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Holiness Suddenly Revealed

In late medieval Bavaria, previously unimportant, even marginal, shrines that suddenly and inexplicably revealed their power through spontaneous wonder-working had been common, often leading to the development of immensely popular devotions. Images, relics, or the numinous site itself might even "show forth" (zeichnen ) with signs. From the perspective of Bavaria's ecclesiastical hierarchy, such extemporaneous wonder-working was inherently problematic: it riveted the laity's attention on chapels and altars that


were sometimes unconsecrated, made natural features like springs and wells the objects of religious affection, and threatened to usurp clerical control over worship. Thus, although these devotions continued to proliferate, the Bavarian clergy began to labor to make the divine presence contingent on a site's connection with provincial and imperial history, a legacy of aristocratic benefactions, and affiliation with legendary clerical figures.

In the early Counter-Reformation, Bavaria's clerical propagandists redoubled these efforts, striving to "prehistoricize" and shroud in legendary mystery many sites of religious reverence and stressing their organic role in the biblical drama and the apostolic succession. This "traditionalizing" impulse was now more necessary than ever before, as a weapon against Protestant attacks on saints' cults and pilgrimages as recent clerical, even demonic, inventions. But counter-reformers' efforts to locate pilgrimage within a visible Catholic, confessional lineage also arose from the perceived need to discipline lay religion. By identifying their cults with ancient tribal religious practices purified by importation into Christianity, Bavaria's Catholic clergy attempted not only to link pilgrimage with the region's earliest cultural identity, but also to demonstrate that only the Catholic religion had the power to transform age-old devotions. Moreover, by concentrating on the necessity of apostolic sanction, they tried to show that supernatural intercession was available only through routine clerical channels.

For most of the Catholic reformers, the precise locations of Bavaria's numina had been revealed long before at specific times, and they assured their audience that the territory's sanctity was by and large a fait accompli . The faithful could add to Catholicism's complement of holy places by importing a disregarded and neglected saint like Benno of Meissen, but his wonder-working now hung solely on his standing within an antique apostolic and clerical succession. The Catholic commonwealth imagined by the counter-reformers required the faithful to display submission, humility, and devotion before what they perceived as a long-revealed religious principle, expressed by the full complement of saints' cults, holy places, and religious images with its legacy of power. In this way, the Catholic reformers used the past not just polemically, but also as a disciplinary agent; saintly and divine presences, they insisted, did not normally appear in sudden outbursts of wonder-working that in


turn created episodic religious enthusiasm. Rather, the Catholic heritage was marked by moments of special grace performed by apostolically consecrated figures that engendered lasting religious affection.

These attempts to mold pilgrimage into part of a clear legacy were persistent, but not without deviation. At Flochberg, just across Bavaria's eastern border in the county of Oettingen, for instance, a new devotion without ancient origins appeared after 1583 and was enthusiastically promoted by the local parish priest, Abraham Nagel. Nagel's propagandistic campaign illustrates very well how the defense of pilgrimage and the cult of the saints were gradually appropriated outside Bavaria. The county of Oettingen is also of particular interest to us because its ruling family—and hence its physical territory—was confessionally divided. Thus, development of a thaumaturgic pilgrimage there was aimed—as it was in Bavaria—at opposing Protestant ideas and practices, which carried some weight but did not (yet) predominate in the Catholic part of Oettingen.[105] Moreover, the new devotion aroused immediate criticism from the evangelical clergy in the adjoining Protestant half of the county, leading to another polemical exchange between Protestant and Catholic theologians.[106] Flochberg's success in inspiring controversy, therefore, provides us with yet another proof of the fears the resurgence of Catholic pilgrimage aroused among the evangelical clergy.

In 1583, Abraham Nagel published Our Lady at Flochberg in the Rye Field at Wolfgang Eder's press in Ingolstadt.[107] The stylistic and visual similarities between this book and Eisengrein's Our Lady at


Altötting or Engerd's slightly later Holy Savior at Bettbrunn are immediately apparent. Nagel displays as well his familiarity not only with Eisengrein's pilgrimage book, but also with the recent dispute over miracles and shrines; he even includes large excerpts from Johann Rabus's Christian Refutation of "On Miracles and Wondrous Signs ."[108]

Unlike Altöting, Bettbrunn, or St. Benno's shrine in Munich, the devotion at Flochberg was a new phenomenon without medieval antecedent. Thus, Nagel could not draw upon ancient legends or historical accounts; yet he did have the excitement of a contemporary miracle—a series of Marian apparitions—to exploit, and this he did with zeal.[109] Promotion of a "new" shrine was problematic, for it laid Nagel and the Catholic clergy open to the charge of working "magic" and fostering "diabolic" innovations to lead the laity astray.

As the sixteenth century was drawing to a close, Catholic and Protestant authorities alike were scrutinizing events such as were claimed to have transpired at Flochberg more carefully than ever before. The Protestant Johann Marbach, for instance, had already used the presence of Marian apparitions in Martin Eisengrein's Altötting exorcistic account to prove that the Jesuit Peter Canisius was a black magician. But beyond their potential for negative polemical exploitation, apparitions were proving increasingly destabilizing for both Protestant and Catholic clerics, because they threatened "official" control over religious experience. Nagel therefore fused to his account of Flochberg's precipitant miracle a wealth of details designed to protect his story from Protestant attack and to underscore the extraordinary character of the events that had shaken this tiny village. What had happened here, he claimed, was a rare yet verifiable case in which the Virgin had directly interceded to change the course of human history.

He began his account of the devotion on May 26, 1582, when Apollonia Wintzer disciplined her ten-year-old son Wilhelm for neglecting his chores. Enraged by his disobedience, the mother beat the child with a sharp birch rod until he fell into a series of convulsive, epileptic fits. Terrified by her actions and powerless to help the


child, Apollonia sought advice from her neighbors, who could offer no suggestion to stop the convulsions. In desperation, she sent for her husband, the court tailor to the Catholic counts of OettingenWallerstein. The father, Nagel wrote, "took the gripping pain of his own flesh and blood to heart," repeatedly bemoaning the fact that he could not take the child's suffering upon himself. Seeing his grief, one of his neighbors suggested the father vow a pilgrimage, which he immediately did. Invoking the Virgin, he promised a journey to Our Lady of Kochheim with a pound of wax if the child were cured.[110]

Unlike late medieval miracle accounts, in which relief was formulaically described as "immediate," this pilgrimage book transformed the cure of the child into a dramatic weeks-long struggle. On the first day after the vow, the author noted, the child began to perspire but did not regain consciousness. The next day he revived, but a long period of convulsions followed, usually four or five times each day. The situation continued like this for about two weeks until Pentecost, at which time the child began to report experiencing Marian apparitions during the night:

Then during the night an earnest and beautifully formed woman appeared beside his bedstead in actual visual form with a blue mantle covered from the hem to the top with shining stars and a gleaming halo surrounding her head. She touched him, lifted his head up and took away [from him] the root which the noble woman, Johanna, countess of Oettingen (by birth a countess of Hohenzollern) had placed there out of pity and compassion for him. And she spoke to him. "Wilhelm, each evening, when you go to say your prayers, go into the adjacent long rye field. There is a root buried there that will help you and make you healthy." And after this she hung the root back around his neck and when the child closed his eyes from fear and dread, she disappeared.[111]

The child, however, failed at first to act upon his vision; the second night, the Virgin reappeared with the same message. Wilhelm then told his mother of the apparition and begged her to let him go to the rye field. Fearing what might happen if the convulsive child left the house alone and dismissing the visions as mere fits, however,


the mother forbade him to go to the place. Even though her messages were being disregarded, the Virgin continued to appear to the boy each night for more than two weeks.

The parents still procrastinated, doubting the child's visions and the effectiveness of any root buried in a rye field. Yet each day the attacks reappeared, so that by the end of June the parents and the boy had "scarcely had a day's peace." Finally the father agreed to take the boy to the rye field. Upon their arrival there they said an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and the Apostle's Creed, then entered the space. When the child had walked into the field about thirty steps, the Virgin again appeared to him. This time, however, Mary became a thaumaturge, acting to cure her young patient. First she took the miraculous root of which she had told the child, pressed it on his forehead crosswise, and then produced a vial of holy water out of her cloak. Pouring some onto her hand, she placed her two longest fingers into the water and made the sign of the cross on the child's forehead and heart and on both hands and feet. Finally she gave him the following message: "My son, go. Your illness will not reappear again during your entire life. Be pious. Pray. Call upon God. Go diligently to Church. Listen to God's word and complete your pilgrimage." She turned and walked away, "looking like the clear sun," and soon disappeared from the child's sight. But she left him completely healthy.[112]

Nagel's narrative may appear complex and contrived, yet these very complexities defended the cult of the saints from Protestant attack. Clearly, Nagel reasoned, apparitions occurred—rare, exceptional testimony to Catholicism's wonder-working power, testimony that could not be revealed to everyone. Each component of the story—from the father's vow of the pilgrimage through the son's vision and to the Virgin's cure—served Catholic confessional purposes. In his narrative fashioning of the incident, Nagel's approach was in fact similar to Martin Eisengrein's account of the 1571 Altötting exorcism: he first retold the entire miracle and then proceeded to discuss each episode, refuting in advance, so to speak, any possible Protestant criticisms. Thus, his miracle also served as a vehicle—as did Eisengrein's exorcism—for discussing the nature


and meaning of pilgrimage, vows, the invocation of the saints, and the veneration of relics and images.

In particular, Nagel's account of the Virgin's healing of the afflicted child affirmed the traditional belief in the efficacy of specific places and objects, a precept that the Counter-Reformation program in South Germany had stressed from the start. In both Nagel and Eisengrein's accounts, the resolution of the votant's affliction began with a Marian apparition that called the faithful to a specific site, one that would prove holy and efficacious. In Nagel's story, however, instead of healing being channeled through a charismatic priest like Canisius, the Virgin herself appropriated the functions of both priest and folk healer.

Our Lady of Flochberg's wonder-working resembled Canisius's in Our Lady at Altötting in other respects as well. In that earlier account, the Jesuit father had used a plethora of mediating agents to exorcise the woman's demons. At Flochberg, too, Mary employed various antidotes to conquer the convulsions. She revealed to the boy Wilhelm the secret of a root buried in the rye field and pressed it against his forehead, thus appropriating the tools of folk medicine. Yet her healing also relied on holy water and the sign of the cross, and in that way reaffirmed the efficacy of traditional religious practices and the great degree of protection and aid that the Roman Church afforded the faithful.

Finally, the stories of the events at Flochberg and at Altötting were also similar in that both cast the treatment of the afflicted in a fully "religious," interior, and spiritual light. Rather than the immediate or "cheap" cures of late medieval miracle literature, Eisengrein and Nagel painted the Altötting and Flochberg miracles as the climax to a long period of struggle against illness. This struggle, to be sure, enhanced the drama and veracity of both accounts; but it also transformed the miracle into a process that first demanded internal catharsis and purification before the ultimate cure. In other words, it reflected that mixture of inward devotion and outward demonstration of faith that Catholic propagandists had recommended since the inception of the Counter-Reformation.

At Flochberg, Mary reminded the cured boy that the award of a miracle should be followed by ongoing amendment of life. Her last words were "Be pious. Pray. Call upon God. Go diligently to


church. Listen to God's word and complete your pilgrimage." At the end of the Altötting drama, too, Canisius had preached a similar message to the afflicted woman and the audience in the chapel. Thus, in both accounts the receiving of a cure was woven together with a change in living and the diligent practice of Catholic cult, features appropriate to Counter-Reformation purposes. Unlike the medieval Mary, who meted out aid to all regardless of the quality of their piety, this Virgin intended those she helped to change and become rigorous practitioners of the Catholic religion. She might comfort and heal the sick, but the purpose of these ministrations was ultimately to increase the level of devotion of her parishioners. Mary now expected more in return—an internal transformation of the heart and faithful attendance at mass and confession-than a pound of wax or a length of cloth.


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6 "Spiritual Medicine for Heretical Poison" Pilgrimage and Propaganda in the Early Counter-Reformation
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