Helene Kottanner (née Wolfram; Hungarian: Kottaner Ilona; c. 1400 – after 1470) was a Hungarian courtier and writer. Her last name is spelled variously as Kottanner, Kottanerin, or Kottannerin. She is primarily known to history as the author of memoirs about the years 1439 and 1440, when king Albert II of Germany died and his son Ladislaus the Posthumous was born. Kottanner, who dictated her life story in German, was a kammerfrau to Queen Elizabeth of Luxembourg (1409–1442). She also assisted Queen Elisabeth in a royal succession plot.
Helene married twice and bore two children. Her first husband was Peter Szekeres, judge of Sopron, who died in 1431. She then married Johann Kottanner, an aristocrat from Vienna. By 1436, both Helene and her second husband were servants of Albert II of Germany, the then Duke of Austria, and his wife Elizabeth. Helene's role in this royal Habsburg household was nanny to the children of Albert and Eliszabeth. Note that, according to the contemporary German custom of calling a wife or sometimes daughter, the alternative names ending in "-in" amount to adding a feminine suffix to her husband's name.
A daring raid
Helene, later a member of Elisabeth's court, wrote a book around 1451 entitled Denkwürdigkeiten (= Reminiscences) in which she provides a first-person account of the theft of the Hungarian Crown of St. Stephen on 20 February 1440. This was an action in which she participated at the request of Queen Elisabeth, widow of King Albert. This crown was considered holy by the Hungarian people. It was then stored at the Hungarian stronghold of Visegrád.
Helene noted in her book that she exposed herself and her family to great danger by assisting the queen in her efforts to obtain the crown. In an atmosphere of political intrigue, where death was a common punishment for many crimes, Helene apparently had reservations concerning the advisibility of the queen's request: "The queen's request frightened me, for it meant great danger for me and my little children." In her writing she describes how she prayed for success and promised to make a barefoot pilgrimage to Zell. At least two assistants accompanied Helene, who did the breaking in while Helene kept watch. After they got the crown without attracting attention, they locked the doors again and fixed the queen's seal.
The crown was smuggled out of Visegrad inside a pillow. Helene took the crown with her in her sledge and she described worrying about the ice on the Danube breaking as she crossed it. The golden cross on top of the crown was however bent as they fled, and is still visible in this condition today.
Helene Kottanner then brought the crown secretly to queen Elisabeth, who was hiding from her enemies at the castle of Komorn. She witnessed the birth of Ladislaus the Posthumous, who in her eyes was the natural heir to the kingdoms of Hungary and Bohemia.
Helene noted in her book that the timing had been close: "Within the same hour in which the Holy Crown arrived from Plintenburg in Komorn, within that same hour King Laszlo was born." Helene further stated in her book that she thought that this was clearly God's will at work.
A new king is crowned
Queen Elisabeth promised Helene a reward in return for her actions in obtaining the Holy Crown of Saint Stephen. At this time, only the owner of the royal insignia was considered legitimate king of Hungary. This was an important distinction since the Hungarian nobles voted for the coronation of the 16-year-old king of Poland. With his help they hoped to defend themselves better against the Turks' attacks against the Hungarian kingdom.
When finally both attendants were crowned kings of Hungary at the same time, the Polish king gathered his forces against Ladislaus the Posthumous. The royal family now separated for their own safety: While the queen tried to rescue the holy crown from the approaching Polish army, Helene Kottanner fled with the infant king.
- Schulte 2006, p. 19
- Schulte 2006, p. 27–28
- Schulte 2006, p. 27
- Slovakian: Komárno, Hungarian: Komárom, originally a Hungarian city located on the both banks of the Danube, but was divided into two parts after World War I. The left bank belongs to Hungary and the right one to Slovakia. Ladislaus Posthumus was born on the right bank of the Danube which is in Slovakia now.
- Gwen Diehn: Helene Kottanner's Memoirs. Woodcut, letterpress, and watercolor on handmade paper. Published by the artist and NMWA, Washington DC, 2008.
- Graeme Dunphy, "Perspicax ingenium mihi collatum est: Strategies of authority in chronicles written by women", in Juliana Dresvina, Authority and Gender in Medieval and Renaissance Chronicles, Cambridge Scholars Publishing: Cambridge, 2012 (online).
- Maya C. Bijvoet, Helene Kottanner: The Austrian Chambermaid. In: Katharina M. Wilson (ed.), Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation. Athens, Georgia/London 1987, 327-349.
- Karl Mollay (Hrsg.): Die Denkwürdigkeiten der Helene Kottannerin (1439–1440). Vienna 1971.
- Albrecht Classen: The power of a woman's voice in medieval and early modern literatures. New approaches to German and European women writers and to violence against women in premodern times. Berlin 2007.
- Barbara Schmid: Raumkonzepte und Inszenierung von Räumen in Helene Kottanners Bericht von der Geburt und Krönung des Königs Ladislaus Postumus (1440–1457). In: Ursula Kundert, Barbara Schmid, Regula Schmid (Hrsg.): Ausmessen-Darstellen-Inszenieren. Raumkonzepte und die Wiedergabe von Räumen in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit. Zürich 2007, S. 113–138.
- Barbara Schmid: Ein Augenzeugenbericht im Dienst politischer Werbung. Helene Kottanner, Kammerfrau am Hof König Albrechts II., und ihre Schrift von der Geburt und Krönung Ladislaus’ Postumus. In: Barbara Schmid: Schreiben für Status und Herrschaft. Deutsche Autobiographik in Spätmittelalter und früher Neuzeit. Zürich 2006, S. 132–140.
- Andreas Rüther: Königsmacher und Kammerfrau im weiblichen Blick. Der Kampf um die ungarische Krone (1439/40) in der Wahrnehmung von Helene Kottaner. In: Jörg Rogge (Hrsg.): Fürstin und Fürst. Familienbeziehungen und Handlungsmöglichkeiten von hochadeligen Frauen im Mittelalter. Ostfildern 2004, S. 225–247.
- Horst Wenzel: Zwei Frauen rauben eine Krone. Die denkwürdigen Erfahrungen der Helene Kottannerin (1439–1440) am Hof der Königin Elisabeth von Ungarn (1409–1442). In: Regina Schulte (Hrsg.): Der Körper der Königin. Geschlecht und Herrschaft in der höfischen Welt seit 1500. Frankfurt 2002, S. 27–48.
- Sabine Schmolinsky: Zwischen politischer Funktion und Rolle der «virgo docta»: Weibliche Selbstzeugnisse im 15. Jahrhundert. In: Fifteenth Century Studies. Band 24, 1998, S. 63–73.
- Schulte, Regina (2006). The Memoirs of Helene Kottannerin (1439-1440) at the court of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary(1409-42). New York: Berghahn Books.
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