January 26


Very great interest attaches to the life of St Margaret of Hungary, because by rare good fortune we possess in her case a complete copy of the depositions of the witnesses who gave evidence in the process of beatification begun less than seven years after her death. No doubt the fact that she was the daughter of Bela IV, King of Hungary, a champion of Christendom at a time when central Europe was menaced with utter destruction by the inroads of the Tatars, has emphasized the details of her extraordinary life of self-crucifixion. The Dominican Order, too, which was much befriended by Bela and his consort Queen Mary Lascaris, was necessarily interested in the cause of one of its earliest and most eminent daughters. But no one can read the astounding record of Margaret's asceticism and charity as recounted by some fifty witnesses who were her everyday companions without realizing that even if she had been the child of a beggar, such courage as hers --one is almost tempted to call it the fanaticism of her warfare against the world and the flesh -- could not but have a spiritualizing influence upon all who came in contact with her. Bela IV has been styled "the last man of genius whom the Arpads produced", but there were qualities in his daughter which, if determination counts for anything in human affairs, showed that the stock was not yet effete.

Margaret had been born at an hour when the fortunes of Hungary were at a low ebb, and we are told that her parents had promised to dedicate the babe entirely to God if victory should wait upon their arms. The boon was in substance granted, and the child at age of three was committed to the charge of the community of Dominican nuns at Veszprem. Somewhat later, Bela and his queen built a convent for their daughter on an island in the Danube near Buda, and there, when she was twelve years old, she made her profession in the hands of Bd Humbert of Romans. Horrifying as are the details of the young sister's thirst for penance and of her determination to conquer all natural repugnances, they are supported by such a mass of concurrent testimony that it is impossible to question the truth of what we read. That she was exceptionally favoured in the matter of good looks seems to be proved by the determination of Ottokar, King of Bohemia, to seek her hand even after he had seen her in her religious dress. No doubt a dispensation could easily have been obtained for such a marriage, and Bela for political reasons was inclined to favour it. But Margaret declared that she would cut off her nose and lips rather than consent to leave the cloister, and no one who reads the account which her sisters gave of her resolution in other matters can doubt that she would have been as good as her word.

Although the majority of the inmates of this Danubian convent were the daughters of noble families, Princess Margaret seems to have been conscious of a tendency to treat her with special consideration. Her protest took the form of an almost extravagant choice of all that was menial, repulsive, exhausting and insanitary. Her charity and tenderness in rendering the most nauseating services to the sick were marvelous, but many of the details are such as cannot be set out before the fastidious modern reader. She had an intense sympathy for the squalid lives of the poor, but she carried it so far that, like another St Benedict Joseph Labre, she chose to imitate them in her personal habits, and her fellow nuns confessed that there were times when they shrank from coming into too intimate contact with the noble princess, their sister in religion. One gets the impression that Margaret's love of God and desire of self-immolation were associated with a certain element of wilfulness. She would have been better, or at least she would assuredly have lived longer, if she had had a strong-minded superior or confessor to take her resolutely in hand; but it was perhaps inevitable that the daughter of the royal founders to whom the convent owed everything should almost always have been able to get her own way.

On the other hand, there are many delightful human touches in the account her sisters gave of her. The sacristan tells how Margaret would stroke her hand and coax her to leave the door of the choir open after Compline, that she might spend the night before the Blessed Sacrament when she ought to have been sleeping. She was confident in the power of prayer to effect what she desired, and she carried this almost to the point of a certain imperiousness in the requests she made to the Almighty. Several of the nuns recall an incident which happened at Veszprem when she was only ten years old. Two Dominican friars came there on a short visit, and Margaret begged them to prolong their stay. They replied that it was necessary that they should return at once; to which she responded, "I shall ask God that it may rain so hard that you cannot get away". Although they protested that no amount of rain would detain them, she went to the chapel, and such a downpour occurred that they were unable, after all, to leave Veszprem as they had intended. This recalls the well-known story of St Scholastica and St Benedict, and there is in any case no need to invoke a supernatural intervention; but there are so many such incidents vouched for by the sisters in their evidence on oath that it is difficult to stretch coincidence so far as to explain them all. Though we hear of ecstasies and of a great number of miracles, there is a certain moderation in the depositions which inspires confidence in the good faith of the witnesses. An incident which is mentioned by nearly all is the saving, at St Margaret's prayer, of a maid-servant who had fallen down a well. Amongst the other depositions we have that of the maid, Agnes, herself. Asked in general what she knew of Margaret, she was content to say that "she was good and holy and edifying in her conduct, and showed greater humility than we serving-maids". As to the accident we learn from her that the evening was so dark that "if anyone had slapped her face she could not have seen who did it", and that the orifice of the well was quite open and without a rail, and that after falling she sank to the bottom three times, but at last managed to clutch the wall of the well until they lowered a rope and pulled her out.

There can be little room for doubt that Margaret shortened her life by her austerities. At the end of every Lent she was in a pitiable state from fasting, deprivation of sleep and neglect of her person. [1] She put the crown on her indiscretions on Maundy Thursday by washing the feet (this probably she claimed as a sort of privilege which belonged to her as the daughter of the royal founders) not only of all the choir nuns, seventy in number, but of all the servants as well. She wiped their feet, the nuns tell us, with the veil which she wore on her head. In spite of this fatigue and of the fact that at this season she took neither food nor sleep, she complained to some of the sisters in her confidence that "Good Friday was the shortest day of the year". She had no time for all the prayers she wanted to say and for all the acts of penance she wanted to perform. St Margaret seems to have died on January 18, 1270, at the age of twenty-eight; the process of beatification referred to above was never finished, but the cultus was approved in 1789 and she was canonized in 1943.

See the Acta Sanctorum for January 28; but more especially G. Fraknoi, Monumenta Romana Episcopatus Vesprimiensis, vol. i, pp. 163-383, where the depositions of the witnesses are printed in full. Cf. also M. C. de Ganay, Les Bienheureuses Dominicaines, pp. 69-89; and Margaret, Princess of Hungary (1945), by "S. M. C."

[1] This neglect of cleanliness was traditionally part of the penitential discipline, and was symbolized by the ashes received on Ash Wednesday. The old English name for Maundy Thursday was "Sheer Thursday", when the penitents obtained absolution, trimmed their hair and beards, and washed in preparation for Easter. It was also sometimes called capitilavium (head-washing).

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(Butler's Lives of the Saints, Christian Classics, 1995) wmaster@hcbc.hu