St. Elizabeth of Hungary

Does sanctity run in families?  The initial answer is ‘surely no.’ After all, each of us is called to sanctity, regardless of how good or bad our family was, and our holiness will ultimately be judged individually.  And yet, the story of the house of Árpád makes one wonder if God does not especially bless some families.  This family of medieval Hungarian rulers boasts no less than six canonized saints: St. Stephen, St. Emeric, St. Ladislaus, St. Margaret of Hungary, St. Kunegunda of Poland, and, most famously, St. Elizabeth of Hungary.  It also included another female blessed, Bl. Jolenta, a blessed princess who married into the family and was raised at the Árpád royal court (Bl. Salomea), and yet another Árpád who married into the family of Byzantine Emperors and was canonized by the Eastern Orthodox Church as St. Irene.  We might also add St. Margaret of Scotland by virtue of her mother, Agatha, who some scholars identify as an Árpád, as well as St. Agnes of Prague and Bl. Anne of Bohemia, born of the same Árpád mother.  In addition, there are other Árpáds venerated locally in Europe, such as Bl. Gertrude of Altenberg, daughter of St. Elizabeth. It is an impressive list for a family that had its origins in a line of shamanistic nomad chieftains, plying the steppes at the boundaries of Europe and Asia.

A skeptic, however, might reply that medieval people had an inordinate regard for royal blood.  These royal saints, the argument would run, had relatives who had the wherewithal to pursue their canonization, and who stood to benefit from their prestige.  And furthermore, the Árpáds produced their share of bad or bloodthirsty men.  Indeed the father of St. Elizabeth, Andrew II, spent his early career as a rebel, seizing lands from his elder brother, Emeric, the legitimate heir, and thereafter his young son Ladislas III as well, whom Andrew drove into exile.  Later, as undisputed king, he proved a weak and erratic ruler.  Considerations such as these are real, but we should remember that medieval princes were surrounded to an extent few today can imagine by temptations of wealth, pleasure, and power, not to mention the adulation these things brought.  When they managed to be pious, it was a significant achievement, and the effect their example could have on others for good or ill was very great. Consequently, it is not hard to appreciate that holy people of royal blood could especially deserve the favorable recognition they got.  And, in the final analysis, the deeds of the Árpád saints speak for themselves, as the example of St. Elizabeth demonstrates.

St. Elizabeth (1207-1231), was married to Louis IV, the Landgrave of Thuringia and one of the great princes of the Holy Roman Empire, at the age 14.  She already showed signs of an interest in prayer, asceticism, and charity beyond the norm for a medieval princess.  Her maids-in-waiting would later testify, she would playfully try to run to the chapel in the course of their games, in order to slip in and have time to pray in solitude, since the life of the princess was almost always a life in the company of others.  Later, when married, she would find time to pray by having her maids-in-waiting pull her foot to wake her in the middle of the night.  She would rise and spend whatever time she could in vigil.  Her husband was supportive of her charitable and pious activities, allowing her to give much more than was customary to the poor and suffering and institutions that cared for them, as well as to religious orders and church institutions whose work she admired.  Indeed, she and Louis welcomed the new Franciscan order to their territory.  The spirit of deep poverty and humility of the new order would have a deep effect on her, and soon she began to dream of living the life of the poor servants of God.  She made it a point to abstain from ‘vanities’ in dress and behavior, such as dancing and the tight, decorated sleeves then fashionable.

Louis chose for her confessor a severe and rigorous priest, Conrad of Marburg, a man of undoubted probity.  He refused to accept even lawful benefices, preferring to live a life of poverty.  And yet, for his admirable qualities, he seemed unable to control his zeal.  Some years after St. Elizabeth’s death, he became widely feared for his merciless and preemptory conduct of heresy proceedings.  Eventually, his uncritical acceptance of dubious heresy accusations against leading members of German society would lead to his murder in an apparent revenge killing.   Although this lay in the future, in the time he had direction of St. Elizabeth’s soul his harshness was already in evidence.  Some writers make much of his ordering physical whipping as a form of discipline, but this was not an unusual practice at the time.  In any case, there is no evidence Conrad made use of it in Elizabeth’s case any more than a normal rigorist of his day, although he would later admit to having subjected her to corporal punishment unjustly in at least one case, and other known instances are open to question.

What was truly remarkable was the way Conrad made Elizabeth abstain at table from any food she did not know for certain to have been obtained by just means.  Her husband, his family, and aristocratic friends had many lands from which they were fed.  Yet the ownership of some of these lands was almost inevitably disputed. What is more, the stewards managing these estates could well be oppressors and exploiters of the peasantry, since that was an inveterate vice of their profession.  It is possible Conrad meant to use his spiritual charge to awaken the consciences of the princes of the region, but the actual effect was simply to impose a great cross on the normally personable Elizabeth, and change their behavior very little, if at all.  The repast in medieval noble households was typically a large semi-public affair in which shared food reinforced its family and household bonds of solidarity, as well as friendship with visitors.  From this meal Elizabeth had very often to abstain, eating only a few things of which she was sure, and pretending to eat the rest, or eating other food, when she had some from a suitable source.  Often she had to go hungry.  Of course, this apparent eccentricity, so contrary to the values and expectations of medieval noble families, drew much derision and snide comments.  Yet, through it all, Elizabeth remained resolutely obedient to her confessor’s command.  The tolerance and quiet support of her husband was a great blessing in the difficult matter, one of her few human consolations.  Above all, her faith sustained her.

Then, in the fall of 1227, soon after giving birth to her third child, the 20-year old princess heard the shattering news: her husband had died of infectious disease in Italy on his way to the Crusade. It is said she exclaimed in wild grief: “Now all worldly joy and honor are gone for me!”  She had vowed to remain single on the death of her husband, and would keep her vow despite pressure from her family.  At one point a maternal uncle, Eckbert, Bishop of Bamberg, had her held under a kind of house arrest to induce her to apply for a dispensation and to marry again for political purposes, but to no avail.  Elizabeth’s immediate problem on the death of her husband, however, was that she was no longer the landgravine of Thuringia, and no longer had access to the same material resources to continue her charitable activities.   To make matters worse, her brother-in-law, the regent for her son, was a man of more conventional expectations than her late husband.  He refused to allow her to continue to make special arrangements for eating according to her conscience, which anyway depended on supply from certain estates that no longer belonged to her.  What happened next is not entirely clear, but it seems that Elizabeth decided she was morally compelled to give up her place in the Wartburg castle where she had spent many happy days with her husband, and to live the life of a poor woman, seeking shelter from whomever would give it, or when she could not, living like one of the homeless poor.  Soon her children had to return to the Wartburg, and she was left alone with just a couple of loyal maids-in-waiting.  After much trouble, and despite his reluctance, she was able to reach Master Conrad in his own city of Marburg and to convince him that she was called to serve the poor and to live like one of them.

Having vowed chastity and obedience to Master Conrad, she began to serve the indigent and sick with her own hands, building a hospital out of her own resources (when her brother-in-law finally had them sent to her), while she lived in a hut of the poorest kind.  She became affiliated with the Franciscans and wore the simple grey clothing of the Franciscan third order, although she remained under the spiritual direction of Conrad.  He arranged things so that her remaining friends from her earlier life were sent away; her companions would now be exclusively of low birth or specially chosen by him to be difficult for her in other ways. Elizabeth bore it all with her characteristic good humor.  In her work nursing the afflicted, she had a special love for caring for the most repulsive of the sick, especially children with disfiguring diseases, as well as providing for impoverished pregnant women.  In the autumn of 1231, although apparently in good health, and only twenty-four years of age, she predicted her death to Master Conrad, and within a few weeks, she was dead of an infectious disease, perhaps contracted from one of her beloved poor. In less than four years, she would be canonized by Pope Gregory IX.

Saint Elizabeth has many lessons to teach us today: to value of the life of the weak, terminally ill, and suffering, and those like handicapped children, whom society regards as of no account (and now often sentences to death in the womb); to be ready for misunderstanding, derision, rejection, expulsion, and trials for the sake of the Gospel and God’s calling; to be open to the providence of God and accept all things, whether riches or poverty, joyfully from his hand; to be duly obedient to spiritual authority even when those to hold it lack prudence; and not to be corrupted by prosperity and wealth, but to use it for God’s purposes alone.  But let us remember also the value of family traditions of piety, as shown by the House of Árpád, and how much they are to be treasured and retained, for they can give our children a priceless head start in the race for the kingdom of heaven.

Paul Radzilowski

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Paul Radzilowski teaches history at Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan.

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