Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, July 25, 2022

Herrad of Landsberg, Abbess, Author, and Artist

Herrad of Landsberg, abbess of Hohenburg Abbey (died 25 July 1195)

The exact date of Herrad of Landsberg's birth is unknown, but most sources agree that she was probably born about the year 1130, making her about thirty years younger than Hildegard of Bingen, to whom she is sometimes compared. 

Although Herrad's place of birth was widely thought to be the castle of Landsberg, located in Alsace, France, more recent scholarship has called into question Herrad's association with the noble family associated with this castle. Today scholars prefer to identify her as Herrad of Hohenburg, though it is often hard to avoid the older name. (And I've used it here.)

A "self portrait,"
Herrad of Hohenburg,
detail from 
Hortus deliciarum
Little is known about Herrad's early life. There is no surviving evidence about her parents, where she might have been born, or when she may have entered the the Augustinian convent of Hohenburg, where she would spend her life and where she became abbess. 

While her former identification with the noble family of Landsberg castle is almost certainly incorrect, Herrad is likely to have had some aristocratic connection in order to have become abbess of such an institution.

The abbey of Hohenburg had been restored by the Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who placed it under the direction of the abbess Rilinda of Bergen. While Herrad would succeed her as abbess, probably about 1176, the exact date isn't known. And, as Joan Gibson notes, "Although Herrad acknowledges that she was instructed by Rilinda's 'admonitions and examples', it is not certain that Herrad was in fact a pupil of Rilinda, nor even necessarily educated at the abbey of Hohenburg."

Not is it clear when Herrad began compiling the encyclopedic work for which she is today remembered, the Hortus deliciarum or Garden of  Delights. The title, with its reference to a garden, clearly recalls Paradise, but it also refers to the nature of the work itself, as a florilegium, a collection of extracts. And here is the playful simile Herrad's uses in her preface, addressed to the nuns in her convent: 
I myself, the little bee, composed this book titled Garden of Delights, and drew from the sap of the diverse flowers of Holy Scripture and from philosophical works, inspired by God, and I constructed it by my love for you, in a manner a honeycomb full of honey for the honor and the glory of Jesus Christ and the Church.
A collection of 1,160 "textual extracts," Herrad's encyclopedia includes poetry, prose, and dialogue as well as song texts accompanied by musical notation, and some 340 illustrations in its 324 folios (648 pages). The sources from which Herrad draws for her encyclopedia include some classical authors (though not poets--her illustrations include Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Muses, and Odysseus), the philosopher Boethius, the writings of the Church Fathers, including St. Augustine, and more contemporary philosophers, among them, notably, Hildegard of Bingen.

The final illustration from
Hortus deliciarum,
Herrad address her sisters,
caption identifying her as
"Herrat hohenburgensis abbatissa"

As Thomas Head writes in his entry on Herrad in the Encyclopedia of Continental Women Writers, the collection "provided information on a wide range of biblical, theological, spiritual, and historical topics," though its specific purpose--and its intended audience--aren't altogether certain.

Again, it has been widely said that Herrad intended her encyclopedia for the education of the notices at the abbey, though more recent scholarship has questioned that assumption. The collection was certainly addressed to members of the community, as her preface indicates, but its specific audience and purpose have been debated. As Gibson notes, the encyclopedia contains material on marriage, so lay women may also have been "considered" as part of the audience for whom the the "garden" was intended. "Although there is a general agreement that the Hortus deliciarum is a remarkable and very important work of the late twelfth century," she writes, "it is nevertheless extremely difficult to classify."

However difficult it may be to classify, the encyclopedia itself was the product of Herrad's wide-ranging knowledge. Abbess Rilinda may have had some part in its origins, but Herrad is its singular inspiration, and she worked closely on all aspects of its production. 

As if to compound the many difficulties and uncertainties associated with the manuscript, the Hortus deliciarum no longer exists. Well, the original manuscript no longer exists. After the abbey of Hohenburg burned in 1546, the contents of its library went to the bishop of Strasbourg. The manuscript eventually wound up in the municipal library in the Central Registry of Strasbourg in 1803. It was destroyed in 1870, during Prussian bombardment of Strasbourg during the Franco-Prussian War.

What remains of Herrad's "garden of delights" are copies of the miniatures made in 1818 by Christian Moritz Engelhardt (head of the Strasbourg police!) and various (incomplete) copies of its texts, sketches, and tracings made before the book's destruction. (Evidently one man who copied parts of the manuscript took it to Paris and kept it for ten years!) Two scholars, A. Straub and G. Keller, produced a reconstruction of the Hortus deliciarium, beginning work in 1879 and publishing in 1899 (after Straub's death in 1891). It is from this late nineteenth-century "edition" that the illustration I have used here--Herrad addressing the nuns of her convent--is taken.

Herrad of Hohenburg died on 25 July 1195. 

For a discussion of the manuscript, you might start with the website of the Bibliothèque Alsatique du Crédit Mutuel (click here). It's particularly good on the history of the manuscript from the time it entered the municipal library in Strasbourg until its destruction. It also offers a gallery of illustrations that have been given some color.

A colorized version of
the final manuscript illustration,
Bibliothèque Alsatique

To view 12 black-and-white drawings made by Engelhardt in 1818, turned into copperplates, and now digitized, click here. You can see Engelhardt's drawing of the final manuscript illustration, Herrad and the convent's nuns, which was later reproduced by Straub and Keller in their reconstructed edition.

I've already linked you, above, to this nineteenth-century "facsimile." In 1979, the Warburg Institute produced a "partial facsimile" of the Hortus deliciarum with commentary by Rosalie Green, Michael Evans, Christine Bischoff, and Michael Curschmann. It is now considered the best available edition, but only 750 copies were produced. (As of this writing, two copies are available on Amazon--one for the low, low price of $2,160, the other $4,458.03--three cents???!!!)

I find Joan Gibson's "Herrad of Landsberg," to which I've already linked you, to be the best overall analysis. Her essay is in A History of Women Philosophers . . . , vol. 2, edited by Mary Ellen Waithe. (Which is also ridiculously expensive, so I've linked here to what's available via Google Books.)