- The Feast and the Pulpit: Preachers, Sermons and the Cult of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, 1235–ca. 1500 by Ottó Gecser
In this study, a revised version of his dissertation, Ottó Gecser examines the cult of St. Elizabeth of Hungary (also known as Elizabeth of Thuringia), who died at the [End Page 783] age of twenty-four in the odor of sanctity in 1231. At her death she was already recognized as a saint. One of her hagiographers recorded the frenzy that took place as her body lay in state, when the crowd ripped pieces from her clothing, and others made relics by cutting off her hair, nails, and even—grotesquely—her nipples. Pope Gregory IX wasted no time in canonizing her; she was inscribed into the register of saints in 1235. In three chapters, Gecser takes us through the institutionalization of Elizabeth’s cult and its diffusion through preaching. Although Gecser’s main focus is on sermons, he lays the groundwork in the first chapter by treating the vitae, liturgy, institutional dedications, and the Marburg pilgrimage, each a cornerstone of the emerging cult. One interesting finding is that Franciscan hagiography was slow to adopt Elizabeth as one of its own; it was not until the fifteenth century that her affiliation as a Franciscan tertiary was stabilized. Another point, regarding institutional dedications, is that 24 percent of the hospital dedications in the Empire honored St. Elizabeth. Gecser sensibly hypothesizes that since noble women were frequently patrons of hospitals, this statistic suggests that Elizabeth’s role as hospital founder at Marburg may have provided inspiration for other women of her status to do similarly in the name of the saint.
Chapters 2 and 3, thoroughly supported by the three appendices, are the heart of this study as they deal with the sermons, the means by which the cult was consolidated. Gecser has excavated 103 of them (well described in appendix I), 40 percent of which came from the territories of the Empire and were produced by the friars. Given that Elizabeth herself was associated with both Hungary and Thuringia, this conclusion is not altogether surprising, but we must also remember that Johannes Baptist Schneyer’s great Repertorium of sermons—the starting point for any work on medieval preaching—skews in that direction anyway as his research rested heavily on manuscript holdings located in the old imperial territories. That the great preachers of her cult were the friars is not particularly surprising either as they were the predominant preachers of the period. Indeed, although Caesarius of Heisterbach (a Cistercian) produced the first known sermon on Elizabeth on the anniversary of her canonization, Gecser finds that two-thirds of the thirteenth-century sermons on the saint were authored by either Franciscan or Dominican friars in roughly equal numbers, dispelling again any notion that from early days she was associated with the Franciscan Order. Indeed, the Friars Preacher had good reason to affiliate themselves with the saint as she was canonized in their convent in Perugia. Moreover, within decades of their foundation, the Dominicans also forged strong connections with the royal families in Hungary and Naples (not incidentally aligned by marriage), who were interested in promoting the sanctity of their common saintly ancestor.
Samples of the sermons of the mendicants number among the eighteen skillfully edited texts that Gecser includes in appendix III, along with those by the Czech preacher Jan Milič and King Robert of Naples, among others. Robert’s sermon on the saint dwelled both upon her royal status and her marital status as widow, a thema taken from Rev. 18:7. Other themata pertaining to Elizabeth are catalogued in appendix II and admirably explicated in chapter 3. Ultimately Gecser’s is a careful and thorough study of the preaching on St. Elizabeth of Hungary in the later Middle Ages. We are, [End Page 784...