Skirts and Politics: The Cistercian Monastery of Harvestehude and the Hamburg City Council
Medieval Feminist Forum: vol. 47 no. 2, 2011: 57–92
In 1482, Catharina Arndes lifted up her skirts in front of the archbishop’s chaplain. She was a respectable townswoman from Hamburg, and her action was carried out in defense of the Cistercian monastery of Harvestehude which was close to the city and where several of Catharina’s nieces lived as nuns. The chaplain, sent by Archbishop Henry of Schwarzburg, had arrived with a delegation consisting of canons from Bremen and Hamburg in order to reform the monastery, but the delegation was unable to defend itself against this particular form of resistance: faced with Catharina’s lifted skirts, the delegation was forced to withdraw. The monastery remained unreformed.
This skirt-lifting incident, perceived as an act of obscenity directed towards a man of the Church, occurred at the peak of a complex conflict in late medieval Hamburg. The nuns of the Cistercian monastery of Harvestehude were on one side of this conflict and were supported by the outraged group to which Catharina Arndes belonged. They stood in opposition to the City Council of Hamburg — which in itself was split at that time — on the one hand and representatives of ecclesiastical institutions on the other hand, namely, the delegates of the archbishop of Bremen and the cathedral chapter in Hamburg. The most comprehensive source for the conflict of 1482 is a chronicle written by Mayor Herman Langebek (also: Langenbeck), representing an early example of vernacular historiography from pre-Reformation Hamburg. A later text, Albert Krantz’s Wandalia, printed in Cologne in 1519, also by a Hanseatic politician, touches only briefly on the subject and clearly uses Langebek’s history as a model and source of information. Albert Krantz omits the skirt-lifting incident, but highlights the “violence” used by women in defense of the monastery.