Elisabeth of Schönau (c. 1129-1164)

Light of truth

Elisabeth of Schönau was a German Benedictine visionary. She was born of an obscure family near Bonn, Germany, and entered the double Monastery of Schönau in Nassau at the age of twelve and made her profession as a Benedictine nun in 1147. In 1157 she became abbess of the nuns. She was given to works of piety from her youth, was much afflicted with bodily and mental suffering, was a zealous observer of the Rule of St Benedict and of the regulations of her convent and was devoted to practices of mortification. As a result, she suffered recurrent disease, anxiety and depression so much so that St Hildegard of Bingen, another famous woman mystic of the time, admonished her 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 Egbert, a cleric, who acted as an editor. At first she hesitated fearing lest she be looked upon as a deceiver; but she obeyed. Egbert put everything in writing, later arranged the material at leisure, and then published all under his sister’s name. Thus there came into existence the three books of “Visions.” Of these the first is written in a simple language and unaffected style. The other two are more elaborate and replete with theological terminology. The visions seem to be of the same style as that of St Hildegard of Bingen, her friend and correspondent. They contain admonitions to all classes of society, to the clergy and laity, to the married and unmarried. 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 heresies of the time.

Elisabeth of Schönau blurred the conventional gender roles of the time through her astonishing visions. She lived during a time when women were viewed as the weaker sex, both mentally and physically. Unless a woman were to join a convent or a religious movement, she would be expected to marry and to bear children. While celibacy offered women a sense of freedom, she still played a secondary role in the church, leaving her essentially powerless. Elisabeth of Schönau, however, was far from powerless, as her visions made her known far and wide. She 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. This enabled Elisabeth to have her own voice, to be known as an individual, and to be sought after for advice even by high order of men, including bishops and abbots. For men of such high order to call upon Elisabeth, a mere woman, is extremely significant given the time in which she 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. For a religious man to ask a woman to write him a letter with 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. Not a few women mystics of the Middle Ages employed their mystical skills as a call of reform against the corrupt clergy or prelates, and Elisabeth of Schönau was one of the prominent among them. They admitted that the feminine is frail, but argued that God chose the weak to shame the strong.

Isaac Padinjarekuttu
(Professor of Church History
at Oriens Theological College, Shillong)

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