The Letters of Princess Sophia of Hungary, a Nun at Admont

  • Jonathan R. Lyon
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Although the letters exchanged by Abelard and Heloise are the most famous examples of correspondence to survive from the Middle Ages, they represent only a small fraction of the letters extant in medieval manuscripts. Throughout Western Europe, the medieval period witnessed the development of a vibrant epistolary culture. The eleventh and twelfth centuries, in particular, have been labeled a golden age for medieval letter writing because of the extraordinary volume of correspondence that survives from this period.1 As evidenced by Heloise, elite women were not excluded from this community of letter writers that emerged during the central Middle Ages.2 Especially in the German kingdom, where numerous twelfth-century epistolary collections survive in manuscripts produced in monasteries and cathedral chapters, there is abundant evidence of lay and religious women relying on letters to communicate. The largest collections of this female correspondence concern some of the most influential holy women of the central Middle Ages. For example, 22 letters from the German visionary Elizabeth of Schönau (d. 1164) are extant, and Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179) is identified as the author or recipient of more than 300 surviving letters.3 The epistolary genre was not the exclusive domain of famous religious women, however, and many other elite women, both inside and outside the church, appear in the pages of German letter collections.


Twelfth Century Religious Conversion Religious Woman Royal Court Authentic Voice 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Giles Constable, Letters and Letter-Collections, vol. 17, Typologie des sources du Moyen Âge occidental (Turnhout: Brepols, 1976), p. 31.Google Scholar
  2. 1.
    For letter writing in the Middle Ages more generally, see also Julian Haseldine, “Epistolography,” in Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide, ed. F. A. C. Mantello and A. G. Rigg (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), pp. 650–658Google Scholar
  3. 1.
    Hartmut Hoffman, “Zur mittelalterlichen Brieftechnik,” in Spiegel der Geschichte: Festgabe für Max Braubach, ed. Konrad Repgen and Stephan Skalweit (Münster: Aschendorf, 1964), pp. 141–170.Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    Karen Cherewatuk and Ulrike Wiethaus, “Introduction: Women Writing Letters in the Middle Ages,” in Dear Sister: Medieval Women and the Epistolary Genre, ed. Karen Cherewatuk and Ulrike Wiethaus (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), pp. 1–19.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    Elizabeth of Schönau, “Letters,” in Elisabeth of Schönau: The Complete Works (New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000), pp. 235–254.Google Scholar
  6. 3.
    Hildegard of Bingen, The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, trans. Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman, 3 vols (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994–2004); and Epistolarium, ed. L. Van Acker and Monika Klaes, vol. 91–91a-91b, Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis (Turnhout: Brepols, 1991–2001).Google Scholar
  7. 4.
    Alison I. Beach, “Voices from a Distant Land: Fragments of a Twelfth-Century Nuns’ Letter Collection,” Speculum 77 (2002): 51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 5.
    Ulrike Wiethaus, “In Search of Medieval Women’s Friendships: Hildegard of Bingen’s Letters to Her Female Contemporaries,” in Maps of Flesh and Light: The Religious Experience of Medieval Women Mystics, ed. Ulrike Wiethaus (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1993), pp. 93–111.Google Scholar
  9. 6.
    Joan M. Ferrante, To the Glory of Her Sex: Women’s Roles in the Composition of Medieval Texts (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997), pp. 10–11, and, from a slightly later period than I am examining hereGoogle Scholar
  10. 6.
    F. Thomas Luongo, The Saintly Politics of Catherine of Siena (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2006), pp. 72–73.Google Scholar
  11. 8.
    Constable, Letters and Letter-Collections, pp. 55–57; and Rudolf Schieffer and Hans Martin Schaller, “Briefe und Briefsammlungen als Editionsaufgabe,” in Mittelalterliche Textüberlieferungen und ihre kritische Aufarbeitung (Munich: Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 1976), pp. 60–70.Google Scholar
  12. 9.
    For the ars dictaminis, see Martin Camargo, Ars Dictaminis, Ars Dictandi, vol. 60, Typologie des sources du Moyen Âge occidental (Turnhout: Brepols, 1991)Google Scholar
  13. 9.
    James J. Murphy, “Ars Dictaminis: The Art of Letter-Writing,” in Rhetoric in the Middle Ages: A History of Rhetorical Theory from Saint Augustine to the Renaissance, ed. James J. Murphy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), pp. 194–268. For a good example of one of these collections, see Hermann Baerwald, ed., Das Baumgartenberger Formelbuch, vol. 25, Fontes Rerum Austriacarum (Vienna: Kaiserlich-Königliche Hof- und Staatsdruckerei, 1866).Google Scholar
  14. 10.
    John Van Engen, “Letters, Schools and Written Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries,” in Dialektik und Rhetorik im früheren und hohen Mittelalter, ed. Johannes Fried (Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 1997), pp. 97–132Google Scholar
  15. 10.
    Alain Boureau, “The Letter-Writing Norm, a Mediaeval Invention,” in Correspondence: Models of Letter-Writing from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), pp. 24–58.Google Scholar
  16. 11.
    See, e.g., Van Engen, “Letters, Schools and Written Culture,” in Dialektik und Rhetorik im früheren und hohen Mittelalter, pp. 97–132 Beach, “Voices from a Distant Land,” 34–54; and the various articles in Karen Cherewatuk and Ulrike Wiethaus, eds., Dear Sister: Medieval Women and the Epistolary Genre (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  17. 12.
    Carl Erdmann and Norbert Fickerman, ed, Briefsammlungen der Zeit Heinrichs IV, vol. 5, MGH: Die Briefe der deutschen Kaiserzeit (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1950), pp. 64–67, nr. 29.Google Scholar
  18. 13.
    Carl Erdmann, Studien zur Briefliteratur Deutschlands im elften Jahrhundert (Leipzig: Verlag Karl W. Hiersemann, 1938), p. 164.Google Scholar
  19. 13.
    For more on the context of this letter, see Hans Goetting, Das Bistum Hildesheim: Die Hildesheimer Bischöfe von 815 bis 1221 (1227), vol. 20, 3, Germania Sacra, Neue Folge (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1984), pp. 296–297.Google Scholar
  20. 16.
    For this excerpt, I have relied on the partial translation of this letter in Elisabeth van Houts, Memory and Gender in Medieval Europe 900–1200 (Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1999), pp. 154–155.Google Scholar
  21. 18.
    John Van Engen, “The Voices of Women in Twelfth-Century Europe,” in Voices in Dialogue: Reading Women in the Middle Ages, ed. Linda Olson and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), p. 204.Google Scholar
  22. 19.
    Friedel Peeck, ed., Die Reinhardsbrunner Briefsammlung, vol. 5, MGH: Epistolae Selectae (Munich: Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 1985). Most of the documents in this collection concern either the abbots of Reinhardsbrunn or the noble founders of the monastery, the landgraves of Thuringia. The members of the monastic community presumably copied these letters into the manuscript in order to maintain a record of their own scribal output. However, there are also several pieces of correspondence in the collection that do not seem to involve the monks or their patrons in any way. Many of these identify women as their senders and defy easy description because they do not include specific details that might help to contextualize them.Google Scholar
  23. 20.
    Helmut Plechl, ed., Die Tegernseer Briefsammlung des 12. Jahrhunderts, vol. 8, MGH: Die Briefe der deutschen Kaiserzeit (Hanover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 2002). As with the correspondence preserved in the Reinhardsbrunn manuscript, many of these letters concern the political and administrative affairs of the monastery’s own abbots. Because Tegernsee was an imperial monastery with far-reaching influence, numerous pieces in this collection reveal the abbots’ active involvement in Bavarian and imperial politics. But other letters copied into this manuscript, including several naming women as the senders, discuss more mundane issues, and have no obvious connection to the Tegernsee monks or their interests.Google Scholar
  24. 28.
    For the sources for her betrothal, see Ingrid Roitner, “Die ungarische Königstochter Sophia in Admont,” Zeitschrift des historischen Vereines für Steiermark 95 (2004): 185.Google Scholar
  25. 29.
    Pál Engel, The Realm of St. Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary, 895–1526, trans. Tamás Pálosfalvi (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001), pp. 50–51Google Scholar
  26. 29.
    Tobias Weller, Die Heiratspolitik des deutschen Hochadels im 12. Jahrhundert (Cologne, Weimar, and Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 2004), pp. 46–52.Google Scholar
  27. 30.
    Alison I. Beach, Women as Scribes: Book Production and Monastic Reform in Twelfth-Century Bavaria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 67.Google Scholar
  28. 31.
    Alison I. Beach, “Claustration and Collaboration between the Sexes in the Twelfth-Century Scriptorium,” in Monks & Nuns, Saints & Outcasts: Religion in Medieval Society, ed. Sharon Farmer and Barbara H. Rosenwein (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2000), pp. 60–67; “Listening for the Voices of Admont’s Twelfth-Century Nuns,” in Voices in Dialogue: Reading Women in the Middle Ages, ed. Linda Olson and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), pp. 187–198Google Scholar
  29. 31.
    Christina Lutter, “Christ’s Educated Brides: Literacy, Spirituality, and Gender in Twelfth-Century Admont,” in Manuscripts and Monastic Culture: Reform and Renewal in Twelfth-Century Germany, ed. Alison I. Beach (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), pp. 191–213.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 32.
    Herbord von Michelsberg, “De Vita et Operibus Beati Ottonis Babenbergensis Episcopi,” in Heiligenleben zur Deutsch-Slawischen Geschichte Adalbert von Prag und Otto von Bamberg, ed. Lorenz Weinrich (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2005), I.38, pp. 322–330.Google Scholar
  31. 35.
    Wilhelm Wattenbach, ed., Gesta Archiepiscoporum Salisburgensium, vol. 11, MGH SS (Hanover: 1854), p. 44, chapter 19.Google Scholar
  32. 39.
    August von Jaksch, “Zur Lebensgeschichte Sophia’s, der Tochter König Bela’s II. von Ungarn,” Mitteilungen des Instituts für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung II. Ergänzungsband (1888): 361–379. Jaksch identified a total of 11 letters in this collection, but the text at the top of folio 2b—which he does not include in his list—appears to be a letter as well, making for a total of 12.Google Scholar
  33. 46.
    For an example of such an entrance gift when a woman joined the convent at Admont, see Willibald Hauthaler and Franz Martin, eds., Salzburger Urkundenbuch, vol. 2 (Salzburg: 1916), p. 274, nr. 188.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Charlotte Newman Goldy and Amy Livingstone 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jonathan R. Lyon

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations