“Humanism and the Role of Women in the Fifteenth Century in Relation to Die
Denkwürdigkeiten der Helene Kottannerin (1439-1440)”
Professor Robert McFarland, Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages
When I first started at BYU I was approached by Prof. Robert McFarland
about studying the relatively unknown text, Die Denkwürdigkeiten der Helene
Kottannerin (The Memoirs of Helene Kottanner) to fulfill requirements for his
class covering Cultural History of Germany. Eventually this assignment grew
under his supervision to an ORCA project, a conference paper, and an honors
Thesis. Originally I began researching the feminist aspect of the text and how it
was far more progressive than any other text written by a woman for its time.
The scope of my study of this text has grown immensely to show how it is a
forerunner to the development of humanistic philosophy in the northern
Before I explain what conclusions I have reached from my research I think
it is important to give some background on the text. After the death of Albert II in
1439, the first Habsburg King of Hungary, the kingdom was left unsure about its
future. Albert’s wife, Queen Elizabeth, was pregnant with his only heir. To
ensure the succession of the Hapsburg dynasty in Hungary, Elizabeth sent her
trusted lady in waiting, Helene Kottannerin, on a secret mission to break into the
stronghold of Plintenburg and steal the Hungarian crown from a heavily guarded
vault. Helene accomplished this on the night of February 20, 1440. Three months
later the little baby boy was crowned King of Hungary with the Holy Crown of St.
Stephen while being held in the arms of Kottannerin herself.
This event is well documented in Die Denkwürdigkeiten der Helene
Kottannerin (The Memoirs of Helene Kottanner). This text gives a fascinating
autobiographical account through the eyes of the lady in waiting herself. It may
be the oldest memoir written by a woman in the German language. These
memoirs are significant as they show two astute medieval women who shaped
and manipulated political events and the very symbol of the Hungarian
monarchy. While several scholars have endeavored to place Kottannerin’s text
into a historical context, few have addressed the place of Kottannerin’s work in
the context of the genre of the autobiography or literature. The Memoirs of
Helene Kottanner predates the main development of humanism in the sixteenth
century. Since autobiographies are humanistic by nature, what textual tradition
might have influenced Kottannerin to write her own life’s story?
This led me to apply for my ORCA research grant, which allowed me to
begin my research about the text. Beginning research at BYU unfortunately had
almost nothing referring to Helene Kottannerin, but it did have information about
writings of the time and some of Kottannerin’s contemporaries. There was very
little written before time in any German speaking land and there were several
texts after her which began to focus of some of the same themes that she did.
Works such as Jahannes von Tepl’s, Der Ackermann1 written in 1473, about a
This book is a compilation of Chapters that continue in an argument between the Farmer “Der
Ackermann” and Death for 33 chapters and unfortunately ends with death taking his wife.
farmer who argues with death to try and save his wife from being taken in her
illness was a contemporary author who focused on importance of the individual in
relationship to the world and that man kind was the focus of supernatural world.
Such other works helped me understand what styles and themes to look for in
Kottannerin’s works in trying to understand what she writes and how she writes it.
Next I travelled to Germany to research in the national library system more
about Kottannerin’s actually text and some of her background. This was greatly
subsidized by the money that I received for my ORCA grant. In connection with
the first BYU study abroad to Berlin, Prof. McFarland and I researched in Der
Deutschen Nationalbibliothek (The German National Library), the largest
collection of Germanic texts. Here we found a rare complete copy of the Die
Denkwürdigkeiten der Helene Kottannerin2 and some scant information about
Kottannerin and who she was. The most I could find about her was that she
remained a lady in waiting to Queen Elizabeth until the death of the Queen, at
which point wrote the text to the young King Ladislaus, the son of Queen
Elisabeth, in what most scholars believe was an attempt to get money from him
in 1450. Another great find in Berlin was that I was introduced to some of the
Northern Renaissance philosophers that give tools in their philosophies to
explain the style and thematics of Kottannerin’s text.
After returning from Germany I wrote my first major work about Die
Denkwürdigkeiten der Helene Kottannerin. The paper was a thirteen page
conference paper that I presented in January 2007. The paper had progressed
from the feminist approach of the text to focusing more on the literary philosophy
of the text. I analyzed how the humanistic theme of man striving to determine his
own fate while having faith that God would bestow grace upon such
determination is displayed in the text by Helene Kottanner and Queen Elizabeth,
helping to qualifying it as humanistic text. I focused on the determination of the
two women to show the progression of literature from the medieval focus of
emphasizing deterministic plan of God in the lives of man, to showing the
humanistic notion of how God assists man in man’s plans and in man’s
Now in preparation for my graduation I have decided to write my entire
Honors Thesis about Kottannerin’s text and emphasize how Kottannerin uses
humanistic style and themes in her text that are explained by humanistic
philosophers. Particularly using the works of Erasmus and Mirandola explain the
emerging humanistic philosophies that are so prevalent in the text. I have also
tied in such aspects as the use of Middle High German, a form of the language
that was used by commoners and not the academic Latin of the time, which
displays a commonality of the text that makes it more personal.
The generous gift of the ORCA grant was a key aspect in allowing me to
gain advanced academic research experience while being guided by a mentoring
professor. This has also provided me with the opportunity to write about a
subject for an honors thesis that I have been able to be on the cutting edge of an
unknown text that I will help bring to light and bring into the intertextual network
of humanistic literary studies.
Mollay, Karl. Die Denkwüdigeiten der Helene Kottannerin (1439-1440). Wiener Neudrucke. Wien. 1971.