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Origin, Development and Pan European Diffusion of the Dutch-German Legend and Cult of the Countess Who Gave Birth to 365 Children (13th-20th C.)

The aim of our German-Israeli joint project is to explore in a diachronic research, the origin, development, Pan-European diffusion, instrumentalization and ultimate decline of the Dutch-German legend and cult of Countess Margaretha von Henneberg, and to decipher its underlying meaning and impact. Although linked to different recorded preexisting topoi, this sage had its own specific and original development, and an amazingly large outreach in Europe. The legend deals with an historical figure, Margaretha († 1276 at 42), daughter of Floris IV Count of Holland, married to the German Count Herman I von Henneberg. We find its first known written version in a 14th C. religious chronicle telling us about Margaretha giving birth on Holy Friday 1276 to 364 children and dying with them on the same day, shortly after their baptism. This legend produced from the late 13th C. on, a local fecundity cult in the church of Loosduinen, near The Hague. The belief in the outstanding fertility of Margaretha, transformed rapidly Loosduinen into an important pilgrimage site, with the active backing of the local abbey and dynasty (the Counts of Holland). Moreover, it became in the 16th C., a fashionable touristic goal for the European elite. After the destruction of the church of Loosduinen during the Independence Wars (1574), its lost paraphernalia (Margaretha's tomb, the baptism basin framed with the official written version of the "miracle") were recreated, and the catholic pilgrimage revived at the end of the 16th century by the local Calvinist Church, with the full support of the Orange dynasty. The site became ultimately a trendy tourism destination and later on a place of recreation for upper class and ordinary international sightseers. This sage also spread in Europe from the 14th C. on, as a popular and learned religious, literary, folkloristic, artistic and scientific theme, through various written versions in diverse literary genres (chronicles, novels, ballads, scientific works, etc.), and in oral traditions and iconographical representations.

No systematic research has been made yet of its sources and background, nor is there any scientific and comprehensive historical monograph studying in depth the various aspects of its elaboration, evolution in the "longue durée", and its historical-anthropological significance up to the 20th Century. By scrutinizing the origin, development, transformation and European diffusion of this legend and cult, analysed as a total social fact, throughout their various chronological (13th-20th C.), geographical (Europe), cultural (learned and popular versions), religious (catholic, protestant), forms (oral, written, iconographical versions), this study opens new perspectives allowing to uncover not only the broader significance of this cultural phenomenon, linked to the changes in place, time, perception, sensibilities and forms, but the continuity of structural mental attitudes towards women, gender, marriage, childbirth, fertility, marital relationship, physical, verbal and symbolic violence.