The Erosion of a Monopoly: German Religious Literature in the Fifteenth Century

  • Werner Williams-Krapp
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In the fifteenth century the production and reception of vernacular literature in the German-speaking world veritably exploded. The primary factor for this revolutionary development was the desire of the simplices (the unlearned and semi-learned) for religious literature for independent reading. More than 80 percent of all extant manuscripts written in German and Dutch contain religious literature; a similar percentage applies to the production of the printers. Approximately three thousand authors and anonymous works offering spiritual literature belong to the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.1 In the context of social history the great popularity of religious writing is hardly surprising. At no other time were the peoples of the Holy Roman Empire so acutely focused on their personal salvation, so intensely interested in religious matters, and at no other time was the lay elite so strongly supportive of church reform. This, in turn, generated the production of works with a clear instructional character and unequivocal lessons for a pious life. Since at the same time general education and literacy were increasingly valued and even considered prestigious by the laity, especially in an urban milieu, there was a growing hunger among these newly educated for a more thorough knowledge regarding questions of faith. There are testimonies, for example, that laypersons actually borrowed books from monasteries, such as the Charterhouse at Basle, or used the libraries in the monasteries themselves; an example is the Benedictine monastery of St. Ulrich and St. Afra in Augsburg where the commotion caused by lay readers seriously disturbed the normal life in the cloister.2


Fifteenth Century Reform Movement Mystical Experience Religious Matter Mystical Union 
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  1. 10.
    See Werner Williams-Krapp, “Ordensreform und Literatur im 15. Jahrhundert,” Jahrbuch der Oswald von Wolkenstein-Gesellschaft 4 (1986–87): 41–51Google Scholar
  2. 13.
    See Margit Brand, Studien zu Johannes Niders deutschen Schriften. Disserta-tiones historicae XXIII (Rome: Istituto Storico Domenicano, 1998).Google Scholar

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© Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Duncan Robertson, and Nancy Bradley Warren 2002

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  • Werner Williams-Krapp

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