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Anne Simon reflects on self-isolating in the 16th century, with comparisons to today’s situation in the time of COVID-19

Katerina Lemmel in Birgittine habit (Imhoff-Tetzel-Holzschuher Epitaph, church of St. Sebaldus, Nuremberg). Wikimedia Commons. Author: Volker Schier

As a nun Katerina Lemmel (1466-1533) was, of course, used to self-isolating, although that had not always been the case. Born into one of the wealthiest, most powerful merchant families in late-medieval Nuremberg, she was accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the city’s business, cultural and intellectual life.  Nuremberg, one of the richest, politically most important cities in the Holy Roman Empire and a leading financial market of the age, stood at the crossroads of numerous trade routes which stretched across Europe from London to Russia to Sicily to Scandinavia to Poland to Spain ‒ and even further afield to Alexandria, India and, via Lisbon, the New World. A main source of the city’s wealth was the all-important spice trade:  pepper was more valuable than gold, and Nuremberg held the monopoly on the most precious spice of all, saffron. The city was also famous for metal goods, tools, clocks and scientific instruments (nautical, surgical, astronomical). Trade brought news and information (Luther called the city ‘das Auge und Ohr Deutschlands’), openness to intellectual currents and new ideas (Nuremberg was an early centre of Humanism), and the wealth to support artists of the calibre of Albrecht Dürer, Michael Wolgemut, Veit Stoß, Veit Hirsvogel and Adam Kraft.  Katerina Lemmel herself had been a successful businesswoman, investing in property, mining, agriculture and viticulture.  When, on the death of her husband, she left this world behind to become a Birgittine nun at the convent of Maria Mai in Maihingen in 1516, her life changed radically.  Of course, relocating for religious reasons is not quite the same as celebrity self-isolation in Cornwall or the Caribbean, but there are some similarities to the current situation.

Convent of Maria Mai, engraving by Anton Späth, c. 1720. Wikimedia Commons

Maihingen, a small village six miles from Nördlingen (Bavaria) and fifty-seven from Nuremberg, was rural and remote. These days a quick drive down the B466 from Nuremberg gets you there in roughly an hour and twenty minutes, but in the early sixteenth century the journey took several days.  Maria Mai was a small, poor foundation, in such architectural disrepair that rainwater dripped into the sisters’ cells, and a far cry from the web of trade, family and comfort to which Katerina Lemmel had been used. She obviously suffered under the separation from her family: in her letters, written from the convent to her cousin Hans V Imhoff, head of the Imhoff family trading company, between 1516 and 1525, she frequently expresses her disappointment at her family’s failure to visit her.[1]  The Birgittines were an enclosed order, so once Katerina had taken vows she was not permitted to leave the convent. Communication was also far from straightforward:  no email, Skype, Zoom or any of the other electronic possibilities for keeping in touch with family and friends in the age of Covid-19; and the Thurn und Taxis postal service set up in the Holy Roman Empire by Franz von Taxis was still in its earliest infancy. Mail was transported by (not always reliable) messenger and subject to loss or delay:  ‘We send them [letters] to Oettingen, to Keterlein the innkeeper; she gives them to the messengers from the city of Ulm or to a wagon driver from Ulm or Nördlingen. […] With the letters that were lost, it was our servant who gave them to the son of Frau Hans Fugger at the fair in Nördlingen’ (Letter, 26 September 1517). 

Even when the hurdles to communication were overcome, obtaining food and medicine was a further problem. While hand sanitizer was not sought after and flour seems to have been readily available, Katerina’s letters to her cousin are full of requests for basic provisions either not grown locally or in short supply due to poor harvests:  rice, oil, millet, raisins, salted fish, split peas, almonds, and, above all, pepper and spices. Crucial for the flavouring and preservation of food (research at Cornell University has shown spices possess anti-microbial properties which decelerate decay),[2] spices did not just enhance a monotonous diet, but were used medicinally. Saffron, for example, rich in vitamins A, B and C, had long been used as a cure for wounds, coughs, colic, headaches and the plague; in the treatment of the liver, eyes, throat and mouth; and as a treatment for depression, being a known mood- and even performance-enhancer.[3] Katerina justifies one request to her long-suffering cousin with the remark: ‘One does need to spice things up a bit, especially when the men and the sisters have to sing and pray a lot’ (26 September 1517).  Similarly, beer and wine, far from being a comforting escape from pandemic-induced panic, were needed for nutrition and strength, not least for the daily performance of the eight Divine Offices:  ‘They [the monks and nuns at Maria Mai] must drink beer during this time of great singing and reading’ (19 February 1518). However, wine especially was not always easy to obtain:  there was no quick trip to Waitrose or Majestic. The poverty of the convent, and later the destruction of convent-owned vineyards in Württemberg during Reformation unrest, meant supplies were disrupted:  ‘Now on many days the sisters don’t get even a drop of wine — only those who are weak receive some’ (23 October 1517).

Michael Wolgemut, Lamentation for the Dead Christ, epitaph for Georg Keyper, St. Lawrence’s Nuremberg. Wikimedia Commons. Author: Uoaei1

Then there was the Plague.  Originating in Central or East Asia, it reached Europe in 1347, brought by fleas on rats on Genoese merchant ships returning from the Crimea.  It killed somewhere between 75 and 200 million people, recurring sporadically across Europe for over 300 years and causing religious, social and economic upheaval. [4]  At the time its causes were unknown, so the Plague was variously blamed on an unfavourable conjunction of planets, noxious emanations from the earth, the weather, sick livestock, a pestilence-breathing giant who stalked the land (but not on 5G!). Katerina mentions the Plague and other epidemics in her letters, her thoughts going to her family in Nuremberg, vulnerable due to the city’s dense population, high number of visitors from abroad and even its own merchants returning home from pilgrimages or business trips.[5]  While the wealthy could take refuge in their country retreats ‒ some affluent Nuremberg families already owned houses in the surrounding territories ‒ the poor were worse affected, including in the villages around Maria Mai.  In a letter dated 19 February 1518, Katerina mentions eight children orphaned by their parents’ death from the pestilence.  Although isolated in the depths of rural Bavaria, the convent’s religious duty of charity and care for the poor and sick meant the nuns were, in practice, exposed to risk on more or less a daily basis.  Katerina ‒ who had lost her sister Felicitas to an earlier outbreak of the Plague ‒ sends her family the only remedy she knows:  ‘So I send [. . .] you each a little pomander. This is how they grow around here, with aromatic seeds. The fragrance is supposed to be good for warding off the bad vapors, and on it, in the quill of a feather, are the tau sign and many devotional words, which one should have on one’s person at the time of death.  […] May it please our dear Lord to be gracious and merciful to us all!’ (21 January 1518).

Saint Rochus Cemetery, Nuremberg, created to bury victims of the Plague epidemic in 1517‒18. Engraving by Samuel Michoviny, c. 1720. Wikimedia Commons

Dr Anne Simon, Associate Fellow IMLR

[1] The letters are a rich source for the lived reality not just of late-medieval monasticism, but also trade, artistic patronage, finance, transport, women’s networks and more:  Pepper for Prayer:  The Correspondence of the Birgittine Nun Katerina Lemmel, 1516‒1525, ed. and trans. by Volker Schier, Corine Schleif and Anne Simon (Stockholm: Runica et Mediaevalia, 2019).  Quotations are taken from this edition.

[2] Cornell Chronicle, 4 March 1998 [accessed 27 April 2020].

[3] Volker Schier, ‘Probing the Mystery of the Use of Saffron in Medieval Nunneries’, in Richard Newhauser and Corine Schleif (eds.), Pleasure and Danger in Perception. The Senses in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (special issue of The Senses and Society, 5 (2010), pp. 57−72.

[4] For example, in England the Great Plague of 1665/66 killed around 100,000 people There was no vaccine, no cure and in crowded cities such as London (a population of c. 384,000 in 1662) no social distancing.  The rich self-isolated on their country estates; Charles II and his court moved to Salisbury and then Oxford; the Mayor of London and the city aldermen remained at their posts. The last outbreak of the Plague in this country occurred in Suffolk in 1910.

[5] After the initial outbreak the Black Death returned to Nuremberg in 1405, 1435, 1437, 1482, 1494, 1520 and 1534.  In a letter of 1 December 1520 Katerina mentions a family acquaintance whose business is affected:  ‘She[the Reverend Mother] is worried that he [a Herr Hess] doesn’t have cash, as he would if he were doing a lot of trading — which is being hindered by the plague’.