The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 11 (May 2008)  |   Issue Editors: Larry Swain & Linda Malcor

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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babelisms—Absent Beowulf


Continental Business

Michel Aaij
Auburn University Montgomery

© 2008 by Michel Aaij. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2008 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

Discussed in this review:

Thorsten Albrecht and Rainer Atzbach (2007), Elisabeth von Thüringen: Leben und Wirken in Kunst und Kulturgeschichte. 2nd, rev. ed. Petersberg: Michael Imhof. ISBN 9783865681232. 120 pp., 150 color ills. and photographs. E 9.95.

Wolfgang Bader (2007), Die Menschen froh machen: Vier Wochen mit Elisabeth von Thüringen. München: Neue Stadt. ISBN 9783879967117. 62 pp. E 5.

Maria-Regina Botterman Broj (2007), Die Geschichte der heiligen Elisabeth den Kindern erzählt. Kevelaer: Butzon und Bercker; 2007. ISBN 9783766601025. 23 pp., 11 color ills. E 5.

Ursula Koch (2007), Die Kraft der Liebe: Begegnungen mit Elisabeth von Thüringen. Gießen: Brunnen. ISBN 9783765564796. 31 pp., 16 color photographs. E 7.95.

Ursula Koch (2007), Elisabeth von Thüringen: Die Kraft der Liebe. Rev. ed. Gießen: Brunnen. ISBN 9783765518591. 414 pp. E 10.

Jutta Krauß (2007), Die heilige Elisabeth von Thüringen. Regensburg: Schnell und Steiner. ISBN 9783795480554. E 2.50. 30 pp., 20 color ills. and photographs.

Jutta Krauß and Ulrich Kneise (2007), Elisabeth: Leben und Legende einer europäischen Heiligen. Eine Bilderreise durch Ungarn, Deutschland, Italien, und die Slowakei. Regensburg: Schnell und Steiner. ISBN 9783795419950. 200 pp., 132 color photographs. E 12.90.

Ortrud Reber (2006), Elisabeth von Thüringen: Landgräfin und Heilige. Regensburg: Pustet. ISBN 9783791720142. 206 pp., 8 color photographs, 17 b/w ills. E 22.

Wolfgang F. Reddig (2007), Die Heilige Elisabeth von Thüringen (1207–1231): Bilderschätze aus acht Jahrhunderten. Bamberg: Babenberg. ISBN 9783933469601. 3 pp., 18 color photographs. E 6.50.

Vera Schauber and Hanns Michael Schindler (2007?), "Die Heilige Elisabeth." Repr. from Heilige und Patrone im Jahreslauf. München: Don Bosco. 4 pp., 2 color ills.

Helmut Schlegel (2007), Dem Herzen trauen: Mit Elisabeth von Thüringen durch das Jahr. Ein geistliches Übungsbuch. Würzburg: Echter. ISBN 9783429028794. 134 pp. E 12.80.

Joachim Wanke et al. (2007), Glaube und Liebe: Meditationen zu Elisabeth von Thüringen. Leipzig: Benno. ISBN 9783746221649. 127 pp. E 6.50.

Joachim Wanke, Joseph Ratzinger, and Susanne Schneider (2007), Die heilige Elisabeth: Fotos und Meditationen. Leipzig: Benno. ISBN 9783746221144. 29 pp., 11 color photographs. E 6.50.

Helmut Zimmermann and Eckhard Bieger (2006), Elisabeth: Heilige der christlichen Nächstenliebe. Kevelaer: Burtzon und Bercker. ISBN 9783786785989. 160 pp., 3 b/w photographs. E 8.90.

1. Elisabeth in print in 2007

§1.  In Marburg, in Eisenach, and in various other German cities significant to her life and her cult, St. Elisabeth of Thuringia's birthday was widely celebrated, and this anniversary gave rise to a large number of publications (as well as republications of earlier books, some of excellent quality). In fact, I collected so many books on a few quick trips to bookstores in two or three German towns that I couldn't take them all with me on the flight home, and I am still waiting on the mailcarrier to deliver me a box with another dozen books. Rather than give an in-depth discussion of a few titles, I want to paint with a slightly larger brush in this column, hoping to cover a larger canvas in order to give a bibliographical impression of St. Elisabeth's popularity in the early twenty-first century. And if the bibliography for this article seems long, the reader is warned that I will treat only about a third of this summer's harvest.1

2. Academic books

§2.  What I found somewhat surprising is the relative paucity of publications of an academic nature, especially for instance compared to the many studies published on St. Boniface in the year of his anniversary. We can look forward to the proceedings of a very interesting conference held in Marburg in May, on the role and place of Elisabeth in the spiritual movements of her time, but for now there isn't much. In the stack occupying my desk is only one title that aims at a somewhat academic audience, but that is a beauty of a book: Thorsten Albrecht and Rainer Atzbach's Elisabeth von Thüringen: Leben und Wirken in Kunst und Kulturgeschichte. The publisher, Michael Imhof Verlag, based in Petersberg, near Fulda, came to my attention when they published a very useful and sumptuous book for the Bonifacian anniversary in 2004, and they have done it again for St. Elisabeth. Atzbach's account of Elisabeth's life takes up the first half of the book and provides a very legible biography, heavily illustrated, that places the saint's life in a historical, social, and economical context. Though occasionally leaning towards hagiography, Atzbach does not sentimentalize or romanticize her life, even when there is plenty of occasion, not to mention precedent, to do so. For instance, he refuses to dramatize the sending away of the saint's children: rather than a complete and drastic imitatio Christi, in which a mother even goes as far as to give up her own children, Elisabeth's decision to have her children raised elsewhere follows a conventional pattern for the nobility of her time; after all, she herself was sent from Hungary to Thuringia at age four to be raised at the court of her future husband.

§3.  The second half of the book is a long essay on Elisabeth imagery; Albrecht provides a comprehensive overview and discussion of the various images associated with Elisabeth, which includes almost a hundred full-color photographs. For instance, the important Lübeck cycle, ca. 1440, is depicted in its entirety (24 plates), as are the stained glass Elisabeth-window (ca. 1235) and the spectacular shrine in the Elisabeth church in Marburg (ca. 1235-1249).2 Very useful in this section is a list of conventional elements and themes of Elisabethan imagery, including mention of regional variations—for instance, in coastal regions of Germany Elisabeth's charity is often emblematized by her offering a plate with two fishes. In all, I find this one of the most interesting and practical (not to mention beautiful) books in this offering—and priced at an astonishingly affordable E 9.95.3

§4.  Below, I will treat some of the new biographies in some detail, but I should make at least brief mention of a biography published specifically for the anniversary, a biography that comes closest to an academic publication considering its comprehensive scope, its treatment of the various vitae, and its careful and extensive bibliography and annotations. Ortrud Reber's Elisabeth von Thüringen: Landgräfin und Heilige (Regensburg: Pustet; ISBN 9783791720142) arrived too late for extensive discussion in this review, but if I could order only one biography for an academic library, this would be the one.

3. Spiritual books

§5.  While the academic market may not have been flooded with books on the saint, it is quite a different story in the field of spirituality. Underscoring the apparent desire for a new piety in Europe, one-third of this set of books are spiritual guides, offering meditations and even daily exercises. Two of them actually have a double appeal on the German market; from St. Benno Verlag come two very similar book(let)s, Glaube und Liebe: Meditationen zu Elisabeth von Thüringen and Die heilige Elisabeth: Fotos und Meditationen, both containing selections of a sermon on St. Elisabeth by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—a German pope speaking of a German saint. These two books are quite similar, though Glaube und Liebe has text exclusively, while Die heilige Elisabeth offers only brief passages from mostly the same texts but also color photographs of conventional Elisabethan places and images. Both stress the importance of Elisabeth as an example of love and charity. Also, both are hagiographical at the expense of historical context: Susanne Schneider, member of the Missionari Christi, speaks of the revolutionary character of Elisabeth's canonization, which she calls radical considering that Elisabeth never took orders; surely, the influence of Konrad of Marburg and later the German Order, besides her noble ancestry and the need for papal politics to take the earthly powers into account, have much to do with the rapid canonization.

§6.  In the tradition of spiritual self-help books, Helmut Schlegel's Dem Herzen trauen proposes monthly, weekly, and daily mediations, prayers, and spritual exercises to let Elisabeth lead an individual believer for an entire year; I am sorry to say that these exercises are probably wasted on me, but the book does attempt to narrow the gap of 800 years. A similar project is found in Wolfgang Bader's Die Menschen froh machen: Vier Wochen mit Elisabeth von Thüringen, though in a more concentrated fashion: four weeks of daily meditations are suggested to achieve a more intimate and inspiring knowledge of the saint. What all these books have in common is their structure—brief narrative moments from the saint's life are recounted and made to apply to modern life, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

§7.  A more daring example is Ursula Koch's Die Kraft der Liebe: Begegnungen mit Elisabeth von Thüringen. I confess myself to be quite partial to Koch, having really enjoyed her historical novel on the saint (more on this novel below), and this is a pretty little booklet, with color photographs to accompany an almost hagiographical biography interspersed with quotes from the Libellus, the booklet containing the account of Elisabeth's four servants, composed in 1235 to aid in the process of canonization. Koch's central theme is love, and Elisabeth for her personifies love in such a universal way that even a quote from Dostoevsky finds its way into the book. In the final section, "Wo sind deine Armen heute?", the author asks where Elisabeth's poor are now, and recognizes them in many different situations—in the homeless, the alcoholics, the victims of natural disasters, those suffering from AIDS (the connection to Elisabeth's ministry to lepers is obvious)—and then goes on to ask what Elisabeth would eat and drink if she lived today: fair trade coffee, eggs from free-range chickens, meat from happy animals (the term used in my household), etc. Some Americans media outlets might call such an attitude obnoxious eco-liberalism gone wild or some such thing, but Koch's point is serious: imitatio Christi is difficult and controversial, and ridiculed in Elisabeth's time as well as in ours.

4. Popular books

§8.  A final category consists of books intended for a larger, popular audience, and these I divide in three different subcategories.

§9.  The first contains fictionalized retellings of St. Elisabeth's life. The best one is not new, but was republished in 2007 to ride the wave of the anniversary. Ursula Koch's Elisabeth von Thüringen: Die Kraft der Liebe, originally published in 1998, is a moving version of the saint's life that does not take too many liberties with the sources. Each chapter is supplemented by a fictionalized account of how the Libellus came to be: a magister Joseph travels to Eisenach to interview Elisabeth's servants who reluctantly give their report, reluctantly because they realize that the ultimate goal of Joseph's work is not to glorify the saint or help continue in her work, but rather to produce a document that smooths out Elisabeth's life to make her more palatable to church authorities and less revolutionary to her contemporaries. Koch adds a (very) personal afterword in which she reiterates the importance of Elisabeth's life to her own life in the world today. In all, I found this novel highly legible, and while it fictionalizes the saint's life to some extent (for instance, by dramatizing the supposed conflict between her and Konrad, and by vilifying Konrad—a very common occurrence in German writing on the saint), it is moving and relatively unsentimental.

§10.  Reprints abound this year, and one of them is Gustav Adolf Müller's Elisabeth von Thüringen: Im Zauber der Wartburg (reprinted in 1995[?] and in 2005, no doubt with the upcoming festivities in mind). Since the book lacks any biographical information, the unsuspecting buyer may think they are holding something new, but we are dealing with an excruciatingly sentimental novel from 1905 (though it actually reads like a much older text) that freely adds plot lines and characters, as if Elisabeth's life needed additional drama, and written in the kind of German so deplored by Mark Twain. The publisher is Voltmedia, who perhaps chose this text because its copyright may have expired; the only thing that might suggest the book's origin in nineteenth century Germany is the cover, featuring an 1869 color lithograph by German artist W. Friedrich in the typically sentimental style of the time.

§11.  Popular also are retellings of the saint's life explicitly for children. As a separate reprint from Vera Schauber and Hanns Michael Schindler's ubiquitous Heilige und Patrone im Jahreslauf comes a brief history of the saint in an illustrated booklet that I picked up at the Wartburg; reprinted in 2007 is a retelling by Maria-Regina Botterman-Broj, illustrated by Gertrud Schrör and called, rather unoriginally, Die Geschichte der heiligen Elisabeth den Kindern erzählt. One should not be surprised to find very pious versions of the saint's life here, but I was specifically interested in two problematic moments in her biography: her self-chastisement under the influence of Konrad von Marburg and the miracle of the roses. The first of these items is handled easily by both authors: neither Konrad nor the saint's perhaps excessive punishment of her own body is ever mentioned. The miracle of the roses, so important to Elisabethan iconography, is usually said to have occured when her husband inquires what Elisabeth, going down from Wartburg Castle to the city of Eisenach, is carrying under her mantle—and miraculously the food she has scavenged from the noble dinner table to give to the poor is turned into roses. Now, that Ludwig would mistrust his wife and would aim to catch her as she is distributing his wealth is unlikely, given that their marriage, even though arranged, was apparently very happy—Ludwig seems to have turned down offers from paramours and actively supported his wife's charitable efforts, while Elisabeth refused to marry again after being widowed, exlaiming that for her the world had died when her husband died. This seeming contradiction in Ludwig's actions is sometimes solved by making Heinrich Raspe, his younger brother, the culprit in the miracle of the roses; after all, the man who would later send Elisabeth from the castle to beg in the streets is a likely candidate for such mistrust, and this is the choice Schauber and Schindler make (Atzbach argues the same in his abovementioned biographical article [2007, 25-26]). Botterman-Broj is a bit more creative: in her account, Ludwig follows her down from the castle and is simply curious, not suspicious—in fact, Elisabeth, holding the food under her dress, has a round tummy as if she were pregnant; the whole episode is in keeping with the relatively playful nature of the book.

§12.  I can't say I was very much taken by either version—Schrör's illustrations are not very attractive, in my opinion, and Botterman-Broj's text is printed rather strangely, in columns, as if it were poetry (the text is far from poetic). Besides, I don't think it would behoove us to teach our children that leprosy is caused by famine, as Botterman-Broj suggests. Still, what is clear is the extraordinary appeal Elisabeth's story has for children (or the appeal that adults think the story should have for children)—the museum shop at the Wartburg practically overflowed with booklets, brochures, and memorabilia specifically aimed at young children.

§13.  Biographies make up a second group of popular titles, of a less fictionalized nature than the aforementioned historical novels, but often approaching hagiography, and, as with many of the books treated in this column, written from a personal affection for the saint. A useful little book is Jutta Krauß's Die heilige Elisabeth von Thüringen, published by Schnell und Steiner in their series Hagiographie/Ikonographie/Volkenkunde. In this series, it replaces the earlier Die hl. Elisabeth von Thüringen by Hans Pörnbacher, revised in 2003. The text is completely new and better organized, and most of the illustrations are new also (but the number of photographs of the 1854 frescoes in the Wartburg, by Moritz von Schwind, has increased from two to four—and it may just be a matter of taste, but I really don't care for them).

§14.  Among the many available popular biographies (some older titles have been recently reprinted), I was most impressed by Zimmermann and Bieger's Elisabeth: Heilige der christlichen Nächstenliebe, published by Topos in a goodlooking series of biographies of famous Europeans. The book gives a decent overview of her life (leaning heavily on the Libellus), occasionally dramatizing a bit much (by calling a section "Elisabeth's Odyssee," for instance) and pulling no punches, for instance, in condemning Konrad (as a result, I think, of the relatively close adherence to the Libellus, in which the saint's servants speak quite openly of Konrad's strict or even brutal methods of chastising Elisabeth and her servants). But the book also contains an extensive and solid section that places Elisabeth's life in the context of the social, economic, military, and pious movements of the thirteenth century. Other chapters list and describe the different characters of Elisabeth's family and social circles, reproduce the miracles found in the Legenda Aurea, explain iconographic elements, and discuss the effects of the saint's life in Germany. Another very nice feature is a brief description of the various primary sources for the saint's life, and a brief but good bibliography.

§15.  The authors strike a personal note in the introduction, and given its resemblance to Ursula Koch's comments in both of her Kraft der Liebe books, we must have stumbled upon a common theme in modern-day Elisabeth veneration. Zimmerman and Bieger see a noteworthy comparison between Elisabeth, the four-year old girl sent abroad without her family, and the problematic of migrants and foster families. Like Koch, they also comment on the exploitative and cheap labor that underlies the easy availability of many consumer items, which they see reflected in Elisabeth's habit of refusing to eat food stolen from farmers; instead, she'll only eat food produced on the lands owned by her husband's family (even if such food is also produced in an exploitative manner, which the saint did not seem to realize). In all, I find this a very useful book, and though written for a broad audience it does not dumb down the complications of her life and her world, and would certainly recommend it—even more so if it were more richly illustrated, but given that the book only costs E 8.90 one can't complain.

§16.  The third and final subcategory consists of photography books more or less closely depicting aspects of the saint's life and the places associated with her. Almost without exception these are quite beautiful, the most impressive with text by Jutta Krauß and photographs by Ulrich Kneise, Elisabeth: Leben und Legende einer europäischen Heiligen. Eine Bilderreise durch Ungarn, Deutschland, Italien, und die Slowakei. As the title suggests, St. Elisabeth is here placed in a broader, European perspective, and the book features a large number of very nice full-color photographs (though it is rather small—6.5 by 6.5 in.). Attractive also is the book's organization: an index in the back has thumbnails with descriptions of the photos, so as not to take focus away from the pictures by adding too much text. If one were looking for one good (and affordable) book of Elisabethan photographs, this would be the one.

§17.  Also worthwhile mentioning is a very nice collection of 18 postcards with Elisabethan images spanning eight centuries, published by Babenberg Verlag and formerly available on the German Amazon. Wolfgang Reddig's introduction doesn't place the images in much of a historical or even arthistorical context, but does provide an overview of the various iconographic elements found in the 18 wonderfully reproduced images, which are a very nice additon to my collection of Elisabethania.

5. Conclusion

§18.  The large number of books and other items—devotional objects, postcards, DVDs—for sale in Germany is rather remarkable. The US market (even the academic marketplace of journal publications) offers nothing, as far as I can tell, and even in Dutch bookstores I could not find a single title devoted to the saint. Indeed, a Catholic bookstore and spiritual center I visited in May in The Hague seemed to not be aware at all of Elisabeth's anniversary. That the thirst for spirituality in Germany is a bit more acute than in the Netherlands is not news to those who observe the larger number of titles published every year, and of course Elisabeth is a very German saint in many ways; still, given the popularity of the saint's name (for people as well as for hospitals) in The Netherlands as well as in the United States, and given her attractiveness to a modern audience, I was actually a bit disappointed. Whether the cult and popularity of St. Elisabeth in Germany will continue to grow is a bit uncertain, but it shows no signs of abating, even if it has changed considerably over the last few centuries. For instance, I doubt that in wealthy, secularized Germany St. Elisabeth is venerated much among the poor—the books I've looked at and the places I've visited suggest that her importance is greatest among the middle-class, the educated bourgeoisie, who can afford to be charitable, to buy fair-trade coffee, to worry about the great issues of our time—economic disparity, refugee crises, war. Few of the writers and readers of these books are likely to engage in the extreme imitatio Christi of St. Elisabeth remains to be seen, but at the very least there remains a great awareness not only of the extent of her personal sacrifice but also of its effects on the way our societies look at and treat the poor and the downtrodden; surely, that in itself is a good thing.


1.   I wish to thank the Research Council at Auburn Montgomery for financial support; in Germany, I have been welcomed and assisted by many, among whom I should mention Christa Bertelsmeier-Kierst, Kristin Boese, Harald Wolter-von dem Knesebeck, Klaus Niehr, and especially Michael and Petra Glatthaar.  [Back]

2.   Missing, oddly enough, is an image or even a description of the rightly famous cameo originally encased above the Virgin Mary on one end of the shrine; the cameo was removed during the Napoleontic era and was recently rediscovered in Paris. It returned briefly to Marburg where it was on display in the Mineralogical Museum during the Elisabeth festivities in May of 2007. Considering that the book was originally published in 2006 and revised in 2007, I wonder why this note wasn't added. See, for instance, an article by Peter Masberg, director of the museum, at  [Back]

3.   Most prices listed are what I paid in the German bookstores, or from For those new to buying books from Germany: the internet of course features plenty of booksellers (among which, my personal favorite): the German postal service offers an affordable means of shipping books overseas, the 'offener Büchersendung,' either by air or by land/sea (sometimes very slow, but very cheap), which many booksellers will be happy to use on request.  [Back]