Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Saint Hedwig discovers a hedgehog
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    Saint Hedwig of Silesia discovers a nun hiding a hedgehog in her sleeve. Hedwig is on the left with a halo and wears a blue robe. She never took formal religious vows though she lived at the monastery of Trebnitz following her husband's death. The nun on the right, labelled as Sister Raslaua, is dressed as a Cistercian, and the hedgehog peeks out from its spot in her left sleeve. The image has only three main colors—black (with gray), a red-orange, and a blue. The hands are not proportional to the rest of the body, though this matches other images in the manuscript.

    This image is one of four on the manuscript page concerning Hedwig's abilities to prophesy and perceive what others could not. In the upper register she reveals future suffering to a procurator (left) and apostasy to a monk (right). In the lower register she shows Sister Juliana the future site of an altar in the monastic church of Trebnitz. The book Via Beatae Hedwigis (The Life of the Blessed Hedwig, also known as the Hedwig Codex or the Codex of Lubin) commemorated the noblewoman who was also known as Hedwig of Andechs and as Jadwiga (ca. 1178/1180 to 1243). She was married at age twelve to Henry, the eventual duke of Silesia, and had seven children. The couple founded multiple monasteries of various orders including the monastery of Trebnitz (or Trzebnica), the first monastery for women in Silesia. Two of Hedwig's daughters served as early abbesses at Trebnitz. After Henry's death, Hedwig did wear the Cistercian lay sister's habit but was not formally received into the order. Taking formal vows would have required she give up her properties and revenues, which she regularly used to support many charities. She died at Trebnitz and was canonized in 1267. Hedwig held a special meaning for the faithful as a rare intercessor who had married and raised children in contrast to virgin martyrs.

    Hedwig’s great-great-grandson, Ludwig I of Leignitz (Legnica) and Brieg (Brzeg), and his wife Agnes of Glogaue commissioned the codex in 1353. It was just one of many works celebrating Hedwig. While not a full accounting of her life, it includes several stories from contemporaries as well as reports which had been handed down. While the codex is uniform conceptually, it appears to have been created in stages. Most of the text was written by Nycolaus Pruzia (Nicolaus of Prussia) as the scribe identified himself in the manuscript's colophon. The images in the work have largely been interpreted in one of three frameworks: an example of painting in Poland and Bohemia in the fourteenth century, a sourcebook on the life of Hedwig, or an insight into courtly life in the Middle Ages in central Europe.

    Of particular interest in this image is the hedgehog, half hidden by the nun’s sleeve. In an edition of the saint's life published by Stenzel and based on Latin manuscripts and early printed versions, the encounter is described:
    Sister Razlaua, of whom there was some mention above, on a certain occasion went to Blessed Hedwig carrying a hedgehog in a sleeve hidden under a cloak. The lady, understanding this, commented, saying, "Daughter, why do you carry something hidden with you?" But she, forgetful of the beast which she had hidden in her sleeve and withdrawing with a blush, began to think, "Perhaps this thing of which the lady made mention is unclean." In addition, it occurred to her mind whether she should perhaps have displeasure with the hedgehog that she carried under a cloak. Rejecting it, she returned to the lady, who said to her, "So, daughter, you should have come to me thus the first time. Beware lest henceforth you carry a deformed thing in this way."
    The image and text from the Vita seem to imply that the hedgehog was the nun’s pet.

    However, those enclosed in the cloisters were generally expected not to have pets. The vows of poverty required monks and nuns to give up all property rights; they had very few things within their cells. No mirrors or other wall décor, pillows, or elegant clothes were permitted. Pets, too, were often considered a luxury good. In the Canterbury Tales, the worldly prioress cares more for her dogs than the poor; the pious second nun does not have pets. The Church in general was concerned about the tendency of those with higher status, who could afford pets, to care more for their animals than for feeding the poor. In their iconography, saints were usually pictured with either livestock or wild animals—not pets (given the exception of St. Roch and his dog).

    Nevertheless, pets were quite common as companions. Most pet owners were women, clerics, and scholars—many of whom worked indoors and thus could better keep a domesticated pet. Laymen of higher status tended to have outdoor pets like hunting dogs and falcons. Multiple poems and literary works discuss nuns’ pets. Repeated religious instructions to nunneries to get rid of pets indicate that many did have pets and were even bringing them into the church and the choir. One bishop seemed to give tacit permission for pets as long as they were not brought into religious worship.

    Most companion animals were birds, rabbits, small dogs, ferrets and squirrels. The wealthy had the occasional monkey or parrot. Hedgehogs were considered wild animals, given that they lived in the fields. In literature, hedgehogs appeared in bestiaries and in stories along with other wild animals. Walker-Meikle’s book on medieval pets does not discuss hedgehogs. But it might make sense for a nun to select a hedgehog as a pet, since it could be readily found in fields and woods, would make little noise and sleep during the day and could respond affectionately to being held.

    There is also a different kind of link between hedgehogs and monasteries: hedgehog pelts were often used in mortification of the body. Ascetics hoped to cleanse the spirit by purifying the flesh, for penitence or for contemplation—for a closer, more intense bond with God. Quite early the hedgehog’s bristly skin was associated with suffering: the arrows which killed Saint Sebastian were described as hedgehog bristles. (Hedgehog bristles and porcupine spines were sometimes described interchangeably.) Some ascetics wore garments made of hedgehog pelts or beat themselves with the pelts until they bled.

    Hedwig herself engaged in ascetic practices. She was commonly known to walk around barefoot until her feet bled; her confessor, the Cistercian abbot at Leubus Abbey, had to order her to wear shoes. She fasted regularly and had her servants whip her body until she bled. Nevertheless, given the image and the Vita, it seems likely that Raslaua meant to keep the hedgehog as a companion rather than as a scourge for mortification.

  • Source: J. Paul Getty Art Museum
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Animals Asceticism Body Hagiography Hedwig of Silesia, Saint Monasticism Nuns Pets Women in Religion
  • Geographic Area: Eastern Europe
  • Century: 14
  • Date: 1353
  • Related Work: Full page of Hedwig's prophecies to a cleric, a monk and two nuns from the Vita Beatae Hedwigis, J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XI 7, fol. 70v.
    Digitized pages from the Vita Beatae Hedwigis, J. Paul Getty Museum.
    Saint Hedwig saving a choking nun from the Vita Beatae Hedwigis, J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XI 7, fol. 64. Here the nun is labelled as Soror Razlaua (Sister Razlaua). In the illustration in the upper right Razlaua, along with two other women, rejoice for the cures they received through Hedwig's intervention.
    Saint Hedwig leaving bloody footprints; Self-flagellation of Saint Hedwig from the Vita Beatae Hedwigis, J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XI 7, fol. 38v.
    Saint Hedwig with Duke Ludwig and Duchess Agnes from the Vita Beatae Hedwigis, J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XI 7, fol. 12v.
    Feminae image record for The Opening of Saint Hedwig's Tomb; The Translation of Saint Hedwig's Relics from the Vita Beatae Hedwigis, J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XI 7, fol. 137v.
    Nun holding her lapdog, Maastricht Book of Hours, London, British Library, Stowe Ms. 17, fol. 100r. From the British Library blog, "Dogs: Medieval Man's Best Friend".
    Nun spinning with a cat, Maastricht Book of Hours, London, British Library, Stowe Ms. 17, fol. 34r.
  • Current Location: Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Art Museum, Ms. Ludwig XI 7 (83.MN.126), fol. 70v
  • Original Location: Silesia, Poland
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Parchment; Tempera paints; Colored washes; Inks
  • Donor: Layman and laywoman; Ludwig and Agnés, Duke and Duchess of Legnica and Brieg. Ludwig was Hedwig’s great-great-grandson.
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 34.1/24.8/
  • Inscription: Hic revelavit ericium quem soror occulte in manica portavit (Here she revealed a hedgehog which a sister carried hidden in [her] sleeve) Caption above the image.
    Soror Raslaua (Sister Raslaua) Label above the nun's head The other three captions on the page are: Here she revealed to her procurator that he will suffer (upper left). Here she predicted the apostacy of brother Frederick (upper right). Here she revealed the future construction of an altar (lower right).
  • Related Resources:

    Hamburger, Jeffrey. "Representations of Reading –Reading Representations: The Female Reader from the Hedwig Codex to Châtillon’s Léopoldine au Livre d’Heures." Lesende Frau. Edited by Gabriela Signori. Harrassowitz Verlag, 2009. Pages 177-239.

    Hughes-Edwards, Mari. "Hedgehog Skins and Hairshirts: The Changing Role of Asceticism in the Anchoritic Ideal." Mystics Quarterly 28, 1 (2002): 6-25.

    Jung, Jacqueline. "The Boots of Saint Hedwig: Thoughts on the Limits of the Agency of Things." Grazyna Jurkowlaniec, Ika Matyjaszkiewicz, and Zuzanna Sarnecka, eds. The Agency of Things in Medieval and Early Modern Art: Materials, Power and Manipulation. Routledge, 2018. Pages 173-196. Available from Academia.edu.

    Klaniczay, Gábor. Holy Rulers and Blessed Princesses: Dynastic Cults in Medieval Central Europe. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    McCann, Allison. "Women's Books? Gendered Piety and Patronage in Late Medieval Bohemian Illuminated Codices." Dissertation. University of Pittsburgh, 2019. Pages 85–96.

    Steel, Karl. How Not to Make a Human: Pets, Feral Children, Worms, Sky Burial, Oysters. University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

    Stenzel, Gustav Adolf, ed. Scriptores rerum Silesiacarum oder Sammlung schlesischer Geschichtschreiber. Vol. 2. Josef Max, 1839. Pages 46-47.

    Walker-Meikle, Kathleen. Medieval Pets. Boydell & Brewer, 2012.