Monday, February 6, 2012


Six hundred and sixty five years ago today, on February 6th 1347, a little girl named Dorothea was born in the Prussian town of Montau. Her mother quickly taught her the secrets of her faith which included daily prostration and hours spent standing with her arms outstretched to form the shape of a crucifix with her body. She was also hung on the wall in the same pose using nails embedded in the wall to hold her arms up when the pain of holding them there became too much for the little girl. Treated this way Dorothea became a fertile ground for the love of jesus that would instill in her the ability to perform miracles; in 1976 she was canonized as a saint in the Roman Catholic church.

In the mid 1300s it was a well advertised fact that little girls became sexually aware at the age of seven, and it was at this age that things really picked up for Dorothea. After an unfortunate “accident” that left her scalded by boiling water she finally met Jesus in person. While laid in a cradle with her burns swaddled to protect them the little girl was visited by a handsome well-dressed young man who happened to be jesus.

Dorothea was so struck by the handsome apparition that she systematically tried to recreate the events that brought jesus to her. She would pour boiling water on herself. She would dip her limbs in boiling oil. She would mortify her flesh with hot irons. She would burn herself with candles.

At 16 she was married to an accomplished swordsmith more than twice her age. She would bear him nine children; four would die in infancy. In addition to her physical torments Dorothea would constantly worry that her sanctity was compromised since she was not a virgin.

After the marriage two important things happened: First Dorothea carefully hid her self-inflicted injuries with modest clothing, and second she began having regular visions.

Dorothea experimented with many forms of castigation. She used log pillows, and would throw herself face-first at the ground. She would whip herself with fresh-cut switches till she bled, and she would irritate the slashes by wearing unwashed shirts made of knotted hair. When switches were not available she used leather strips, or rope, or chains, or …just about anything that could cause pain and raise a welt.

When the injuries scabbed she would pry off the scabs with twigs or bits of broken nutshell. She would rub the injuries with stinging nettles to make them swell and bleed fresh. She would soak the oozing cuts in salt water brine to prevent them from closing again.

Awkwardly timed visitations (when IS a good time for spectral visitations anyway?) coupled with prophetic visions can be hard on a new marriage. Dorothea was encouraged to go on multiple pilgrimages, but they did not slake her thirst for the divine. Gunter Grass examined the tribulations of Dorothea’s husband in his novel “The Flounder” (1977). In 1383 four more of her children died from the plague; in 1885 she went on a pilgrimage to Aachen. During the last pilgrimage (to Rome in 1389) of Dorthea’s unhappy marriage her husband, who stayed at home, died.

While married she made sure that the cuts did not extend beyond the collar or hem of her clothing. The injuries became so numerous that they bordered one another over every inch of her unexposed flech. Her breasts demanded special attention from her, and she enlarged the wounds she could reach until she had one continuous sore from the cuff of her sleeve to the center of her chest. Her body resembled “a plowed field”.

One time, while she was tryng to use the extent of her injuries to control her husband’s behavior, she punctured her feet repeatedly. Dorothea was hoping that her feet would fester so badly that she would be excused from dancing. Instead of avoiding the dancing she dressed in heavy stockings to cover the cuts. Her shoes filled with blood while dancing. Later she wore wooden clogs stuffed with marsh rushes to keep the wounds alive and purulent for as long as possible.

With her husband dead she was able to go off to Marienwerder (now called Kwidzyn) and, under the direction of deacon Johannes of Marienwerder, was able to abandon the semblances of sanity so she could get down to really pleasing her god. When Johannes got around to widely publishing the tomes he penned to support her bid for sainthood he had 342 sworn and notarized accounts of miracles and cures performed by Dorothea. He was also able to capture some of the exact wording Jesus used in revealing the holy word to Dorothea:

”Consider how I kept your wounds open; brimful of bitter pain whose scabs sometimes itched as though they were working alive with gnawing worms, at other times they delivered such sharp jabs as if they were shot cramfull by sharp arrows, sometimes they burned as if ignited by fire, at times they swelled until they broke open, at still other times they bled freshly and profusely with excruciating pain as if they were indeed fresh and new. During such times your eyes were filled with such bitterness that even when you were asleep they seemed filled with smoke and soot.” –Christ to Dorothea several weeks after the feast of St Agness 1392

In 1393 Dorothea walled herself into a cell attached to the Marienwerder cathedral. That winter was especially harsh. It probably reminded her of the times when, as a little girl, she would purposfully lie sopping wet on the cold ground till she was frozen to it.

13 months after her inturnment, on June 25th 1394, Dorothea died.


Roshan said...

What a sad story. She was demented and needed special care the kind that was not readily available to her at that age. So she was made a saint because she believer her self-torture was a way to meet god? It's terrible to promote this sad wretched creature as another propaganda for the fundamentalist regime. The vatican & the church should be ashamed of themselves.

adult onset atheist said...

Though we could blame the walling up as an anchoress of this poor woman on 14th century sensibilities she was not made a saint till 1976, so the morality that lauds her self-torture is relatively modern.

Bradley said...

That was difficult to read. Thanks.

I wonder if the reason for beatification and canonization was more an act of mercy than a celebration of her extreme self-mutilation. Condemning her serious problems would have been seen as out of touch and heartless, and ignoring it would have seemed an outrage.

Not that I'm trying to justify six hundred years of sweeping it under the rug (though I suspect that might be at least partially unintentional), or the current of self-annihilation that runs through both sides of the schism. . .

adult onset atheist said...

The formal process of her becoming a saint was started by Johanes after her death in 1394, and then abandoned from 1404 to 1955. I do not have a comprehensive grasp on what happened in this process, but this is largely because so much of it had to do with church politics, so I found it uninteresting. The few writings I have heard bits of concerning the sainthood process that address Dorothea’s personal situation are largely concentrated in the 1400-1404 period just before her bid for sainthood was abandoned. They mention that her degree of self mutilation was too masculine, and fret over her not being a virgin. I thought these concerns too petty to include in the –as you pointed out- already difficult to read entry.

BTW I hope you are not put off by the “This Day in History” format the blog has taken on. It is a temporary format only. I am amassing content for use in a widget I hope to incorporate into a re-formatting of the blog’s design.

Bradley said...

Too masculine? I shouldn't be surprised, since that sounds like something the Catholic Church would say, but that's still a pretty tough thing to say. The virgin thing isn't surprising at all, but the beatification process has always seemed a little trying-too-hard anyway. Maybe that's because I was brought up Catholic.

As for it being difficult, I mean that I am personally a little squeamish and overly empathetic, which means that a description of exceptional self-mutilation is hard for me to read. Your own writing is quite readable.

I don't mind the format at all; I was under the impression that there was a specific project under way. Makes it a little less personal, but that is your wont (might even be a good idea).