What the children saw

Marina Warner

  • Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Bismarckian Germany by David Blackhourn
    Oxford, 463 pp, £40.00, December 1993, ISBN 0 19 821783 8

The Ave Maria society, based in London, recently issued a book the size of a telephone directory called Supernatural Visions of the Madonna 1981-91. The desktop publication was heralded by large ads in various papers featuring the visionary. Sister Marie or Sofia Marie Gabriel: her revelations and secrets could save mankind. In the book, the author includes a poem, called ‘Child Mystic Child of Destiny’:

I live the life of an innocent child
Pure and gentle
Meek and mild
I live just like a cloistered nun
And I avoid all worldly fun.

Many photographs of the visionary follow, taken by her Polish father. John K. Sagatis, who died, the book alleges, as a result of the wanton neglect of an NHS hospital.

These photographs of an aspiring saint are fascinating: reproduced in the degraded colour of multiple xeroxing, they turn Sister Marie into a kind of performance artist, creating an album of holy images to give a warranty for her apocalyptic prophecies. Just as Cindy Sherman takes her cue from traditional iconography – be it Caravaggio or film noir – Sister Marie adopts as her models the angels and mystics of the Catholic Church, especially the women saints of the 19th century, Saint Bernadette of Lourdes and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. She adopts the head-scarf of the peasant from Lourdes and the Carmelite habit of the Little Flower and smiles the gentle half-smile both made famous; she also insistently communicates childlikeness of countenance and demeanour, going so far as to caption one photograph: ‘Sofia Marie changed her dark brown hair to blonde because it looks more angelic’.

Mass communications, and their prime instrument, the photograph, have proved crucial in the history of supernatural phenomena. The Martin sisters had a plate camera in the convent and passed happy hours of their sequestered lives making images of Thérèse, their youngest and most dear, sometimes in costume as Joan of Arc at the stake, but most of the time as the icon of the Little Flower which was to serve as a talisman for so many French soldiers in Flanders. The anthropologist William Christian discovered the discarded negatives of a man who had worked at the Basque shrine of Ezquioga in the Thirties. Comparing them to the photographs which were chosen as official souvenirs, he found that the images only passed where the visionaries’ demeanour most resembled the ecstatic poses of the Virgin in a Ribera or a Murillo: calm stance, serene features, hands joined, but eyes rolling heavenwards. Among the rejected photographs were spasms or trances or grimaces recalling Charcot’s famous studies of hysterical attitudes. Even an instrument of apparent objectivity like the camera submits to the longings of prior fantasies and beliefs. A recent miraculous photograph, taken of the sky in the Gargano near the shrine of Padre Pio, revealed the face of the Madonna looking very like the pictures Raphael or Perugino painted of her.

David Blackhourn has produced an exhaustive study of the apparitions of the Madonna in July 1876 in Marpingen, and the turbulent aftermath which embroiled the Army, the Berlin secret police, and the Prussian Parliament. An obscure village of around 1600 inhabitants, Marpingen existed between the lines of history, a nowhere place, if you like, populated with nobodies, with nothing to make anyone take notice of it. It is this very nullity – which of course turns out to be richly compacted of all kinds of economic, social and psychological particularities – that has attracted Blackbourn. He shows an Annaliste’s alertness to the materiality of everyday life as he unpicks with admirable tenacity the intricate nexus of circumstances in which a phenomenon such as the Marpingen apparitions takes place, takes root and stubbornly grows. The visions were bound up with the very disregard in which Marpingers lived, as peasants, miners, Catholics and Saarlanders on the periphery of the centralised Prussian state. It was hoped that Marpingen would become ‘the German Lourdes’, that the apparitions would put the village on the map. In fact, the new media of the last century contributed significantly to the course the cult of the visions took.

The parish priest and the local schoolteacher had both been talking about the astonishing popular pilgrimages to the Pyrenees: the first appearance of the Virgin to three children picking bilberries in the Härtelwald, the woods near the village of Marpingen, took place on the day that 100,000 people gathered at the grotto in Massabielle, near Lourdes, where Bernadette had been minding the sheep. Bernadette in 1858 was a young 14; the visionaries of Marpingen were three eight-year-old girls. They came running back to the village, saying they had seen ‘a woman in white’ in the forest. White women were familiar spirits in medieval fairy lore – patterns for Keats’s Belle Dame sans Merci – but one of the adults who heard the news immediately told the children to ask the apparition whether she was immaculately conceived. They went back to the woods, and received an affirmative answer. The vision in turn asked, as was traditional on such occasions, for a chapel to be built and for the water of the spring to be used for healing. Crowds began gathering very quickly indeed, and miracles followed.

The Virgin Mary had been declared immaculate in 1854, four years before Bernadette’s vision confirmed to her, in her local Pyrenean dialect: ‘I am the Immaculate Conception.’ The doctrine holds that Mary was conceived in the mind of the creator before the beginning of time, as his unspotted child-bride; the Scriptural passages quoted in support describe Sophia, the divine daughter of the godhead. In this filial relation, Mary became childlike: an equation was made between flawlessness, innocence of all taint and youth in a sum that would exercise a powerful magic on the social identity and status of children in Catholic communities. The cult statues of the Madonna of Lourdes, smooth, oval, pink, vapid, show her at a younger age than any other familiar doctrinal image: narrative cycles do of course represent Mary as a child, learning to read at her mother’s knee, for example, but votive images of the Assumption or the Madonna and Child do not otherwise insist on her immaturity.

As David Blackbourn makes clear, it is precisely because the children in Marpingen were so young (out of the mouths of babes and sucklings) that their story spread like a bushfire. Unlike his sceptical counterpart at Lourdes, the parish priest, Father Jakob Neureter, was inclined to believe in the visions from the start; not an ignorant man, but a poet and an amateur astronomer, he was to play a crucial, if unsteady part in the rapid development of the pilgrimage and in the events that followed as the state authorities weighed in to suppress the cult. The villagers were accused of profiteering and fraud; a detective from Berlin attempted to cozen pilgrims into a religious racket; soldiers arrived to clear the woods, and with bayonets and rifle butts forcibly emptied the apparition site, fenced it off and proclaimed a ban on entering the Härtelwald. They wounded several pilgrims peacefully praying there, and plundered the villagers on whom they were billeted. Prosecutions of Marpingers ensued, but interrogation was met with silence, the protest of many a heroine of fairy tale (including The Piano). The parish priest was imprisoned, and was able to welcome his martyrdom and grow in holiness under suffering. The three children were taken away and shut up in an institution, where they were cross-examined again and again until they retracted. A police officer sat Margaretha Kunz, the acknowledged ‘ringleader’, the brightest and most communicative of the children, on his knee, called her his little Gretchen, and procured a confession in which she denied her visions. But the eight-year-old changed her mind again as soon as she was reunited with her family; and in the village news of these recantations only provoked yet deeper anger against the authorities and their methods.

Catholic revival is one of the least studied aspects of the 19th century. Lourdes was not the only template for Marpingen. As David Blackbourn points out, Catherine Labouré, inspired by her visions of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the rue du Bac in Paris, had inaugurated the cult of the miraculous medal in 1830-31. Many other shrines sprang up following similar phenomena, in France and Belgium in particular. La Salette, where, in 1846, three shepherd children saw a ‘beautiful lady’, provided a closer comparison to Marpingen. One of the little-noticed effects of cultural globalisation is that Mary, like Marilyn Monroe or Mickey Mouse or the Lone Ranger, has come to dominate the cable networks of the imagination. Local saints with idiosyncratic stories, attributes and features (Sainte Néomaye, in the Vienne, a shepherdess with a distaff and a webbed foot; Saint Dympna, patron saint of nervous illnesses) used to work many miracles for their own parishes, but with the advent of newspapers, trains, cameras and other transnational means of communication, the Virgin Mary has subsumed all subspecies of thaumaturge into her perfections and power. The beautiful ladies or white women reported by children were not even identified with greater saints like Catherine or Margaret (who had spoken to Joan of Arc), intercessors of longer reach than the provincial Saint Néomaye or Dympna. In cultural cyberspace, the same film plays over and over again.

Catholic believers did not remain out of time – this is one of the sharp insights of Blackbourn’s book – but were moving in step with the times, establishing a counter-icon of the ideal in a society which was raising its own profane idols across national and cultural boundaries. They organised rallies, anthems, monuments in the spirit of the secular powers – the Church, after all, was no stranger to crowd control, as Canetti noted with admiration. Some of the earliest scholarship which concerned itself with visions grasped the connections between religion and popular culture: it was Clemens Brentano, Romantic writer, colleague and friend of the Grimm Brothers, who painstakingly took down the revelations of Katharina Emmerich, a stigmatic mystic in the Rhineland in the early 1800s, and described her as ‘abandoned by all and ill-treated like Cinderella’.

Blackbourn asserts his sympathy with the villagers of Marpingen who believed in the visions; he, too, sees his subjects as Cinderellas, and his own painstaking investigation of their struggles as they claimed their special mark of divine grace reflects the Romantics’ loyalty to the people and their imaginative energies. His study allows these ordinary mid-19th-century Catholics their dignity and treats their claims without scorn. Rather, he takes the part of the ‘superstitious’ and ‘credulous’ against the elephantine machinery which crashed into motion to stamp them out.

Blackbourn’s book is both a study of a splinter of time (1876-8, with some glances at the 1950s) and a larger warning, about secularisation and ethnicity, about tolerance and vulnerability, about chains of command, about popular languages of self-respect and identity. Marpingen offers in microcosm an image of the political forces at work in a developing nationalist state. Blackbourn tackles his Marpingers from every angle: personal, demographic, social, political, economic. Though not quite a Weiberdorf (a ‘grass-widow town’), the village lost its men to the mines during the week: women have dominated supernatural phenomena for two hundred years, and in Marpingen the women not only formed a socially cohesive group but were in charge of the village in the men’s absence.

The Saarland was border territory, repeatedly changing hands and masters between France and Germany in the turmoil of 19th-century regroupings; it was also a Catholic islet in a Protestant pond. Above all, however, the policy of the Kulturkampf, the sinisterly named ‘struggle of civilisations’, the contest of Church and State, initiated and stimulated by Bismarck, created the fertile ground of the Marpingen resistance. The Catholics were living in Prussia as a persecuted minority. Heavy restrictions on worship, on the ordination of priests, on pilgrimages, had resulted in an empty see at Trier, the diocesan capital.

The Prussian state was waging war, in the name of modernity, of enlightenment, liberalism and national citizenship, against Catholic credulity and ignorance, against Papal and diocesan authority over German citizens, against ‘backward’ peasants with ultramontane allegiances – Pope Pius IX, emboldened by the support the Virgin at Lourdes had given his dogma of the Immaculate Conception, had proclaimed Papal Infallibility in 1870.

The nasty conflict continued, and eventually led to an impassioned debate in 1878 between the Catholic Centre Party and the Liberals in the Parliament; this resulted in the winding down of the Kulturkampf and a new policy of co-operation. Blackbourn does not say so in so many words, but the new clubbiness between political and ecclesiastical interests did not bode well. It’s indicative of our times, perhaps, that the Church appears in a far more savoury light as adversary of political authorities than as collaborator, and that the champions of the child-visionaries, the miracles and the parish pump have gained a newfound nobility. Blackbourn reflects the present discontent with heavy government activity and a new emphasis on democracy from the bottom up. Though he’s utterly persuasive about the ugliness of secular intolerance, he does not tackle the central problem of false claims as an expression of protest against disregard, against injustice. He falls back instead on the argument that had there been a bishop in Trier at the time of the Marpingen visions, and had he conducted a church investigation, the trouble would not have taken place. The Church would have taken in its own washing.

The Marpingen apparition was submitted to a late, rather slapdash clerical inquiry, and was never approved, in spite of the perseverance of many devotees right up until the Fifties; it does not even gain an entry in the index of the comprehensive, if intemperately anti-clerical, account of Marian shrines, Under the Heel of Mary, by Nicholas Perry and Loreto Echeverria, possibly because, as Marpingen failed as a shrine, it also failed to grind anyone under its heel. There would certainly have been less violence, but the problem would have remained, if the bishops had rejected the vision. Sister Marie has not been approved, but her advertisements are subscribed and her book sells. The faithful have continued to flock undeterred to numerous shrines which have been investigated and failed to receive authorisation, like Garabandal in the Cantabrian mountains of Spain and Medzugorje in former Yugoslavia. Border country, again, in both cases, where divided allegiances between reformed and traditional Catholic ways are compounded by increasing millennial anxieties; the Virgin is restlessly active in times of unrest, and the Church will have its work cut out managing its own thriving popular culture.

Marpingen aspires to the kind of richly truffled, narrative microhistory exemplified by Montaillou, The Cheese and the Worms and The Return of Martin Guerre, but David Blackbourn is hampered, rather like the Prussian authorities, by silence, by gaps, by the quality of evidence. The Second World War destroyed precious first-hand testimony; no Marpinger can match the voluble original narrative of Ginzburg’s heretical miller or Montaillou’s vivid inhabitants, and the plot contains no superb twists, like the dénouement when the real Martin Guerre returns from the wars, claims his wife and unmasks the impostor. His magisterial book suffers from the weight and oppressiveness of the Prussian machine itself, while also giving a striking picture of popular stubbornness and resistance. Its interest lies mainly in the way it articulates issues of legitimacy in terms of religion and the people. No disgust, no condescension – no compassion even – for the opium of the masses, here; rather, a sharp sense of the democratic right to believe what you choose.