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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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XI. From Slight to Light: Concluding Thoughts


Given the remarkably widespread popularity and impact of the cult of the Eleven Thousand Virgins in the medieval and Early Modern eras, it is somewhat curious to note the relative lack of general awareness of it today, other than via the numerous schools and hospitals titularly refer- encing the Ursuline Order’s namesake, the recent young adult book about the socially-conscious teenage girls of one such school of St. Ursula, or perhaps even wicked octopodic sea witches with a penchant for menac- ing hapless (and little) mermaids.1 Despite their phenomenal popularity and widespread devotion from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries, the cult could not survive the ravages of the Second Vatican Council. Casualties of the turbulent 1960s, Ursula and company were indignantly stricken from the calendar of saints, though they were oddly maintained in the Roman Martyrology. Why? For the crime of apparently not having existed. Despite this ignominious fate, their cult is still alive, particularly in Cologne, where I have personally witnessed their relics and banner processed through the city on the feast of Corpus Christi. Furthermore, their imprint lies upon much of the signification of kölnische identity even today, not the least of which is the lingering ubiquity of the civic coat of arms with its eleven black flames. Additionally, the titular topography of the city echoes with names like Ursulagasse, Ursulaplatz and other ves- tiges of the cult’s important resonance within the city’s space and history. Even today, the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne maintain their...

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