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Defending Women’s Communal Life – Caritas Pirckheimer at Nuremberg (1524)

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Chapter 5. The First Petitions

[There follows Abbess Caritas' petition to the convent's official guardian, the magistrate Caspar Nützel. He is asked to protect them against the government's impending decision. She writes in the same sense to her brother-in-law, Martin Geuder, and she directs a petition in the name of the community to the City Council, dated in the Advent season, 1524. All three of these documents have the same subject: the nuns wish to retain their Franciscan chaplains, who have served them for 250 years. The petition to the City Council speaks to the political situation in the city.]

We also hope that we have behaved toward the common man (1) in what we have done and what we have not done in such a way that [ . . . ] no one can charge us with unjust or dishonorable behavior. We do not doubt that Your Wisdom (2) has never said such things about us. [ . . . ] If our priests, who have served us and our predecessors' spiritual needs for 250 years, were to be taken from us in these tumultuous and contentious times, the common man, who is in any case inclined to believe the worse, would doubtless think badly of us. He would believe that Y.W. were prompted to this command by some particular action of the priests or ourselves. This would damage the reputations not only of ourselves but also of Y.W., our priests, our families, and those magistrates who are friendly to us.

[The abbess notes that they are suspected of paying the priests a great deal, but she points out the convent's poverty.] It is also true that we give no more than meals and clothing to the two priests who preach to us, hear our confessions, and perform other spiritual services for us, and that secular priests would not serve us for so little.

[She also undertakes to instruct the magistrates about what goes on in the life of the convent, taking care to place the emphasis on Bible reading, so as to appeal to those magistrates who were Lutherans or inclined to the Lutheran party.] We can also inform Y.W. in all truth that we daily pray and read the Old and New Testaments in German and Latin, to the best of our ability, and take pains to try to understand them correctly. Each day we read not only the Bible but also whatever else we need or seems most suitable, but not the polemical works of theology, which burden our consciences and, we believe, violate the rule of Christian simplicity. We hope, truly, that God will respond to our heartfelt pleas and not keep His authentic Holy Spirit from us, so that we hear the Word of God correctly and in its true meaning – not according to the word alone but also to the Spirit. And although some allege of us that we rely on our own deeds, hoping to be saved by works alone, yet through God's grace we are well aware – whatever is said about us to the contrary – that no one can be justified by works alone, as St. Paul says, but only through faith in Our Lord, Jesus Christ, in that which He has taught. [ . . . ] We also know, on the other hand, that a correct, true faith cannot be without good works, just as a good tree must bear good fruit, that God will reward each according to his desserts, and that when we appear before Christ's judgment seat, each will be received according to his desserts, whether good or bad.

[The abbess addresses the charge that the nuns despise marriage and the married life.] We do not despise the married estate, for we know that whoever marries a young maid does a good thing. We also know, however, from St. Paul's teaching, that whoever does not marry does an even better thing. If we choose to serve in celibacy (3), no reasonable person can object. If, on the other hand, someone has no inclination for this life or does not wish to remain with us, we have nothing against her. We have no intention of forcing any sister to remain in community instead of returning to her parents. We want to judge no one, for each person must judge himself; and each will be judged alone, when she comes before God's judgment seat. But just as we force no one, we do not want to be forced, and we wish to be free in the spirit, not in the flesh. This cannot be, however, if alien pastors are forced upon us. This will open the path to the destruction of our community. For even if we were still being served with God's Word and the sacraments, if the priests are taken from us and the bishop no longer has jurisdiction over us, there will be no visitations. But visitations are essential to our monastic life, not to speak of dealing with the matters that arise daily in the convents.

Chapter 6. Ursula Tetzel Comes for Her Daughter

[In the days when this first act against St. Clare's seemed to be pending, some patrician families began to take action. The first to act was Ursula, wife of Friedrich Tetzel, who came on February 3, 1525. In these days the agitation in Nuremberg was reaching its peak, which came with the great officially sponsored disputation in the spring, after which the city government declared the city for Lutheranism.] In 1525 on the day after Our Lady's Purification [February 3], Ursula Tetzel came to me and insisted with strong words that I should allow her to enter the convent, for she wished only to speak with her daughter, Margaret, about the salvation of her soul. I refused, saying that she knew that it was not customary to allow anyone to enter who was not needed within. She then threatened that this would have to change. She demanded that the gate be opened and her daughter should come to it, so that none should overhear them. I refused this, too, and said that I did not want a new custom to become established by acceding to her request. If I permitted it to her, others would want to do the same. Then, too, her own daughter had asked me not to open up, for she feared she would be removed by force, since she doubted she could defend herself if the doors were opened.

After many words back and forth, I sent her daughter into the chapel and had the window opened through which the holy Sacrament is administered to us (4). At this window she talked for more than an hour to her daughter apart from and outside the hearing of any nun (5). After she departed, Sister Margaret Tetzel, the dear child, came bitterly weeping to me and the other sisters and complained amidst many heartfelt tears how her mother had so grimly tortured her. With loving and hateful words, with threats and promises, Mrs. Tetzel had tried to force her to come home, but Sister Margaret defended herself with all her might. At last she told her mother that no one could bring her out of the convent, for with God's help she would stick to her vows to God. Thereupon her angry mother departed, saying that the daughter ought to obey, for the mother would not permit her to remain in such a corrupting condition. This hurt the child so much that I and all the other sisters were moved by sympathy for her. And she asked us fervently not to allow her to be torn away from us, or else we should have to account for her soul on the Last Day. She asked me to confer with our guardian. [The abbess wrote to Caspar Nützel and asked for his advice. He did not reply.]

After a few days Mrs. Tetzel came again, this time with her brothers, Sir Sigmund and Sir Christoph Fürer. In harsh language they demanded that I give Mrs. Tetzel her daughter, for she had been taught so well by the Gospel and the preachers that she could not in good conscience leave her in the convent. She also condemned the whole clerical estate and mocked everything we do and don't do.

I replied that I had already told Mrs. Tetzel that I was not keeping her daughter here against her will. I said the same thing to her now. But neither would we drive her out against her own will, which would be against propriety, the clear Gospel (6), and sisterly love. To this the Fürer brothers said that I should allow the daughter to live with her mother for four weeks, so that she could be instructed in the true faith and hear the Gospel as it is preached in this city. I replied that Mrs. Tetzel recently spoke with her daughter alone for more than an hour, plenty of time to explain her opinion.
[ . . . ] I said that I was willing to bring the daughter to the visiting window again, where she could talk to all three of them with no one else present. If they could convince her to leave with them, I would open the door and the gate. But if the child did not agree, I had to ask them to try to force her. Neither the mother nor her brothers, however, wanted to say even a single word to the child, either at the chapel window or the visiting window (7). They said that they knew that the daughter would not leave the convent of her own free will, but they were unwilling to leave her in here. After a long argument I said to them that we had received the child with the knowledge and will of the honorable City Council, and we could not allow her to be taken from us without the knowledge and will of that same body. We will ask the Council in writing what is right and just. They said that this was fine with them, and that they, too, would petition the Council. Then they departed.

The dear, pious child, Margaret Tetzel, was deeply troubled that her kinsmen would not listen to her, for she would dearly like to have talked with them. She thought that through her kinsmen her mother would be persuaded to leave off this unjust action.

A few days later Sir Caspar Nützel came, and I recounted these events to him. He thought that I should not complain so much, for more was about to happen. The magistrates have been informed by their scholars that the monastic life is worthless, has no basis in the gospel, etc.

Sister Margaret, all in tears, presented her case to him and begged and asked him most insistently to speak with her kinsmen, the Fürers, that for God's sake they should listen to her before taking her by force. The guardian, however, took none of this to heart and only mocked her. At the end, however, he said that she should herself write mostly humbly to Sigmund Fürer, which she did. She wrote most humbly and asked him most urgently to come to the convent with his brother. To this he sent the following reply:

Dear friendly little kinswoman!

I received your letter and request and have shown it to my brother. Since we know pretty much your views and also the will of your mother, which will not change, we consider it useless to come to you. We commend the whole matter to God, Who will rule everything to please Himself, not to please men. Therefore, be happy and trust in God alone. – Sigmund Fürer.

[The prioress now wrote to the guardian to ask for advice about Margaret Tetzel, saying that if the City Council ordered her removal, the guardian and two magistrates should be present. Nützel replied that Ursula Tetzel would petition the City Council, and, when she did, he sent the prioress a copy and advised her to send her own letter to the magistrates.]

Chapter 11. Ursula Tetzel Petitions the City Council

[Ursula Tetzel's petition to the City Council recounts the story from the beginning.] Years ago my dear late husband and I encouraged our dear daughter to enter St. Clare's convent, for then we knew no better than that by giving God a living offering we would wash away our own sins and that life in the convent would promote her own soul's welfare. Now, however, I have been so instructed through listening and reading that I am fully convinced that the monastic life is not recognized by God and is nothing but a human invention and a hypocritical departure [from the correct way of life]. For this reason, pressed by my troubled conscience, with my two dear brothers I demand that the honorable prioress return my daughter to me. She replied that, since they had accepted my daughter with the knowledge and will of Y.W., she cannot surrender her without Y.W. permission. She added that she would inform you about it, but since she has not done so, worry about my own and my daughter's salvation compels me to ask Y.W. for God's sake to take the matter to heart. My daughter came into this prison when she was only 14 years old, when she was still innocent and lacked the ability to distinguish between good and evil. Y.W. should also consider that at the Last Judgment, Christ will demand not prayers, fasting, silence, clothing, eggs or meat, but only faith and love of neighbor. He will come to me and arrange that my daughter should come to live with me again for a while.

I will promise Y.W. and pledge with my brothers that when my daughter is instructed in the Word of God – which she cannot get from the monks, in whose clutches her soul must hunger – that she will thereafter be entirely free and not under compulsion. She can stay out here with me, a poor widow, and her siblings, or go back into the convent, where she perhaps will have a better and more sufficient life. This will put my conscience at rest. [ . . . ]

[The prioress now submitted another petition about the Tetzel affair to the City Council] (8). It is true that the daughter came in the convent quiet, but she had already attained the age of reason, so that she could well discriminate good from evil. Furthermore, though mothers are justly honored by their children, they have no such authority over them as fathers have, and none at all over those who stand under neither maternal nor paternal authority, according to the law. This plaintiff, therefore, has no power to remove her daughter from the convent against her will. The daughter cannot be blamed for following her own conscience. Thus the woman cannot maintain that her conscience is troubled because she acted as she did and related her views to the daughter, who then stuck to her own intention. The daughter must in the future be responsible for herself, and not the mother, who is not absolved of any responsibility for her. The woman may well satisfy her own conscience by removing the child against her will from the convent, but we leave that up to God. We, too, are obliged to keep our consciences clear and do what we must. And what we cannot prevent, we must tolerate. [ . . . ]

(1) The “common man” is a contemporary term for all those burghers who did not participate directly in the government of the city. It does not mean the poor – trans.
(2) A collective honorific for the magistrates, hereafter abbreviated as Y.W. – trans.
(3) Literally, "virginity" – trans.
(4) In a strictly cloistered community, no outsider, including the convent's chaplain, was allowed into the cloistered (i.e., closed) part of the convent. Sacraments were administered to and conversations were conducted with nuns through windows such as this one in St. Clare's chapel – trans.
(5) Strictly speaking, this interview violated the rule of claustration – trans.
(6) A widely used slogan in the evangelical movements – trans.
(7) Besides the chapel window, at which Ursula and Margaret Tetzel had spoken, there was a visiting window, through which the convent's ordinary business with the outside world was conducted – trans.
(8) In this document, she reveals that Margaret Tetzel spent nine years in the convent, which, since she entered at fourteen, would have made her twenty-three years old – just about the mean age for first marriage at this time – trans.

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