Selections from the St. Katharinental Sister Book

The Sisters of the Convent of Saint Katharinental

Artwork by Jensine Eckwall

The Sister Book of the Convent of Saint Katharinental in Diessenhofen, a collection of brief vitae, grants us a glimpse of how medieval women who lived there memorialized their deceased sisters and how they themselves might have wished to be remembered. The vitae, which chronicle one or more notable events in a sister’s life, range in length from a few sentences to several pages. Each vita is written by another sister (or sisters) in the convent who remains unnamed, which is fitting for a community dedicated to contemplation of death and the miracle of its transcendence in salvation. The book itself exists in various forms in a number of different manuscripts, and its composition is difficult to date. Scholars believe that most of the memorialized sisters lived between approximately 1245 and 1345, while the earliest manuscript dates from the fifteenth century. We learn from the Sister Book that the sisters’ lives were structured by the liturgical hours consisting of calls to prayer, from sunrise matins to midnight vigils. Their prayers were an essential element of their devotional work. This work entailed maintaining the standards of piety required of a Dominican convent, cultivating their own spiritual well-being, and, importantly, relieving the suffering of souls in purgatory through their devotions. The proper practice of piety was a burden and joy on which the salvation or damnation of many depended. The sisters found ways to make this ongoing work of maintaining sanctity through cyclical prayer, song, devotional reading, and mundane cloister duties intensely personal. In the vitae, we see that some sisters experienced the presence and touch of Christ or heard his voice in encouragement or in admonishment of their ways of living, while still others yearned for more intimacy with Christ, even wishing to feel the pain of his crucifixion. This intimacy, when achieved, was hard fought. The sisters had to work constantly to purify their bodies and souls in order to be worthy of receiving the body of Christ in the form of the communion wafer.

The sisters who lived at Saint Katharinental may seem distant from us, both chronologically and emotionally. They may seem fanatical in their strict observance of extreme self-discipline, manifested visibly to their fellow sisters in fasts, flagellation, and rigorous daily prayer, and in their acceptance of illness as a spiritual gift. But if we look beyond these unfamiliar practices and beliefs, we can relate to the sisters’ attempts to make sense of their world, to build a community, and to grapple together with their doubts and fears. We can see these hopes and struggles even in the sisters’ bodily sacrifices and fervent acceptance of death as a longed-for union with Christ.

The very existence of the Sister Book begs the question: Why record sisters’ lives at all if earning the reward of heaven was the aim of prayer and careful observance of the rules of the convent, removed from worldly concerns? There are many possible answers, ranging from the political (there were benefits to the sisters and others in proclaiming the institutional holiness of the convent as a whole) to the personal. One of the Sister Book’s aims was likely to instruct: depictions of the exemplary graces granted to some women as a result of acts of kindness, interpersonal
caritas, or holy observance, or of incorrect behavior deserving of reprimand, could help sisters learn how to best observe the tenets of their Order. The Sister Book may also have encouraged sisters to weigh for themselves the individual pursuit of holiness against the duty to provide communal support. For example, it was sometimes better to comfort a sister in need than to engage in silent prayer. The willingness of a sister to abandon a joyful vision of the Christ child in order to complete her mundane kitchen work shows a commitment to serving her community that was worthy enough, in her fellow sisters’ estimation, to commit to parchment. Conversely, the disappearance of a vision when a sister selfishly refuses to help another is also worth recording; ways in which one might go astray should also be remembered. In another case, demonstrating vividly the sisters’ capacity for error, Christ punishes a sister for favoring one saint over another by taking away her ability to move or speak for fourteen days. The sisters’ openness to change based on written evidence of proper and improper religious practice highlights the evolution over time of what was perceived to be virtuous or sinful.

The simplicity and poignant, spare beauty of the Sister Book’s prose leaves the reader eager to learn more about the lives of the sisters at Diessenhofen. I am struck time and time again as I read the vitae by how much more could have been said about each sister. I wonder whether a sister’s death allowed the vitae’s authors to elevate her memory by embellishing her moments of sanctity. Were the vitae, despite their spiritual focus, also acts of individual remembrance? The vitae, both in what they say and because they say it at all, reveal the same anxieties we harbor today surrounding death and its approach. Will my family and my sisters remember me when I die? Where will I be when I die? What did I do to deserve illness of body and soul, and what can I change in my life to restore my health? In reading the Sister Book, I relate not only to the sisters who are commemorated, but also to the unnamed women who wrote these accounts, whose lives are perhaps completely untold; there is no vita commemorating a sister for her diligence in writing pious accounts of her dearly departed.

Adelheid von Ossingen

There was a blessed sister called Sister Adelheid von Ossingen, who was the procurer of earthly goods for the convent. She had the custom of not speaking a word on all the days on which she received our Lord, as many other sisters continue to do. On one of the days that the sisters received our Lord, she needed to go to the kitchen to prepare food for the guests. And that was shameful and painful for her to do, but she did it nonetheless, for she wished to be obedient. And as she departed for the kitchen (it was winter and a great snow had fallen) and as she was on her way there, she heard the sound of the bell that rang at the moment our Lord was raised. Then she knelt down in the snow, and on that very place appeared beautiful grass, as though it were summer, when the grass is most beautiful.

Adelheid Ludwigin

There was a sister called Sister Adelheid Ludwigin. As the priest lifted up our Lord at mass, she saw that the wafer became as large as the moon when it is full, and a clear, brilliant light as bright as the sun shone out from it. So she spoke to our Lord: “My Lord, what need do I have for this vision? You know well that my faith is unflinching and without flaw.”

Gertrud die Rittrin

There was a sister called Sister Gertrud die Rittrin, who experienced a deviation from the faith. One time when she was at her prayers after mass, she saw a translucent, glowing man enter, and he carried a golden chalice in his hand. And two youths who carried burning candles in their hands were beside him, and they walked toward the sister. The gentleman poured blood from his heart into the chalice, bade her to drink, and said: “You shall no longer be unfaithful to me.” And in that same hour, her loss of faith left her entirely.

Berta von Herten

There was a sister called holy Berta von Herten. One time while singing with great devotion in the choir, a sister saw a golden tube rise up from her mouth into the heavens. Another time when this sister sang, another sister saw a red rose float before her mouth. Once, the holy Sister Berta desired to be at her sister Gůt’s place in the forest. And one time when she was at her prayers after mass in the refectory, she saw our Lord sitting across from her, and His face glowed as brightly as the sun, and then our Lord beckoned to her with His hand. Then she went to our Lord and fell before His feet. Then our Lord took her head and laid it in His lap and treated her very tenderly and dearly. Then she saw that the wall of the refectory appeared as though it were glass, and on the other side of the glass was a pitiful, meager person who acted as though her heart were truly going to break because she wished to come through the glass to our Lord. But she could not come through the glass. So spoke our Lord: “Would you like to know, dear daughter of mine, who that person is?” So she said: “Yes Lord, with all my heart.” So He said to her: “That is Gůt in the forest. And the glass that you see that is between me and her is her own will not to live in obedience. And because of this, she can never come as close to me as you can, living in obedience.”

Adelheid von Spiegelberg

There was a sister called Sister Adelheid von Spiegelberg, and she was in the choir at her prayers. On a day that the convent had received our Lord, she saw our Lord as He was when He was a child, and she was greatly comforted by Him. And as she was in this vision, she was called to the table. And she thought: “Oh Lord, I shall leave you out of my true obedience to you, so that you never depart from me.” And so she went, in accordance to her rule, to the table. And when she came into the refectory, the child came as well, and ran under her habit. And as she sat down at the table, the child sat before her on the table. What joy, sweetness, and companionship she felt then was inexpressible.

Catherine von Überlingen

There was a sister called Sister Catherine von Überlingen who held her namesake St. Catherine especially dear. She lay very sick, and she was so ill that someone always sat by her, even through the night, so that if she felt any pain or had any need, someone could bring her food. And one night a sister called Adelheid, whose task was to administer to and care for the aged and sick, watched over her. She saw that a beautiful, translucent maiden entered who was dressed in dazzling gold and wore a clasp of a golden wheel. By this, she understood that it was St. Catherine and then she went to sit before the sister, and she gave her milk to eat out of a bowl and served her just as a maiden serves her lady. When day broke, the sister who had seen this said: “Last night I saw the loveliest maiden that I have ever seen at your side.”

Then when this holy Sister Catherine was about to die, a sister spoke to her of heaven. Then she said: “Is it true, what you said to me, that you will come to be by me when my soul departs from my body, and that when I die I will laugh?” And it happened just that way. Everybody who was there saw that she truly and heartily laughed at the very hour her soul departed from her body.

Williburg von Trossingen

There was a sister called Sister Williburg von Trossingen. She came into the cloister when she was still young, and she was an exceptionally holy child. And one day when the convent was about to receive our Lord, she had a great desire that she be permitted to receive our Lord as well. Because she was so young, no one thought it was appropriate. And when the children were fed breakfast that morning, she did not take even one bite. And when the priest blessed the wafers, he took just as many as there were sisters in the convent, not including the child. And after he had given our Lord to the entire convent, there was one wafer remaining. Then he said: “There is still someone here, I know not who, who has yet to receive our Lord.” So the sisters thought that our Lord had made a great sign, and they brought forth the child. Then the priest said: “Dear child, come here, our Lord has saved himself for you,” and he gave her our Lord.

Geri Hainburgin

There was a sister called Sister Geri Hainburgin. She was truly an exceptional person in her hard and strict life. When she died, such a sweet emanation, as from many roses, came from out of her body that the sisters marveled over the sweet smell. And when the sisters went to put another garment on her, they saw that her back was blackened from her acts of discipline—as black as the veil of the order whose vows she had taken.

Adelheid von Holderberg

There was a sister called Sister Adelheid von Holderberg. She was hard at work every day, even on the days when mass was being spoken and sung in all of holy Christendom. And so it was on the days when she received our Lord. And one day it happened that a late mass was to be sung. And she went out of the choir, and a novice approached her and revealed herself to be very sorrowful. Adelheid could easily see that she was troubled and in need of help, but she did not know what was causing her such sadness. Then Adelheid thought: “Lord, which is more pleasing to you: that I break my usual custom and perform a work of charity and comfort this person with my words, or that I hold myself in silence and maintain my usual devotion?” It was given to her to recognize that it was our Lord’s will that she should speak. So she took the novice and sat with her in the chapter room and asked her what wrong and it was that she might need. This she granted her. Adelheid spoke so mildly and soothingly with her that she was comforted in her heart. And when she came again into the choir during mass, the priest lifted up the body of our Lord, and she saw the wafer transformed into the most beautiful child that had ever been seen. And so it was given to her to recognize that this vision was revealed to her because she had comforted the novice with her words, during her sister’s time of trial and duress.

Adelheid von St. Gallen

There was a sister called Sister Adelheid von St. Gallen who was an extremely contemplative, devoted sister. And on the day of Candlemas, she helped the sacristan. And then, after compline and after they had taken away the altar, she became very tired from the work. And she went to her prayers and bowed herself before our Lord and said: “Lord, I offer to you a tired body, a loving soul, and a desiring heart.” Then she heard a voice that said: “You are my most beloved daughter.”

This holy sister was at one time very ill and lay in her bed in the dormitory. There she saw a man come toward her, who sat down to face her beside her bed, broke off a piece of his flesh from his hand, gave it to her in her mouth, and said to her: “This is my flesh and my blood.” And then she saw him no more. She performed works of mercy very often and served the other sisters very well. After this she again became very sick and fell so deeply into a human sickness that it seemed to her that the sisters she had served so well and so often were not serving her in her sick days as loyally as she had served them. And that thought moved her in her heart. Then our Lady spoke with her and said: “Everything that you have done to serve your sisters you have done through my Child and through me. Why do you desire service from them in return?”

There was a worthy, high-born woman in Constance, and when her father died she came to Sister Adelheid, who was her relative, and gave her silver coins for a pelt. After this, the woman asked a person possessed by evil to show her something of her father’s soul. Then the devil spoke from out of this person: “Ask the nun at Diessenhofen to whom you have given the pelt. She can surely tell you something of him.” Then she arrived there. She urgently asked Adelheid to reveal to her some news of her father’s soul. She did not want to say anything, so she only said this: “You should wholly trust that he has been brought to the place where he may very soon become entirely well and whole.”

During a mass, when the antiphon Ave Stella was sung for our Lady, this holy sister saw our Lady walking through the choir carrying our Lord in her arms, and she bowed to each sister. And when she came to the choir sisters, she handed the child Jesus into the arms of each sister in turn.

Mechthild von Trüllikon

On the Day of St. Michael during mass, sister Mechthild von Trüllikon was at prayer, and she cried passionately as she prayed. Then our Lord came to her as a child. And just as anyone might try to soothe a crying child by putting an apple into his hand, our Lord, himself a child, placed an apple into Mechthild’s hands. She pressed her hands together tightly, and kept the apple enclosed in her hands until she left the choir. Her hands remained clasped so firmly around it, like a seam, that she held the apple in her hands for a very long time after that day.

One day when she had received our Lord with the convent, Mechthild was so sick that she could not come to the altar and instead went to her bed in the dormitory. And as the day went on, a sister went to her bed to see if she needed anything. Then the sister saw a child sitting beside Mechthild on the bed, and she saw her in such a state of grace that she did not speak to her, since she did not wish to interfere. And when evening came, she said to Mechthild: “When would you like to eat today?” She replied: “Don't worry about whether I have eaten any food at all today.”

One time, Mechthild heard a voice that said to her: “I want to pluck my flower and take it to myself.” And this honorable sister died thereafter, who was at the time the best we had.


On the holy day of Christmas during the mass, a sister saw a golden scroll descend from the heavens into the choir, and the names of all of the sisters who sang there were written upon it. And when the mass had ended, the scroll ascended again into the heavens.

translated from the Medieval High German by Amiri Ayanna