By Sonja Maurer-Dass
In the Middle Ages, the legend of Saint Ursula and her extraordinarily courageous retinue of eleven thousand virgins was, for many writers and artists, a wellspring of inspiration.
Gracing the folios and surfaces of numerous literary and pictorial works, the martyred Christian virgins were often praised and portrayed as heroic protectresses of Cologne (the traditional place of their martyrdom), a testament to their widespread popularity among the faithful. Included among the many creatives who paid tribute to Saint Ursula and her companions was the esteemed twelfth-century abbess, philosopher, visionary, and composer Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), who composed thirteen songs in their honour.
In the following article, we will explore the legend of Saint Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins as recounted in Jacobus de Voragine’s (1228-1298) renowned hagiographic compilation The Golden Legend (or Legenda aurea) as well as select sources that contain its earliest documentation. This will be followed by a brief introduction to Hildegard’s compositions for Saint Ursula and the virgin martyrs with attention given to her sequence O Ecclesia – a sequence is a type of chant belonging to the Mass which was sung before the intoning of the Gospel.
Saint Ursula’s Story in The Golden Legend
With the arrival of Autumn comes the approaching feast day that was dedicated to Saint Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins. Traditionally commemorated on October 21, the historicity of the virgins’ shared martyrdom has been challenged and is currently widely accepted as mythical; however, throughout medieval Europe, the various stories surrounding Ursula and her companions garnered the admiration and devotion of many followers which contributed to—as Jane Cartwright describes in the book The Cult of St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins— “one of the most popular and widespread saints’ cults of the medieval period.”
The story of Ursula and her holy group of virgins underwent a series of changes from its earliest account in Late Antiquity until its maturity in the Middle Ages. Although some details about the virgins vary among different sources in the latter years of the legend’s development (and vary significantly in earlier accounts), tradition largely maintains that Ursula was a princess from Britannia (circa the third century CE as stated in The Golden Legend; some sources suggest the fourth or fifth centuries).
According to The Golden Legend, Ursula was the beloved daughter of a Christian king. Like contemporaneous stories of other saints, Ursula was described as “exceptionally virtuous, wise, and beautiful.” Upon hearing of her remarkable qualities, a powerful pagan king requested that Ursula marry his only son; however, her father hesitated to respond to this proposal for several reasons: he did not believe that the union between a Christian and a “worshipper of idols” was appropriate, he knew that his daughter would not agree to the marriage, and he was frightened by the consequences of refusing the pagan king’s request.
Unexpectedly, Ursula relieved him of the difficult decision with which he was faced, and through divine inspiration, agreed to the marriage contingent upon the following requirements: that her betrothed’s father and her own father provide her with ten virgin companions who would then receive one thousand virgin companions each (Ursula herself would also be assigned one thousand virgin companions); that she be given a fleet of triremes; that she be granted three years to remain a virgin until marriage, during which time she would embark on a pilgrimage; and that her future husband be baptized a Christian during his three-year wait to marry her. Ursula hoped that her demands might be too extreme, thereby discouraging the prince from wanting to pursue the marriage; however, surprisingly he and his father agreed to comply with her requests.
When the time came for Ursula and her maidens to begin their pilgrimage, they were joined by a group of bishops (one of whom was named Pantalus) and a queen named Saint Gerasina (whose four daughters—Babilla, Juliana, Victoria, and Aurea—and young son—Adrian— accompanied her on Ursula’s pilgrimage). After one day at sea, Ursula and her fleet arrived at the Gallic port of Tyella, from where they proceeded to Cologne. Here, she received a vision that predicted her pilgrimage would include another trip to Cologne, at which time she and all her companions would be martyred.
Accepting her fate, Ursula continued her pilgrimage and led her companions to Rome where they met with (the mythical) Pope Cyriacus (The Golden Legend states that he was “the nineteenth pope after Peter”). After receiving a vision of his own impending martyrdom alongside Ursula’s, Pope Cyriacus decided to resign from his papal duties and accompany the band of pilgrims to his death. The Golden Legend states that Pope Cyriacus’s cardinals refused to accept his resignation, and it is because of this that his name was struck from historical records. This event, however, is also thought to be fictitious.
In addition to the Pope, Ursula’s newly baptized betrothed (as well as his sister and mother) decided to join her pilgrimage. This constantly expanding party of Christian travel companions drew attention from Roman commanders, who feared the widespread adoption of Christianity. As a remedy for their worries, two commanders—who The Golden Legend identifies as Maximus and Africanus—devised a plot with the leader of the Huns which would result in the deaths of Ursula and her followers. When they returned to Cologne, Ursula, the virgins, and the other pilgrims were ambushed by the Huns, which resulted in the slaughter of all except Ursula. Besotted by her beauty, the leader of the Huns offered to spare Ursula’s life on the condition that she marry him. When she refused his advances, Ursula was martyred which fulfilled her prophecy.
Interestingly, Ursula’s story does not end with the protagonist’s death; rather, it ends with one of the virgins named Cordula. While Ursula and all who accompanied her were presumed to have been killed, we then learn that while they were slain, Cordula hid inside one of their ships. The next day, Cordula—who was overcome with guilt and grief— surrendered herself to the Huns and joined her friends in martyrdom. Her feast day was celebrated on October 22, the day following Saint Ursula and the other virgins’ feast day.
Earlier Accounts of Saint Ursula’s Legend
The aforementioned version of Ursula’s story is one of the later accounts of the virgin martyrs; however, in its earliest state, the story was an enigmatic inscription on a stone known as the Clematius Inscription that originated between the fourth and fifth centuries CE in Cologne (presently, the stone is preserved within St. Ursula’s Church in Cologne). This initial version of the legend describes the burial ground of a group of anonymous sanctified virgins who died for Christ (the exact number of virgins is not specified). A passage from the inscription can be read below:
“…It should be known that if the body of anyone other than the holy virgins is deposited in this majestic basilica, built on the site where the holy virgins spilled their blood in the name of Christ, he will be punished by eternal hellfire.” ~ translation from The Cult of St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, edited by Jane Cartwright
In the centuries that followed, several versions of the virgins’ story surfaced that gradually provided further information on their identities. By the mid-tenth century (c. 922), a name assigned to the legend’s heroine appeared in the Sermo in natali SS virginum XI milium. Here, the protagonist is named Pinnosa, a princess and leader of a group of Christian women who fled their homes in Britannia because of persecution by the Romans; however, when they arrived in Cologne, they were discovered and martyred by Roman soldiers.
Passions written between the tenth and twelfth centuries expand upon the virgins’ identities even further. For example, in a tenth-century passion known as Fuit tempore pervetusto, Pinnosa’s name is replaced with Ursula’s. Additionally, details concerning Ursula’s childhood, her divine visions, and the circumstances surrounding her martyrdom are included (unlike Pinnosa’s martyrdom—which was executed by Roman soldiers—Ursula is killed by the leader of the Huns), and Cordula’s story is also appended.
In the words of historian Pamela Sheingorn, “the finest early version of the [Saint Ursula’s] legend” is known as Regnante Domino. This version of Saint Ursula’s passion is eloquently written and includes elements of Ursuline legends that had preceded it (including passages from the Clematius Inscription). In Regnante Domino, Ursula is extolled as a prophetic figure and spiritual guide, and her companions are presented as holy soldiers who defend Cologne from invading forces even after their deaths. Completed by the beginning of the twelfth century, Regnante Domino was extremely popular and, as noted by Sheingorn, was promulgated in many regions including the Rhineland, Lorraine, and what now constitutes areas located in Italy and the Netherlands. During its travels, the Regnante Domino not only continued to shape public perception of Saint Ursula and her companions, but it also served as inspiration for religious writings and art including the music of Hildegard of Bingen.
Saint Ursula’s Legacy and Hildegard of Bingen
Like many of her contemporaries, Hildegard was familiar with the sensational events associated with Saint Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins, especially as recorded in the Regnante Domino. In 1106 (when Hildegard was eight years old), the public’s increased interest in Ursula’s story was fueled by a mass grave that was found on the northern outskirts of Cologne, in an area which is referred to as the Ursuline field (or ager Ursulanus). At this time, efforts were concentrated on securing the city walls for fear of Henry V’s impending siege, which consequently led to the graves’ discovery. Because of the large number of bodies that were unearthed and their location, workers who found the graves had little doubt that they had stumbled across the remains of Saint Ursula and those who had accompanied her on pilgrimage – these workers also claimed to receive visions from the martyred virgins, who confirmed that their bodies occupied the newly discovered graves.
In the decades following its discovery, the mass grave was excavated to uncover more relics. Among those who fervently upheld the association between Ursula’s companions and the burial site was the mystic and nun Elisabeth of Schönau (c.1129-1165), who claimed to receive visions from the virgins that revealed detailed information about their identities, pilgrimage, and martyrdom (Elisabeth of Schönau was the author of the Book of Revelations of the Sacred Band of Virgins of Cologne). Elisabeth was Hildegard’s contemporary, and the two women were in contact with one another during the time that Elisabeth’s visions of Saint Ursula were being disseminated.
In essence, the significant public attention given to Saint Ursula’s cult, its associated relics, and—as asserted by musicologist Kristin Hoefener in her essay “From St Pinnosa to St Ursula – The Development of the Cult of Cologne’s Virgins in Medieval Liturgical Offices” – Elisabeth of Schönau’s knowledge of the saint and her followers were sources of inspiration for Hildegard’s Ursuline compositions. However, Hildegard’s Ursula compositions do not appear to have been entirely based upon the details extracted from Elisabeth’s visions of the saint’s life and martyrdom. Rather, they are more aligned with the details of the Regnante Domino, and—as later suggested by William Flynn—Hildegard appears to have slightly modified portions of Ursula’s stories to reflect her own personal narrative.
As observed by Hoefener, the time during which Hildegard penned her compositions for Saint Ursula corresponds to a large excavation that took place at the Ursuline field in Cologne from 1155 to 1163/4. Considering that she wrote antiphons, responsories, a sequence, and a hymn dedicated to Saint Ursula, it is probable that the virgin martyr was especially significant to Hildegard. William Flynn explores the impact of Ursula’s story on Hildegard’s life and compositions in his essay “Hildegard (1098-1179) and the Virgin Martyrs of Cologne,” and contends that the saint’s fame as a female visionary and spiritual leader possibly shaped or contributed to the comparable image and reputation that became synonymous with Hildegard’s name. Additionally, Flynn explores the ways in which some of Hildegard’s life events and struggles mirror those that Ursula faced in the Regnante Domino (especially in relation to being a prophetic figure).
Hildegard’s Compositions for Saint Ursula and the Virgin Martyrs
Hildegard’s songs for Saint Ursula and her maidens are preserved within two manuscripts from the late twelfth century: Dendermonde, St. Pieters & PaulusAbdij, MS 9 (also called the Dendermonde codex) and Wiesbaden, Hessische Landesbibliothek, MS 2 (also called the Riesenkodex). The Dendermonde codex is the older of the two manuscripts and is— what medievalist Barbara Newman describes as— “defective” in comparison to the Riesenkodex; that is, some of the Dendermonde codex’s contents are no longer extant. The second manuscript containing Hildegard’s Ursula compositions—the Riesenkodex—consists of her collected works except for her medical and scientific writings.
Among the most celebrated of Hildegard’s songs that are dedicated to Saint Ursula and her maidens is the sequence O Ecclesia, which, as observed by Flynn, draws parallels between Ursula and Hildegard’s experiences as visionaries. For example, Flynn makes the compelling argument that the difficulties and resistance that Hildegard faced while establishing her own religious community are reflected in the text of O Ecclesia which recounts Ursula’s story; that is, Ursula faces resistance and disbelief from those with whom she shares her prophecies. A passage from the sequence is provided below:
“O Church, your eyes are like sapphire, and your ears like Mount Bethel, your nose like a mountain of incense and myrrh, and your mouth like the sound of many waters. In a vision of true faith, Ursula fell in love with the Son of God and renounced a husband along with this world. She gazed upon the sun and called to the fairest youth, saying: In great yearning I have yearned to come to you and at the heavenly wedding feast sit with you, racing to you by a strange path like a cloud that, in the purest sky, races like sapphire. And after Ursula had spoken thus, this report went out among all peoples. And they said: in the innocence of girlish ignorance, she knows not what she says. And they began to sport with her in great harmony, until the fiery burden fell upon her (…).” ~ translation from “Music for the Love Feast: Hildegard of Bingen and the Song of Songs” by Margot Fassler in Resonant Witness: Conversations Between Music and Theology, edited by Jeremy S. Begbie and Steven R. Guthrie)
Although the stories of Saint Ursula and her substantial company of virgins are no longer accepted as factual by most scholars and religious authorities, the many artistic treasures that were created in their honour—including Hildegard of Bingen’s compositions— attest to the historicity of the legend’s importance in the Middle Ages.
Sonja Maurer-Dass is a Canadian musicologist and harpsichordist. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Musicology at Western University (London, ON, Canada) where she is researching eighteenth-century French musical exoticism and its relationship to Enlightenment philosophy. Additionally, she holds a master’s degree in Musicology specializing in late medieval English choral music and the Old Hall Manuscript from York University (Toronto, Canada). In 2019, Sonja presented her paper titled Royal Authorship in the Old Hall Manuscript: A New Approach for Examining Roy Henry’s Identity and Compositions at the 9th International Medieval Meeting held at the University of Lleida in Lleida, Spain. Sonja is also a musicologist and writer for The Medieval Magazine and Ancient History Magazine and has written a review of Laurie Stras’s book Women and Music in Sixteenth-Century Ferrara for Ceræ: An Australasian Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies.
Follow Sonja on Twitter @SonjaMaurerDass
Cartwright, Jane, ed. The Cult of St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2016.
Fassler, Margot. “Music for the Love Feast: Hildegard of Bingen and the Song of Songs.” In Resonant Witness: Conversations Between Music and Theology, edited by Jeremy S. Begbie and Steven R. Guthrie, 355-381. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011.
Flynn, William. “Hildegard (1098-1179) and the Virgin Martyrs of Cologne.” In The Cult of St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, edited by Jane Cartwright, 106-129. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2016.
Hildegard of Bingen. Symphonia: A Critical Edition of the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations). Translated by Barbara Newman. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988.
Hoefener, Kristin. “From St Pinnosa to St Ursula – The Development of the Cult of Cologne’s Virgins in Medieval Liturgical Offices.” In The Cult of St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, edited by Jane Cartwright, 74-105. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2016.
Jacobus (de Voragine). The Golden Legend: Selections. Translated by Christopher Stace with an Introduction and Notes by Richard Hamer. London: Penguin Books, 1998.
Montgomery, Scott B. St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne: Relics, Reliquaries and the Visual Culture of Group Sanctity in Late Medieval Europe. Bern: Peter Lang, 2010.
Sheingorn, Pamela. “The Passion of St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins.” Vox Benedictina 6.3 (1989).