We’ve seen, in two earlier posts, how the Saarland village of Marpingen experienced a dramatic series of visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) during the mid-1870s, with associated claims of miraculous cures and healing, and how the leader of the three girls who claimed to have encountered the apparition in woods outside the village eventually confessed that the entire experience had been invented – thanks, in part, to leading questions asked, and pressure placed on the three child-witnesses by, the eager adults of the village. Today I’m going to conclude this series of analyses, drawn from David Blackbourn’s magnificently detailed study of the episode, Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Nineteenth Century Germany, by taking a closer look at the reasons why there was so much expectation and religious fervour in Marpingen in the summer of 1876, and why the appearance of the BVM meant so much to the villagers themselves.
I’ve already noted a little of the historical background to this case. The visions took place not long after Germany was unified in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war, and at a time when the renewal of hostilities with France seemed likely. Marpingen – located close to the border with Luxembourg and only a few miles north of the former French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, which would almost certainly form a focal point of any future conflict – had every reason to fear such an eventuality; the whole area, Blackbourn notes, was one “into which troops were poured at the first hint of trouble, giving its inhabitants a further sense that they lived on the margin,” and there were rumours (which had some basis in fact) that the Chancellor, Bismarck, was planning to sell the whole district to France. [pp.64-5] But by 1876 the villagers, and the inhabitants of the Saarland in general, had plenty of other problems on their minds, and it’s a good deal easier to understand why the BVM apparently made her appearance in the village when one sees the events of that July in their full context. Sketching context is, of course, something that history professors such as Blackbourn do for fun. Let’s take a brief look at his findings.
Blackbourn’s history of Marpingen stretches back to the time of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, when the borderlands between France and Germany were regularly overrun and occupied by rival armies. War brought with it enormous change; between 1260 and 1760 Marpingen had been part of the Duchy of Lorraine, but over the succeeding half-century the village passed under the control of a succession of six different rulers – some French, some German – and the village was badly shaken by the constant changes in laws, tax gathering, conscription and land ownership that resulted. There were many broader social changes, too; the advent of the railways and industrialisation significantly reduced the isolation of places such as Marpingen; work, and later emigration, took many villagers away from their home for the first time and introduced them to new places, new experiences and new ideas [pp.43, 51-4].
Marpingen nonetheless remained, as Blackbourn points out, relatively self-contained throughout this period. The village was “not marked on normal maps” [p.42], and emigration dried up during the 1850s, when the first large Saarland coal mines came on stream, providing fresh employment opportunities. The advent of mineworking drew substantial numbers of the local men to work at pits up to 20 miles from the village, and these workers became, in effect, weekly commuters, travelling to the mines on Monday mornings and returning on Saturday evenings. This had a significant social impact on village life. Fathers – who were often at home for no more than 30 hours a week – ceased to be imposers of discipline and became instead “the cherished weekend visitor bearing gifts.” [pp.56-7] This in turn meant that the role of women changed. Wives became more central than ever to family life – not just as home-makers but as workers, keeping up the family farm, feeding the animals, harvesting crops and generating income. They took over as intermediaries between the family, church and school, and became the principal wielders of discipline. One result of these shifts was that women became much more prominent in the local church, and the Catholic church itself was “feminised” during the nineteenth century, losing some of its old patriarchal overtones and focussing far more than it had done hitherto on the perfect mother-figure: the Virgin Mary. There was a steep rise in Marian devotion, and Blackbourn traces the marked influence that the mothers of the Marpingen visionaries had on their children to these developments [p.57].
Other important changes occurred in the village during the same period. The most important, for the local peasants, was that the French wars resulted in the abolition of collective husbandry (Gehöferschaft), a system that had periodically reallocated land to local families. Henceforth land was privatised, and could be bought and sold, and this, together with the virtual impossibility (for peasants at least) of securing cheap credit, led inevitably to occasional foreclosures. A number of local families thus suffered considerable financial stress, and the compulsory sale of their land also opened up Marpingen for the first time to outsiders – who included a scattering of Protestants and Jews – with all the uncertainty and threat that that implies. At the same time, new laws on land ownership closed off what had always hitherto been communal areas of woodland [above]. Aside from providing Marpingers with the fruits of the forest (remember that Gretchen Kunz and her companions had been berrying in the Härtelwald on the day they supposedly saw the BVM), this land had always acted as a sort of social safety valve – it provided free resources in the form of wood, leaf-mould, food and even coal (which could be scavenged from surface deposits long into the nineteenth century) for poor villagers, and so helped them to survive times of famine and want. Denial of access to the woodlands was a significant issue for most Marpingers [pp.47, 50-1].
The advent of new faces in the village was a considerable shock, of the sort barely conceivable today. Even at its largest, Marpingen had remained a remarkably enclosed community. It was not large enough to boast its own doctor, resident merchants or bankers, or a notary; villagers had to travel to nearby St Wendel to obtain such services. Nor did any state official live there. This meant that the place was, by necessity, largely self-sufficient. It also meant that the only educated men in the entire village were the local priest and the schoolmaster – and Blackbourn makes the point that the priest frequently despaired of his congregation, while the unfortunate teachers posted to the village had little or nothing to do with their peasant neighbours, and “clung rather desperately to each other and to teachers in neighbouring villages for companionship.” [pp.46-7] All this meant that Marpingen was not exposed to rationalism, scientific progress or what passed elsewhere on the continent for the Enlightenment, unlike larger villages and towns; superstition, as we shall see, remained largely unchecked.
A further significant change came in 1834, when the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the then ruler of the district, sold his lands to the King of Prussia in exchange for an annual income of 80,000 thalers a year [pp.44, 59] and Marpingen thus became part of the largest, most successful and most powerful of German states. This sale might, in some respects, have been expected to benefit the Saarland; the purchase ensured the districts around Marpingen joined the Prussian Zollverein, or German customs union (think a very early version of the EC). But the Zollverein wiped out a lucrative and longstanding smuggling trade over the border with Luxembourg [p.59], and, to make matters worse, Prussia itself was also militantly Protestant. The advent of Protestant rule over the Saarland was seen – quite rightly – as a threat to the solidly Catholic village. “Potential social conflicts,” Blackbourn says, “had an added religious dimension where Catholic peasants or miners faced Protestant forestry or mine officials.” [p.60]
It is ironic, then, that – as things turned out – one product of Prussian overlordship was a distinct Catholic revival, datable to the 1860s. Marpingen, and many villages like it, had been the despair of their parish priests during the preceding half a century; there had been a sharp fall in devotion and a corresponding rise in drunkenness, card-playing, dancing, impiety and illegitimacy; some parishoners had to be virtually forced to stay in their pews during interminable Sunday sermons. In Marpingen itself, an “an unusual degree of spite and hostility in relations between the inhabitants of Marpingen and successive parish priests,” who were sometimes abused in the street by members of their flock. Poor relations between the priest and the villagers were blamed in large part on a village oath – first sworn in 1699, at a time of plague, and renewed annually thereafter, “to keep Saturday afternoons holy,” but after 1800 this wording was generally taken to mean that the villagers felt free to lounge about on an afternoon on which they would normally have been working – six-day weeks being the norm at this time, of course. In consequence, Marpingen became noted for the indolence of its inhabitants. [pp.66-9] It took several decades, some intensive missionary work, and the perceived threat of a resurgent Protestantism, for this to change [p.73], but when it did the Virgin Mary was in the forefront of what became a potent Catholic revival. In 1847, the old oath was replaced, as Blackbourn notes,
with a Brotherhood of the Sacred and Immaculate Heart of Mary which parishoners were encouraged to join… It became the norm for villagers to join the Brotherhood after their first communion. A second, symbolically important step was taken at the same time: the restoration of the Marienbrunnen. This was a well close to the parish church, whose history went back to a medieval legend. During the draining of a swamp a miraculous image had supposedly been found; it was placed in a shrine by the newly dug well and became an object of veneration, attracting pilgrims in considerable numbers…Later writers saw this double renewal as a turning point. The Marienbrunnen now attracted an increased number of visitors again, espeically on Marian festivals, and became a popular meeting place for the women of Marpingen… As the naming of the Brotherhood indicated, the purposive renewal of popular piety in Marpingen was built on the Marian traditions of the village, whose patron saint was the Virgin and whose parish festival was held on the Feast of the Assumption.
It is interesting to delve a little deeper into the reasons why the revival of the 1860s was so much stronger and more successful than earlier attempts to prod the Catholics of Marpingen to greater devotion. According to Blackbourn, the key difference was that, rather than offer “a head-on challenge to the more crypto-materialist, superstitious aspects of common belief” in the years leading up to the apparitions of 1876, the church
tried to stamp these with a more acceptable form, often centred on the Virgin. the encouragement of the devotion to May as ‘Mary’s month’ is a good example, for it was superimposed on popular attachment to the ringing of bells in May to drive out evil spirits. The stories of Our Lady of Lourdes that children heard from their priest and in the Catholic school were similarly overlaid on popular beliefs about the appearance of mysterious ‘women in white’.
One important consequence of this, obviously, was that it became natural to associate old ghost stories and tales of spectral women in the nearby woodlands with the BVM.
The Catholic revival, Blackbourn continues, was aided by the appearance of a new parish priest, Father Neureuter, in 1864. Neureuter was young and vigorous – he had been ordained only in 1860 – and he and his sister “shared a fierce devotion ot the Virgin Mary… There is evidence that he was generous with references to Our Lady of Lourdes during his sermons.” The pompous detective sent, undercover, from Berlin to the village in 1876 observed with distaste that it was “teeming with images of the Virgin.” Nor was this growth in Catholic devotion restricted to the village; popular piety grew throughout the Saarland in general in these years, most notably in connection with displays of the so-called “Holy Coat” in the cathedral in nearby Trier. This celebrated relic – supposedly the seamless garment worn by Christ for his crucifixion – was exhibited in 1844 for the first time in more than three decades, and drew vast crowds to the city [p.70]. All in all, it is possible to conclude that, in the district around Marpingen, “the ‘superstitions’ of which the church disapproved had not been driven out, merely driven underground. They were to emerge again in the circumstances of the 1870s.” [p.75]
One reason for this surge in popular piety was unconnected to the activities of the Catholic Church, for the Saarland was badly hit by economic crisis in the middle 1870s. An investment boom, sparked by the unification of Germany in 1870-1, led by 1873 to a badly over-heating economy and then to a depression so severe that it dragged down markets across the world and caused what some economists consider to be the world’s first global slump. The Saarland – a vulnerable border area which had never diversified and remained heavily dependent on a single industry, coal – was particularly badly hit; in one local ironworks, examined by Blackbourn, profits fell by 83%, and the workforce was cut by half. Mine wages were cut by about 16%, and the number of miners employed by around 10%. At much the same time, cheap imports of grain and meat, both from other parts of Europe and from overseas, forced local farmers to dramatically cut their prices. The chief effect of this, for the villagers of Marpingen, was a significant rise in local unemployment, accompanied by an equally drastic fall in agricultural profits. Even “those who remained in employment faced insecurity, declining real wages, and worsening conditions.” There was a wave of repossessions. The crash, hence, impacted on virtually every family in the district, and Blackbourn shows that economic prospects in Marpingen reached their nadir in 1875-6, at precisely the time of the visions. [pp.77-85].
These economic problems were further exacerbated by the onset of a peculiarly German crisis known as the Kulturkampf [“Culture War”]. This, Blackbourn explains, was “the struggle between church and state initiated by Bismarck as a campaign against the alleged Catholic ‘enemy within’,” and it proved to be a significant threat to the Catholics of the Saarland, state persecution manifesting itself even at village level. Nationally, the Kulturkampf meant a ban on preaching politics from the pulpit, the seizure of considerable church property, the removal of state subsidies from any priest who refused to toe the government line, and the establishment of state control over the appointments of teachers and clergymen. Across the country, 1,800 priests were jailed and 16 million marks’ worth of church property appropriated. In the Marpingen district, the diocesan seminary was shut down, the local bishop imprisoned, and 350 clergymen were hauled before the courts. Some 150,000 Catholics (though not those of Marpingen) were left without a priest. When the Bishop of Trier died, furthermore, he was not replaced – a vacancy that, among other things, made it impossible for there to be any formal church investigation of the apparitions at Marpingen [pp.85-6].
Now, I’m sure that some critics and believers will advance the reasonable point that, in setting out to explain the visions at Marpingen, Blackbourn is seizing on and conflating every bit of “evidence” he can lay his hands on, and so constructing a picture of stress and disaster when in fact little was really changing at a village level. There seems little doubt, however, that the years 1873-76 really were something of a Perfect Storm for Marpingen – the worst crisis for three-quarters of a century, and one that inevitably provoked a response from the Catholics of the district. There was a sharp rise in the number of Catholic associations and the number of Catholic petitions, accompanied by “a highly charged emotional undertow to popular sentiment.” Matters came to a head in 1874, with the arrest of Bishop Eberhard of Trier [right] – and when the bishop turned to give his last blessing to the Catholic crowd before his imprisonment, one contemporary observed, “the agitation of the masses at this final moment was so great, their wailing and moaning so heart-rending, and the emotion that seized even sturdy men so powerful, so overwhelming, that the whole scene is indescribable.” [p.95]
All this had a profound effect on the villagers of Marpingen. Blackbourn identifies a “part-mystical, part-militant” longing in the district, and points out that “the craving for deliverance could take pathological form… when a new mental hospital opened in Merzig in the summer of 1876, the first two male patients were a man who believed he was the Pope and another who claimed to be a papal legate.” [p.95] The evidence shows there was a steep rise in the importance attached to prophecies and omens, and a “yearning for the supposed signs of supernatural divine intervention.” Miracles began to occur in the district; we noted some of them in the first post in this series, but there were others, too – cases of stigmata and, in nearby Eppelborn, a similar manifestation in the form of a woman named Elizabeth Flesch who sweated blood. Visions of the Virgin were seen, as well, and it’s fascinating to note that these generally took the rather casual, unholy and inconsequential form that so bothered some of the more thoughtful critics of events at Marpingen itself. Reviewing cases from Alsace and Lorraine, Blackbourn concludes that
in none of these cases did the report of events suggest much grace or dignity: one of the boys in Medelsheim [in the Palatinate] apparently tried to shake the Virgin down from the tree in which she was perched, while another girl claimed that the Virgin had hopped onto her hand and stayed there a while before disappearing. The Virgin of Rohrbach supposedly appeared in a plum tree.
Bishop Eberhard, on his release from gaol in 1875, made “direct reference to the protection of the Virgin,” travelled to visit a Marian shrine, and “talked with feeling about [a] ‘simple countryman’ to whom a miraculous image of the Virgin had been revealed at ‘a time of sorrow when widespread confusion reigned.'” He concluded, in a famous pronouncement, that his diocese (and hence Marpingen) must be directly “under the protection” of the BVM [p.96].
It’s hard to imagine such pronouncements did not have an effect on the pious inhabitants of Marpingen, who responded to adversity by resisting, however passively, persecution by the state, and by hoping ever more desperately for salvation in the form of some sort of divine intervention. It was this potent cocktail of fear, resentment and expectation, Blackbourn suggests, that underpinned the events of July 1876:
There was, on the one hand, a discirnible pattern of dumb insolence towards civil authority, which occasionally tipped over into physical resistance to the implementation of the Kulturkampf. There was, on the other, a heightening of religious fervour and apocalyptic sentiment. It is against this background that Marpingen should be seen.
There’s more – much more – that could be said about events in the Saarland. Blackbourn’s book contains an instructive chapter on “Pilgrims, cures and commercialization” which uses some of the points sketched out above to explain why claiming a cure, or profiting from pilgrimage to the village, could be seen as an act of resistance to the state, and a detailed study of the ambivalent reaction of the Catholic clergy. He also considers why the Marpingen visions attracted considerable hostility, while contemporary claims of BVM apparitions in Bavaria and along the border with Russia were far better received, before concluding by taking the whole story forward into the 1960s and chronicling the gradual collapse of the Marpingen pilgrimage industry. Sadly, his book was written before claims of fresh visions emerged from Marpingen in 1999. But I don’t doubt that, given time, David Blackbourn could write just as revealingly on these as well.
All in all, I rate Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Nineteenth Century Germany among the most important of all books on Fortean phenomena, and anyone with serious interest in the subject should read it. Failure to take account of such academic findings, I’d suggest, renders much other work done on Marian apparitions more or less entirely pointless – and much the same can be said of research in a number of related fields.
As noted in my first post on this subject, much good scholarly work has been done, over the past 30 years or so, on the social and cultural background to Marian apparitions, and very little of it is ever cited outside purely academic publications. Anyone with an interest in this subject would benefit from reading some, or all, of the following books and articles, which admirably supplement and elaborate on David Blackbourn’s conclusions.
Carroll, Michael. Cult of the Virgin Mary: Psychological Origins. Princeton [NJ]: Princeton University Press, 1983. Carroll seeks to explain why Mary, rather than any other religious figure, is so associated with apparitions, and why she is reported in certain places and times, but not in others. Densely-written, and how you regard it rather depends on your tolerance for Freudian theory; at root, Carroll suggests, the cult of Mary is a product of the “father-ineffective family” created by excessive working hours and the lack of a social safety-net – a toxic family structure in which, he posits, “Oedipal desires in both sons and daughters are intensified.”
Christian, William. Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain. Princeton [NJ]: Princeton University Press, 1981. Christian, a professor of religious history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is also the author of several important related studies, including Visionaries: the Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ – a detailed study of Marian apparitions in Ezkioga, Spain, in the run-up to the Civil War – and Moving Crucifixes in Modern Spain, which examines religious phenomena in three Spanish towns in the first half of the century – the titular miracles are clear precursors of the celebrated ‘Moving statue of Ballinspittle‘ case of the 1980s – and considers the knotty problem of why, among tens of thousands of miraculous claims, a few are popularly accepted at certain places and in certain times. Christian’s extensively-referenced work extends up to the early 1960s and makes some important Spanish cases easily accessible to an English-speaking audience: see e.g. ‘Religious apparitions and the Cold War in Southern Europe’ in Eric Wolfe (ed.), Religion, Power and Protest in Local Communities: the Northern Shore of the Mediterranean (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1984), available as a free pdf download here.
Devlin, Judith. The Superstitious Mind: French Peasants and the Supernatural in the Nineteenth Century. New Haven [CT]: Yale University Press, 1987. Explores the threat posed by the “unknown” – in the form of impenetrable forests and dangerous roads – in the lives of the French peasantry, and the ways in which appeal to the BVM and various intercessory saints could be used to temper and control such fears.
Harris, Ruth. Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. London: Allen Lane, 1999. A complex study, directly comparable to Blackbourn’s, of the visions at Lourdes, and their aftermath. The author, an Oxford academic, is a specialist in the history of medicine in nineteenth century France, and she writes illuminatingly on claims of miraculous healings at the shrine.
Kselman, Thomas. Miracles and Prophecies in Nineteenth Century France. New Brunswick [NJ]: Rutgers University Press, 1983. Includes an important look at miracle claims from Lourdes; combines historical and sociological approaches into a sceptical whole. Kselman is also the author of Death and the Afterlife in Early Modern France.
Lachapelle, Sofie. ‘Between Miracle and Sickness: Louise Lateau and the Experience of Stigmata and Ecstasy.’ Configurations v12n1 (Winter 2004). Study of a prominent Belgian stigmatic (whose life and claims were covered in some detail by Herbert Thurston in his Physical Phenomena of Mysticism) by a Canadian professor of the history of science who has also written well on Charles Richet and French psychical research. Lachapelle focuses on the ways in which contemporary medicine investigated and understood Lateau and her claims. Her paper deals principally with the struggle of scientists and their physiological and pathological hypotheses to establish themselves with authority in a society in which religious belief was still the norm; it focuses particularly on the conflicts experienced by Christian scientists (small ‘s’) confronted with such cases.
Pope, Barbara Corrado. ‘Immaculate and powerful: the Marian Revival in the nineteenth century’. In Clarissa Atkinson et al (eds), Immaculate and Powerful: The Female in Sacred Image and Social Reality. Cambridge [MA]: Harvard University Press, 1985. A feminist take on the subject which suggests that the increased frequency of Marian visions in the nineteenth century was a product of the feminisation of the Catholic church during that period as much as it was of the century-long ‘Marian age’ between about 1850 and 1950 set in motion by the pronouncement of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Pope is a history professor turned novelist from the University of Oregon.
Taylor, Thérèse. Bernadette of Lourdes: Her Life, Death and Visions. London: Burnes and Oates, 2003. A scholarly and not overtly partial biography which treats its subject as a historical figure rather than as a saint. Taylor is an odd and engaging combination of nun and lecturer in gender and sexuality at Charles Sturt University.
Weber, Eugen. ‘Religion and superstition in nineteenth century France’. In Historical Journal v31 (1988). Author of the highly influential Peasants into Frenchmen, which looked at French rural nationalism in the late nineteenth century, Weber reviews the historiography of this subject and makes the point that the triumph of Catholicism over the folklore-laced popular religion prevalent in the provinces was by no means pre-ordained. This paper is available online, in a slightly revised form, as chapter 6 in Weber’s book My France.
Zimdars-Swartz, Sandra. Encountering Mary: Visions of Mary from La Salette to Medjugorje. Princeton [NJ]: Princeton University Press, 1991. A general survey that is well on the way to becoming the accepted academic overview of this subject. The author, a University of Kansas professor whose background is in the history of popular piety in the medieval period, notes the links between BVM apparitions and other phenomena, such as UFOs, but is thoroughly scornful of non-academic takes on the subject.
Update 25 June 2014. Harvard’s new digital scholarship initiative DASH (great name!) has made Blackbourn’s 1992 journal article ‘The Madonna of Marpingen: A likely story’ (Common Knowledge 7) available free here.