How Medieval People Read Saints’ Lives

Franciscan Saints, March-April 2017

I can see that preparing a more detailed post on Bl. Ludovica is going to take some time, as I work my way through her seventeenth-century biography, so I want to take a little time out to share a fascinating manuscript discovery I recently made about St. Elizabeth of Hungary, which will also give me a chance to talk about how medieval people read saints’ lives, as witnessed by biographies of her in the vernacular.

elisabethpriant(avecange)BNfr185When I was studying for my Ph.D. in History at Fordham, I took a course in Manuscript Culture. The word “culture” is important. A few years previously, our course work in this area would have been limited to classes called Textual Criticism or Manuscript Editing, and would have been limited to teaching us how to recover the original text of a work from the various manuscripts. The new name is representative of an important change in the scholarly approach to the subject that took place before I began my studies. Now, as I discovered in class, looking at a manuscript can yield more than just a text: it can offer historians a rewarding glimpse into the people and culture that produced and used the manuscript. Manuscripts can often tell very interesting stories about their users. So I thought it would be fun to use my recent accidental discovery of a manuscript about St. Elizabeth of Hungary to illustrate for my readers what historians can find out from this kind of study.

My discovery took place at the end of March, while I was searching on Gallica, the online digital collection of books and manuscripts of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, hoping to find a digital back issue of the journal Esprit et Vie for a project I was working on. My search query didn’t return what I was looking for, but it did bring up a medieval manuscript called in French “Vies des saints” (lives of the saints). Immediately curious, I clicked on the file, and found that it contained a life of St. Elizabeth. This was a delightful surprise, since back in 2008-2011, when I was working on my documentary on her, many of the manuscripts of the library had not yet been digitized, or at least only their illuminated miniatures had, so this opened up a new world to me.

The manuscript is BN francais 13496, which, judging by the style of the script, was written sometime between 1270 and 1320.[1] It has a number of miniatures, including one of St. Elizabeth, but unfortunately was digitized only in black and white.

First, the text: The life of St. Elizabeth is a rather close French translation of the Libellus, which contains the longer version of the testimonies of Elizabeth’s handmaids at her canonization process. But it has an introduction of its own, not found in other versions. It not only traces her ancestry from the Hungarian Arpad dynasty, but describes her family’s relation to the Capetian royal house of France. The author notes that Agnes of Meran, sister of Elizabeth’s mother, Gertrude, was married to King Philip Augustus of France, and had a son, Philip, the count of Boulogne (St. Elizabeth’s first cousin). It also notes “Ses freres ot nom li rois Bela, qui encore regnoit l’an de l’incarnation Notre Seingnour mil et cc et lxiii” [Her brother was named King Bela (of Hungary), who was still reigning in the year of the Incarnation of our Lord 1263].[2] This gives us a very good idea of when this life was written: in 1263, or very shortly thereafter, and that it was written by someone with an interest in royal genealogy. This makes it the earliest vernacular translation of the Libellus I know of, and this alone makes it of interest, though it is far from the only interesting thing about it.

illumination-1The subject of the small, rather clumsy miniature of St. Elizabeth inside the initial at the beginning of the life is hard to identify, since it doesn’t really fit the known iconography. Elizabeth is alone, kneeling in prayer, on or alongside what looks like a draped colored cloth falling near her, and on the other side, an object draped in white cloth. My guess is that it portrays a scene from the Libellus where Elizabeth, as a young married woman, prays at night by her and her noble husband Ludwig’s bed, which is surrounded by bed curtains.

The manuscript contains the lives of several saints closely associated with hospital work, or who were patrons of the sick or of those with certain diseases. St. Julian the Hospitaller, St. Julianna (patron of the sick), St. Lazarus (after whom many leper hospitals were named), St. Lucy (patron of those suffering from diseases of the eyes), and of course, St. Elizabeth, famous for her founding of hospitals. The lives in the manuscript are in different hands and were evidently put together after being copied, so they were most likely chosen with this theme in mind. The manuscript has a close connection with the Burgundian house as well, for it also contains a life of the ninth-century nobleman, Girart de Roussillon, an ancestor of the Dukes of Burgundy.

Though we don’t know who wrote the life of Elizabeth, we can feel sure that it was someone who wanted to portray her as a noblewoman, a lay saint, and, as the introduction shows her, a royal relative of French kings. The miniature in this manuscript is in line with this, since rather than showing her visions or miracles, it shows her devotion as a married laywoman. From this much alone, we can guess that her life became part of the manuscript it did because she was a noblewoman who cared for the poor and sick, and that the manuscript may have been written for a hospital or group of people who cared for the sick, and had some connection to the dukes of Burgundy.

There are still more clues that confirm this. We know that by the fifteenth century the manuscript belonged to the Hôpital Saint-Esprit in Dijon because it contains a fifteenth-century copy of its charter, issued by Eudes II, duke of Burgundy, who founded it in 1204. The hospital belonged to the Order of the Hospitallers of the Holy Spirit, founded by a French nobleman, Bl. Guy de Montpellier around 1180. Modeled on the military orders, its members were largely laymen, often knights, and sometimes married; they were dedicated to serving “the destitute in life,” including abandoned children. The houses began in France and spread to Italy, and soon there were a large number throughout Europe. Pope Innocent III confirmed the order by a bull in 1198.

The hospital in Dijon was also under the protection of the subsequent dukes of Burgundy, as witnessed by the fact that the coat of the arms of Philip the Good, who was duke from 1419 to 1457, and who built a chapel for the hospital, was also added to the manuscript in the fifteenth century. Most likely it was copied for a hospital foundation elsewhere and in the fifteenth century was donated to the hospital in Dijon by Philip the Good, who had the coats of arms added. It is also clear that both the noble dukes of Burgundy and the noble brothers of the hospital were highly interested in Elizabeth’s story.

The fact that the life is in the vernacular is telling. Those of the nobility who could read may or may not have been able to read Latin, as the priest chaplains at the hospital could, but some of them could read their native language, and the number of manuscripts in the vernacular was growing at this time. Elizabeth’s canonization process contains a vivid description of her charity and hospital work. Having it put into the vernacular gave many of the hospital brothers a chance to learn of it. It is touching to learn of the devotion of hospital workers to St. Elizabeth; many groups of hospital sisters in France named their congregations after her from the thirteenth century on.[3]

Even more intriguing: after a short search I found another manuscript of this same life in the Bibliotheque Nationale! It is Ms. francais 185, written around 1350, and contains a legend dorée by Jehan de Belet.[4] This life begins: Ci commence la vie sainte Elysabel de hongrie qui fut cordelière [Here begins the life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary who was a cord-bearer]. The word cordelier was beginning to be used for Friars Minor at that time. This title is right above a miniature of St. Elizabeth’s vision of Christ in which she is dressed in what looks like a brown Franciscan habit (top of page). This portrayal and description of her fit in with the growing recognition of Elizabeth as a Tertiary in the early fourteenth century. I don’t know if a Franciscan convent commissioned this manuscript, or if the illuminator just made use of general knowledge about the order. I used this miniature in the documentary, but was unable to read the rest of the manuscript, which had evidently not been digitized at the time. [5]

BNLatNouvAcq688folpauvresAnother interesting use of the vernacular can be found in a manuscript from the same library, BN nouv. acq. latine 868, from Seville Spain, which is a small manuscript of the office for St. Elizabeth in Latin, with some large miniatures illustrating her life (some of which I used in the documentary). The short life of St. Elizabeth used for the readings at the office, however, is written in both Latin and in an abbreviated fashion in medieval Spanish. I think this would have most likely belonged to a convent of Poor Clares or Franciscan tertiary women; it would have allowed them, while singing the Latin office, to listen to the readings in their native language.

One last illustration, from a manuscript I have examined personally: MS. 42 of the Union Theological Seminary in New York (now part of Columbia University’s Burke Library). It is a small volume, dated 1518, containing a translation into German of the Vita of St. Elizabeth by the Dominican friar Dietrich of Apolda, which was written around 1297. On the last page is apparently a note of ownership: anno domini xvvxviii Domina Anna Frankensteyn monasterii Fontiis Sanctae Marie in Weydas. “In the year of Our Lord 1518, Lady Anna Frankensteyn, of the Monastery of Mariabrunn in Weyda.”

DietrichI wasn’t able to identify this monastery. There are several monasteries and convents for women in the area of Weida, including a Cistercian and a Premonstratensian foundation, but none seems to have been called Mariabrunn, “Mary’s spring,” or anything similar. Many of them would have had among their ranks noblewomen like Anna, who clearly enjoyed reading about St. Elizabeth.

This inscription may or may not be in Lady Anna’s hand, but it is interesting that she had it done in Latin, while the rest of the manuscript is in German. Perhaps she wanted to show her learning? Or was it written by someone else? This was just at the time printing was becoming popular, and soon Elizabeth’s life in German and other languages would be available to everyone.

One last note:

Today is the feast day of Bl. Jutta (Judith) of Sangerhausen, who died ca. 1260. She is often listed among the saints as a Franciscan tertiary; the early sources for her life say that she greatly desired to imitate St. Elizabeth. The tale of her life and her possible affiliation with the Franciscan tertiaries is filled with considerable mystery, and I hope to do a post on her in the future. Her feast day is generally celebrated on May 5, but is listed in some places as being today, May 12. Her is what one of her contemporaries, Mechtild von Magdeburg, said about her in her revelations, called The Flowing Light of the Godhead, probably written shortly after 1270:

At that time when the Tartar people were raging through the world and were killing many people, the Lord said to me: “I have sent Sister Jutta von Sangerhausen, a pious and devout widow, into exile to the pagans, so that by her prayers she might help them and convert them and that by her good example she might appeal to them and proclaim my name.”[6]

Jutta is one of the five saints that Mechtild said were especially sent as messengers for her time, the others being St. Francis, St. Dominic, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, and St. Peter Martyr. Sangerhausen is in Thuringia, where St. Elizabeth lived, and Jutta went to live as a kind of recluse in Kulm, which at that time was in Prussia, but is now in Poland. The place had just recently suffered a devastating invasion by the fierce tribe of Tartars and Jutta went to live among them. She was a true saint of the peripheries, at Pope Francis would say!

[1] This, as well as a few other details, was noted in the description of the manuscript on Gallica.

[2] Bela IV, who succeeded his (and Elizabeth’s) father, Andrew II, reigned from1235-1270.

[3] See Lori Pieper, OFS, “Elizabeth’s Influence on the Women’s Franciscan Movement,” The Voice of a Medieval Woman: St. Elizabeth of Hungary as a Franciscan Penitent in the Early Sources for Her Life (New York: Tau Cross Books and Media 2016), pp. 215-242.

[4] Many historians have assumed from this title that Jehan was a translator of Jacobus de Varagine’s Golden Legend, the famous collection of saints’ lives from the 1260s. But while some of the lives in this manuscript are clearly taken from Jacobus, many of the lives are completely different from his, including this life of Elizabeth. See Paul Meyer, “Notice sur trois legendiers français attribués a Jean Belet,” Notices et extraits des manuscrits de la bibliotheque nationale et autres bibliotheques, tome 36, 2me partie (Paris, 1901), pp. 409-486, and Pierce Butler, Legenda Aurea – Legende Dor ée – Golden Legend: A study of Caxton’s Golden Legend (Baltimore, 1899), pp. 20-49. There is another French translation of Jacobus, attributed to Jehan de Vignay, which does contain a close translation of his life of Elizabeth. The Bibliotheque nationale contains two manuscripts of this compilation.

[5] Even more intriguing is another manuscript of what appears to be the same life in the British Library, Add MS 17275; it begins Ci après conmence la vie sainte Elizabel de Hongrie, laquele fu cordelière, et de pluseurs autres veuves et matrosnes qui reçurent l’abit pour lamour de li. [Here begins the life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, who was a cordeliere, and of several other widows and matrons who received the habit for love of her]. I am very curious to learn whether the “other widows and matrons” is a reference to Elizabeth’s companions Guda, Isentrude, Ermengard and Elisabeth, as I suspect it is, or whether any other woman in Elizabeth’s habit are mentioned, as the Anonymous Franciscan says (this type of addition is very frequent in medieval manuscripts). Unfortunately, I was unable to get access to this manuscript; it can only be read at the library. This manuscript was most likely circulated among the Franciscans, including the tertiaries.

[6] Lux divinitatis II, 18:2-5), according to the typescript of the project Texteditionen lateinischer Mystik aus dem Kloster Helfta, ed. Ernst Hellegardt, Elke Senne and Balasz J. Nemes; de Gruyter, 2010.

Join the conversation!