Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World: A Biographical Dictionary

By Carole Levin; Debra Barrett-Graves et al. | Go to book overview

ELISABETH OF SCHONAU
(1129-1164)

Germany
Mystic, Writer

The medieval feminine ideal was simple: Women were to be "chaste, silent, and obedient." While many women were praised for upholding this ideal, many others chose to defy these expectations. Although the Church denied women the opportunity to publicly preach in the twelfth century, some found alternative ways to express their religious thoughts. One particularly dramatic medium of religious self-expression among some women was through visionary mysticism, revelations that were believed to be divinely inspired through supernatural means. Elisabeth of Schonau was one such woman whose visionary experience afforded her the opportunity to be heard.

Little is known about Elisabeth's family. During this time, unmarried women of wealthy and influential families typically entered nunneries, and it is probable that Elisabeth's own family was moderately affluent. She entered the Benedictine monastery at Schonau when she was twelve. The Benedictines, a monastic order that began during the high Middle Ages and often maintained separate communities for both men and women, emphasized the rule of St. Benedict and recognized the supremacy of the Pope and the Roman Church.

In 1152 at the age of twenty-three, Elisabeth, a devout and pious believer, experienced visions after suffering from a serious illness. Although she was able to eloquently tell her visionary experience in Latin, she was not literate enough to record her own visions and shared her revelations with the other sisters at the monastery. Her ability to speak such eloquent Latin despite her lack of an education offered proof to the people of her time that her visions were of a divine origin: Elisabeth dictated her religious, visionary experiences so that they could be preserved. The visions revealed her focus on the heavenly realm. Initially she was spiritually transported to heaven, where she witnessed the angels and other heavenly beings. In these early visions, which are recorded in her book Liber Visionum Primus(Visions, Book One)

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