Dorottya Uhrin: The cult of virgin martyrs in medieval Hungary

The popularity of the virgin martyrs reached its peak in late medieval Europe, including Hungary. The legends of these saints represented an important model for women from the high Middle Ages. Their legends center upon a confrontation where a pagan man threatens the saint’s virginity with an offer of marriage or with his intention of making her his concubine. The saint refuses the proposal because of the Christian idea of sexual purity. The rest of these stories describe the passionate love that she feels for Christ and the various torments that she suffers because of this love. These torments often include sexual assaults and physical tortures. The saint endures her suffering and finally  gets beheaded and her soul is received in the Heaven.

These stories and the representations of the legends had a significant impact on society. The virgin martyrs’ emotions for Christ served as examples for nuns. The thirteenth-century Hungarian princess Saint Margaret came under the influence of the Dominicans and became a nun in the nunnery founded by her father on the Insula Leporum, which is called today Margaret Island. Her legend preserved her wish to become similar to the virgin martyrs. “[Margaret] particularly praised those holy virgins who suffered martyrdom for the Name of Christ, and instead of being fragile woman, became worthy to triumph over their persecutors. And she hotly wished to join to their martyrdom and to their crown.” In another version of her legend she said “Oh my God, I would have liked to live in that time! And I would have liked to be torn apart for the love of Jesus Christ in such a way that I suffer for long time. And [I would have liked to have] my head cut off for the emanation of the blood of Christ.” As we can see, the most precious way to prove a nun’s love for Christ is suffering. The depth of love is directly proportional to the extent of suffering.

Two hundred years later, in the same nunnery several codices were produced which often include the lives of virgin martyrs. The most important among them is the Hungarian version of  Saint Katherine’s verse legend which survives in the Codex of Érsekújvár on pp. 447–520 containing 4047 lines. Both the author of the Latin original and its Hungarian translator are unknown today. The codex composed in the Dominican convent only reveals its scribe’s name, Martha Sövényházi. Most of the texts in the Codex of Érsekújvár were translated from Latin, but the legend of Katherine stands out in originality among the other texts. The existence of a Latin source text is proven by the misunderstandings of the translation. The layout of the text suggests that it was intended to be read aloud. The life of Katherine thus set an example for nuns who could not read and understand the Latin version of the legend.

The verse legend, preceded by a prologue (Prologus), narrates the story of Katherine’s mystic birth (Nativitas), her conversion to the Christian faith (Conversio) and her passion under the Emperor Maxentius (Passio). Typically, the legend confronts contrary emotions: the deepest sadness was replaced by the greatest happiness. The rhythmic variation of opposite emotions taken over from the earlier versions of the legend is still visible. The Romanesque representations of the legends of virgin martyrs preferred to depict the psychomachia: the war between good/virtues and evil/vices. The composition of the legend follows the same structure: the positive emotions were followed by negative emotions.

I would like to analyse a few part of the verse legend which bear strong emotional content. The three main points of my analysis are the reactions to sacrifice, the different reasons for sadness and its solutions, and love. I would like to compare the reactions of Christians and Pagans. What is the difference between the emotions of the Pagans and Christians/Saints? How would the described emotions of the virgins have impacted  nuns?

Dorottya Uhrin (uhrindorottya@gmail.com)

This post forms part of an open mini-series published in preparation of the COST Action IS1301 Training School “Passionate Devotions. Emotions in Medieval and Early Modern Religious Texts, Images and Music” (see announcement with details about submissions here).

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  1. Pingback: Report: Training school “Passionate Devotions. Emotions in Late Medieval and Early Modern Religious Texts, Images and Music”, WWU Münster, 26.-28.4.2017 | COST Action IS1301

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