Saint Idda of Toggenburg in the Fischingen Abbey church.
Saint Idda of Toggenburg in the Fischingen Abbey church. Dominik Landwehr

Birth of a legend

Since the 15th century, Saint Idda of Toggenburg has been venerated at Fischingen Abbey. Her legend was invented to make the monastery more attractive.

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr is a cultural and media scientist and lives in Winterthur.

Fischingen Abbey is located in Hinterthurgau. Because of its many forests, the region is also known as Tannzapfenland (land of pine cones). The Abbey’s patron saint is Saint Idda of Toggenburg. A large side altar is dedicated to her, an altar associated with a very strange devotional custom. Below the sarcophagus of Saint Idda, which is empty as a result of the Abbey fire of 1440, there is a little door that can be opened. Pilgrims insert their sore feet and rest them inside the door, to soothe their pain.
Cooling relief for pilgrims’ feet…
Cooling relief for pilgrims’ feet… Patrick Huser
Father Gregor, the prior of the small Benedictine community, recounts the legend of Saint Idda: It begins in 1179 with the marriage of the Count of Toggenburg and a woman named Idda, daughter of a Count of Kirchberg near Ulm. One day this Idda laid her ring on a window sill, where a raven stole it and carried it off to its nest. A young huntsman found the ring and took it. The Count got wind of this; he recognised the ring he had given his wife, and thought Idda had betrayed him with the huntsman. In his rage, he tied the huntsman to a horse and had him dragged to death. He threw his wife off a cliff into a ravine. Miraculously, she survived, and from then on remained in the forest as an anchoress, a woman who chooses to withdraw from the world to live a solitary life of prayer and mortification. One day another huntsman discovered her there, and reported her whereabouts to the Count. The Count visited her in her cave and acknowledged his guilt. But Idda refused to go back to the castle with him. She asked the Count to build her a hermit’s cell. Every day, a stag with 12 candles on its antlers led her to mass in the monastery and then back to her cell. At that time Fischingen was a double monastery, with separate communities of monks and nuns. The nuns there asked Idda to join them. She agreed to do so, but insisted on a cell that no one could enter from outside. In this cell, the devil tested her; he knocked over her food and snuffed out the fire. Putting her mouth to the speaking window of her cell, Idda called out in fear and distress, her cries directed towards the graveyard. A grave opened, and a figure emerged; he introduced himself as ‘Toggenburger’. He was carrying a candle, which he handed to Idda.
The fall from the castle, depicted in a painting that can be seen today in the Toggenburg Museum in Lichtensteig.
The fall from the castle, depicted in a painting that can be seen today in the Toggenburg Museum in Lichtensteig. Wikimedia
So much for the legend. But how did it come about?  Father Gregor explains: ‘Fischingen Abbey is situated on the Way of St James, also known as the Camino de Santiago, right in the middle between Constance and Einsiedeln.’ In the late 15th century, the then abbot Heinrich Schüchti (1466-1510) was keen to increase the renown of the remote monastery. He asked the deacon of Einsiedeln, Albrecht von Bonstetten (1442-1502), to come up with a legend. Von Bonstetten, a Renaissance humanist, had garnered a reputation as an author of historical scripts, and between 1481 and 1485 he delivered the requested legend in several versions in German and Latin. These texts have been preserved.
Albrecht von Bonstetten kneeling before a Madonna figure. Woodcut dating from 1493.
Albrecht von Bonstetten kneeling before a Madonna figure. Woodcut dating from 1493. Wikimedia
So the story of Saint Idda is not a historical account. Albrecht von Bonstetten fabricated it, embellishing a kernel of truth with familiar motifs. Today, it is believed that in the 12th century a former countess entered the convent after the death of her second husband. But that’s it as far as the facts go. The story of the stag with the 12 candles is probably inspired by the legend of Hubertus, the legend of Ida von Herzfeld and Genevieve of Brabant, explains Father Gregor. None of this can be verified today: the monastery burned down to the ground in 1440, and there are no historical sources prior to that date.
Even so, the Idda story is of historical interest. It shows that such legends were used quite deliberately to achieve an entirely secular purpose – in this case, to attract pilgrims, who were an important source of revenue and prestige for the Abbey. Since no one expected the legend to be verified historically, it was able to be fabricated. The story associated with the pilgrimage site of Ziteil near Savognin in the Canton of Graubünden is a very similar case. This story involves a manifestation by the Virgin Mary in 1580. The Virgin is said to have appeared to a girl tending animals and sent her to the valley with a message: ‘Go and tell the people in Oberhalbstein they have now sinned so much that no more can be endured. If they do not reform, God will punish them severely.’ The girl didn’t dare tell anyone about what had happened and so Mary later also appeared to a boy, who did finally pass on the message. It’s no coincidence that this story is alleged to have happened in 1580. That was the era of the Counter-Reformation, and the Catholic Church was using all means at its disposal to defend itself and strengthen its importance among the populace.
The Mother of God appears to the shepherd, 1580.
The Mother of God appears to the shepherd, 1580. Wikimedia
In general, the Reform leaders had little time for the legends and the whole business of venerating saints. They not only banned depictions of saints from churches, but also repudiated their stories. Martin Luther called the legends ‘lies’. For Zwingli, too, the rejection of the saints’ legends was pivotal. People who believe in God don’t need intermediaries in the form of saints! What is the significance of the Idda story today? It’s not an issue of historical truth: ‘The legend of Saint Idda is the story of a woman who was treated badly. She finds her own way through the darkness and claws her way back to a life of her own.’ A feminist saint? ‘If you want to see it that way’, says Father Gregor. By the way, the custom with the feet in the sarcophagus probably developed over time, as the sarcophagus was empty. ‘I suspect some pilgrim with sore feet or blisters noticed how pleasant and cooling the sandstone is. Others followed suit, and there you have it – a tradition was born. The well-worn stone simply shows that the practice has existed for a very long time’, says Father Gregor. So here too, secular considerations ultimately played a starring role…

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