Curious Myths of the Middle Ages/S. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins

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IN reading the Germania of Tacitus, with a view to the study of Teutonic mythology, I lit upon a passage so perplexing, that I resolved to minutely investigate it, and trace its connexion with other statements, and examine its bearings, little knowing whither it would lead. That passage shall be quoted in the sequel. Suffice it to say here, that it guided me to the legend of S. Ursula and her virgin company of martyrs.

At this point I became acquainted with the masterly treatise of Dr. Oskar Schade, of Bonn, on the story of S. Ursula[1], and was agreeably surprised to find that, proceeding from the point at which I had arrived, he had been guided by sure stages to that from which I had started.

As my object in these pages is the analysis of a Christian myth, I shall follow the Doctor’s course rather than my own. The fable of S. Ursula is too important to be omitted from this collection of Myths, because of the extravagance of its details, the devotion which it excited, the persistency with which the Church clings to it, setting all her scenery in motion to present the tragedy in its most imposing and probable aspect. It may not be omitted also because it is a specimen of the manner in which saintly legends were developed in the Middle Ages, the process of the development being unusually evident; a specimen, lastly, of the manner in which they were generated out of worse than nothing; a process which is also, in this case, singularly apparent.

The legends of the Middle Ages were some beautiful, some grotesque, some revolting. The two latter classes we put aside at once, but for the first we profess a lingering affection. Alas! too often they are but apples of Sodom, fair cheeked, but containing the dust and ashes of heathenism.

Ursula and the eleven thousand British virgins are said to have suffered martyrdom at Cologne, on October 21st, 237; for in 1837 was celebrated with splendor the 16th centenary jubilee of their passion. They suffered under the Huns, on their return from their defeat at Chalons by Aëtius in 451; so that the anachronism is considerable. The early martyrology of Jerome, published by d’Achery, makes no mention of S. Ursula; neither does that of the Venerable Bede, who was born in 672. Bede states that he has included all the names of which he read: as Ursula was a British lady of rank, and was accompanied to martyrdom by the enormous number of eleven thousand damsels, who shared with her the martyr’s crown and palm, it is singular and significant that Bede should not allude to this goodly company. The Martyrologium Gallinense, a compilation made in 804, does not include her; nor does the Vetus Calendarium Corbeiense, composed in or about 831. Neither is she mentioned in the Martyrology of Rabanus Maurus, who died in 856. Usardus, who wrote about 875, does not speak of her, though under the 20th October he inserts the passion of the holy virgins, Martha and Saula, with many others in the city of Cologne. S. Ado wrote a martyrology in 880, but makes no mention of Ursula and the other virgins; nor does Notker of S. Gall, who died in 912; nor, again, does the Corbey martyrology of 900; neither do the two of uncertain date called after Labbe and Richenove. We see that up to the tenth century, for either 650 or 450 years after the martyrdom, there is no mention of S. Ursula by name, and only one reference to virgin martyrs at Cologne. Usardus, who mentions these, gives the names of Martha and Saula. An old calendar in the Dusseldorf town library, belonging to the tenth century, copies Usardus, merely transferring the saints to the 21st October. A litany of the following century, in the Darmstadt library, invokes five, in this order: Martha, Saula, Paula, Brittola, Ursula. Another litany in the same collection raises their number to eight, and gives a different succession: Brittola, Martha, Saula, Sambatia, Saturnina, Gregoria, Pinnosa, Palladia. Another litany, in the Dusseldorf library, extends the number to eleven: Ursula, Sencia, Gregoria, Pinnosa, Martha, Saula, Brittola, Saturnina, Rabacia, Saturia, Palladia. And, again, another gives eleven, but in different order: Martha, Saula, Brittola, Gregoria, Saturnina, Sabatia, Pinnosa, Ursula, Sentia, Palladia, Saturia.

A calendar in a Freisingen Codex, published in Eckhart’s Francia Orientalis, notices them as SS. M. XI. Virginum. And, lastly, in the twelfth century the chronicle of Rodulf (written 1117) reckons the virgin martyrs as twelve.

But S. Cunibert (d. 663) is related, in a legend of the ninth century, to have been celebrating in the church of the Blessed Virgins, when a white dove appeared, and indicated the spot where lay the relics of one of the martyrs: these were, of course at once exhumed.

In the ninth century there was a cloister of the blessed virgins at Cologne: this is also alluded to in the tenth and following centuries. The first, however, to develope the number of martyrs to any very considerable extent, was Wandalbert, in his metrical list of saints. This was written about 851. He does not mention Ursula by name, but reckons the virgins who suffered as “thousands.”

“Tune numerosa simul Rheni per littora fulgent
 Christo virgineis erecta trophæa maniplis
 Agrippinæ urbi, quarum furor impius olim
 Millia mactavit ductricibus inclyta sanctis.”

The authenticity of these lines has, however, been questioned by critics.

The next mention of the virgins as very numerous is in a calendar of the latter end of the ninth century, in which, under October 21st, are commemorated S. Hilario and the eleven thousand virgins. Archbishop Hermann of Cologne, in 922, also speaks of this number. In 927 and 941 Archbishop Wichfried reckons them at eleven thousand, and from that time the belief in the virgin saints having numbered eleven thousand spread gradually through Europe.

Various suggestions have been made to account for this extraordinary number. By some it has been supposed that Undecimilla was the name of one of the martyrs, and that the entry in the ancient calendars of Ursula et Undecimilla Virg. Mart., originated the misconception; and, in fact, one missal, supposed to be old, has a similar commemoration; whilst an inscription at Spiers, according to Rettberg, mentions Ursula et Decumilia. Johann Sprenz believed that the mistake arose from the use, in the old MSS. martyrologies and calendars, of the Teutonic Gimartarôt, or Kimartrôt (passus), which, standing S. Ursula Ximartor, might have led later writers to have taken the entry to signify S. Ursula, et XI. Martor. Or, again, if the number of the virgins were eleven, they may have been entered as SS. XI. M. Virgines, or the eleven martyr-virgins, and the M. have been mistaken in a later age for a numeral. Against this it is urged that in no ancient calendar does the M. precede the Virg.; the usual manner of describing these saints being SS. M. XI. Virg., till the number rose at a leap to eleven thousand.

As yet we have had no circumstances relating to these ladies, but with the tenth century they begin to appear. Sigebert of Gemblours (d. 1112) is the first author to narrate them. Under the date 453, he reports the glorious victory of the Virgin Ursula. She was the only daughter of Nothus, an illustrious and wealthy British prince, and was sought in marriage by the son of a “certain most ferocious tyrant.” Ursula had, however, dedicated herself to celibacy, and her father was in great fear of offending God by consenting to the union, and of exasperating the king by refusing it. However, the damsel solved the difficulty: by Divine inspiration, she persuaded her father to agree to the proposal of the tyrant, but only subject to the condition that her father and the king should choose ten virgins of beauty and proper age, and should give them to her, and that she and they should each have a thousand damsels under them, and that on eleven triremes they should be suffered to cruize about for three years in the sanctity of unsullied virginity. Ursula made this condition in the hopes that the difficulty of fulfilling it would prove insurmountable, or that she might be able, should it be overcome, to persuade a vast host of maidens to devote themselves to the Almighty.

The tyrant succeeded in mustering the desired number, and then presented them to Ursula, together with eleven elegantly furnished galleys. For three years these damsels sailed the blue seas. One day the wind drove them into the port of Tiela, in Gaul, and thence up the Rhine to Cologne. Thence they pursued their course to Basle, where they left their ships, and crossed the Alps on foot, descended into Italy, and visited the tombs of the Apostles at Rome. In like manner they returned, but, falling in with the Huns at Cologne, they were every one martyred by the barbarians.

This story bears evidence of being an addition to the original text of Sigebert’s Chronicle, for it is not to be found in the original MS. in the handwriting of the author, though marks of stitches at the side of the page indicate that an additional item had been appended, but by whom, or when, is not clear, as the strip of parchment which had been tacked on is lost.

Otto of Freisingen (d. 1158) mentions the legend in his Chronicle; for he says, “This army (of the Huns) when overrunning the earth, crowned with martyrdom the eleven thousand virgins at Cologne.”

A legend of the twelfth century, given by Surius, invests the story with all the colours of a romance. In the same century it appears in the marvellous history of Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. 1154). Whether this legend was in the Welsh book of Walter the Archdeacon, from which the good Bishop of S. Asaph derived so much of his history, does not appear. The story, as told by him, differs materially from that received in Germany. He relates that the Emperor Maximian, having depopulated Northern Gaul, sent to Britain for colonies wherewith to re-people the waste country. Thus out of Armorica he made a second Britain, which he put under the control of Conan Meriadoc. He then turned his arms eastward, and, having established himself at Treves, commenced hostilities against the emperors Gratian and Valentinian, who disputed with him the imperial purple. In the meanwhile Conan was defending Brittany against the incursions of the neighbouring Gauls, but, finding that his troops would not settle without wives, he sent to Britain for a cargo of damsels, who might become the spouses of his soldiers, and raise up another generation of fighting men to continue the war with the Gauls. At this time there reigned in Cornwall a king, Dionotus by name, who had succeeded his brother Caradoc on the throne. He was blessed with a daughter of singular beauty, named Ursula, whose hand Conan desired to obtain. Dionotus, having received a message from the prince of Armorica stating his difficulties, at once collected a body of eleven thousand girls of noble rank, and sixty thousand of low birth, and shipped them on the Thames for the Armorican colony of expectant husbands.

No sooner, however, had the fleet left the mouth of the Thames, than it was scattered by the winds, and, some of the vessels having been driven ashore on barbarous island coasts, the damsels were either killed or enslaved; some became the prey of the execrable army of Guanius and Melga, kings of the Huns and Picts, who, falling upon the band of luckless virgins, massacred them without compunction.

It is evident that Geoffrey did not regard this legend as invested with sanctity, and he tells it as an historical, and not a hagiological fact.

In 1106 Cologne was besieged, and the walls in several places were battered down. Directly the enemy were gone, the inhabitants began to rebuild them; and, as the foundations had suffered, they were compelled to relay them.

Now it happened that the old walls ran across the ancient cemetery of the Roman settlement of Colonia Agrippina. Consequently in redigging the foundations a number of bones were discovered, especially at one spot. Thereupon some ecstatic or excitable visionary beheld two females in a halo of light, who indicated the bones as those of the virgin martyrs. Immediately enthusiasm was aroused, and the cemetery was examined. Innumerable bones were found, together with urns, arms, stone cists, and monumental inscriptions. The old Roman cemetery became a quarry of relics, apparently inexhaustible. But in the midst of the religious enthusiasm of the clergy and devotees of Cologne, a sudden difficulty occurred, which produced bewilderment in the faithful, and mockery in the unbelieving. A large number of bones and inscriptions belonging to men were discovered; thus a Simplicius, a Pantulus, an Aetherius, were commemorated on the slabs exhumed, and the great size of some of the tibia rendered it certain that they had never belonged to slender virgins.

In the midst of the dismay reigning in the breasts of the good Catholics at this untoward discovery, appeared, most opportunely, an ecstatic nun, Elizabeth by name, who resided in the convent of Schönau. This visionary solved the difficulty, to the great edification of the faithful. She fell into trances, during which she was vouchsafed wondrous revelations, which she detailed in Latin to her brother Egbert, who alone was suffered to be present during her ecstasies. According to her account, the Pope Cyriacus, the cardinals of Rome, several bishops, priests, and monks, had been so edified at the sight of the holy virgins in Rome, that they had followed them on their return as far as Cologne, where they, as well as the damsels, had won the martyr’s palm.

Thus, in a most satisfactory way, the presence ol these male bones was accounted for, and no scandal attached to the chaste troop of male and female celibates which had crossed the Alps, and descended the Rhine, to fall before the sword of the barbarian. Simplicius was ascertained to have been Archbishop of Ravenna, Pantulus to have been Bishop of Basle, and Aetherius proved to have been the bridegroom elect of Ursula, who had been converted to Christianity, and had come up the Rhine to meet his saintly betrothed.

A little difficulty occurred on another point. How was it that the martyrs were provided with stone coffins and sepulchral slabs?

In order to explain this, another incident was added to the legend by the vision-seeing nun.

Jacobus, Archbishop of Antioch, a Briton by birth, had gone to Rome to visit Cyriacus the Pope, but had learned, on his arrival, that his holiness had been last seen clambering the Alps in the train of eleven thousand virgins of entrancing beauty. The Eastern patriarch at once followed the successor of S. Peter, and reached Cologne on the morrow of the great massacre. He thereupon cut the names and titles of many of the deceased on stone—how he ascertained their names is not stated; but, before he had accomplished his task, the Huns discovered him engaged in his pious work, and dispatched him.

Doubt and disbelief were now silenced, and the ecstatic nun, having finished her revelations concerning the eleven thousand, died in the odour of sanctity.

Scarcely was she dead before fresh discoveries in the old cemetery reopened the scandal.

A considerable number of children’s bones were exhumed, and some of these belonged to infants but a few months old. This was a startling and awkward discovery, seriously compromising to the memories of the Pope, cardinals, and prelates who had accompanied the young ladies from Rome, and arousing a suspicion that the damsels had not been the sole managers of their vessels on the high seas, as the early legends had stated.

The nun, Elizabeth of Schönau, was dead. Who was there then to clear the characters of these glorious martyrs?

Fortunately, an old Præmonstratine monk, named Richard, an Englishman, lived in the diocese of Cologne, in the abbey of Arnsberg. He was keenly alive to the slur cast upon the fair fame of his national saints, and, by means of visions, laboured effectively to vindicate it. He declared that the eleven thousand had excited such enthusiasm in England, that their married relations had accompanied them in the vessels, with their children of all ages, and that all together had received the martyr’s crown. Richard added that a Sicilian princess, Gerasina, had accompanied the pilgrims, together with her four daughters and baby son; also that an empress of the Eastern empire, Constantia by name, had suffered with them. Kings, princes, and princesses, of Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Flanders, Normandy, Brabant, Friesland, Denmark —in a word, of all lands with which a geographer of the twelfth century was acquainted—had joined the expedition, in their desire to testify their admiration of the chastity and piety of Ursula and her companions. Holofernes, bridegroom elect of Ursula, notwithstanding his father’s opposition, insisted on taking command of the fleet. Under him were three hundred sailors who manned the vessels.

Such is the history of the expansion and final development of this curious fable. It exhibits a series of misconceptions and impostures, we should hope, unparalleled. To this day the church of S. Ursula at Cologne is visited by thousands who rely on the intercession of a saint who never existed, and believe in the miraculous virtues of relics which are those of pagans.

But something worse remains to be told.

Ursula is no other than the Swabian goddess Ursel or Horsel transformed into a saint of the Christian calendar.

“A part of the Suevi sacrifice to Isis,” says Tacitus, in his Germania. This Isis has been identified by Grimm with a goddess Ziza, who was worshipped by the inhabitants of the parts about Augsburg. Küchlen, an Augsburg poet of the fourteenth century, sings—

“They built a great temple therein,
 To the honour of Zise the heathen goddess,
 Whom they after heathen customs
 Worshipped at that time:
 The city was named eke Zisaris,
 After the heathen goddess; that was its glory.
 The temple long stood entire,
 Until its fall was caused by age.”

But it may be questioned whether Tacitus called the goddess worshipped by the Suevi, Isis, because the name resembled that of the German deity, or whether he so termed her because he traced a similarity in the myths and worship of the two goddesses. I believe the latter to have been the case. The entire passage reads, “They chiefly worship Mercury, to whom on certain days they sacrifice human beings. They appease Hercules and Mars with beasts, and part of the Suevi sacrifice to Isis. Whence the cause and origin of the foreign rite I have not ascertained, except that the symbol itself, in shape of a Liburnian ship, indicates that the religion was brought from abroad[2].”

Here, in the same sentence, three of the German gods are called by Roman names. Mercury is Woden: Hercules, or Mars, is Thorr. It is, therefore, probable that the fourth, Isis, is named from a resemblance of attributes, rather than identity of name. Again, in connexion with the mention of Isis, he alludes to a rite observed by the Suevi of carrying about a ship in her honour. Now, in Rome, the 5th March (III. Non. Mart.) was called, in the Kalendarium Rusticum, the day of the Isidis navigium. This is referred to by Apulëius in his Metamorphoses. The goddess appeared to the poor ass, and said, “The morrow that from the present night will have its birth is a day that eternal religion hath appointed as a holy festival, at a period when, the tempests of winter having subsided, the waves of the stormy sea abated, and the surface of the ocean become navigable, my priests dedicate to me a new ship, laden with the first-fruits of spring, at the opening of the navigation” (Lib. xi.). To this alludes also Lactantius[3].

The myth of Isis and her wanderings is too well known to be related. Now it is certain that in parts of Germany the custom of carrying about a ship existed through the Middle Ages to the present day, and was denounced by the Church as idolatrous. Grimm[4] mentions a very curious passage in the Chronicle of Rodulph, wherein it is related that, in 1133, a ship was secretly constructed in a forest at Inda, and was placed on wheels, and rolled by the weavers to Aix, then to Maestricht, and elsewhere, amidst dances, and music, and scenes which the pious chronicler refrains from describing. That it was regarded with abhorrence by the clergy, is evident from the epithets employed in describing it: navim infausto omine compactum—gentilitatis studium—profanas simulacri excubias—maligni spiritus qui in ilia ferebantur—infausti ominis monstrum; and the like.

At Ulm, in Swabia, in 1530, the people were forbidden the carrying about of ploughs and ships on Shrove Tuesday. A like prohibition was decreed at Tübingen on the 5th March, 1584, against a similar practice. I have myself, on two occasions, seen ships dragged through the streets on wheels, upon Shrove Tuesday, at Mannheim on the Rhine. In Brussels is celebrated, I believe to this day, a festival called the Ommegank, in which a ship is drawn through the town by horses, with an image of the Blessed Virgin upon it, in commemoration of a miraculous figure of our Lady which came in a boat from Antwerp to Brussels.

Sometimes the ship was replaced by a plough, and the rustic ceremony of Plough Monday in England is a relic of the same religious rite per formed in honour of the Teutonic Isis.

This great goddess was known by different names among the various peoples of Germany. She may have been the same as Zisca, but, as we know absolutely nothing of the myth and attributes of that deity, we cannot decide with certainty. More probably she was the Holda, or Holle, who still holds sway over the imagination of the German peasantry.

Now Holda is the great pale lady who glides through the sky at night, in whose dark courts are many thousand bright-eyed damsels, all, like her, pure; all, with her, suffering eclipse.

“Siderum regina bicornis audi
   Luna puellas.
 O Ursula! Princess among thy thousands of virgins,
                                    Pray for us!”

Holda, or the Moon, is the wandering Isis, or Ursula, whom German poets love still to regard as sailing over heaven’s deep in her silver boat. As—

“Seh’ ziehen die Wolke mit der Brust voll Segen,
 Des Mondes Kahn im Meer der Nächte prangen.”

Anast. Grün.

Or—

“Es schimmert, wie der Silberkahn,
 Der dort am Himmel strahlt.”

Von Stolberg.

Holda, in Teutonic mythology, is a gentle lady with a sad smile on her countenance, ever accompanied by the souls of maidens and children, which are under her care. She sits in a mountain of crystal, surrounded by her bright-eyed maidens, and comes forth to scatter on earth the winter snow, or to revive the spring earth, or bless the fruits of autumn. This company of virgins surrounding her in the crystal vault of heaven is that described by Æschylus: Αστρων κάτοιδα νυκτέρων ὁήγυριν (Agam. v. 4).

The kindly Holda was in other parts called Gôde, under which name she resembled Artemis, as the heavenly huntress accompanied by her maidens. In Austria and Bavaria she was called Perchta, or Bertha (the shining), and was supposed to have horns like Isis or Io, other lunar goddesses. But in Swabia and Thuringia she was represented by Hörsel or Ursul.

This Hörsel, in other places called the night bird Tutösel, haunted the Venusberg into which Tanhäuser plunged. She lived there in the midst of her numerous troop of damsels, to assist the laborious farmer and bless faithful lovers, or to allure to herself those souls which still clung to the ancient faith. A beautiful and benignant goddess the peasantry ever regarded her, little heeding the brand put upon her pure brow by an indignant clergy, who saw in her only the Roman Venus in her grossest character, and not Aphrodite, the foam-begotten moon, rising silvery above the frothing sea.

Further this legend shall not lead us. Its history is painful.

That ancient myths should have penetrated and coloured Mediæval Christianity is not to be wondered at, for old convictions are not eradicated in the course of centuries. I shall, in this book, instance several cases in which they have left their impress on modern Protestant mythology. But it is sad that the Church should have lent herself to establish this fable by the aid of fictitious miracles and feigned revelations. And now, when minds weary with groping after truth, and not finding it in science, philosophy, and metaphysics, turn to the Church with yearning look, why should she repel them from clasping the Cross, which, in spite of all fables, “will stand whilst the world rolls,” by her tenacity in clinging to these idle and foolish tales, founded on paganism, and buttressed with fraud?

Is this cultus of Ursula and her eleven thousand nothing but a “pious belief”? A pious belief, which can trust in the moon and the myriad stars, and invoke them as saints in Paradise! “If I beheld … the moon walking in brightness; and my heart hath been secretly enticed, or my mouth hath kissed my hand: this also were an iniquity to be punished by the judge: for I should have denied the God that is above” (Job xxxi. 26—28).

It is Truth which men yearn for now; and sacred Truth, when taught by a mouth which lends itself to utter cunningly devised fables, is not listened to.

If the Catholic Church abroad would only purge herself of these, her grand eternal doctrines would be embraced by thousands. But the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.

The bibliography of the legend must be briefly discussed. It is not of remarkable interest.

The revelations of Elizabeth of Schönau, and those of Hermann, Joseph of Steinfeld, will be found in Surius, “Vita Sanctorum,” under October 21st.

“Epistola ad virgines Christi univ. super hysteria nova undecim milimum (sic!) virginum,” without place and date, but belonging to the latter end of the fifteenth century, is very rare: I have not seen it.

“Hjstoria vndecim milium virginum breviori atque faciliori modo pulcerrime collecta.” Colon. 1509, 4to. Very scarce also.

“De Legende, vn hystorie der XI dusent jonferen, s. l. et a.” (circ. 1490), a curious Low German legend, illustrated with quaint engravings, forty in number.

De S. Lory, “Sainte Ursule triomphante des cœurs, de l’enfer, de l’empire, Patrone du célèbre collége de Sorbonne,” Paris, 1666, 4to. The legend has been carefully analyzed by Rettberg, in his “Deutschlands Kirchengeschichte,” i. pp. 111—123.

Crombach broke a lance in honour of the eleven thousand in 1647: his work, “Ursula Vindicata,” Colon. 1647, fol., with three maps, is interesting as containing documentary evidence; but it is disfigured by the superstition of the writer.

Leo, J. G., “ἀποσκίασμα hist.-antiquarium de 11,000 virginibus.” Leucopetræ, 1721, 4to. Reischert, L., “Lebens-Geschichte u. Märtyrtod der N. Ursula.” Cologne, 1837, 8vo.

Heinen, E. M. J., “Leben, Fahrt, u. Märtyrtod der h. Ursula.” Cologne, 1838, 8vo. Scheben, A., “Leben der h. Ursula.” Cologne, 1850, 8vo.

Schade, Oskar, “Die Sage v. der h. Ursula,” Hanover, 1854, 8vo. Also a beautiful series of illustrations of the legend copied from the interesting paintings in the church at Cologne, published by Kellerhoven, “La légende de S. Ursula.” Leipzig, 1861.

Some curious stories of the appearances of the sacred virgin companions of Ursula, and of the marvels wrought by their bones, occur in Cæsarius of Heisterbach’s gossiping Dialogue of Miracles.

Original footnotes[edit]

  1. Die Sage von der Heiligen Ursula, von Oskar Schade. Hanover, 1854.
  2. Tacitus, Germania, ix.
  3. Lactant. Instit. i. 27.
  4. Deutsche Myth. i. 237.