The Legend of Fiere Margriet
The Original 13th Century Version
The first written record of the legend is found in the ‘Dialogus miraculorum‘ (1219-1223) – a collection of 746 miracles compiled by German Cistercian monk, Caesarius of Heisterbach (1180–1240). The account was related to Caesarius by the friars at the Cistercian Abbey of Villers-la-Ville in Belgium.
Margaretha was born in the year 1207 to a family who lived in poverty. As a young woman, she was working in an inn owned by a man named ‘Amandus‘ (or ‘Aubert‘). Amandus was said to be her uncle, or related to her in some way. The inn called ‘Sint-Jorisherberg‘ (St George’s Tavern) was located in the Muntstraat. Note that the Muntstraat in the 13th century is not the modern-day Muntstraat but the current streets “s’Meiersstraat” and “Sint-Michielsstraat”.
Amandus and his wife were planning to sell up their business and move into the Abbey of Villers-la-Ville to lead a quiet contemplative life.
On the last night prior to their departure, a group of travellers arrived and started drinking heavily. When all the wine was exhausted, Amandus instructed Margaretha to run out to fetch more, with a pitcher.
Little did he know, that the band of travellers were actually robbers who had probably heard that he had sold his business and must have a lot of money for his retirement in Villers. After Margaretha left, the robbers killed Amandus and his wife in cold blood and started raiding the place to look for the money. When Margaretha came back with her pitcher full of wine, she witnessed the massacre that had just taken place. To prevent her from exposing them, the robbers started to give chase in order to kill her as well.
They finally caught up with her by the banks of the River Dijle, close to the village of Wilsele just north of Leuven. Once they have caught her, they tried to rape her and she was too proud to concede: “she would rather die than lose her virginity“. They finally gave up, stabbed her with a knife and threw her into the river.
A few days later, some fishermen found her body in the water. Apparently she was still holding the ear of her pitcher. In order not to be falsely accused of her murder, they hastily buried her on the river bank where they found her.
Thereafter, a light could be since coming from her grave, and miracles started happening in the vicinity. Her remains were then dug up and transferred to a wooden chapel in the cemetery of the Sint-Pieterskerk in Leuven.
Caesarius of Heisterbach placed her death in the year 1222, while the church officially recognised it as in 1225. Seeing that the ‘Dialogus miraculorum’ was completed in 1223 and the story was in there, I would say the later date is less believable.
As with medieval legends, there are so many questions that a logical person would ask:
- With no other witness to the crime other than Margaretha herself, who knew that the band of travellers were the murderers of Amandus and his wife?
- Again, with no witness, who actually murdered or attempted to rape Margaretha?
- With no other witness around during the attempted rape, who knew she had actually not been raped?
- Why would she still be holding her pitcher (or just the ear) after she had been running for several kilometres and then been subject to attempted rape and murder?
- Did the fishermen who found her confess to the find and her burial in the end, because who knew the spot which was glowing laid a human body and the miracles that were occurring was because of that body?
The 15th and 16th Century Additions
Two centuries later, the legend of Fiere Margriet received the elements which we know today, which contributed to the popularity of the myth and the eventual formal recognition by the Catholic Church.
Augustiniean monnk from Brussels, Johannes (Jan) Gielemans, (+1487) wrote down a new version of the myth: Instead of being found by the fishermen, Fiere Margriet’s body was carried upstream by fish and it was glowing with heavenly light and accompanied by singing angels. It was the first Duke of Brabant, Hendrik I (+1235) and his wife Mary, who found her floating body.
Thus was born the major twist to the story, that Fiere Margriet floated (albeit assisted by marine life) upstream, and it has been the evidence of her sainthood by her followers.
Then in the 16th century, Johannes Molanus aka Jan Van der Meulen (+1585) – university lecturer and deacon of the St.-Pieterskerk – launched an ‘investigation’ into the case of Fiere Margriet. He found her wine jug (was it not broken off and she was holding only the handle?), the gag that the robbers used to stop her from screaming, as well as the very crime scene – where Amandus’ Sint-Jorisherberg was located.
Even more incredibly, he ‘found’ an obscene song about her, that was eventually published in Antwerp in 1549:
Het soude een fier Margrietelijn
Ghister avont spade
Met haren canneken gaen om wijn;
Si was daer toe verraden.
Wat vantse in haren weghe staen?
Eenen ruyter stille.
“Nu segt mi, fier Margrietelijn,
doet nu mijnen wille, ja wille.”
“Uwen wille en doen ic niet.
Mijn moerken soude mi schelden,
Storte ic dan mijnen coelen wijn;
Alleyne soude ic hem ghelden.”
En sorghet niet voor den coelen wijn,
Mer sorghet voor u selven.
Die waert is onser beyder vrient,
Hi sal ons noch wel borghen.”
Hi namse in sinen witten armen
Heymelick al stille;
Al in een duyster camerken
Daer schafte hi doe sinen wille.
Smorgens omtrent der middernacht
Si ghinc haer kanneken soecken.
Daer lach die moeyaert ende hi loech :
“Het staet daer teynden mijn voeten.”
“Mer dat daer teynden u voeten staet,
Dat sal u noch lange berouwen.
Ic hebbe noch drie ghebroeders stout,
Si sullen u dat hooft af houwen.”
“Alle u ghebroeders stout,
Die sette ick in mijn deeren.
Ick sal alle dese somer lanck
Met Grietken houden mijn scheeren.”
Ende hi nam eenen snee witten bal,
Hi stackse al in haer kele,
Hi schootse tot eenderen veynsteren,
Hi schootse al in die Dijle.
Teghen stroom quam si ghedreven uut
Aen sint Jans cappelle.
Dat sach so menich fijn edel man,
So menich jonc gheselle, ja gheselle.
The Cult of Fiere Margriet
With such a huge push from the Church, the cult of Fiere Margriet quickly took off.
Originally, Fiere Margriet’s remains were buried in a coffin inside a chapel against the choir of Leuven’s Sint-Pieterskerk. A stone chapel was built in 1540 into a transchapel of the church to welcome devotees and pilgrims. This was perhaps the underlying reason for Johannes Molanus’ investigation.
In 1699, the Archbishop of Mechelen de Precipiano conducted an investigation into the cult which was only approved by Pope Pius X in 1905.
On the 500th anniversary of her death (which was officially recorded by the church to be 1225; see above), Leuven painter Pieter Joseph Verhaghen made a five-panel painting in 1765 to illustrate her life and death. These still adorn her chapel in the church.
The cult would have died down in the 19th century, if not for the uninhibited enthusiasm of Leuven historian Edward van Even. He was adamant, with the support of the locals, to get her beatified as a saint.
Her remains were relocated to Germany for safekeeping during the French Occupation at the end of the 18th century and only returned in 1802.
Thanks to Van Even and Leuven inhabitants, Pope Leo XIII declared Fiere Margriet ‘Venerable’. Her remains were placed in a gilded copper chasse, adorned with semi-precious stones, in 1902. Her chasse can still be seen today in her chapel in the Sint-Pieterskerk.
Every year, until 1964, Fiere Margriet’s relics were carried in the annual procession of the O.-L.-Vrouw Belegering (Our Lady of the Siege).
Yet locals are still hopeful that one day, she would be declared not just ‘Venerable’ but a ‘Saint’.
One of the Seven Wonders of Leuven
With the new twist to the myth in the 15th century, the legend of Fiere Margriet is closely related to one of the Seven Wonders of Leuven:
“Het Water dat stroomopwaarts stroomt”
The Water that flows upstream
While the initial idea was that she was carried upstream by adoring muscular aquatic fans, the story was used to echo how the water in some parts of the River Dijle was flowing upstream. This had always been a feature of the water in Leuven’s old harbour at the Vismarkt.
Whenever the former lock on the River’s main arm at the Oratoriënhof was closed, the pressure would drive the water through the fourth arm (Halvestraat, Pereboomstraat) and when it merges with the main arm at the end of Sluisstraat, forces the water in the fifth arm – the harbour area – to flow backwards south instead of north, thus upstream.
Unfortunately, this ‘wonder’ cannot be seen anymore, as the harbour was dammed up in 1880.
This fifth arm of the river was located in the Craenendonck, the Vismarkt and the Karl van Lotharingenstraat and it merged with the other arm at the current bridge leading to the Sint-Geertruiabdij.
This would mean that even if the body of Fiere Margriet were to float (or carried by fish) upstream, it would have had to happen between the harbour at Vismarkt and the end of Sluisstraat, not before or after.
The Dijle Terraces
In 2013, the bronze sculpture of Fiere Margriet as a floating naked woman cast by artist Willy Meysmans was moved from its initial spot in the Tiensestraat to the green bank of the Dijle called the Dijleterrassen.
Whenever there is an excessive rise in water level, the statue would look like it is floating on the water.
This has happened recently in the floods of Summer 2021 (see photos). While this placement is a great idea, which fully illustrates the legend, this has led to many to wrongly believe this was the very spot where her body was found floating in the river.
The ‘Fiere Margriet’ Pub
There is a famous pub at the end of the Diestsestraat on the Margarethaplein (former Hooimarkt ‘Haymarket’), called ‘De Fiere Margriet‘.
The building is an extremely well-preserved example of a civilian house in the 17th century. Named after the legend and the chapel it faces, the building was renovated by the brewery “La Vignette” in 1903.
Today, the pub is a favourite tourist spot, as it serves no less than 280 different beers.
Fiere Margriet has become the best known folk legend of Leuven. While the details of her true story are still shrouded in mystery, she has come to represent feminine strength and tenacity, both highly regarded now more than ever before.