I’ve already mentioned, in these pages, the alarming lack of awareness Forteans show of all the progress being made in the fields of academia. Only rarely does one see purely scholarly works cited in the literature, and this considerably impoverishes us – most obviously because it limits our capacity to understand the subtle underpinnings of a wide range of phenomena.
Today I want to give a solid example of precisely what I mean by taking the first of what I expect will be several looks at a book that Forteans have remained blissfully unaware exists ever since it was published nearly 20 years ago. Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Nineteenth Century Germany (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994) is an extensive, richly-researched account devoted to an undeniably obscure event: the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) that supposedly took place in a small German village named Marpingen, in the Saarland, back in 1876. These apparitions were big news at the time. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims poured into the village to visit the apparition site and drink the waters of its miraculous spring; it was even predicted that Marpingen would become the “German Lourdes”. For a variety of reasons, though, this never happened; the village very slowly faded from people’s memories, and the apparitions themselves were never formally investigated by the Catholic authorities, much less granted the formal Church seal of approval – a process critical to the continuing popularity of “approved” vision sites such as Lourdes, Knock and Fatima. So obscure has Marpingen become, indeed, that I have never seen the events there mentioned in even the best Fortean surveys of religious phenomena. All of which makes David Blackbourn’s enormous study – which runs to 500 pages and is based on wide reading and several years’ worth of research in seven German archives – the more laudable and fascinating.
First, a brief word about the author. Blackbourn (who, like many of the best of the present generation of British history dons, currently teaches at Harvard) is a noted expert on the history of nineteenth century Germany; he’s the author of an excellent and extremely readable general survey, History of Germany, 1780-1918, and several more specialist monographs with slightly daunting titles, among them The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany. His work on Marpingen grew out of his interest in the relationship between national politics and local communities, and the ways in which the newly unified German state (“Germany” as we know it came into existence only in 1871, after the Franco-Prussian War) worked, or failed to work, on a regional and district level; about half his book is devoted to exploring what the events at Marpingen can tell us about the way in which Germany was structured in the 1870s and the Prussian-dominated government set about imposing itself on the nation at large. To make these points, however, Blackbourn had to dig deeply into the story of the supposed apparitions and set out the way in which the episode was handled by the local religious and state authorities, and he did so such a concerted way that he emerged with a considerably better-informed take on the subject than any Fortean (or Catholic) writing on Lourdes or Fatima has had. I therefore commend his book to anyone with any interest in religious phenomena, or in the social, economic and cultural background to all Fortean phenomena, and I plan, over the next couple of posts, to summarise some of the more interesting of Blackbourn’s findings. All this, remember, is based on some immensely detailed reading in the Bistumsarchiv, Trier, the Landeshauptarchiv in Koblenz and various other manuscript sources; in other words it takes us about as close as we’re likely to get to what was probably a pretty typical BVM apparition flap in the late nineteenth century. (I’m not going to repeat Blackbourn’s detailed archival citations here – but believe me when I say that his work is extensively researched.)
Of course, even Blackbourn’s book is not quite perfect; notably, it’s so heavily anaytical that it supplies no clear, linear summary of what actually happened. It took me some time to sort out the actual course of events, but, having done so, I think it probably makes sense to tell the story as it happened… at first at least. So let’s begin by returning to Marpingen itself as the village was in the summer of 1876 – five years after the end of the Franco-Prussian War, to put things in their proper context, and in the midst of the long economic crisis that persisted for much of that tumultuous decade. It’s 3 July, a significant date in the Catholic calendar: one day after the Marian Festival of the Visitation, and (as Blackbourn argues, surely not coincidentally) also the very day on which a crowd of 100,000 Catholics (including 35 bishops) was descending on the renowned apparition site at Lourdes for a well-publicised ceremony that climaxed with the crowning of a statue of the Blessed Virgin.
July was harvest time in Saarland, a solidly Catholic district on the border with France. In Marpingen, where most of the inhabitants made their living either from farming or in mining, all the adults not working in the pits were out in the fields gathering in the crops. Only young children, too weak to be of use in harvesting, were excused, and they were sent instead out to a hilly, wooded area called the Härtelwald to pick bilberries. Five girls found tehmselves together as dusk fell and they began to make their way back to the village. The group consisted of three eight year olds – Katharina Hubertus, Susanna Leist and Margaretha Kunz – and two six year olds, Lischen Hubertus and Anna Miesberger.
Between the wood and the meadow was an area of wild meadow with thick bushes around it. It was here that Susanna Leist suddenly called out, bringing Katharina and Margaretha hurrying to her, and drew her friends’ attention to a ‘white figure’. When the girls reached home, agitated and frightened, all three described seeing a woman in white carrying a child in her arms. There is some dispute over the initial reactions of parents, siblings, and neighbours, but it is clear that the girls remained in a state of excitement. Margaretha slept badly and prayed a lot, Katherina dreamed of the woman in white, Susanna was reluctant to go to bed at all. The following day they returned to the spot and knelt down about 20 yards away to pray. According to their account, after they had said the Lord’s Prayer three times the apparition appeared again to Margaretha and Katharina – although not to Susanna Leist, the original seer. ‘Who are you?’ they asked the figure in the local dialect, and received the reply: “Ich bin die unbefleckt Empfangene” (‘I am the Immaculately Conceived.’) ‘What should we do?’ ‘You should pray.’ The children resumed their prayers, and the figure disappeared.
Those who have read something of the BVM will recognise a number of common motifs in the Marpingen account: child witnesses, an impoverished rural setting at a time of crisis, a conversation with a woman in white able to communicate in the local patois, and the inability of some of those present to see or hear things that other witnesses saw and heard. Nor was there much especially unusual in what happened next: a succession of further visions, over a period of two more days, the identification of a ‘miraculous spring’ whose waters possessed healing powers, and the first of a procession of miracle cures.
True, the sheer profusion of visions was rather unusual, and so was their variety; the visionaries
began to claim apparitions in other parts of the village – in their homes, in barns and stables, in the school, in the graveyard and the church. The visions they described became more luxuriant. The Virgin appeared with and without the Christ-child, sometimes accompanied by angels. She was dressed now in white, now in gold and azure. the apparitions also took on darker tones. On one occasion the girls reported seeing the Virgin clad in black, on another they described a celestial procession passing over the graveyard. The devil also appeared.
Nor were the original three visionaries the only ones to claim that they had seen the Virgin Mary. Later several adult villagers made similar claims, and in the summer of 1877, a year after the initial visions, a rival group of children also began to see visions.
Yet what really distinguishes Marpingen from other appearances by the BVM – and what ensured that there would be an abundant paper archive of events for Blackbourn to examine – was the German authorities’ ham-fisted response to news of the visions when they finally seeped into the outside world. Strenuous attempts were made to control the visionaries, and, eventually, to punish them; the spot in the Härtlwald where the first encounter with the BVM had allegedly taken place was sealed off and placed under a police guard; the army was brought in to disperse the crowds; an undercover police detective from Berlin was sent to the Saarland to pose (rather unconvincingly, one supposes) as a wealthy Irish journalist and inveigle his way into the witnesses’ confidence; and both the villagers themselves, and pilgrims visiting Marpingen, were constantly harrassed. Legal cases were eventually brought against several dozen pilgrims on the bizarre charge of “unlawful pilgrimage”, against quite a number of villagers for illegally putting up paying guests in their homes; eventually, the visionaries themselves were first taken into care, and then brought to trial on accusations of fraud. It was not until April 1879 that a series of ‘Not Guilty’ verdicts finally brought matters to a close, the police were withdrawn from the Härtlwald, and things finally returned more or less to normal in the Saarland.
To understand why the Marpingen visions aroused such an intense response requires some knowledge of the German ‘back story’. Germany, in this period, was in the throes of kulturkampf, an attempt led by the Chancellor, Bismarck, to separate church and state and reduce the influence of the Catholic church. From this perspective, the Marpingen BVM visions – which unleashed an apparently uncontrollable wave of popular piety (by 10 July, a week after the visions began, the village was laying host to an estimated 20,000 visitors), made possible by the advent of the railways and more urgent by the desperate economic times – posed a significant threat, and much of the David Blackbourn’s efforts are devoted to tracking this interplay between local devotion and state repression. From our perspective, however, the most interesting aspect of the story is the author’s careful dissection of the visionaries themselves and their home lives, and it is to this peculiarly illuminating topic that I now turn.
NEXT: “It was all one big lie.”