Katharina Tucher Uses the Bible (Part 2)

Don't forget to read Part 1 of this post here.

The collection of books that Nuremberg widow Katharina Tucher donated to her new convent around 1440 offer a stunning snapshot of one woman’s religious literary interests. Tucher’s books included the sorts of works one would expect to see in the library of a wealthy fifteenth-century reader: prayer books, Henry Suso’s Büchlein der ewigen Weisheit, hagiographies of popular female saints. One particularly noteworthy feature of her collection, however, transcends any one text or genre: the sheer amount of biblical and biblically-derived material.

Her most straightforwardly biblical books, mentioned in the previous post, are also distinguished by their utility: one text meant for use at Mass, a second turned into such, a book for praying. But we also find the reverse situation—texts from popular genres have a Scripture-based parallel in Tucher’s collection. She owned prophecies of the Sibyl and Birgitta of Sweden—and a collection gathered from the Old Testament. Of the devotional poem Christus und die minnende Seele, which scholars have demonstrated had a deep influence on the Offenbarungen, what accompanied Tucher to St. Katherine’s was an excerpt glossing the Book of Esther. [12] For moral instruction, she had treatises on the traditional categories of virtue and vice like Von der Keuschenheit—but also two copies of Marquard’s treatise on the increasingly popular way to structure moral teaching instead, the Ten Commandments. [13]

Perhaps most intriguing of all is Tucher’s portion of MS Strasbourg, Bibliotheque Nationale et Universitaire, cod. 2195. She herself wrote 104v and 138v-148v. Of these, 139r-142r and 147r-148v match the contents of an unrelated manuscript in the Nuremberg city library. These folios contain a smattering of spiritual advice attributed to authors like Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux, along with some German prose versions of hymns like Veni spiritus sancti. [14]

104v and 142v-146v, however, were either added by Tucher when she copied an exemplar, or subtracted by the other scribe when they copied hers. The texts that Tucher felt were necessary to include, that the other author did not? From 104v, an excerpt from the letter to the Colossians (Col 3:1-4). From 142v-146v, a short text attributed to Bernard, and three more hymns modified into German prose. Those hymns were the Magnificat from Luke and two passages of the praise of Wisdom from Sirach. [15]

As with the examples in other genres, the Bible-based hymn variations that Tucher included in cod. 2195 matched non-biblical material in her library, in this case, in the same manuscript. They stand out not in their message but in their origin.

There are two key points here. First, the biblical material in Tucher’s personal library was useful. From a historiated Bible marked out for reference according to use in the liturgy to framing her sins and successes with the Ten Commandment, Scripture was present as a means rather than an end. Second, much of the Bible’s shadow over her book collection is in fact “biblical material,” rather than full Bibles or narrative equivalents. The distinction of these texts from their non-biblical partners was clear in the Middle Ages as today—the nuns of St. Katherine’s, for example, categorized didactic texts based on the Ten Commandments and other biblical structures (B) immediately after Bibles (A). [16] Biblical material did not necessarily add new teachings to the devotional life of its readers. It did, however, offer a different foundation for those teachings. And as the rising prominence of the Decalogue in moral teaching shows, this particular foundation was more and more important as the fifteenth century progressed.

Recent scholarship has finally grown more comfortable discussing the perfectly orthodox presence of vernacular Scripture in the fifteenth century, including in lay readers’ hands. The “Holy Writ and Lay Readers” project, although it does not at present cover southern Germany, has proven especially helpful in emphasizing the different formats that the “Bible” could take. Leaders Sandra Corbellini, Mart van Duijn, Suzan Folkerts, and Margriet Hoogvliet write:

The focus on the “completeness” of the text does not take into account the specific practice of diffusion of the biblical text…often delivered…in the form of passages and pericopes. Moreover, the stress on “complete Bibles” does not fully acknowledge the importance of the connection with the liturgy in the approach of lay people to the biblical text. In fact, the participation in the liturgy and the reading of biblical pericopes following the liturgical calendar…offer the most important and valuable means of access to the Scriptures.

The selection of biblical texts and liturgical rearrangements should be taken as…an indication of a specific use and approach, determined by the needs and the interests of the readers. [17]

To frame lay reading of the Bible as “functional,” as Corbellini et al. describe with respect to liturgical use, indicates an active and conscious engagement with peri-biblical text as Scripture. In this light, Katharina Tucher’s book collection suggests that our understanding of “the vernacular Bible” in the fifteenth century might be broadened even further. The pericope and marked-up historiated Bible in her library were useful. So were her Psalter, moral instruction organized according to the Ten Commandments, and biblical hymns presented as prayer. These texts, in their functionality, also represent an active and conscious engagement with the Bible.

Only by studying the many forms of the Bible’s presence in Tucher’s library, therefore, can we begin to understand its place in her spiritual life. I have described her reading interests as “comprehensively typical,” but at the same time, she added biblical material to a miscellany where another scribe omitted it. How “typical,” then, was she? By casting the same wider gaze over biblical material in fifteenth-century literary culture, we can better understand how a lay person interacted with the religious world of their day—a pressing question for Tucher’s era in particular. And indeed, only by accounting for all dimensions of biblical material can we grasp the changing place of the Bible in fifteenth-century religious culture.

Cait Stevenson, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[12] On Tucher’s use of Christus und die minnende Seele, see most comprehensively Amy Gebauer, ‘Christus und die minnende Seele’: An Analysis of Circulation, Text and Iconography (Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2010).

[13] On the Decalogue’s gradual replacement of the seven deadly sins as the foremost means to teach morality, see Robert Bast, Honor Your Fathers: Catechisms and the Emergence of a Patriarchal Ideology in Germany, 1400-1600 (Leiden: Brill, 1997); John Bossy, “Seven Sins into Ten Commandments,” in Conscience and Casuistry in Early Modern Europe, ed. Edmund Leites (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 214-234.

[14] Williams and Williams-Krapp, “Introduction,” 18.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ehrenschwendtner, 126.

[17] Corbellini et al., 177-178.

Katharina Tucher Uses the Bible (Part 1)

Medieval women visionary authors are generally known for their evocative poetry and prose, prophetic missions of reform, and intimate relationship with Christ. Can we imagine a visionary who might be better known for…reading the Bible?

For about four years, starting around 1417, a Nuremberg lay woman named Katharina Tucher recorded a spiritual journal of sorts. It consists of ninety-four entries, most of which are visions or auditory lessons from Christ. [1] The abrupt end to the journal in 1421–without announcement, warning signals, or codicological signs of missing folios—continues to puzzle scholars. The cessation of the Offenbarungen, as the text is known today, is even more curious in light of the evidence for the ongoing strength of Tucher’s spiritual life. She accumulated a prodigious library of religious texts, copied some of them herself, and ended her days as a (probably) lay sister in the prestigious Dominican convent of St. Katherine’s in Nuremberg. [2]

It’s possible Tucher hid her Offenbarungen from her sisters, but she certainly did not hide her library. She brought her books to a bookish convent, and the nuns’ desire to read, use, and copy their books is why we know about her book collection in the first place. In 1455, Sister Kunigunde Niklasin embarked on a project to catalogue the convent library’s vernacular holdings, using an alphanumeric scheme to identify books by type and subject matter. [3] By the end of the century, the catalogue counted off 352 codices (out of an estimated 500-600 in the convent library total). Twenty-six of these contained exclusively or primarily texts that Tucher donated, sixteen of which survive today. The contents of the others are known through the nuns’ notations in the library catalogue. [4]

Scholars who include Tucher’s personal book collection in their analyses of monastic or lay literary culture have typically focused on three things. First, of course, its unusual size—twenty-six books is the single largest donation to St. Katherine’s by any one person—and her own involvement as scribe of some of those. Second, for two of its most surprising contents. Tucher’s Schwabenspiegel was one of just a handful of non-religious works listed in the convent catalogue. [5] She also brought with her a German translation of William of St. Thierry’s Epistola ad fratres de Monte Dei, a guide to monastic life that includes instruction on how to read for spiritual advancement. [6] While its relevance to her recipients is clear, Tucher’s copy is the only one surviving with definite lay provenance.

The third characteristic frequently described by scholars, in contrast to the last point, is just how comprehensively typical the spread of books is. [7] If Tucher’s library were songs (and in fact, it includes a number of hymns), it could be a late-night infomercial “Golden Hits of the Late Middle Ages” 3-disc set. Many of the manuscripts are miscellanies that mix together prayers, sermons, short didactic works, and excerpts from longer texts. She had five prayer books plus a Psalter–possibly the most popular genre in lay ownership, if the number of monks and nuns who brought a personal prayer book with them to their convent is any guide. [8]

Tucher donated no complete Bible or Testament. But the holy book was well represented in its most popular late medieval devotional forms.[9] She brought with her an Old Testament of a historiated (narrative) Bible with the parallel readings for Sundays marked off, two Gospel harmonies to represent the New Testament, and the Psalter mentioned earlier. She also had a pericope containing the liturgical readings from the Gospels and epistles in German, a genre that many fifteenth-century laity used to follow along with the readings at Mass. [10]

When it came to longer didactic texts, she owned works like Henry Suso’s Little Book of Eternal Wisdom (plus an additional excerpt from it as an Ars moriendi text), Rudolf Merswin’s Neunfelsenbuch, and Otto von Passau’s Die 24 Alten. Marquard von Lindau, whose importance for late medieval literary culture has recently been illuminated by Stephen Mossman, was a favorite author—Tucher had two copies of his Dekalogstraktat as well as one each of his commentary on Job and teachings on the Eucharist. [11] The hagiographies are well situated in her southern German context: Elisabeth of Hungary, Catherine of Siena, a collection of antique saints from the area around Nuremberg.

For the most part, then, Tucher owned books that we might expect a wealthy, devout fifteenth-century woman to own. To focus on categories of genre, however, overlooks one of the most important patterns in her reading interests: regardless of specific texts’ focus, how persistently biblical her overall spiritual and literary orientation were.

Looking for Part 2? Find it here.

Cait Stevenson, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[1] Katharina Tucher, Die Offenbarungen, ed. Ulla Williams and Werner Williams-Krapp

[2] The most comprehensive biographical account of Tucher is found in the introduction to Williams and Williams-Krapp’s critical edition. See Williams and Williams-Krapp, introduction to Die ‘Offenbarungen’ der Katharina Tucher (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1998), 1-27.

[3] On the library of St. Katherine’s, see Marie-Luise Ehrenschwendtner, “A Library Collected by and for the Use of the Nuns: St. Catherins’ Convent, Nuremberg,” in Women and the Book: Assessing the Visual Evidence, ed. Lesley Smith and Jane H.M. Taylor (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 123-132. Karin Schneider, “Die Bibliothek des Katharinenklosters in Nürnberg und die städtische Gesellschaft,” in Studien zum städtischen Bildungsgewesen des späten Mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit, ed. Bernd Moeller et al. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983), 70-82, discusses how Tucher’s selection of books fits in with the convent library overall, and compares her donation to that of other prominent sisters.

[4] A list of codices and contents, including the catalogue entries of the lost manuscripts, can be found in Williams and Williams-Krapp, “Introduction.”

[5] This was first brought to scholarly attention by Volker Honemann, Die ,Epistola ad fratres de Monte Dei’ des Wilhelm von Saint-Thierry: Lateinische Überlieferung und mittelalterliche Übersetzungen (Zürich: Artemis, 1978), 121, and discussed further in Schneider, 74.

[6] Cynthia Cyrus, The Scribes for Women’s Convents in Late Medieval Germany (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 112.

[7] See, for example, Schneider, 73-75.

[8] Thomas Lentes, “Prayer Books,” in Transforming the Medieval World: Uses of Pragmatic Literacy in the Middle Ages, ed. Franz-Josef Arlinghaus et al., (Turnhout: Brepols, 2006) 242-243.

[9] Sandra Corbellini et al., “Challenging the Paradigms: Holy Writ and Lay Readers in Late Medieval Europe,” Church History and Religious Culture 93 (2013): 171-188.

[10] Ibid., 177-178

[11] Stephen Mossman, Marquard von Lindau and the Challenges of Religious Life in Late Medieval Germany: The Passion, the Eucharist, and the Virgin Mary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).


Having a Fit about Fitts: The Manuscript Structure of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

For many students, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will likely be the first medieval text they are assigned to read. Frequently included in popular anthologies such as the Norton, Sir Gawain is a story that even non-medievalists such as myself are likely to have some degree of familiarity with. However, despite the poem’s familiarity Sir Gawain still holds a number of surprises in store for scholars and readers. In particular, I wish to discuss here what have come to be known as the four “fitts” the poem is commonly divided into.

The text of Sir Gawain survives physically in just a single manuscript (Cotton Nero A.x.) in the possession of the British Library. The poem was rediscovered in the 1830s by Sir Frederic Madden, the Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Library and one of the foremost English scholars of his day. Madden edited and published the first edition of the poem, Syr Gawayne, in 1839. Here Madden inaugurated the tradition of dividing the text into four parts, or “fitts” as he termed them. This division has subsequently been unquestioningly received by most subsequent editors of the poem. In 1947, Laurita Lyttleton Hill became one of the first scholars to question the palaeographical justifications for Madden’s four-part division, writing, “One can only suppose that in the hundred years and more since Sir Frederic Madden’s ‘Syr Gawayne,’ tradition has solidified the published form of the poem into a mold that no one cares to disturb.”[1]

In the introduction to their 1925 scholarly edition of the poem J.R.R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon note that “The four main divisions of the poem are indicated by large ornamental coloured capitals. Smaller coloured capitals without ornament occur at the beginning of lines 619, 1421, 1893, 2259.”[2] In her scholarship Hill dug deeper into these paleogeographic descriptions, casting doubt on whether Tolkien and Gordon’s descriptions of the capitals as “large” or “small” were entirely accurate, and on whether the degrees of the capitals’ ornamentation stands up to scrutiny as a justification for the divisions.


Ultimately, Hill advocated for a nine-part division recognizing all of the manuscript’s capitals as places of division. Hill ended her argument with the emphatic claim, “It has become evident, however, that there is no absolute four-fold division of Gawain. Such a division exists only in printed tradition and cannot be supported by any attentive examination of Cotton Nero A.x. or of the poem itself.” I have included at the end of this post Hill’s diagram showing at what points in the narrative the capitals recognized in her nine-fold division occur in contrast to Madden’s. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton notes of the nine potential divisions, “One could make several observations: first, the divisions closely parallel the spirit of the medieval narrative summaries marking progress through romances—these tend to mark knightly clashes, deaths, and miraculous events. Second, perhaps more profoundly, the medieval divisions mark moments of soul searching.”[3] Although the four-fitt division creates a recognizable narrative structure for modern readers, it perhaps does so at the expense of the potentially richer alternative of attempting to recover these earlier conceptions of narrative progression.

Most subsequent editions since Hill’s article up to the present day have maintained Madden’s four-part division; however, an enriching scholarly conversation has taken up the debate surrounding the question of the four-fitt division’s paleographic merits. Unfortunately, this debate has been largely absent from the paratextual materials of many modern editions, such as Simon Armitage’s popular translation (which has since been taken up and used by the Norton). Many of these editions do not attempt to justify or explain their decision to retain Madden’s four-part division; due to the significant nature of Madden’s intervention it seems like an error to avoid addressing this decision, as many of the poem’s readers will, as a result, remain unaware about the poem’s structural uncertainty. I hope that recent scholarly endeavors such as the Cotton Nero A.x. Project, which seeks to increase access to the manuscript by digitizing it, will help to resuscitate this scholarly debate and perhaps even inspire new editions of Sir Gawainthat adhere more closely to the manuscript’s structure.

DivisionScribal InitialMadden’s DivisionCorrelation with the Poem
ISPart IThe beheading test, part 1; the new year, the blow received, lines 1-490.
IITPart IIThe year passes before the annual combat; the knight is armed: lines 491-618.
IIITN/AThe pentangle, the character of Gawain; the journey; Christmas Eve Gawain’s prayer for guidance; Lines 619-762.
IVNN/AThe sudden appearance of the perilous castle; Gawain’s reception; Christmas festivities; the exchange winnings proposed and accepted; Lines 763-1125.
VFPart IIIThe huntsman host; the deer hunt; temptation 1; lines 1126-1420.
VISN/AThe huntsman host; the boar hunt; temptation 2; the fox hunt; temptation 3; the magic girdle; Lines 1421-1892.
VIINN/AThe fox hunt concluded; Gawain asks for a guide; he bids goodbye to those in the castle: lines 1893-1997.
VIIINPart IVNew Year; the journey resumed; the ford perilous; the Green Knight appears: lines 1998-2258.
IXTN/AThe beheading test part 2; the blow returned; the connection of Morgan la Faye with the plot; Gawain returns to Arthur’s court: lines 2259-2530.
Source: Hill, Laurita Lyttleton. “Madden's Divisions of Sir Gawain and the `Large Initial Capitals' of Cotton Nero A.X..” Speculum, 21, 1, 1946, pp 70-71.

Joshua Wright
PhD student, English
University of Notre Dame

[1] Laurita Lyttleton Hill, “Madden’s Divisions of Sir Gawain and the `Large Initial Capitals’ of Cotton Nero A.X..” (21:1), 67.
[2] V. Gordon and J.R.R. Tolkien, editors, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. VIII.
[3] Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Madie Hilmo, and Linda Olson, Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts. 59.