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.”

Christine Ebner and the Engelthal Sister-Book: Some English Translations

Scores of women mystics. The dead returning to speak to the living. Even a mystical pregnancy. Who wouldn’t want to read this book?

Fortunately for us, it is more properly these books. There are nine “Sister-books,” or Schwesternbücher, from fourteenth-century German convents (plus several from fifteenth-century Netherlands). All are filled with short glimpses at the piety of different sisters.

Many scholars today argue that these collective biographies cannot tell us anything about the individual nuns. Rather, using rhetorical and devotional elements of their time, the books build a picture of how the community envisions itself. There is perhaps no better individual signal of this purpose than the title of Christine Ebner’s Schwesternbücher for the sisters of Engelthal: Buchlein von der genaden uberlast, which might be translated “Little Book on the Excess of Grace.” The books reveal the manifestation of God’s grace in each convent in a way that other people will understand.

Given that women wrote the Schwesternbücher about other women, it is surprisingly difficult to find English-language discussion of them, much less published translations.

So here I present three entries from Christine Ebner’s Buchlein von der genaden uberlast (Little Book on the Excess of Grace), which tells of sisters from the Dominican convent at Engelthal, near Nuremberg.

One sister was named Reichgard [Richardis] and was our patron’s sister and came to our community. She had been a black nun [Benedictine] and knew our craft. As she now had come into our cloister, she took up the practice with great industriousness and went unceasingly to choir for thirty years, that she never missed a single day. And she was also without meat these thirty years and came only rarely to bathe and fasted unceasingly, and was awake every night after Matins, and said no more than three Salve reginas with great devotion. The first Salve regina, she said that for the cloister and all good people; the second Salve regina for all sinners; the third Salve regina for the souls in purgatory. She was a righteous person for all her life, and Our Lord never did her any special grace until the time that her life would take an end. Then she lay after Matins in front of the alter in choir on her knees for a long time. There came Our Lady and led her son Jesus Christ by the hand, and he was like a child around ten years old and said to her, “Stand up, beloved Reichgard.” And when she got herself up, then our Lord gripped her by her chin and said, “The time has come, prepare yourself: your brother and your sister await you with great desire. You are invited to the eternal company; there I will give you all of the wages you have earned from me.” In the same place she arrived at death and died with a holy death. Not many days after she came back here and said: she had traveled to heaven not without respite; her purgatory had been in a green meadow.

One sister was named Mechthild von Neidstein, and came here from the court of the count of Herzberg, and was an unceasing servant of God and cried in her prayers every day for God to give her a good end. This he allowed her and gave her indeed a devout death. Then she came back after her death and said: God had given her an unmeasurable reward because she had been loyal to the convent, and especially that she had suffered in the office of prioress with loyalty.

[Mechthild] had a niece, who was named Sophie von Neidstein, who died before her, and was around twenty-four years old, and was an undefeated person. When she lay on her deathbed, then she was enraptured. When she again came to herself, then she said, “I was in the other world and have seen and heard—should I live five hundred years more, I could never fully say what I know. As I am now at peace, so I want to say something about it.” Then she lifted up a song, which no one understood other than the last word, that she said “Mary,” and then said: “I was made aware, that I am one of the saved people; this I did not know before.” After that, she died one more day after that. When she did her last action, then she lifted up the Salve Regina: “Greeted you are, queen,” and sang it with a sweet voice. As she was then dead, so she came back to a valued sister. She said to her: as she had prayed the Salve regina, then our lady Mary entered in a purple robe, and St. Agnes and many virgins entered with her. Then our lady wrapped the robe around her; thus everything flew away. This grace she had earned with a Psalter that she had read every day standing. Thus she had fallen under silence for three hours, when she was dressed for death, and died on the day of Our Lady.

All translations based on: Christina Ebner, Der Nonne von Engelthal Büchlein von der Genaden Überlast, ed. Karl Gustav Theodor Schröder (Tübingen: Litterarischer Verein in Stuttgart, 1871), 25-26.

Cait Stevenson, PhD
University of Notre Dame

Syncretism in the Hêliand

Bust of Charlemagne (14th century), Aachen Cathedral Treasury

The Hêliand represents a towering yet puzzling work of early continental Germanic literature whose deliberate fusion of Christian ideas with the language of warrior elites creates a rich and intense patchwork for audiences. Composed in the first half of the ninth century in the Carolingian Empire at a time when the emperors sought to impose Christianity on their newly conquered Saxon subjects, the text consists of a lengthy verse Gospel paraphrase completed in the so-called Old Saxon dialect—a predecessor of Middle and High varieties of Low German spoken throughout the northern regions of contemporary Germany. The religious subject of the poem is translated into the language of a Germanic warrior culture in order to reach a wide audience of lay—especially male—elites. This, in turn, transforms the narrative of Jesus’ life into a uniquely Christian-Germanic epic propped up by the language of fidelity and war.

The statue of Charlemagne erected in Aachen’s Market Place, 1620

One of the moments in the Hêliand where the juxtaposition of Christian ideas and prophecy with a Germanic vocabulary of warrior elites comes in the work’s fifty-sixth fitt (“song”), the Last Supper narrative. Linked is an excerpt and translation from this turning point in the text (Hêliand 56, lines 4665-4701), revolving around Simon Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ forecasting of the former’s impending betrayal (which I have titled “Peter’s Promise”). Throughout his speeches, Jesus relies upon the vocabulary of fidelity and lordship, while Peter’s promise to sacrifice himself “an uuapno spil”—literally “in the play of weapons”—reads as a transparent euphemism for the scourges of battle.

Jake Coen
PhD Candidate in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame