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Medieval Sourcebook:
The Life of St. Liutberga, 9th Century

Vita S. Liutberga, ed. G. H. Pertz, MGH SS 4, 158-164.
Translation and notes by Jo Ann McNamara []

The convent of Winadohusen (Windenhausen) was built by a daughter of Hesse who did homage to Charlemagne in 775 and died 804. The Life of Liutberga was written by a monk of Halberstadt who knew her well close to her death (866-76), around 870. Feast, Feb. 28. I have not been able to check any alternate text but the gaps in the text (indicated ...) are probably omissions by the editor of religious material not considered historically interesting (at that time).

1. In his time, the emperor Charles the Great, first to bear the august title of caesar in German lands, subjugated many nations to the kingdom of the Franks. Among them he acquired many of the most noble and prepotent men of the Saxon people of that age with great estates. He subdued some by way of war and [converted] others by the industry of his own ingenuity and great sagacity from pagan rites to the religion of the Christians. One of the first and most noble among these was named Hesse with whom he kept company more than others. He sustained him with great honors because he remained faithful to him in everything. Hesse lacked male children, for his only son died in the flower of his youth leaving his rich substance to his daughters. When he grew very old he distributed the inheritance among his daughters and entered the Lord's service at Fulda and died happily in the monastic habit.

2. One of his daughters, Gisla, born first among the others, took a husband named Unwan by whom she had a son, Bernhart, and two daughters, one called Bilihild and the other Hruothild, both of whom founded monasteriola after the death of their husbands and took the sanctimonial habit: one in Winithohus (Windenhausen) in Saxony, in the country called Harthagewi (Harz) which separated Saxony and Thuringia; the other in Franconia in Salugewe, in the neighborhood of Bochonia in the place called Karolsbach (east of Gemundae at Moenum). Each of the girls ruled their own congregations of virgins respectively (Bilihild at Windenhausen and Hruothild at Karolsbach). Gisla herself in widowhood led a religious life, building many churches and giving alms and caring for pilgrims. I don't know you should discern a virile soul in the feminine sex with sharp ingenuity in carrying out various affairs, or whether you might wonder at the effect of piety.

3. When this matron was travelling on business, because she had to care for possessions in many different places, she arrived at a certain place where the hour forced her to request hospitality. The monastery of virgins there had a guesthouse nearby and the proper buildings they had prepared seemed comfortable enough. One of the maidens serving her caught her eye for that young girl (virgunculam) seemed to excel the others of her age in form and intelligence. With a servant's diligence, she directed them all at a nod with a clever mind. [The matron] silently observed her consideration and way of acting and began to make inquiries about who she was and what family she sprang from, her birth and profession of condition. She answered all this prudently and in order, saying she came of decent parents from Salzburg, explaining their ancestry and condition and expounding her whole way of life. And she would willingly have taken vow except for her tender age. Suddenly [Gisla's] mind was made up and she began to urge her powerfully to go with her and commit herself to her in trust, swearing under divine witness that she would remain with her for all time as beloved as her own daughter born.

4. Believing this promise, [Liutberga] took the road with [Gisla] and, as I believe by consent of divine providence, the will of both of them was fulfilled. Afterward, she asserted that this happened by divine will because she had vowed to be a pilgrim and God, to whom she had given herself in her mind, had made it possible. So that maiden Liutberga went with the matron Gisla touring all her possessions and the maid continued this office with charity as day followed day and became ever more dear not only to those with whom she dealt but among all who knew her. So she lived in the house of her great lady, noble by nature, and all her virtues grew into flower as she matured. She was wise in counsel, truthful in word, honest in her duties, generous in alms, constant in works, excellent in piety, foremost in every benignity, caring for the sick and ending discord. Opening her heart to the misery of the needy, she loved everyone, and everyone loved her. This happy virago overflowing with her many gifts, daily augmented her perfection step by step, more and more pleasing to God as to men.

5. As we said, the virago Liutberga was fit for everything, strong in her ways, particularly tireless in divine praises, psalms and hymns and spiritual canticles according to the apostle in her heart offering to her Lord the devout sacrifices of her mind. To explicate briefly the study of her behavior, whatever she thought might be pleasing to God she embraced with all the love in her heart, and she avoided the enticements of an evil world as a steep cliff. She worked steadily at holy scripture and, meditating daily, became ever more proficient so that her intellect gained a profundity that would have become even more learned had she not been impeded by the imbecility of her sex.

6. She was so greatly skilled in those diverse arts that pertain to woman's work that in places where she was known the people called her Daedala. She remained faithful to her mistress, and yet so merciful that she was called mother of the poor. So it happened that the common people proclaimed her happy fame and she came to the notice of the nobility, the leading men and matrons, and her friends increased and came to love her most heartily. It was wonderful how she was first dear and then became more beloved so that she had friends in every part of the country where she travelled.

7. By time she was mature the venerable matron Gisla had become infirm and the day of her death drew near. She called her son Bernard and told him: "My son, don't neglect your mother's words but give heed to my last precepts. I leave you with full substance and diverse possessions, buildings and ornaments which should suffice to sustain you in this life if God wills. May you always remember to strive for the restoration of the church and recuperation of the derelict and take care of your sisters sollicitously, showing them the diligence of benign supervision and brotherly love. For custody easily suffers a little defect in women, if every manly vigilance has not been given in good time to their tuition. And one other thing I commend to you one way and the other, from the faith of your mother, and require by most urgent petition and maternal affection; it is that you will give fitting honor to my beloved daughter Liutberga whom I have adopted by promise of faith as my own daughter and that you will procure her fitting honor and hold her in love joined among the number of your sisters and heed her counsel and commit to her care any precious things you possess; because I have always held her in the highest trust." And grasping his hand she commended her in trust to her son and kissing him and saluting all in peace, ended her life. And she was buried with honors in the time of the emperor Louis, father of Lothar and Pepin and Louis and Charles, and she left her son Bernhard as heir.

8. For a long time, Liutberg remained in the house of her lord according to the disposition of his mother. She had the governance of the things [Gisla] had possessed so that the rule of the house constituted a burden for her. His lordship held her in maternal love and sincere honor and she all the domestics of both sexes loved her as a mother and so did the whole familia.. Bernhard took as wife a daughter of the great count Lothar, named Reginhild, who bore him two sons, one named for his father and the other named Otwin. And the she burned with so much love for the venerable Liutberga that she was not readily deceived by her appearance at that time. As from maternal example she copied her good habits and honest gravity of manners, and provided [everyone] daily with many things from her generosity. And after she had been confined for a long time in sickness, still in youthful immaturity, her life ended and she left her husband and her sons in a storm of sorrow.

9. And Bernhard not able to sustain his youthful life without the consolation of a wife, took another of the noblest birth, a wife of the greatest beauty and propriety, and with this wealth lessened the sorrow of the first wound. She was called Helmburg, from whom four sons and two daughters were born, of whom the eldest was named Unwan, then Adalbert, the third Asic, the fourth Ediram, names drawn from her relatives, and two daughters named Gisla and Bilihild. And the mother and children grew strong under the care of venerable Liutberga and showed her the highest devotion of love so much that she was called genetrix rather than nutrix.

10. Bernhard, having many possessions from both his parents, and many properties in various places, could not easily tolerate the absence of the venerable woman because she was the faithful guardian and dispensatrix of his things. But wherever she was staying, she never omitted to visit the house of God by day and night and attend divine services assiduously and keep vigils in the night till dawn, She was so strenuous in never permitting any detriment pertaining to the divine work that everyone began thought it a great miracle. She had great learning and exacted from her body the labor of a man, not an imbecile. Divine help gave constancy to her soul, rising toward the heavens without doubt. She never bent beneath the weight of her burdens but daily contended among the men of the palaestrum against the allurements of the world and the temptations of the flesh, incentives to bodily lust and mental petulance, smooth blandishments against her chastity, and maintained sobriety to extirpate the roots of evil delight.

11. Having made fasts and vigils, worn down with labor, as we noted, she began to consume her body with inedia. The color of her face changed and her physical vigor languished. Pallor began to replace the living color of her countenance and her skin adhered to her bones stretching her emaciated aspect, for the more she progressed, from the parts from the night by which she was most sharply tested, the more she kept watch. Therefore it soon became her custom, if she were staying somewhere where there was no church known to her, she would [seek one out] to keep vigil all night with only a little boy or girl. She would generally hear mass or take communion before going on her way. She thus governed her lord's house not only with words but with the example of virtue.

12. Seeing her thus grow pale and emaciated, the count paid heed to her saying to those who stood by: "What infirmity grips our beloved mother Liutberga?" He was answered that the cause of this was not illness but rather inedia and wakefulness and constant affliction of her body. She was continually going by night to distant churches that were difficult of access with no company but a little boy or little girl. Every night, she was wandering in her bare feet. Stupefied, the count called her to him and addressed him in his accustomed respectful and soft manner, saying: "Dearest, mother, who has always led the way in gravity and honesty of life, not only in words but in making yourself a mirror, do you now take so precipitous a way as though striving to reach a premature death before the time predestined by God? There is an armed and frightful man hereabouts, a pagan or one false to the name of Christian, who day and night unnerves the hearts even of the strong because of his thieving. For there is so much danger from his fury that, unless you leap into the teeth of ravening beasts or the jaws of the wolves, you will find nothing worse. Our worst enemies, not sorrowing, could say nothing except that this [behavior] springs from evil and superstition. So all the fame of your beautiful life will be reduced to nothing."

13. To which venerable Liutberga replied with submissive voice, "My lord, I do not seek to pay heed to the garrulity of wicked men who always rashly make mock of pious and sober living and threaten good deeds with ravening jaws and tear men to pieces with poisoned tongues. For that malignity sprang from the first born of our first parents, Cain, who in turn propagated the wicked, sewing evil seed in depraved hearts far and wide throughout the world. But having no malice toward them, we put our care in the Lord's hand, like the prophet and he feeds us. Nor will he throw the just to the flood but will keep them from the works of the wicked. And so it is written: "If God is for us, who can be against us?" And so speaks the psalmist: "The lord is my shepherd, I shall not fear what man may do to me." And elsewhere: "The lord is my shepherd and I shall despise my enemies." And: "Good is it to confide in the Lord, rather than in man. For the help of man is vain." And innumerable other pages of scripture show the right way to the heavenly fatherland can be lost by inoffensive feet, repulsed afar by terror of the enemy so that even the faithful psalmist presumes to say trustingly, "I trust in the Lord, who has said to my soul, Cross the mountain," and the same prophet exults as a victor, glorifying the Lord: "You have given over my enemies to me and have thrown down those who hate me." So should we not raise our eyes from this brief and uncertain life? Where is the power of the great? Where the wealth of the rich? Where are the innumerable armies of the strong? Where the flowing luxury made by kings? And the insatiable desires of their servants? Where are those who constantly thirsted, piling up gold and silver wherever they could? They are the ones who become more thirsty the more they drink. They build up treasure and do not know for whom; taken by rapine and theft, its lovers follow money into perdition. We do not fear them, saying with the Lord: "Do not fear them who kill the body for they cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can lose body and soul in Gehenna." And elsewhere the Savior says: "Who loves his soul for my sake will keep it in eternal life." Why should I fear death for my Lord's sake? Who keeps watch except our Lord order it saying: "Watch and pray lest you fall into temptation." And he who orders us to watch, orders us to pray: "Pray that your flight be not in winter nor on the sabbath." And about fasting it is written: "In your day of fasting you will find your will." And what more could be our will than that God will give us grace and we mortals may deserve immortality in his kingdom?

14. This and other words of the same sort guided the count's disturbed spirit to tranquility and the swelling fury which had begun to grow in him was sedated by this medicine. Turning to her he said: "Your statements, if I may speak thus, are more from divinity than from yourself. You have so much obliged my spirit by the justice of your desires that I can deny you nothing. I pray that you may fulfill your vow for whose name, in the face of so many difficulties, you have not flinched from going forward. And whatever it may suit your will to require of me, you shall ask." When she heard this offer, her soul was so overcome that she would have thrown herself at his feet if he had not prevented her. She said: "Then, my lord, with a heart overflowing for your piety, I willingly ask this favor, and as a reward conceded from divinity, I will never cease to thank you for your strength if the petition of your servant is conceded." And he said to her: "Speak, I pray; hide nothing that is in your soul. Trust what I have said already: I will concede any reasonable petition you make, life and health and God permitting." Then she drew a long sigh from within and soon bursting into tears said: "I am a great sinner, lord, bound in many chains so that even at the boundaries of age I live a delicate and erroneous life in this world of voluptuous desires; here and there in the course of my wanderings, I made promises of the most binding nature to the Lord which then have been ignored and forgotten. Now I ask of your piety that I may cease wandering and spend the rest of my life in penance for my sins and for the benefit of them who need my mercy. For I believe that you and your mother of happy memory will thus gain more. The Lord has said, "What you do for one of the least of these you do for me." And James said, "Who changes her life from the error of sins, her soul will be saved from death and bury a multitude of sins."

15. Then responding with a pleasant face, he said: "And where can we find a place of such quietude where you may hide safely without the turbulent racket of this world or the floods of the age?" Then she said: "I have prepared a place for myself as the days of my littleness approach. There if your piety would order a little cell built, it would suffice for my habitation and produce abundance for my days far from the wealth, delight and joys of the world." Admiring the constancy of the woman and the virile fidelity of her soul, after a long silence, he said: "Do I understand that you would attempt to sustain life in this isolated place in solitude and seclusion from others in the common life? Surely these are counsels for priests and for our bishop rather than for layfolk." And she answered: "My lord, I have never thought to make such a beginning without being examined by our holy rectors to ensure that not my will but God's be done and that would be shown through their counsel." The priests and bishops gathered to consider the reasoning of this case deliberated together over her arguments for a long time. The colloquy ended, they put faith in her promises and she was restored to her joyous spirit leaving hope of divine piety in all her undertakings.

16. Some time after, the bishop of that province, Theogrim of blessed memory, visited in the same count's house (B of Halberstadt, 827-40) because they had a firm friendship between them. And there he spent the night and the next day the venerable Liutberga took the opportunity to approach him desiring to consult his opinion privately. God disposed that he should appear at this time and place. Prostrating herself humbly at his feet, she with a humble voice spoke to ask his clemency. At first he was thunderstruck, for he had formerly taken good notice of her as devoted to honest customs and he knew that she held the place of a genetrix in the house of her lord. Thus he had in mind to be merciful and gently spoke to her: "There, my beloved sister, expose freely whatever words of complaint may be in your mind. In me, you have truly acquired one who volunteers as your consoler." And she followed the advice of scripture: "Just in the first words is his own accuser," calling herself a sinner and accusing herself of many crimes and imploring his help with the sins she had committed and whatever came to her mind she exposed without hesitation.

17. After hearing her arguments and listening carefully, knowing that she was always desirous to procure justice and should rather be called a helper of virtue rather than a repeller, when there was total silence, he quickly leaned his face to her and said: "I believe proposal in your mind, beloved daughter, springs from the fountain of piety but first we must seek by careful deliberation how to find the path of your salvation. First, we must pray for divine help so that our counsel prosper in cooperation with the author of all good and having thus begun the voyage well under his governance we may come safely to port." And saying this, he had Bernhard called to himself and sat down with him and then the bishop said to him: ...

The text breaks off here, presumably to omit a lengthy conversation. Several chapters are missing which apparently elaborate her plans and lead to the bishop's permission.

21. Having said all this the bishop admonished her while she gave him thanks prostrate at his feet: "Thanks be to God, I am what I am ..." ... Therefore the bishop along with the count so much admired the constancy of her spirit that they agreed with common consent to give her what she wanted and that very day they went to the place she desired.

22. Then at the proper time, that same bishop came with no small number of priests and a numerous collection of clergy of the second grade and lower orders, and blessed the cell and the little hut prepared for the work with his benediction. He sprinkled it salubriously with aspersions of water. Having enclosed her in this small domicile, no better than a shack, he forbade her to go out unless the most urgent need pressed her. He gave her his blessing and left the place, constructed in a paternal manner as a walled cloister. She wept and prayed that she would deserve to bring her struggle to a good end with the Lord's assistance. And then the venerable handmaid Liutberga, having gained her desire according to her vow, persisting day and night in prayer, abstaining from food and drink, put the pressure of fasting and vigils on her imbecile and attenuated body which was fed on nothing but bread with herbs and salt. Even on Sundays and feast days, she ate the smallest portions of legumes and fish, making her most delicious banquets of fruit and berries from the fields in their seasons. [she kept a cauldron] of burning coals in this same cell because of diverse shades of color. As we have said, she was an artifex of many womanly crafts. She never ceased from any other useful work and day and night she kept occupied with handiwork and praying and meditation. And in any spare time that she had she instructed those who came to her, giving only the bare minimum time to food and sleep that the fragility of human nature demanded.

23. Thus she expended her whole life in such doings and no discomfort ever overcame her body and in fact she endured more later than in the beginning. She was affable to those who came to her, as we sum it up, so that each [visitor] departing from her rejoice on the return trip because they all thought that the time they had spent with her was worth a great price. ...

24. No one could enumerate how many traps of the enemies she survived and what various tricks of Zabuli struck her, always machinations of diverse terrors whether through the sharp heat of her fantasies or images from showings from the supernal kingdom. But always these seductions mixed the true with the false so as to use recognition of the truth to lead the incautious mind into falsehood. ... But the venerable handmaid of Christ persevered in prayer day and night and kept nothing with her but the clothes that covered her vile body and a single vessel for her food and a little cot with a mat on which she was accustomed to sleep. She heard a voice, I don't know from what spirit, saying to her: "One who wishes to lead a life like this should not linger on the couch." And hearing this, she immediately began to turn with anxious mind how [she/it] could expose her [show herself] through the only little window in the wall for she distrusted her small strength to break [it] for it was a compact specimen of the turner's work...

25. Once the malign spirit came to her disguised as a certain turner, a man whose shape the devil assumed who was a serf of count Poppo whom the servant of God had known in the past and who had offered her a little gift of a vessel from which she might eat, ...

Two paragraphs missing, presumably on further diabolic temptations. From the structure of para. 28, I suspect there was more dialogue with a shadow voice.

28. Another time, [the spirit] confronted her with insults about her way of life, and vituperating her sanctity with customary reproach, recalling to memory how in her girlhood she had tricked one of her companions. She had broken her needle in the course of their common work and when her partner stepped out she filched her whole needle and left her broken one in its place. And thus [he] congratulated her on this deception as though it had been a good deed. "Hey, and where was your precious sanctity then, which you did not blush to undertake this theft?" So she still remembered this deed committed in the days of her infancy when she was first learning the textile arts and she still held her sin unconfessed through forgetfulness ...

29. And she was asked by a certain brother about notice or discretion of spirits, how she could distinguish when Satan transformed himself into an angel of light or some other venerable person. Trembling and bringing forth a sigh from the depths of her heart, she was silent for a while and then spoke in a formidable voice: "You ask about a flaming horror and my greatest anguish of sorrow, venerable brother, for I have fallen many times into that sea of doubt you ask about, almost despairing, imploring divine help by the constancy of my prayers whose protection has been the object of my insuperable labor. At last, the Almighty extended clemency and this he said to me on what you have asked: `You may be sure if you pay careful attention. For you may take care to observe whatever persona appears to you when it goes away from you. I he has shown you a fantastic figure, whatever the color of his garments, you will see the blackest spot on his posterior.' This sign, venerable brother, was confided to me by the generosity of divine clemency so that, as though liberated within from the deepest pit and filled with ineffable joy for this pious consolation, I have resisted the cunning wiles of the enemy with a more confident mind." ...

30. A certain man of free parentage named Hruodart, a vassal of Bilihild, followed a woman from her chamber for carnal copulation. One day as dusk approached, it happened that that woman was hurrying to him near her closed cell. Seeing her, Liutberga called out to her: "Dearest daughter! Do not neglect to finish the work that you see already started with me because true labor will be a profit to you. You will have whatever you expend of your labor in divine service for everything is good that is usefully worked at." She had brought her tapers or lamps for it was the hour of candles and lights. And she was desiring to go out to him who was concealed without ... when suddenly a malign spirit intervened in such a terrible form, gorging flaming sulphur from nose and mouth, eyes sparkling with fire, black of body with immeasurable claws. Hovering above him, his knees pressed against his chest, his gaping jaws swallowing his face and his great claws reaching for the guts like a flying eagle preying, it plunged terribly into [his] vitals and his soul flew out leaving in misery ...

Four chapters are missing, probably of similar miraculous events.

35. And now for her more secret understanding which has come to us refering to the assertions of faithful men or truthful women whose reliability has been confirmed by witnesses and rational probability. For she was rewarded by God with the spirit of prophecy, able to clarify many events to take place in future, from which a few, avoiding the name of sanctity, presaged faithfully to investigation. A certain count Frederick in the same villa had a house with his brother Adalger, also a count, whose wife Pia customarily went to mass or to vespertine prayers at that church. Liutberga addressed her, saying: "Lady, and sweetest daughter, you should not omit to pour out prayers for your mother and genetrix." ... As she foretold, she remained thirty years in that cell and it happened that whatever she foretold inevitably came to pass. It is splendidly clear that when she foretold, the event was always certain to occur... Particularly, when she conversed with men of sanctity, or [had] the most familiar disputation with those whom she knew to be most disciplined and erudite in divine law, taking gleams of their perfection from them she always made them joyful at parting. Abbots and bishops took notice of her, commending themselves to her prayers in person or through messengers, and kept her in their prayers rejoicing in alternate breaths to the lord. Her Bishop was Hemmo, worthy of memory, a man of the highest sanctity and erudition, under whose care and protection she remained by reason of his behavior, in whose diocese she resided. He had many instructive and edifying conversations with her and helped her with her corporal needs, visiting her often clemently with paternal affection. The man who stood above all in saintly memory and foremost athlete of Christ in the perfection of all virtues, Archbishop Ansgar of Bremen held her in such love of holy daughterhood that the devout father hastened for the grace of visiting her on the distant road with the greatest benevolence. The venerable prelate gave her not only the colloquy of his presence but corporal subsidies and as helper of every need he most gladly comforted her by his great munificence. He sent her maidens of most elegant form for the fulfillment of those divine works in which she continually engaged. With greatest care, she educated them in psalmody and artisanal works and freely permitted them, once taught, to go to any of her neighbors or anyone they wished.

36. And she noted many men and women in religious habit of serious manners, commending herself to their prayers and asking among other things that they beseech that she might come to a good end to her present life. If anyone deigned to supplicate or offer sacrifice for her or fast for her she would benevolently dedicate a sabbath fast to them because she heard that the Roman pope had decreed Saturday, the day when Christ lay in the tomb, as a fast day. And on the same day the disciples and holy women fasted likewise for sorrow and so on Saturdays no serfs or maids free of service to their lords should do work in their own houses either. Daily she cared for paupers, consoled widows and orphans, cared for the sick, not only her neighbors but any that she heard about wherever they were. And she gave whatever comfort she could to those who were confined for their crimes. She heard daily mass, bringing offerings to God, with money excepted, with which prayers she yearned daily more ardently for her own end. Nonetheless, the correct hours chanting with her sisters, she increased psalling prayers in common ...

37. ... She died in the time of Louis the glorious younger, king of the Franks, and was buried honorably in the church to the praise of his name who has deigned to care for all who put their hopes in him, Jesus Christ, who with the Father and Holy spirit lives and reigns God in the cycle of the ages. Amen.

Source: Vita S. Liutberga, ed. G. H. Pertz, MGH SS 4, 158-164.

Translation and notes, © 1997, Jo Ann McNamara []

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