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St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne

Relics, Reliquaries and the Visual Culture of Group Sanctity in Late Medieval Europe

Scott B. Montgomery

The cult of St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgin Martyrs of Cologne was the most widespread relic cult in medieval Europe. The sheer abundance of relics of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, which allowed for the display of immense collections, shaped the notion of corporate cohesion that characterized the cult. Though the primacy of St. Ursula as the leader of this holy band was established by the tenth century, she was conceived as the head of a corporate body. Innumerable inventories and liturgical texts attest to the fact that this cult was commemorated and referenced as a collective mass – Undecim millium virginum. This group identity informed, and was formulated by, the presentation of their relics, as well as much of the imagery associated with this cult. This book explores the visual, textual, performative, and perceptual aspects of this phenomenon, with particular emphasis on painting and sculpture in late medieval Cologne. Examining the ways in which both texts and images worked as vestments, garbing the true core of relics which formed the body of the cult, the book examines the cult from the core outward, seeking to understand hagiographic texts and images in terms of their role in articulating relic cults.


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I. Heads and Tales: Envisioning the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne


In his Dialogue on Miracles, compiled between 1219 and 1223, the kölnisch Cistercian Caesarius of Heisterbach (1180–c.1240) presents a discussion between a monk and a novice regarding the corporate identity of the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne. The novice asks: “Since bones of the eleven thousand blessed virgins are found everywhere in the streets and gardens of the city of Cologne, it seems to me scarcely possible that strange bones should not be mixed with theirs.” To this, seemingly reasonable query, the monk responds by relating that: “A certain monk of Altenberg where there are said to be a thousand bodies, told me they do not allow any false relics to be mixed up with them.”1 In support of this claim, Caesarius repeats a tale in which the bones of a horse, accidentally mixed in with relics of the Holy Virgins of Cologne, are miraculously cast forth from their compa- ny.2 The underlying, central theme is the linking of the relics’ power with their physical manifestation of the notion of group solidarity. The potency of the relics is not only expressed, but is also insured, by the fact that the Holy Virgins adhere as a single entity – their relics serving as manifesta- tions of the corporate body of the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne. Caesarius’ tales are clearly intended to provide a lucid discussion of the powers and traits of this cult which doubtless had a profound impact upon his intellectual and spiritual growth. Educated in Cologne...

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