Tales of Holy Married Ladies: "Life" Lessons in the Book of a Prioress

Sara S. Poor, Director of the Program in Medieval Studies at Princeton University

BOMC Fall Meeting, October 19, 2013

It was so well received we reprint it here with her kind permission.

Tales of Holy Married Ladies: “Life” Lessons in the Book of a Prioress

[A slightly revised version of this talk has been published as ”Life Lessons in Anna Eybin’s Books of Saints (ca. 1465-1482)” in Taxonomies of Knowledge: Information and Order in Medieval Manuscripts, ed. Emily Steiner and Lynn Ransom (Philadelphia: Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, 2015), 136-153.]

Anna Ebin or Eybin, a fifteenth-century Augustinian nun, and provost of her convent in Pillenreuth (near Nuremberg) from 1461-1476, was a prolific scribe and compiler of devotional books. Although only four books have survived in which her hand has been identified, in one of these books she is said to have written “gar und vil puecher dem convent […] die ungezelt sind” (very many books for the convent that are countless).[1] The most coherent of the compilations that has survived is a legendary that includes an unusual selection of the lives of both ancient and local saints (Nürnberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Hs. 2261). Like other scholars have argued about other miscellanies, Eybin’s compilation clearly seems to have been put together with a distinct sense of purpose. The manuscript has an eleven-page long table of contents, for example, that even includes instructions on how to use the table of contents to read the book. Yet the wide range of saints included leads one to wonder what lessons this book would teach, what knowledge it hoped to organize and convey. This essay makes a preliminary attempt to answer these questions. The lives included range from the classic and popular to the local and obscure, with the added peculiarity of the exotic. In addition, the legendary also contains several texts that are not legends in the traditional sense. Although not all the legends and texts are about female saints and figures, the majority of them do involve accounts of how women can be holy in a variety of contexts. We know that Eybin made books for other women religious. We know that other women read and used her books. What becomes clear from a brief analysis of these three sample lives, however, are the precise and various ways in which Eybin revises and shapes her sources in order to teach her female readers more effectively about ideal devotional conduct. In addition, we have a very concrete instance of the way women at this time participated in the textual transfer of knowledge through the production of books.

Manuscript 2261 of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nürnberg is a paper codex with its original binding dating to the late fifteenth century. The manuscript is written all in one hand by Anna Eybin, who names herself repeatedly throughout the manuscript.[2] The book collects together saints lives including ancient (Bartholomew, Julian and Basilissa, Florian, and Barbara) as well as a number of more local or contemporary saints (Lidwina, Anastasia, Achahildis, Hildegund). It also includes a sermon on St. Ursula, a dialogue between a confessor and a lay religious woman about the mystical path (known to scholars as the “Sister Catherine Treatise”), and the biblical story of the Maccabees. My focus today will be on the lives of Julian and Basilissa, Achahildis, and Anastasia. Although by virtue of the contents, we can see why the manuscript is identified as a legendary, the texts included are not at all uniform. Indeed, those I have chosen to focus on are each illustrative of a different kind of saint’s life. In the case of Julian and Basilissa, we have a sort of classic case of a Latin vita about early martyrs written for the edification of religious readers, which is translated into the vernacular for the same purpose. In the case of Achahildis, Eybin (or the scribe responsible for her source text) adapts and translates a document originally composed for a different purpose — a petition for funding for a local church– and then modifies the text for the slightly diverging devotional context of the legendary. And in the case of Anastasia, no source or parallel text has ever been identified, but the story itself bears a distinct resemblance to the life of St. Alexis. In this case, then, we have an example of a female variation on a popular hagiographical romance (to use Brigitte Cazelles’ terminology) to portray the abjection of an exotic Asian Queen.[3]

  1. Julian and Basilissa:

First, the story, which is actually quite lengthy for a saint’s life: Julian belongs to a wealthy Christian family in Antinoopolis in Egypt. His parents wish him to marry but Julian tries to resist, fearing for his purity should he take a wife. God reassures him in a vision, however, in which he learns that God has chosen him a wife who is willing to remain a virgin with him in the marriage. They take a vow of celibacy on their wedding night and at that moment, the earth moves (literally, there is an earthquake) and they are rewarded with the sight of the Holy Host of tens of thousands of Angels, Christ, and Mary. The two then convert their houses to monasteries and multitudes of people come to them to follow their teachings. Later, Basilissa dies a peaceful death, as God foretold in a dream as well as the fact that Julian would survive and face martyrdom.

The martyrdom story (or passio) makes up the second part of the vita and is set during the period of Diocletian and Maximian in Egypt. Julian, like many of the other martyrs, is given opportunities to sacrifice to the pagan gods, but refuses, drawing the ire of the governor Markianos. During this process, Julian converts Markianos’s son and wife. The governor then subjects Julian and his followers to various tortures, but they stubbornly remain unharmed as well as “relentlessly argumentative.”[4] Julian also performs various miracles, which further infuriates the governor who then orders that they all be decapitated. This act triggers a second earthquake that destroys a third of the city. The governor attempts to flee but instead falls ill and is devoured by worms. The story ends with Julian’s relics being buried and reports of subsequent miraculous healing of visiting lepers.

The genesis of this legend is also an interesting story, the most important aspect of which is that the vita dates from the fourth century, was written down in both Greek and Latin and was widely read throughout the Middle Ages. Scholars count at least 133 copies surviving in Western European libraries. The most commonly transmitted version, though, appears in manuscripts now found in libraries in Melk, Admont, Zwettl, Lilienfeld, Heiligenkreuz, and Munich, attesting to a reasonably healthy transmission among convents and monasteries in what is now southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The version in Eybin’s book is most likely a translation of this most common version (BHL 4529, but without the prologue and with a different ending).[5] While there is no entry for a German translation of the legend in the Verfasserlexikon (the main encyclopedia of medieval German authors), the German circulation was also significant, as the legend was often transmitted in the winter section of the vernacular legendary, the German “Der Heiligen Leben.”[6]

Eybin’s scribal activity alerts us to two of the manuscripts containing this German version. Indeed, we do know of a copy that could have been the exemplar Eybin copied from for her legendary. We suspect this because her hand is evident in this other manuscript too (F=Freiburg im Breisgau, Universitätsbibliothek, Hs. 490) — a contemporary codex made up of 8 parts, showing 10 different hands, and belonging to a nun in a reformed Augustinian house in Inzighofen (a small town between Constance and Stuttgart). Ebyin’s hand is evident in Parts VII and VIII of the manuscript. In Part VII, which transmits two of the saints lives that she includes in the Nürnberg legendary, she adds rubrication and corrections to the text. She also tells us at the end of the vita that it was written down in 1465 by Dorothy Leynacherin in the Dominican convent in Schönensteinbach (in Alsace) (F, fol. 197v.). Because of this connection to Schönensteinbach, the first Dominican convent to undergo Observant reform, scholars have speculated that the texts probably came to Eybin from there, going through the Dominican Katharinenthal convent in Nürnberg that was reformed by nuns from Schönensteinbach, and from there to Eybin’s convent in nearby Pillenreuth, which had also undergone reform.[7] It appears that after she was done with it, she then sent it to her sister Augustinians in Inzighofen, along with another text that is included in her legendary — the Sister Catherine Treatise, about which I have written elsewhere.[8]

To highlight the specific way these texts were meant to educate others, I offer several examples of the changes that Eybin made to the text when she wrote it into her legendary. She adds explanatory comments – for example, she places the word “Prologue” after the title for this section of the text, and at the top of the page, she gives the Saint’s day in the calendar (January 9); when there is a title or chapter heading, she augments it significantly. For instance:

  • Von dem hochgelobten usserwelten sunderlichen grossen himelfürsten sant Julianus und siner gemahelen bassilisa und aller siner heilgen gesellschaft…. Vorred. (F, Hs 490, f. 173r)

[On the highly praised, elect, especially great Prince of heaven, Saint Julian and his wife Basilissa and all of their Holy company… Prologue]


  • Hye hebt sich an dye Legend von Sant Juliano seyner kewschen gemahel S. Basylissa und irer grossen gesellschaft geystlicher vnd werltlicher rytterschafft vil tawsent dy gemartert wurden um den namen xpi unter Dyocleciano vnd Maximiano den Keysern. Dye Vor red. (N, Hs. 2261, f. 33r)

[Here begins the legend of Saint Julian, his chaste wife S. Basylissa, and their great company of religious and lay knightood, many thousands who were martyred in the name of Christ under Diocletian and Maximian, the Emperors. The Prologue.]

It is perhaps worth noting that Eybin removes the glowing adjectives for Julian and adds adjectives describing Basilissa and their holy company of disciples.

Other changes she makes: when there isn’t a heading where there ought to be, she adds one; when there is a corrected mistake in her source text (a word crossed out or added), she obviously incorporates the correction in her cleaner copy; when a formulation seems lacking, she adds to it; and then she also omits words or phrases. There are also other changes that are not obviously explainable. For example this piece of direct speech in the Freiburg manuscript is changed to indirect speech in the Nürnberg manuscript — perhaps because it makes for more economical prose: “Listen to the counsel of your friends and take a wife who is worthy of you” turns into: “Then they advised him to take a wife who was worthy of him.”] It seems clear from these examples, taken just from the first two folios, that the text produced in Eybin’s hand is a cleaner and neater text that is easier to read and also we could say, a more polished prose.

  1. St. Achahildis of Wendelstein

Achahildis of Wendelstein was a married noble woman who nevertheless achieved enough holiness during her lifetime that her grave proved to be the site of many miraculous healings in the years after her death. The text included here is not at all a typical saint’s life, however. Rather it is a slightly abridged German translation of the Latin Instrumentum Publicum Achahildis, written in 1447/1448, which is a record of an investigation of Achahildis’s cult and which was then used to petition for funds for renovating a chapel dedicated to the saint in Wendelstein’s church of St. George, a church of which Achahildis, according to the inscription on her sarcophagus, cited in both the Instrumentum and Eybin’s text, was said to be the founder. Wendelstein is about four miles southeast of Pillenreuth and in the Bishopric of Eichstätt. Although the cult was clearly very local — even today, there is no clear sense of the dates of her life, her original name, and even her sainthood — in the mid-fifteenth century, the burger of the village as well as surrounding ones were clearly hoping to beef up the chapel and the cult, presumably to support the local economy via pilgrimage traffic.

The text describes the opening of the grave by an examining committee of three, followed by a description of some wall paintings in the chapel depicting, for example, the fact, that, although Achahildis was the mother of five, she and her husband “gelobten ewige kewschait zu halten baide” (both promised to remain chaste) (N, fol. 206r); the story of how she brought a stolen goose back to life using just its leg bone; the story of how, when she was bringing wine to the poor, her husband stopped her and asked her what was in the container. She told him it was oil, and when he tasted it, so it was. Because of this evidence of the power of almighty God, her husband fell at her feet and asked for her blessing. And the story of how she brought a fruit tree to bear fruit in the middle of winter. These and other miracles are followed by a listing of miraculous healings that took place at the grave as well as of the numerous devotions made at the chapel — apparently, it was fashionable to bring wax figures as offerings to the grave site. One supplicant tells of how he was at the breaking point when he promised to come every year to the chapel “mit eynem wahs” (with a wax) and once he did this, he became healthy without any medicine. The report also notes that at one point there were 80 wax figures placed by the grave.

Eybin mentions at the end of her text that a Carthusian who was a learned preacher in the monastery in Nürnberg was responsible for translating the Instrumentum into German and also, she notes, for calling the saint by two names, Atzyn and Achahyld. A comparison of Eybin’s text with the Instrumentum reveals that there are quite a few omissions in the German version.[9] It is not clear whether the translator or Eybin made these cuts, but if she did, one could argue that the reason for the omissions was her re-purposing the text: Eybin is using this list of evidence for Achahildis’s sanctity not as a petition, but as a vita in her legendary. This is perhaps why she leaves out, for example, names of witnesses, and focuses on the details of the frescoes, which depict accounts of the saint’s life, and of the miracles connected to her. If Eybin makes the Julian and Basilissa text more legible for her audience, both in terms of its literal legibility as a written text (i.e., fixing the mistakes), as well its figural legibility as readable, polished prose, then in the case of Achahildis, she is in a sense doing the same thing, only in a different way: here, she transforms a documentary record into a legend, a vita, an account of a life and its after effects that can be held up for inspiration and as a model.

  1. Saint Anastasia

My last example also represents a modification of material for a prospective female audience. I begin with the story of the life. The wife of King Albrecht of Spain, the daughter of the King of Asia, and mother to a four week old son, fears for her soul and seeks out a hermit who she thinks can give her spiritual instruction. When she wishes to stay the night in the forest, the Hermit locks her in a cave for protection against the wild animals (and also to protect himself from his own desire). After praying to God for her welfare, he goes to bed, and as God wills, he completely forgets about her in the morning. Indeed, he doesn’t think of her for 30 years. She miraculously stays alive, however, because angels bring her food. Finally, a heavenly message reminds the hermit of the lady he had enclosed in the cave and he frees her. Anastasia then returns to court, though unrecognized by her husband. She is allowed to remain, however, living off alms and after eight years she dies. On her deathbed, she reveals her identity to her son. After the King learns of the fate of his wife, he lives forever after in poverty, and her son, who has become bishop, builds churches and monasteries with the King’s wealth. Finally many miracles occur at her grave.

Werner Williams asserts that there is no similarity between this legend and any other life of any other holy Anastasia, but points out that it bears a certain resemblance to the legend of St. Alexis.[10] I think maybe there is also a resemblance to the Sister Catherine Treatise (she goes to the Hermit who, like the confessor in the S.C. text, answers her questions about detachment from the world of things, God’s love, etc.). Mary of Egypt might also be an intertext. Like Mary after years in the desert, Anastasia is unrecognizable after her time “in the wilderness” living on angelic food. In addition, it reminds me somewhat of the German rhymed couplet narrative of the French Queen, who also spends a lengthy period in the forest that is figured as virtuous, though for different reasons.

Anastasia’s legend, as I have mentioned, is also included in Part VII of the Freiburg manuscript. It looks like Dorothy Leynacherin started writing it, but did not finish, because it breaks off mid-sentence. The colophon naming her follows, which again is in Eybin’s hand, also announces Dorothy’s death. As always we cannot be entirely certain, but it seems plausible that Eybin was made aware of the Anastasia text through Dorothy’s fragment, found a complete one somewhere else and included that in her Legendary. Indeed, we do know of three other manuscripts that transmit this same version of the legend. One with unknown provenance that is now also held by the Germanisches National Museum, one that now resides in the city library of Colmar in Alsace and the other in the central library of Switzerland in Zürich. The Zürich manuscript is worth a bit more attention, for one of the hands in the manuscript, indeed, the one that copied the Anastasia legend, belongs to Georg Hohenmuot von Werd, who was chaplain not only to a convent in Zürich, but also to one in Nördlingen (which is about 60 miles southwest of Nürnberg). Because of this connection, we know the text was written in another context by someone who was in regular contact with an audience of religious women. We also know through the Freiburg manuscript that there was a lot of text exchange taking place between many of these southern German speaking convents and monasteries, so it is perhaps a version connected with the Zurich manuscript that Eybin used as her source for her legendary.

Anastasia’s legend is also interesting because it represents (perhaps) a re-shaping of the St. Alexis legend. The resemblance of this story to St. Alexis’s tale is clear — Alexis runs away to Egypt on his wedding night (another kind of chaste marriage), lives there for a long time as a beggar, returns to his father’s house and lives under the front stairs for 17 years as a beggar without being recognized, revealing his identity only after he dies. He does this by being buried with his vita, which he himself composes. In the life of Anastasia, her son the Bishop writes her life story down as she confesses to him on her deathbed and after she is buried, he gives this “letter” (in the text it’s called a brief) to his father the King.

The Alexis tale (which is notably absent from this legendary) obviously hammers home the point that to be truly devout, one must renounce all family connections and live a humble life. But the story of Anastasia reconfigures this renunciation to better coincide with the limits and contours within which women lived. While Alexis chooses to flee, Anastasia is locked up (she asks for this in order to be protected from the wild animals, but the Hermit’s fears of her young, beautiful body remind us that is the rest of the world that is being protected from the temptation that her presence on the earth as a woman represents). Even though it is God’s will and not neglect or malice that leads to her becoming an anchoress, as it were, she has no control, but rather is simply removed from the world. Anastasia does follow Alexis’s model, however, when she returns from this imposed exile and lives “with” her husband as a beggar, but unbeknownst to him. Anastasia’s story offers an example of someone imitating Alexis’s life, as well as another variation on the celibate marriage of the Julian and Basilissa example. Regarding the celibate marriage, the celibacy is, in this case, imposed from above as opposed to being the saint’s idea, as in the case of Julian and Alexis. One could perhaps imagine a reader among Eybin’s nuns who might relate to the idea of being removed from the world against her will and perhaps such a story would be a way of helping her to see her claustration in a different way. If she was not allowed to marry, if she is removed from the world, she is nevertheless fed by angels every day — the angelic food in the convent being the spiritual sustenance of the offices and mass. Remaining anonymous and humble (and of course, chaste) even after she returns to her husband confirms that “imprisonment,” or rather, enclosure is actually a good thing and makes the woman into a better nun.

The three legends all focus on married women who are chaste, even in the latter two cases where the union has produced children. The latter two also redeem the potentially dangerous female body in death insofar as proximity to their corpses effects miraculous healings in the same way that Julian’s bones do in his vita. They also each relate in some way to the idea of religious community: J and B found monasteries for their disciples after their chaste marriage is “consummated” by an earthquake; Achahildis’s chapel and grave create a religious community of those who visit her looking for healing and consolation; and Anastasia’s death results in the creation of religious communities by her husband. Indeed, Anastasia’s life serves to inscribe the idea and purpose of the saint’s life as a genre and as an instrument of teaching in the story (as did Alexis). Her confession to her son the bishop (a life story that might also resemble St. Augustine’s model) is written down as a legend (and is called that in the text). Moreover, the reading of it is what causes her husband to “convert” and follow its example by living a life of poverty of his own.

Not all of the saints in the manuscript are married, but it is clear that the book is meant to offer models of holiness that even married women could achieve. It seems to me that the inclusion of these models in a book that was circulated primarily among nuns is significant – indeed, perhaps it points to the diversity of experience that the nuns brought to the community. Eybin was a leader in the community and as such, like any teacher, would have had to deal with different levels of receptivity to religious rule and practice. Eybin therefore molds these texts to form “life” lessons for the Basilissa’s, Achahildis’s, and Anastasia’s in her midst, demonstrating not only how to be holy, but also that reading will get them there. In so doing, Eybin creates a book that bears witness to a woman’s active and creative literary hand in shaping the literature of her day, and thereby the lives of its readers.



[1] Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, cgm 750, fol. Ir. Karin Schneider, Die deutschen Handschriften der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek München: Cgm 691-867 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1984), 248.

[2] Lotte Kurras, Die deutschen mittelalterlichen Handschriften: Teil 1. Die literarischen und

religiösen Handschriften. Anhang: Die Hardenbergschen Fragmente (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1974), 38.

[3] Brigitte Cazelles, The Lady as Saint, Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

[4] Anne P. Alwis, Celibate Marriages in Late Antique and Byzantine Hagiography: The Lives of Saints Julian and Basilissa, Andronikos and Athanasia, and Galktion and Episteme (New York: Continuum, 2011), 3.

[5] The Bollandists’ List of Medieval Latin Hagiographic Texts, Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina

[6] Werner Williams-Krapp, “Studien zu ‘der Heiligen Leben’,” Zeitschrift für deutsches Alterum und deutsche Literatur 105, no. 4 (1976): 290. See also ———, Die deutschen und niederländishen Legendare des Mittelalters: Studien zu ihrer Überlieferungs-, Text-, und Wirkungsgeschichte, Text und Textgeschichte 20 (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1986).; ———, “Kultpflege und Literarische Überlieferung: Zur deutschen Hagiographie der Dominikaner im 14. und 15. Jahrhundert,” in “Ist mir getroumet mîn leben?” Vom Träumen und vom Anderssein. Festschrift für Karl-Ernst Geith zum 65. Geburtstag, ed. André Schnyder, et al. (Göppingen: Kümmerle, 1998).

[7] Karin Schneider, “Beziehungen zwischen den Dominikanerinnenklöstern Nürnberg und Altenhohenau im ausgehenden Mittelalter, Neue Handschriftenfunde (Medium Aevum 31),” in Festschrift für Kurt Ruh zu seinem 60. Geburtstag, ed. Peter Kesting, Würzburger Prosastudien (Munich: Fink, 1975).; see also Werner Fechter, Deutsche Handschriften des 15. und 16. Jahrhunderts aus der Bibliothek des ehemaligen Augustinerchorfrauenstifts Inzigkofen (Sigmaringen: Jan Thorbecke Verlag, 1997), 183-88.

[8] Sara S. Poor, “Women Teaching Men in the Medieval Devotional Imagination,” in Partners in Spirit: Men, Women, and Religious Life in Germany, 1100-1500, ed. Fiona J. Griffiths and Julie Hotchin (Turnhout: Brepols, 2014), 339-57.

[9] Here I am indebted to Julian Petri’s comparison of the two texts in an unpublished paper.

[10] Werner Williams-Krapp, “Anastasia” in Die deutsche Literatur des Mittelalters: Verfasserlexikon, eds. Kurt Ruh et al., vol. 1 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1978), 334.