Aspects of the Cult of St. Elizabeth of Hungary with a Special Emphasis on Preaching, 1231-c.1500

Thesis author: 
Ottó Gecser
Year of enrollment: 
Duration of thesis project: 
Sep, 2000 - Jan, 2007
Thesis supervisor: 
Gábor Klaniczay
Thesis abstract: 

St. Elizabeth of Hungary (or of Thuringia) was born in 1207 as a daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary and his wife, Gertrude of Andechs-Merania. She was betrothed to the future Landgrave Ludwig IV of Thuringia, and was transferred to the Wartburg court in 1211. Their marriage took place in 1221, and the couple had three children, Hermann, Sofia, and Gertrude. Ludwig was apparently sympathizing with Elizabeth’s inclination to charity; in 1226 they founded a hospital together in Gotha. In the same year, Elizabeth took a vow of post-marital chastity and obedience to Conrad of Marburg, an ascetic preacher of the crusade with papal licence, whose possible affiliation with a religious order is unknown, and who acquired some influence in the court of the Ludowings. Under Conrad’s surveillance, Elizabeth adopted an exceedingly modest or even austere way of life entirely different from the courtly norm. Not independently of Conrad’s activity, perhaps, Ludwig took up the cross in 1227, and died in Otranto on the way to the Holy Land. Ludwig’s relatives were less prone to finance Elizabeth’s charitable activity, and denied the paying of her dower. Elizabeth, who firmly refused any proposal for a second marriage, renewed her vow of chastity and obedience supplemented with a renunciation of all worldly aspirations. After the ensuing rupture with her husband’s family, she had lived in precarious conditions in Eisenach until Conrad of Marburg, who, in the meantime, had been appointed her guardian by pope Gregory IX, succeeded to acquire (a part of) her dower back. This sum of 2000 marks was largely used to found a hospital in Marburg dedicated to St. Francis. Elizabeth spent the remaining part of her life in this hospital caring for the poor and the sick. She died in 1231.
Conrad of Marburg proposed her canonisation to Pope Gregory IX already in 1232 by sending a preliminary survey of her miracles to Rome, together with a short description of her life. But in course of the following year, Conrad was assassinated by someone against whom he conducted investigations in matters of heresy. The cause of sanctification was carried on by another Conrad, Elizabeth’s brother-in-law, Conrad of Thuringia, and on 27 May 1235 Elizabeth was inscribed in the catalogue of saints by Pope Gregory in Perugia. Her canonisation was rather quick but not exceptionally so by the standards of the thirteenth century.
Although the edition of saints’ lives in the Acta Sanctorum, which proceeds in the order of the ecclesiastical calendar, has never reached 19 November, St. Elizabeth’s main feast-day, some of her most important medieval vitae appeared in print from the seventeenth century onwards. The writer who “discovered” her for a modern public beyond the circles of antiquarian historiography, was Charles Forbes René, Comte de Montalembert (1810-1870) whose Histoire de Sainte Elisabeth appeared in 1836. The success of this voluminous romantic biography, based on a rich source material collected in Marburg and elsewhere, gave a new impetus not only for her cult but for additional research into her life and personality as well. The attention she has received since then both in scholarship and popular representations makes her comparable, perhaps, to St. Francis alone among the saints of the Middle Ages.
This great attention notwithstanding, or precisely because of it, the history of her cult has remained relatively unexplored. Only relatively, because even the earliest sources of her vita et conversatio, which the serious scholars have always relied on, are themselves products of her cult. And also because Ortrud Reber has published a comprehensive register of all possible manifestations of her veneration in the Middle Ages already in 1963. Nevertheless, in spite of the richness of this collection, the available data have not been organised in any coherent narrative with the exception of the dynastic and political instrumentalisation of her image and memory studied by Gábor Klaniczay and Matthias Werner.
My research was originally conceived as focusing exclusively on Latin sermons written for Elizabeth’s feast day – an area largely neglected by previous scholarship. The limitation of the source material to Latin texts has been justified by the far greater number of sermons which have survived in this language than in the vernaculars, and by the possibility of collecting them systematically due to Johann Baptist Schneyer’s Repertorium der lateinischen Sermones des Mittelalters. It was clear right from the beginning, that the only context which is specific enough for the interpretation of sermons is provided by the other vehicles of her cult, especially by the vitae and the visual representations. If not seen in this context, sermons on St. Elizabeth do not defer enough from other sermons, and the analysis of their message would require the comparison of thousands of unpublished texts about diverse subjects and for various occasions. An aspect of the cult I did not take into consideration originally, was the diffusion of the feast: the sermons, even if available in sermon collections, were hardly delivered in those places where the feast was not observed. This led me to study more systematically the dedication of ecclesiastical institutions to St. Elizabeth, as well as the position of her feast in the liturgical practice of dioceses and religious orders. Moreover, as I started to write, I had to realise that I could not find a sufficiently comprehensive and detailed overview of the development of neither the vitae nor the visual representations. The chapters about these areas, which were initially planned to be very short, grew much lengthier and changed the character of the whole dissertation. The circumstantial title, which, I hope, sounds more boring than the text would in fact deserve, is meant to reflect this change of emphasis.
The cult of a saint has many aspects, especially on a personal level, which do not leave much trace behind for the future historian. What I have tried to reconstruct in my dissertation is not the cult as such. It is merely those institutionalised practices which contributed to the emergence, diffusion and stabilisation of the cult and are related to preaching. A further objective of the dissertation has been to present a catalogue of the surviving Latin sermons on St. Elizabeth from the period before c.1500, and to edit some of these texts.
By the end of the thirteenth century the veneration of St. Elizabeth had become ubiquitous, at least, in continental Europe from Portugal to Hungary and from Germany to Italy. Around 1250, Marburg as a pilgrimage site was compared to Santiago de Compostela by unbiased contemporaries. In the decades immediately following the canonisation, her cult had a rather unfocused or diffuse character in terms of those social groups or milieus which functioned as its main supporters. First of all, it was strongly promoted by various royal, aristocratic or noble families, especially in Central Germany, Northern France, the Southern Low Countries, and Hungary. Her principal thirteenth-century vitae were written by authors of very different ecclesiastical and national background. We find among them a Cistercian, somebody from the papal curia, another one from the court of Emperor Frederick II, four Dominicans, and three Franciscans; they came from Germany, France, Italy and finally from Hungary or Poland. Among the ecclesiastical institutions dedicated to her in these years we find chapels in cathedrals and collegiate churches, parishes and local oratories, hospitals, beguinages, houses of the Teutonic Knights, monasteries of the traditional monastic orders as well as convents of the mendicants without a clear preponderance of any of them. In the field of preaching, the Dominicans and the Franciscans were in the foreground but this must be due, first of all, to their specialization to this activity.
As far as its social foundation is concerned, the cult seems to have undergone two major changes between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries: Elizabeth became increasingly associated to the Franciscan order, on the one hand, and to hospitals on the other. Her growing association to the Friars Minor has seemingly started around 1300. The idea of her having been a member of the Franciscan Third Order may have emerged in Naples at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Or, at least, her first known representations as a tertiary were made here. By the end of the fifteenth century this opinion had become widely accepted and it has remained so until today. In course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the diversity of institutions which chose her as their patron saint has decreased considerably. While knights, monks, friars or nuns apparently preferred her to other saints much less frequently than before, new dedications pertaining to convents of tertiaries and especially to hospitals were clearly on the rise.
Elizabeth’s association to hospitals as their patron saint as well as being frequently depicted in hospital churches, may have influenced the crystallisation of a main iconographic type of hers from the middle of the fourteenth century onwards: a woman holding symbols of the works of mercy like a jug, a plate with food, or a piece of clothing. Neither this iconographic type nor her function as hospital patroness seem to have spread southwise beyond the Alps. Alternatively, the other principal form of her visual representation with roses in her lap originated from and remained characteristic of Italian Franciscan milieus in the first place. Since, according to legend, it was the food carried to the poor which was miraculously transformed into roses, this attribute also refers to charity but with a greater emphasis on the wondrous and marvellous.
One of the principal contributions of liturgy and preaching to her cult, apart from stabilising and upholding it through the annual celebration of her feast, was the definition of her sanctity in terms of the Pauline model of the good widow. This model, delineated in St. Paul’s admonishments in the first letter to Timothy, remained to be deprived of a persuasive embodiment before St. Elizabeth, even if Biblical archetypes like Judith, Ruth, or the old widow of the Gospels who cast two pieces of money in the treasury instantiated some of its elements. The figure of the exemplary widow unified the three main themes of Elizabeth’s cult: charity (and poverty), contemplative life and (post-marital) sexual abstinence. Such a widow is expected to refrain from a second marriage and to dedicate herself to prayer and charitable works.
Nevertheless, the combination of these three themes in one model does not mean that they always had the same weight. While charity was central to all media of her cult, whether pictorial or written, right from the beginning, the importance of the other two was less constant and ubiquitous. Contemplative life as suggested by her holding a book in the majority of her thirteenth-century representations, seems to have been gradually driven in the background without disappearing entirely. The growing importance of the motif of visions, which characterised her thirteenth-century vitae, had far reaching repercussions especially in her iconography but here, rather surprisingly, it became associated as much to her husband as to her. Finally, the theme of sexual abstinence rarely appeared in the visual arts until the fifteenth century, while in the vitae and the sermons it was present from the outset.