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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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II. An Archaeology of Texts and Bones: The Legend of the Eleven Thousand Virgins


The development of the legend of St. Ursula and her Eleven Thousand Virgin companions is itself an epic tale – one that reveals much about the process of hagiographic construction.1 The earliest document of a cult of unnamed and unnumbered holy virgins in early medieval Cologne can be found on the so-called Clematius Inscription – an early fifth-century stone plaque now immured in the south wall of the choir of the Church of St. Ursula [Fig. 1]. 1 The principal studies on the legend and cult of the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne are Oskar Schade, Die Sage von der Heiligen Ursula und den Elftausend Jungfrauen. Ein Beitrag zur Sagenforschung, Hannover: Carl Rümpler, 1854; Johann Huber Kessel, St. Ursula und ihre Gesellschaft. Eine kritisch-historische Monographie, Cologne: Verlag der M. DuMont-Schauberg, 1863; Albert Gereon Stein “Die heilige Ursula und ihre Gesellschaft. Ein kirchenhistorischer Versuch,” Annalen des his- torischen Vereins für den Niederrhein, 26–27 (1874), 116–22; Joseph Klinkenberg, “Studien zur geschichte der Kölner Märterinnen,” Bonner Jahrbücher, 88 (1889), 79–95; 89 (1890), 105–34; 93 (1892), 130–79; L. M. A. Maugenre, Ste Ursule et ses legions, Bruges, 1903; H. J. Brühl, Die hl. Ursula, Hamm, 1906; Wilhelm Levison, “Das Werden der Ursula-Legende,” Bonner Jahrbücher. Jahrbücher des Vereins von Altertumsfreuden im Rheinlande, 132 (1927), 1–164; Guy de Tervarent, Le légende de Saint Ursule dans la literature et l’art du moyen age, 2 vols., Paris: Les Éditions G. van Oest, 1931; Veronika Hopmann,...

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