Siblings and the Sexes within the Medieval Religious Life
By Fiona J. Griffiths
Church History, Vol. 77:1 (2008)
Introduction: In 1156, the German visionary Elisabeth of Schonau received a series of revelations concerning Saint Ursula, whose body, together with some of the eleven thousand virgins supposedly martyred alongside her, had allegedly been discovered in a cemetery just outside the city walls of Cologne. Elisabeth’s revelations, which were prompted by the arrival at Schonau of two bodies from Cologne (one male and one female), resulted in one of her most controversial and certainly most popular works, the Liber revelationum. Prompted to investigate the Cologne discovery by “certain men of good repute,” Elisabeth reports that she was visited first by Saint Verena and then by Saint Caesarius, cousins whose bodies had come to rest at Schonau. The two regaled her with stories of the martyrs’ journey from Britain to Cologne and confirmed for her the authenticity of their relics. Such confirmation was necessary: Elisabeth admits that she had initially been skeptical of the association with Ursula, since male as well as female bones had been discovered in the Cologne cemetery. “Like others who read the history of the British virgins,” she confesses, “I thought that that blessed society made their pilgrimage without the escort of any men.”
The bones of men, intermingled with those of women whose very sanctity depended on their virginity, caused Elisabeth no small discomfort. Pressing her saintly visitors on this point, Elisabeth nevertheless received assurance that although many men had indeed accompanied the women, they had done so licitly, primarily as members of the women’s families.
Elisabeth’s willingness to accept that the companionship of male relatives had not compromised the purity of the virgin martyrs has important implications for the study of medieval monasticism and, above all, for our understanding of relations between the sexes within the religious life of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. During Elisabeth’s lifetime, the involvement of women in the monastic life increased dramatically — indeed, the number of monasteries for women in western Europe alone grew four-fold in the century leading up to her death in the 1160s, with some decades witnessing as many as 50 new foundations.
Top Image: BNF Français 122 fol. 313v