Could Medieval Women Read?

As a specialist in the study of women’s education and literacy in England in the Middle Ages, I’m asked this question a lot. I’ll cut to the chase: YES. 

How do we know this? 

Medieval England (on which I’ll focus this blog) was a multilingual nation.1 English had been its primary vernacular from the time of the Anglo-Saxons (about 450) until the Norman Conquest of 1066, when French became the language of the nobility, government, and diplomacy.2 By the mid-fifteenth century, though, English had reasserted dominance as the primary vernacular language, while the Church, clerics, and higher education continued to use Latin.3 Because medieval English people would have heard and used all three languages in daily life, children were taught to read and speak all of them.4 Whether children’s reading knowledge became advanced depended on the importance of reading in their lives and what socioeconomic station they attained. In fact, most of the evidence for literacy survives from the upper classes; uncovering the history of less privileged groups remains difficult. 

In infantia

Medieval scholars commonly thought of childhood in three divisions: infantia (birth to about 7 years), pueritia (about 7 to 14 years), and adolescentia (about 14 to 21 years).5 The teaching of reading began in infantia with parents and nurses, if the family could afford such help. 

Girls and boys began by learning the letters of the Latin alphabet and the sounds they made. In this way they acquired the basic skills of early reading, called contemporaneously sillibicare (sounding out syllables) and legere (sounding out words), even if they didn’t understand what those sounds or words meant.6 Singing might have been used as well to teach pronunciation, as sung Latin was used in church services. Because reading was important to promote spiritual instruction, and had indeed been cited at least as far back as Jerome in the fourth century as a reason girls should be taught to read, some of the earliest texts learned were the Pater Noster, the Ave, and the Creed. Alphabets and these simple prayers could be written out on a variety of surfaces: boards, painted walls, wooden trays covered in ash or sand, ceramic or metal vessels, or hand-held tablets made of materials such as slate, horn, or board covered in parchment (more on this below).

Beginning around 1300 in England, medieval parents had a model of teaching in St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. Depictions of her teaching Mary to read appeared in stained-glass windows, manuscript illuminations, wall paintings, and other artistic representations.7 One such survives today in the Church of St. Nicholas in Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England.

Image of stained glass window of Saint Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read
“Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to Read,” about 1330­–50, the Church of St. Nicholas, Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England; south aisle, east window, farthest left panel. Image from Painton Cowen’s The Online Stained Glass Photographic Archive

In this window, Mary is shown sitting in Anne’s lap and holding a bound book with letters written on its pages. She holds the book open so the text is visible to the reader. Her mother Anne points upward, in a gesture both teacherly and pointing heavenward, perhaps emphasizing the importance of reading for spiritual development.8

This beautifully-painted miniature from a Book of Hours shows Anne and a young Mary holding a book together. With her right hand, Anne isolates text for Mary to examine.  

Saint Anne Teaching the Virgin to Read, a miniature painted by Master of Sir John Fastolf (French, active before about 1420–about 1450), in a Book of Hours created in France or England about 1430–1440. Tempera colors and gold ink on parchment. Los Angeles, Getty Museum, MS 5 (84.ML.732), fol. 45v

Other surviving representations show Anne using a hornbook (mentioned above) to teach Mary to read. This illustration comes from a Book of Hours that originated in England around 1325­–1300. 

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 231, fol. 3 

This detail shows the hornbook more closely. 

Though the hornbook was at least a medieval invention (discussed recently by Erik Kwakkel and Trinity College, Cambridge, librarians), it survives only from early modern centuries, as in this example, created in London around 1625. The text is printed on sheepskin parchment and fixed to an oak paddle with a brass frame and iron nails; the handle is used for holding the hornbook. The parchment is laminated over with a processed animal horn (hence the name) to protect the text. 

“Aabc (English hornbook),” Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 13813.6 (dated 1625).

A text from the 1230s, written by a layman, Walter of Bibbesworth, also reveals much about how boys and girls learned, especially languages, in a gentry household. Bibbesworth was a wealthy English landowner and a knight who wrote this book for his neighbor and fellow member of the gentry, Dionisie de Munchensi. Dionisie had three young children to educate, and as part of the expectations of their class, they would have needed to learn a French more advanced than what they would have picked up through everyday living. The image below shows the opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz

The opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz. The manuscript dates from 1325. London, British Library, Additional MS 46919, fol. 2r. 

Walter addresses Dionisie in column 1, lines 10-20, identifying the purpose of his text: “Chere soer, pur ceo ke vous me / pryastes ke jeo meyse en ecsryst [sic] / pur vos enfaunz acune apryse / de fraunceys en breve paroles” (Dear sister, because you have asked that I put in writing something for your children to learn French in brief phrases). What follows is a narrative poem, beginning in column 1, line 21, that describes childhood, starting with birth and ending in young adulthood with a large household feast. In each scene, Walter presents French vocabulary for Dionisie’s children to learn.

Many clues in the text demonstrate that the physical book was shown to children so they could learn the reading of words on a page, not just the sounds of them. Walter gives many homophones, for example, that would only make sense in writing, rather than in pronunciation. Some of the vocabulary also has English translations written in between the lines of the main text. You can see this in the image above in the poem, which starts at column 1, line 21, and goes into column two. All the smaller words written between the lines give the English translation of the main text, which is written in French.

In pueritia and adolescentia

Once they moved into pueritia (about 7-14 years of age), girls of the upper classes would often transition into the care of a mistress (called at that time magistramagistrix, or maitresse). The mistress provided education in such things as deportment, embroidery, dancing, music, and reading.9 For any skills the mistress did not herself have, she could bring in other household members, such as the minstrel for musical training, the chaplain for more advanced reading and spiritual instruction, and the huntsman for hunting. Specialized academic tutors could teach girls more advanced academic subjects. Sometimes these well-to-do girls were sent to other households to be fostered, serving as ladies-in-waiting to upper-class women. Girls, especially those of the upper classes, could be sent to nunneries as well (sometimes beginning in infantia) for education. Not all girls sent to nunneries were meant for the vocation of nun.10

As their reading abilities progressed, girls and boys moved on to reading comprehension (intelligere) and began to read more sophisticated spiritual texts, such as prayer-books, books of hours, psalters, antiphonals, and saints’ lives. They also would continue on, as personal libraries grew in the thirteenth century, in reading romances, histories, poetry, classical authors, theology, philosophy, and more. It is most likely, given that women were not admitted to the university (unlike boys, who could progress from this stage to Latin grammar school and then on at a university level to the study of business, liberal arts, medicine, canon or civil law, or theology), that the reading of these last few would have been limited to girls whose families could afford private tutors.

Miscellany of religious, medical, and secular verse and prose in French, Latin and English. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS Digby 86, fol. 68r. Produced in Worcestershire, England, c.1271–83, this “common-place book” contains French, Latin and eighteen English texts of various genres including fabliau, romances, devotional and didactic texts, prognostications, charms and prayers, among others written between 1271 and 1283. The manuscript was written by its owner and has amateurish scribal drawings and decoration. This image shows three sections of French text: the end of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit) (top 11 lines); a list of the unlucky days in the year (middle section of the text); and at the bottom a list of Arabic numerals 1 through 46. Three shields decorate the bottom. 

In adulthood

By the time they reached adulthood, women who were privileged enough to have obtained a sophisticated education and their own libraries could be avid readers. 

Gospel lectionary written in Latin, made in England c.1025–50, later owned by St. Margaret of Scotland. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Lat. liturg. f. 5, fols. 21v–22r. This opening shows St. Luke with the start of his gospel reading. The Bodleian Libraries digital Treasures exhibition notes: “A compact selection of passages from the Gospels, this finely illustrated book was Margaret’s favourite, and one she read and studied closely, even when she travelled. A poem added at the front describes how this very book was dropped into a river but remained almost unharmed: this miracle contributed to her growing reputation for holiness.”

The historical and literary records provide examples of such sophisticated learning, primarily among the nobility. For example, the Norman monk and chronicler Robert of Torigni (c.1110–1186), praised the education of St. Margaret of Scotland (d. 1093) and her daughter Matilda (1080–1118), wife of Henry I, writing, “Quantae autem sanctitatis et scientiae tam saecularis quam spiritualis utraque regina, Margareta scilicet et Mathildis, fuerint” (Of how great holiness and learning, as well secular as spiritual, were these two queens, Margaret and Matilda).11

In a different Latin life, commissioned by Matilda about her mother Margaret, the biographer describes how Margaret from her childhood would “in Divinarum lectionum studio sese occupare, et in his animum delectabiliter exercere” (occupy herself with the study of the Holy Scriptures, and delightfully exercise her mind) and notes that her husband, King Malcom III, cherished the “libros, in quibus ipsa vel orare consueverat, vel legere” (books, which she herself used either for prayer or reading), even though Malcom himself could not read Latin.12

London, British Library, Harley MS 2952, fol. 19v. Book of Hours, made in France c.1400–1425. 

This image above shows the unidentified female patron of this Book of Hours kneeling on a prie-dieu, her prayer book open to the text “Maria mater gratiae” (Mary, mother of grace). This open book with its discernable text has several functions: it leads the reader into the  prayer; it demonstrates the piety of the patron, kneeling in prayer before both her spiritual book and the Blessed Virgin and Christ (illustrated on the facing leaf); and it shows one of the primary purposes of teaching children to read: being able to use spiritual texts in personal devotion. 

Even women who were not noble and who were not able to read much Latin possessed and used books such as the one pictured above. In the mid-fifteenth century Englishwoman Margery Kempe wrote through her scribe of a memorable time in her church of St. Margaret in King’s Lynn when a chunk of masonry fell from the ceiling down onto her as she was praying with her prayer book in hand.

The image below comes from her Book of Margery Kempe as preserved in London, British Library, Additional MS 61823. Lines 24-28 narrate, “Sche knelyd upon hir / kneys heldyng down hir hed. and hir boke in hir hand. / prayng owyr lord crist ihesu for grace and for mercy. Sodeynly fel / down fro þe heyest party of þe cherche vowte fro undyr / þe fote of þe sparre on hir hed and on hir bakke a ston / whech weyd .iii. pownd” (She knelt on her knees, bowing down her head and holding her book in her hand, praying to our Lord Christ Jesus for grace and mercy. Suddenly fell down from the highest party of the church out from under the foot of the rafter onto her head and her book a stone which weighed three pounds). She survived, for which she credited the mercy of Christ.

The Book of Margery Kempe, online facsimile and documentary edition hosted by Southeastern Louisiana University, project director Joel Fredell. London, British Library, Additional MS 61823, fol. 11r.

Finally, a note on those of the working classes. I have not discussed them in detail as it is unfortunately difficult, in fact nearly impossible, to say much about the reading skills of those who left few or no records behind: the great majority of women (and men) of the medieval population were laborers who left little trace in the written record. Yet as we see from the image here below, even for working women, especially in the last few centuries of the Middle Ages, possession and use of books was within the norm, provided those books could be afforded. 

A woman attendant reading a book, from La Bible historiale of Guyart des Moulins, c. 1470s. London, British Library, Royal MS 15 D I, fol. 18.

Conclusion

My focus here has been tightly on the teaching of reading to medieval English girls. Girls and boys alike were taught to read, and began their reading education in the same ways. Boys alone could attend the medieval university and reach the highest (and best educated) ranks of clerics, but if girls had access to the right resources, they too could be highly educated. The evidence demonstrates that the teaching of reading was not linked specifically to gender; rather, it was a function of both socioeconomic station and the usefulness of such skills for one’s life.

If you’re interested in this topic, I cover the subject in much greater detail, with many other examples and suggested readings, in my article, “Women’s Education and Literacy in England, 1066–1540,” in the “Medieval and Early Modern Education” special issue of History of Education Quarterly, and the accompanying HEQ&A podcast.

Megan J. Hall, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

Twitter @meganjhallphd


[1] On languages in medieval England, see Amanda Hopkins, Judith Anne Jefferson, and Ad Putter, Multilingualism in Medieval Britain (c. 1066–1520): Sources and Analysis (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2012).

[2] W. M. Ormrod, “The Use of English: Language, Law, and Political Culture in Fourteenth-Century England,” Speculum 78, no. 3 (July 2003), 750–87, at 755; and William Rothwell, “Language and Government in Medieval England,” Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur 93, no. 3 (1983), 258–70.

[3] David Bell, What Nuns Read: Books and Libraries in Medieval English Nunneries (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1995), 57.

[4] On the complexities of a trilingual England, with a number of helpful citations therein for further reading, see Christopher Cannon, “Vernacular Latin,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 641–53. 

[5] A variety of frameworks were imposed upon the ages of humankind, though these major divisions for the stages of childhood were fairly commonly accepted. For a discussion, see Nicholas Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry: the Education of the English Kings and Aristocracy, 1066-1530 (London: Methuen, 1984), 5–7; and Daniel T. Kline, “Female Childhoods,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, ed. Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 13–20, at 13.

[6] Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “‘Invisible Archives?’ Later Medieval French in England,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 653–73. For more on levels of reading Latin, see Bell, What Nuns Read, 59–60; and Malcolm B. Parkes, “The Literacy of the Laity,” in Scribes, Scripts, and Readers: Studies in the Communication, Presentation, and Dissemination of Medieval Texts1976 (London: Hambledon Press, 1991), 275–97, at 275.

[7] On the cult of St. Anne and the teaching of reading, see Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 244–45; and Clanchy, “Did Mothers Teach their Children to Read?,” in Motherhood, Religion, and Society in Medieval Europe, 400–1400: Essays Presented to Henrietta Leyser, ed. Conrad Leyser and Lesley Smith (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011), 129–53. For further examples and a detailed analysis of the Education of the Virgin motif, see Wendy Scase, “St. Anne and the Education of the Virgin,” in England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1991 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Nicholas Rogers (Stamford, UK: Paul Watkins, 1993), 81–98.

[8] For a discussion of this window, see Orme, Medieval Children, 244–45.

[9] Boys (especially royal princes) typically followed the same path of moving from the nursery into the care of an educator-caretaker: pedagogus (a term used into the eleventh century) or magister or me[i]stre (terms in use from the twelfth century forward) (Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry, 19).

[10] Excellent reading on the education of girls in nunneries is found in Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries, c. 1275 to 1535 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1922); Alexandra Barratt, “Small Latin? The Post-Conquest Learning of English Religious Women,” in Anglo-Latin and Its Heritage, Essays in Honour of A. G. Rigg on His 64th Birthday, ed. Siân Echard and Gernot R. Wieland (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001), 51–65; and J. G. Clark, “Monastic Education in Late Medieval England,” in The Church and Learning in Late Medieval Society: Essays in Honour of R. B. Dobson; Proceedings of the 1999 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Caroline Barron and Jenny Stratford (Donington, UK: Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins, 2002), 25–40; and Dorothy Gardiner, English Girlhood at School: A Study of Women’s Education Through Twelve Centuries (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1929).

[11] Robert of Torigni [Robertus de Monte], Historia nortmannorum liber octavus de Henrico I rege anglorum et duce northmannorum, ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia cursus completus, series latina 149 (Paris, 1853), col. 886; translated in “History of King Henry the First, by Robert de Monte,” ed. Joseph Stevenson, The Church Historians of England vol. 2, part 1 (London, 1858), 10.

[12] Transcribed in Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectanea, ed. J. Hodgson Hinde, vol. 1 (London, 1868), at 238, 241, from the version preserved in London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius D iii, fols. 179v–186r (late twelfth century).

The Book of Margery Kempe and Its Vision

Altarpiece: Scenes from the Life of St. Catherine of Alexandria, Germany (Swabia) c. 1430-1450.

Margery Kempe, the protagonist of the Book of Margery Kempe, did not like to talk about her visions, as my previous blog discusses.

The Book is not shy about her reasons. Acting but not telling her audiences in church or on pilgrimage creates the persecution on behalf of Christ she so desires. She explains her innermost visions to high clergy in order to seek their confirmation that her revelations do come from God.

Recent research has added demonstrated an additional theological dimension. Kempe’s externalization of her special piety and concealment of her true gifts are a saintly imitatio (or hagiographical tropes), but not of contemporary saints she admires like Birgitta of Sweden. Instead, she crafts a life following the romance template of the early Church virgin martyrs, whose legends were wildly popular in the fifteenth century. [1] These saints have intimate encounters with Christ that remain their secret, but display their Christian heroism by enduring persecution and death for their faith.

Some scholars have argued that the result is a unique theology of time. Kempe essentially lives the legendary past in the present, collapsing chronological eras into a single sacred time. However, her fifteenth-century contemporaries fail to recognize her imitatio and scorn her for her behaviors. Thus, the distance between the era of the virgin martyrs and fifteenth-century England also causes the (very partial) ostracization that allows Kempe to recapitulate St. Katherine and St. Cecilia. She inhabits a collapsed past-present that demonstrates and criticizes the “historical specificity” of both women’s holiness and religious authority. [2]

Despite her imitatio of saints who kept their secrets, however, Kempe did indeed talk about her visions. She shared her “high contemplations” with a series of priests, bishops, and men who would become her confessor—in many cases, people she barely knew and would never see again. The Book also portrays her describing her visions to her scribes, one of whom was her son. Nor are her disclosures merely a matter of compliance with discretio spirituum, that is, the need to seek authentication of the divine origin of visions from a Church authority. Concealing her visions from the general public, Kempe has little need to seek legitimization for her own safety or public sanctity. From a hagiographical perspective, too, the succession of Church officials unfamiliar with her instead of a longtime confessor is more reminiscent of Marguerite Porete’s failed attempt to insulate herself from heresy charges than of late medieval holy women.

A pilgrim woman from Robinet Testard’s ‘Le roman de la rose’ in Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 195, f.86v (15th century).

Kempe’s concealing and revealing of her visions are a case study for common patterns of self-disclosure. [3] People make decisions about divulging personal information by balancing the reward (human connection) with risk (loss of control over public identity). Thus, we share our most private information with the people closest to us, with whom we seek ever-closer ties and whom we trust the most not to misunderstand or repeat the information. We also share more personal details with people we barely know, because we have to build a relationship from the ground up, and there is little chance of a repeated interaction being affected.

Thus, her imitatio—her sanctity—anchors Kempe-the-protagonist even more fully in the social web of the present, rather than making her a “woman out of time.” Equally or perhaps more importantly, it allows Kempe-the-author to anchor the Book more firmly in the demands of fifteenth-century devotion.

Kempe’s repeated disclosure of her visions to numerous clergy does not simply authenticate her visions. Rather, it draws the reader’s attention to their presence in Kempe’s life and in the Book again and again. Like its protagonist’s desire to live the past in the present, the lavish descriptions of her visions and the repeated references to them allow the Book to have it both ways, as it were. On one hand, it can tell the story of its non-virgin, unmartyred virgin martyr: a (semi) pariah in the world, who is sustained by her hidden intimacy with Christ. On the other, the visions and dialogues mirror the format of much fifteenth-century devotional and didactic literature. The visionary discourse highlights the Book as a text that teaches its audience rather than defending its subject.

In this light, the “stereotypical” nature of Kempe’s visions and the apparent failure of the Book as hagiography can be seen as both purposeful and successful. Kempe’s externalized piety is, frankly, more interesting to most modern readers than yet another mystical marriage. [4] Thus, we are also more interested in the Book’s goals with respect to Kempe herself: justification of her earlier actions, perhaps, or a full-blown hagiography aimed at jump-starting a public cult after her death. [5]

The bibliographic evidence tells a different story for medieval readers. Kempe the author earned the unusual distinction among women mystical writers of having her work published in the early decades of print. Printer Wynkyn de Worde’s “A shorte treatyse of contemplacyon…taken out of the boke of margerie kempe of lynn” trims down the Book almost exclusively to Christ’s monologues to Kempe. [6] This can be seen as a failure of Kempe the protagonist to establish herself as a person and as a saint, to the extent of emphasizing what she tried to conceal. [7]

It is that effort to conceal, however, that allows the Book to do the opposite: draw Kempe’s visions into the foreground. It isn’t ironic that Margery Kempe and her Book became famous at the end of the Middle Ages for her hidden visions rather than the life she lived. Instead, it is exactly what Kempe the protagonist and Kempe the author wanted.

[1] Sarah Salih, Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England (Brewer, 2001), 166-169.

[2] Catherine Sanok, Her Life Historical: Exemplarity and Female Saints’ Lives in Late Medieval England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 122-26.

[3] See, for example, W. B. Pearce and S. M. Sharp, “Self-Disclosing Communication,” Journal of Communication 23: 409-25.

[4] Karma Lochrie, Vickie Larsen, and Mary-Katherine Curnow, for example, have even argued for the comedic possibilities of Kempe the protagonist and of the Book itself: Lochrie, Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991); Larsen and Curnow, “Hagiographic Ambition, Fabliau Humor, and Creature Comforts in The Book of Margery Kempe,” Exemplaria 25, no. 4 (2013): 284-302.

[5] Katherine J. Lewis, “Margery Kempe and Saint Making in Later Medieval England,” in A Companion to The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Lewis and John H. Arnold (D.S. Brewer, 2004), 195-215.

[6] The text of Shorte Treatyse can be found in The Book of Margery Kempe: The Text from the Unique MS Owned by Colonel W. Butler-Bowdon, Vol. 1, ed. Sanford Brown Meech with Hope Emily Allen (Oxford University Press, 1940), 353-57.

[7] See, for example, Lewis, 215; Anthony Goodman, “Margery Kempe,” in Medieval Holy Women in the Christian Tradition, c.1100-c.1500, ed. Alastair Minnis and Rosalynn Voaden (Brepols, 2010), 226.

Elisabeth Achler, Patron Saint of Crazy Cat Ladies

Vernacular religious literature from fifteenth-century Germany is not known for being eloquent, creative, or interesting. When I proposed a dissertation topic that heavily involved the era’s didactic literature, one of the members of my committee responded, “Are you sure you want to do that?”

Yet fifteenth-century Germans produced more vernacular literature than any other time or place in the Middle Ages, and scholars estimate seventy to eighty percent of it was religious. [1] These books, however lacking in literary splendor, were wildly popular both to read and to write; they survive from clerical and lay libraries alike.

            The context adds one more layer to the interesting (really!) German hagiography of Elisabeth Achler von Reute (1386-1420), written by her confessor Konrad Kügelin. Kügelin wins no prizes for his prosecraft, to be sure. He makes up for it with his ebulent enthusiasm for Achler’s sanctity and his obvious concern for her as a person. But most of all, he makes up for it through the often colorful stories he spins out of what was apparently a quiet and peaceful cloistered life.

Painting of Elisabeth Achler in the monastery at Ruete. Paulin Link, “The Good Beth,” Ostfildern, 1992.

            Achler was a sister in a convent founded by Augustinian friar Kügelin and loosely affiliated with the Franciscan Order. As her Leben shows, she spent most of her adult life struggling to fit the mold of a late medieval holy woman. Above all, that mantle meant self starvation. Achler was either a star or a fraud—depending on whether you asked Kügelin or asked his portrayal of the convent’s other sisters.

            Kügelin insists upon their suspicion (argwon) of Achler’s supposed miraculous inedia again and again through the Leben. He’s not reticent about the reason for the emphasis: it demonstrates Achler’s Christ-like forebearance in the face of persecution. Here, I’m going to look at two episodes depicting the sisters’ suspicion.

            The first one is actually pretty cute, or at least, it would be cute if it weren’t so sad. One day, the sister assigned to the kitchen sets up to cook several pieces of meat. But when it’s time to eat, there are only two pieces left. When one sister wonders aloud where the meat went, the cook answers, “Oh, where all the other things must go—our cat with two legs must have taken it.” [2]

Cats, Aberdeen BestiaryEngland ca1200 Aberdeen University LibraryMS 24fol23v.

            The “cat with two legs” story is short and almost sweet, even if Kügelin was attempting to portray the sisters’ suspicion instead of their support for Achler’s efforts at sanctity. A second anecdote could likewise be spun as suspicion or concern. Realizing that Achler hasn’t been eating, one sister goes off to the town of Reute to buy “little fishes” that hopefully she will like. Achler dutifully eats them—demonstrating her adherence to monastic obedience, of course. But she almost immediately throws them back up, not even slightly digested. [3]

            In both cases, Kügelin’s presentation of events can be read as suspicious sisters setting a deliberate trap with simmering meat on the stove or specially-purchased fish, or as concerned sisters desperately trying to get Achler to eat something. Rather than unravel that mystery, I’m going to take a more basic approach: Kügelin’s presentation of events can be read in the first place.

Eustachius Gabriel: Elisabeth on her death bed, accompanied by sisters and Konrad Kügelin, fresco, 1764, restored in 1875, in the Church in Reute.

            Kügelin wrote numerous drafts of Achler’s Leben, which survive in multiple manuscripts. Their relationship was examined by Karl Bihlmeyer in 1932, who showed that the cat with two legs story and the little fishes episode are both new to one of the revisions. In the oldest version, the two anecdotes have only a faint presence. Regarding the first, Kügelin notes that some beans and lentils went missing from the kitchen. That’s the beginning and end of the “action” in a long paragraph emphasizing suspicion. No simmering meat, no cute comments. In the little fishes story, similarly, there are no trips to town and no little fishes. Achler eats something one day and promptly throws it up. [4]

            Thus, Kügelin added or embellished stories from the likely first to the likely second drafts of Achler’s Leben.

            As a modern reader, I appreciate this development. As a scholar who told her concerned committee member, “Yes, I’m sure,” I also appreciate that Kügelin went against contemporary trends when he increased the entertainment value of the hagiography. He did the equivalent of writing out his sermons with great exempla already woven in.

            Unfortunately and unfairly, I have to leave you—and more to the point, me—without a snappy conclusion regarding why Kügelin believed these later additions would strengthen the case for Achler’s sainthood. But look on the bright side. Two different versions of Achler’s hagiography have been in print since 1881 and 1932. What better time to start comparing them than 2020?

Cait Stevenson
PhD in History
University of Notre Dame

[1] See, for example, Karl Ruh, “Geistliche Prosa,” in Europäisches Spätmittelalter, ed. Willi Ergräber, Neues Handbuch der Literaturwissenschaft 8 (Akademie Verlagsgesellschaft Athenaion, 1980), 565; Werner Williams-Krapp, “The Erosion of a Monopoly: German Religious LIterature in the Fifteenth Century,” in The Vernacular Spirit: Essays on Medieval Religious Litearture, ed. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Duncan Robertson, and Nancy Bradley Warren (Palgrave, 2002), 239.

[2] Anton Birlinger, ed., “Leben heiliger alemannischer Frauen I: Elisabeta Bona von Reute,” Zeitschrift für Sprache, Litteratur, und Volkskunde des Elsasses, Oberrheins und Schwabens 9 (1881): 280.

[3] Birlinger, 281.

[4] Karl Bihlmeyer, ed., “Die Schwäbishe Mystikerin Elsbeth Achler von Reute (d. 1420) und die Überlieferung dihrer Vita,” in Festgabe Philipp Strauch zum 80. Geburtstage am 23. September 1932, ed. Georg Baesecke and Ferdinand Joseph Schneider (Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1932), 101-102.