Warning: strpos(): Empty needle in /homepages/5/d845057890/htdocs/clickandbuilds/LionessatLarge/wp-content/plugins/regenerate-thumbnails-advanced/classes/Environment.php on line 47
German Women Writers: The Middle Ages – Lioness at Large

German Women Writers: The Middle Ages

General introduction to this series of blog posts HERE.

There is a surprising number of medieval German women writers: not in the hundreds, of course; but definitely almost 20 or perhaps even more than 20, which is not necessarily the number I’d have expected, given that literacy was not a widely-taught skill even among men and decidedly less so among women.  Most, though not all of them, were either wives and daughters from wealthy families or (sometimes: and) nuns; some of the latter abbesses or women of similarly high hierarchical standing, though others were humble recluses, and some were among the best-known female mystics of the period.  In all of their cases, their writings offer important insights into women’s lives in the Middle Ages.  I am going to list those for whom I’ve found reasonably informative online biographies just to convey an impression of who they were and what they wrote, though I’ll also note that by far the most important ones are the first two:

  • Roswitha (Hrotsvit(a)) of Gandersheim (ca. 935-973): A secular canoness who wrote drama and Christian poetry during the reign of the Ottonian dynasty, she was born in Bad Gandersheim to Saxon nobles and entered Gandersheim Abbey (in today’s Saxony-Anhalt) as a canoness.  Roswitha — or Hrotsvit(a): the spelling of her name varies widely — is considered the first female writer from the Germanosphere, the first female historian, the first person since the fall of the Roman Empire to write dramas in the Latin West, and the first German female poet.  Her six short dramas, all composed in Latin, are considered to be her most important works: she used them as a response to Roman poet Terence, who had portrayed women as morally unstable and unreliable; she countered by showing (in the same metre as Terence) how a virtuous life did not merely make a woman worthy but also independent of men.  Considered the most remarkable woman of her time and an important figure in the history of women, she is one of the few women who wrote about her life during the early Middle Ages, making her one of the few people to deliberately set out to record a history of women in that era from a woman’s perspective. — Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: A Florilegium of her Works is a modern collection of English translations of the majority of her works.  (“Florilegium” is an ancient term for “collection” or “selection”, in case you’d been wondering.)
  • Hildegard of Bingen (ca. 1098-1179):  Known as the Sibyl of the Rhine, Hildegard was a Benedictine abbess and polymath active as a writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, visionary, and as a medical writer and practitioner during the High Middle Ages. The convent of Disibodenberg in the Palatinate Forest (Pfälzer Wald), where she spent more than 30 years of her life, elected her as magistra (mother superior) in 1136; subsequently she founded the monasteries of Rupertsberg in 1150 and Eibingen in 1165, removing to Rupertsberg (at the confluence of the Nahe and the Rhine, in Bingen) in the year of that monastery’s foundation and living out her life there.  After a complicated history beginning shortly after her death, she was formally canonized and named a Doctor of the Catholic Church in 2012.
  • Hildegard wrote theological, botanical, and medicinal works, as well as letters, poems, hymns, and antiphons for the liturgy; and she supervised miniature illuminations in the Rupertsberg manuscript of her first work, Scivias (Know the Ways of the Lord), a collection of her visions.  There are more surviving chants by Hildegard than by any other composer from the entire Middle Ages, and she is one of the few known composers to have written both the music and the words. One of her works, the Ordo Virtutum, is an early example of liturgical drama and arguably the oldest surviving morality play.  Moreover, Hildegard is noted for the invention of a constructed language known as lingua ignota. — Perhaps most notably, Hildegard interpreted the Bible in such a way as not to offend official doctine while nevertheless giving it a somewhat more pro-female slant; and in her medical texts she not only analized the differences between the male and the female body but also set down practical health advice for women, the writer to do so.
  • For those interested in sampling her works, Penguin has a Selected Works edition; and there are several noted biographies available in English: Sabina Flanagan: Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life; Fiona Maddocks: Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age; and Régine Pernoud: Hildegard of Bingen: Inspired Conscience of the Twelfth Century.  (As per usual, my own favorite biography of a German writer — in this instance, Barbara Beuys’s Denn ich bin krank for Liebe (“For I Am Sick With Love”) — hasn’t been translated.)
  • Ava of Melk (or von Göttweig; ca. 1060-1127): Besides Roswitha / Hrotsvit(a), the first named female writer in any genre in the German language.  Married with two sons, Hartmann and Heinrich, she likely withdrew to the estate of either Göttweig or Melk Abbey in today’s Lower Austria after her husband’s death, while still supporting her sons’ religious clerical pursuits.  She is the author of five poems which focused on Christian themes of salvation and the second coming of Christ; and her work on the lives of John the Baptist and Jesus is considered the first German epic.  Ava is known for her simple rhyming couplets written in the vernacular, making complex biblical teachings accessible to the people of her time.
  • Diemoth of Wessobrunn (ca. 1060-1130): A recluse at Wessobrunn Abbey in Upper Bavaria, where she had herself enclosed in a cell adjoining the church and spent her life in prayer and in transcribing and illuminating 45 manuscripts in the time period between 1075 to 1130; including and in particular the Bible, the Moralia and other works of Pope Gregory I (aka Saint Gregory the Great, 6th century), seven works of Saint Augustine, four of Saint Jerome, two of early Christian scholar Origen of Alexandria (2nd century), and about fifteen liturgical works.  Her name derives from the Middle High German word for “humility” or “modesty” (in contemporary German: “Demut”).
  • Herluka von Bernried (1060-1127, AKA Herluka von Epfach): A laywoman supporter of Gregorian reform, who was documented to have had several visions that directed her life; including and in particular visions that caused her to refuse to attend masses or take consecrated bread from unchaste priests, including the local priest of her native Epfach (near Augsburg, Bavaria). This public rejection of non-celibate priests encouraged others to do the same and raised public support for Gregorian reform.  She later entered Bernried monastery, where she spent the rest of her life.  While living in Epfach, she maintained a correspondence with Diemoth of Wessobrunn (above), which remains extant in part.
  • Elisabeth of Schönau (ca. 1129-1164): A Benedictine visionary; the abbess of Schönau Abbey in the Duchy of Nassau and correspondant of Hildegard of Bingen. Possibly “inspired” by Hildegard, she reportedly experienced numerous religious visions, which were transcribed by her brother Eckebert, then a cleric in Bonn, and for which she became widely sought after by many powerful men as far away as France and England.  Even when her counsel was not sought, however, Elisabeth did not shy away from writing to those in pow and taking them to task when she thought it was warranted, particularly when they seemed to fail to take her, a woman, seriously as a vessel of messages conveyed directly by God.  A number of her visions in themselves also clearly contradict the notion that only men can act as such vessels, e.g., in portraying the Virgin Mary as a messenger of divine love.
  • Herrad of Landsberg (ca. 1130-1195): The abbess of Hohenburg Abbey in the Vosges mountains, Alsace (at the time, part of the Holy Roman Empire, the (con)federation of German states and territories that existed from the 10th century until 1806).  Next to Hildegard of Bingen, Herrad was one of the Middle Ages’ most notable scientists (of either sex); particularly known as the author of the pictorial encyclopedia Hortus deliciarum (The Garden of Delights), completed in 1185: a compendium — mostly written and edited by Herrad herself, though other artists contributed — of all the sciences studied at that time, written for the women in Herrad’s convent, in order to further the teaching of biblical, moral and theological material.
  • Guda (12th century): A nun and illuminator who was one of the first woman to create a signed self-portrait in a manuscript, setting a precedent for female medieval illuminators and manuscript writers in the subsequent centuries.  Guda created this portrait of hers in an initial letter in the 12th century Homiliary of St. Bartholomew, symbolically placed in the ninth homily of St. John Chrysostom, a position ideal for witnessing the Second Coming of Christ. Her inscription, “Guda, a sinner, wrote and painted this book” — above and beyond the standard medieval confession of her sinful ways — specifically described her as the manuscript’s artist, possibly in hope of increasing her chance for salvation. In addition to serving as a self-portrait, this illustrated initial also operates as a portrait signature, identifying Guda as both an individual and a scribe.
  • Mechthild of Magdeburg (ca. 1207-1282): A Magdeburg Beguine and Christian mystic, whose book The Flowing Light of Divinity (Das fließende Licht der Gottheit) is a compendium of visions, prayers, dialogues and mystical accounts.  While other writers (e.g., Ava of Melk) had already composed poetry and plays in German, Mechthild was the first mystic to write in that language.  Her criticism of church dignitaries and her claims to theological insight aroused so much opposition that some called for the burning of her writings. With advancing age, in addition to being isolated and the object of extensive criticism, she also became blind.  Around 1272, she joined the Cistercian nunnery at Helfta near Eisleben, which offered her protection and support in the final years of her life. Here, she finished recording the many divine revelations that she said she had experienced.
  • Gertrude the Great (1256-1302): A Benedictine nun and mystic who is recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church and figures in the General Roman Calendar on November 16, the presumed day of her death (though the real date may have been November 17).  Like Mechthild of Magdeburg (above), she lived at the convent of Helfta near Eisleben in Saxony-Anhalt at the time when that convent was governed by abbess Gertrude of Hackeborn, a highly cultured but also pragmatic woman who, though not a writer herself, reportedly bought or had her nuns copy all the good books that she could lay her hands on, and who required her nuns to be educated in the liberal arts and in the Bible.
  • The nun Gertrud, dubbed “the Great” to distinguish her from her abbess, began to experience visions at age 25, following a spiritual crisis, eventually becoming one of the great mystics of the 13th century, as well as an early progenitor of the dedication to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.  She also wrote a large number of spiritual treatises, the most notable of which is her Herald of Divine Love, a compendium of five books on Christian dogma, the liturgical calendar, and instructions in living a Christian life, obviously intended for an audience beyond that of her fellow nuns, including lay people.  Gertrude the Great may also be one of the authors of the Book of Special Grace, a collection of visions and divine revelations experienced by her teacher, friend and fellow mystic, abbess Gertrude’s younger sister Mechtilde of Hackeborn (AKA Mechtilde of Helfta, AKA “the Nightingale of Helfta” for her beautiful singing voice), who likewise was sainted after her death.
  • Gisela von Kerssenbrock (ca. 1250-1300/01): a nun and illuminator at the Cistercian convent of Rulle (now part of the city of Osnabrück, Lower Saxony).  She probably worked most of her life writing and illustrating manuscripts, as well as being choirmistress; and she is documented as the creator — either writer or initiator and editor, or possibly both — of a volume known as Codex Gisle or Gradual of Gisela von Kerssenbrock, a gradual (hymn book) made for her own convent.  The manuscript contains 52 large illuminated capital initials (so-called “historiated” initials, for the fact that they often depict not merely figures or nonfigurative decorations but actual scenes), two of which include portraits of Gisela.
  • Katherina von Gebersweiler (ca. 1250 – 1330 or 1345): A Dominican nun who was active in the convent at Underlinden (Colmar, Alsace) — which today hosts the museum that features as its price piece the Isenheim Altarpiece — in the 1320s; possibly the convent’s abbess at the time.  She wrote a sisterbook entitled Vitae Sororum, which survives in manuscripts in Paris and Colmar, and which is considered one of the earliest (perhaps even the earliest) text of this kind, recording the lives and religious experience of her fellow nuns, as well as allowing crucial insights into the history of the Dominican order and a deeper understanding of the medieval female mystics.  Little is known about Katherina’s own life; however, the excellent quality of the Latin in which her text is drafted indicates that she must have had a first class education.
  • Christina Ebner (1277-1356): A writer, mystic and nun at Engelthal monastery near Nuremberg, where during the last decades of her life she was a contemporary of Adelheid Langmann (below).  Christina, a descendant of the same Ebner family from which, over half a millennium later, would descend 19th century writer Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (see post on German women writers from the 19th century), was the author of several books: the first one, Life and Revelations, begun when she had barely reached her teens, was a record of her life and the visions that she had started to experience within a year from her entrance into the convent.  Her second book, Of the Burden of Grace, was a so-called sister-book, recording the mystical visions and life experiences of the other nuns in her monastery.  This was followed by a second book of Revelations, in which she dealt with historical and political events of the time, such as the outbreak of the Black Death, the 1348 Friuli earthquake and Nuremberg riots, and the long dispute between German Emperor Louis IV “the Bavarian” and Pope John XXII; taking a personal stance on the events and trying to actively influence their course.  Her efforts were recognized in the highest of places when Louis IV’s successor, Emperor Charles IV, visited her monastery in 1350 to seek her guidance and prayers. — In addition to her book-length writings, Christina also maintained a detailed correspondence with Margareta Ebner (below, no relation), as well as with the priest Henry (Heinrich) of Nördlingen, the spiritual advisor of Margareta Ebner and translator of Mechthild of Magdeburg’s work The Flowing Light of Divinity (above).
  • Margareta Ebner (1291-1351): A nun at the Dominican convent of Mödingen near Augsburg (Bavaria) who, from her early 20s on, experienced a series of spiritual visions containing messages from Jesus Christ, which she recorded in letters and in a journal, kept in her native Swabian dialect and preserved in manuscript.  The backdrop of much of her religious life, like that of Christina Ebner (above), was the bitter dispute between Pope John XXII and Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Bavarian, in which she and her convent faithfully backed Louis, while her spiritual advisor Henry (Heinrich) of Nördlingen sided with the Pope.  Their correspondence, like that between Henry and Christina Ebner, is among the first collections of this kind in the German language.  Besides her exchange with Henry of Nördlingen and Christina Ebner, Margareta Ebner also maintained an extensive correspondence with the Dominican preacher Johannes Tauler, a disciple of Meister Eckhart with a leaning towards neo-platonist teachings.
  • Anna von Munzingen (early 14th century, prior to 1300 – after 1327): A prioress of the Dominican convent of Adelhausen near Freiburg, and a descendant of a well known noble Freiburg family. In 1318 she wrote a “chronicle” of the mystical experiences of her nuns in the work Adelhausener Schwesternbuch (Sister-book of the Adelhausen Covent).  The text was originally composed in Latin, but only a Middle High German translation survives. The chronicle comprises a collection of thirty-seven biographies of the sisters, focussing on visions, theophanies (revelations of God), and mystical experiences.  Anna focussed entirely on the experiences of the women within the convent, emphasizing a sense of independence from the friars, whom many of the sisters resented. The work belongs to a genre known as sister-books, which was also known from other German convents of the period, including Christine Ebner and Katherina von Gebersweiler (above). Because nuns were not given the same privileges as friars to participate in sermon activities, this genre became ideal for women like Anna, Christine and Katherina to express themselves in writing.  (Image of the first page of Anna’s chronicle included to the left in lieu of the apparently nonexistant depiction of Anna herself.)
  • Adelheid Langmann (ca. 1306–1375): A contemporary and fellow nun of Christina Ebner (above) at the Dominican order at Engelthal Abbey near Nuremberg in the 14th century (image below … in lieu of the apparently non-existing depiction of Adelheid). Similar to Christina, she is best known for a text named Revelations, which consists of autobiographical details, prayers, religious instruction, letters, records of visions and other accounts, and which is addressed to her fellow women, often utilizing phrases such as ‘dear sisters’ or ‘fellow sisters’. Langmann’s instructions in the Revelations are a guide on attaining salvation, chiefly through prayer and meditation. She was a renowned spiritual teacher during her lifetime, although she was not permitted to hold any official position, and it was common for visitors to the abbey — laborers and local residents as well as members of the clergy and the aristocracy — to seek her out particularly in order to receive religious instruction from her own lips.
  • Clara Hätzlerin (ca. 1430-1476): A professional scribe in 15th century Augsburg, the only medieval woman of record to have acted in this capacity; transcribing codes and other legal and administrative books and documents.  She had probably learned to write from her father, who owned a business as a scribe and a notary, and who in that capacity was commissioned to write letters and handle the legal affairs of the illiterate rich.  Clara’s manuscripts (example signed by her pictured to the left) are considered important peleographical records, because she wrote in an excellently-readable blackletter script typical of her place and period of history.  Moreover, her 1471 Liederbuch (songbook), a varied collection of love poems and an important literary manuscript in its own right, was among the sources used by composer Carl Orff for his tragic opus Die Bernauerin (“The Bernau Woman”, 1947), based on the life of Agnes Bernauer, a commoner who became the mistress of the 15th century nobleman who would later become Albert III, Duke of Bavaria; a liaison that so infuriated Albert’s father Ernest, the ruling Duke of Bavaria at the time, that he had Agnes arrested, condemned for witchcraft and drowned in the Danube.
  • Aleidis Raiscop (1449-1507): A Benedictine nun and writer known for her philological and German-Latin translation capabilities.  She learned to read and write as a child in Goch (Lower Rhine), possibly at a grammar school funded by her uncle, and after having spent a few years at important other monasteries of the period (Maria Laach and Xanten), at age eighteen she relocated as a master scholar to the monastery of Rolandswerth (later renamed Nonnenwerth) near Bonn.  Over time, she established a reputation as an accomplished writer, inter alia composing seven Latin homilies about the Apostle Paul, as well as for her gift of creating perfect Latin translations of German texts; e.g., by translating a German text on Holy Mass into Latin.  Her contemporary and noted writer and humanist Johannes Butzbach, then prior of the monastery at Maria Laach, highly praised her works and dedicated his 1505 book De illustribus mulieribus (“On Distinguished Women”) to Aleidis, favorably comparing her to other famous Benedictine nuns such as Hildegard of Bingen.

One thought on “German Women Writers: The Middle Ages”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Literature Reviews

Adventures in Arda

Note: This was my summer 2022 project — but while I posted the associated project pages here at the time (Middle-earth and its sub-project pages concerning the people and peoples, timeline, geography, etc. of Arda and Middle-earth, see enumeration under the Boromir meme, below), I never got around to also copying this introductory post from […]

Read More
Literature Reviews

Michael J. Sullivan: Riyria

The Riyria Revelations are the fantasy series that brought Michael J. Sullivan instant recognition back in the late 2000s.  Originally published as a series of six installments, they are now available as a set of three books, with each of the three books comprising two volumes of the original format.  As he did with almost […]

Read More
Literature Reviews

Michael J. Sullivan: Legends of the First Empire

Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria books have been on my TBR for a while, but until I’d read two short stories from the cycle — The Jester and Professional Integrity — I hadn’t been sure whether his writing would be for me.  Then I found out that (much like Tolkien’s Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and The History […]

Read More