware that it was intended to force them to this new belief, but that they were agreed that neither in life nor in death would they listen to what the Church had not previously countenanced. She called upon the prioress to read out a second petition to the council asking to have their father confessor back or else to be left without one. She wanted Nutzel to take charge of this petition but he was only angered,   [p. 470]   and taking Charitas aside, represented to her that her opposition was a serious matter; her example was encouraging other women's convents to opposition, which would relent if she did. He said that by resigning and disbanding the convent bloodshed would be averted, and he spoke in praise of the new preacher. But Charitas remained unmoved. As he was leaving the house his daughter and the other nuns, whose fathers were members of the town council, went down on their knees to him imploring protection. He refused to listen, but was so far impressed that he never slept all the following night, as his wife afterwards told the nuns (p. 54).

The convent's opposition to their plans was a source not only of annoyance but of apprehension to the town authorities. The peasants' rising was spreading in the direction of Nürnberg, and as popular feeling was against religious houses the argument that dissolving the house might help to avert a danger was not altogether unfounded. Nützel in a long expostulation (p. 55) shortly afterwards tried to impress this view on the abbess, but Charitas urged (p. 59) that other reasons besides hatred of the friars had roused the peasants to rebellion, and complained that the ill-feeling against her house was largely due to the reformed preachers, who declared they would not rest till they had driven monks and nuns out of the town (p. 62). Rightly or wrongly she held that Poliander, the reformed preacher who was now preaching in the convent church, had been promised a reward if he persuaded her or her nuns to leave the convent (p. 67), and that his want of success aggravated his hatred of them. It was in vain that Nützel wrote in praise of him (p. 67). Charitas now looked upon Nützel as a dangerous enemy, and her sister Clara wrote to Wilibald[33*] begging him to advise the convent how to get rid of the man. In another letter[34*] she said that Charitas was seriously afraid of him.

In place of the Franciscans a number of reformed preachers now preached before the nuns and the people in the convent church. Among them was Osiander, formerly a Carthusian, whose violence at a later period was censured and resented by his Protestant brethren; and the nuns were obliged to attend and to listen to a torrent of abuse and imprecation by him and others. 'I cannot and will not detail,' says Charitas in her memoir (p. 70), 'how they perverted Holy Writ to a strange meaning, how they   [p. 471]   cast down the doctrines of the Church and discarded all ceremonies; how they abused and reviled all religious orders and classes, and respected neither Pope nor Emperor, whom they openly called tyrant, devil, and Antichrist; how roughly and in what an unchristian-like spirit and against all brotherly love they abused us and charged us with great wickedness, for the purpose of rousing the people, whom they persuaded that an ungodly set like ourselves should be destroyed, our cloister broken open, ourselves dragged out by force, since we represented a despicable class, heretics, idolatrous and blasphemous people, who were eternally of the devil.'

One might be tempted to look upon this description as an exaggeration were it not for a letter from Wilibald Pirckheimer to Melanchthon, in which he describes the outrages to which the nuns were exposed in similar terms. 'The preachers scream, swear, and storm, and do everything in their power to rouse the hatred of the masses against the poor nuns; they openly say that as words were of no avail, recourse should be had to force,' and he wonders the cloister has not yet been attacked.[35*]

Under the pressure of popular opinion and increasing restlessness the Austin monks gave over their house, and they were followed by the Carmelites, the Benedictines, and the Carthusians. The Dominicans hesitated; the Franciscans refused to go. Charitas expresses wonder that the 'spiritual poison,' as she calls it, which the preachers several times a week tried to infuse into the nuns, took no effect, and that none of them expressed a desire to leave the convent (p. 85).

Things had now come to such a pass that convents outside the city disbanded before the peasants' rising; and nuns from Pillenreuth and Engeithal sought refuge in the town with the nuns of St Clara (p. 86). These lived in daily fear of their house being stormed, for the people shouted and swore at them from below, threw stones into the choir, smashed the church windows, and sang insulting songs in the churchyard outside. But the nuns, nothing daunted, continued to keep the hours and to ring the bells, though they were every moment prePared for the worst. Clara in a letter to Wilibald described her own and her sister's fears in eloquent terms;[36*] and the nun Felicitas Grundherrin wrote   [p. 472]   to her father entreating him to abide by the old faith.[37*] In these days the nuns seem to have read a good deal of pamphlet literature, but they failed to see anything beyond an encouragement to violence and disorder in the whole Lutheran movement.

A further attempt was made by the council to coerce the convent. A number of injunctions were sent to the abbess which were to be carried out within a month (p. 88). The first of these commanded her to absolve the nuns from their vow that they might enjoy 'Christian freedom' another that she should send the young nuns home though they refused, 'since children should obey their parents.' The deputies who laid these injunctions before the abbess assured her that the council was prepared to restore to the nuns what they had brought to the convent; that they would give money to those who had brought nothing, and provide a dower for those who married. To these arguments Charitas replied that the nuns had made a vow not before her but before God, that it was not in her power to dispense them from it and that she would not urge them to disobedience. With a touch of bitterness she added that their mothers were continually at the convent grating urging them to go (p. 87). For the matrons of the town especially sided with the reformed preachers and cried shame on convent life. 'If it were not for the women and the preachers things would not be so bad,' Clara wrote on one occasion to Wilibald,[38*] and on another she spoke of the sharp tongues and violent behaviour of the women.

The deputation further claimed that the nuns should take off their convent clothes (p. 93), the sight of which they said gave umbrage. 'We are continually told,' Charitas replied, 'that our vows and our clothes threaten to cause a rising, but it is your preachers, to whom we are forced to listen, who try to provoke one by abusing and condemning us from the pulpit and charging us with vices and impurity to humour the people.' The command was also given to do away with the convent grating; and it was backed by the threat that if Charitas failed to comply with it the town authorities would throw open the house to all visitors. The heaviness of this blow was such that after the deputation had left Charitas summoned the nuns and asked their intentions severally. In the eyes of the whole convent throwing open the house involved turning it into a public resort of bad character.   [p. 473]   They felt they must yield or leave the house altogether, but they promised to abide by the decision of Charitas if she would stay and advise them. The intrepid abbess decided to do away with the grating at one window, declaring that they acted against the rule under protest and only temporarily. On the other points she sought the advice of learned men outside, but they advised compromise, for, to give her own words (p. 95), 'they said all chance was gone of gaining anything by opposition; we must yield if we did not want the house to go to ruin. People now did things by main force regardless of justice or equity, fearful neither of Pope nor Emperor, nor even of God except in word; things were such that these people said, What we will must be done, thus and not otherwise, declaring themselves more powerful than the Pope himself.'

In the meantime the feelings against the nunnery were by no means unanimous. Geuder, the brother-in-law of Charitas, was emphatic at the council meeting in denouncing the throwing open of convents, which in his eyes also meant turning them into disreputable houses.[39*] But no amount of opposition made by him and others could prevent a scene from being enacted in the convent chapel, which was afterwards looked upon as disgraceful, not only by those who provoked it, but by outsiders whether partisans of the Lutheran movement or not. The repeated attempts to persuade the nuns to leave having failed and Charitas refusing to bid them go, two of the chief councillors, one of them Nützel, the representative of the convent's interests, and the widow of a councillor who had long clamoured for her daughter's release, repaired to the convent with a number of other persons, claimed to be admitted, and declared they had come to fetch their daughters away. The three nuns, who were between nineteen and twenty-three years of age, tried to hide, but Charitas bade them come forth, and they then sought refuge with her in the convent chapel. She has described in full how the young women besought her to protect them, how their parents and others abused and reviled them, and how in spite of their protests, their indignation and their tears, their relations at last resorted to violence. Four persons seized each nun and dragged and pushed her out of the chapel, while the women present shouted approval, and once outside their convent clothes were torn off and others substituted in their stead. After a scuffle and a scramble in which one nun was knocked   [p. 474]   over and her foot injured, they were carried to a chariot waiting outside and conveyed away.

Charitas remained behind in grief and despair. 'I and all my nuns are so distressed at all this,' she wrote a few days later,[40*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, p. 161. 'that I have almost wept out my eyes.... Nothing ever so went to my heart.' Indignation at the violence of the act became general in the town and spread beyond its confines. 'I never could have imagined women acting in such a cruel manner,' Sabina, the abbess of Bergen, wrote to Wilibald; and in another letter, apprehending the destruction of the convent at Nürnberg, she proposed that Charitas and her nulls should seek refuge with her.[41*]

But Charitas persisted in holding her ground, though with an aching heart. When the men who had fetched away their daughters sent word offering to pay for their maintenance during the time they had lived with her, she refused. Her trials in one direction had reached their climax,--the councillor Nützel, who admitted that things had gone too far, henceforth acted in a conciliatory spirit, and some approximation took place between them. Not that he ever tired of urging Charitas to desert her convent and her cause, but he now confined himself to persuasion and argument, and when one of the young nuns who had been carried off was so far reconciled to the world that she came to the convent window and urged her step-sister to return home, pretending that Nützel had sent her (p. 123), the councillor disclaimed having done so. His correspondence with Charitas, which she has faithfully inserted in her memoir, shows that she patiently listened to every argument in favour of the new doctrines. She had a conversation with the preacher Osiander which lasted four hours (p. 128), she listened to over a hundred sermons preached by the Lutherans, and she read their writings, yet she could find nothing to her taste and it seemed easy to her to confound their arguments. Her letters show that her unhappiness was great, for on one occasion she went so far as to put before Nützel (p. 122) what the result would be if women like themselves, many of whom were over sixty and several over seventy, returned to the world and tried to earn their living, as everyone said they ought to do. She declared she detained no one, the nuns were at liberty to go if they chose; everyone was giving her advice, she said, but she   [p. 475]   saw no salvation in the new doctrines, which did not appeal to her. Her readiness to listen to argument caused Nützel to set his hopes on a conference between Melanchthon and her (p. 133), and probably at the instigation of Wilibald, who was deeply grieved at the injustice done to his sisters without being able to give them direct help, Melanchthon, who was well known for his uprightness and conciliatory influence, came to Nürnberg towards the close of the year 1525. 'I am glad to hear Melanchthon is coming,' Charitas wrote; 'since I have heard he is an irreproachable, upright and justice-loving man, I do not suppose he can approve of what has been done here.'

Nützel at once (p. 149) brought him to the convent. 'A few days later our representative came with Philip Melanchthon,' Charitas wrote, 'who spoke much about the new faith, but finding that we set our hopes more on the grace of God than on our works, he said we might as well seek our salvation in the cloister as in the world.' They had a long talk together and agreed on all points except on the subject of vows, for these the reformer declared were not binding, while Charitas maintained that a promise made to God must be kept. She describes Melanchthon as more moderate in his speech than she had ever known a Lutheran to be. Melanchthon, on hearing the various points of the case, blamed the councillors for having forbidden the Franciscans to confer with the convent, and for forcibly taking the nuns out of the cloister. 'I trust God has sent this Lutheran at the right hour,' Charitas wrote, 'for they were discussing whether or not to expel nuns generally, pull down their houses, and put the older inmates of those convents which would not surrender into one house, driving back the younger ones into the world' (p. 171).

According to her account Melanchthon represented to the council that no convent at Wittenberg had been destroyed by force, and after a great deal of argument it was decreed to make one more effort to persuade the nuns to go, and failing this to leave them alone. No concessions were made with regard to the friars, the nuns remained without a minister to take their confessions and to administer the sacrament, but after all the nuns had been severally asked if they wished to stay or to go, and only one declared herself ready to leave the house, the rest were left in possession till the end of their days.

With the account of the last visitation, which took place in 1528, the memoir of Charitas ends. From other sources we hear   [p. 476]   that short of annoyances about her income and a tax levied on the convent she remained unmolested, and passed the last few years of her life in peace. At the close of 1528, the fiftieth anniversary of her entering the convent, and the twenty-fifth year of her appointment as abbess, was celebrated with some amount of cheerfulness. Wilibald and others sent presents, and after dinner the nuns danced to the sound of the dulcimer (hackbrett), which the abbess played.[42*] Wilibald's interest in the convent continued, and towards the close of his life we find him busy writing a pamphlet in justification of the nuns,[43*] in which he developed at some length the arguments against those who had oppressed and coerced them. He died in 1530, and within a couple of years was followed by his sister Charitas (1533). Her sister Clara ruled the convent for a few months after her and was succeeded by Wilibald's daughter Charitas. The number of nuns was slowly but steadily dwindling; before the close of the century the house had fallen into the hands of the town council by default.

The abbess Charitas Pirckheimer worthily represents the monastic life of women at the close of the Middle Ages. Faithful to the system she had embraced, she remained true to her convictions to the last, with a fearlessness, candour, and determination which give her attitude a touch of heroism. She is one among many staunch adherents to the old faith who experienced hardships which simple humanity and feelings of equity and justice alike condemned, but whose steadfastness could not save their cause from being lost.


[1*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer,1878, pp. 14 ff.

[2*] Ibid. pp. 67 ff.

[3*] Nider, Jos., Formicarius,bk. I, ch. 4 (p. 8, edit. 1517).

[4*] Muench, E., Charitas Pirkheimer, ihre Schwestern und Nichten, 1826, contains some of Clara's letters.

[5*] Binder, F., Charitcss Pirckheimer,p. 67.

[6*] 'Briefe der Aebtissin Sabina,' edit. Lochner in Zeitschrift fur hist. Theologie, vol. 36, 1866.

[7*] Pirckheimer, B., Opera,edit. Goldast, 1610, p. 345; Binder, F., Cahritas Pirkheimer,p. 52.

[8*] Pirckheimer, Opera, edit. Goldast, 1610, p. 341; Binder, F., Charitas Pirckheimer, p. 81.

[9*] Pirckheimer, Opera,p. 343; Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheirner, p. 84.

[10*] Pirckheimer, Opera, p. 342; Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, p. 85.

[11*] Pirckheimer, Qpera. p. 344; Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, p. 87.

[12*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer,. p. 88.

[13*] Ibid. p. 220, note 26.

[14*] Pirckheimer, Opera, p. 340; Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer,p. 89.

[15*] Born in Venice in 1465, was acquainted both with Latin and Greek, and studied history, philosophy and theology. She disputed at Padua in public, wrote several learned treatises, and was much admired and esteemed.

[16*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheirner, p. 96.

[17*] Pirckheimer, Opera, p. 230; Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheirner, p. 55.

[18*] Pirckheimer, Opera, p. 344; Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, p. 58.

[19*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheirner, p. 65, footnote.

[20*] Ibid. p. 66.

[21*] Pirckheimer, Opera, p. 247; Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, p. 61.

[22*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, p. 62.

[23*] Ibid. p. 35.

[24*] Thausing, M., Dürer's Briefe etc., 1872, p.167.

[25*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer,p. 105.

[26*] Eyn Misyve oder Sendbriefetc., 1523.

[27*] Pirckheimer,Opera,p. 375.

[28*] 'Pirkheimer, Charitas': Denkwürdigkeiten aus dem Reformationseitalter, herausg. Höfler, C., Quellensammiung für fränk. Geschichte, vol.4 , 1852 (page references in the text to this edition).

[29*] Muench, E., Charitas Pirckheimer etc., 1826, p. 104.

[30*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, p. 125, from an unpublished letter.

[31*] Muench, E., Charitas Pirckheirner etc., p. 110.

[32*] Ibid., p. 118 (on a letter written to Nützel).

[33*] Muench, E., Charitas Pirckheimer,etc., p. 106.

[34*] Ibid. p. 109

[35*] Pirckheimer, Opera,p. 374.

[36*] Muench, E., Charitas Pirckheimer,etc., p. 108.

[37*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer,p. 118.

[38*] Ibid. p. 150, from an unpublished letter.

[39*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, p. 153.

[41*] 'Briefe der Aebtissin Sabina,' edit. Lochner in Zeitschrift für hist. Theologie, vol. 36, 1866, pp. 542, 545.

[42*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, pp. 183 ff.

[43*] Pirckheimer, Opera, 'Oratio apologetica,' pp. 375--385; Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, p. 198.

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