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About this book

Studies in the field of popular religion have for some time been among the most innovative in social and cultural history, but until now there have been few publications providing any adequate overview for Germany and the Holy Roman Empire. This volume presents the results of recent research by younger scholars working on major aspects of this subject. The nine essays range over nearly four centuries of German history, encompassing late-medieval female piety, propaganda for radical Hussite dissent, attitudes towards the Jews, legitimation for the witchcraze on the eve of the Reformation, attempts to implement Protestant reform in German villages, Reformation attacks on popular magic and female culture, problems of defining the Reformation in small German towns, Protestant popular prophecy and formation of confessional identity, and the missionising strategies of the Counter-Reformation.

Table of Contents


The purpose of this volume is to provide a collection of essays embodying recent research on popular religion within the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire (Germany and Bohemia) in the later middle ages and early modern period. There has been a considerable efflorescence of research on the general theme of ‘popular religion’ over the past decade, although very little has been published on German topics, whether in English or German.1 The work presented here represents a sampling of approaches and subjects that is distinctive in three ways. First, it reveals the extremely broad range of problems and issues that may be explored under the heading ‘popular religion’, encompassing female spirituality, the role of gender, the psychology of religious devotion, the creation of religious mythology and forms of religio-political discourse, attitudes towards the Jews, witchcraft, popular magic, the nature of Protestant ‘popular belief’ and the appropriation of popular religious phenomena by the Catholic Reformation. Such issues also encompass both the rural and urban worlds, and deal with intensively private as well as with overtly public manifestations of belief.
Bob Scribner

1. Female Spirituality and the Infant Jesus in Late Medieval Dominican Convents

A visitor coming today to the beautifully situated convent of Maria-Medingen in Bavaria will find a doll of the infant Jesus proudly displayed in a glass shrine. It is in a chapel dedicated to the fourteenth-century nun to whom the doll once belonged, the mystic Margaretha von Ebner. In the rear of the chapel the visitor will also find about sixty ex-voto images donated to Margaretha von Ebner in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.2 Some of them depict her praying or meditating in front of her doll. Others show her at the bedsides of sick babies for whose health the parents were supplicating. Yet most show her in intense contact with the doll, mediating between the donor’s concern and Jesus’s grace. Through her relationship to Jesus, mediated through the doll, Margaretha von Ebner gained a spiritual power which the laity could recognise. In her own time, the doll enabled her to bypass structures of clerical authority as it responded to her questions about people’s salvation and told her about God’s attitude towards individual saints and male mystics. But why did her devotion focus on an infant Jesus doll? We can only regard this as bizarre. The question takes us back to the context of medieval piety.
Ulinka Rublack

2. The ‘Crown’ and the ‘Red Gown’: Hussite Popular Religion

[After the execution of Jan Hus in 1415] … the Bohemians and Moravians were filled with indignation and a number of priests both in Prague and throughout Bohemian and Moravian towns began to give the body and blood of Christ, under both kinds, to the ordinary people. They elevated the host in monstrances and it was customary for the multitudes of people to march behind the elevated host in praise to God. When the common people began to celebrate Holy Communion under both the elements of the body and blood of Christ, they were ridiculed as Husses, Wyclifites and heretics. Then the people were divided, both priests and laypeople, into two groups. There were many adherents to both sides. These two groups ridiculed and fought the other to such an extent that even the king was unable to prevent it. 1
Thomas A. Fudge

3. Judengasse to Christian Quarter: The Phenomenon of the Converted Synagogue in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Holy Roman Empire

In 1519 the artist Albrecht Altdorfer produced two finely detailed woodcuts depicting the entrance hall and interior of the Regensburg synagogue (Figures 2 and 3). The conspicuous dates on each are most significant; on 22 February 1519, shortly after Emperor Maximilian’s death on 12 January, the city council of Regensburg decreed not only the expulsion of the Jews but also the demolition of the synagogue and much of the Judengasse. 1 Obviously, Altdorfer, who was a member of the Outer Council of the city of Regensburg,2 hastened to record the synagogue before it and much of the Judengasse vanished (Figure 4).3 The synagogue was promptly razed and a wooden church ‘Zur Schönen Maria’ (Figure 5) quickly erected on the site and consecrated about a month later on 25 March 1519, the day of the feast of the Annunciation;4 this hastily constructed building was soon replaced by a lavish stone church (Figure 6).5 The destroyed Judengasse is represented in the backgrounds of these latter two images,6 both woodcuts by Michael Ostendorfer.7
J. M. Minty

4. Institoris at Innsbruck: Heinrich Institoris, the Summis Desiderantes and the Brixen Witch-Trial of 1485

The grossly exaggerated importance normally ascribed to the Summis Desiderantes, also known as the ‘Witch Bull’, promulgated by Pope Innocent VIII on 5 December 1484, makes it perhaps the most overrated document in the entire history of European witchcraft persecutions.1 The document is clearly a Fakultät, a formal papal authorisation for a specific office to be fulfilled by a specific person for the indefinite future. Although it is exceptional in being issued ‘ad perpetuum rei memoriam’, the Summis fully belongs in that long series of Fakultäten issued throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries which empowered numerous inquisitors and instructed them in their duties.2
Eric Wilson

5. Witchcraft and Popular Religion in Early Modern Rothenburg ob der Tauber

In his stimulating article ‘Protestant Demonology: Sin, Superstition, and Society (c.l520–c.l630)’, Stuart Clark highlights the existence of an early modern Protestant pastoral demonology qualitatively different from that of its Catholic counterpart. It was a demonology which downplayed the significance of maleficent witchcraft and the power of witches and instead reserved its ire for popular magic, or the wide range of rituals used for healing, divination, detection and counter-witchcraft. This emphasis, Clark argues, sprang from a pastoral concern to persuade the layperson that to regard misfortune as the work of witches ‘undervalued the spiritual function of misfortune as a retribution for sin and a test of faith, and questioned God’s providential control over affairs’. To counter misfortune with beneficent magic ‘ignored the need for repentance … and attributed specious powers to the supposedly protective or curative properties of persons, places, times, and things’.1
Alison Rowlands

6. Popular Beliefs and the Reformation in Brandenburg-Ansbach

In 1589 the pastor Jacob Graeter gave an extended sermon to his parishioners in Schwäbisch Hall entitled (to cite the preamble) Hexen oder Unholden Predigten. Graeter spoke on the subjects of magic and witchcraft. The words ‘witch’, ‘fiend’, or ‘sorcerer’ were laden with significance for the sixteenth-century mind and Graeter used them to advantage. But it is doubtful whether the average parishioner induced the range of meaning implied by the clergyman: ‘What we say here of sorcerers should also be understood of magicians, necromancers, purveyors of black magic, soothsayers, crystalball readers, and others of the Devil’s brood.’1 Graeter’s homily was intended to make an impression on his audience; he warned against the wiles of the Evil One, and how easily man may forswear his trust in Christ and fall prey to Satan’s promised ‘mountain of Gold’.
C. Scott Dixon

7. Why was Private Confession so Contentious in Early Seventeenth-Century Lindau?

Auricular confession1 was instituted officially by the Fourth Lateran Council. Canon 21 compelled all Christians to make a full confession of all sins once a year; only after hearing the full extent of a parishioner’s sins could a confessor assign penance and grant absolution. How strictly these instructions were followed in the south German imperial city of Lindau is unknown; however, it appears that by the late fourteenth century the local clergy considered the administration of auricular confession one of the defining powers of their office. In 1395 it was the last of the parish priest’s powers to be shared with the recently arrived Franciscans.2
J. C. Wolfart

8. A Lübeck Prophet in Local and Lutheran Context

On the evening of 10 April 1629, the Friday after Easter, the pastor at the cathedral church in Lübeck, Bernhard Blume, M.A., received an unexpected visitor at his home. One of his parishioners, David Frese, a humble citizen of Lübeck, had already called at four o’clock when the minister was out, but now he was finally able to tell of his experience at lunchtime. He had been on his way back from Grönau. On coming to the heath where the border between the territories of Lübeck and Sachsen-Lauenburg was located, near the white stone that had fallen down, he became full of fear and thought about returning when he heard somebody say, ‘Listen, I want to tell you something!’ Then he saw an old grey man, dressed in white, sitting on the fallen stone. Two white doves were perched on his right shoulder, and one on his left. All three doves where drenched all over, and tears were flowing from their eyes. The old man began to speak and asked why it was that the dead in Lübeck were not allowed to rest? The church of St George should remain standing. Enough sin had already been committed by tearing down another church earlier. On the contrary, every week two days of prayer should be celebrated at St George’s; if this was not done, they would see what was going to befall them.
Jürgen Beyer

9. Blood, Tears and Xavier-Water: Jesuit Missionaries and Popular Religion in the Eighteenth-Century Upper Palatinate

At first glance, associating the Jesuits with popular religion might appear paradoxical. Given their background, training, ecclesiastical power and political influence, the Jesuits constituted an elite within German Catholic society in the era of the Counter-Reformation. At the same time, their ministry was principally directed towards that society’s other elite groups. Jesuit priests, or patres, were prominent, for example, in an educational role, as instructors of the secular and regular clergy in the universities, or as tutors to the sons of nobility and patricians in their imposing urban colleges. Similarly the order’s significant political influence derived from the frequent occupation by Jesuits of posts as confessors to Catholic princely dynasties. Jesuits too trod the boards of high culture as artistic and literary patrons and practitioners. Such were the elevated circles in which they appear to have moved most comfortably. Unsurprisingly, historians of the Society of Jesus in Germany have chosen to focus their studies on those Jesuit activities and institutions which best reflect these themes, from theology to court politics, from Marian Sodalities to school drama.1 But what of the rest of society and, in particular, of its largest constituency, the rural peasantry: were the non-elite ignored completely by the patres?
Trevor Johnson
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