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

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Chapter 34. The Patrician Mothers Remove their Daughters from St. Clare's

On Wednesday, the Vigil of St. Vitus, which was also the Vigil of Corpus Christi [June 14, 1525] – this most holy day was neither festively observed nor was the most worthy Sacrament accorded the slightest veneration (1) – the wicked women sent word to me an hour before dinnertime that at dinnertime they wanted to come and fetch their children. They also wanted to bring other folk, so that I would be convinced that they had sufficient strength to do what they intended. I sent immediately to the town hall and asked for two witnesses to be sent and to be present at this event. Since the women wanted to bring companions, there should also be others on our side so that the women could not bring unjust charges against me. The poor children, not knowing when this would happen, had made plans and still had hope. When the confrontation did happen, they would be saved, because using force on them against their will would not be permitted. But when I called the children together and said, "your mothers will fetch you in an hour," all three of them fell to the floor and cried and wept and acted so piteously that God Himself in heaven would have had pity on them. They wanted to flee and hide themselves, which I would not permit, for we were worried that these people would break open the cloister by force and search it for them. If that happened, their misfortune would be greater yet. Yet the whole community wept and wailed, for these were pious, able children, who had behaved well in our midst, and who were heart and soul against leaving us.

Sister Margaret Tetzel was 23 years old and had been 9 years in holy orders. Katharine Ebner and Clara Nützel had come into the order on the same day and had professed their vows together on the 3rd of May, six years ago. Katharine Ebner was 20 years old and Clara Nützel was 19 when they were removed from the community. With many tears we took from them their veils and belts and the white habits and dressed them in shirts, belts such as lay folk wear, and scarves on their heads. With the other professed nuns I led them into the chapel. There we waited a full hour until the grim she-wolves arrived in two big wagons. Meanwhile the news had spread among the common people, who gathered in large numbers, just as when a poor fellow is being led to his execution. The whole street and the convent's courtyard were full, so that the women with their wagons could scarcely enter the yard. They were ashamed to see so many people there, and they would much rather that we had sent the children out through the back garden gate. Therefore they sent to me the two men, Sebald Pfintzing and Endres Imhof, whom the Council had delegated to be my witnesses. I didn't want to deal with them, because I wanted nothing done secretly. I said to them, "If the women are acting justly, they have nothing to be ashamed of." I would not let the children leave but through the door through which they had entered the convent, the chapel door.

Thus, around eleven o'clock in the morning the fierce he-wolves and she-wolves came to get my dear little sheep. They entered the church, drove all of the other people out, and barred the door. Unfortunately, I had to open the door from the chapel into the cloister, and they wanted me and the children to come out into the church. But I didn't want to do that. They wanted me to order the children to go out alone, but I didn't want to do that, either, leaving it for them to do. But none of the children wanted to put even a single foot over the threshold. The mothers then asked the two magistrates to put an end to the business, for the common people were gathering, and there might be a disturbance. So I said to the magistrates, "You go and speak with the children and ask them to come out, for I can and will not force them to do that which is deeply repugnant to them." So the two magistrates entered. And I said to them: "Here I bring to you my poor orphans, as you yesterday commanded me on orders from the Council, and I commend them to the greatest Shepherd, Who saved them with His precious blood." We said our good-byes, dripping with hot tears, and the children threw their arms around me, crying loudly, and begged me not to let them go. Alas, I could not help them. I went away with the sisters and left the poor children alone in the chapel. I barred the door from the chapel to the cemetery, so that no one could enter the cloister.

Then the wicked women came into the chapel: the grim Tetzel she-wolf with a daughter, Mrs. Hieronymus Ebner, Mrs. Sigmund Fürer, Mrs. Caspar Nützel (our guardian's wife) with her brother, Lienhart Held, in the guardian's stead, and also the young son of Sebald Pfintzing and others. The women told the children with sweet words to come with them, but if they would not, they would be forced to come. The brave little knights of Christ refused with word and deed, as best they could, crying, shouting, pleading, and begging; but they got less mercy there than they would have in Hell.

The mothers told the daughters that by God's law they were bound to obey, and that they should make things simple and just go. For the mothers had come, so that the children's souls could be saved from Hell, and their consciences could no longer bear the thought of the children in the Devil's grip. The children cried out, "We don't want to leave this pious, holy convent, where we are not at all in Hell. But if you force us to come out with you, then we will be cast into the abyss of Hell. [ . . . ] Although you are our mothers, we cannot obey you in matters that would damage our souls."

Katharina Ebner spoke to her mother: "You are the mother of my body but not of my soul, for you did not give me my soul. Therefore, I am not obliged to obey you to the harm of my own soul." The mother mocked her and said that she was willing to take responsibility before God and to accept any guilt for any sins they were committing. Mr. Held opened his hands so that Clara Nützel should thrust her hands into them, and he said that he would take upon his own soul the guilt for all the sins she would ever commit and would claim responsibility for her on the Last Day.

Each mother argued with her own daughter, sometimes with promises and sometimes with threats, while the children continued to cry loudly. The quarrel and contention went on and on. Katharina Ebner spoke so bravely and earnestly, and she supported all of her comments from the Bible. She began each comment with a biblical quote and told the mothers how gravely they were violating the Holy Gospel. Later on, when the men were once more outside, they said that in their whole lives they heard nothing like it. The young girl spoke for a whole hour without pause but without a single superfluous word, everything so well considered that each word weighed a pound.

Neither side would yield to the other. The children did not want to leave, and the lay people did not want force to be used, as Mr. Held and the mothers were threatening to do. The latter said that if the children would not leave with them and make it stick now, they should know that they would not be allowed to stay in the convent. Sooner or later they must leave. On that they had no choice, for people would be sent who were strong enough to get the job done. They would be bound hand and foot and carried out like dogs. All in vain, for the children would not give in.

Then the magistrates sent to me once more and said that they were so worried that they did not know how to carry out their orders, for neither side would yield to the other. Katharina Ebner in particular was so defiant and stalwart, and she had fought with the magistrates so much that the latter had not a dry stitch on. Had the men known what a fight lay ahead, 30 Gulden each would not have lured them into the place. God help them, that for the rest of their lives they would not be involved in such a humiliating business. If they left now, however, the matter would be most unfortunate for me and for the community, for we would be attacked with force, and in the end it would happen as it must happen. They asked me to speak to the children and persuade them to leave. They asked me to release the children from their vows, which perhaps they feared to violate. I replied: "I already told you that I have no power to dissolve a promise made to God." Then the magistrates asked that I go back into the chapel with them, so that the mothers would see that I was present. The men would protect me from their arrogance. Thus, with several other sisters I returned to the chapel. There stood my poor little orphans among the angry wolves, struggling with all their might. I greeted the mothers and said to them: "I would have voluntarily brought your daughters here, as I promised the Council I would do, and now you see how badly they wish to depart." Then the mothers asked me to release the daughters from their vow of obedience (2). Then I spoke to the children, saying, among other things: "Dear children, you know that from that which you have promised to God, I cannot release you. I won't intervene at all but will commend the whole matter to God. He will settle it in His own good time. But as concerns whatever you owe to me, I absolve you from all obligations, to the degree that I am allowed to do. I said the same to you earlier, when we were alone." With this the worldly folk (3) were satisfied and said that I had done my duty, and they required no more of me. What had been promised to God was in any case invalid, for the vows were already dissolved, because the children had no power to make any vows, except for baptismal vows (4).

The three children cried as if from one mouth: "We don't wish to be released. What we promised to God, we hope with His help to keep. Even if the Reverend Mother released us before the entire community, we would not leave. For we are bound to no obedience that is against our vows." Margaret Tetzel then cried: "Oh, dear mother, do not drive us away from you!" And I said: "Dear child, you see that I cannot help you against so great a force. You would not want the convent to suffer even greater damage. I hope that we will not be parted for good but will come together again and remain eternally with our true Shepherd. I commend you to Him, Who has saved you with His precious blood."

Then Katharina Ebner spoke: "Here I stand, and I will not be moved. No person can drive me out. If I am taken away by force, I will resist forever, and I will cry my complaint to God and the whole world." Even as she spoke, Mr. Held grabbed her arm and began to pull her away. The sisters and I then ran away, not wishing to witness this miserable scene. Some sisters, who remained standing before the chapel door, heard much quarreling, scuffling, and noises of dragging over the children's howls and cries. Each was dragged by four men, two in front and two in back. At the threshold young Ebner and the Tetzel girl threw themselves into one another's arms, the latter having had one foot nearly torn away. The wicked women stood there and blessed their daughters according to every rite.

Mrs. Ebner threatened her daughter, just as the latter was brought out, that if she did not come away, she would be thrown from the pulpit's ladder. Or she would be thrown to the ground and beaten. Once Mrs. Ebner had her daughter brought into the church – amid curses, ridicule, wails, and tears – there began an incredible shouting, crying, and groaning, as the girls were stripped of their order's habits and dressed in lay clothing. Their cowls, however, were not taken home with them (5). The cries and struggles were heard by the sisters who stood in the choir and by the lay folk who stood before the church, as many as normally gathered for an execution.

When the children were placed in the wagons that stood in front of the church, there arose a great wailing. The poor children called to the people standing there that they were being taken away unjustly and by force. They had been removed from the convent by force. Clara Nützel cried aloud: "Oh, dear Mother of God, you know that this is not my will." As they were taken away, several hundred fellows and others ran after each wagon. Our children wailed and wept aloud. Mrs. Ebner struck her little Kathy on the mouth, so hard that it bled all the way home. As the Ebner wagon stopped before her father's house, Katharina began to cry aloud and weep, so that the people were touched with sympathy for her. Some mercenary soldiers, who had run along with the wagon, said that had they not feared an uprising – and also the city police who were present – they would have drawn swords and helped the children. In front of the Ebners' house on the Fruit Market, Katharina stepped down, put her hands together over her head, and complained weeping to the people there that this was happening against her will and unjustly. Almost all the women fruit sellers cried along with her.

How the poor children subsequently fared among these angry wolves, we don't know. Yet it was reported to us, about four days later, that Clara Nützel had not eaten a bite since was taken out into the world, and the others wept without ceasing. I am their witness before God and man that they did everything they could. They never said anything bad of the convent but always, when they were asked, said the best things about us and expressed great desire and longing to return. God help us to come back together in joy! We parted from one another with great sorrow. It was truly a bitter Corpus Christi Day for us. The sisters did not sit down to eat until well into the afternoon.

(1) That is, in the two civic churches, St. Sebald and St. Lawrence. This marked a definitive breach with the Catholic order of worship. The deliberate neglect of the Feast of Corpus Christi was particularly significant, for this celebration was introduced during the Middle Ages and was especially popular in the cities – trans.
(2) A solemn profession, which makes one a full member of a monastic community, involves taking perpetual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience – trans.
(3) She calls them "people of [in] the world," perhaps a play on the connection between "lay" (i.e., not clerical) and "worldly" (i.e., not spiritual). She means the mothers and their supporters – trans.
(4) An interesting point, because in the practice of infant baptism, the godparents speak for the infant and supply with their faith the faith that is still lacking in the infant. The Anabaptists, who rejected infant baptism and accepted only adult baptism, made this point repeatedly against Luther and the other Protestant reformers – trans.
(5) The cowl, a kind of hood that covers the head, neck, and shoulders, was the chief visible sign of a person being "in religion," that is, a member of a religious community – trans.

Source of original German text: Die Denkwürdigkeiten der Äbtissin Caritas Pirckheimer, edited by Frumentius Renner. St. Ottilien: EOS Verlag, 1982, pp. 1-2, 8-13, 73-84.

Translation: Thomas A. Brady Jr.

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