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.

 

Undergrad Wednesdays – Do It For the Tales: The Prioress and Self-Construction

[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]

I’m not going to try to talk you out of social media. Sure, it might be a bad habit to spend fifteen minutes scrolling through Instagram before I get out of bed in the morning, and I don’t want to know how many hours of my life I’ve spent procrastinating on Facebook, but I’m no Luddite: this is the world we live in now.

While I’ll never be one to condemn social media, I do think it’s important to realize that these social platforms, like all physical platforms, are stages. The versions of ourselves that we put forth online are heavily revised; we’re acting out parts and exaggerating the best features of our lives. Especially with the characteristic immediacy of stories on a growing number of platforms, such as Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook, it can be difficult to discern just how authentic these put-forth “realities” are. In our incessant need to capture all things glamorous, the selves that are featured online are caricatures at best.

Though the stream of images, posts, and witty captions hold some validity, social media is also distortive through the control we have over what is spotlighted and what is left to the shadows.

Yet, this obsession with self-presentation is not a new phenomenon, and such careful consideration of appearance is evident even in the Middle Ages. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales illuminates this preoccupation with image and reputation. Though several members of the pilgrimage suffer because of their lack of genuineness in their professions, the Prioress attempts to mask her emphasis on image as she acts out the role she is expected to play in society. That is, a prioress should be a pious figure who inspires others to act virtuously. The other pilgrims expect the Prioress to be singularly devoted to religion, but as demonstrated by her description in the General Prologue, the Prioress has other wordly fixations. Similar to modern vanities, the Prioress is preoccupied with her appearance. She is described as being able to speak elegant French and as wearing extravagant beads and a brooch, giving her a rather noble and proper disposition rather than the humble servitude one might expect from her.

Along with this desire to appear noble, is the Prioress’s love for food. She appears to pay no regard to her vows of poverty and indulges herself on luxurious feasts to demonstrate her understanding of table manners, letting “no morsel from hir lippes falle, ne wette hir fyngres in hir sauce depe” (Chaucer A127-128). Even the Prioress’s name, Madame Eglantine, is a reference to her superficiality. Eglantine is a type of rose, characterized by its sweet scent. This symbol indicates a lack of permanence, as the scent and bloom of the flower will inevitably flash-fade. Unlike spirituality, material obsession will not last and as much as the Prioress attempts to cultivate her image, her beautiful appearance and noble facade are easily stripped away.

Because the Prioress is so concerned with how others perceive her, she tells a moralizing and evangelical tale in favor of Christianity that ticks off all the boxes: she opens with a prayer, narrates a story about an innocent martyr, and emphasizes the importance of the Virgin Mary. Aside from the troubling anti-Semitism, the Prioress’s section is too perfect– a performance piece meant to draw attention to her religiosity and reinforce her positive appearance. The tale functions as a mask for the Prioress to hide behind, and she presents the most idyllic version of herself to the other pilgrimage members. Much like the heavily-filtered, highlight reel of our social media lives, the Prioress uses her tale to present herself as she wants to be seen. Like social media users of the modern day, the Prioress is obsessed with appearances, and only wants others to see the best version of her possible.

However, it is also unfair to say that the Prioress’s religiosity is completely fictionalized, as her reliance on religious imagery is too extreme to be feigned. The tale follows a young boy who goes forth singing O Alma redemptoris in praise of the Virgin Mary. This song is pure and innocent in comparison to the Jewish ghettos full of the “cursed folk of Herod” (Chaucer G 574). The Jews feel that their religion is being threatened by Christian influences as indicated by their reaction to the boy’s song when some of them conspire to murder him. Yet, evil does not prevail, and ultimately, the Jews are powerless against Christianity. The boy continues to sing the Gregorian chant despite having his throat slit.

Not only does this part of the tale possess an evangelical and moralizing message, it also legitimizes the Prioress’s religiousity. She is clearly knowledgeable of religious works, especially Marian liturgical traditions, but furthermore, her tale follows the traditional arc of a literary representation of a saint’s life, a vita. Her knowledge of Christianity is also evident in her use of symbolism. The boy’s miraculous singing is possible because Mary slips a piece of grain under his tongue, akin to the Eucharist or Bread of Life, which would grant him eternal life.

This sanctification and overt moralizing message are typical of what the Prioress should believe. The pilgrims expect her utmost concern to be evangelization and wholehearted commitment to Christianity. Yet, while the Prioress demonstrates her knowledge about Christ, it seems that her tale is too fitting to her role in society, orchestrated to further a stereotypical religiosity.

With the more authentic depiction of the Prioress in the General Prologue, it becomes apparent that the tale only figures a fragment of herself. Similarly, social media offers only a marginal representation of ourselves. Our posts on Instagram only advertise the best and most beautiful portions of our lives; our weaknesses are omitted. The Prioress mirrors this desire to maintain a certain image. Her tale is saturated with holy imagery because this is the filter she wants to use to  present herself.

Unlike the purity exhibited by the martyr of her tale, the Prioress is consumed by a need for validation in her self-image. She is highly conscious of her appearance, which leads her to act in extremes. Everything she does is a performance. This puts tension between her love for grandiosity and her desire for piety. Much like this media-inclined world, only the extremes are capable of capturing attention, and the ordinary is dismissed. As the Prioress strives to highlight her virtues and mask her flaws, she represents herself in a way that is reminiscent of contemporary social media culture.

Angela Lim
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Boenig, Robert, and Andrew Taylor. “Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales.” (2008).

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales : The New Ellesmere Chaucer Facsimile (of Huntington Library

MS EL 26 C 9) / By Geoffrey Chaucer ; Edited By Daniel Woodward and Martin Stevens. Huntington Library Press, 1995.

“Instagram Moment.” ClevverNetwork. 2017. http://www.clevver.com/instagram-moment-2/

“I Think You Might Be Exaggerating A Little Bit.” Tenor. 29 Mar 2018. https://tenor.com/view/seth-meyers-exaggerating-alittle-bit-late-night-with-seth-meyers-late-night-gif-11511951

Law, George. “Scrolling Idle Hands.” Giphy. 6 Jun 2016. https://giphy.com/gifs/illustration-smartphone-scrolling-l41Ygr7sR5limRkek

“Zendaya Hair Flip.” Popkey. 2018. http://popkey.co/m/zJqep-zendaya-hair+flip

Undergrad Wednesdays – Big Reputation: Reading the Wife of Bath as the Taylor Swift of the Middle Ages

[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]

Over the years, Taylor Swift has forged an empire, and by doing so, she has become one of the most talked about women in the entertainment industry. From her seemingly endless love affairs to her Grammy nominated albums, the number of headlines she has appeared on have made her a household name across the globe. Through her fame, Swift has been demonized for the decisions she has made in her love life and has been heroicized for the actions she has taken to connect with her fans. If one looks back to the Middle Ages, they will realize there is another famous woman that also tends to carry with her much inspiration and controversy. The Wife of Bath from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is quite possibly the most well-known character of the entire work. Her fame amongst scholars and students stems from her remarks on proto-feminist ideals and also from her abrasive and expensive nature. Her character wants to be known, just as Taylor Swift does. Both of these women have attracted widespread attention, and while there is close to 600 years separating them, they have a great deal in common. This blog post will go on to reveal the similarities that the Wife of Bath and Taylor Swift share in order to showcase the timelessness of having a strong female presence in society, and how this presence has the ability to spark radical conversation and eventual change in gender dynamics.

Look What You Made Me Do

“The wo that in myn herte was, and pyne?
And whan I saugh he wolde nevere fyne
To reden on this cursed book al nyght,
Al sodeynly thre leves have I plyght
Out of his book, right as he radde, and eke
I with my fest so took hym on the cheke
That in oure fyr he fil bakward adoun.” (lines 787-793).

In this excerpt from the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, we learn of a time when one of her previous husbands, whom she loved and trusted, wronged her. After constantly being read books about the problems that her husband believes can arise when wives are not obedient to their husband’s demands, the Wife of Bath finally releases her frustration by attacking her spouse. This quote places the blame for the assault on the husband, not on the Wife. In Taylor Swift’s, Look What You Made Me Do music video, something similar can be seen. In the video, Swift references specific moments from her professional career and, in turn, passively calls out particular individuals that affected her negatively along the way. Basically, Swift is telling her haters that it is their fault she had to write and release this song.

No matter which side you’re on: the Wife of Bath or her husband’s, Taylor Swift’s or Kanye West’s; it’s hard to ignore the call to choose a superior. It’s in our nature, and both Swift and the Wife of Bath are aware of this instinct. They use it to their advantage. After all, all publicity is good publicity when it comes to building a following and without an audience, it is impossible to have any true voice in the world now or back in the Middle Ages.

Glitz and Glam

“Hir coverchiefs ful fyne were of ground
I dorste swere they weyden ten pound
That on a Sonday were upon hir heed.
Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed
Ful streite yteyd and shoes ful moyste and newe,” (lines 453-457).

The Wife of Bath certainly knew how to ‘knock em dead’ with her looks, or at least with her sense of fashion. She is not a shy character, so we shouldn’t expect her closet to be either. It was her goal to stand out and look the part, and with her “scarlet reed” hose, she surely made an entrance. Red is a very vibrant and sensual color, and the Wife of Bath is a very sexual individual. It is no wonder that she would be wearing something as daring as red pantyhose beneath her skirt. Part of Taylor Swift’s fame stems from her image and fashion just as it does with the Wife of Bath. When attending public events, Taylor’s outfits always get mentioned in the next day’s ‘hot or not’ gossip articles. Also, similarly to the Wife of Bath, Swift has an affinity for the color red. It is a rare moment to see Swift pictured without the bright tint added to her perfect pout. Both of these popular women allow their looks to drive their brand and fully shape who they are and, more importantly, how they want the world to see them.

The Ghosts of Lovers Past, Present, and Future

“Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve,
Withouten oother compaignye in her youthe,” (lines 460-461).

It is no secret that the Wife of Bath has gotten around. She discusses each of her husbands in detail during her personal Prologue and seems to be obsessed with the idea that women are entitled to more than one man during their lives. Taylor Swift shares her same mentality. By dating at least ten different men over the course of ten years, Taylor certainly knows how to make men fall for her (Kerr). Like the Wife of Bath, Taylor also has no problem discussing the tragic endings of each of her relationships. The only difference between the two is that the Wife of Bath rants about her divorces in her well-read prologue, and Taylor sings about her breakups in chart topping songs. No matter if it’s written out or sung aloud for the world to hear, audiences relish in other people’s drama. It makes them feel as if their own lives aren’t as boring as they are. Therefore, the Wife of Bath and Taylor Swift have both managed to grow in popularity because neither of them is afraid to make their private lives public.

Feminism

“We love no man that taketh kepe or charge
Wher that we goon; We wol ben at oure large,” (lines 321-322).

The Wife of Bath can be seen as an early feminist hero in many ways; the text above being one of the strongest pieces of evidence for this statement. Her character believes in the free will and autonomy of women, which is something that few women had in the Middle Ages. She is often considered to be a character who is ahead of her time and one that is very vocal about her thoughts. Sovereignty has not always been attainable to women in the past or present. It is still a real problem that women across the world face, and it’s one that Taylor Swift speaks up for in many ways. Swift empowers women to stand up for themselves, to reach their full potential, and to not let men get in the way of their own personal success. While, no, she is not leading Women’s Marches or talking to government officials about making policy changes, she still sets a precedent for young women to chase their dreams and create their own path. Throughout her career, Swift has been unapologetic for her creative and personal decisions and it is through this unconcerned attitude that she stands out as a positive influence within the entertainment industry.  

Conclusion

So, what exactly does it mean to say that the Wife of Bath represents a Taylor Swift figure of the Middle Ages? It means that the Wife of Bath pushes boundaries, has passion, has style, knows how to attract an audience, knows how to tell a story, and knows how to carry herself. These attributes are what make the Wife of Bath so fascinating. She has many layers so that each time readers peel one back, they find another one underneath. In the same manner that Taylor Swift has risen into superstardom by being on top of trends and an inspiration to women everywhere, the Wife of Bath has become a popular topic of conversation amongst modern audiences for her wisdom and attitude. Both Swift and the Wife of Bath have positive and negative qualities, but that is what makes them so mesmerizing and worthy of attention.

Most of Geoffrey Chaucer’s female characters in the Canterbury Tales lack agency and in most cases, have little to say at all. That said, he chose to include the Wife of Bath and everything she represents in his narrative. This was a very deliberate decision and while Chaucer was far from a feminist, including the Wife of Bath was practically revolutionary for his time. Fictional or not, the Wife of Bath was a radical persona of the Middle Ages and had the potential to create just as much of a storm in society as Taylor Swift does today.

Jessica Ping
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, Broadview Press, 2012.

Kahn, Joseph, director. Taylor Swift – Look What You Made Me Do. Performance by Taylor Swift, YouTube, Vevo, 27 Aug. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tmd-ClpJxA

Kerr, Chloe, and Tilly Pearce. “From Tom Hiddleston to New Man Joe Alwyn, Who Has Taylor Swift Dated and Which Exes Inspired Songs?” The Sun, The Sun, 14 Sept. 2017, www.thesun.co.uk/tvandshowbiz/1748180/taylor-swift-boyfriend-list-full/.