Lay Reading, Writing, and Religious Authority in Fifteenth-Century Germany

Doctoral Dissertation


More vernacular literature came out of fifteenth-century Germany than anywhere else in the Middle Ages, and nearly all of it was religious. In the hands of lay readers, these books were the first mass-market body of self-help literature in history. What happened when Christians used them? Previous scholarship has explored fifteenth-century religio­us literature through the eyes of medieval clergy or the Reformation, seeing little value in writings by lay authors perceived as stale and unoriginal. This dissertation argues that this fidelity of lay authors’ texts to the books by clerics that they read both masked and transmitted their worries about where religious authority lay. Gradually, their concerns came to rest in the sacrament of confession, especially in the presence of the confessor.

Overlooked by modern scholars, fifteenth-century German women continued to record visions. Through revelations, Katharina Tucher, Elisabeth Achler, Magdalena Beutler, and Ursula Haider channel what they learned from reading through the voice of Christ. They introduce Christ to mediate between themselves and clerical authors, not doubting the teachings but needing God to confirm the teachers’ legitimacy. Texts about Beutler, furthermore, show a complicated interaction of revelation and literature in which neither can fully affirm the other. Religious reading was a source and channel for an overall destabilization of religious authority.

The religious writing of dirty-joke poet Hans Folz shows how this quiet turbulence rooted in reading could be transmitted to a wider audience, including illiterate people, by showing how a text shaped to uphold clerical prerogative to firsthand readers actually promoted lay, male religious authority to listeners.

For Christians trusting their salvation to the sacraments, clerics’ religious authority was no scholastic debate. Tucher’s spiritual turmoil when she tried to apply the moral lessons of her reading—even successfully—echoed in her perception of her confessor as unable to bridge the gap between her sins and God’s grace. Even Folz’s dirty-joke writing conveyed a similar skepticism to his audiences.

Yet these writers tell a thoroughly fifteenth-century story. Despite a destabilization in their sense of who held religious authority, their trust in the Church remained inseparable from their Christian faith.


Attribute NameValues
Author Caitlin Stevenson
Contributor John Van Engen, Research Director
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline Medieval Studies
Degree Name Doctor of Philosophy
Banner Code
  • PHD-MI

Defense Date
  • 2019-03-05

Submission Date 2019-03-27
  • Visions

  • History

  • Middle Ages

  • Literature

  • Religion

Record Visibility and Access Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units
Catalog Record


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