Franciscan Saints: Jutta von Sangerhausen

Last time I wrote briefly about the life of Jutta von Sangerhausen, who has often been seen as a Franciscan tertiary. The more I have studied her, the more fascinating she has become. Her life was truly radical! In particular, I am fascinated by her striving to be imitate St. Elizabeth’s way of life, and she does in many ways resemble Elizabeth; she was from Thuringia, and was a widow with children who nevertheless desired a life of perfect poverty, and carried out great works of charity.

Studying her life in light of the lives of the early Franciscan women is very revealing. In fact, I think my study of Elizabeth and the Franciscan women in Germany can contribute to study of Jutta. For this reason, I’m going to take advantage of this post and the next to talk about her and what I’ve discovered about the relation of her life to that of St. Elizabeth and other Franciscan sisters of her time.

Jutta-Sanctuary-1

Christ appears to Jutta; from her sanctuary in Bielczyny, near Chelmza, Poland.

Until recently, scholars were able to say very little about the life of Jutta (Judith) of Sangerhausen. There was disagreement not just about whether she was a Franciscan tertiary, but about some of the most basic facts about her life.

Apart from the contemporary notice of Jutta by Mechthild of Magdeburg, which I quoted last time, and which shows the great importance she had in her own time, the only early material that survives can be found in a seventeenth-century biography by a Polish Jesuit named Fryderyk Szembek, who says he made use of an old manuscript containing the material sent to Rome around 1275 when the diocese of Kulmsee in Prussia (now Chelmza in Poland), where Jutta died, wanted to open her canonization process. In fact, one scholar believes his whole life in Polish was more or less a transcription and translation, with some additions, from this Latin document, which Szembek calls the Informatio.[1] Other scholars believe that his source was actually a thirteenth-century life of Jutta based on these testimonies.[2] The truth is difficult to determine, given that the original documents have since disappeared, and the canonization process seems never to have been taken up by Rome. (In the seventeenth century, Jutta was recognized as having a local cult from the time of her death, and so was declared Blessed in 1637 by the bishop of Kulmsee).[3]

But compared to the other sixteenth and seventeenth-century chroniclers,[4] Szembek’s work provides the clearest and most accurate information. Happily there has recently been a renewal of interest in Jutta in the places she lived, Germany and Poland, and a number of scholars have begun to examine the sources in more detail.

Here is what seems certain, based on the earliest sources:

sangerhausen-jutta-sangerhausen-platz-29092012-35996

The town of Sangerhausen, Germany, where Jutta was born.

We don’t know exactly when Jutta was born, but it may have been sometime between 1215 and 1220.[5] She was evidently born in Sangerhausen in Thuringia, where St. Elizabeth lived with her husband. She was from a noble family, but we don’t know the family’s identity; evidently Jutta didn’t speak of it in her later life.

Jutta was very devout from her earliest years. Not long after she passed the age of ten, she asked God to direct her life in this world. God then revealed to her that she would marry, live only a few years with her husband, and that all their children would enter religious life. She was consequently married, most likely in her teens, as was the custom, to a nobleman, whose name does not appear in the early sources. They did have children, but it is not certain how many.

Jutta practiced all the virtues proper to a Christian wife; she lived peacefully with her husband, raised her children to obey God, and was kind to the servants and especially compassionate toward the poor. Her husband once expressed some dissatisfaction that she didn’t spend more on her clothes, which, while fitting to her rank, were not magnificent. Jutta replied that it seemed unnecessary to her to adorn so magnificently a body that would one day be decayed, and added: “For the one who gives alms does not lose his money; rather it is invested in Christ. . . and he gives an unfailing return.”[6]

During her life as a young wife and mother, Jutta longed to imitate the life of voluntary poverty that St. Elizabeth lived after her husband’s death. In response, Jesus appeared to her and said: “Follow the example of my life.” Jutta strove to do this; she spent a great deal of time meditating on the life and passion of Jesus. and in time, she obtained great mystical heights.

While the children were still young, Jutta’s husband went on pilgrimage (or perhaps a crusade) to the Holy Land and died there. In this way, the Lord’s word to her was fulfilled, that she would live only a few years with her husband. Jutta now had to run the household on her own, and bring up her children, who in time all entered the clergy or religious life. After this, she felt free to follow the path that Jesus had marked out for her.

After consulting with her confessor, she sold all her possessions to give to the poor, and not only that, “she stripped herself of everything, so that she did not have her own refuge, in which she might hide herself at harsh weather, imitating him who, on account of our salvation, although he was Lord of the whole world, did not have a place to lay his head.” Throwing aside her expensive clothes, she “dressed in coarse and poor garments and girded herself with a cord in memory of Christ her Spouse, who on account of us was bound with cords.”[7]

Around 1635, Franciscan chronicler Luke Wadding examined the same early life used by Szembek, and must have noticed this mention of the Jutta’s love for poverty and total stripping of herself, as well as her girding herself with a cord, and interpreted it in a Franciscan sense; this is most likely why he wrote: “Having assumed the way of life (instituto) of the Third Order of St. Francis, she distributed the possessions left to her by her husband to the poor for the love of God and of voluntary poverty.”[8] He was apparently the first to suggest that Jutta was a Franciscan tertiary. The cord as an indication of Elizabeth’s following of St. Francis also appears in the Anonymous Franciscan life of Elizabeth. There is also a Franciscan tradition that Francis chose the cord in memory of Christ being bound. Not all scholars, however, think that Wadding’s conclusion about Jutta adhering to the Franciscans is justified.[9] I will go into this more later.

Jutta went out to beg in the public square and even went from door to door, often helping and leading the lame and sick beggars, who had to lie on little carts or lean on crutches to get around. She begged at the doors of people who had once seen her as a great lady. She bore resulting insults and derision patiently and even cheerfully. Our Lord appeared to her again, consoling her with the reward promised in the Gospel, “Everything that is mine is yours, and everything that is yours is mine.”[10]

This is what St. Elizabeth had also desired to do when she first heard about Franciscan poverty, telling her handmaids that she wanted to go begging one day “for the love of God”; later she asked Master Conrad to be allowed to beg from door to door.[11] Knowing this, Jutta’s way of life does not seem so incredible, though she succeeded in actually begging, where Elizabeth did not.

After a time, Jutta dedicated herself to the service of the sick, traveling from town to town and region to region in different hospices. She washed their heads afflicted with scabies and bandaged their most repulsive sores, seeing in them the wounds of Christ himself.

We also read from the earliest source that in time, she acquired some “pious female companions,” This detail is fascinating, since it matches up with what we learn from Elizabeth’s canonization process:

[Elizabeth's] faithful friend, brother Gherard of the order of Friars Minor . . . declared that he also saw a certain other noblewoman, a relative of the Roman Emperor Frederick, with whom he had a conversation for one whole day over many things pertaining to salvation, [and] who, following the life of blessed Elizabeth in a cord and habit as abject as it was humble, walking barefoot, actually asked for the alms necessary for herself from the Friars Minor just as faithfully as she did humbly. The same brother declared that he saw a large number of other very noble women living in a very similar way.[12]

We know that in Germany at this time, there were women called the Elizabethines (Elisabethinen or Elisabeterinnin), who lived the common life around hospitals, churches and “Houses of Mercy” that served the poor. It is quite believable then that Jutta was able to join with other women who perhaps like her had been inspired by St. Elizabeth.[13]

Jutta soon began to concentrate on caring for the lepers, who “she chose for her lords on earth.”[14] Rather than accept food from the lepers and take away from their substance, Jutta would eat grass and herbs she acquired for herself. But she did not hesitate to share eat food the lepers had touched; once, when a leper woman had been given the Eucharist but was too ill to swallow it, Jutta took it from her mouth and consumed it.

Altarfigur

The oldest representation of Jutta that I have found, from a fifteenth-century altarpiece of the Church of St. Anne in Moeckern, not far from Magdeburg, Germany. She is holding her symbol of the sun. I have no idea why she is wearing a crown, since she wasn’t royalty.

Once when Jutta and her companions were on the road seeking some necessities for the lepers, they lost their way when it became dark; they were in a lonely field on a moonless night a long distance from their destination. The other women became frightened. Jutta knelt and prayed, and suddenly the place was flooded with daylight; the sun seemed to have risen again. They were able to find the road and get to their destination, and the sun set again, to the amazement of the bystanders. This miracle has long been Jutta’s symbol; in works of art she is shown holding the sun in her hands.

The early source adds that Jutta “also wrote and provided a pious way of life or rule for the lepers according to their condition and necessity in different regions and cities.”[15] Unfortunately, we aren’t given any more details about this, but it probably refers not only to the way of life of the lepers, but the sisters caring for them

Another facet of Elizabeth’s life that Jutta shared, one that scholars have not known about until the publication of the Anonymous Franciscan, is her desire for the life of a recluse or solitary. It is remarkably similar in some ways to what Elizabeth desired. In fact, Elizabeth spoke with Franciscan brother Gherard “about the inestimable treasure of precious poverty”: About this, Elizabeth said: “Since it is a question about holy poverty for me, I desire with all my heart that in the crossroads outside the walls there should be a cell for me of muddy straw and earth and that in front of the little door or window, there might be a linen thread fixed on which is to be hung a small vessel in which passersby would place alms by which I should be sustained. . . as it is customary to do for poor lepers.”[16]

Even without being able to live as a recluse and devote all of her time in prayer, Elizabeth reached great mystical heights, as did Jutta. The earliest source tells us:

Christ himself appeared and not only permitted her, as with his beloved apostle John, to incline her head on his breast, or with Thomas, to touch the most pure wounds of his body, but actually kindly permitted her to place her mouth to the wound opened in his side and from it to suck wondrous heavenly sweetness with ineffable solace of her soul.[17]

Elizabeth was never able to live the way of life of a recluse because she wanted to also maintain her work for the poor. Jutta’s dilemma was very similar. After a time, she sought from God in prayer how she might live a more contemplative life in “woods and deserted places,” and was inspired by him to travel to Prussia. There she would live a life of contemplation on the frontiers of the Church in a time of conflict and affect the lives of both the faithful and converts from paganism.

The next (and last) installment will be about this last period of Jutta’s life; I will also talk more about her possible Franciscan identity and her sanctuary in Poland.

NOTES

[1] In 1938, Hans Westphal published his study of the sources and reconstruction of the text of the Informatio. His monograph on Jutta is invaluable. It was published in a very obscure journal in German, but I managed to get hold of it: “Untersuchungen über Jutta von Sangerhausen,” Zeitschrift fuer Geschichte und Altertumskunde Ermlands, no. 27 (1938): 515-96.

[2] Balasz Nemes, “Jutta von Sangehausen (13. Jahrhundert): Eine ‘neue Heilige’ im Gefolge der heiligen Elisabeth von Thüringen?” Zeitschrift für Thüringische Geschichte 63 (2009): 39-73. He examines and critiques Westphal’s work closely, and is a valuable contribution to research on Jutta.

[3] See Szembek, in Westphal, p. 539; the declaration by Bishop Jan Lipski took place on April 15, 1637.

[4] Among these writers are Simon of Grunau, who wrote his Preussischer Chronik in 1520 and Martin Baronius, who wrote around 1609. Their work is printed in Scriptores rerum Prussicarum 2 (Leipzig, 1863): 376-78.

[5] We know from the Informatio that as a young wife and mother, Jutta greatly desired to imitate Elizabeth’s life of voluntary poverty, which she lived after her husband’s death from 1227-1231.Westphal accepts a date of 1220 for Jutta’s birth, based on one seventeenth-century author, Baronius, though much of the earlier author’s other information is erroneous, because he felt it fit the known circumstances of Jutta’s life (“Untersuchungen,” p. 555). But this date it is not completely satisfactory. A marriage in 1235, her husband dying after 1245 and the children entering religious life around 1250 leaves little time for Jutta’s wide-ranging travels and service to the sick and lepers in other parts of Germany before she went to Prussia in 1256. Jutta was probably married at the normal age of 15 or so, and her children were not yet adolescent at the time her husband died, so a birth date around 1215 would fit her being married around 1230, her husband dying around 1238-1240, and (presuming at least two children) her youngest child entering religious life in 1245-48, which would leave a bit more time for her labors before she went to Prussia before going to Prussia in 1256.

[6] Informatio, no. 4; Westphal, pp. 579-80.

[7] Informatio, no. 13; Westphal, pp. 582-83.

[8] Wadding, Annales Minorum, an. 1264, XII. Wadding says that in the artistic representations of Jutta he had seen, most likely from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, “her clothing and habit are depicted in gray without a mantle or cloak, with a rather wide belt of leather [and] a veil on her head.” (ibid.) This representation is most likely due to a later legend related by Baronius that she had been an Augustinian sister. There was a sisterhood of this order in Kulmsee, but this was probably after Jutta’s time.

[9] In particular, Nemes rejects Wadding’s view; “Jutta von Sangerhausen,” pp. 55-56.

[10] Informatio in Westphal, no. 15, pp. 583-84.

[11] “Statements of the Four Handmaids of St. Elizabeth,” in Lori Pieper, The Greatest of These is Love, the Life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary (New York: Tau Cross Books and Media, 2014), p. 129, and “Letter by Conrad of Marburg,” ibid., p. 115.

[12] Anonymous Franciscan Life in Lori Pieper, 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), p.

[13] Pieper, Voice of a Medieval Woman, p. 230.

[14] Informatio, no. 23 in Westphal, p. 586.

[15] Informatio, no. 24 in Westphal, p. 586.

[16] Anonymous Franciscan Life in Pieper, Voice of a Medieval Woman, pp. 172-73.

[17] Informatio in Westphal, no. 18, pp. 584-85.


Join the conversation!