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
[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).
[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.”
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.
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.
Prior to the twentieth century, Guy of Warwick ranked among the most popular heroes of the Anglophone world, even being placed at one point among the Nine Worthies. And it is not hard to imagine why, as there is something for everyone in his story, for he is shown to be a great warrior and a dragon-slayer who later becomes a pilgrim and, eventually, a hermit.
The narrative was first written in Anglo-Norman shortly before 1204 A.D. (Weiss, “Gui de Warewic” 7). Attesting to the lengthy story’s success, nine manuscripts and seven fragments survive in Anglo-Norman. The earliest complete copy that we have in Middle English can be found in the Auchinleck Manuscript, Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates 19.2.1, dated to c. 1330-1340. Two other, much later versions exist in Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College, MS 107/176 (c. 1470s) and Cambridge, University Library, MS Ff.2.38 (c. 1479-1484) (Wiggins, “The Manuscripts and Texts” 64). And there are an additional two sets of fragments in Middle English. One thing interesting about the layout of the text in the Auchinleck Manuscript is that it is separated into a sort of trilogy, consisting of what is known as the couplet Guy of Warwick, covering Guy’s early exploits (ff. 108r-146v), the stanzaic Guy of Warwick, recounting his later life events (ff. 146v-167r), and Reinbroun, which deals with the feats of Guy’s son (ff. 167r-175v). The Auchinleck Manuscript also includes a text called the Speculum Gy de Warewyke, a homiletic treatise that uses Guy’s narrative as a frame to discuss the sins and the importance of contrition and penance.
The entire Auchinleck Manuscript, as well as a treasure trove of information, is available online here: https://auchinleck.nls.uk/.
Guy’s cultural importance extended beyond England and France and also into the early modern period. A now lost Middle English version likely served as the basis for the fifteenth-century Irish Beathadh Sir Gyi o Bharbhuic, copied in Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 1298B, pp. 300-347. What is most remarkable about this version is that it incorporates material from the Speculum. It is furthermore no secret, for example, that Edmund Spenser’s Guyon from Book II of The Faerie Queene is modeled on Guy of Warwick, and we can also see reflections of Guy in the Redcrosse Knight of Book I (Cooper, “Romance after 1400” 718-719 and The English Romance in Time 92-99). In fact, as Helen Cooper demonstrates, the popularity of the Guy narrative continued unabated up through the Victorian era (“Romance after 1400” 704-706).
So what, you might be asking, is this blockbuster story all about? Well, the narrative tells of Guy, a steward’s son, who falls in love with Felice, the Earl of Warwick’s daughter, and is compelled to climb the social ladder through heroic acts in order to prove himself. Guy has many battles and adventures on the Continent, winning fame and admiration abroad. While in Constantinople, he rescues a lion from a dragon. He also makes a bosom companion in the person of Terri of Worms. On his way back to England, Guy slays the villainous Otun, Duke of Pavia, but he also gets caught up in a confrontation in which he rashly kills the son of Count Florentine. Before returning home to Warwick, Guy helps King Athelstan by slaying a dragon that is ravaging Northumberland. He then marries Felice and fathers a child, Reinbroun. The trajectory is not unlike other romans d’aventure. But once he has fulfilled all of his desires, Guy is suddenly overcome by deep inner turmoil while gazing at the stars one evening, realizing that, as yet, God has had no place in his life. With this, he vows to dedicate himself to holy pursuits and become a pilgrim, expiating by means of his body, as he says, those sins committed by his body, namely the lives of others destroyed and lost through his reckless longing for glory. Upon departing, he gives Felice his sword, and Felice, in turn, gives him a ring to remember her by. (They halve the ring in later versions.) Their parting is a tearful one. In his subsequent travels, Guy, always incognito, makes his way to the Holy Land, aiding and rescuing others, Christian and “Saracen” alike, in many martial exploits. He assists the Saracen King Triamour by vanquishing the giant Amoraunt and, in the process, helps the Christian Earl Jonas and his sons. He also eventually saves his friend Terri by defeating Berard, the likewise treacherous nephew of Otun. Though comparatively little space is given to Felice, she devotes herself to serving her community in Warwickshire through charitable deeds. When Guy makes his final return to England, he aids King Athelstan again, this time preventing a Danish invasion by defeating the giant Colbrond and thus becoming the savior of England. However, he retreats unnoticed to the woods outside of his estate in Warwick. Guy’s desire is to receive religious instruction from another hermit and to live out the rest of his days in contemplation. Guy eventually learns from the Archangel Michael that he has a week left to live (he will die on the eighth day), and so he sends word to Felice as well as his ring (or half-ring) for identification purposes. She comes to him on the point of death, and his soul is soon borne to Heaven by angels. A sweet fragrance issues forth from his body, which (in all versions of the text) is said to be so heavy that it cannot be removed from his hermitage. Felice herself dies soon afterwards. The two are buried together in the hermitage (at least at first) and are said to be reunited in Heaven. The narrative thus shifts from being something like a chanson de geste to something much more hagiographical.
The two halves of Guy’s life are clearly displayed in the Rous Roll, which depicts and gives a brief history of each significant family member (historically real or otherwise) of the Beauchamp Earls of Warwick.
Guy’s later life is also the likely subject of two misericords in English cathedrals.
A number of literary antecedents to the figure of Guy have been posited. Many scholars, like Judith Weiss, point to the twelfth-century Le Moniage Guillaume (part of the William of Orange cycle) whose main character, Guillaume d’Orange (otherwise known as Guillaume au Court Nez), is a warrior who battles “Saracens” and later becomes a monk and then hermit, fearful for the state of his soul after having killed so many people (“The Exploitation” 44-46). As Angus Kennedy points out, it is also not uncommon in Arthurian romances, for example, for hermit-saints to have previously been members of the chivalric class (72). Both verse and prose French romances alike show a host of knights who choose to retreat from the world and end their days as hermits: the protagonist of Escanor; Perceval in Manessier’s Continuation and in the Queste del Saint Graal; at least thirteen knights in the Perlesvaus; Mordrain and Nascien, King Urien, Girflet, Bors and Hector, and even Lancelot in the Vulgate Cycle; Guiron and his ancestors in Palamède; and Pergamon in Perceforest (74-75). References to aristocratic hermits exist in many other texts, particularly Arthurian, but these hermits, as they are presented, are not entirely separated from the world. In fact, they very often still play a role in their societies (think of all of the other hermits in the Queste del Saint Graal) (77-78).
To my mind, however, there is an as yet unnoticed parallel with the late-eighth-century Old English lives of St. Guthlac in that invaluable repository of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the Exeter Book (Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501). (For some images, go here. The lives are based, at least in part, on the Latin Vita sancti Guthlaci (between 730 and 749 A.D.) written by a man named Felix, likely a monk, about whom next to nothing is known. Guthlac, though, was born around 673 A.D. into a royal Mercian family and had a military career before becoming a monk at Repton Abbey and then two years later a hermit in the Lincolnshire fens at what is now Crowland (Croyland in the Middle Ages). He died there in 714, and a shrine was erected to commemorate him. Around this eventually grew Crowland Abbey and around this the town (Bradley 248-249).
In the Exeter Book’s Guthlac A (ff. 32v-44v), the saint is said to be attacked by demons who try to tempt him into abandoning his hermitage by making him feel guilty for leaving his family. They also seek to make him feel lonely, to crave human company. Guthlac ultimately resists, but we have here the same tensions that we see exhibited in later works like the legend of St. Alexis and Guy’s narrative. The events that are most reminiscent of Guy’s story, however, are those found in Guthlac B (ff. 44v-52v). Guthlac has a servant who attends to him, much as Guy the hermit does as well, and it is to this person that Guthlac makes a prediction, told to him by an angel, that he has eight days left to live (ll. 1034b-1038a). Shortly before his death, Guthlac has the servant boy prepare to seek out his most cherished virgin sister, “wuldres wynmaeg,” to tell her that he has kept apart from her for so long so that he could attain an eternal life, free from imperfections, with her in Heaven (l. 1345a; ll. 1175a-1196a). Guthlac dies before his sister, who is to bury him in his hermitage, comes; sweet odor issues forth (ll. 1271b-1273a); and his soul is borne to Heaven by angels (ll. 1305a-1306a). We see the same knowledge of impending death delivered by an angelic presence in Gui de Warewic and later versions, many of the very same details regarding Guy’s death, and the sister’s role is easily replaced by the wife’s—which also acts to make familial tensions that much greater. So then, is Guy meant to be a saint? That, dear reader, is a question for another post…or a book.
Hannah Zdansky, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame
Bibliography (Cited and/or Suggested):
N.B. This list is not exhaustive.
Primary Sources (with introductions, notes, and commentary)
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