On Monday 3 July 1876, Margarethe Kunz and two other young girls in the village of Marpingen, in the Saarland, returned home in a state of considerable agitation. Obviously frightened, they described having seen a woman in white in the meadows on their way back from gathering bilberries in the woods. On the following days, they described further encounters. The woman told them: ‘I am the Immaculately Conceived.’ Adults in the village confidently identified her as the Virgin Mary. News of the encounter spread rapidly. Soon there were hundreds of pilgrims at the scene, and miraculous cures were being reported at a nearby spring which the children said the Virgin had indicated as a source of healing. Within a week there were said to be 20,000 pilgrims in the village, and people were speaking of Marpingen as ‘the German Lourdes’.
In his new book (1993), David Blackbourn takes this incident as the starting-point for a detailed examination of Catholic culture, both popular and ecclesiastical, and its relations with politics and the state in Bismarckian Germany. Blackbourn’s previous work presented the Catholic Centre Party as a normal part of the political scene in the Kaiserreich, and in so doing gave us political Catholicism with the religion left out. Here he makes amends with a sensitive and elegantly written exploration of the religious world in which political Catholicism was rooted. Once more, however, it is the political and social dimensions of the subject which interest him most. This is not a study of Catholic spirituality, or an anthropology of popular belief. Politics still occupy centre-stage.
Given the furore which the incident aroused, this is perhaps unsurprising. For the visions at Marpingen were reported at the height of the Bismarckian Kulturkampf. Blackbourn reminds us in graphic detail of the extent and ferocity of the persecution to which Catholics were subjected at this period. In the diocese of Trier, in which Marpingen was situated in 1876, the bishop had just died (shortly after his release from nine months in gaol), 250 priests had been brought before the courts, nearly a third of the parishes were without an incumbent, and 150,000 Catholics lacked a priest. The Prussian authorities were hounding and harassing the Catholic