Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg
A celebrated German pulpit orator, b. at Schaffhausen, Switzerland, March 16, 1445; d. at Strasburg, March 10, 1510
Geiler von Kaysersberg JOHANN, a celebrated German pulpit orator, b. at Schaffhausen, Switzerland, March 16, 1445; d. at Strasburg, March 10, 1510. Until a scientific presentation of the history of the development of the Catholic sermon appears, an appreciation of even the most distinguished pulpit orator, although based on careful investigation, can only be a preliminary labor, for the picture, however elaborate, will lack the proper background. This is true in the case of the celebrated medieval preacher to the common people, Berthold of Ratisbon, and it applies no less to the great pulpit orator of the early sixteenth century, Geiler von Kaysersberg. More fortunate is the treatment of the subject in its relations to purely literary history, for the importance of Geiler in literature can be exactly determined. According to this history he was closely connected with those humanists of Strasburg of whom the leader was the well-known Jacob of Wimpheling (1450-1528), called “the educator of Germany“. Like Wimpheling, Geiler was a secular priest; both fought the ecclesiastical abuses of the age, but not in the spirit of Luther and his adherents. They looked, instead, for salvation and preservation only in the restoration of Christian morals in Church and State through the faithful maintenance of the doctrines of the Church. The scene of Wimpheling’ fruitful labors was the school, that of Geiler’s the pulpit.
The surname “von Kaysersberg”, given to Geiler by his contemporaries, was taken from the name of the place where his grandfather, who brought him up, lived. The father was killed by a hunting-accident when Geiler was three years old; and the excellent grandfather, who lived in Kaysersberg, took charge of the education of the child, sending him to the school at Ammersweiher, near Kaysersberg in Alsace, where his mother lived. When the talented boy was fifteen years old he went to the University of Freiburg in the Breisgau, which had just been opened; two years later he received the baccalaureate, and after two more years was made master of arts. He now gave lectures on various writings of Aristotle in the next semester, and in the following half-year filled the office of dean of the philosophical faculty for a brief period. In May, 1471, he went to the University of Basle, also founded but a short time before, in order to study theology, and obtained the doctorate in 1475. At Basle he became acquainted with Sebastian Brant, with whom he formed a lasting friendship. While at Basle, Geiler preached his first sermons in the cathedral and greatly enjoyed his pulpit labors; the confessional, however, caused him many difficulties of conscience. Basle, nevertheless, was not to be the place where his powers were to find their permanent employment. At the entreaty of the students of Freiburg, the magistracy and citizens of that city obtained his appointment to the Freiburg University, of which he was elected rector the next year. But lecturing to students was not congenial to him; his inclination was always for preaching, and in this latter office his talents found a life-work suited to them. For a time he preached in the cathedral of Wurzburg, in which city he thought of making his permanent home, but a fortunate accident changed his plans. Peter Schott, senator of Strasburg, an important and influential citizen who had charge of the property of the cathedral, urged strongly upon Geiler, now a well-known preacher, that his first duty was to the people of Alsace; accordingly Geiler resolved, notwithstanding the entreaties of the citizens of Wurzburg, to settle in Strasburg, and pursuant to this decision he remained there the rest of his life.
Before this date the mendicant orders had supplied the pulpit of the cathedral of Strasburg. On account, however, of the frequent change of preachers and, above all, owing to some friction between the mendicants and the parish priests, the cathedral chapter, together with the bishop and the city authorities, desired to have a secular priest appointed to fill the office permanently. Consequently a special position as preacher was made for Geiler, and he filled this appointment with apostolic courage and intense zeal fox souls for over thirty years. He not only preached, ax required, every Sunday and feast day in the cathedral, and even daily during fasts, but also, on special occasions, in the monasteries of the city and often outside of the city. His daily life, passed in this simple round of duties, was only broken by occasional short journeys for which he apparently used his monthly holiday. Thus he frequently visited Frederick of Zollern, Bishop of Augsburg, who was very friendly to him; once he was called to Fussen on the River Lech by his special patron the Emperor Maximilian, who desired his advice. He seems to have taken his short intervals of rest, when possible, for making pious pilgrimages, generally in the vicinity of his home, sometimes to distant spots. At Einsiedeln in Switzerland he met the Blessed Nikolaus of Flue, who was even then well known; another time he journeyed to Sainte-Baume, near Marseilles, in order to pray in the grotto of St. Mary Magdalen. At home he lived very plainly, even austerely. It was only natural that a life of such incessant labor, one in which the powers were constantly exerted to the utmost and none of the comforts of ease were enjoyed, should soon wear out the bodily frame. A kidney trouble developed, to relieve which he was obliged to visit annually the hot springs of Baden; dropsy finally appeared, and he passed away on Laetare Sunday of the year above mentioned. The next day, in the presence of an immense ‘multitude of people, he was buried at the foot of the pulpit which had been especially built for him, and of which he had been for so many years the greatest ornament.
The numerous volumes of Geiler’s sermons and writings which have been published do not give a complete picture of the characteristic qualities of the preacher. God‘s grace had made Geiler an orator, and the aim Geiler sought, without regard to other considerations, was to produce the most powerful effect on his hearers. He prepared himself with great care for the pulpit, writing out his sermons beforehand, as his contemporary Beatus Rhenanus reports; these preparatory compositions, however, were drawn up, not in German, but in Latin. Only a very small part of the sermons that have been issued under his name are directly his. At a very early date his addresses were taken down by others and published. The best critic of Geiler’s works, the well-known writer on literary history, Prof. E. Martin of Strasburg, has made the attempt, in the “Allgemeine deutsche Biographie”, to give a summary of Geiler’s genuine writings; according to him the authenticated writings number thirty-five. Notwithstanding this rich material, a proper appreciation of the extraordinary preacher is very difficult, because it is not certain that any of the extant works give exactly what Geiler said. One thing, however, is evident from them, that the Strasburg preacher was a widely read man not only in theology, but also in the secular literature of the day. This is shown by the sermons having Sebastian Brant‘s “Ship of Fools”, which appeared in 1494, for their theme; these sermons attained the greatest popularity. Geiler displayed, also, exceptional facility in using public events to attract and hold the attention of his hearers. In originality of speech Geiler is in form, as in time, between Berthold of Ratisbon and Abraham a Sancta Clara, and perhaps the shortest and best characterization of the greatest preacher of the early Reformation period is indicated by this intermediate position; Berthold‘s homeliness of address showed only occasional lapses from the proprieties of speech, Geiler yielded oftener to the coarseness of his age, Abraham exceeded his contemporaries in unfortunate errors as to form and content.
According to the testimony of contemporaries, the effect of Geiler’s forcible and unusual sermons was at times very marked; but the decay of morals was by now too great for them to have a permanent effect. Geiler himself complained bitterly that neither clergy nor laity were willing to join in a common reform. A man of austere morality, he never failed to show an apostolic courage towards both high and low, and exhibited an extraordinary daring in fighting vice and degeneracy of morals. Hence his works are an important source for the history of the civilization of these degenerate times. There are no distinct statements regarding what he effected by his personal influence among his intimate friends, especially by his influence on the pious family of the senator, Schott, upon Wimpheling and Brant, who were, like Geiler, reformers in the best sense of the word, as well as, by his counsels, upon the Emperor Maximilian. Another striking merit of Geiler’s oratory was that his thoughts were expressed in the language of ordinary life, which he used with unequalled skill. In this way posterity possesses, in Geiler’s writings, an enduring source for the knowledge of the speech, customs, and beliefs of the common people at the beginning of the sixteenth century. It is no longer necessary to take up a question warmly discussed, even in modern times, as to how a work of Geiler’s came to be on the Index (cf. Reusch, “Der Index”, I, 370), as in the last issue of the Index Geiler’s name does not appear.