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.


Finding Hoccleve: Part 2

If you haven't already done so, don't forget to read "Part 1" here first.

My previous post discusses the identification of Thomas Hoccleve’s handwriting in Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othea and a glossary in London, British Library, Harley MS 219. This is only the second manuscript identified to date in which Hoccleve copies literary works by other authors.[i] The find is more striking when we consider the other contents of the manuscript and their implications for Hoccleve’s original compositions.

Hoccleve's Gesta
A page from Hoccleve’s Gesta Romanorum. London, British Library, Harley MS 219, fol. 47v. Image courtesy of the British Library.

The major contents of Harley MS 219 are as follows:

  • Odo of Cheriton’s Fables in Latin, fols. 1r–37r.
  • Selections from the Gesta Romanorum [Deeds of the Romans], in Latin, fols. 37r–79v.
  • An incomplete French translation of the Secretum Secretorum [Secret of Secrets, an advice text supposedly authored by Aristotle for Alexander the Great], fols. 80r–105v.
  • Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othea [Letter of Othea], French, in Hoccleve’s handwriting, fols. 106r–147r.
  • A glossary of French terms translated into Latin and/or Middle English, in Hoccleve’s handwriting, fols. 147v–151v.

These are followed by items in later handwriting: A list in French of offices managed by the English Treasurer in later fifteenth-century handwriting (fols. 152v–153r); two English prayers, added in a sixteenth-century hand (fol. 153v); and a Latin recipe for the preservation of eyesight, added in a late fifteenth-century hand (fol. 154r).

Those familiar with Hoccleve’s poetry will recognize the Gesta as a source for two tales in Hoccleve’s SeriesTheTale of Jereslaus’s Wife and The Tale of Jonathas– and the Secretum as a major source for the Regiment of Princes, an advice text Hoccleve dedicates to the future Henry V. For Hoccleve studies, one major question for both the Gesta and the Secretum has always been what form of the text Hoccleve used. In the case of the Gesta, there are a large number of manuscripts and almost innumerable variants among them that could have influenced Hoccleve.[ii] For the Secretum, the issue becomes one of language and then variable versions: did Hoccleve use a Latin version or a vernacular translation, and in either case, which one of many possible versions?

For me (and the reviewers of my original article manuscript), a crucial question was whether Harley MS 219 could resolve these uncertainties. The answer I found was yes, though not without much questioning of my eyesight and sanity, and some consultation with other scholars of Hoccleve’s handwriting. There are multiple scribes throughout Harley MS 219, and their handwriting is often excruciatingly similar. After all, when multiple professional scribes copied portions of a literary text that would be combined, they attempted to regularize their handwriting. The same aim of a more or less consistent handwriting across scribes would be valuable likewise in the Royal Office of the Privy Seal, where Hoccleve and – I think it likely – the other scribes in Harley MS 219 were employed.

As it turns out, Hoccleve does not copy the entire text of the Fables, Gesta, or Secretum. Instead, he copies at least one quire (bundle of pages) of the Fables and Gesta, he copies intermittent folios (pages) in the Gesta, and he provides corrections and annotations to the Gesta and the Secretum. The other scribes that copy the Fables and Gesta have very similar handwriting and demonstrate features common to Privy Seal scribes. The scribe who copied the Secretum displays stylized features – decorative strokes and flourishes – typically found in later handwriting, which would certainly seem to mark him as younger than Hoccleve. This scribe also leaves a blank when the French text indicts England for problematic politics, leaving it to his superior Hoccleve to decide whether to follow the French source and write England’s name in the space left (he does).

Copy of the Secretum
A page from Harley MS 219’s copy of the Secretum. London, British Library, Harley MS 219, fol. 83. Image courtesy of the British Library.

This unusual mode of copying and the corrections across the many sections of the volume suggest that Harley MS 219 may have been a collaborative volume produced by Hoccleve and his Privy Seal colleagues, perhaps even a training exercise for junior clerks under his supervision.[iii] Such an exercise might explain why Hoccleve often copies intermittent folios in the Gesta– to provide an exemplar for certain handwriting traits, not to share the copying of a lengthy text.

Now that we know Hoccleve copied, supervised, and/or corrected these texts, we have evidence of new and specific sources he knew. My preliminary work with the Gesta shows that the Harley MS 219 Latin tales do correspond to features of Hoccleve’s English compositions.[iv] We now also know that – although Hoccleve certainly could have read the Secretum in Latin – he had access to this French version, which he knew well enough to correct when the main scribe hesitated or went astray. This opens up new avenues for determining how these versions correspond (or do not) to Hoccleve’s English renderings, and we can also start to explore more seriously how the Fables and Othea may have influenced Hoccleve’s work. In other words, this manuscript allows us to compare Hoccleve’s works with these texts as sources and influences to see more specifically how he translated, adapted, and innovated within his English compositions.

The process of completing this research was not long by most standards (from discussion in summer 2018 to advanced publication in summer 2019), but it was intensely involved, as I put most other projects on the back burner and moved from focusing on Christine’s Othea to the glossary, to evaluating the scribal handwriting against known samples of Hoccleve’s, to evaluating all the convoluted and similar scribal handwriting in the other texts, and to investigating the broader implications for Hoccleve’s work and career.[v] There is still much work to be done to fully realize the importance of this manuscript, but I have, I hope, made a valiant start.

If lessons are to be learned here, I would suggest they are these: keep looking at “weirdo” manuscripts; follow the even odder threads within them that interest you; be open to working on something that isn’t your “main” project (with the caveat that if you do, it may take over your life); and, of course, when there is something about a manuscript bothering you, share ideas and images with friends. The generosity of our colleagues in the field of medieval studies – trusted friends, editors, anonymous readers, and colleagues with shared interests – is one of our greatest resources.

Misty Schiebern, PhD
University of Kansas

About the Author: Misty Schieberle is Associate Professor of English at the University of Kansas, currently completing an edition of the Middle English translations of Christine de Pizan's Epistre Othea and continuing her work on Harley MS 219, including an edition of the glossary.

[i]The first is the so-called ‘Trinity Gower’ in Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.3.2 (fols. 82r–84r), in which Hoccleve copies a few folios of Gower’s Confessio Amantis. There may be another, according to Linne Mooney, whose work is forthcoming.

[ii]On which, see Philippa Bright, The Anglo-Latin Gesta Romanorum(Oxford, 2019).

[iii]On Hoccleve’s supervisory role from c. 1399-1425, see Linne R. Mooney, ‘Some New Light on Thomas Hoccleve’, Studies in the Age of Chaucer29 (2007), 293-340, at 297-99.

[iv]See Roger Ellis, ed., Thomas Hoccleve: ‘My Compleinte’ and Other Poems(Exeter, 2001), 263-68, who reconstructs from Hoccleve’s English and various Latin manuscripts (not including Harley MS 219) readings likely to have been in Hoccleve’s source for the Tale of Jereslaus’ Wife.

[v]See Schieberle, “A New Hoccleve Literary Manuscript: The Trilingual Miscellany in London, British Library, MS Harley 219,” Review of English Studies(forthcoming November 2019), currently available online for advanced access subscribers:

Finding Hoccleve: Part 1

Hoccleve's Othea In Harley MS 219

“You should look into Hoccleve.”

These words changed everything about the way I looked at London, British Library MS Harley 219. I’d been working with this volume of primarily Latin and French texts for several years, focusing on Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othea [Letter of Othea], a popular advice text, which Christine claims draws on a letter from Othea, the goddess of wisdom and prudence, to Hector of Troy.

Harley MS 219 is – to put it bluntly – a weird manuscript, one that had always bothered me because it is the only complete manuscript of the Othea with a dedication to Henry IV of England. Yet it is far from a luxury copy – how did the text travel from a manuscript fit for a king to this rather lackluster volume?

Immediately after the Othea, there is a glossary of French terms into Latin and, less often, Middle English that has fascinated me. Some content is standard for glossaries of the time – words with double meanings, body parts, animals, occupations, tools, family members, and such. Some entries may directly draw on vocabulary in the Othea, essentially providing a practical aid to assist an English reader with the French language.[i] The final folio contains a series of phrases in French then English ranging from the expected, like “wype your hands,” to the bizarre, such as “the body is withynne the tombe” and “this is an hyred hors.” Some phrases were clearly added later by the same scribe who produced the Othea and glossary. Aspects of this scribe’s handwriting tugged at my brain: from my paleography classes, I knew that w– and this circular one in particular – was an important feature and might help me identify the scribe. Yet this was not my main project, and I could only justify spending a little time on the glossary for a short paper on fifteenth-century Anglo-French at the New Chaucer Society conference.

Hoccleve's Glossary
Excerpt from Hoccleve’s Glossary in London, British Library, Harley MS 219, fol. 149v. Photo courtesy of the British Library.

I included images of the glossary in my talk, and I could scarcely suppress a wry smile when a friend asked about the scribe and the manuscript’s history. These were the crucial questions, as they are so often for manuscripts whose scribes and readers are unknown. I relayed what little was known: it was produced in England, dated to the late fifteenth century, and the French texts show Anglo-Norman spellings. My friend, who has done significant research on Thomas Hoccleve and documents produced in the Royal Office of the Privy Seal (which wrote letters for the King), noted characteristics of Privy Seal clerk handwriting, and advised, “You should look into Hoccleve – it could even be him.”

The room buzzed at the possibility, with some audience members agreeing and at least one expressing doubt. If we had been in a cartoon, the light bulb above my head would have come on: that is why the was troubling me – it is one of Hoccleve’s characteristic letter forms (though by no means unique to him). And crucially, Hoccleve’s connections to the King would explain the mystery of the Harley MS 219 Othea’s origins. Scholars accept that Hoccleve translated Christine’s Epistre de dieu d’amours into The Letter of Cupid (1402) from a copy in Henry’s possession, making the same path of transmission conceivable for Henry’s Othea to Hoccleve.[ii]

Of course, I only articulated these ideas in print after painstaking comparison of iconic Hoccleve letter forms – figure-eight A, flat-headed g, circular w, self-dotting y, and tilted h– with those in Harley MS 219.[iii] At several points, I stepped back to ensure I wasn’t guilty of simply wanting this to be Hoccleve’s handwriting, which led to a fair amount of double- and triple-checking. In the end, significant evidence suggests that Hoccleve – one of the most prominent English poets after Chaucer – is indeed the scribe who copied the Epistre Othea and glossary into Harley MS 219.

Linking Harley MS 219 to Hoccleve shifts radically our understanding of the manuscript, its Othea, and Hoccleve’s sources for his original poetry (more on the latter in part 2). The manuscript had been dated to 1475, based on stylistic features of another text. However, since Hoccleve died in 1426, and his handwriting appears throughout the majority of the volume, the manuscript must be dated before then. I suggest early fifteenth century, near Hoccleve’s translation of the Letter of Cupid and close to Henry’s receipt of the original, sent to him around 1401-02, according to Christine’s own account.[iv]

Hoccleve's Othea
A page from the Othea in London, British Library, Harley MS 219, f. 133v. Photo courtesy of the British Library.

The Harley MS 219 Othea has rarely received interest from scholars, in part for its Anglo-Norman spellings. Yet even with spelling differences, minor scribal variants, and some disordered chapters (likely due to disorder in Hoccleve’s source), this manuscript deserves renewed attention and more authority. Hoccleve was no bumbling Anglo-Norman scribe; he was a practiced clerk who used French daily in his occupation. His French may not be of the Continent, but it is certainly competent, and we can plausibly construct a direct line from this copy to Henry’s original.[v]

Of course, questions remain, namely, who were the readers and what was the purpose for this volume? It seems likely that the audience would have been other educated clerks who enjoyed literary material, and the volume may be evidence for a literary circle for Hoccleve and his colleagues. There are two indicators that the audience must have been educated:  the main texts are in Latin and French, and the glossary uses Latin more often than English to translate French words. Readers would have to know Latin to appreciate the narratives and even use the glossary.

My proposal that enjoyment may have been a purpose for the volume stems largely from external evidence in Hoccleve’s poetry and from the glossary. In the Series, Hoccleve claims that his friend must bring him the concluding moralization to a narrative he has been writing. In Harley MS 219 that particular story is complete, but another lacks the moral, and in the copying and codicology of a wider set of tales, one quire (bundle of pages) ends with a blank folio (page); it is followed by an additional quire in a different hand, as if a friend or colleague did indeed add a missing section Hoccleve’s volume needed.

Additionally, the glossary has – I think – more than one “inside joke” for readers familiar with Hoccleve and his poetry, but I will hold myself to only one example. The phrasebook in particular conveys Hoccleve’s playfulness in producing it, especially the unexpected “this is an hyred hors” (fol. 151v), which seems a strange inclusion. Surely proclaiming that one has rented his mode of transportation could not be a significant necessity abroad.

Yet this phrase calls to mind Hoccleve’s analogy for an inconstant woman in Letter of Cupid: “Shee for the rode of folk is so desyrid, / And as a hors fro day to day is hyrid” (102-3). This must be an inside joke for Hoccleve’s friends, and the manuscript as a whole may suggest evidence for the sort of circle of literate friends that Hoccleve imagines in the Series and in one of his ballads for Henry Somer (who worked in high positions in the English Treasury) that depicts a lively dining club whose members may have appreciated literary texts in all three of the languages present in Harley MS 219, Latin, French, and English.

But the importance of the discovery of Hoccleve’s involvement in the production of Harley MS 219 goes much further when we enlarge the scope of our inquiry beyond the Othea and glossary to find Hoccleve participating in the production of other texts in the volume, two of which were major sources for his original compositions.

Click here to read Part 2.

Misty Schieberle, PhD
University of Kansas

About the Author: Misty Schieberle is Associate Professor of English at the University of Kansas, currently completing an edition of the Middle English translations of Christine de Pizan's Epistre Othea and continuing her work on Harley MS 219, including an edition of the glossary.

[i]Stephanie Downes, “A ‘Frenche booke called the Pistill of Othea’: Christine de Pizan’s French in England,” in Jocelyn Wogan-Browne et al. (eds), Language and Culture in Medieval Britain: The French of England c.1100–1500(York, 2009), 457–68,  at 461–5, notes how the glossary seeks to educate the reader in various aspects of the French language, including verb tenses and terms relevant to the Othea.

[ii]On which, see James C. Laidlaw, ‘Christine de Pizan, the Earl of Salisbury and Henry IV’, French Studies, 36 (1982), 129-43.

[iii]See H. C. Schulz, ‘Thomas Hoccleve, Scribe’, Speculum, 12 (1937), 71–81; Thomas Hoccleve: A Facsimile of the Autograph Verse Manuscripts, introd. J. A. Burrow and A. I. Doyle, EETS s.s. 19 (Oxford, 2002), xxiv-xxxvii. My own article, “A New Hoccleve Literary Manuscript: The Trilingual Miscellany in London, British Library, MS Harley 219” will appear in Review of English Studies in November 2019, and it is currently available online for advanced access subscribers:

[iv]Christine de Pizan, The Vision of Christine de Pizan, trans. Glenda McLeod and Charity Cannon Willard (Cambridge, 2005), 106-7.

[v]The Harley MS 219 Othea’s chapters go from 86 to 93-98 and back to 87 over the course of fols. 142r-144r, without a break in quire structure, which suggests that Hoccleve’s source had a misplaced quire. Thus, there could be an intermediary between this manuscript and Henry’s original, though that is not strictly necessary – Henry’s own copy could have been misfoliated at some point.