The Bible, or Reading the Bible? The Authority of Lay Religious Teachers in Fifteenth-Century Germany

In his 1479 printed Beichtspiegel (Mirror for Confession), lay barber and Meistersinger Han Folz of Nuremberg used rhyming verse to teach his readers about the triangle of rew, beicht, buß (contrition, confession, penance); the dangers of purgatory; and above all, the seemingly endless numerical lists of vices and virtues that so characterized fifteenth-century religious literature. [1] There was no need to limit oneself to the seven deadly sins and seven cardinal virtues when there were also four sins that cry to heaven (one of which is, however, the silent sin), six sins against the Holy Spirit, and nine alien sins.

By 1479, a wealthy, prominent, and educated burgher like Folz evidently had little to fear from widely disseminating orthodox religious writing in the vernacular to instruct other laity. Indeed, while he printed the original Beichtspiegel himself, the text was later printed in an anthology alongside didactic literature by clerical authors. Nevertheless, the lack of authority of office led him to ground his authority throughout the Beichtspiegel via textual citation. More specifically, via a single type of citation. Folz cites “Levitici am vierundzweinzigisten capitel” (Leviticus 24); he cites “quarto Regum quinto” (4 Kings 5); he cites “Luce sedecimo” (Luke 16). [2] Throughout the entire Beichtspiegel, almost all of his citations take the same form, and without exception they come from the same source: the Bible.

Initial of the book of Genesis in the Wenceslas Bible (also known as the Bible of Wenceslaus IV); Vienna, Austrian National Library, Codex 2759–64 (1389 CE).

It was not for lack of knowledge of other religious texts. Folz’s Latin was good enough for him to accomplish two different translations of the Life of Adam and Eve, and his immense corpus of surviving poetry, songs, and Carnival plays reveals an extensive familiarity with the more theoretical or theological ideas that lay beneath the “mass market” Christianity of his day. [3] Furthermore, in his medical texts, Folz shows he understands the utility of citing earlier authorities through his references to Galen, Avicenna—and Augustine. [4] In the Beichtspiegel, his decision to rely solely on the Word of God as authority was indeed a decision.

Das wort gottes could be rallying cry of the Reformation because the late Middle Ages got there first. The Bible’s position as the focus of lay arguments in favor of the early Protestant movement, we have long known, was rooted in its already-existing popularity in lay religious life, not its absence. [5] In addition to the enormous amount of [[vernacular biblical material available to lay readers]], pastoral care manuals and priests’ prefaces to Bible translations emphasized the need to make scripture accessible to the laity.

Sandra Corbellini has noted a second important emphasis in pastoral texts encouraging lay Bible use: the act of reading scripture—independent of the specific contents—as an act of peri-mystical devotion reminiscent of monastic meditatio. One of the fifteenth century’s most influential preachers, Bernardino of Siena, preached that “the more you read and study [the Bible], the more sweetness you get, the more you feel the taste of God. If you try it, you will know; otherwise not.” [6]

No matter how rhythmic Folz’s verse (not really at all) or how perfect his rhymes (very imperfect), it is undeniable that his rote lists of sins and virtues put one in the mindset of learning facts, not the prayerful devotion Bernardino suggests. However, popular teaching’s legitimization of the act of reading scripture from the act of learning from reading scripture had its parallel at the more learned level, too.

Ian Christopher Levy’s aptly named Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages shows how the theological debates of the turbulent period between 1370 and 1430 so often turned on the question of who had the authority to determine what constituted a correct—therefore authoritative—interpretation of scripture.[7] The act of correct reading, separate from the interpretation itself, was important enough to be its own flashpoint for debate and worse. The act of reading was inseparable from the determination of authority.

The opening of the Ottheinrich Bible, the earliest surviving illustrated manuscript of the New Testament in the German language, commissioned by Ludwig VII, Duke of Bavaria-Ingolstadt; Munich, Bavarian State Library, Cgm 8010, p.2 (c. 1430 CE).

In that light, the specific method by which Folz cites the Bible merits attention. With the exception of a couple of places where Folz refers briefly to a Bible story to illustrate his point, all biblical references take the same full form: book and chapter. (Verses were not regularly numbered and used until far later.) His citations are purposeful citations of the Bible as a book, not just a text.

Folz, moreover, is not the only fifteenth-century German layman to seek this association. 1460s-era lay apocalyptic prophets Livin and Johannes Wirsberger of Egerland were exquisitely aware of the precariousness of their position, given the dark fears of the devil corrupting ignorant lay people into proclaiming false prophecies. Their few surviving letters feature insistent deferrals to the Church as the ultimate judge of true and false messages, but also their authority to write anyway. [8] One favorite tactic? The citation of scripture by book and chapter.

Folz and to some extent the Wirsbergers direct their readers’ attention to the Bible as a book—inseparable from directing readers’ attention to the authors’ familiarity with the Bible as a book. They seem to signal not just their religious knowledge, but the fact that they are able to access it through reading the Bible.

The possibility that religious authority could lie in the act of reading scripture raises questions about the relationship of laity and clergy, and just as importantly, public perception of “clergy” and/versus “lay” in the realm of popular, vernacular religious teaching. In an era filled with das wort gottes and significantly increasing urban literacy rates, further investigation will hopefully help illuminate intersections between contemporary religious culture, benefit of clergy, and—yes—a priesthood of quite a few additional believers.

Cait Stevenson
PhD in History
University of Notre Dame

[1] Hans Folz, “Beichtspiegel,” in Hans Folz: Die Reimpaarsprüche, ed. Hanns Fischer (Beck, 1961), 188-210.

[2] Folz, 195 (4 Kings 5); 202 (Leviticus 24);204 (Luke 16).

[3] See, for example, John D. Martin, “Dramatized Disputations: Late Medieval German Dramatizations of Jewish-Christian Religious Disputations, Church Policy, and Local Social Climates,” Medieval Encounters 8, no. 2–3 (2002): 209–27.

[4] Folz, “Pestregimen in Versen,” in Fischer, 412-428; “Pestregimen in Prosa,” in Fischer, 429-437.

[5] Although research on the use of the Bible in German-speaking lands has generally lagged behind studies in other regions, Anthony Gow’s work offers an excellent introduction to the medieval situation as well as briefly touching on earlier scholarly efforts: Gow, “Challenging the Protestant Paradigm: Bible Reading in Lay and Urban Contexts of the Later Middle Ages,” in Scripture and Pluralism: Reading the Bible in the Religiously Plural Worlds of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. Thomas J. Heffernan and Thomas E. Burman (Brill, 2005), 161-191.

[6] Translated in Sandra Corbellini, “Instructing the Soul, Feeding the Spirit, and Awakening the Passion: Holy Writ and Lay Readers in Late Medieval Europe,” in Shaping the Bible in the Reformation: Books, Scholars, and their Readers in the Sixteenth Century, ed. Bruce Gordon and Matthew McLean (Brill, 2012), 24.

[7] Ian Christopher Levy, Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages (University of Notre Dame Press, 2012), xi.

[8] Frances Courtney Kneupper, The Empire at the End of Time: Identity and Reform in Late Medieval German Prophecy (Oxford, 2016), 115, translates: “Thus should you act justly in your reason and take to heart what the lords Matthew in 23, Mark 13, and Luke 21 all say.”

The Book of Margery Kempe and Its Vision

Altarpiece: Scenes from the Life of St. Catherine of Alexandria, Germany (Swabia) c. 1430-1450.

Margery Kempe, the protagonist of the Book of Margery Kempe, did not like to talk about her visions, as my previous blog discusses.

The Book is not shy about her reasons. Acting but not telling her audiences in church or on pilgrimage creates the persecution on behalf of Christ she so desires. She explains her innermost visions to high clergy in order to seek their confirmation that her revelations do come from God.

Recent research has added demonstrated an additional theological dimension. Kempe’s externalization of her special piety and concealment of her true gifts are a saintly imitatio (or hagiographical tropes), but not of contemporary saints she admires like Birgitta of Sweden. Instead, she crafts a life following the romance template of the early Church virgin martyrs, whose legends were wildly popular in the fifteenth century. [1] These saints have intimate encounters with Christ that remain their secret, but display their Christian heroism by enduring persecution and death for their faith.

Some scholars have argued that the result is a unique theology of time. Kempe essentially lives the legendary past in the present, collapsing chronological eras into a single sacred time. However, her fifteenth-century contemporaries fail to recognize her imitatio and scorn her for her behaviors. Thus, the distance between the era of the virgin martyrs and fifteenth-century England also causes the (very partial) ostracization that allows Kempe to recapitulate St. Katherine and St. Cecilia. She inhabits a collapsed past-present that demonstrates and criticizes the “historical specificity” of both women’s holiness and religious authority. [2]

Despite her imitatio of saints who kept their secrets, however, Kempe did indeed talk about her visions. She shared her “high contemplations” with a series of priests, bishops, and men who would become her confessor—in many cases, people she barely knew and would never see again. The Book also portrays her describing her visions to her scribes, one of whom was her son. Nor are her disclosures merely a matter of compliance with discretio spirituum, that is, the need to seek authentication of the divine origin of visions from a Church authority. Concealing her visions from the general public, Kempe has little need to seek legitimization for her own safety or public sanctity. From a hagiographical perspective, too, the succession of Church officials unfamiliar with her instead of a longtime confessor is more reminiscent of Marguerite Porete’s failed attempt to insulate herself from heresy charges than of late medieval holy women.

A pilgrim woman from Robinet Testard’s ‘Le roman de la rose’ in Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 195, f.86v (15th century).

Kempe’s concealing and revealing of her visions are a case study for common patterns of self-disclosure. [3] People make decisions about divulging personal information by balancing the reward (human connection) with risk (loss of control over public identity). Thus, we share our most private information with the people closest to us, with whom we seek ever-closer ties and whom we trust the most not to misunderstand or repeat the information. We also share more personal details with people we barely know, because we have to build a relationship from the ground up, and there is little chance of a repeated interaction being affected.

Thus, her imitatio—her sanctity—anchors Kempe-the-protagonist even more fully in the social web of the present, rather than making her a “woman out of time.” Equally or perhaps more importantly, it allows Kempe-the-author to anchor the Book more firmly in the demands of fifteenth-century devotion.

Kempe’s repeated disclosure of her visions to numerous clergy does not simply authenticate her visions. Rather, it draws the reader’s attention to their presence in Kempe’s life and in the Book again and again. Like its protagonist’s desire to live the past in the present, the lavish descriptions of her visions and the repeated references to them allow the Book to have it both ways, as it were. On one hand, it can tell the story of its non-virgin, unmartyred virgin martyr: a (semi) pariah in the world, who is sustained by her hidden intimacy with Christ. On the other, the visions and dialogues mirror the format of much fifteenth-century devotional and didactic literature. The visionary discourse highlights the Book as a text that teaches its audience rather than defending its subject.

In this light, the “stereotypical” nature of Kempe’s visions and the apparent failure of the Book as hagiography can be seen as both purposeful and successful. Kempe’s externalized piety is, frankly, more interesting to most modern readers than yet another mystical marriage. [4] Thus, we are also more interested in the Book’s goals with respect to Kempe herself: justification of her earlier actions, perhaps, or a full-blown hagiography aimed at jump-starting a public cult after her death. [5]

The bibliographic evidence tells a different story for medieval readers. Kempe the author earned the unusual distinction among women mystical writers of having her work published in the early decades of print. Printer Wynkyn de Worde’s “A shorte treatyse of contemplacyon…taken out of the boke of margerie kempe of lynn” trims down the Book almost exclusively to Christ’s monologues to Kempe. [6] This can be seen as a failure of Kempe the protagonist to establish herself as a person and as a saint, to the extent of emphasizing what she tried to conceal. [7]

It is that effort to conceal, however, that allows the Book to do the opposite: draw Kempe’s visions into the foreground. It isn’t ironic that Margery Kempe and her Book became famous at the end of the Middle Ages for her hidden visions rather than the life she lived. Instead, it is exactly what Kempe the protagonist and Kempe the author wanted.

[1] Sarah Salih, Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England (Brewer, 2001), 166-169.

[2] Catherine Sanok, Her Life Historical: Exemplarity and Female Saints’ Lives in Late Medieval England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 122-26.

[3] See, for example, W. B. Pearce and S. M. Sharp, “Self-Disclosing Communication,” Journal of Communication 23: 409-25.

[4] Karma Lochrie, Vickie Larsen, and Mary-Katherine Curnow, for example, have even argued for the comedic possibilities of Kempe the protagonist and of the Book itself: Lochrie, Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991); Larsen and Curnow, “Hagiographic Ambition, Fabliau Humor, and Creature Comforts in The Book of Margery Kempe,” Exemplaria 25, no. 4 (2013): 284-302.

[5] Katherine J. Lewis, “Margery Kempe and Saint Making in Later Medieval England,” in A Companion to The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Lewis and John H. Arnold (D.S. Brewer, 2004), 195-215.

[6] The text of Shorte Treatyse can be found in The Book of Margery Kempe: The Text from the Unique MS Owned by Colonel W. Butler-Bowdon, Vol. 1, ed. Sanford Brown Meech with Hope Emily Allen (Oxford University Press, 1940), 353-57.

[7] See, for example, Lewis, 215; Anthony Goodman, “Margery Kempe,” in Medieval Holy Women in the Christian Tradition, c.1100-c.1500, ed. Alastair Minnis and Rosalynn Voaden (Brepols, 2010), 226.

Is It Secret; Is It Safe?: Lessons from Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe did not like to talk about her visions.

That’s an odd thing to say about England’s queen of performative piety, who took her white clothing and loud wailing on intercontinental tour. It’s an even stranger thing to say about possibly England’s most famous medieval visionary.

Indeed, Kempe’s revelations and auditions fill a substantial number of chapters in the fifteenth-century Book of Margery Kempe, an anthology of internal religious experiences and external adventures in the life of an eclectic laywoman. (The text claims to be dictated by the protagonist herself; I will be speaking here primarily of the two Kempes in the text, actor-author, whatever their relation to the person who composed the Book as a whole). [1]

Like many medieval women visionaries, Kempe recounts numerous types of visions. Most frequent are auditions, seemingly internal; sometimes only Christ speaks; sometimes it is a conversation. Kempe also experiences lavishly recounted “transporting” visions: for example, as a spectator of Christ’s passion, or a bridal ceremony. She also occasionally has access to knowledge about people’s afterlife fates. But despite the overwhelmingly important role that her “conversations and high contemplations” play in her spiritual life, she is rather reticent about disclosing them to the people she encounters.

Margery Kempe, carving in the church of St. Margaret in King’s Lynn.

It is most evident in the text when people complain about the heart of Kempe’s externalized devotion: how frequently she “burst out in violent weeping and sobbing” or “cry and roar” during sermons or while praying (or just encountering a mother and child on the road). [2] But while the Book has plenty of passages wherein Christ explicitly states the tears are his gift, Kempe does not defend herself by conveying this message. In one episode, the celebrant of that Mass experiences a similar sobbing breakdown which (according to the text) convinces him of her legitimacy; in another, she is (or allows herself to be) forced away from a hospital, which leaves her without a confessor or access to the Eucharist.

When Kempe is confronted about her behavior or describes animosity towards herself, the foremost topic is her “manner of living”—including her special manner of dress, special diet, habit of fraternal correction directed at…everyone, and above all her sobbing and wailing.

The disconnect between the Book’s descriptions and its protagonist’s silence is not total. Some people Kempe encounters do fill in the blanks, as when a Franciscan friar says she must be the famous (infamous?) woman who speaks with God. In Kempe’s recounting, however, his comment merits no response from her but does convince her that God’s instruction to go on pilgrimage was correct—which she does not reveal to the friar. [3]

More importantly, Kempe does sometimes initiate the announcement of her revelations. She discloses them to her confessor, her husband (at least, some of her revelations), her son: the people to whom she is closest. At God’s command (or so she insists), she reveals her conversations and extreme intimacy with Christ to a series of powerful clerical and charismatic figures: a bishop she has never met; two (or more) anchorites she has never met; university doctors of theology she has never met; a confessor she has never met before. According to the actor-narrator, she told them “to find out if there were any deception in her feelings. [4]

As numerous scholars have noted, her disclosure of her visions to official or sanctioned religious authorities invokes the doctrine known as discretio spirituum (discernment of spirits). [5] At the most basic level, discretio spirituum is scrutinizing apparently divine phenomena, such as visions or miracles, to determine whether they are truly divine or result from another cause. By the time in which the events of the Book of Margery Kempe take place, the 1410s, many theologians and Church leaders promoted a very specific application of this doctrine. It entailed both the need to prove that (mainly women’s) visions and miraculous asceticism were gifts from God instead of delusions from the devil or the human brain; and the struggle over who had the authority to determine what constituted enough proof.

The Book’s frequent declarations of Kempe seeking and gaining approval from a diverse array of Church leaders, including both Franciscans and Dominicans, illustrates a reasonably sophisticated handling of the doctrine, as Franciscans and Dominicans were often at odds over the legitimacy of a particular person or event. Somewhere along the way to the composition of the Book, someone recognized the importance, methodology, and unwritten problems of discretio spirituum.

There remains, however, the problem of the Book itself.

Excerpt from the Book of Margery Kempe, British Library, Add MS 61823, f.49v.

On one hand, you might observe that within the narrative, Kempe the protagonist sought out repeated verification of visions that (with the probable exception of her family) she shared with no one else. Moving around as a person in her world, she would have had no need to legitimize visions she shared with no one else.

On the other, you might point out that the full narrative is not present to any of the individuals Kempe encounters during her adventures. Only the listener or reader has access to it. And the reader (including any scribe along the way) does witness Kempe’s most intimate visions and would be looking for validation.

So, if the composer of the Book is willing to announce all types of visions experienced by the protagonist who apparently mirrors that composer—why does the Kempe of the text hide so many of her visions so intently?

[To be continued…]

Cait Stevenson
PhD in History
University of Notre Dame

[1] There is a substantial body of scholarship on the authorship of the Book and the relationship between the author, possible scribe or scribes, and protagonist of the text, including whether the Book qualifies as the first English-language autobiography. See, the debate between Nicholas Watson and Felicity Riddy in Kathryn Kerby-Fulton and Linda Olson (eds.), Voices in Dialogue: Reading Women in the Middle Ages (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), 395-458. Many scholars use “Margery” to refer to the protagonist and “Kempe” to name the author; I have chosen to use “Kempe” for both because the general masculine tenor of Internet history discussions increases the importance of using non-infantilizing language to speak of historical women.

[2] Book of Margery Kempe, ch. 72, 83. For readers unfamiliar with Middle English, quotations are taken from Barry Windeatt (trans.), The Book of Margery Kempe (Penguin Classics, 1985). The original is available online through the TEAMS Middle English Text series.

[3] BMK, ch. 30.

[4] BMK, ch. 11.

[5] The foundational discussion on Kempe and discernment is Rosalynn Voaden, God’s Words, Women’s Voices: The Discernment of Spirits in the Writing of Late Medieval Women Visionaries (York Medieval Press, 1999), 109-153.