David Blackbourn's Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a Nineteenth-Century German Village

Marpingen by David Blackbourn

David Blackbourn in his book, Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a Nineteenth-Century German Village examines the Marian apparitions reported by three young German girls in 1876. Blackbourn argues that the larger social, economic, and political pressures of the Kulturkampf, the depression of the 1870s, and the aggressive centralization and expansion of the state interacted with the discreet details of the personal lives of the visionaries, culminating in a phenomenon that was at once specific to the Marpingen community and indicative of broad European trends. Blackbourn approaches his subject with empathy and respect, drawing his evidence from a variety of sources in order to uncover the historical forces at play as well as the experiences of the people involved in the dramatic incident. Marian apparitions are a fascinating reminder of the power of popular religion and the subject of several historical investigations beyond what is addressed in this paper.

Blackbourn refers to historical and psychological analysis of Marian apparitions contributed by Michael Carroll from his book The Cult of the Virgin Mary and the solid background of social history provided by Jonathon Sperber from his classic book Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Other treatments of Marian apparitions are often religious and reverential in approach, such as the recent work by Cheryl Porte, Pontmain, Prophecy and Protest or, at the other end of the short spectrum, anti-clerical in tone, like Nicholas Perry and Loreto Echeverria’s book, Under the Heel of Mary. In Marpingen, Blackbourn has successfully avoided either moralistic stance, neither embracing nor dismissing the spiritual significance of such incidents in the lives of nineteenth-century Catholics. Combining a variety of details about the visions themselves with a solid historical interpretation of nineteenth-century Germany, he explores many angles of the apparitions with curiosity and integrity.

Blackbourn’s methodology reflects his meticulous research as well as his ability to weave his theory and evidence together into a compelling story of both historical and personal importance. He divides his book into three parts, addressing first the social, political and economic background to popular material insecurity and Marian devotion. In the second part of Marpingen, Blackbourn investigates the apparitions themselves and finally, in the last section he addresses the legacy of the events. This style of organization allows him to address a variety of perspectives with evidence culled from both official and anecdotal sources.

In the first section of his book, Blackbourn begins by examining the trends and patterns of nineteenth-century Marian devotion. He positions the events at Marpingen within a context of epidemics, famine and political upheaval to illustrate the popular desire for an accessible intercessor in the face of hardship and uncertainty. For many Catholic Germans, Mary symbolized piety and comfort, and “her message that plenty could be restored by faith and repentance was a source of hope.” The secular legacy of the French Revolution and the state-building reaction to the Napoleonic Wars had disrupted the hierarchies and institutions of many Catholic communities and resulted in “the first great wave a visions in modern Europe.” In the 1860s and 1870s, the Marian apparitions reported in German and Italian communities occurred against the backdrop of war and insecurity that accompanied the creation of the Italian and German states. Blackbourn convincingly ties Marian devotions and vision to popular fears, not just of war and scarcity, but of a tangible loss of traditional systems of social organization, particularly the authority of the church. Blackbourn supports his position by calling on examples of Marin apparitions in Lourdes, Pontmain, La Salette and Tuscany and other locations that experienced similar threats to tradition.

Blackbourn shifts his analysis to the transformation taking place in German villages, blending the larger trends across region with details specific to Marpingen. He describes the changes in village demographics and the significance of industrialization, modernization, emigration, capitalism and the centralization of state power to prove that Marpingen was a “community fundamentally transformed in the nineteenth century.” Social hierarchies were disrupted, collective land use was restricted and popular religion was standardized, marginalized or politicized. The Kulturkampf institutionalized the struggle between the Catholic Church and the state, while a religious revival among Catholic increasingly emphasized Marian devotion. Blackbourn argues that Marpingen was especially vulnerable to these social, political and economic forces as it was located on the boarder, had been “caught up in a dizzy reel of territorial exchanges and treaties” had rapidly become a mining community in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, and had recently welcomed a new priest, Jakob Neurenther, himself a devotee to Mary and indicative of a “large-scale religious revival.”

Blackbourn then steps back from Marpingen to examine the larger forces at play in greater detail. He explains the scope and impact of the depression of 1873, the implications of the German unification and the tensions between agriculture and industry, between the Catholic Church and the state, between liberals and the state and between liberals and the Catholic Church. He provides tables showing migration statistics and the convictions of priests who were caught performing mass illegally. Seeming almost perfunctory, this section of the book is less impressive then his more personal analysis of the visionaries and their community, and Sperber gives a much deeper analysis of this subject that will be discussed later in this paper.

In the second part of his book, Blackbourn investigates the backgrounds and experiences of the visionaries themselves, Margaretha Kunz, Katherina Hubertus and Susanna Leist. The Marpingen apparitions received wide public recognition, became the object of state intervention and interrogation and a formal investigation by the Catholic Church. Blackbourn uses interrogation transcripts, media reports, court records, personal letters and clerical accounts to flesh out his interpretation of the events. He reveals the personal details of the girls’ lives to show how their claims fit with their earlier experiences of loss, illness and deprivation. He points out the similarities between Margaretha Kunz, who he identifies as the ringleader, and Bernadette Soubrous, the visionary at Lourdes, who experienced many of the same personal losses and deprivations that colored Margaretha’s childhood. He then demonstrates the powerful role played by pilgrimages and miracle cures in the popular imagination, concluding, “the apparitions obviously tapped a source of intense spiritual hunger among Germans.” Blackbourn also points out the disconnect between the official Church disapproval of the apparitions and the enthusiastic involvement of the local priest, demonstrating the disarray of the Catholic hierarchy.

The apparitions at Marpingen, and the ensuing legal debacle exposed, not only the division within the Catholic Church over popular piety, but also the repressive nature of the Prussian state and, ultimately, the limits of its hegemonic project. After two weeks of military occupation, the harsh interrogation of children, and a blatantly disingenuous investigation, there was no evidence of fraud or instigation of public disorder. Indeed Blackbourn argues that the ultimate consequence of the official investigation of the apparitions at Marpingen was a well-deserved contempt of the Prussian authorities and their destructive and repressive tactics. The limits of their power were exposed, as were the limits of the reach of the Church, and “the tacit support of local officials for the apparitions was most telling, and frustrating to higher authority.”

Blackbourn then turns from the religious and political reactions to the apparitions to the tensions between popular Catholicism and liberal ideology, demonstrating the diverse worldviews held by the German public. Speaking in the language of the natural sciences of a “brave new world of progress… (working toward) a society of citizens” underpinned by Darwinian theory, many German liberals were uncomfortable with the mystical superstition they saw at the core of Marian devotion.

The “red thread”of modernity and the problematic interactions between the forces of change and the proponents of tradition acquire new depth and complexity in Blackbourn’s analysis of the apparitions at Marpingen. The failure of the Catholic Church to subdue or absorb popular religious movements and the inability of the Prussian state to repress and punish such movements demonstrate the diverse and contradictory currents of modernity and popular sentiment in Marpingen during the 1870s, but also speak to the underpinnings of Marian devotion in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Visions of the Virgin Mary have continued in Germany, between the two World Wars, during the 1930s and the Cold War, supporting Blackbourn’s argument that apparitions occur during “times of political and social stress” [16], yet his caution that these material trends do not suffice when analyzing Marian apparitions is significant because the personal lives and experiences of the visionaries themselves, and the communities in which they live, are crucial pieces of the story.


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