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.

 

Elisabeth Achler von Reute, II: An Unexpected Failure or Success?

[Missed part 1? Find it here.]

The fifteenth-century hagiography of Elisabeth Achler, a Franciscan tertiary from Reute, ascribes to her the standard catalogue of proper saintly elements. She could almost be the exemplar of a late medieval holy woman. But her hagiographer, Augustinian prior Konrad Kügelin, does not stop with standard recitations of virtues and somatic spirituality. In almost every category, Achler is said to exceed even the most frenetic reports of her role models’ own deeds.

But at the same time, there is a much more prosaic story that underlies the high-flying discourse of sainthood. Werner Williams-Krapp’s argument that Kügelin worked hard in the vita to make Achler seem more exciting is undeniably correct. One of her “miracles” involves administering aid to a beggar who came to the cloister door one night. Kügelin remarks that, in his understanding, the poor wanderer was none other than Christ himself.[i] To a skeptical reader, the miracle exists only in his mind. But to the Augustinian, that mode of interpretation was not even remotely under consideration. Not only is the mysterious visitor anecdote not the only example of miracle-by-explanation, but the vita is stocked with events whose “miraculous” interpretation seems less of an explaining and more of an explaining-away.

When the devil beats up Achler, for example, he takes her into her room and locks the door first—from the inside. He does such a good job of it that Kügelin has to break the door down in order to get to Achler, mysteriously now on her own with only the wounds to show for the encounter. And at one point during her twelve-year period of fasting, her fellow sisters noticed bread and meat and other food going missing from the kitchen.[ii] They found it under Achler’s bed! Kügelin explains that the devil had taken the form of his saint to fool others and cause hardship for her. But the devil is not finished. First of all, this happened again.[iii] But this time there was more. A woman who did not eat would not have bowel movements, of course. And her sisters found feces hidden in Achler’s room! Once again they accused her of eating in secret, and once again this caused her great pain and hardship. Of course, Kügelin insists, the devil had put it there for that very reason. And when this problem was taken care of, her sisters found more excrement in the garden outside Achler’s window. You guessed it–the devil had thrown it there.

Since the explosion of interest in medieval hagiography, especial of women, scholars have dealt with the extranormal elements by agreeing to read the text as people read it at the time of its composition. But there are some cases when discourse so clearly breaks down that a more prosaic approach is compelling. In Kügelin’s literary desire to align Achler with the elements of sanctity, we see instead her desire, and even desperation, to conform to the standards. More to the point, we see her fail—and still maintain the facade, despite being confronted with the knowledge that she was not, by the standards of the ideal of holiness, in fact holy. Sanctity as an ideal and as a practice is stretched molecularly thin.

But as Siegfried Ringler points out, Achler is the one High German religious woman of the late Middle Ages who produced an enduring cult.[iv] An early sixteenth-century vita of an observant prioress memorializes her as a teacher of virtue; Baroque-era poetry hails her as a saint.[v] She was even officially beatified by the Church in the eighteenth century. Her to-us obvious “faking it” was successfully obscured at the time. This is particularly noteworthy because her life was the age that jump-started clerical condemnation of women’s ecstatic and public religious activity.[vi] And when the standards of late medieval piety that Achler ruined her adulthood to meet dissolved into suspicion and frequent condemnation over the course of the century, her cult rewrote her into their exemplar of virtuous devotion and instruction.[vii]

In the case of Elisabeth Achler and her hagiographer, therefore, the ideal of sainthood was pulled and pulled—and instead of snapping, it sprang back like a rubber band. For a fifteenth century infamous for its suspicion and suppression of ecstatic women’s spirituality, Achler is both a reason for it and an escape artist from it. The lives and texts of religious women at the end of the Middle Ages are often considered stereotypical, monotonous, and (to us) unrealistic.[viii] The interaction of hagiography, the ideal of sainthood, and the challenges of those two applied to the real life of a real woman that we see with Elisabeth Achler shows that those things are probably all true—but that is not the end of investigation, it’s a new beginning.

Cait Stevenson, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

~~

[i]Leben12.

[ii]Leben6.

[iii]Leben12.

[iv]Ringler, 429.

[v]Juliana Ernestin, Chronik des Bickenklosters zu Villingen, 1238 bis 1614, ed. Karl Jordan Glatz (Tübingen: Litterarisches Verein in Stuttgart, 1881); on the seventeenth-century poetry, see Bihlmeyer 94.

[vi]See, for example, Dyan Elliott, Proving Woman: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); Ulla Williams and Williams-Krapp, “Eine Warnung an alle, dy sych etwaz dyncken: Der >Sendbrief von Betrug teuflischen Erscheinungen< (mit einer Edition),” in Forschungen zur deutschen Literatur der spaten Mittelalters: Festschrift für Johannes Janota, ed. Horst Brunner and Williams-Krapp (Tübingen: De Gruyter, 2003).

[vii]See n. 13 above.

[viii]See, for example, Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker, “Holy Women in the German Territories,” in Medieval Holy Women in the Christian Tradition, 1000-1500, ed. Alastair Minnis and Rosalynn Voaden ( ), 325, who encapsulates Achler’s life as: “She followed the Third Rule of St. Francis, cared for the poor, and made a living by weaving. Elizabeth was deeply touched by God’s grace and received the stigmata.”

Elisabeth Achler von Reute, I: The Expected Saint

Naturally, reformist Augustinian prior Konrad Kügelin opens his hagiography of Elisabeth Achler (1386-1420) by talking about himself.[i] After that, though, he launches into an ode to the name “Elisabeth” lifted straight from the Legenda aurea’s entry on St. Elisabeth of Hungary. In his initial versions of the vernacular vita, Achler’s father is a weaver. Later, Kügelin turns him into a dyer—like Catherine of Siena’s father.[ii]  In fact, the Lebenof Achler has so many similarities to Raymond of Capua’s Legenda of Catherine that one almost has the impresion Kügelin was disappointed when his exemplar turned thirty-four and could no longer die at the same age.

Kügelin chose strategically. Elizabeth was one of the most popular patrons of hospitals and communities run by beguines.[iii] Catherine was the shining exemplar of the Dominican Third Order. And in the vita, Kügelin was not subtle abut his intention of using Achler’s sanctity to promote his vision of religious life for Franciscan tertiary women.

To this end, the Augustinian had done his homework. According to the text, our major surviving source, Achler was born in a village that lay within the diocese of Constance (and modern-day Baden-Württemberg) to two upstanding, humble parents. Her father died during her childhood, and her mother entered a convent and lived out a life of piety as any good widow ought. Achler was very beautiful but shunned the attention of boys. When she was fourteen, the Holy Spirit compelled her to seek out the local Augustinian prior, Konrad Kügelin, as her confessor in the sense of the sacrament as well as spiritual direction. He placed her with an independent religious woman for several years to learn the values of poverty and work while he took the time to found his model cloister at Reute.

Achler’s adulthood was, if anything, even more stereotypical for a late medieval holy woman.[iv] She received permission from the Holy Spirit and from her confessor to fast extensively, used her daily work to imitate Christ, experienced religious raptures and ecstatic visions, received a mystical Eucharist from Christ himself, met Mary in heaven, saw the fates of souls in purgatory, announced prophecies related to the Great Schism, received stigmata. Her life, as told by Kügelin, is a parade of topoi. So much so, in fact, that scholars have considered it as a lump sum. To some, the vita is a straightforward account of a saint’s life (whether in the biographical or hagiographical sense).[v] To others, Kügelin added or glossed a layer of mystical tropes on top of a pious but ordinary life to promote his vision of reform.[vi]

These perspectives come from an alignment with Kügelin’s perspective as hagiographer, indeed, almost as creator of Achler and her sanctity. To move beyond his particular role yields several curious aspects of this holy woman’s life.

First, Achler’s death in 1420 means that the height of her public reputation in life, and the entrenchment of her cult after her death, occurred at a time scholars have identified as increasingly dangerous for charismatic religious women. People were beginning to doubt that the source of visions and prophecies was divine by default.[vii] Even Joan of Arc, a visionary herself, denounced Catherine de la Rochelle as a fraud.[viii] In other cases, theologians explicitly tied women’s visions to deception by Satan. That environment, according to Jeffrey Hamburger and Tamar Herzig, was especially dense north of the Alps. German translations of Catherine of Siena’s vita—so important to Kügelin as a model—tended to mitigate out the more extreme and somatic examples of her spiritual exercises as mystical or metaphorical.[ix] Hagiographies and chronicle accounts of women connected to fifteenth-century monastic reform movements, too, de-emphasize women’s ecstatic spirituality.[x] Against this tide, Achler’s vita takes a traditional but threatened path.

But even to place her on the well-trod path is not enough. A simple checklist of representative topoi misses the degree to which the vita slots Achler into them. Lots of saints ate very little and had a devotion to the Eucharist. Achler eats nothing but the Host for three years—and then for twelve years.[xi] She doesn’t just receive stigmata as open wounds that don’t heal even after a month under gloves, but her stigmata bleed so heavily the sisters have to do laundry every day.[xii] Temptation by the devil is standard fare in hagiography, and of course there is plenty of that in Achler’s hagiography. But on top of that, a demon also invades her room and beats her physically so hard that everyone can see her bruises.[xiii] Throughout the vita, therefore, Kügelin does not merely utilize the discourse of sanctity. He pushes it further and further, beyond even the more extreme elements of his own hagiographic models.

And where the topoi of sanctity meet the daily life of Elisabeth Achler, we can almost see the late medieval vision of sainthood snap right back in her face.

To be continued…

[You can find part 2 here].

Cait Stevenson, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

~~

[i]Karl Bihlmeyer, “Die schwäbische Mysterikerin Elsbeth Achler von Reute (d. 1420) und die Überlieferung ihrer Vita,” in Hermanea: Ausgewählte Arbeiten aus dem deutschen Seminar zu Halle, ed. Georg Baesecke and Ferdinand Joseph Schneider (Halle: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1932), 88-109. The hagiography itself is found on 96-109 and will be cited as Leben.

[ii]Werner Williams-Krapp, “Frauenmystik und Ordensform im 15. Jahrhundert,” in Literarischen Interessenbildung im Mittelalter, ed. Joachim Heinzle (Stuttgart: Verlag J. B. Metzler, [year]), 309.

[iii]Walter Simons. Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 88.

[iv]Williams-Krapp, 308-309.

[v]Siegfried Ringler, “Kügelin, Konrad,” in 2VL Bd. 5 (1985), 427-428; Williams-Krapp, 308.

[vi]Leben6.

[vii]See, for example, Dyan Elliott, Proving Woman: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).

[viii]Daniel Hobbins, ed. and trans., The Trial of Joan of Arc (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 83-84.

[ix]Jeffrey Hamburger, The Visual and the Visionary: Art and Spirituality in Late Medieval Germany(New York: Zone Books, 1998), 460-464.

[x]Tamar Herzig, “Female Mysticism, Heterodoxy, and Reform,” in A Companion to Observant Reform in the Late Middle Ages (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 261.

[xi]Leben7-9.

[xii]Leben12.

[xiii]Leben17.