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22.03.19 Kirakosian (trans.), The Life of Christina of Hane

22.03.19 Kirakosian (trans.), The Life of Christina of Hane

In this first English edition of The Life of Christina of Hane, Professor Kirakosian has produced a very careful and thorough translation (including plentiful explanatory notes) of a difficult and obscure but significant work that sheds light on the problems of authenticating and interpreting medieval texts by or about women.

The text relates the life of 13th-century Premonstratensian Canoness Christina of Hane (near Bolanden, Rhineland-Palatinate). The manuscript was edited in the seventeenth century by Petrus Diederich (1617-1667), Abbot of Rommersdorf, who falsely attributed it to the canoness house at Retters (near Königstein). The false attribution likely was made because Abbot Diederich wanted to fabricate an illustrious reputation for Retters by claiming for it the vita of the visionary mystic Christina of Hane. But in 1958, a lost copy of the Hane manuscript was found and identified by Franz Paul Mittermaier who recognized it as Diederich’s doctored copy of the 13th-century text. The manuscript is now kept in the Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire of Strasbourg, as MS. 324 (fol. 213r-349v). In 1665 a version of the vita was edited and translated into Flemish and in the eighteenth century a few sections were translated into Latin by canons of the order.

The Premonstratensian order was founded by Norbert of Xanten (c. 1075-1134), Archbishop of Magdeburg, who had first begun his religious vocation as a charismatic wandering preacher and attracted large numbers of male and female followers desiring to pursue a life of strict asceticism and discipline. There were soon so many followers that in 1120, Norbert established a double community for them at Prémontré. Reports in the mid-twelfth century claim that more than a thousand Premonstratensian sisters were living in the diocese of Laon itself. Little is known about the house at Hane (in the Rhineland-Palatinate) except that by 1285, as the vita reports, it was experiencing financial difficulties. Canoness Christina’s family name is not known, but her assertion that her biological brother was the standard bearer of the bishop of Cologne in the battle of Worringen (1288) suggests that she might have been a member of the family of the counts of Nassau. All that is known of her biography is that she lived from 1269 to c. 1292 and was given to the Hane cloister at the age of six.

Her vita, written in Mosel-Franconian dialect, is a challenging document that does not fit neatly into one genre. While a few passages are narrated in the first person by Christina herself, the account of her life consists mainly of narration in the third person by a “brother” (canon) who attests that he witnessed the events and personally heard Christina recount her visions and auditions. But the narrative is actually reported by more voices with different agendas and, thus, appears to have been written by two or three persons. One section was likely composed after 1350, since it has echoes of the teachings of Meister Eckhart, most of whose works were circulated after Christina’s death. Interspersed with the third-person narrative are direct- and indirect first-person passages that frequently make it difficult to decipher who is speaking. After 136 pages, the work simply breaks off, ending abruptly (and puzzlingly) with the word: “etc.”

Using the intimate salutation: “O, diligent reader,” the primary narrator (probably Christina’s confessor or spiritual advisor) relates that, at the age of ten, Christina entered the school at Hane. He describes her as withdrawn from the other children and already experiencing “raptures” associated with visions of the Christ Child. For the first seven years Christina devotes herself to “defeating vices,” in particular the seven mortal sins, focusing with strict exercises on conquering one vice each year until she defeats them all. He describes how she bites her tongue until it bleeds and represses her sexual impulses with a burning block of wood and toxic chemicals applied to the genitals, which resulted in serious bodily injury (13-14, 17). After finally overcoming all the “vices,” she devotes herself to ceaseless contemplation of the suffering and death of Our Lord, his humiliation, torment, agony, and bitter Passion (21). During these exercises she often faints or collapses from bitterness of compassion but also from “the sweetness [that] she received from the righteous knowledge of the loyal love which had forced him to a pitiful death on our behalf” (21). In connection with these exercises, she repeatedly became ill herself “from love” and lay “enraptured” for long periods of time, experiencing visions, revelations, and hearing voices that no one else could hear.

On All Saints’ Day in 1289, God announced to her in a vision that he would make her suffer even more than before and she was struck with “a wondrously great ailment.” The “brother who was there” describes two major episodes of Christina fainting, trembling, clenching her teeth tightly, eyes wide open, lying rigid and unresponsive in a way that those in attendance described as “a gruesome death” such as they had never seen before (56, 74). The brother comments that when her infirmity diminished, she felt “unified with God in love and blissful joy,” bathed in “a celestial light”(74).

The purpose of recounting these details here is to demonstrate some striking similarities between these medieval “raptures” which may resemble the textbook description of a seizure but constitute a scenario that can be found, whole or in part, in visionary “raptures” described repeatedly in accounts about thirteenth-century beguines and monastics such Hadewijch (trembling and quivering) or Christina Mirabilis (“returning to life”). Of the ten most renowned mystics in the twelfth- and thirteenth centuries, every one of them experienced raptures with visions and most practiced self-starvation (inedia) as well as self-harming (cutting, mutilation with thorns and cords) that Christina of Hane herself employs in the narratives recounted by the brother who “was there” and who refers to them as an “ailment.”

The narrator describes how Christinarevels in the praise from God that she earns by her love and suffering, how she achieves her desire to be one of those “preferred” by God when she hears the Lord’s voice say: “You are my one and only dove. I shall celebrate nuptials with your soul” (51). Christina’s suffering gains meaning when she reports that the Lord has informed her: “this night I will free twelve thousand souls from purgatory; you have delivered them with the toil of your suffering and the trembling of your limbs...through your love all of them are delivered. You shall be rewarded together with all of them” (57, 67). The striking aspect of Christina’s statements, as cited by the narrator, is the portrayal of the praise that she acquires through her substitutionary suffering and turns into real or imagined agency and joy.

What we, of course, do not know is how authentic the first-person parts of the account are. Is Christina creating her own vita and notoriety in the manner of Beth Achler (d. 1420) of cloister Reute (near Bad Waldsee) who succeeded in making herself and her cloister locally famous by ostensibly eating nothing but communion wafers for three years and longer? As a result, Beth is still celebrated locally as a holy woman (remembered as “die Gute Beth”), even though some of the sisters in the Reute community knew (and joked) that she periodically stole food from the kitchen and that she was hiding the bodily waste (evidence that she had eaten) under her bed. [1] Ultimately, however, Beth did eat so little that she became ill and died covered with sores. In this instance, then, some of the sisters were themselves complicit. But Beth was encouraged, even coached, by her confessor, Konrad Kügelin (1366–1428), who approved her three-year fast. After her death, Kügelin composed her vita and successfully popularized her memory, making Cloister Reute well-known enough that it is today a pilgrimage site. [2]

The possibility that women might be tempted to do this, and confessors might encourage them, reveals how high the stakes were. In the case of Christina of Hane, this is demonstrated by the posthumous, fraudulent renaming of her vita as The Vita of Christina of Retters,by Abbot Diederich, of Rommersdorf, in whose jurisdiction Retters had been located. [3] Thus, Christina’s own willingness to subject herself to brutal penances could be an indication of how strong the desire was to prove oneself “preferred” and, perhaps, not in her case only but, likewise, in the lives of women with similar scenarios who achieved even greater notoriety: women such as Marie of Oignies (1177-1213), Christina the Astonishing 1150-1224) and Margarete of Ypres (1216-1237) who fascinated their biographers, Jacques de Vitry (c. 1160/70-1240) and Thomas of Cantimpré (1201-1272).

These scenarios might be viewed as either choreographed performances or as actual ailments caused by the sincere ascetic religious practices involving extreme lack of food, water or sleep, which can induce seizures accompanied by visions. But the layered, retrospective view of the manuscript, pointed out in the notes, adds an additional dimension to the choice between medical symptoms and theology by focusing on the cultural context. Kirakosian’s edition helpfully includes images of the actual Hane manuscript in which one can see where additions were made, a name was changed, and passages underlined by later readers. The edition describes other texts copied into the same manuscript or bound together with it that underscore the cultural context. An interesting example, mentioned in Kirakosian’s notes to the Hane manuscript, are the two hymns to Christina of Hane and to Gertrude of Altenberg (another cloister near Retters)which were added into the Hane manuscript by the same Petrus Diederich who substituted Retters for Hane as the name of Christina’s cloister (xxxiv). (Elsewhere, Diederich also forged a papal document supporting the canonization of Gertrude. [4]) It seems likely, then, that by placing a eulogy to Christina, celebrating her vita and mystical visions, next to a eulogy to Gertrude (daughter of St. Elisabeth of Thüringen), Diederich was attempting to build the prestige of both women and make their communities more prominent.

The kind of notoriety that was at stake, as revealed by these later additions to the manuscript, casts light on the influence of the evolving social and cultural context of the Vita, the concerns of redactors and audiences, the economic, social, and political factors at work. Kirakosian’s insightful and thorough research for her edition of this significant text opens up aspects of these issues and, especially, the work’s performative aspect: its gendered cultural script and the norms that existed for female mystics. The Vita of Christina of Hane effectively raises such issues for a potentially lively classroom discussion of the medieval way of thinking and how people at the time viewed such ecstatic visionary episodes within their own value system.



1. See Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 357-358 n. 135.

2. Siegfried Ringler, “Konrad Kügelin,” in Die deutsche Literatur des Mittelalters: Verfasserlexikon, 2nd edn, ed. Kurt Ruh et. al. (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1985), V: cols. 426-429.

3. ibid.

4. Thomas Doepner, Das Prämonstatenserinnenkloster Altenberg im Hoch- und Spätmittelalter. Sozial- und frömmigkeitsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen (Untersuchugen und Materialien zur Verfassungs- und Landesgeschichte 16; Marburg a. d. Lahn: N.G. Elwert Verlag, 1999), 72 n. 73.