Online Dictionary of Dutch Women

 
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JACOBSdr, Berta, known chiefly as Zuster (Sister) Bertken (born Utrecht 1426/27 – died 25 June 1514), anchoress, author of religious works and song booklets. Daughter of Jacob van Lichtenberg (died 2 September 1449), provost of the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Utrecht. She never married.

Berta Jacobs, born some time between 26 June 1426 and 25 June 1427, was an illegitimate child born to the famous Lichtenberg family of Utrecht. Her father was a canon of the Cathedral Chapter and provost of the Chapter of St Peter, and as such, second in importance only to the bishop. In the Late Middle Ages it was not unusual for a canon to have children, and it is quite likely that Bertken was brought up simply by her father and mother. Bertken’s father is known to have had at least one other child, a son called Alfer. Nothing is known about Bertken’s life before she became an anchoress, but her writings suggest that she received a sound education.

Life as a hermit

When Bertken was about 30, she decided to have herself enclosed in an anchoress’s cell. It is not known whether she first spent several years in a convent, which was the customary preparation for life as an anchoress. Bertken sold her annuity and from the proceeds had a cell built adjoining the chancel of the Buurkerk, the oldest parish church in Utrecht. She was shut into this cell some time between 26 June 1456 and 25 June 1457, and lived there in relative seclusion in the town centre for 57 years, until she died at the age of 87. On 4 September 1990, a memorial tablet was laid in the pavement of the Utrecht Choorstraat on the spot where her cell is thought to have stood.

Anchoresses were not unusual in late medieval cities. Women in particular chose enclosure as a way of devoting themselves wholly to God. An anchoress was considered dead to the world, so a requiem mass was sung when she withdrew to her cell. Such cells contained at least two windows: one on the side of the church’s chancel, so that the anchoress could attend mass, and another on the street side, so that she could be provided with food and other necessities. The window near the street was also used to speak to people; at certain times of the day, the inhabitants of the town could speak to the anchoress or ask her for advice. It was believed that such recluses received special wisdom from God. Some anchoresses had maidservants who could enter the hermitage through a small door to take care of their needs.

Most of the information on Bertken’s life is given in the official document drawn up at her death. The original is lost, having been placed in a bottle in Bertken’s coffin. A Middle Dutch transcript of it is recorded in the copy of the Legenda aurea that belonged to the Monastery-Regular of Utrecht on Oude Gracht. The inhabitants of this monastery added Bertken’s story to their collection of saints’ lives. There was a special bond between Bertken and this monastery: its prior always kept the key to Bertken’s cell. According to her obituary, Bertken practised a form of asceticism that was stricter than expected of an anchoress, based on the existing monastic rule. The document relates that she never ate meat or milk products and that she wore a rough garment of hair-cloth against her bare skin. She was always bare-footed and there was never a fire burning in her cell. This may be a case of hagiographic exaggeration, but it is clear that Bertken’s way of life made a deep impression on those who knew her. When she died, the cathedral bell was tolled twice, as was done for members of the higher clergy. Bertken was buried in her cell.

Literary work

Sister Bertken is one of the few women of the Late Middle Ages to win a place in literary history: some of her writings in the vernacular have become part of the literary canon, including eight songs, a Christmas vision, and a Passion book in which she expresses her personal devotion. After her death, her work was published by three printers. Between 1516 and 1520 they printed her Passion book and a volume of her other works at least five times, which shows how popular Bertken’s writings must have been. The Passion book, in particular, found a ready market. The anchoress used the Passion exercise herself during her daily meditation; according to the closing words of the text, she would usually ‘use it to dedicate herself to the Passion of Our dear Lord’. The exercise runs parallel to the seven canonical hours of Divine Office, the set times for daily prayer in monasteries and convents. This structure made it possible to contemplate the events of Christ’s Passion at the times of day at which they had taken place according to the Gospels. The text consists of meditative prayers telling the story of Christ’s Passion, alternating with prayers reflecting on the shortcomings of humankind, as well as on the expectation of a glorious union with Christ, the Bridegroom.

Bertken’s other texts were compiled and printed in a second book, which begins with a number of short prayers, followed by the Christmas tract, in which Bertken tells the story of Jesus’ birth largely from Mary’s point of view. In the second, shorter part, Bertken relates these events from the perspective of Joseph, who was not present at the birth. She appears to have empathised greatly with the events surrounding Jesus’ birth: Mary’s experience is described as a mystic rapture. After being consumed by a passionate desire for God, Mary first experienced ecstasy, followed by complete mystical union. At the peak of this experience, the child of God was born ‘in a flash’, without causing its mother any pain. Mary then returned, again in three phases, to earthly reality, where she was awakened by a cry from her child and pressed Him to her breast. The taut structure and mystical idiom make this tract the high point of Bertken’s oeuvre.

The Innighe sprake (Intimate talk), a dialogue between Christ and the loving soul, draws its inspiration from the biblical Song of Songs. The soul longs to be one with the Bridegroom. After she has found Him, and given herself up to Him utterly, thus allowing the union to take place, the text takes an unusual turn: He draws her attention to His sufferings on the Cross. From then on she must follow his example in love and suffering, until she dies, when she will be glorified with Him in His kingdom. Bertken’s emphasis on suffering, in both this text and the Passion book, brings her spirituality close to that of the Devotio Moderna, a reform movement that stemmed from the preaching of Geert Grote at the end of the fourteenth century and experienced its heyday in the fifteenth century.

The book concludes with eight songs. It is chiefly these that have earned Bertken her place in the literary canon. One of the best-known songs, Die werelt hielt mi in haer gewout (The world held me in its power), tells of Bertken’s struggle with the world. The various interpretations of this song clearly show how misleading it can be to link a literary oeuvre to its author. It was long thought that Bertken’s illegitimate birth had prompted her to withdraw from the world. This theory has proved untenable. Nor does the bloody battle for political power in which Bertken’s father was involved – caused by the struggle between two simultaneously appointed bishops of Utrecht – explain the meaning of the song. The dichotomy between the temptation of earthly pleasures, which are illusive and transitory, and heavenly bliss, which is everlasting, is a central theme in the circles of the Devotio Moderna. Bertken should be seen as part of this movement and her song understood chiefly in this context.

Reference work(s)

Basse; NNBW.

Writings

  • A.M.J. van Buuren, Suster Bertken. Twee bij Jan Seversz in Leiden verschenen boekjes (’s-Gravenhage, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, 227 G 46) in facsimile uitgegeven (Utrecht 1989).
  • Zuster Bertken, Een boecxken gemaket ende bescreven van suster Bertken die lvij iaren besloten heeft gheseten tot Utrecht in die buerkercke, C.C. van de Graft ed. after the first edition by Jan Berntsz. Utrecht 1516 (Zwolle 1955).
  • Zuster Bertken, Een boecxken gemaket van suster Bertken die LVII iaren besloten heeft gheseten tot Utrecht in dye buerkercke, J. Snellen ed. naar den Leidschen druk van Jan Seversen (Utrecht 1924).

Bibliography

  • ‘Het leven van Zuster Bertken’, written on the title page of a printed copy of Legenda Aurea (Straatsburg 1496) [UB Utrecht, rariora H fol. 252].
  • W. Moll, ‘Zuster Bertke, de kluizenaarster (25 Junij haar sterfdag)’, Kalender voor de Protestanten in Nederland 8 (1863) 84-111.
  • A. Ampe, ‘De geschriften van Suster Bertken’, Ons Geestelijk Erf 30 (1956) 281-320.
  • M.J.G. de Jong, ‘De compositie van Zuster Bertkens kerstverhaal’, Tijdschrift voor Nederlandse Taal- en Letterkunde 74 (1956) 117-139.
  • W.H. Vroom, ‘Suster Bertkens doopceel’, De Nieuwe Taalgids 51 (1958) 168-171.
  • A. Ampe, ‘Nog eens de geschriften van Zuster Bertken’, Handelingen Koninklijke Zuidnederlandse Maatschappij voor Taal- en Letterkunde en Geschiedenis 14 (1960) 9-46.
  • J. van Aelst, ‘Geordineert na dye getijden. Suster Bertkens passieboekje’, Ons Geestelijk Erf 69 (1995) 133-156.
  • Michel van Maarseveen, ‘Middeleeuwse “reclusen”. Kluizenaressen en hun besloten bestaan’, Spiegel Historiael 30 (1995) 307-312.
  • J. van Aelst, ‘Suffering with the bridegroom. The Innighe sprake of the Utrecht recluse Sister Bertken’, Ons Geestelijk Erf 71 (1997) 228-249.
  • D.E. van der Poel, ‘Vrouwelijke auteurs in de Middelnederlandse letterkunde. Een verkenning’, Nederlandse Letterkunde 3 (1997) 208-227.
  • J. van Aelst, ‘Het leven van Suster Bertken. Kanttekeningen bij de recente beeldvorming’, Ons Geestelijk Erf 72 (1998) 262-272.
  • L. Bogaers, ‘Kluizenares midden in de wereld. Suster Bertkens antwoord op haar beladen familiegeschiedenis’, Trajecta 7 (1998) 296-318.
  • Fons van Buuren, ‘Gesprek tussen Jezus en De Minnende Ziel. Suster Bertkens vierde lied’, Madoc 16 (2002) 130-140. [For a review of  some songs of Bertken, p. 140, note 12 and  24].
  • Fons van Buuren, ‘Een phantasie-stuk over Jezus geboorte? Aantekeningen bij een Suverlic Tractaet vander Kersnacht ende der gheboerten ons heeren van Suster Bertken', Ons Geestelijk Erf  77 (2003) 276-299.

Illustration

Sister Bertken, bricked in in her hermitage. Lantern console by Cornelis Groeneveld, pointed into the wall of the Zoutmarkt at the back of Choorstraat 42, between 1954 and 1963 (Gemeentelijke Archiefdienst Utrecht).

Author: José J. van Aelst

last updated: 05/03/2014