A couple of days ago we looked briefly at events in Marpingen, a German village in the Saarland, during harvest-time in 1876, and saw how a group of young female visionaries claimed to have witnessed an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary in some woods outside the village [right] – an account written up in vast detail by the Harvard history professor David Blackbourn in his 1994 book Marpingen. Today we’re going to follow Blackbourn deeper into the local archives and look in considerably greater detail at the witnesses, at what they said they saw, at how their accounts of their experiences were shaped, and varied over time – and at what the raw data from Marpingen may imply about the gradual processes of sanitisation and consolidation that have worked to produce the much less controversial, much more uniform visions that have been formally approved by the Roman Catholic church. All this, as I noted in my first post on the subject, comes from an extensive collection of official and private documents assembled at the time, and gives us an unusually close look at what actually happened during one apparently quite typical set of Marian visions in the late 19th century; it offers several keys to understanding such events.
Let’s begin by remembering that the initial apparition at Marpingen took place on the same day that a major religious festival took place at the established Marian site of Lourdes; we’ve already noted that this ceremony, widely publicised by the Catholic church, may well have helped to inspire events in the Saarland, if only by predisposing the Marpingen witnesses to have been thinking about the BVM on the day of their vision. There were, however, several other potential triggers for the events as they played out, among them the well-publicised and ostensibly miraculous appearance of the Virgin’s face in a patch of fungus in a Silesian church (delightfully referred to as Obraz Najswietszej Panny Maryji na grzybie, or “The Image of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary in the Mushroom”) and some Marian visions in several villages in neighbouring Alsace in 1873. In the neighbouring parish of Dirmingen, moreover, yet another purportedly miraculous event took place in May 1876, just five weeks before the vision in the Härtelwald. As Blackbourn explains, this latter incident was apparently “talked up” into something much more significant than it at first appeared to be, yet it opens up a tantalising window on a world in which miraculous events apparently occurred quite frequently. More importantly, there can be little doubt that the story, in its more advanced form, soon reached Marpingen, and strongly suggested that the BVM was capable of appearing in the vicinity.
The incident arose out of a seemingly unspectacular event: Father Schwaab of Urexweiler was walking his dog in Dirmingen woods with a schoolteacher friend when the dog was alarmed by a falling spruce tree. The spot in the woods was already associated in folk memory with magical events; a forester had supposedly been beaten by an unknown hand, and someone else claimed to have seen thousands of cats there. Popular sentiment proceeded to turn the incident into a form of apparition. Rumour had it that Father Schwaab had seen a woman whose sudden disappearance was followed by a whirlwind that toppled the spruce. The priest denied any supernatural occurrence, but according to the forester Louis Bruch the affair caused ‘great excitement’ throughout the district. The tree became known as ‘the spruce and the spirits’: some avoided it, others carved crosses into the wood and stripped the tree and its neighbours of their bark, which they cooked and ate or fed to their cattle. The mysterious woman was believed to be the Virgin Mary ascending to heaven.
In addition to sketching several plausible ways in which news of the “miraculous” happenings at Dirmingen might have reached Marpingen, Blackbourn also draws attention to a couple of precursor-events in the village itself. Some decades earlier, there had been reports of a mysterious “woman in white” haunting the mill where Margaretha (‘Gretchen’) Kunz‘s father worked, and, in 1868, a village woman “claimed to have seen a white-clad figure resembling Father Neureuter’s dead sister provide ‘miraculous accompaniment’ for the priest on one of his journeys.” It’s difficult to know how large a part incidents of this sort played in most Marpingeners’ spiritual worlds, but we can at least say that Neureuter himself – the parish priest – apparently expected something more decidedly miraculous to happen: “I always had the thought that Marpingen would be tested,” he remarked some time later.
Just how much of all this the young Marpingen witnesses themselves were actually aware of is quite difficult to say; the full record of the girls’ interrogations – 10 volumes’ worth of testimony – was unfortunately destroyed by bombing during World War II. A 500-page précis of the evidence in the case does survive, nonetheless, and Marpingen uses this and numerous other sources to paint a remarkably comprehensive picture of the lives and times of the three girls at the centre of the case.
The Kunz, Hubertus and Leist families, Blackbourn discovered, were pretty typical of those that have produced Marian visionaries in the past. The Leists and the Hubertuses lived in stone farmhouses; they were “poor, but with enough to live on,” in the opinion of the parish priest; another local notable, notary Hess of Tholey, described the Kunz and Hubertus families as “people of exemplary honesty”. Nonetheless, the Kunz family was much more ambiguously and marginally placed in Marpingen society than the other two; Margaretha’s father had died in an mill accident some months before she was born, which meant, inevitably, that life was even more a struggle for her mother than it was for Marpingen’s other peasants. The Kunzes, hence, had more to gain from associating themselves with a miracle, and from this perspective it’s certainly interesting to note that Margaretha Kunz was clearly the leader of the little group that went to the Härtelwald. Even though it was Susanna Leist who first caught sight of the “woman in white,” the evidence shows the other witnesses deferring to Margaretha when it came to describing what they had experienced – and it’s very noticeable, isn’t it, that there always is a “leader” in these sorts of cases – it was Mélanie Calvat at La Salette, Lucia dos Santos at Fatima, Albert Voisin at Beauraing, and Eugène Barbadette at Pontmain. According to Blackbourn,
Although the youngest of the visionaries, [Kunz] was powerfully built like her mother and was easily the largest of the three girls. A contemporary photograph of the three seers shows her dominating the group physically [see left: Susanna Leist is standing, Margaretha Kunz is sitting, left, and Katharina Hubertus is on the right]. She was also by common consent the cleverest. Dr Nikolaus Thoemes, who did so much to disseminate the ‘miracle of Marpingen’ with his pamphlets, believed that Kunz was ‘generally more developed than the other two.’ The word that seemed to occur to everyone who met her was geweckt – bright or sharp. For the priest Felix Dicke, who spent a long time in the village, she was ‘somewhat brighter than the other two.’ The teacher André thought her ‘very bright,’ compared with the average Susanna Leist and the rather backward Katharina Hubertus. She impressed the merchant Jacob in Tholey as ‘bright and fearless’, while the superintendent of the institution at Saarbrücken where the three girls were later confined believed she was ‘brighter than the others and appears to influence them.’
Blackbourn goes on to delve further into the circumstances of the Kunz family, and emerges with more important data. The father’s death, for instance, certainly placed his family in considerable financial and legal difficulties; the mother found herself caught up with the problem of dealing with his debts, and fought an unsuccessful battle to retain at least partial control of his mill. Money was short; Margaretha’s brothers had to leave school and go down the pits, and her sister was forced to go into domestic service. Margaretha, then, could clearly anticipate that a tough, physically-exhausting life awaited her at the conclusion of her childhood – and on top of that, as Blackbourn says, “it would be surprising if she did not experience some resentment from her brothers and sisters, as the last-born of an unusually large family, another mouth to feed in suddenly straitened circumstances (and another claimant on the modest family property).” The author goes on to compare Gretchen Kunz to Bernadette Soubirous, the celebrated Lourdes visionary – “the daughter of a bankrupted and imprisoned miller, sent out to work as a farm servant.” Unsurprisingly, he finds the parallels between the two girls “uncanny” – and he also points out that the Marpingen witnesses would have known quite a lot about Bernadette and her experiences, since one of Katharina Hubertus’s sisters hoped to become a nun, and the village schoolteacher, André
had talked about these and other apparitions, and may even have done so just before the Marpingen events began. The children also received instruction concerning the Immaculate Conception from the parish priest, and Frau Kunz later recalled to a visitor that Father Neureuter had talked about the apparitions at Lourdes in a sermon… Starting school marked a sudden change in their lives, and brought them into more regular contact with such accounts… The Marpingen apparitions included scenes, from the Annunciation to the temptation of Christ, that exactly echoed passages in the Shuster school bible that the girls had studied in catechism classes.
Put all these influences together, Blackbourn suggests, and you create a potent cocktail of expectation and belief.
The time when the Marpingen apparitions began would have been marked by particular devotions to the Virgin Mary, even without the drama of the Lourdes coronation ceremony. The Marian festival of the Visitation that fell on 2 July was expecially important in German-speaking Europe; and the following day was one on which, every year since the late seventeenth century, pilgrims throughout the Trier diocese had travelled to the Marian shrine at Beurig. This was the day on which the three girls found themselves still in the Härtelwald woods as dusk fell and the Angelus sounded.
Now, I should pause for a moment here to point out that if I do have one quibble with Blackbourn’s account, it’s with his description of the vision in the Härtelwald taking place at “dusk” – an important point, as we shall see, since any analysis of what might or might not have happened in the woods depends heavily on what the visionaries actually saw. It was early July, and if the visions coincided with the Angelus – prayers said in Catholic churches each day at 6pm – then dusk would still have been as much as two or three hours’ off, which makes what apparently happened that much harder to explain. Bear this point in mind, anyway, as Blackbourn goes on to describe the critical moments of the visionaries’ reception by their families:
When they returned home that first evening with their stories of a ‘woman in white’, the initial reaction of their parents was, on the face of it, sceptical. Susanna Leist’s father told her that she was talking nonsense (dummes Zeug), and suggested that she had simply seen a village woman. Katharine Hubertus was given no food that evening by her father; her mother promised her a new dress if she stopped her romancing. Frau Kunz also resorted to the carrot and stick, promising her daughter a new dress if she told the truth and punishment if she continued to lie: ‘Your brother Peter will beat you half to death, and you will go to hell and not to heaven.’
As the author points out, these versions of events were given to the parish priest and, later, to the very hostile Prussian authorities, so it would have been in the families’ interest to portray themselves as sceptics; indeed, Blackbourn believes that all three sets of parents, but especially Frau Leist, played “a rather more active part in the shaping of the apparitions” than they cared to admit. Indeed, Frau Leist – in the account of Margaretha Kunz – actually instructed the three children to “Go back into the woods tomorrow, pray, and if you see her again, ask her who she is; if she says she is the Immaculately Conceived, then she is the Blessed Virgin.” This, if true, must surely have been a considerable prod to the three young visionaries – a strong hint that more was expected of them than an account “remarkably lacking in intensity or a sense of rapture”. For, initially at least, Blackbourn say, “the overriding impression is one of fragmented descriptions lacking any real centre. In other apparitions, the Virgin assumed a fixed appearance, graced a particular spot, and delivered a single powerful message. In Marpingen the children described a Virgin in motley who flitted from place to place and had no special message.” There were “secrets”, of course, and Katharina Hubertus said that she had been promised she would become a nun. But even these exchanges “seldom rose above the level of banality, their prophecies concerned missed appointments rather than sublime matters of war, peace, and famine.” Some of the children’s statements seem mischievous, even malicious, “as when the children claimed to see the devil in the house of the pious church bookkeeper Fuchs.” All in all, as Blackbourn says, “the apparitions did not so much represent the eruption of the divine into everyday life, as subject the divine to an everyday regimen.” By far the most remarkable of all the many accounts given by Kunz and her companions of their encounters with the Virgin was one in which Mary “joined them in their games as they rolled down the hillside.” [p.112]
Frau Leist’s intervention also, it should be said, conveys some interesting indications of just how familiar the visionaries and their families must have been with events at Lourdes – where the apparition had announced herself to Bernadette as “the Immaculate Conception”, thus conveniently bolstering what was still a new and controversial bit of dogma, the notion that the Virgin Mary had been conceived “free from sin” (as portrayed in Diego Velasquez’s celebrated Immaculate Conception, above) and was hence worthy of bearing the Christ-child. In fact, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, though in itself of some antiquity, had been proclaimed as dogma only in 1854, and the vision at Lourdes, once accepted by the Church, went a good way to encouraging its acceptance as an article of faith.
Frau Leist, Blackbourn continues, seems to have exercised significant additional influence on the Marpingen visionaries. It was she who suggested to the children that the “woman in white” might have worn a blue sash – an item of classically Marian clothing most recently noted by Bernadette at Lourdes. This prompt would later be identified by the Prussian authorities as “a highly incriminating piece of evidence pointing to parental instigation,” though Blackbourn prefers to see it as no more than an adornment to “a rather vague account”. He goes on to point out that “there is a further example of the way in which the events of the first day were retrospectively shaped into a pattern more closely resembling the apparition at Lourdes… at a very early stage the two children surplus to the requirements of a classic apparition [the two six-year-olds, Lischen Hubertus and Anna Meisberger]… were tacitly dropped from the account.”
That Frau Leist and other adults asked leading questions, though, is beyond doubt. “When the children were asked if the Virgin wore a golden crown,” Blackbourn observes,
and carried the child Jesus, they readily agreed. The suggestions that a chapel be built (‘of stone, not of wood’) and the sick be brought to the site were also reported by the girls as answers to questions put by others… [and] as new suggestions were made, the seers incorporated them into their accounts. Thus the idea of the devil [wrote Margaretha, some years later], ‘was put into our minds by imprudent observations and questions.’ This may be how the girls came to describe the ‘poor souls from purgatory’ shown to them by the Blessed Virgin and released by their prayers. Belief in the physical manifestation of tormented souls, crying for release, was a strong element in local popular piety; it was just the sort of matter on which the visionaries were likely to be pressed. What Margaretha Kunz described retrospectively is an apparition narrative being constructed through a process of suggestion and accretion. This is consistent with other evidence. To take an overt example, in September 1876 the children referred vaguely to a shining head hovering over the Blessed Virgin in one apparition. The visiting theologian Matthias Scheeben showed them a picture of St Nicolas of Flue that he carried with him, and the visionaries promptly agreed that this was the very head they had seen.
Whatever the truth, it certainly seems that the visionaries returned to the woods next day (4 July) fully expecting to see the Virgin once again – and it is not, perhaps, all that surprising that they were gratified, nor that, once the parents became convinced (or convinced themselves) that their children were telling them the truth, they in turn became strong supporters of the reality of the encounters in the Härtelwald. Johannes Hubertus, in particular, set out on 5 July, the third day of the visions, to accompany the children to the woods, and was a witness to the earliest of Marpingen’s miracle cures: the first vouchsafed to another adult, a retired miner by the name of Nikolaus Recktenwald, and the second to another of Hubertus’s daughters, Barbara. Barbara was apparently relieved of a “bad foot” (a cure, incidentally, typical of the sort of vaguely-defined, poorly diagnosed and impossible-to-prove claims that the Catholic church itself has striven to weed out at the approved vision site Lourdes by the creation of a dedicated Medical Bureau, staffed by doctors, which summarily rejects all “cures” of problems that had not previously been the subject of a specific professional diagnosis). Nor was that the extent of Hubertus pere‘s involvement; by 3 August, he was claiming to have heard the signing of the angels who accompanied the Virgin on her visits to Marpingen.
The adult witnesses, of course, were inconvenient; Marian visions were sufficiently common, and sufficiently uniform, by 1876 for all those concerned to be aware that the BVM appeared first and foremost – indeed, almost exclusively – to pre-pubescent children. Blackbourn makes the point that it’s important to remember that the principal witnesses were still extremely young, and that the thousands of Catholics who descended on the village placed a burden on the three girls
that sometimes became intolerable. Pilgrims crowded in and around their parents’ homes, asking the children to repeat what they had seen and pestering them to sign pictures. In the words of one visiting priest, they found themselves ‘in a state of siege’… exposed to constant public demand: one day they were kept at the apparition site from 8am to 11pm, until almost collapsing from exhaustion. This may account for some of the tetchiness, the sullen silences, and the occasional discomfiture of questioners. These were children of 8, after all, who yawned, stretched, and readily became bored when subjected even to friendly questioning. The pressures on them help to explain a number of the more elaborate later apparitions, as the children were driven to reckless invention. This was certainly true in one such case, the dubious ‘prediction’ that a young child, Jacob Schnur, would die, and the related description of a funeral procession in the sky over Marpingen. Margaretha Kunz later said that these had been ‘invented to satisfy the people who wanted even more miracles.’
That the visionaries were playing a game of some sort with the adults in the village – at least at first, before matters got out of hand – emerges fairly clearly in the later statements of Kunz, who told one sceptical girl in the Saarbrücken orphanage in which the Marpingen witnesses were briefly confined: “You are not as stupid as the stupid gentlemen; they are more stupid than we children.” [p.114] Yet before long all three girls found that they had painted themselves into a corner with their stories; too many people had placed faith in them – including members of their own families – and too many stood to lose from any admission of fantasy, invention, or outright hoax on the part of the original witnesses. To take only one example, the parish priest, Father Neureuter, served time in jail for his determination to stand up for the reality of the Marpingen visions. “By that stage,” Blackbourn notes, “the prospect of admitting that everything rested on falsehood must have seemed insurmountably daunting” to all three girls.
It did not take long for all this pressure to begin to tell. One sceptical Catholic visitor, Dr Jakob Strauss, discovered that Margaretha “appeared willing to either agree or disagree that there was a ‘Virgin in the clouds’ when offered money. [p.117] Kunz herself later confessed herself astonished “that the whole thing went so far,” until “it reached a stage where I could no longer go back” [p.115], while Susanna Leist, harshly questioned by some state officials, “broke down and claimed that Kunz had invented the whole thing.” [p.118] Possibly these pressures account for Leist’s reluctance to admit she had experienced any further visions of the Virgin when these were claimed, later in the first weeks of July, by Kunz and the easily-led Hubertus. The original visionary’s apprehension, Blackbourn says, led her to alternate “between ‘scornful’ reactions to Margaretha’s claims of further apparitions and warnings to her friend that ‘you talk too much, you’ll betray everything'” while incarcerated in the orphanage at Saarbrücken, while Kunz’s mother made the journey over from Marpingen to warn her daughter that she should stick to her story.
Margaretha did retain a good deal of self-confidence, at least at first; confronted by Susanna Leist, she apparently retorted: “I know what I can say – I’m cleverer than you.” [p.116] Yet even the clever Kunz, taxed repeatedly by a succession of hostile interviewers, was too young to stand up stolidly to adult interrogations, and proved unable to keep her story straight for long. Blackbourn depicts a long series of confessions and retractions made by all three girls; Margaretha, he notes, faced a total of 28 separate interviews spread over a period of several years. [p.208]. Throughout this time, the position the girls took depended almost entirely on whether they were separated from their families, and exposed to tough questioning by irritated Prussians, or safe back in Marpingen, surrounded by families who had much invested in their stories, and who stood to make considerable profits from the pilgrimage trade that rapidly developed, whether from renting out beds in their homes, selling religious trinkets at the roadside, or packaging and retailing water from Marpingen’s “miraculous spring” – which we know was eagerly sought after and dispatched and consumed as far away as Belgium.
Pregnant with meaning though all this undoubtedly is, however, it doesn’t actually take us that much closer to what really
happened in the Härtelwald on the first evening of the visions. To discover more, it is necessary to turn to a detailed account written by Margaretha Kunz years later, in 1889, when she was 20 and had become a servant at a local convent prior to taking vows as a nun. Blackbourn, who is acutely aware of the pressures brought to bear on the child witness in the 1870s, when Margaretha regularly confessed and then recanted, views this document – made in confidence at the urging of Father Neureuter – as unequivocal and convincing, not least because, despite her wish to take holy orders, “after the opening paragraph Margaretha shows no evidence of great remorse or guilt” – though the author does point out that it is “striking that at every key juncture in the account it is others who are described as taking the initiative.” [p.320]
Margaretha, Blackbourn writes,
recalls first how the girls were hurrying home on the evening of 3 July when Susanna Leist called out, “‘Gretchen, Kätchen, look, over there is a woman in white.’ Frightened, we looked at the spot she had pointed out and actually saw a white figure, or rather with our imagination already excited and in the half-dark we believed that was what we saw.’ As they rushed back to the village, their appearance (‘We must have looked awful’) caused them to be ‘bombarded with questions.’ According to Margaretha, her own mother was initially sceptical, suggesting that the figure was ‘only a cord of wood, and because it was dark you thought you had seen a woman. She was right,’ added Margaretha, ‘for later I satisfied myself that it was stacked up wood lying there with the white side pointing outwards.’ (She does not, however, say how much later it was that she satisfied herself of this.)
One cannot but wonder, reading this, whether the accounts of BVM apparitions given by other witnesses, at other times, might not have been based on a similarly heady combination of popular piety, peer pressure and simple misperceptions – not least when considering how, next day, the three girls went out to the Härtelwald again, fully primed by Susanna Leist’s mother’s instructions
to ask the figure, if they saw her again, whether she was the Immaculate Conception. Margaretha continued:
I saw nothing, but all three of us put the question, then one of them nudged me and said, listen, I am the Immaculately Conceived, although I heard nothing. I said, oh yes, we put the second question that had been agreed, what should we do? As if with one voice we both gave the answer, pray devoutly and do not sin. How it was possible I do not know, I know only that I myself neither saw nor heard anything.
The whole experience had been, the girl concluded, “one big lie”, and the adults of the village had made a “great mistake” – their error being “to believe us immediately instead of calming us down.” [p.110] Or, to put it more charitably (as Blackbourn does), “the 8-year-olds had stirred up something they only faintly understood, and gone too far to turn back.” What prevented them from recanting in time for the events at Marpingen to fade rapidly into history was thus the favourable, even hysterical, response that news of the visions roused in their fellow villagers. [p.321] Marpingen itself, in short, was in large part responsible for the visions at Marpingen.
NEXT: The village and the villagers, miracles and cures