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“From what is earthly to what is divine”: The Story of Caritas Pirckheimer, Renaissance Woman

By Cait Stevenson

Caritas Pirckheimer (1467-1532) is probably more familiar to historians of early modern women writers than to medievalists. In fact, she is best known for leading her Franciscan convent to stand up to Martin Luther and the Nuremberg city council, winning the right to preserve monastic life even in a Protestant city. A compilation of her letters and other writings known as the Denwürdigkeiten records her struggles to keep St. Klara’s Nuremberg open from 1524, when Nuremberg adopted the Reformation, to the sisters’ victory in 1528. It’s an invaluable source for scholars studying how the Reformation affected women and how women affected the Reformation.

It’s also the product of the five decades of literary experience, rhetorical skill, cultivation of powerful patrons, and stellar reputation that Pirckheimer had built up before that pesky theology professor threw a tantrum over indulgences. And as a cloistered Franciscan abbess, she had done it all through her writing.

It’s not very good historical practice to say “education and writing were always part of her life” (I sure wasn’t writing at age three months; were you?), but…education and writing were always part of her life. Her great-grandfather, grandfather, father, brother, sister, uncle, and niece all had formal or informal humanist educations, and Johann Pirckheimer made sure his oldest daughter was no different. The family had accumulated an immense library of Latin classics over the years—Johann himself had been forced to copy out all of Virgil’s works by his ambitious father.

At age twelve, Caritas Pirckheimer supposedly won herself a place as a novice in Nuremberg’s Klarissenkloster, renowned for its bilingual literary life, by demonstrating her proficiency in Latin to the right sets of eyes. This was a crafty move: one of the most persistent and persistently sad patterns among women Renaissance humanists is the abrupt cessation of their involvement in intellectual culture after marriage. To take monastic vows in a community that emphasized reading and writing averted that fate.

Nuremberg’s Klarissenkloster as seen in a 17th century map

Her decision to join the Franciscan Order also either reflected or resulted in a profound religious orientation to her humanism. As she exhorted her friend and epistolary partner, humanist Conrad Celtis:

I would earnestly and with all my heart entreat you not indeed to give up the pursuit of worldly wisdom, but to put it to higher uses, that is to pass from heathen writings to holy scripture, from what is earthly to what is divine.

It was a theme she continued throughout her corpus, whether writing in a humanist register or not. Pirckheimer’s first major work, written in the 1490s, was a genealogy of her convent and its reform—a history of the Franciscan Order stretching all the way back to Francis and Clare. The Chronik, as it is known today, was (most likely) written by the nuns collectively and (definitely) edited by Pirckheimer. The inclusion of the copied text of legal documents, letters, and other sources reflects the rigor of research and desire to root the chronicle in authoritative older sources. Intriguingly, the Chronik was originally composed in German, but translated into Latin around 1501. As scholars like Cynthia Cyrus and Eva Schlothüber have shown, women’s convents in the fifteenth century often mixed Latin and their vernacular fluidly in their libraries, sometimes in the same texts. But we nevertheless tend to think of translation as going in the other direction than Pirckheimer took her history.

Between the Chronik and Denkwürdigkeiten that bookended her life as an adult at St. Klara’s, Pirckheimer engaged in the intellectual barter and sparring via letter so popular in the Renaissance. Her most famous correspondent was Erasmus, but her most fervent friends and supporters were the biggest names in German humanism: Conrad Celtis, Christoph Scheurl, Sixtus Tucher, and none other than her brother Willibald. The letters display Pirckheimer’s Latin eloquence along with her hunger for further education, demonstrated by the rich exchange of books that accompanied the missives.

But while Willibald urged his sister to concentrate on classical texts first of all, Pirckheimer insisted on the necessity of religious piety as the process and goal of any study. Sometimes she was upfront about her opinion, but sometimes she had fun with it. Willibald dedicated editions of three different texts to her (Plutarch, Fulgentius, and Gregory Nanzianzen), both to honor her and to spread her reputation as a learned lady. But in thanking him, Pirckheimer turned the potential sin of pride into a lesson in the proper Christian goal of all learning. She thanked him for dedicating the book to caritas—that is, godly love—because love is what drives good things (education producing virtue).

Photo by Andreas Praefcke / Wikimedia Commons

From the other side of the Reformation, Pirckheimer appears primarily through the Denkwürdigkeiten as the aged abbess fighting for her nuns, her convent, and her entire way of life. To contemporaries, however, she was a pinnacle of humanist learning and Franciscan piety.

Click here to read more from Cait Stevenson

Top Image: Portrait of a Woman, Said to Be Caritas Pirckheimer (1467–1532) – The Metropolitan Museum of Art



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