Elisabeth of Schönau
Saint Elisabeth of Schönau
|Died||18 June 1164|
Schönau Abbey, Strüth, Germany
|Venerated in||Roman Catholic Church|
Elisabeth of Schönau (c. 1129 – 18 June 1164) was a German Benedictine visionary.[a] She was an abbess at the Schönau Abbey in the Duchy of Nassau, and experienced numerous religious visions, for which she became widely sought after by many powerful men as far away as France and England.
In the mid-12th century, Elisabeth of Schönau blurred the conventional gender roles of the time through the dissemination of her visions. Elisabeth lived during a time when women were viewed as the weaker sex, both mentally and physically.(p349) Unless a woman were to join a convent or a religious movement, she was expected to marry and to bear children. If a woman did choose the life of celibacy, she would be freed from her association with female weakness, thus exempting her from the charge of corrupting males through seduction. While celibacy offered women a sense of freedom, a woman could not officiate in the central practices of the Christian religion, leaving women essentially powerless. Elisabeth of Schönau, however, was far from powerless, as her visions led her to acquire enough notoriety to be known far and wide. Elisabeth became not only a local celebrity as a result of her visions, but gained popularity throughout other parts of Germany, as well as in France and England.(p352) This enabled Elisabeth to have her own voice, to be known as an individual, and to be sought after in an effort to acquire heavenly advice by high-ranking men, including bishops and abbots.(p352) For men of such high order to call upon a woman is extremely significant given the time period in which Elisabeth lived. Elisabeth's visions, as well as her twenty-two letters to bishops, abbots, and abbesses, enabled her to transcend the traditional gender roles of the time by making her widely known and giving her an individual voice.
Elisabeth was born about 1129, of an obscure family named Hartwig. She was educated at the double monastery of Schönau in Nassau and made her profession as a Benedictine in 1147. In 1157 she became abbess of the nuns under the supervision of Abbot Hildelin. F.W.E. Roth points out that in the 12th century only women of noble birth were promoted to spiritual offices in the Benedictine order; it seems probable that Elisabeth was of noble birth.
Her hagiography describes her as given to works of piety from her youth, much afflicted with bodily and mental suffering, a zealous observer of the Rule of Saint Benedict and of the regulation of her convent, and devoted to practices of mortification. In the years 1147 to 1152 Elisabeth suffered recurrent disease, anxiety and depression as a result of her strict asceticism. St. Hildegard of Bingen admonished Elisabeth in letters to be prudent in the ascetic life.
In 1152, Elisabeth began to experience ecstatic visions of various kinds. These generally occurred on Sundays and Holy Days at Mass or Divine Office or after hearing or reading the lives of saints. Christ, the Virgin Mary, an angel, or the special saint of the day would appear to her and instruct her; or she would see quite realistic representations of the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension, or other scenes of the Old and New Testaments.
What Elisabeth saw and heard she put down on wax tablets. Her abbot, Hildelin, told her to relate these things to her brother Eckebert, then a cleric at Saint Cassius in Bonn, who acted as an editor.(p36) At first she hesitated fearing lest she be deceived or be looked upon as a deceiver; but she obeyed. Eckebert (who became a monk of Schönau in 1155 and eventually succeeded Hildelin as second abbot) put everything in writing, later arranged the material at leisure, and then published all under his sister's name. While this relationship between brother and sister allowed for Elisabeth's wide broadcasting of her visionary experiences, it is evident that Eckebert attempted to have a degree of authority over Elisabeth.(p38) Elisabeth's response to Eckebert's efforts regarding certain visions is just one example of how Elisabeth's actions blurred the conventional gender roles.
The events in the first book probably took place before Hildelin intervened and told her to write these things down, while the things in the later books may have been after this point in time and occurred when Elisabeth had already begun writing.
Thus came into existence three books of "Visions". Of these the first is written in language very simple and in unaffected style. The other two are more elaborate and replete with theological terminology.
- "Liber viarum Dei". This seems to be an imitation of the Scivias (scire vias Domini) of St. Hildegarde of Bingen, her friend and correspondent. It contains admonitions to all classes of society, to the clergy and laity, to the married and unmarried. Here the influence of Eckebert is plain. She utters prophetic threats of judgment against priests who are unfaithful shepherds of the flock of Christ, against the avarice and worldliness of the monks who only wear the garb of poverty and self-denial, against the vices of the laity, and against bishops and superiors delinquent in their duty; she urges all to combat earnestly the heresy of the Cathari; she declares Victor IV, the antipope supported by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I against Pope Alexander III, as the one chosen of God. All of this appears in Eckebert's own writings.
- The revelation on the martyrdom of St. Ursula and her companions. This is full of fantastic exaggerations and anachronisms, but has become the foundation of the subsequent Ursula legends.
The first diary opens with an account of the devil appearing to her in various forms to torment her. She wrote down many supposed conversations between herself and the saints, Mary, her guardian angel and occasionally God Himself.
On one occasion of religious frustration and fear, she wrote down an experience she supposedly had at a mass on a Saturday when the Blessed Virgin was being celebrated, when she saw in the heavens "an image of a regal woman, standing on high, clothed in white vestments and wrapped with a purple mantle". The lady then eventually came closer to Elisabeth and blessed her with the sign of the cross, and reassured her that she would not be harmed by the things she had been frightened of. After receiving communion at the mass, she then went into an ecstatic trance and had another vision, declaring "I saw my Lady standing beside the altar, in a garment like a priestly chasuble and she had on her head a glorious crown". In her third text, she has Mary acting as an intercessor to hold back the anger of her Son from punishing the world in His anger for sin.
Her works are found in the 195th volume of the Patrologia Latina.
Eckebert's role in managing Elisabeth's visions
Oftentimes Eckebert felt that it was necessary to further investigate the meaning of Elisabeth's visions, rather than to simply take her word.(p38) Elisabeth had a vision in which she saw the virgin emerging with the sun surrounding her on all sides, and the virgin's great brilliance seemed to illuminate the entire earth.(p362) Along with the great brilliance which emanated from the virgin, a dark cloud appeared, which Elisabeth described as "extremely dark and horrible to see".(p362) Elisabeth asked the holy Angel of God, who often appeared to her during visions, what the latter vision meant. The Angel said that the virgin in the vision she saw is the humanity of the Lord Jesus. The Angel went on to explain that the darkness represents God's anger with the world, but that the brightness signifies that he has not altogether stopped watching over the earth.(p363) As ordered by Abbot Hildelin, Elisabeth revealed her vision to Eckebert.
Eckebert was struck with confusion after hearing this vision; he could not understand the purpose of the Lord the Savior's humanity being represented by a virgin instead of a man. Elisabeth relayed the answer provided to her by the Angel, explaining that "the humanity of Christ was symbolized by a female figure so that the symbol could also refer to the Virgin Mary".(p38) Eckebert's wariness of the meaning of this particular vision points to his carefulness to maintain conventional gender boundaries. However, Elisabeth did not waiver from her initial explanation of her vision which did just the opposite of maintaining these boundaries. Elisabeth does fully engage Eckbert's questioning, which implies her understanding of his authority in their relationship, but in the end Eckebert does choose to publish this vision, and includes that the Lord the Savior's humanity is represented by a virgin . This incident represents Eckebert's strong belief in the reality of his sister's visionary experiences, despite his weariness of the controversy this latter vision could bring about due to the vision's unusually gendered expression.(p38)
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Because the population soon venerated Elisabeth as a saint, her bones were reburied between 1420 and 1430 in a special chapel. This chapel was destroyed in the great fire of the Schönau Abbey in 1723 and not rebuilt.
During the Thirty Years War Swedish and Hessian soldiers attacked Schönau Monastery. The Swedes expelled the monks, plundered the monastery, broke into the grave of Elisabeth, and scattered her bones. Only the skull was saved. It is now preserved in a reliquary on the right side of the altar of the church.
The parish of St. Florin Schönau Monastery annually celebrates the traditional Elisabethen-Fest on the Sunday after 18 June.
Elisabeth's popularity is evident considering those who called upon her for advice. The number of men who were very learned and religious who asked for letters from Elisabeth is astonishing. For a religious man to ask a woman to write him a letter that includes advice on how one should live during a time when men were viewed to be the superior sex, shows the authority that Elisabeth acquired due to her extraordinary visions. One monk, from an abbey in Busendorf, came to meet with Elisabeth in order to be provided with a deeper understanding of Elisabeth's visions, and in an effort to comprehend what God was doing with this woman. Upon leaving, he asked Elisabeth if he might be worthy enough to receive a letter from her. Elisabeth fulfilled his request and wrote the abbot of Busendorf a letter that provided him and his monks with spiritual advice through the grace of God. The letter emphasized the importance of the abbot's responsibility over his monks and the guidance the abbot must extend to his monks. Elisabeth states the importance of living one's life for God and of not getting sidetracked by worldly affairs.
Elisabeth wrote to powerful men when they did not ask for it, as well. Elisabeth scolded the archbishop, Hillin, of the city of Trier for not telling her divine message of condemnation to the people of Rome. She commanded that he, "Rise up in the spirit of humility and fear of the Lord your God." Throughout the letter it is evident that Elisabeth's Angel has spoken to her, and she is relaying this message to the archbishop. The letter is filled with anger and shows great disappointment in the archbishop of Trier, for God has taken notice of his failure to carry out his episcopal duties. Elisabeth informs him that if he does not tell the people of Rome the divine message in which Elisabeth has revealed to him, he will suffer on the final judgment day. Again, as in her letter to the abbot of Busendorf, her authority and belief in herself of a vessel of God is evident, and she has clearly gone above and beyond the limits of the traditional female gender role.
- Critical Edition (Latin): Ferdinand Wilhelm Emil Roth, ed. (Brunn, 1884)
- Modern English Translation: Elisabeth of Schönau: the complete works, Anne L. Clark, trans. and intro., Barbara J. Newman, preface (New York: Paulist Press, 2000)
- Modern German translation: Die Werke der Heiligen Elisabeth von Schönau, Peter Dinzelbacher, trans. (Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh, 2006) ISBN 3-506-72937-3
- Translations have been published in modern Italian (Venice, 1859) and French (Tournai, 1864), as well as medieval Icelandic (ca. 1226–1254)
- Elisabeth of Schönau, "On the Feminine Aspect of Jesus," in The Writings of Medieval Women: An Anthology, trans., Marcelle Thiebaux (New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994)
- Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, ed., Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 4.
- Roth, F.W.E., "St. Elizabeth von Schönau and her Visions", American Catholic Quarterly Review, Vol. 36, No. 143, 1911
- Mershman, Francis (1909). "St. Elisabeth of Schönau". In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. 5. New York: Robert Appleton.
- Catherine M. Mooney, ed., Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999)
- Anne L. Clark. The Priesthood of the Virgin Mary: Gender Trouble in the Twelfth Century. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 2002
- Elisabeth of Schoenau to the Abbot of Busendorf, in Epistolae: Medieval Women’s Letters, trans., Dr. Joan Ferrante (Colombia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, 2014).
- Elisabeth of Schoenau to Hillin, archbishop of the city of Trier, in Epistolae: Medieval Women’s Letters, trans., Dr. Joan Ferrante (Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, 2014). http://epistolae.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/letter/105.html
- Butler, Lives of the Saints
- Streber in Kirchenlex., s.v.
- Hauck, Kirchengesch. Deutsche., IV, 244 sqq.
- Wilhelm Preger, Geschichte der deutschen Mystik im Mittelalter (1874–93), 1, 37
- Acta Sanctorum, June, IV, 499
- Roth, Das Gebetbuch der Elisabeth von Schönau (1886)
- Franz Xaver Kraus: Elisabeth, die Heilige, von Schönau. In: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (ADB). Volume 6, Duncker & Humblot, Leipzig 1877, S. 46 f.
- Kurt Köster: Elisabeth von Schönau. In: Neue Deutsche Biographie (NDB). Volume 4, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1959, S. 452 f.
- Friedrich Wilhelm Bautz (1975). "Elisabeth von Schönau". In Bautz, Friedrich Wilhelm (ed.). Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German). 1. Hamm: Bautz. cols. 1497–1498. ISBN 3-88309-013-1.
- Peter Dinzelbacher: Mittelalterliche Frauenmystik. (Schöningh: Paderborn, 1993)
- Joachim Kemper: Das benediktinische Doppelkloster Schönau und die Visionen der hl. Elisabeth von Schönau, in: Archiv für mittelrheinische Kirchengeschichte 54/2002 S. 55-102