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David Blackbourn
Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a Nineteenth-Century German Village
Alfred A. Knopf / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-679-41843-1
Publication Date: 09-06-1994
510 pages ; $35.00
Date Reviewed: 08-03-2001 / Updated 12-17-2011
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Index:  Non-Fiction

Even in these days of saturated news coverage, where seemingly every event comes equipped with its own photographers and reporters, there's still a dearth of hard facts when it comes to the average apparition, be it of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Puerto Rican Goatsucker or the saucer crash at Roswell. Investigating an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Germany nearly a hundred and twenty years ago would seem to be a hopeless task.

But mainstream historian David Blackbourn is more than up to the challenge. In 'Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a Nineteenth-Century German Village,' he offers a picture-perfect, completely documented investigation into a series of sightings of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the remote German village of Marpingen in July, 1876. He covers every aspect of village life before, during and after the sightings, all of them extensively documented by written village records. He recreates the atmosphere, the culture, explains the economic, political, and religious forces extant in the entire region surrounding the village, and covers other examples of BVM sightings nearby. It is a perfect Fortean investigation, dispassionate, complete, and never judgmental.

Something happened in Marpingen to three girls picking berries in a forest on a summer day. Blackbourn follows all of the consequences of this sighting, which was during the middle of a "Culture War" being waged by the German liberal party against the Catholic Church. The hope amongst the poor villagers was (and still is) that Marpingen might become "the German Lourdes". But a conspiracy of coincidences, incompetence, over-reaction on the part of the Liberal party and commercial greed resulted not in the creation of a new Catholic shrine, but rather in the trial of those who claimed to have seen the apparitions. The trial provides a mesmerizing denouement to this complicated series of events.

Blackbourn went through 120 years of village, church and state records to examine not only the events themselves, but the reactions of everyone to those events. It's a fascinating study, with resonances to present investigations of paranormal phenomena from Bigfoot to Roswell. From crass commercialization to sublime revelation, every band in the spectrum of human emotions was evoked in Marpingen.

Conflicts between Church and State, science and superstition, believers and debunkers are revealed in a complex tapestry that proves conclusively Fortean investigations can bear the weight of mainstream academic techniques. Moreover, these investigations shed light not just on the phenomena but most importantly, on the cultural environment in which they are reported. These sightings are an externalization of the conflicts within the society where they are reported, no matter what the provenance of the phenomena themselves.

'Marpingen' is a cultural page-turner, a combination of historical detection with strong characters whose manifold motivations are always clear. It's a dense work of authentic history that proves scholarship is not incompatible with investigations of the supernatural — and that the result can be a great reading experience, a non-fiction work that has the urgency of fiction.

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