Tag Archives: widows

Dream Vision and Butter Miracle: Non-Cloistered Religious Women in the Vita of Haseka the Recluse

by Laura Moncion

Often, small footnotes can lead to interesting discoveries. In her chapter on “Anchorites in German-speaking Regions” in Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe (2010), Gabriela Signori mentions a recluse named Haseka in passing, as one of two recluses commemorated by the secular canons of Böddecken, Westphalia, in the fifteenth century.[1] Intrigued by Signori’s description of Haseka’s vita as “remarkably unremarkable”, I followed this footnote and found a vita (or spiritual biography) which, though brief, offers some interesting and suggestive information regarding the situation of recluses and other types of non-cloistered religious women.[2] This vita offers an example of a female recluse, and it also shows other types of non-cloistered religious life for women.

Recluses—also often known as anchorites or solitaries—were people who lived religious lives enclosed in dwellings, known as reclusoria (singular reclusorium), cells, or anchorholds. Any scholarly defintion of this form of life must be slim enough to account for the wide variation in reclusion which existed throughout the Middle Ages, from solitary monks to forest hermits to house ascetics and more. The type of reclusion discussed in this blog post, and on which I focus my research, is one which involves living in some form of enclosure in or near an urban area, often in or beside a church, a form of life which became increasingly common among women in the later Middle Ages. 

The vita of Haseka is an example of this type of urban female reclusion. Her story appears as part of a martyrology compiled in the mid-fifteenth century by Hermann Greven, a Carthusian monk, based on the ninth-century martyrology of Usuard. Haseka is one of the new and local saints whom Greven added to his volume. According to the vita, she had lived in a cell attached to the church of Schermbeck, Westphalia, and died in 1261.

Regarding Haseka, the vita tells us that she came from the Rhineland region and lived for thirty-six years as a recluse attached to this church, where she devoted herself assiduously to prayer. One miracle is recorded, as well as Haseka’s death, and a struggle between two monasteries—one Cistercian, and one Benedictine—over the right to bury her body. The local bishop apparently got involved, and Haseka was disinterred and reburied in front of an audience of monks and laypeople. Finally, the vita narrates that after she had died, Haseka appeared to a pious widow in a dream vision, encouraging her in her faith. The author ends the vita by asserting that the cult of Haseka is alive and well in the region. 

Remarkably unremarkable? Perhaps. But there is more that can be said. This vita depicts a typical urban recluse in Haseka: she lives attached to a church, she is shown concentrated first and foremost on prayer, and yet there are also suggestions that she interacted with a variety of people, from laypeople to monks.

It is worth noting that this vita shows a tension between two monasteries attempting to seize control of the body and the possible cult of a holy female recluse. Further, as Signori’s original footnote indicates, Haseka was commemorated by secular canons in Böddecken, and Greven himself was a Carthusian in Cologne. Haseka, an obscure figure to twenty-first-century medievalists, was at least somewhat important to these various groups which included and claimed her.

The vita of Haseka also shines a light on other forms of non-cloistered religious life, including in the narration of her single miracle: one day, Haseka and her attendant, Berta, receive a pot of butter as a pious donation, which is unfortunately “stinking and rancid because of its old age” (butyrum prae vetustate sua foetidum ac corruptum). Eventually, Berta can no longer stand the stench, and tries to throw it out. Haseka apprehends her and, rather than dispose of the butter, beseeches God to make it palatable again. Miraculously, the butter is returned to a freshly-churned state.

Berta, the recluse’s attendant, is a key figure in the narration of this butter miracle. I use the term “attendant” here, because, like many non-cloistered religious women sought by this project, her status is somewhat unclear. The precise terms used for her in the text are conservaministra, and soror. There are suggestions that Berta’s status is in some way equal to the recluse’s: Haseka herself is also referred to as soror, and they apparently eat together, at the same table. However, Berta is not called a recluse herself, and may be placed outside the reclusorium rather than inside it: when they eat together, it is “one inside, and the other outside” (una intra, altera vero extra). Sister Berta suggests an interesting model of the non-cloistered religious woman, that of a recluse’s attendant who is also recognizable as a spiritual figure in her own right.

In the final section of the vita, the author describes Haseka appearing to a woman in a dream. The author describes this woman as “a certain noble and devoted widow” (cuidam nobili ac devotae viduae), who receives a sort of devotional pep talk from the departed recluse, telling her not to doubt or fear but to remain firm in her belief. Her designation as devota vidua suggests a certain spiritual status, along with her appearance as the privileged recipient of Haseka’s postmortem spiritual advice. This woman calls to mind the life of pious widowhood, another non-cloistered religious option for medieval women. Her connection to Haseka further suggests that these types of non-cloistered life were not isolated from one another, but rather existed as distinct but related elements of the medieval religious landscape.

The vita of Haseka is useful for the study of recluses, a form of non-cloistered religious life often undertaken by women. It is also a source for the history of non-cloistered religious women more broadly in its depiction of Berta and mention of a pious widow. This discussion has, I hope, provided an example of a text which opens a window onto the lives and representations of non-cloistered religious women—and further shown that where one such woman is found, many more are bound to appear.


[1] Gabriela Signori, “Anchorites in German-speaking regions” in Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe, ed. Liz Herbert McAvoy (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 2010) note 32 p. 48. This book—a collection of chapters on recluses, divided by geographic region—is an informative and fruitful source for the study of medieval recluses and much recommended to anyone interested in the topic.

[2] I contributed a translation of this vita to the Stanford Global Medieval Sourcebook project, which was published in January 2020. This translation was based on “De beata Haseka virgine reclusa in Westphalia” in AASS 26 January, vol. 3, 373–4. All quotations from the vita here are taken from the same edition.