On the Transformation of Apparition Stories in Scandinavia and Germany, C. 1350-1700(1)
Beyer, Jurgen, Folklore
Based on recent Central European research concerning the history of storytelling, this article explores the transformation of apparition stories in Scandinavia and Germany from the late Middle Ages through the Reformation to about 1700. A number of motifs were kept alive throughout the entire period but the stories as a whole changed considerably. This was not only due to a changing social and religious context but also to the specific transmission conditions of these stories.
Largely unnoticed by English-speaking folklorists, Central European scholars engaged in historical narrative research have in recent years reached important conclusions about the history of storytelling. Their findings undermine the very foundations on which the study of folklore hitherto has rested. The most important contributions have without doubt flowed from the pen of Rudolf Schenda.
The purpose of this essay is not to review these publications but rather to show avenues for future research. I shall therefore only give a simplified summary of the new history of storytelling from the late Middle Ages until the early-nineteenth century, when the ground for academic folklore studies was laid.
In the beginning, oral prose tales (which later came to be called legends or fairytales) were not told as fiction but as real events. Tales about supernatural beings, although containing well-known motifs and types, were told as memorates. We should remember that the boundaries between real and unreal or credible and incredible were drawn differently by lay people in those days than by nineteenth- and twentieth-century academics.
In the course of the eighteenth century the context of storytelling began to change. Fictional literature (mainly novels) became firmly established in the book-market. Reading habits changed as well: instead of studying a few books intensively, readers started to read many books more cursorily and only once. Reading societies were founded, printing presses were established in the provinces, and the authorities conceded a limited freedom of the press. It was at this time that fictionalised tales--which earlier had been rejected on religious grounds--started to reach a larger section of society. It is not surprising that this was also the period when the words for legend and fairytale in the Germanic languages took on their present meaning.(2)
The Grimm Brothers concentrated and codified literary developments of the late-eighteenth century. Their collections (Kinder- und Hausmarchen, 1812-15; Deutsche Sagen, 1816-18), despite claims to the contrary, were for the most part not collected from the "folk" but were derived from bourgeois and literary sources of various kinds (Grimm 1993; 1996). With the publication, translation and imitation of the Kinder- und Hausmarchen, as well as with the sale of individual fairytales as cheap booklets, a new literary taste spread among the lower classes, which earlier had only had access to Luther's Little (or Shorter) Catechism, the official hymnal, almanacs, penny godlies and penny dreadfuls. The collections in folklore archives therefore only document--and this may sound rather banal--the folk narratives of the period of collection. These were not stories that had been handed down unchanged by the fireside by word of mouth since time immemorial, but only records of more or less oral performances which were the result of formal (compulsory school attendance) or informal literary training, only available since the nineteenth century.
Even though the concepts of folk narrative and of its genres were an invention of the Grimm Brothers and their disciples, it would be rash to conclude that tales which today we would classify as folk narratives were not spread both orally and in writing prior to the age of romanticism. If we do not want to extrapolate the tales recorded in folklore archives backward in time, we have to study sources from the preceding centuries. Here we can ask, "Which stories were told, how were they told and under which circumstances?" We could also add other questions and try, for example, to determine in what way tales influenced lay people's actions and their perceptions of reality. Inevitably, many of the tales to be analysed in this fashion will not be covered by the narrow definitions of folk narrative developed in the nineteenth century (cf. Schenda 1993; Beyer 1997).
The following essay attempts to give some examples of the telling of a particular kind of story, viz. apparition stories. Apparitions can be defined as an unexpected appearance of a supernatural being to a person who continues to perceive his or her surroundings in the ordinary way. This distinguishes apparitions from ecstasies or dreams. Most apparitions convey a message to the percipient, calling for some sort of action, giving a warning, or telling of future events (cf. Dinzelbacher 1984-6; Barnay 1997). However, just as in contemporary sources, the boundaries with other forms of revelation will not be drawn too sharply.
This essay focuses on the transformation of apparition stories in the period from about 1350 to 1700 in Scandinavia and those parts of Germany which became Lutheran during the Reformation. Since these stories are religious, it is obvious that the Reformation will mark an important divide. After about 1700, the acceptance of angelic apparitions tended to be increasingly restricted to ever-narrowing spheres: pietism, revivalism and sectarianism. Apparitions in these different social settings would require a study of their own.
Apparitions of Saint Catherine of Vadstena
In 1381, Catherine, the daughter of Saint Bridget of Sweden, died. The establishment of her cult at Vadstena has been studied by Anders Frojmark (1992). While Frojmark's analysis is primarily statistical, my approach is much more straightforward, namely to pick a single miracle from the sources and see what it can tell us about medieval apparition stories. Catherine's biographer, Ulf Birgersson, included the following miracle post mortem in the Vita (composed between 1407 and 1427)(3):
Transactis aliquibus annis post obitum eius die qua ossa eius leuabantur propter fundamenta columpnarum ecclesie collocanda. In parochia molaby [i.e. Mjolby, Ostergotland] quidam puerulus infans nondum trium annorum cecidit de ponte in torrentem rabidum.(4) querebatur que submersus a parentibus per duos dies. Tercio vero die inuenerunt infantem illum contra omnem spem viuum adherentem palo molendini cuiusdam. Interrogant pater et mater infantem ab antea informe loquentem quo[modo] palo illi adhesisset. Respondit puer iam formate loquens, quando de ponte cecidi in torrentem quedam domina albis vestibus induta suscepit me adherentem palo sub pallio suo ita quod aque michi non nocuerunt, et dixit se uocari katherina de watzsteno adhortata que est me venire ad watzsten[um].(5) sed uobis me leuantibus de aquis, domina illa disparuit. Parentes igitur eius venerunt cum puero ad monasterium Watzsteni ad tumbam beate ka.(6) cum offertorijs suis referentes cum sacramentis gratiam eis factam per merita beate ka.(7) sic que completis votis suis ad propria redierunt (BL:f. 291v; cf. Lunden 1981, fol. C7r-C7v) [Some years after her death, on the day when her bones were taken out of the earth due the construction of the church pillars, a small boy, not yet three years old, of the parish of Mjolby [Ostergotland], fell from a bridge into a swift torrent. His parents searched for him for two days, but on the third day they found the child …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: On the Transformation of Apparition Stories in Scandinavia and Germany, C. 1350-1700(1). Contributors: Beyer, Jurgen - Author. Journal title: Folklore. Publication date: Annual 1999. Page number: 39. © 1998 Folklore Society. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.