1902 Encyclopedia > St. Ursula

St. Ursula (Saint Ursula)
One of the virgin martyrs of Cologne
(Date uncertain)

ST. URSULA, and her companions, virgins martyrs, are commemorated by the Roman Church on 21st October. The Breviary gives no legend; but in current works, such as Butler’s Lives of the Saints, it is to the effect that "these holy martyrs seem… to have met a glorious death in defence of their virginity from the army of the Huns… They came originally from Britain, and Ursula was the conductor and encourager of the holy troop." The scene of the martyrdom is placed near the lower Rhine.

Saint Ursula image

St Ursula

The date has been assigned by different writers to 238, c. 283, and c. 451. The story, however, is unknown both to Jerome and to Gregory of Tours -- and this though the latter gives a somewhat detailed description of the Cologne church dedicated to that Theban legion with which the tradition of the martyred virgins was very early associated. The story of their fate is not entered under 21st October in the martyrology of Bede (ob. C. 725), of Ado (c. 858), of Usuard (ante 877), Notker balbulus (896), or Hrabanus Maurus (845); but a 9th century life of St Cunibert (ob: 663) associates a prominent incident in the life of this saint with the basilica of the sacred virgins at Cologne (Surius, vi. 275, ed. 1575). Not only does Archbishop Wichfrid attest a grant to the church of the sacred virgins outside the walls of Cologne (in 927), but he was a large donor in his own person. Still earlier a Cologne martyrology, written, as Binterim plausibly urges, between 889 and 891, has the following entry under 21st October: "ix. Virg. Ursule Senice Gregorie Pinose. Marthe Saule Britule Satnine Rabacie Saturie Paladie." Much shorter entries are found in two of the old martyrologies printed in Migne (cxxxviii. 1207, 1275). A more definite allusion to the legend may be found (c. 847) in Wandelbert’s metrical martyrology (21st October);

"Tunc numerous simul Rheni per littora fulgent
Christi virgineis erecta tropaea maniples
Agrippinae urbi, quarum furor impius olim
Millia mactavit ductricibus inclyta sanctis."

The full legend first makes its appearance in a festival discourse (sermo) for 21st October, written, as internal evidence seems to show, between 731 and 839. this sermo does not mention St Ursulla, but makes Pinnosa or Vinnosa the leader of these spiritual "amazons," who, to avoid maximian’s persecution, left their island home of Britain, following their bridegroom Christ towards that East whence their faith had come a hundred years before. The concurrent traditions of Britain, Batavia (where many chapels still preserved their memory), and Cologne are called in evidence to prove the same origin. The legend was already very old and the festival "nobis omni tempore celeberrima"; but, as all written documents had disappeared since the burning of the early church erected over the sacred bones, the preacher could only appeal to the continuous and careful memory of the society to which he belonged (nostrates). Even in his time there were skeptics who pointed dubiously to the full-frown bones of "widows" and of men among the so-called virgin relics. But to a priori reasoners who mocked at the notion of gathering so large a band of virgins in one place there was a triumphant answer ready: if Christ, while yet a man on earth, could summon "twelve legions of angels" to his aid, surely we could allow that a meager band of "less than 12,000 virgins might follow the stainless lamb" in heaven. The authors of the sermo pointedly rejects the two theories that connected the holy virgins with the Theban band and brought them as pilgrims from the East to the West; but he adds that even in his days there still existed an inscription in the church, showing how it had been restored from its foundations by a certain "Clematius, vir consularis, ex partibus Orientis."

Two or three centuries later the Passio XI. MM. SS. Virginum, based apparently on the revelations made to Helentrude, a nun of Heerse near Paderborn, gives a wonderful increase of detail. The narrative in its present form may date somewhere between 900 and 1100, while Helentrude apparently flourished before 1050. According to her account, the son of a powerful pagan king demands in marriage, Ursula, the beautiful daughter of Deonotus, a king "in partibus Britannaie." Ursula is warned by a dream to demand a respite of three years, during which time her companions are to be 11,000 virgins collected from both kingdoms. After vigorous exercise in all kinds of manly sports to the admiration of the populace, they are carried off by a sudden breeze in eleven triremes to Thiel in Guelderland on the waal. Thence they sail up the Rhine by way of Cologne to Basel, at which place they make fast their vessels and proceed on foot to Rome. Returning, they are-enter their ships at Basel, but are slaughtered by the Huns when they reach Cologne. Their relics are then collected and buried "icut hodie illic est cernere," in a spot where "to this day" no meaner sepulture is permitted. Then follows the usual allusion to Clematius; the date is expressly fixed at 238; and the whole revelation is seemingly ascribed to St Cordula, one of the eleven thousand, who, after escaping death on the first day by hiding in one of the vessels, on the morrow gave herself up to death of her own accord. Towards the beginning of the 12th century Sigebert of Gembloux (ob. 1112) gives a brief resume of the same story. He is the first to introduce the name of Attila, and dates the occurrence 453.

Passing over the visions and exhumations of the first half of the 12th century, we come to the singular revelations of St Elizabeth of Schonau. These revelations, delivered in Latin, German, or a mixed jargon of both languages, were turned into simple Latin by Elizabeth’s brother Egbert, from whose words it would seem that in 1156 an old burial ground had lately been laid open near Cologne. The cemetery was naturally associated with the legend of St Ursula; and this identification once accepted, it is not unlikely that, when more careful investigation revealed male skeletons and tombstones bearing the names of men, other and more definite epitaphs were invented to reconcile the old traditions with the facts of such a damaging discovery. Hence perhaps the barefaced imposture: "Cyriacus, papa Romanus, qui cum gaudio suscepit sanctas virgins et cum eis Coloniam reversus mertyrium suscepit." One or two circumstantial forgeries of this kind would form the basis of a scheme for explaining not a few other problems of the case, such as the plain inscription "Jacobus," whom St Elizabeth promptly transformed into a suppositious British archbishop of Antioch, brother to the equally imaginary British Pope Cyriacus. For these epitaphs, with others of a humbler kind, were brought before St Elizabrth to be identified in her ecstatic converse with St Verena, her cousin St Ursula, and others. Elizabeth herself at times distrusted her own revelations: there was no Cyriac in the list of the popes; Antherus, who was said to be his successor (235-236), died more than two centuries before Attila, to whom common report assigned the massacre; and it was hardly credible that James of Antioch could cut eleven thousand epitaphs in less than three days. Every doubt, however, was met by the invention of a new and still more improbable detail. According to St Verena, he virgins suffered when Maximus and "Africanus" were principes at Rome (? 387-388).

In 1183 the mantle of St Elizabeth fell upon Hermann Joseph, a Praemonstratensian canon at Steinfeld. He had to solve a more difficult problem than St Elizabeth’s; for the skeletons of little children, ranging in age from two months to seven years, had now been found buried with the sacred virgins. But even such a difficulty Hermann explains away as readily as he does the fact of his having changed St Elizabeth’s name for the royal bridegroom from Aetherius to Holofernes: the prince in question had two names, and the little children were brothers, sisters, or more distant relatives of the eleven thousand. Hermann’s revelations are mainly taken up with an attempt to show the mutual relationship of nearly all the characters he introduces. The names are a most extraordinary mixture. Among British bishops we have Michael William, James, and Columbanus. Sovereign princes, -- an Oliver, a Clovis, and a Pippin, -- start out in every page, till the writer finds it necessary to apologize for the number of his kings and his own blunders. But, for all this, Hermann exposes his own doubts when he tells that often, as he was preparing to write, he heard a voice bidding him lay down the pen, ‘for whatever you write will be an unmixed lie." Hermann makes St Ursula a native of Brittany, and so approximates to the version of the story given by Geoffrey of Monmouth (Historia Britonum), according to whom Maximian, after fleeing from Rome, and acquiring Britain by marriage, proceeds to conquer Brittany and settle it with men from the island opposite. For these settlers he has to find British wives, and to this end collects 11,000 noble and 60,000 plebeian virgins, who are wrecked on their passage across. Certain of the vessels being driven upon "barbarous islands," their passengers are slain by Guanius and Melga, "kings of the Huns and Picts," whom Gratian had called in to his aid against Maximian. In this version St Ursula is a daughter of Dionotus, king of Cornwall. Herman alludes more than once to the Historia Britonum, and even to King Arthur.

The legend of St Ursula is perhaps the most curious instance of the development of an ecclesiastical myth. We know, however, too little about its earlier stages to justify any serious attempt at estimating what amount of historic truth underlies it, and it is doubtful whether many of the efforts in this direction do not make a larger demand on human credulity than the legend itself. Even in the earliest form known to us this legend is probably the complex growth of centuries, and any claim to the discovery of the first germ can hardly approve itself to the historic sense. These remarks apply especially to that venerable rationalization which evolves the whole legend form a misreading of Undecimilla into undecim millia. A more modern theory makes St Ursula the Christianized representative of the old Teutonic goddess Freya, who, in Thuringia, under the name of Horsel, welcomed the souls of dead maidens. Not a few singular coincidences seem to point in the same direction, especially the two virgins, "Martha and Saula," whom Usuard states to have suffered "cum aliis pluribus" on 20th October, whence they were probably transferred to 21st October. It is curious to note that Jerome and many of the earliest martyrologies extant have on 21st October the entry "Dasius Zoticus, Gaius cum duodecim militibus." Even in copies of Jerome this is transformed into millibus; and it is perhaps not impossible that to this misreading we may indirectly owe the "thousands" in the Ursula legend. So far as is known to the present writer, the two entries are mutually exclusive in all the early martyrologies mentioned in this article, and in those printed in Migne, cxxxvii. The earlier "Dadius" entry seems to disappear steadily, though slowly, as the Ursula legend works its way into current martyrologies.

See Cromnach, Vita et Martyrium S. Ursulae, Cologne, 1647, and the Bollandist Acta Sanctorum, 21st October. The rationalization of the story is to be found in Oscar Schade’s Die Sage von der heiligen Ursula, Hanover, 1854, of which there is a short resume in Baring-Gould’s Lives of the Saints. Schade’s results seem to be now generally accepted. (T. A. A.)

The above article was written by Thomas Andrew Archer, author of The Crusade of Richard I.: Extracts from the Itinerarium Ricardi, Bohádin, etc..

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