Laypeople Seeking Religious Perfection Within Secular Society
“Ever since my student days in 1965, when I unravelled Herbert Grundmann’s masterpiece “Religiöse Bewegungen im Mittelalter” (published in 1935, but only widely read in the WB-edition of 1961), I have been fascinated by medieval laypeople who wanted to shape their own religious lives and sought spiritual perfection.
It wasn’t the professionals who interested me; the clerics and the ‘religious’ who led perfect lives in monasteries, since time immemorial, have already been studied by church historians (often clerics or monastics themselves). Nor was I intrigued by the efforts of simple lay folks tending to (so-called) ‘idolatry’, superstitious beliefs or downright heresies: they had been a favourite topic of scholars in the GDR.
Rather, I am fascinated by serious lay believers striving for devoted holiness in the lay world – and often playing leadership roles in the community of the faithful. I first started with hermits and wrote a book on the knighthermit Gerlach of Houthem (d. 1165), living in an oak tree near Maastricht and wandering around as a kind of “Wanderprediger”.
I continued with anchoresses or recluses, living in cells attached to parish churches or urban chapels. From their solitary anchorholds in very public places, they acted as teachers, counsellors, and, in some cases, theological innovators for parishioners who would speak to them from the street. See my “Lives of the Anchoresses” (2005) and my “Verborgen Vrouwen” (2007).
Both the hermits and the recluses had stepped out of their ordinary lives in order to devote themselves full-time to God. In the context of the “Religiöse Individualisierung” project, I will focus on urban laywomen seeking devoted holiness in domestic households in the midst of cities. Living together in privately-owned houses, called “domus animarum” or “Gotshus” in the sources, earning their own money, inciting each other toward the good by mutual exhortation, they shaped their own religious lives and acted as spiritual leaders in the community.
I focus on the case of Lady Gertrude Rickeldey of Ortenberg (d. 1335), who together with a younger companion, the young lady Heilke of Staufenberg (died after 1335), ran an aristocratic household first in Offenburg and then in Strasbourg in the time that famous mendicant preachers worked there (such as Meister Eckhart, well-known here in Erfurt). Gertrude herself lived in personal deprivation and rigorous asceticism while, at the same time, she enjoyed mystical experiences. Heilke, who was very well educated, managed the household and acted as her ‘cleric’.
A younger laywoman from their immediate circle noted down the stories told by old Heilke in a spiritual biography: “Von dem Heiligen Leben der Seligen Frowen Genant die Ruckeldegen, und Waz Grosser Wunder Unser Lieber Her mit Jr Gewurcket Het” (c.1340). This biography opens a window on the daily existence and the intellectual aspirations of the women. Nowhere do we hear a male voice, condescending or not, as we usually do in sources of ecclesiastical authors who wrote as outsiders. The “Leben” shows how God revealed the sins of fellow citizens to Gertrude, whom she reminded of their responsibility.
She mediated in controversies and feuds, helped the sick and needy, and was an independent agent of salvation as her holy presence had salvific qualities. The “Leben” concludes: ‘Gertrude went out into the cities and villages of this world. The words that she spoke struck right to the heart. With her mild admonition and virtuous power she often outdid the mendicants.’
Together with two German scholars, Freimut Löser and Michael Hopf, I am working on an edition of the “Leben” in English translation. I will publish the text headed by a comprehensive historical study of Gertrude and Heilke’s spirituality and agency, written by me, plus two literary studies by Löser and Hopf.”
Dr. Anneke Mulder-Bakker: Fellow
Max-Weber-Kolleg für kultur- und sozialwissenschaftliche Studien
Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker (Editor) “Women and Experience in Later Medieval Writing: Reading the Book of Life” (New Middle Ages) [Palgrave Macmillan, 2009]
Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker (Editor) “Sanctity and Motherhood: Essays on Holy Mothers in the Middle Ages” (Garland Medieval Casebooks) [Routledge, 1995]
Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker “Lives of the Anchoresses: The Rise of the Urban Recluse in Medieval Europe” (The Middle Ages Series) [University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005]