Christine Ebner and the Engelthal Sister-Book: Some English Translations

Scores of women mystics. The dead returning to speak to the living. Even a mystical pregnancy. Who wouldn’t want to read this book?

Fortunately for us, it is more properly these books. There are nine “Sister-books,” or Schwesternbücher, from fourteenth-century German convents (plus several from fifteenth-century Netherlands). All are filled with short glimpses at the piety of different sisters.

Many scholars today argue that these collective biographies cannot tell us anything about the individual nuns. Rather, using rhetorical and devotional elements of their time, the books build a picture of how the community envisions itself. There is perhaps no better individual signal of this purpose than the title of Christine Ebner’s Schwesternbücher for the sisters of Engelthal: Buchlein von der genaden uberlast, which might be translated “Little Book on the Excess of Grace.” The books reveal the manifestation of God’s grace in each convent in a way that other people will understand.

Given that women wrote the Schwesternbücher about other women, it is surprisingly difficult to find English-language discussion of them, much less published translations.

So here I present three entries from Christine Ebner’s Buchlein von der genaden uberlast (Little Book on the Excess of Grace), which tells of sisters from the Dominican convent at Engelthal, near Nuremberg.

One sister was named Reichgard [Richardis] and was our patron’s sister and came to our community. She had been a black nun [Benedictine] and knew our craft. As she now had come into our cloister, she took up the practice with great industriousness and went unceasingly to choir for thirty years, that she never missed a single day. And she was also without meat these thirty years and came only rarely to bathe and fasted unceasingly, and was awake every night after Matins, and said no more than three Salve reginas with great devotion. The first Salve regina, she said that for the cloister and all good people; the second Salve regina for all sinners; the third Salve regina for the souls in purgatory. She was a righteous person for all her life, and Our Lord never did her any special grace until the time that her life would take an end. Then she lay after Matins in front of the alter in choir on her knees for a long time. There came Our Lady and led her son Jesus Christ by the hand, and he was like a child around ten years old and said to her, “Stand up, beloved Reichgard.” And when she got herself up, then our Lord gripped her by her chin and said, “The time has come, prepare yourself: your brother and your sister await you with great desire. You are invited to the eternal company; there I will give you all of the wages you have earned from me.” In the same place she arrived at death and died with a holy death. Not many days after she came back here and said: she had traveled to heaven not without respite; her purgatory had been in a green meadow.

One sister was named Mechthild von Neidstein, and came here from the court of the count of Herzberg, and was an unceasing servant of God and cried in her prayers every day for God to give her a good end. This he allowed her and gave her indeed a devout death. Then she came back after her death and said: God had given her an unmeasurable reward because she had been loyal to the convent, and especially that she had suffered in the office of prioress with loyalty.

[Mechthild] had a niece, who was named Sophie von Neidstein, who died before her, and was around twenty-four years old, and was an undefeated person. When she lay on her deathbed, then she was enraptured. When she again came to herself, then she said, “I was in the other world and have seen and heard—should I live five hundred years more, I could never fully say what I know. As I am now at peace, so I want to say something about it.” Then she lifted up a song, which no one understood other than the last word, that she said “Mary,” and then said: “I was made aware, that I am one of the saved people; this I did not know before.” After that, she died one more day after that. When she did her last action, then she lifted up the Salve Regina: “Greeted you are, queen,” and sang it with a sweet voice. As she was then dead, so she came back to a valued sister. She said to her: as she had prayed the Salve regina, then our lady Mary entered in a purple robe, and St. Agnes and many virgins entered with her. Then our lady wrapped the robe around her; thus everything flew away. This grace she had earned with a Psalter that she had read every day standing. Thus she had fallen under silence for three hours, when she was dressed for death, and died on the day of Our Lady.

All translations based on: Christina Ebner, Der Nonne von Engelthal Büchlein von der Genaden Überlast, ed. Karl Gustav Theodor Schröder (Tübingen: Litterarischer Verein in Stuttgart, 1871), 25-26.

Cait Stevenson, PhD
University of Notre Dame

Syncretism in the Hêliand

Bust of Charlemagne (14th century), Aachen Cathedral Treasury

The Hêliand represents a towering yet puzzling work of early continental Germanic literature whose deliberate fusion of Christian ideas with the language of warrior elites creates a rich and intense patchwork for audiences. Composed in the first half of the ninth century in the Carolingian Empire at a time when the emperors sought to impose Christianity on their newly conquered Saxon subjects, the text consists of a lengthy verse Gospel paraphrase completed in the so-called Old Saxon dialect—a predecessor of Middle and High varieties of Low German spoken throughout the northern regions of contemporary Germany. The religious subject of the poem is translated into the language of a Germanic warrior culture in order to reach a wide audience of lay—especially male—elites. This, in turn, transforms the narrative of Jesus’ life into a uniquely Christian-Germanic epic propped up by the language of fidelity and war.

The statue of Charlemagne erected in Aachen’s Market Place, 1620

One of the moments in the Hêliand where the juxtaposition of Christian ideas and prophecy with a Germanic vocabulary of warrior elites comes in the work’s fifty-sixth fitt (“song”), the Last Supper narrative. Linked is an excerpt and translation from this turning point in the text (Hêliand 56, lines 4665-4701), revolving around Simon Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ forecasting of the former’s impending betrayal (which I have titled “Peter’s Promise”). Throughout his speeches, Jesus relies upon the vocabulary of fidelity and lordship, while Peter’s promise to sacrifice himself “an uuapno spil”—literally “in the play of weapons”—reads as a transparent euphemism for the scourges of battle.

Jake Coen
PhD Candidate in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

Margaret Ebner on Twitter: Medieval Sanctity and Twenty-First Century Social Media

Catherine of Siena receiving the stigmata
Catherine of Siena, a model for Elisabeth Achler, receives the stigmata; Domenico Beccafumi, c. 1515

Even Elisabeth Achler’s hagiography admits she was faking it.

Franciscan tertiary Achler (1386-1420) fulfills all the stereotypical demands of late medieval women’s sanctity, although sometimes just barely. It is an extreme that gets her into trouble. During her three-year fast and her even more extreme twelve-year fast, she ate nothing but the Eucharist. Well, the Eucharist, and the food she stole from the kitchen and hid under her bed. [1]

The wobbly nature of Achler’s portrayed sanctity suggests her hagiographer is being somewhat honest, and in this case, honest to a conscious attempt to achieve living sainthood. Achler tried to live up to an ideal.

That is nothing unusual in any time or place, of course. But this case is particularly interesting as scholars question more and more the extent to which late medieval ascetic sanctity was historical versus rhetorical.

Nicholas von Flue was a wildly famous living saint whose cell became a pilgrimage site for peasants all the way up to scholars and bishops. Nicholas’ public reputation (and eventual hagiographic portrayal) represented him as a Desert Father come again. He was the most severe ascetic possible (not even eating the Eucharist!) and a hermit. His face was gaunt, his skin yellow or colorless, his hands ice cold; he lived in isolation to the point where he was known as the “Forest Brother.” [2]

Nicholas von Flüe portrait
Nicholas von Flüe, parish church in Sachseln, Obwalden, Switzerland, c. 1492

And no matter how many people saw him in person, it didn’t matter that his hands were warm, he looked healthy, and his cell was on a corner of the property where his wife and children lived.

Whether Nicholas did or didn’t eat and whether he did or didn’t see his family are both beside the point. His sanctity was built on the rhetoric of imitating, or besting, the Desert Fathers.

But nothing better embodies the debate over historicity versus literary construction, or the ideal of women’s ascetic sanctity to which Achler aspired, than a group of books from Dominican women’s convents in fourteenth-century southern Germany. Here I want to focus on the first-person “autohagiography” of one nun, the so-called Revelations of Margaret Ebner. [3]

From external evidence, we know that Ebner was a historical person with a reputation for sanctity already in her own lifetime. There seemed no reason to doubt that the Revelations filled in the details from Ebner’s (necessarily biased and subjective) point of view. [4] The text recounts her spiritual life over the course of several decades: repetitive prayer, devotion to the Passion and the Christ-child, heavily somatic piety, sensations of sweetness, severe sickness. It is repetitive and simplistically written.

If you’re thinking this is the spirituality that was once accounted “hysterical,” you are absolutely correct. If you’re thinking this is the spirituality that scholars now recognize as distinctively feminine with very real social-theological significance, you are also correct.

But what if the Ebner of the Revelations is a hagiographic Nicholas von Flue? What if the literary portrayal of living sainthood is unconnected from the reality of a woman nevertheless renowned as holy?

So runs Susanna Bürkle’s argument for Revelations. Bürkle argues that a nun or nuns at Ebner’s convent constructed the I-narrator of the autohagiography as an exemplar of so-called women’s sanctity. [5]

Or, to speak in the idiom of the twenty-first century: the nuns curated a public version of Ebner that adhered to the demands of women’s sanctity.

It’s easy to draw parallels between blog posts with comments and manuscripts with glosses, between Tumblr and commonplace books. So how about late medieval women’s autohagiography and hagiography as Instagram and Facebook?

screenshot from TwitterWe’ve all seen the “I take 1000 selfies for every one I can post” Instagram admissions, and the smartphone videos where the gorgeous YouTube star turns this way and that to display how she can go from (ridiculously thin and good-looking) normal to supermodel quality with angles and makeup. These social media accounts have a rhetoric of their own. The “Feet in the foreground, beautiful scenery in the background” photo means ultimate relaxation. Twitter has its own grammar, often departing from “proper” English, that mashes up different vernaculars and changes from meme to meme.

And, as article after article reminds us, social media is brutal for self-esteem because we are convinced these accounts portray something of reality. No matter how much we are aware of constructing our own Facebook feeds and dividing up our Reddit alts, the ideal of others’ lives looks real. The occasional admission of failure or falseness is the modern humility topos, yes. It is also a guarantee of reality—a sign we can trust these people, who, after all, are honest about their dishonesty.

Whether or not an Instagram account is an accurate summary of the life behind it is irrelevant to us in these cases. All we can see, and all that the users mean to convey, is the ideal.

But as Elisabeth Achler’s desperate hoarding and bingeing reminds us, the construction of exemplarity in the Life of Catherine of Siena and the Vitae patrum, in Revelations and the Sister-books—on twenty-first century social media—has its costs.

Nicholas von Flue died at age 70. Margaret Ebner died at age 60.

Elisabeth Achler died at 34.

Cait Stevenson, PhD
University of Notre Dame

[1] The oldest recension of Achler’s hagiography, probably from an autograph by its author, was published by Karl Bihlmeyer, “Die schwäbische Mystikerin Elsbeth Achler von Reute († 1420) und die Überlieferung ihrer Vita,” in Festgabe Philipp Strauch zum 80. Geburtstag, ed. Ferdinand Joseph Schneider and George Basecke (Halle: Niemeyer, 1932), 88-109.

[2] Gabriela Signori examines the role of appearance in Nicholas von Flue’s hagiographies and reputation: “Nikolaus of Flüe (d. 1487): Physiognomies of a Late Medieval Ascetic,” Church History and Religious Culture 86, no. 1-4 (2006): 229-255.

[3] The standard edition is Philipp Strauch, Margaretha Ebner und Heinrich von Nördlingen: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der deutschen Mystik (Amsterdam: P. Schippers, 1966). Ebner’s text is the best-known among the Sister-books and related Dominican women’s texts because of its accessible English translation: Margaret Ebner: Major Works, trans. Leonard Patrick Hindsley, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1993).

[4] On the question of whether medieval visionary texts reveal something of the visionaries’ actual experiences: Peter Dinzelbacher, “Zur Interpretation erlebnismystischer Texte des Mittelalters,” Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literature 117 (1988): 1-23.

[5] Bürkle’s argument for Ebner is part of a long line of work by primarily German scholars on the Sister-books. Piece by piece, they (including Bürkle herself, working on Engelthal) have built an argument for the 14th-century Dominican women’s texts as deliberate literary works, though they differ as to the purpose of these constructions and what information the Sister-books can still tell scholars. “Die ‘Offenbarungen’ der Margareta Ebner: Rhetorik der Weiblichkeit und der autobiographische Pakt,” in Weibliche Rede – Rhetorik der Weiblichkeit. Studien zum Verhältnis von Rhetorik und Geschlechterdifferenz, ed. Doerte Bischoff and Martina Wagner (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2003), 79-102.