A Chaplain in the Engelthal Sister-Book

By Emma Gabe, 04/01/2021

Ez saz ein reicher pfaff ze Vilseck, der hiez Ulschalk, der waz manig jar ein grozer offener sunder gewest, und da er ir heiligez leben vernam, da bat er sie, daz sie in enpfingen, er wolt ir caplan sein und wolt in mit allen trewen vor sein. Der wart ein so heiliger man, daz man leider von im sang.

Karl Schröder, Der Nonne von Engelthal, 3.

The Engelthal sister-book––a hagiographical text written in the first half of the fourteenth century containing the religious experiences of nuns from that community––tells about the nuns’ chaplain, Ulschalk. The writer, an anonymous nun, notes that Ulschalk was a great sinner for many years before reforming, asking to become the community’s chaplain, and becoming “such a holy man that songs were written about him” (Schröder, 3). But why was he called a “great sinner”? Does this label result from particular deeds and actions performed by Ulschalk while he lived a worldly life, or was it simply a way of accounting for his late conversion to the religious life? This description of Ulschalk’s previous life is notably different from the lives of the nuns, many of whom appear to have always led virtuous lives––at least according to the sister-book’s author(s). This raises the question: while Ulschalk reformed and became a holy man, would the same type of reformation be possible for a woman who had been a great sinner in the world?

Ulschalk’s religious conversion occurred after he had a family, because his daughter was later elected prioress. This suggests that Ulschalk’s family was also powerful and influential outside the monastery. Indeed, family networks and influence permeated medieval cloister walls and shaped internal politics. Yet his daughter took the opposite approach to power, which reveals gendered approaches to power: where Ulschalk wished and asked to be the nuns’ chaplain, his daughter rejected the powerful position of prioress with a typical modesty topos by claiming she would rather be sick than prioress, a wish that God kindly granted (Schröder, 38–39).

Karl Schröder, ed. Der Nonne von Engelthal. Büchlein von der Genaden Uberlast. Tübingen: Laupp, 1871.


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