Berthold of Ratisbon, a Franciscan of the monastery of that city and the most powerful preacher of repentance in the thirteenth century, b. about 1210; d. at Ratisbon, December 14, 1272. He was probably a member of a well-to-do middle class family of Ratisbon named Sachs. The excellence of his literary training is proved by his sermons which show more than common acquaintance with the ancient classics. From his knowledge of the usages of secular life, it may be inferred that he was a man of mature age before he entered the monastery. The first fixed date in Berthold‘s life is 1246, when the papal legate appointed him and David of Augsburg inspectors of the convent of Niedermunster, a proof of the high regard in which Berthold was then held. One of his contemporaries, the Abbot of Niederaltaich, who is a reliable historian, speaks in 1250 of the great reputation that Berthold had in Bavaria as a preacher. Four years later the missionary trips of this preacher extended as far as the valley of the Rhine, Alsace, and Switzerland. During the next ten years Berthold‘s apostolic labors led him eastward into Austria, Moravia, Bohemia, and Silesia. In 1263 Pope Urban IV appointed him to preach the Crusade and Albert the Great was designated as his assistant.
When speaking to Slavonic audiences Berthold naturally employed an interpreter, just as St. Bernard, in his day, made use of an interpreter in Germany. Notwithstanding any difficulties that might arise as to speech, wherever he went Berthold exerted an extraordinary power of attraction over his hearers so that the churches were not able to hold the great crowds of plain people who came from all quarters to his services, and he was often obliged to preach in the open air. When this was the case, a pulpit was generally arranged under the spreading branches of a linden tree. Long after his day “Berthold‘s linden” was to be seen at Glatz. About 1270 he seems to have returned to Ratisbon where he remained the rest of his life. The Franciscan martyrology includes his name among the blessed of the order, and his remains form the most precious relic among the treasures of the cathedral at Ratisbon. The poets and chroniclers of his time made frequent reference to Berthold. He was called “sweet Brother Berthold“, “the beloved of God and man”, “a second Elias“, “the teacher of the nations”; all of these expressions are proofs of the high esteem in which his activities were held. The secret of the preacher’s success lay partly in the saintliness of his life and partly in his power to make use of the language of humble life. He became the great master, it may be said, the classic of homely speech, and this rank has been ‘maintained by his sermons to the present day. One of his two popular discourses on the Last Judgment became a favorite book of the people under the title “The Valley of Josaphat“.
There is no doubt that Brother Berthold preached in German. For a long time, however, scholars disagreed as to how his sermons had been preserved. It is now generally accepted that the sermons were often written down afterwards in Latin, frequently with marginal comments in German; these reports of the sermons, as they may be called, partly German, partly Latin, or at times in the language in which they were delivered, are what have been handed down to posterity. The discourses thus preserved are of the greatest importance for the history of the development of the literature of homiletics; they are of equal value as rich sources for determining the condition of education and culture in the thirteenth century. It is difficult, therefore, to understand how this greatest of German preachers to the poor could have been forgotten for centuries. It was not until some of Brother Berthold‘s sermons were published in 1824 that attention was called to the eloquent Franciscan. Since this date, the enthusiasm for Berthold has grown steadily so that he has become a favorite, both of Germanic scholars and of the historians of the development of German civilization. He is also regarded as the great pattern of homely pulpit eloquence.