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David Blackbourn in his book, <i>Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a Nineteenth-Century German Village</I> 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 <I>The Cult of the Virgin Mary</I> and the solid background of social history provided by Jonathon Sperber from his classic book <I>Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Germany</I>. 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, <I>Under the Heel of Mary</i>. 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.
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.
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