By Christine Arguello
If you put a group of bookish virgins up against a monster bent on devouring the world, what do you get? Something approximating salvation, right?
Thanks to the leadership of Abbess Herrad of Hohenburg (c. 1130 – 1195), her sisters were allowed to achieve intellectual independence in huge ways through Herrad’s commitment to reform and adherence to the virtues of enclosure. Within the walls of their monastery during the twelfth century, these women lived in accordance with the attitude of contemptus mundi. In other words, they cultivated a discipline which involved denying themselves worldly pleasures in order to pursue the fruits of a spiritual life.
In this sense, we can grasp the name of their grand work, the Hortus Deliciarum, or the Garden of Delights. Unfortunately it was destroyed during the siege of Strasbourg in 1870, but much of it was traced and compiled back into book form thanks to the work of the Warburg Institute and the work of earlier scholars. Within their monastery walls, these women set to work exploring some of the juicy topics coming out of the Paris schools at the time by producing their very own books. But, their great encyclopedic Hortus was not solely about spiritual pleasures and intellectual forays into the pagan philosophies and Arabic writings becoming popular at the time. The work was largely about overcoming the base bodily functions of mundane life and establishing a salvation narrative that integrated the Old Testament and New Testament stories into local Hohenburg history.
One thing that is particularly difficult for a modern reader to grasp in this the monastery’s work are the intricate layers of meaning which emerge from its text-image relationships. These text-image pairings and their endless allegorical linkages draw the female readership to absorb the text in a contemplative/meditative way. During their readings, the sisters were invited to place themselves within the stories as active participants in moments of salvation history.
How then, do the profuse amounts of visual and textual imagery dealing with monsters and beasts eating one another uphold the spiritual leanings of these sisters? One particularly monstrous text-image relationship surrounds the Leviathan theme on folios 83 verso to 84 recto. This theme unravels at a critical juncture in the Hortus Deliciarum where Old Testament narratives transition into New Testament narratives. How were these women depicted as the antidotes to these monstrous figures of sin; monsters who are shown to thrive by cannibalizing themselves?
These women established their virginity and continence as the key to salvation in a world consumed in bodily debauchery. As virgins, they were living representations of the Holy Virgin who allowed Christ to be brought into the world through her untouched womb. Unlike those still living with their bodies open to the pleasures of the world, like the Leviathan monster with his mouth gaping wide in the large folio 84 recto image, the virgins sacrificed these pleasures through their lives of enclosure. They maintained their virginity within the walls of the monastery while upholding Augustinian rules on how to eat, sleep, and interact with their fellow sisters.
Looking at the image of the dual Christ conquering the Leviathan on folio 84 recto, the modern reader may be perplexed over the image of the two Christs, particularly when one is dangling over the mouth of the Leviathan monster. The two Christs, one who is human (bottom right) and one who is divine (top left), are at opposite sides of a fishing pole. Between them is a fishing line stringing along medallions of seven prophets and patriarchs. If one looks closely, there is more at stake in these images of Christ, his predecessors, and a monster. The two Christs are conquering the Leviathan exactly where the monster’s weakness lies: in its never ending desire to consume and give in to its bodily impulses. At the level of the image, Christ begins invoking the power of the virgins and the weight of their worldly sacrifices.
When you look to the Latin texts on folio 83 verso, the first text is De sancta Maria, or On Holy Mary, which firmly drives home the fact that when Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit, she received semen-like bits of flesh (sementivam). It was absolutely not semen. The idea of worldly semen entering the Virgin womb ruined the image of an immaculate carriage awaiting the savior. So instead she received holy semen-like stuff which was to become Christ. It is important to remember the role that this text plays opposite the actual Leviathan image of the dual Christs. Mary is the holy, enclosed vehicle which allowed Christ to arrive after the chain of Old Testament figures depicted on the fishing line. Her enclosed womb is the reason Christ conquers the Leviathan through its open, gaping mouth.
After Mary is confirmed to be free of worldly semen, we find another text evoking the importance of enclosed spaces, or untouched wombs. This following text, De Leviathan qui significat diabolum, or On the Leviathan who signifies the devil, uses the context of an Old Testament narrative. Here, the importance of enclosure and the virgin womb is established in a different way. The text begins with the story of Daniel after he killed the dragon and destroyed the idol adored by the Babylonians. The angry Babylonians cast Daniel in a den of lions for seven days, but the king keeps the angry Babylonians from entering the den by placing a seal over it.
With the help of an angel of God, the prophet Habakkuk is able to deliver food to Daniel by passing through the seal without braking it, just as the Holy Spirit delivered the semen-like stuff into Mary without breaking her seal. Daniel also evades being consumed by the hungry lions for seven days. When the seal is removed on the final day and he emerges untouched, the king casts his angry Babylonian enemies into the lion’s den where they are promptly devoured. The narrative then ends with a meditation on Christ’s ability to enter Mary’s womb without removing her seal of “virginal modesty.” Notice how beasts, virginity, and food each play a part that enforces the grander mission of telling the story of salvation with virginal power being a major force in the story.
Finally, we have a final story on folio 83 verso that textually establishes visual reversals of the dual Christ image on the following folio. De Leviathan, or On the Leviathan, sets up a food chain of vices where each vice, like gluttony and rage, is signified by a certain locust or worm contained in a sphere which will disappear in a cloud of dust once it is conquered. Each one of these insects feed off of one another in a perverse food chain. The spheres of insect-vices hang on a string which begins at the Leviathan’s nose and doesn’t end until the string reaches hell. Instead of a chain of prophets and patriarchs which prefigure man’s salvation like in the dual Christ image, we have a chain of bodily vices which will lead the individual directly to damnation. The text continues to explain that each sphere can be conquered through personal effort, but another vice-sphere will pop up in place of the defeated vice. It’s like a rigged video game.
The reader is lead to believe that while one remains connected with the body and its unholy needs, the chain of vices will always be present. You will be forever tempted and drawn into hell like a fish taking bait on a hook. But you cannot take the bait if you keep your mouth shut and virginity sealed. The texts and image work in conjunction to celebrate the life of the virgins and the place they hold in fulfilling salvation history. For these twelfth century nuns, they weren’t waiting for knights to come save them from the evil forces of the world. They themselves possessed the forces garnered from their sacrifice of worldly pleasure that ensured their own salvation and that of the world.
Christine Arguello holds an MA in Medieval Studies from the University of Toronto and a BA in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. She has an eye for the weird in every era. Currently, she is bouncing back and forth between Los Angeles and San Diego, California as a freelance writer.
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.