By Letha Böhringer
Religious women who were not cloistered were called beguines in the north of the German-speaking countries, and sisters or Seelfrauen in the south of this region. These women were found in almost every town and even in the countryside. One of their characteristics was that they did not establish overarching institutions or joint leadership, neither on a local nor on a supra-local level.
However, there is an exception to every rule. It has been known for quite a while that the sisters of an independent community in Schweidnitz (in medieval Silesia, today Świdnica in Poland) formed a network with convents at Breslau/Wrocław, Erfurt and Leipzig; the sisters moved between the houses, and they seem to have supported each other by transferring money in case of need. The Schweidnitz sisters were interrogated by a committee of inquisitors in 1332, and the inquisition protocol reveals many aspects of the community’s inner life and the attitude of the sisters. One detail, though, remained obscure: the sisters refer to themselves as the daughters of Udyllindis. They had no explanation of who she was; she does not seem to have been the foundress of the convent, but rather an inspirational charismatic figure.
Preparing a new edition of the inquisition protocol, the editors contacted me in order to check the prosopographic material of my database which contains more than 2100 names of beguines living in Cologne between 1223 and ca. 1400.
Cologne housed a great number of beguines and convents during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and its citizens produced a huge amount of written record. In addition to testaments and charters, the citizens kept so-called Schreinsbücher (official record books kept in cabinets, i.e. Schreine) which resemble modern land registers. Apart from transactions concerning real estate, they also contained donations to and foundations of beguine convents.
My database documents thousands of such entries and evidence from charters and other sources. After publishing about a dozen articles from this material, I am currently writing a monograph on the beguines of Cologne supported by a grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. The grant also provides for assistance from the Cologne Center for eHumanities, especially the help of a post-graduate specialist, Jan Bigalke, who modulates the database to make it open access on the internet.
My data provides key material for the identification of the Schweidnitz figure of Udyllindis. In 1291, a woman who called herself Odelindis from Pyritz (in the medieval duchy of Pomerania, today Pyrzyce in Poland), founded her own convent in Cologne which she headed as the Magistra. This convent was the first of about a dozen communities which were quickly singled out by their contemporaries as different from earlier beguinages: these beguines were called swesteren/swestrisse/ swestriones in the German vernacular, and they exercised strict poverty in their convents. Therefore, they were also called willige Arme, the “voluntary poor”. As third time’s the charm, another trace of Udyllindis/Odelindis was found via a research network which I co-founded (Agfem). Preparing her thesis on the beguines of Eastern Swabia, Barbara Baumeister discovered a similar name in charters of around 1350: a community of poor sisters called themselves the sisters of Udelhild.
Not only the obvious similarity of the names, which are not very common ones, but also characteristic features of the convents point to common origins. We know of quite a few women who travelled great distances in order to join one of these convents. The houses in Cologne and Augsburg were acquired from their own money, without patrons or benefactors. All the women organized themselves as associations based on an oath (Schwurverband) called unio in Latin or Einung in German. The novices pledged allegiance to the ideals of strict poverty and obedience. The sisters were well respected by their neighbors and received donations. We do not know why, suddenly, they were persecuted in Schweidnitz and, it seems, their house was dissolved; there was obviously some internal strife which might have instigated the inquisition. The convent in Cologne eventually became a member of the Cellite order, and the Augsburg sisters became Dominican sisters around 1700, whose monastery exists to this day.
The discovery of Odelind’s network of voluntary poor sisters gives insight on how a “movement” was formed and spread over great distances. Her congregation is a phenomenon never described before: independent women travelling the trade routes from city to city, forming convents according to their own rules and ideals, from their own money, distanced from local clergy and authorities, and respected by their contemporaries. They constitute an intriguing group and show what women in the later Middle Ages were capable of self-governance and independence, and could have the determination to live lives according to their own desires and designs.
Letha Böhringer, “The Swesteren of Piritz and of Cologne and their European Context,” in The Beguines of Medieval Świdnica: the Interrogation of the ‘Daughters of Odelindis’ in 1332, ed. by Tomasz Gałuszka and Paveł Kras (Heresy and Inquisition in the Middle Ages). York, 2023.
In German: Letha Böhringer, “Die Schwestern und Töchter der Odelind von Pyritz. Ein überregionales Netzwerk von Beginen im Reich wird sichtbar,” in Mitteilungen des Instituts für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung (2023).
Barbara Baumeister, “Schwestern der Udelhild. Eine geistliche Gemeinschaft in Augsburg mit europäischen Verbindungen,” Zeitschrift des historischen Vereins für Schwaben 151 (2023).