The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 10—Saints and Sanctity (May 2007)   |   Issue Editors: Celia Chazelle & Deanna Forsman

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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History by Biography—St. Æthelthreda

History by Biography—St. Elisabeth


Saint Elisabeth of Thuringia, 1207-2007

Michel Aaij  
Auburn University Montgomery

2007 by Michel Aaij. All rights reserved. This edition copyright 2007 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

§1.  If all the recent celebrations of saints still mean what they used to, Europe in general and Germany especially must be experiencing a religious awakening of sorts. In 2004, extensive (international) festivities, accompanied by a slew of popular and academic publications, marked the 1250th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Boniface, the Apostle of the Germans, in Fulda as well as other Bonifacian places; in 2006, smaller but still significant celebrations were occasioned, this time exclusively in Germany, by the commemoration of the death of Rabanus Maurus, the Teacher of the Germans. And this thirst for ritual, tradition, religiosity is apparently not satisfied: in 2007, a symposium is to be held in Marburg under the title "Elisabeth and the new piety in Europe," and the dioceses of Erfurt and Fulda will mark, with extensive celebrations and exhibits and in cooperation with Protestant churches, the 800th anniversary of St. Elisabeth, "A European Saint," as the organizers call her.

§2.  The appellation of Elisabeth as a European saint fits well with modern times—after all, Boniface was dubbed a European saint in 1954 already, when the 1200th anniversary of his martyrdom brought together representatives from many European countries in a still-torn Germany (the Fulda diocese itself being split in half by the East-West border). Likewise in 2004 such a European note was sounded, leading for instance to the publication of a book documenting Boniface's travels throughout Europe,1 and many of the other publications commented on Boniface's meaning for Europe. Then again, Boniface can lay a larger claim to Europeanness than Rabanus Maurus or Elisabeth—after all, the Anglo-Saxon saint left England, traveled to Rome three times, worked all over almost all of modern-day Germany and the north of France, and died in Friesland. Elisabeth's claim is more tenuous since her life was more geographically limited: born in Hungary in 1207, she married a German count (Ludwig of Thuringia), and spent the rest of her life first in Wartburg Castle, overlooking Eisenach, Thuringia, and later in Marburg, Hessen, where she died in 1231. She was quickly canonized, in 1235, and her cult spread quickly throughout Germany where she continues to be one of the most enduring, beloved, and popular saints—in 1976, for instance, she became patron saint of Fulda, alongside St. Boniface.

I. Biography

§3.  Elisabeth's biography, in stark contrast to those of the two aforementioned saints, is quite brief. The third child of King Andreas II of Hungary and Queen Gertrude of Andechs-Meran, she is engaged in 1211, at the age of four, to the eldest son of Landgrave Hermann I of Thuringia, at whose court she is brought up. In 1216, however, her intended future husband, Hermann, dies, and she is instead betrothed to his younger brother, who in 1221 ascends the throne as Ludwig IV and marries Elisabeth in that same year. Three children are born of this marriage, and in this period she comes under the influence of Conrad of Marburg, a zealous ascetic, perhaps a secular priest, and later a papal inquisitor, who imposes on Elisabeth a life of strict penance, even physically punishing her for any missteps. Called to the Diet in Cremona in 1226, Ludwig promises to take up the cross together with Frederick II. In the meantime, hunger ravages Thuringia; Elisabeth is left in charge of Ludwig's domain. As a devout child she already cared deeply for the poor and the sick, and now she finds her calling and ministers to her subjects, founding a hospital in Eisenach and distributing food to nine-hundred people daily, according to her vitae. The next year Ludwig IV and Frederick II set out for Palestine; Ludwig dies along the way from the plague. Elisabeth, living among a family suspicious of her charity and embarrassed by her cares for the downtrodden (some early sources say her in-laws forced her out of Wartburg Castle, although this is no longer believed to be true), relocates to Marburg, where she joins the Franciscans as a Tertiary. According to Voragine's Legenda Aurea (2:311), money from her dowry allows her to operate another hospital, and now firmly under the "almost sadistic direction" (Farmer 1997, 159) of Conrad she increases in her religious fervor and self-mortification, which undoubtedly hastened her toward an early death at age twenty-four.

§4.  St. Elisabeth's brief biography, devoid of the kinds of events that seem to alter the course of history, gives little reason to suggest why she would endure the way she did: it is her character that continues to speak to believers. When Dr. Eduard Schick, Bishop of Fulda from 1974 to 1982, starts negotiations with the Vatican to have his diocese allowed St. Elisabeth as a second patron saint, a rather unusual occurrence, he does so because of charity. That is, Elisabeth's importance is her love for her fellow man and her self-sacrifice—unlike Boniface, or her contemporary St. Francis, she exerted no influence on the worldly rulers of her time or on the organization of the church (already well-established, of course, though in some turmoil because of the tremendous social and economic movements of the thirteenth century), nor did she have any direct connection to Fulda itself, although until 1994 Thuringen was part of the Fulda diocese. Undoubtedly, such charity is the saint's ultimate appeal, and is borne out in her hagiography, her iconography, and the many publications about her.

II. Hagiography

§5.  The first vita, by the Cistercian monk Caesar of Heisterbach, appears very quickly; suggested by Conrad and prompted also by the Teutonic Order (Elisabeth's brother in law was a high-ranking member), it was to appear before her actual canonization in 1235, but did not get written until 1237. In part based on the documents produced for the process of canonization, it was followed by another anonymous (Cistercensian) vita in 1239. The most influential Elisabethan vita, written between 1289 and 1297, is the Dominican Dietrich of Apolda's; his vita also marks the end of more or less historical writing (he still had access to oral sources on the saint, living as he did in the Dominican convent in Erfurt), and the beginning of Elisabethan legend.

§6.  The first modern edition of her life is La Vie de Ste. Elisabeth, published by the French nobleman Charles Forbes René de Montalembert in 1836. The book is soon translated throughout Europe, and becomes the main source for all (popular) biographies for almost a century. In 1908, Albert Huyskens produces a still authoritative source study of texts related to the cult of St. Elisabeth, Quellenstudien zur Geschichte der hl. Elisabeth, but more notable than the academic studies of the saint are the many, many popular versions of her life. To be sure, most Catholic saints shared in the bounty of popular literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and Elisabeth was no exceptions—but striking are the personal appeals by writers to the very topic of their writing, much more personal than in similar hagiographies and biographies (for instance, Weinrich 1958, 351-2; Collins 1932, 312-14; Kiel 1966, 156-61). Such personal interest may seem perhaps overly sentimental to our postmodern eyes, but is often also a breath of fresh air in between the traditional stories of piety and devotion. Contemporary expressions of personal dedication are these days to be found on the internet, of course, and one of those sites, "My Elisabeth," is in fact part of the website "800 Jahre Elisabeth von Thüringen," at

III. Iconography

St. Elisabeth spinning wool

Hl. Elisabeth—St. Elisabeth spinning wool. Late 19th c. prayer card, Germany.

§7.  The iconography of St. Elisabeth is relatively uncomplicated, and only a few images dominate. The least widespread is the saint at a spinning wheel, engaged in one of many activities not entirely becoming of royalty, an image rarely found until the nineteenth century, as far as I can determine.

More common, though rarely found in modern popular devotional material, is the saint holding up a church, usually the Marburg cathedral named for her.

St. Elisabeth holding up the Marburg cathedral

St. Elisabeth holding up the Marburg cathedral. Polychrome statue, c. 1470, Marburg.

St. Elisabeth holding a basket of roses

St. Elisabeth holding a basket of roses. Early 20th c. prayer card, Germany.

§8.  The most popular images are two depictions directly related to her charitable work. The first depicts the miracle of the roses: according to legend, Elisabeth is caught delivering food to the poor outside of the Wartburg, either by her husband, her mother in law, or another family member; when she is asked to open up her mantel and show what goods she has underneath—stolen, presumably, from the family's pantry or dinner table—the food miraculously turns into roses.

The second type of image is more generic, and depicts the saint in various acts of charity: delivering food, caring for the sick and the handicapped, sometimes simply kissing a child.

St. Elisabeth ministering to the poor

St. Elisabeth ministering to the poor. Late 19th c. prayer card, France.

Noteworthy in many of these images of charity is that the background depicts the Wartburg, up high in the distance, the saint having literally come down into the foreground among the commoners. This is a stock scene, perhaps, but very effective, perhaps especially given the growing power of the laity both in her and in our own time. Still, some images prefigure the much more personal relationship her devotees sought in the saint, such as in the striking portrait by Leo Samberger (1861-1949), in which the act of charity performed is not immediately obvious, the observer's eyes being drawn to the saint's bright face.

Drawing of St. Elisabeth

St. Elisabeth, drawing by Leo Samberger. Prayer card, 1930s.

§9.  Recent iconography of the saint, since the Second World War, is often both topical and personal. Elisabeth's mission of charity to the poor and downtrodden was of course particularly appropriate in the desolate Germany of the late 1940s and 1950s, before the Wirtschaftswunder brought unprecedented wealth, and there is a relative abundance of images from those years—Elisabeth ministering to the sick, giving aid to the homeless, etc., sometimes on strikingly simple and beautiful prayer cards.

St. Elisabeth aiding refugees

Sanct Elisabeth gebt den Flüchtlingen Heimat—St. Elisabeth aiding refugees. Prayer card published by Caritas Verband, Mainz, late 1940s.

IV. Current popularity

§10.  Between 1947 and 1969, some 200 new churches were built in the Fulda diocese in Germany. Some forty were dedicated to the Virgin Mary, twelve to St. Joseph (a continued favorite in Germany and the Netherlands), eight to St. Boniface—and no fewer than eleven to St. Elisabeth (Neue Kirchen 1970, 113-19). As suggested by her function and iconographical depiction, Elisabeth continues to matter greatly to believers in that part of Europe. Her meaning seems to have shifted slightly, though; as in the case of many saints, those devoted to a saint, whether they are actually church-going or not, look for a more personal and less religious connection. Even Elisabeth's charity (as the word is used today), while it continues to be legendary (and given expression in the many hospitals and other institutions named for her), now seems to take a backseat to her quality as a young woman who left everything behind and sacrificed her life for love in the modern sense of the word. In other words, it seems to me that believers today do not really see themselves as recipients of Elisabeth's care (few in Western Europe need that kind of charity) but as a partner in a reciprocal relationship. That she lived a short and active life in a world characterized by male dominance of all kinds (from her father, her father-in-law, her confessor) certainly helps her appeal. How this veneration comes out today is the topic of the aforementiond conference in Marburg this May; the program is available at As a sign perhaps of how modern religiosity is literally brought to the masses, a travelling exhibit will tour Germany and Hungary; more information at Another important and promising exhibit will take place in the Wartburg, in Eisenach; more information at

§11.  Also indicative of interest in Elisabeth is a slew of recent publications; some titles of which can be found in the suggestions for further reading below. Special mention, however, deserves a CD-ROM by German Boniface-expert Dr. Petra Kehl, an audio-CD called "Liebe durchbricht alle Mauern," "Love breaks through all walls," which gives a creative, personal, and touching account of the saint. As of the time of writing the Elisabeth year is in full swing, and a full reckoning of the offerings, academic and otherwise, cannot yet be made. What is clear, though, is that 800 years after her birth Elisabeth is as beloved as she ever was.


1.  Hamberger, Wolfgang and Eitel J. Vida, eds. 2004. Der Bonifatiusweg: Die Wurzeln Europas entdecken. Köln: Dumont.  [Back]

Works Cited

Collins, I. J. 1932. S. Elizabeth of Hungary, trans. of Franz Johannes Weinrich, Elisabeth von Thüringen. London: Burns, Oates, and Washbourne.  [Back]

Farmer, David Hugh. 1997. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Oxford UP.  [Back]

Kiel, Elfride. 1966. Die Grosse Liebende St. Elisabeth. Leipzig: St. Benno.  [Back]

Neue Kirchen im Bistum Fulda: 25 Jahre kirchlichen Bauens und Kunstschaffens. 1970. Fulda: Parzeller.  [Back]

Voragine, Jacobus de. 1993. The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints. Trans. William Granger Ryan. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton UP.  [Back]

Weinrich, Franz Johannes. 1958. Elisabeth von Thüringen. München: Kösel.  [Back]

Further Reading

Ancelet-Hustache, Jeanne. 1946. Sainte Elisabeth de Hongrie. Paris: Editions Franciscaines.

Hl. Elisabeth: Festwoche des Bistums Fulda 1981 in Marburg, Dokumentation von Predigten, Vorträgen und Ansprachen. 1981. Fulda: Bischöfliches Generalvikariat.

Kehl, Petra. 2006. Liebe durchbricht alle Mauern: Hl. Elisabeth von Thüringen. CD ROM. Fulda: Verlag Petra Kehl.

Nächstenliebe und Mystik: Elisabeth, Mechthild und andere heilige Frauen. 2006. Paderborn: Bonifatiuswerk.

Reber, Ortrud. 2006. Elisabeth von Thüringen: Landgräfin und Heilige. Eine Biografie. Regensburg: Pustet.

Sankt Elisabeth: Fürstin, Dienerin, Heilige. 1982. Sigmaringen: Thorbecke.

Seesholtz, Anne. 1948. Saint Elizabeth: Her Brother's Keeper. New York: Philosophical Library.