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  • Letters for Apollonia
  • David Bourgeois (bio), Caroline Danforth (bio), and Henrike Lähnemann (bio)

Nearly five centuries have elapsed since Apollonia von Freyberg departed from her convent in Mülhausen (today, Mulhouse, France). Little is known about this Poor Clare nun who witnessed the dissolution of her conventual shelter in the midst of her community’s protracted financial struggles as well as spiritual conflict catalyzed by the emerging Reformation. It is fortuitous, however, that documents related to Apollonia are preserved at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (NGA) and at the Archives de Mulhouse, in Mulhouse, France. Among these are letters written to and on behalf of Apollonia as well as a detailed church inventory in which Apollonia’s many donations to her convent are recorded. Individually, these documents elucidate aspects of Apollonia’s relationships, cloistered existence, and her convent’s ultimate disbandment in the 1520s. In concert, they constitute fragmented and poignant vignettes from Apollonia’s life.

The Mülhausen Poor Clare Convent

Apollonia von Freyberg was born to the noble von Freyberg lineage which extended predominantly through Swabia and Bavaria. The family’s economic standing allowed them to pay the required Gotzgaben, a cash dowry presented to a convent upon entry.1 Families often sought reputable convents for their adolescent daughters to join; however, adults, the elderly, and the widowed were also among the postulants adopting a cloistered life.2 Unfortunately, in which year and at what age Apollonia joined her convent is unknown.

What is certain, however, is that Apollonia belonged to the order of Poor Clares, named after Clare of Assisi (1194–1253, Chiara Offreduccio). Clare, an Italian saint, embraced poverty and followed the teachings [End Page 165] of Saint Francis.3 In the wake of the expansion of the Franciscan order in the German lands, communities influenced by Clare’s way of life also quickly proliferated northward beyond the alpine threshold. In 1283, just decades after the Franciscans established themselves in Mülhausen, patrician donor Maria of Altkirch provided a home for a group of pious women in the same village. They created a Poor Clare community following the Urbanist Rule.4 This was the rule issued in 1263 under pope Urban IV for the growing order of Damianites, now coined the Order of Poor Clares. Clare of Assisi’s own rule had received approbation for use in the San Damiano community in Assisi in 1253 just prior to Clare’s death and subsequently was adopted by a small group of houses inspired by this community. Counter to this, the Urbanist Rule subsequently was adopted by most Clarissan monasteries and allowed the nuns communal ownership of valuables and income-generating assets. Untethered from poverty but inspired by Clare’s spirituality, nuns following the Urbanist Rule were nevertheless forbidden personal wealth. In other words, Apollonia’s community did not follow Clare’s commitment to an austere and penurious life, but instead evolved into an affluent religious community garnering income via dowries, monetary and material gifts, and rents from land they owned.5 Their joint income could reasonably assure material security and nutritive well-being. While it remained common for Franciscan monks to provide the Poor Clares with spiritual care including visitations, confessions, and mass, it was no longer mandatory.6 Following this rule, the Mülhausen nuns experienced two centuries of good fortune while carrying out activities they could accomplish from within their convent.

The Fire of 1465

In March 1465, the convent’s two-hundred years of favorable winds were overwhelmed by flames, swiftly plunging the establishment into financial despair. Buildings, books, textiles, furniture, jewelry, cash, bedding, and archival and financial records were all lost to the inferno.7 Volume 3 [End Page 166] of Xavier Mossmann’s Cartulaire de Mulhouse includes a letter written to the Mülhausen mayor and city council following the fire: ...closters zu sant Claren von dem element des fueres enzundet vnd leider zu letzst schedlich verbrandt sye, also syen denselben frouen all jr brieff, roedel, nottel vnd geschrifften uber jr zinsz, rennt, nutz vnd gult, nit allein hie in der statt, sunder ouch uff dem lande wisende, mit sampt aller anderer jrer varenden habe, kleyder, kleinotter, barschafft...


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