The Heidenmauer; or, The Benedictines — A Story of the Rhine (1832)
Originally published in Warren S. Walker, Plots and Characters in the Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978), pp. 54-61.
Copyright © 1978 by Warren S. Walker. Placed online with the kind permission of Warren S. Walker, and of Shoe String Press, Inc.
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Chapter numbers [in square brackets] have been inserted by the webmaster at approximately the point where each chapter begins, to facilitate locating particular plot incidents in the text.
— Hugh C. MacDougall
Set in the Kingdom of Bavaria during the early sixteenth century, this sociopolitical novel pictures a power struggle among three forces: the church, the aristocracy, and the rising commercial class. The principal exponents of these forces are, respectively, Father Bonifacius, Abbot of Limburg; Emich Leininger, Count of Hartenburg; and Heinrich Frey, Burgomaster of the town of Deurckheim. It is a bitter struggle which often reveals the worst sides of the adversaries, and none of the three principals emerges as a really attractive character. Beyond the passing performance of these individuals lies the more protracted drama of the Reformation.
 The opening scene introduces two menials in the employ of Count Emich: Gottlob Frinck, cowherd, and his friend Berchthold Hintermayer, forester and huntsman. Old companions, they meet as Berchthold is bringing home to the castle some hunting dogs he was exercising and as Gottlob is rounding up cattle which he was illegally grazing in the pasturelands of the Abbey of Limburg. They discuss guardedly the growing conflict between the count and the abbot.  After they kennel and stable their animals, the two meet again and walk toward the mountain hermitage of the Anchorite of the Cedars, a holy man who is new in the area. This religious recluse has made his abode among the Roman ruins at Pagan Camp near a large circular wall known as the Heidenmauer or Pagan’s Wall. The place has an additional overtone of paganism because it was reputedly the site of the winter quarters of Attila the Hun during the fifth century. Contributing further to the spookiness of the ruins is the Devil’s Stone, an outcropping of rock about which a legend, rich with supernatural lore, has survived for several centuries, lust before Gottlob and Berchthold reach the hermit’s hut, they are overtaken by Father Siegfried, a Benedictine from the nearby Abbey of Limburg, who is bound to the same destination.
 As the three enter the dimly lighted hut, they find the anchorite giving advice to a young lady. At a signal from Berchthold, Gottlob involves Father Siegfried in a discussion of a controversial nature in order to allow the huntsman and Meta Frey, daughter of the burgomaster, to slip away. Whatever business it is that Father Siegfried has at the hermitage we are not told; but as he walks away with Gottlob, the monk promises gold to the cowherd if he will ascertain the size of the armed force which Count Emich is accumulating at Hartenburg Castle. Siegfried’s interest in such information reflects the insecurity felt by the Benedictines at this time.
 Berchthold and Meta converse in whispers as the latter’s aged nurse, Ilse, naps after her long climb to the Heidenmauer. From their gossip the reader infers some of the tension that exists between the castle and the town of Deurckheim. More explicit in their conversation is the fact that the strange new hermit has chosen these young people as his special students, each having already visited him several times in this out-of-the-way place.
 At the castle, Gisela, daughter of the warden, Karl Friedrich, talks with Count Leininger about the rough and uncouth character of the soldiers being assembled in that stronghold. She also reminds the count several times that it was in his military service that her father had lost a leg. The count chafes at her saucy manner but gives her only a light reprimand, realizing that his wife, Ermengarde (absent from the castle at this time), has spoiled the girl. He is preoccupied with matters of more moment as he prepares to entertain Wilhelm of Venloo, known as Father Bonifacius since he became Abbot of Limburg.  At the banquet the count is flanked by two aides: his cousin, Albrecht of Viederbach, a Knight of St. John, also called a Knight of Rhodes, one who was present at the fall of Rhodes to the Ottoman Turks in 1523; and Abbé Latouche, a Parisian cleric who is a politician in church circles rather than a devoutly religious person. Emich has invited these two worldly churchmen to his castle to provide it with a facade of sanctity at a time when he plans to destroy the Abbey of Limburg. During his visit to the castle the abbot is supported by two of his fellow Benedictines, Father Siegfried and Father Cuno. As the meal progresses, the count and the abbot discuss a vineyard to which they both lay claim. They decide to settle the ownership not by resorting to arms but by means of a drinking bout. Each signs a quitclaim on the disputed property, and the man who can walk away from the winefest will take both documents with him.  As the carouse continues, the six men grow more garrulous and quarrelsome. One by one the four subordinates are overcome by alcohol, and either collapse in their chairs or fall beneath the table. Of the two principals, Bonifacius seems to be enduring the trial more comfortably than Emich, for the count has all but lost command of his power of speech. The abbot has requested that the count’s huntsman come to the hall so that he can congratulate the man for the choice game he had provided for their feast. When Berchthold appears, the young man recognizes at once the precarious condition of his master and, to the count’s great relief, carries the burden of conversation with the guest. Berchthold’s outspoken support for the doctrines of Martin Luther, by now the most controversial churchman in Germany, infuriates the abbot, who, losing his self-possession, swallows several goblets of wine and lapses into unconsciousness. The count, still unable to speak, picks up the quitclaims and, supported by Berchthold, staggers from the banquet hall, the victor.
 The following day is the Sabbath, and high mass is performed at the abbey, attended by the Burgomaster of Deurckheim and by Count Emich and numerous followers. Although Brothers Bonifacius, Siegfried, and Cuno manage to attend the service, they do not participate actively. The sermon is preached by Father Arnolph, Prior and spiritual leader of the Benedictines cloistered in the abbey. Both in his sermon and afterwards in his conversation with the count, Father Arnolph proves to be at once a reasonable and a benevolent man. He acknowledges the shortcomings of churchmen as human beings, not trying to defend the behavior the night before of the abbot and his drinking cronies. He reminds the count that his noble ancestors had helped found the abbey and that succeeding generations of Leiningers had contributed to the maintenance and defense of the establishment. So assuaged are the count’s feelings of hostility toward the convent that he experiences some serious misgivings about his designs upon abbey lands. At that crucial moment, the vindictive Father Johan interrupts with a threat of damnation against the count, thus shattering the last chance of rapprochement between church and state in the district.
 After the conclusion of the service, Gottlob, the count’s cowherd, is detained for questioning by the abbot. How many armed men are now garrisoned in Hartenburg Castle? This was the information Father Siegfried had enlisted Gottlob to secure, but now the cowherd is unwilling to commit himself on this matter. Instead, he gives evasive answers to all of the abbot’s queries. Thinking at first to extract the desired information by means of torture, the abbot decides against this course and, instead, orders Gottlob confined in the convent for a period of penance.
 As the count leaves the abbey, he invites to dinner at the castle Heinrich Frey, his family, and his attendants. Flattering the Burgomaster of Deurckheim in every possible way, Emich solicits his support in a move against the Benedictines.  At one point during the social hour preceding the meal, Frey’s wife, Ulricke, talks privately with the count about a domestic dilemma she faces. Her daughter, Meta, and Berchthold Hintermayer are in love; but their betrothal is blocked by the burgomaster, who refuses to allow his daughter to marry into a family of ruined fortune.  The count, who once admired this woman for her beauty and now respects her for her ability, makes a proposal to Ulricke: if she will persuade her husband to support his campaign against the Benedictines, Emich will elevate Berchthold to a more responsible position, thus making him a more worthy suitor for the hand of Meta. Too devout to abet any conspiracy against the church, Ulricke refuses the offer.  Later she visits the nearby Hintermayer cottage where she relates to her old friend Lottchen, Berchthold’s mother, the discussion she has had with the count.  Both women are shocked at the suggestion of physical hostility against the Abbey of Limburg, and their conversation turns to a notorious instance of such hostility twenty years earlier. Baron Odo von Rittenstein, then betrothed to Ulricke, had let his zealous interest in church reform carry him into violence. Under the influence of alcohol, he and a group of his followers had invaded the Abbey of Limburg and committed various sacrileges culminated by Odo’s trampling on the divine host.
 Suspecting that the Anchorite of the Cedars, about whom she has heard so much from Meta and the others, may be Odo von Rittenstein, Ulricke, accompanied by Ilse, goes at ten o’clock that evening to the Heidenmauer to call upon the hermit. She is not mistaken. The penitent who prays in the ruins is indeed Baron Odo, though greatly changed from the youth whom Ulricke had known years earlier. He had become an outcast and wandered for years, seeking various forms of expiation for his sins. He has returned and by means of gold has made his peace with the monks who this night will offer a special mass for his absolution; his peace with God is something not yet achieved. As the two old friends talk, the chapel bells ring announcing the midnight mass for the benefit of the anchorite.  Ulricke and Ilse follow Odo to the abbey and, after his intercession with the sentinel, are admitted to the chapel.  Part way through the mass a trumpet is heard at the gates, and a large body of armed men bursts into the abbey grounds, one hundred of them citizens of Deurckheim led by their burgomaster, and thrice that number soldiers from the castle commanded by Berchthold Hintermayer.
The attacking forces meet no real resistance, for the troops of Duke Friedrich, Elector of Saxony, which usually guard the abbey, had been recalled, earlier in the day, to defend their own hard-pressed lord.  Moving to the chapel, the invaders confront the assembled monks; and the Burgomaster of Deurckheim voices the community complaints against the Benedictines: their heavy assessment against the economy of the area, their encroachment on the lands of others, their arrogance of behavior. Abbot Bonifacius begins to enunciate a malediction against the intruders when Ulricke interposes — much to the surprise of her husband, who had supposed her safely out of the way at the Heidenmauer. Pleading first with Bonifacius not to excommunicate the mad offenders, she then turns her competent rhetoric against her husband and Berchthold, urging them to desist from their present folly. As she jousts verbally with these men, Ulricke effects a virtual stalemate until the belated arrival of Count Emich. At that point her challenge to the invaders collapses, and she is led away to safety.
 Pillage of the abbey progresses as the peasant followers of Count Emich and the citizen soldiery of Deurckheim set fire to one after another of the buildings. They overturn altars within the church; Dietrich, the blacksmith who serves as Frey’s lieutenant, smashes tombstones and marble images with rapid blows of his hammer. Twice the plunderers falter in their destructive work, once when Bonifacius utters a malediction and again when Father Johan displays the convent’s collection of religious relics. The spell is broken each time by a raucous blast from the cow horn of Gottlob.  Following his second blare, the troops put their torches to the chapel itself, and all retreat from the spreading flames except the prostrate Odo and the fanatic Father Johan, who remains in prayer before the chest of relics. Albrecht, the Knight of Rhodes, and Berchthold rush into the fiery building and try to carry the mad monk to safety. When he escapes their grasp and returns to the altar, Albrecht abandons the effort to rescue him. Berchthold, seemingly transfixed by the wild scene, remains and, along with Johan and Odo, disappears in the conflagration when the roof collapses.
 On the following day the town council of Deurckheim meets to consider the demands for reparations made by the Benedictines, most of whom are housed in the abbey of an adjoining district. There is a mixed air of defiance and remorse among the burghers and artisans assembled.  The demands of Bonifacius for gold and penance are heavy, and Heinrich Frey remonstrates with the mild-mannered Father Arnolph, the abbots’ representative. Upon the arrival of Count Emich, however, the decision is made to satisfy the Benedictines’ requirements in most respects, though there is a consensus that the Abbey of Limburg must never be rebuilt. Having achieved his political end and established his authority, the count is ready now to salve his conscience with whatever obeisances may be required.  A large sum of gold — much of it plundered from the abbey itself — is paid, and all of the leading persons of the castle and town undertake a long and arduous pilgrimage to the Benedictine convent and Our Lady of the Hermits shrine at Einsiedlen, Switzerland. Among the penitents who make this Alpine pilgrimage are Lottchen and Meta, both in mourning for the death of Berchthold.  Upon their arrival at Our Lady of the Hermits, a shrine famous for miracles and redolent of saints’ legends, each pilgrim passes before Father Rudiger, the local abbot, and Father Bonifacius, who stand by the sacristy, and deposits one or more gifts for the convent.
 Later that evening the reality of the Reformation is more clearly rendered than on any occasion previously. Ulricke, Meta, and Lottchen are brought before the two abbots by Father Arnolph to plead for a mass on behalf of the soul of Berchthold. The petition is refused because of the forester’s known Lutheran sympathies. In private the two abbots discuss, quite objectively, the activity of Martin Luther and the growing strength of the schism.  At midnight Father Rudiger, mindful of the Benedictine tradition of hospitality, hosts a dinner for his most prominent guests (Bonifacius, Emich, Albrecht, Latouche, Frey, and Dietrich) at which the current rebellion within the church becomes the subject of heated controversy.  The count himself now requests a special mass for Berchthold but is refused after Bonifacius, remembering the forester’s words at the drinking bout, declares him a heretic. Only the timely chimes announcing a special pre-matin service prevent the issue from erupting into renewed hostilities.
 When the pilgrims return home, traveling down the Rhine by boat, they find the citizens of Deurckheim filled with superstitious dread. Berchthold’s hounds have been heard baying on the trail of game. Reports have been made by some who claimed that they actually saw the dogs, and a few have even gone so far as to insist that they saw the form of Berchthold flying along behind the pack.  On the following morning the newly returned pilgrims lead the people of Deurckheim to the ruins of the Abbey of Limburg where they find only the bones of Father Johan. All in the assembled multitude are startled to hear the hounds of Berchthold baying from the direction of the Heidenmauer, and to this eerie place they all now hesitantly proceed. After a careful buildup of suspense by the narrator, Berchthold himself bursts from the woods alive and well to tell his story. After the collapse of the chapel roof, Berchthold had grabbed the prostrate Odo and dragged him to the crypt below. There the two men had been found the following morning by monks returning to their demolished abbey. The Benedictines had nursed the injured men but had exacted from them a vow of silence until the pilgrims had returned from Switzerland. (Unfortunately Fathers Cuno and Siegfried had failed to keep their part of the bargain, which was to inform Lottchen, Ulricke, and Meta of Berchthold’s safety.) Now there is great rejoicing for the restoration of one mourned as lost.
Despite his pleasure at discovering the physical well-being of young Hintermayer, Heinrich Frey still cannot bring himself to accept a mere forester as a son-in-law.  Ulricke now turns to her last hope for help in this domestic crisis. She proceeds to the hut of Odo von Rittenstein and appeals to the noble hermit to aid the impoverished Berchthold. To her surprise and joy she discovers that Odo has anticipated her request, for he hands her documents in which he has willed to his rescuer and former pupil both his castle and his lands. Still moved by barely repressed love for Ulricke, Odo himself departs, declaring that he cannot remain near the woman who has meant so much to him and also continue the religious penitence to which he is committed. Ulricke’s unrestrained sobbing at his departure reveals that the youthful passion has not passed entirely from her heart either.
Berchthold’s new wealth makes him at last acceptable to the materialistic burgomaster, and his marriage to Meta occurs on the following day. The ceremony and its consequent celebration are quickly passed over in two brief sentences as the author hastens to reaffirm the sociopolitical thesis of the book: ” ... the reluctant manner in which the mind of man abandons old, to receive new, impressions” (p. 464).
Albrecht of Viederbach, Father Arnolph, Father Cuno, Dietrich, Heinrich Frey, Meta Frey, Ulricke Hailzinger Frey, Karl Friedrich, Gottlob Frinck, Gisela, Berchthold Hintermayer, Lottchen Hintermayer, Hugo, Ilse, Father Johan, Abbé Latouche, Emich Leininger, Ludwig, Odo von Rittenstein, Rudiger, Father Siegfried, Father Ulrich, Wilhelm of Venloo, Wolfgang.