Theses Doctoral

Alive Enough? A Conflict over Divine Presence and Natural Power in the Reanimation of Dead Infants, 1400-1545

Elmer, Hannah

This dissertation examines a late fifteenth-century conflict between Otto von Sonnenberg, bishop of Constance, and the City Council of Bern over attempts to temporarily reanimate dead infants in order to baptize them. Thousands of people were bringing their dead, unbaptized infants to the chapel of Oberbüren, heating them up over hot coals until they detected signs of life, and then baptizing them before they again died. Once baptized, the tiny corpses were buried in the consecrated ground surrounding the church, and the people celebrated the miracle by which another soul was saved from eternal damnation. But to the bishop, the heating did not work and the bodies did not return to life, which meant the people were baptizing corpses (which was ineffective) and violating consecrated ground by burying people still stained by original sin. While the bishop condemned this set of practices as a “superstition,” the City Council of Bern claimed that the resuscitations were legitimate miracles and should be promoted.

Such reanimation practices were not new at this time or at this place, but conflicts over them were unusual. By situating this conflict in a long history of (temporary) infant reanimation across Central Europe and the baptismal imperative of the medieval Christian Church, this dissertation turns to the changing contexts of the natural world, with magic, medicine and witchcraft, to help explain why the reanimation practices would be causing such a stir at this particular juncture. “Alive Enough” shows how different epistemologies—a religious one based in affect, ritual, and faith and a naturalistic one based on human intention, material manipulation, and the test of reason—could be combined (and contested) to produce new understandings of life itself. It also calls into question the secular/ecclesiastical divide in determining religious belief, showing—in the decades before the Reformation—the important role of secular authorities in determining even these very exceptional moments of divine intervention in the world, moments that should be the example par excellence of ecclesiastical prerogative.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Kaye, Joel B.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 21, 2019