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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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III. Bones and More Bones: Relics and the Spread of the Cult


The physical “proof ” of the legend of the Eleven Thousand Virgins was unearthed during the construction of a new circuit of walls in 1106.1 The excavations in the suburb of Niederich to the north of the city of Cologne uncovered thousands of skeletal remains in a vast series of Roman grave- sites, henceforth known as the “Ager Ursulanus.”2 This appeared to prove the veracity of the story and the bones were proclaimed to be the relics of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, martyred and buried outside the walls of Roman Colonia. While it is now common to scoff at the astounding credulity of these medieval folks, it is important to consider how this was understood as a revelation of hard evidence, providing empirical, physi- cal proof of the existence and presence of the Eleven Thousand Virgins.3 1 The impetus for the construction of the new circuit of walls was Emperor Henry IV seeking refuge in Cologne from his son, Henry V. The emperor urged the strength- ening and expansion of the fortifications to encircle several extra-mural settlements, notably that of Niederich with the churches of St. Kunibert and the Holy Virgins. To this end the existing walls were strengthened and a series of ditches and earth- works were erected around the three suburbs of Niederich, Airsbach, and the Holy Apostles. This ring of outer fortifications was later replaced by a stone wall in 1180. See Paul Strait, Cologne in the Twelfth Century, Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1974, pp. 30...

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