Thursday, January 9, 2014

Saint Elizabeth: Turning the picture back into words

I will not put the picture up with this post. If you want to see it or see it again, it is here.

Phillip Hermogenes Calderon, the painter, was the son of a man who left the priesthood and the Catholic church to get married. He may have had no choice on the second decision after having made the first. One suspects his son Phillip wasn't taught to view the Catholic Church in a positive light.

He got the inspiration for the painting from a play about Elizabeth of Hungary by Charles Kingsley. The play sticks pretty close to the events of Elizabeth's life, as best as they can be known, but takes liberties with the ending. I'll get back to that ending at the ending of this post.

Okay, so what do we know about the real Elizabeth? I've been calling her a "Queen" but the truth is considerably more complicated than that because European royalty is complicated and weird. To give you a notion of how weird, sometimes a Duke can be more important than a Prince. Suffice to say that her husband, Louis, was the leader of Thuringia for ten years until his death.

At which point, Elizabeth became a terribly inconvenient figure on the local political scene. The widows of deceased rulers always were. The problem is that opposition to the new ruler tended to coalesce around the old Queen.

There was a well-established roles for such women to play in medieval society. In the first place, wives of rulers were encouraged to live lives of piety and generosity while their husbands were still alive. This fitted with accepted notions of womanly behaviour and it helped a positive image of the ruling family in the eyes of the people. Of course, the actions could be and probably usually were absolutely sincere. We still see today wives of powerful men who throw themselves into lives of good works.

At the same time, the great lady was also the subject of much erotic interest and it was not uncommon for stories with implicit erotic content to surface about them (implicit because telling a story with explicit content could get you dying a horrible death real fast). For example, there is the tale I cited before of the poor woman whom Elizabeth helped decamping with all her clothes and Elizabeth being unable to leave her bed because she was naked. There is also the story of Elizabeth putting a leper in the conjugal bed and her angry husband pulling back the covers to find a crucifix.

If their husbands died, a very likely outcome given medieval violence and medicine, women in Elizabeth's place were often encouraged to enter convents, sometimes quite forcefully encouraged.

Elizabeth is a bit of a rebel in that she becomes a tertiary, which is to say a lay-member, of the newly founded Franciscan order.  The Franciscans, and the Dominicans founded about the same time, did not stay inside convents but ventured out to serve the needs of the poor. That may have been less convenient to the man who replaced her husband as leader.

Another thing that may have been less than convenient to others was that Elizabeth took her considerable dowry with her. This was accumulated wealth her family had spent generations acquiring; her family might well have preferred to set her up in marriage that would consolidate both their wealth and power. Much of the legend about Elizabeth turns on this.

I should note that Elizabeth was far from unusual in not wanting to marry someone arranged by her family. And it's not hard to think why this might be. They would have arranged the marriage for their convenience, not hers, and shown up with this guy she didn't know or like who would then have the right to do to her everything a medieval husband had a right to do. And while her dowry would have given her family considerable incentive to set up such a marriage, it would also have given her more power to evade such a marriage.

And that is where the story gets a little icky. I say "icky" because stories like hers are fun to tell; stories like hers are the basis of fireside legends because they generally feature obvious black and white moral distinctions and brave heroes and heroines who fight for good and truth against tremendous odds. Enter into this otherwise story one Konrad von Marburg. Not matter how you try to spin his tale, Konrad is one nasty piece of work. He is a severe ascetic given to self flagellation. Like a lot of such people, he also seems to have enjoyed inflicting deprivation and pain on others. He was an inquisitor and  perfectly lived up to the worst stereotypes that go with that role. Even the old Catholic Encyclopedia, which did its level best to make Konrad look good reluctantly concluded there were serious problems:
In the exercise of this authority, even according to the sympathetic accounts of contemporary annalists, Conrad proved too severe and harsh. His assistants, Conrad Dorso, a Dominican lay brother, and John, a layman, were ignorant fanatics unqualified for such work. Conrad believed too easily the declarations of persons accused of heresy; on the strength of their statements, and without further investigation, others were arrested and treated as heretics. The accused either confessed their guilt and had their heads shaved for penance, or denied their guilt, were delivered as obstinate heretics to the secular arm, and perished at the stake. How great was the number of victims cannot now be ascertained.
That's a very roundabout way of admitting that Konrad was a ruthless fanatic who killed innocent people.

He could be a stock villain in a story like Elizabeth's. The problem is that he was her friend and confidant and that he owed much of his initial rise to power to her. After her death, which may have been hastened by the severe asceticism that he encouraged her to undertake (although we should not assume he did so against her will as the opposite is more likely), Konrad wrote up the case for Elizabeth being named a saint and the case was successful.

Jump forward to the 19th century. Saint Elizabeth's story is now viewed differently. Ann Radcliffe would have had a field day with the story and ended it with an Elizabeth-type women escaping her Konrad into the hands of the man who really loved her. And that is more or less the trajectory of her novel The Italian. Of course, she couldn't do that with Elizabeth herself as everyone knows Elizabeth dies. But what you could do is have the dying Elizabeth change her mind and renounce her renunciations on her death bed and tell Konrad that she looks forward to an afterlife of erotic bliss in the arms of her husband when she meets him again in heaven. Why am I so sure you could do that? Because that is exactly what Charles Kingsley did with the story.

More next Tuesday.

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