MARPINGEN by David Blackbourn

MARPINGEN

Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 19th-Century Germany
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 An absorbing, challenging work of ``bottom-up'' history that gives a voice to the unlettered and the disempowered. Blackbourn (History/Harvard) transforms an apparently minor historical curiosity, an instance at best of religious pathology, into a fascinating, surprising, and moving picture of cultural turmoil in the new German nation-state. The event in question is the alleged visitation of the Virgin Mary to three schoolchildren in the remote Rhineland village of Marpingen in 1876, and the response thereto. With sure control of his material and an archaeologist's reconstructive gift, Blackbourn deftly reveals the Marpingen events as a tangled but telling intersection of multiple cultural currents: religious strife, both interdenominational and between competing tendencies in the Catholic hierarchy itself; local communal rivalry; class tensions; grassroots populist activism; Bismarck's ongoing Kulturkampf (``cultural war'') against the Catholic Church; and the upheavals in work and family life provoked by the confrontation of a traditional rural culture with the very different rhythms of a 19th-century industrial state. Blackbourn brushes against the grain of readers' expectations: He encourages us to regard the widespread popular support of the visionaries not as superstitious medieval credulity but as a sophisticated mobilization of deep-rooted cultural resources by a community beset by social dislocation. Conversely, the ``progressive'' modernizing forces of state authority, whose response to the apparitions varied from patrician condescension to outright contempt or suspicion, stand revealed as at least as self- righteous and blinkered (by a faith in secular rationality often as unyielding as religious dogma) as the peasants they undertook to control. The Church itself is riven and ambivalent, its sponsorship of the cult of the Madonna at odds with the increasingly authoritarian bent of the 19th-century Vatican. This dense, authoritative book demands and deserves an attentive reading and offers rewards few recent historical narratives can match.

Pub Date: Sept. 15th, 1994
ISBN: 0-679-41843-1
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1994