Syncretism in the Hêliand

Bust of Charlemagne (14th century), Aachen Cathedral Treasury

The Hêliand represents a towering yet puzzling work of early continental Germanic literature whose deliberate fusion of Christian ideas with the language of warrior elites creates a rich and intense patchwork for audiences. Composed in the first half of the ninth century in the Carolingian Empire at a time when the emperors sought to impose Christianity on their newly conquered Saxon subjects, the text consists of a lengthy verse Gospel paraphrase completed in the so-called Old Saxon dialect—a predecessor of Middle and High varieties of Low German spoken throughout the northern regions of contemporary Germany. The religious subject of the poem is translated into the language of a Germanic warrior culture in order to reach a wide audience of lay—especially male—elites. This, in turn, transforms the narrative of Jesus’ life into a uniquely Christian-Germanic epic propped up by the language of fidelity and war.

The statue of Charlemagne erected in Aachen’s Market Place, 1620

One of the moments in the Hêliand where the juxtaposition of Christian ideas and prophecy with a Germanic vocabulary of warrior elites comes in the work’s fifty-sixth fitt (“song”), the Last Supper narrative. Linked is an excerpt and translation from this turning point in the text (Hêliand 56, lines 4665-4701), revolving around Simon Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ forecasting of the former’s impending betrayal (which I have titled “Peter’s Promise”). Throughout his speeches, Jesus relies upon the vocabulary of fidelity and lordship, while Peter’s promise to sacrifice himself “an uuapno spil”—literally “in the play of weapons”—reads as a transparent euphemism for the scourges of battle.

Jake Coen
PhD Candidate in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

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.

 

Alcohol and Alcoholism in the Middle Ages (Part 2)

Don't forget to check out Part 1 first!

Fifteenth-century German pastoral theology switched easily between classifying vices according to the Seven Deadly Sins and the Ten Commandments. Drunkenness was subsumed under gluttony in the first scheme, and often the First Commandment in the second (“those who turn their stomachs in God,” as Dietrich Coelde put it). [1] Fifteenth-century German pastoral theology also trended towards the remarkably uniform. But inebriety, its severity, and its solutions offered what Ian Siggins categorizes as a rare case for preachers to insert their own opinions based on what appears to be experience. (Observational experience, mind you!)

In his Praeceptum divine legis, which formed the basis for his vernacular preaching as well, Dominican reformer Johannes Nider actually classified drunkenness under the Sixth Commandment. [2] The appeal to him was the general emphasis of pastoral interpretation of the commandment as involving moderation or temperance. Nider’s concern, in other words, was to find ways to moderate drinking behavior.

Johann Herolt, for his part, even took inebriety as a chance to disagree with Thomas Aquinas. The thirteenth-century friar had enshrined into doctrine the idea of degrees of sinfulness in getting drunk. It is not a sin if the drinker does not realize the drink would get them drunk. It is a venial sin if the drinker knows a drink will get them drunk, but does not intend to be so. But it is indeed a mortal sin to drink in order to get drunk.

The fifteenth-century preacher stipulates this general outline. But he reaches into real-world experience to push a bit further: “I believe that inebriation is less of a sin in those who have weak heads and get drunk very quickly on a small amount of wine.” [3] The flip side of this assertion is that someone who knows they cannot “hold their liquor” and gets drunk anyway is probably committing an even worse sin.

The friars show sensitivity and specificity when considering alcohol use and abuse. It is no wonder, then, that devout Christians like Katharina Tucher turned to religion for solutions to drinking too much wine as well.

When preaching about excess wine consumption in German, as preserved in Die vierundzwanzig goldenen Harfen, Nider appropriated the standard solutions for gluttony that he had drawn from tradition for his Latin Praeceptum. He emphasized alternative ways to spend time. Listen to the Word of God. Stay busy with work. Meditate on the Passion, especially Christ on the cross being given bitter gall.

Nider emphasized alternative thought patterns, too. Contemplate that the body, and thus good sensations, is only temporary. Remember that there are poor people who do not have enough to eat or drink in the first place. And, excellently, keep in mind that being drunk means the wine will not taste as good. [4]

Medieval Germany had about thirteen times as much land devoted to viticulture as it does today but produced almost no wine for export. [5] So “not taste as good” might have been a bit subjective.

Tucher, who would not have been familiar with Nider’s preaching when she recorded her Offenbarungen in 1417-1421, nevertheless attempts to apply a solution to her drinking problem similar to one he suggests. Her visionary Christ exhorts her, “Observe how your God and Lord has drunk something bitter and vinegary and has trampled the winepress through your will. And if you break away from drinking, then I will be your helper.” [6] Tucher reiterates to herself the lesson to meditate on the Passion, and hopes that it will prove a long-term solution.

Tucher’s account of her struggles with wine present a case of someone—a lay person, no less—understanding excess alcohol consumption as a religious problem and seeking a religious solution. Oswald’s poem represents a counterpoint, although filtered by the search for satire. The interesting thing is that the clerical perspectives are also more complex than a straightforward assignment of inebriety as a branch of gluttony.

Herolt’s observation that different people got drunk at different rates is a rudimentary approximation of the idea of biological alcohol tolerance, which he does not relate to any kind of spiritual quality or weakness. Nider’s solutions are secular as often as they are religious—not the traditional opposition of vices with moral virtues.

Just as intriguingly, options like diving into work or listening to someone reading the Bible have two key traits in common. First, they take time. Second, they require, or at least suggest, being in the presence of someone who is not drinking at the time. The standard solutions that Nider draws on, in other words, seem to reflect an awareness of the desire to get drunk as a problem that sticks around for a duration of time—an awareness of an ongoing drinking problem, not just a problem with drinking on one occasion.

It’s important not to say “recognition of alcoholism,” because that word has a meaning specifically rooted in modern culture, science, and assumptions. Nevertheless, medieval attempts to address excessive wine consumption through the prism of the sin of gluttony show a definite awareness of a non-religious problem at work as well.

Cait Stevenson, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

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[1] Dietrich Coelde (here Koelde), “A Fruitful Mirror, or, A Small Handbook for Christians,” trans. Robert B. Dewell, in Denis Janz, ed., Three Reformation Catechisms: Catholic, Anabaptist, Lutheran (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1982), 52.

[2] Johannes Nider, Praeceptum divinae legis (Strasbourg: Georg Husner, 1483), section 6.6.

[3] Trans. in Ian Siggins, A Harvest of Medieval Preaching: The Sermon Books of Johann Herolt, O.P. (Discipulus) (Bloomington, Ind.: Xlibris, 2009).

[4] Nider, Praeceptum divinae legis, 6.6; Stefan Abel, ed., Johannes Nider: “Die vierundzwanzig goldenen Harfen: Edition und Kommentar (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 227.

[5] Tom Scott, “Medieval Viticulture in the German-Speaking Lands,” German History 20, no. 1 (2002): 98.

[6] Katharina Tucher, Die Offenbarungen von Katharina Tucher, ed. Ulla Williams and Williams Werner-Krapp (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1998), 65. Translation mine.