James Fenimore Cooper Society Website
This page is: http://www.oneonta.edu/~cooper/articles/suny/1995suny-macdougall.html

Exploring Man's "Latent Sympathies" in The Heidenmauer

Hugh C. MacDougall
(James Fenimore Cooper Society)

Presented at the 10th Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1995

[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 10), Papers from the 1995 Cooper Seminar (No. 10), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 38-47)

Return to SUNY Seminars | Articles & Papers

"There are latent sympathies in human nature which...nothing but death can finally extinguish"
The Heidenmauer, Ch. 21

In 1952 Howard Mumford Jones, Professor of English at Harvard University, in a personal re-appraisal of Cooper1, noted that scholars of the 1930s and 1940s had concentrated on Cooper’s role as a social critic, while ignoring other phases of the author’s thought and writing. Jones said that he was more concerned with "some of the ways in which Cooper as a moralist is involved in the aesthetic and philosophic currents of his age," and he concluded with the hope that "it is to the moralist in Cooper that investigation can next, I believe, profitably turn" (154).

Re-reading Jones’ article a few months ago, I was led to think where I had found expression of "the moralist in Cooper." What sprang to mind was Cooper’s little-read novel, The Heidenmauer2. It is, I believe, an important expression of Cooper’s approach to the moral evaluation of individuals and institutions.

The Heidenmauer is a novel that rarely comes up in discussions of Cooper. Howard Mumford Jones’ call for an examination of Cooper as moralist does not so much as mention the book. Published in 1832 -- in an America wracked by cholera, political crisis, and economic depression -- The Heidenmauer was an instant flop. Two weeks after it appeared on September 25, 1832, Cooper’s Philadelphia publishers candidly wrote him that "we would very gladly have sold out at cost, or below it, before publication."3 Since then it has generally remained unnoticed; usually mentioned in passing as the worst of Cooper’s three so-called "European novels" (The Bravo, The Heidenmauer, and The Headsman), written with historical European settings in 1830-32.

Those critics who have considered The Heidenmauer at all, have interpreted it in different ways. Some have grouped it with the other two "European novels", as an object lesson to Americans of the evils of European institutions. In 1896, for example, Thomas Lounsbury, found that, like The Bravo and The Headsman, it "assailed oligarchical, and lauded democratic institutions."4 This theme has been repeated by later Cooper scholars, from Henry Boynton in 19315 to John McWilliams in 19726. Other critics, including Robert Spiller in 19317 and James Grossman in 19498, saw in the novel an account of Martin Luther’s Protestant Revolution. Yet another group, including Marius Bewley9, Kay House,10 and Donald Ringe11, read The Heidenmauer as an economic text about morality and the rise of Capitalism.

Two writers who have given The Heidenmauer close attention have focused on its religious themes. Gary Williams, in a 1976 article, saw in The Heidenmauer a defense of the European Catholicism that Cooper had come to appreciate during his European sojourn.12 Helen Phinit-Akson, in a perceptive doctoral thesis for the University of Pittsburgh, published in Thailand in 1976, read the novel as a miracle-play of redemption.13

Yet it seems to me that The Heidenmauer -- aside from what it may say about European political history or the Protestant Reformation -- casts light on one of Cooper’s fundamental concerns: the balance between good and evil in individuals and institutions. In The Heidenmauer Cooper finds latent sympathies of humanity both in bad men, and in an institution, the Catholic Church, that most of his Protestant American readers routinely demonized.

In The Heidenmauer, Cooper deals with issues of human morality during a critical period of European history. But his intended audience is the America of the 1830s: "We profess to write only for the amusement-fortunate shall we be if instruction may be added -- of our own countrymen" (90). At the same time, however, Cooper is explicit that he is not trying to show Americans to be morally superior to Europeans. Never, he says, has he claimed any special virtues for Americans because of their nationality.

[W]e have left the cardinal virtues to mankind in the gross, never...having written of "American courage," or "American honesty," nor yet of "American beauty," nor haply of "American manliness," nor even of "American strength of arm," as qualities abstracted and not common to our fellow creatures; but have been content...to call virtue, virtue-and vice, vice (91).

[39] Given The Heidenmauer’s obscure place in a shady nook of the Cooper canon, it seems only fair to say something about its origin and theme.

This novel was inspired by Cooper’s three-week visit to the Rhineland in September 1831, accompanied by his wife Susan, and by his two youngest children. On about September 2014, on their way back to Paris, Susan’s indisposition forced the family to spend the night in Deurckheim, a small town on the west side of the Rhine in what is called the Palatinate.

There were, explained mine host of the Ox Tavern in Deurckheim, many points of interest in the neighborhood. On one side of the town rose the ruined castle of the Counts of Hartenburg-Leiningen. On a nearby hill stood the remains of the Benedictine Abbey of Limburg. Even more ancient was the "Heidenmauer" (The Pagan Wall), a Roman camp later occupied by Attila the Hun.

Intrigued by these and other local marvels, Cooper found an English-speaking guide and, accompanied by his seven-year-old son Paul, set out to visit them. Looking down from the heights on the Palatine plain, Cooper found himself musing on the cavalcade of history that had passed the place: savage hunters, Romans and barbarians, the glorious reign of Charlemagne, the baronial castle and the Christian abbey.

Here arose the long and selfish strife between the antagonist principles, that has not yet ceased. The struggle was between the power of knowledge and that of physical force. The former, neither pure nor perfect, descended to subterfuge and deceit; while the latter vacillated between the dread of unknown causes, and the love of domination. Monk and baron came in collision; this secretly distrusting the faith he professed, and that trembling at the consequences of the blow which his own sword had given; the fruits of too much knowledge in one, and of too little in the other, while both were the prey of those incessant and unwearied enemies of the race, the greedy passions (xxviii).

Startled from his reverie by the laughter of his young son, Cooper was drawn to consider how the boy -- in whose blood flowed strains from England, France, Sweden, and Holland -- was the inheritor of all this history, and at the same time of the movement of men to the long hidden new world of America and "all the immense results that were dependent on this inscrutable and grand movement of Providence" (xxix).

Cooper’s experience at the Pagan Wall, with his young son, exerted a strong impact on him. A few days after returning to Paris he wrote a friend that "a groupe of ruins that I met, so beset my fancy, that I must give vent to the impression in three volumes...." The following month he proposed the idea to his Philadelphia publisher.15

From the folklore of Deurckheim Cooper picked up during his visit, and from the history of the Protestant Reformation in Germany, came The Heidenmauer. At the end of the book, Cooper sums up his purpose by saying:

Our object has been to show...the reluctant manner in which the mind of man abandons old, to receive new, impressions -- the inconsistencies between profession and practice -- the error in confounding the good with the bad, in any sect or persuasion -- the common and governing principles that control the selfish, under every shade and degree of existence -- and the high and immutable qualities of the good, the virtuous, and of the really noble (464).

The Heidenmauer is set in and around Deurckheim in about 1526,16 a provincial trading town in the German Palatinate where the teachings of Martin Luther are beginning to be heard.

As German religious wars reverberate in the background, the people of Deurckheim have a problem closer to hand. On one side of the valley, Count Emich of Hartenburg-Leiningen glares down on the town from his ancient feudal castle. Nearby, Abbot Bonifacius rules the equally ancient Benedictine Abbey of Limburg.

Castle and Abbey have long been bitter rivals -- for land, for dominance over Deurckheim, and above all for power and prestige. The growing town, run by its Burgomaster Heinrich Frey, is caught in the middle. The townsmen seek to play one side off against the other in an attempt to escape from the control of either.

The main action of The Heidenmauer concerns an act of sacrilege. Count Emich and his mercenaries, supported by Burgomaster Heinrich Frey and the townsfolk of Deurckheim, attack Limburg Abbey, in the midst of a High Mass. With sledgehammers and fire they utterly destroy it, forcing the Abbot and his monks into exile.

With Catholicism still in control of the Palatinate (and all the characters of the novel consider themselves as Catholics), the Church condemns those most involved to make a pilgrimage of penitence to the Abbey of Einsiedlen, a famous Catholic shrine near Zurich in Switzerland.

[40] As often in Cooper’s plots, there is a doubling of the theme. Twenty years before the story opens, a young noble, rebellious and drunken, had interrupted a mass at Limburg Abbey, climbed on the high altar, and trampled on the Sacred Host. Banished from society, the penitent Odo von Ritterstein has wandered the world. As The Heidenmauer begins he has returned unrecognized, to live as a Hermit in a hut among the ruins of the "Heidenmauer" -- the so-called Pagan Wall that gives the novel its name.

These public events are coupled with a typical romantic plot about the star-crossed path to marriage of two young lovers. The hero is Berchtold, an honest young man of good family forced by poverty to become Count Emich’s forester. As the Count’s servant, and influenced by Martin Luther’s denunciations of church corruption, he leads the Count’s mercenaries in the attack on Limburg Abbey. The romantic heroine is Meta, only daughter of Deurckheim’s Burgomaster Heinrich Frey. The love of these two young people is thwarted by the Burgomaster’s insistence, despite his own humble beginnings, that his daughter marry a man of wealth. This impediment is compounded by Berchtold’s disappearance and presumed death during the destruction of the Abbey.

Not surprisingly, Berchtold eventually shows up safe and sound; Odo the Hermit, his identity revealed, endows Berchtold with his castle and fortune. The novel concludes in traditional romantic fashion with the marriage of Berchtold and Meta, who are thus free to live happily ever after.

In addition to the triumvirate of Count, Burgomaster, and Abbot, many characters play roles in Cooper’s story. Among them are numerous churchmen, representing a broad spectrum of different relations between man and the universal Catholic church. Expressing a different kind of morality are two pious women -- the Burgomaster’s wife Ulricke, whom Cooper describes as the real "heroine" of the tale, and her lifelong friend, Berchtold’s mother Lottchen.

Offstage, and only vaguely perceived in The Heidenmauer, is Martin Luther, though his preaching has unsettled both churchmen and the laity. On the one hand, Luther has awakened resentment against corruption within the Catholic Church; on the other, that resentment allows sinners to rationalize their crimes against the Church.

The action of The Heidenmauer is divided into four episodes, which -- Helen Phinit-Akson has suggested -- correspond to the four acts of a medieval miracle play: conflict with divine authority, repudiation of that authority, reconciliation, and the re-integration of society.17 In the first scene, adapted from Deurckheim’s local folklore,18 the Abbot joins the Count in a drinking contest which leaves both dead drunk. In the second, the combined forces of town and castle destroy Limburg Abbey. In the third, the sinners make a pilgrimage of penance to the Shrine of Einsiedlen. In the brief finale, the characters resume their daily lives. Around these four scenes is woven the romantic love story of Berchtold and Meta.

The focal point of The Heidenmauer is the destruction of Limburg Abbey, which takes place over several chapters two-thirds through the book. The assembled forces of Count Emich, led by his forester Berchtold, joined by Burgomaster Heinrich Frey and the men of Deurckheim, invade the Abbey during a midnight Mass, and with fire and sledgehammer reduce its buildings to ashes and rubble. In this climactic scene, Cooper makes use of all his considerable ability at describing horrendous events, culminating in the collapse of the burning Abbey church as Berchtold vainly seeks to save a fanatical monk from a fiery suicide at the altar. It is at this climax that Cooper briefly articulates a basic principle of his view of human morality:

An awful crashing above...grated on the ear. The very men who, so short a time before, had come upon the hill ready and prepared to slay, now uttered groans of horror at witnessing the jeopardy of their fellow-creatures; for, whatever we may be in moments of excitement, there are latent sympathies in human nature which too much use may deaden, but which nothing but death can finally extinguish (325).

Father Johan dies in flames in the sight of all, while the young hero Berchtold disappears in the confusion, thus abruptly ending the act of sacrilege about which The Heidenmauer is framed.

This burning of the Abbey church resembles dramatic scenes of violence in other Cooper novels: the massacre at Fort William Henry in The Last of the Mohicans, the destruction of the hutted knoll in Wyandotté, and countless actions at sea. But it differs from most of them in one important respect. During the destruction, and indeed in the novel as a whole, no man dies at the hand of another. The only death in The Heidenmauer is that of Father Johan, which is clearly presented as the suicide of a madman. It seems to me that by leaving out murder, the most unforgivable of human sins, Cooper frees himself for a more complex examination of morality.

[41] Such an examination was not new. As early as 1823, the Rev. Mr. Grant, preaching Cooper’s text to the Christmas Eve congregation of Templeton in Chapter 9 of The Pioneers,19 attributes the multiplicity of religious creeds to "the great diversity of the human character, influenced as it is by education, by opportunity, and by the physical and moral conditions of the creature" (127). Inherently incapable of fully understanding God’s will, men should be humble and content themselves with charity, which Mr. Grant qualifies as "Not that charity only, which causes us to help the needy and comfort the suffering, but that feeling of universal philanthropy, which, by teaching us to love, causes us to judge with lenity, all men; striking at the root of self-righteousness, and warning us to be sparing of our condemnation of others...." (129).

In The Heidenmauer, the Count and Burgomaster, and their followers, have committed an act of heinous sacrilege. The Catholic churchmen in the novel, with one exception, demonstrate a broad range of moral flaws, but nowhere does Cooper imply that this in any way justifies the destruction of the House of God that is Limburg Abbey. It would be more than easy to paint the attackers in the blackest of terms. But this Cooper does not do; instead, and without excusing immoral behavior, he attributes the moral failings of each, as he does that of the churchmen, to inborn character, cultural background, upbringing, and social environment.

It is Count Emich who plots and carries out the destruction of Limburg Abbey. He is a rough soldier, condemned to a soldier’s outlook by his background and upbringing.

[A]t the age of our narrative, the gentleman that was not of the church...was of necessity a soldier. Emich of Leiningen carried arms, therefore, as much in course as the educated man of this century reads Horace or Virgil; and as nature had given him a vigorous frame, a hardy constitution, and a mind whose indifference to personal suffering amounted at times to ruthlessness, he was more successful in his trade of violence than many a pale and zealous student proves in the cultivation of letters (96-97).

The illiterate heir of generations of robber-barons, the Count sees life in terms of power. He accepts the formal teachings of the Catholic Church but does not expect them to affect his daily life. Frustrated in his efforts to rise among his fellow nobles, Count Emich becomes doubly determined to bring to an end the traditional rivalry between castle and Abbey. He finds in the materialism and luxury of the monks of Limburg Abbey -- now denounced by the off-stage preaching of Martin Luther -- a sufficient justification for plotting violence against them.

Yet the Count is solicitous of his servants and dependents, and a good husband. From time to time, his better moral instincts come to the surface. When he attends high mass at Limburg Abbey, he is moved by the beauty and solemnity of the music (155), and by the preaching of the pious Father Arnolph (157). He is troubled when Father Arnolph rebukes his destructive plans: "He might have been likened to one who listened to the councils [sic] of a good and of an evil genius; that exhorting to forebearance and mercy, and this tempting to violence by the usual array of flattery and hopes" (169).

Even as he is sacking the Abbey, Count Emich has qualms of conscience. For a moment he sees in a portrait of the Madonna a deliberate reproach to his sacrilege (306), and he comes close to losing his nerve when Father Johan places the Abbey’s holy relics on the altar (318-29). Though the Count’s uncertainties may be founded in superstition, they demonstrate that, however wrong his actions, he is not devoid of a better nature. And if the soldier acts like a soldier, despite the occasional prodding of conscience, it is because his background and nature do not allow him to be anything else.

So too the townsman, or perhaps the businessman -- for Heinrich Frey seems closer to the world of 19th Century America than do the Count or the Abbot. The unquestioned leader of Deurckheim, Burgomaster Heinrich Frey is apparently named after Hendrick Frey of Canajoharie, a close friend of the Cooper family and the model for Major Hartmann in The Pioneers. In The Heidenmauer, Frey appears as a weak but basically decent man whose moral character has been sapped by worldly success, wealth, and public station. Cooper describes him as follows:

Heinrich Frey was a stout, hale, obstinate, sturdy burgher...who, had he escaped the allurements of office and the recollection of his own success, might have passed through life as one that was wanting in neither modesty nor humanity.... While a youth, he had been sufficiently considerate for the burdens and difficulties of the unhappy; but a marriage with a small heiress, and subsequent successes, had gradually brought him to a view of things that was more in unison with his own particular interests than it was either philosophical or Christian-like.... Heinrich Frey gave freely to the mendicant, and to the industrious; but when [42] it came to be a question of any serious melioration of the lot of either, he shook his head in a manner to imply a mysterious political economy, and uttered shrewd remarks on the bases of society, and of things as they were established.... [H]e might have been termed the chief of the conservative party, in his own particular circle (148-49).

Although Heinrich has no need of money, and was poor when he married Ulricke, his ego demands that he find a wealthy husband for his only daughter Meta. He loves his child, but remains adamantly opposed to the poor Berchtold as prospective son-in-law, and seems oblivious to the obvious misery this causes both to his daughter and to his wife (244).

Heinrich Frey is also a weak man. He is easily won over by flattery, and Count Emich secures his support for the attack on Limburg by ostentatiously treating him as an equal (196). As Frey leads the men of Deurckheim towards the Abbey, he knows at heart that he is wrong. But, as with many weak men, this only makes him the more stubborn.

Perhaps there is no time in which the ingenuity of man is more active than in those moments when he has a sensitive consciousness of being wrong, and consequently a feverish desire to vindicate his works or acts to himself, as well as to others (283).

But the heart of The Heidenmauer is the Catholic Church, as Cooper found it during his European sojourn and as he imagined it during the period of the Reformation. Here Cooper presents a complex moral panorama of the relationship of God and Man, departing profoundly from the ritual anti-Catholicism that still dominated American Protestant thought in the 1830s. "Whatever may be said of the merits and legality of the Reformation, effected chiefly by the courage of Luther...we are neither sectarian nor unbeliever, to deny the sacred origin of the church from which he dissented..." (102).

"[W]e do not believe salvation to be the peculiar province of sects," Cooper says, and whatever the errors of Catholicism, "the Protestant who quits the temple in which justice has been done to the formula of this church, without perceiving that there is deep and sublime devotion in its rites, has steeled his feelings against the admission of every sentiment in favor of a sect that he is ready to proscribe. We...shall...endeavor to represent things as they have been seen, not disguising or affecting a single emotion because our fathers happened to take refuge in the western world, to set up altars of a different shade of faith" (153-54).

Moreover, some of the most lovingly written scenes in The Heidenmauer, as Gary Williams and others have pointed out, are its vivid and moving descriptions, explicitly designed to educate Americans, of the Catholic Mass, and of the Catholic Shrine at Einsiedlen.

The great fault of the Catholic Church in medieval Europe, Cooper says, was that it combined religion with power. But he does not attribute this to anything specific to Catholicism:

It is not alone to the religion of Christendom, as it existed in the time of Luther, that we are to look for an example of the baneful consequence of spiritual and temporal authority, as blended in human institutions. Christian or Mahomedan, Catholic or Protestant, the evil comes in every case from the besetting infirmity which tempts the strong to oppress the weak, and the powerful to abuse their trusts.... This is a consequence of the independent exercise of human volition, that seems nearly inseparable from human frailty. We gradually come to substitute inclination and interest for right, until the moral foundations of the mind are sapped by indulgence, and what was once regarded with the aversion that wrong excites in the innocent, gets to be not only familiar, but justifiable by expediency and use (103).

At Limburg Abbey, the moral ambiance is complicated. As a Benedictine Monastery, the Abbey is by tradition devoted to providing hospitality to travelers, in proportion to their rank, and this hospitality becomes "a sufficient pretence for accumulating riches" (113), and a temptation to the monks who dispense it. None has been more tempted than Abbot Bonifacius.

[T]he abbot...was expected to preside not only over the temporalities, but at the board. This frequent communication with the vulgar interests of life, and the constant indulgence in its grosser gratifications, were but ill adapted to the encouragement of the monastic virtues (113).

Cooper describes the Abbot thus: "Of vigorous mind and body, this dignified churchman commanded much influence by a species of character that often crosses us in life, a sturdy independence of thought and action that imposed on the credulous and timid, and which sometimes caused the bold and intelligent to hesitate. His reputation was far [43] greater for learning than for piety...." (114). The Abbot’s besetting sin, Cooper continues, was a disposition to food and drink, resulting perhaps from his celibacy. This particular failing, Cooper believes, is "a sort of degeneracy to which all are peculiarly liable who place an unnatural check on the ordinary and healthful propensities of nature -- just as one sense is known to grow in acuteness as it is deprived of a fellow" (114-15).

Even when Bonifacius joins in a drinking bout with Count Emich -- in an age that considered drinking as honorable an activity as hunting and fighting -- Cooper attributes it to his innate and presumably uncontrollable character:

Bonifacius of Limburg, though a man of extensive learning and strong intellectual qualities, had a weakness on this particular point, for which we may be driven to seek an explanation in his peculiar animal construction. He was of a powerful frame and sluggish temperament, both of which required strong excitement to be wrought up to the highest point of physical enjoyment; and neither the examples around him nor his own particular opinions taught him to avoid a species of indulgence that he found so agreeable to his constitution (120).

A very different kind of churchman is represented by Father Arnolph, the Prior of the Abbey. In him, the only wholly good male character introduced in The Heidenmauer, Cooper portrays the Catholic, and the moral person, he admires:

His eye was mild and benevolent, his forehead full, placid, and even, and the whole character of his face was that of winning philanthropy. To the influence of this general and benevolent expression must be added evident signs of discipline, much thought, and meek hope (157).

Father Arnolph is devoid of ambition, having refused advancement in the church, and he accepts church discipline without seeking any credit for his self- effacement. He exerts great moral influence over those around him, even though he is rarely successful in determining events. The population of Deurckheim adore him, as do the monks of the Abbey, and his preaching can move even Count Emich (157). This, Cooper suggests, is the natural result of his virtue:

While all must be conscious of the fearful infirmities that beset human nature, there are none so base as not to know that their being contains the seeds of that godlike principle which still likens them to their divine Creator. Virtue commands the respect of man, in whatever accidental stage of civilization or of mental improvement he may happen to exist; and he who practises its precepts is certain of the respect, though he may not always secure the protection of his contemporaries (169).

Nothing can disturb Father Arnolph’s self-possession, nor induce him to retreat from the world. No matter what happens, he engages with serenity in the tasks next presented to him. A good Catholic, he looks on Martin Luther’s heresy with sorrow rather than anger, and refuses to believe attacks on Luther’s personal character (163). After the destruction of Limburg Abbey, he assumes the role of intermediary between the Church and the Abbey’s assailants, negotiating and then leading the pilgrimage of penance that is all a weakened Catholic Church can enforce against them.

What we are not told is how Father Arnolph has achieved this virtue. If human weakness can be ascribed to inheritance, background, and education, human perfection seems to come unbidden from Providence.

Contrasted with Father Arnolph are Father Johan and Odo of Ritterstein, the Hermit of the Heidenmauer. Both are genuinely sincere in their faith, but each has followed a path Cooper considers erroneous.

Father Johan, who allows himself to be burnt to death in the attack on Limburg Abbey, "was known for the devotedness of his faith and the severity of his opinions; the low receding forehead, the quiet, but glassy eye, and the fixedness of the inferior members of the face" denoted "a heavy enthusiast" (156). Preaching, "[h]e painted, in strong and ominous language, the dangers of the sinner, narrowed the fold of the saved within metaphysical and questionable limits, and made frequent appeals to the fears and to the less noble passions of his audience" (156). Although he has a coterie of followers, Father Johan leaves casual listeners aloof, and his harsh words completely erase the better feelings that Father Arnolph has awakened in Count Emich (168). But, we are told, the mad Johan is hardly responsible for his actions.

Odo von Ritterstein, who has turned hermit in penance for his sins, is described by Cooper as a good and sincere man. This indeed makes possible the resolution of The Heidenmauer’s romantic plot, when Odo gives his castle and money to the rediscovered Berchtold. But Cooper expresses real doubt about the life Odo has chosen, in contrast to Father Arnolph, in withdrawing himself from the world. "The task assigned to man is to move among his fellows doing good, filling his part in the scale of creation, and escaping from none of the high duties which God has allotted to his being..." (59). Indeed, Cooper adds, the role of the hermit may really be self-indulgent:

Whatever may be said of the principles of him who thus abandoned worldly ease for the love of God, it is quite sure that in practice, there were present and soothing rewards in this manner of life, that were not without strong attractions to morbid minds; especially to those in which the seeds of ambition were dormant rather than extinct. It was rare, indeed, that a recluse established himself in the vicinity of a simple and religious neighborhood, and few were they who sought absolute solitude, without reaping a rich harvest of veneration and moral dependence among the untrained minds of his admirers (59).

If Limburg Abbey has members whose piety is mixed with human weakness, the Church as an institution has attracted even more dubious followers.

Two clerics are visiting Count Emich at his castle. His cousin Albrecht is a Knight of St. John, his life supposedly devoted to defending the Church with his sword against the infidel. But Albrecht casually joins the attack on Limburg Abbey simply because he is a guest of the Count. His only real interests are wine, women, and the good life (100), though even he has latent sympathies of humanity which lead him to join Berchtold in trying to rescue Father Johan from his fiery fate in the burning church. His companion, the cynical Abbé, Monsieur Latouche of Paris, lives only for the flesh.

"It is no wonder...that...military ambition, venality, love of ease, and even love of dissipation, equally sought the mantle of religion as cloaks to their several objects (104). Whenever Christianity is coupled with "worldly advantage", Cooper says, "a thousand spirits, prompted by cupidity, rush rashly into the temple, willing to bear with the outward exactions of the faith, in order to seek its present and visible rewards" (103).

Two women play important moral roles in The Heidenmauer: Ulricke, the wife of Heinrich Frey, and Lottchen, Berchtold’s mother. Ulricke, indeed, Cooper describes as the real "heroine" of the novel (446).

The morality of Ulricke and Lottchen is very different from that of the male characters in The Heidenmauer. Cooper accepts the common 19th-Century notion of a fundamental distinction between males, who must live in the morally ambiguous world of public affairs, and females, whose private social role permits a kind of higher morality. He is explicit about this difference in roles.

We are no railer at the domination of man; for we are persuaded that he who would wish to transform the being that was created to be his solacer and companion -- his guide in moral darkness, and his sharer in sorrow as in joy -- into a worldly competitor, changing love and confidence to rivalry and contention, is but miserably instructed in that sublime ordinance of nature which has thus separated the highest order of its creation into two great classes, so replete with mutual consolation and happiness (208).

In accord with this distinction, the higher morality of females, is often demonstrated in a willingness to suffer male domination in silence, and to seek to promote male virtue by example and persuasion.

Not surprisingly, though the moral behavior of women is also seen as shaped by their nature and environment, the women of The Heidenmauer are as a group more virtuous than the men, and their few failings -- whether of vanity, pomposity, or flirtatiousness -- are portrayed as essentially trivial.

Admired in her youth both by Odo the Hermit and by Count Emich, the still beautiful Ulricke had wedded Burgomaster Frey in a marriage of mutual convenience. Though subservient to her husband, Ulricke loves her daughter Meta, and wishes to see her happily united with Berchtold. She vainly seeks her husband’s consent to the marriage, and then turns to Count Emich, hoping that he will endow Berchtold with the wealth Heinrich Frey considers necessary in a son-in-law. Ulricke’s childhood companion and life-long friend Lottchen, left in poverty by the death of her husband, lives only for her son Berchtold, and like Ulricke dreams of a marriage between the young lovers.

Nevertheless, the morality of these women proves of little practical use. When Count Emich asks Ulricke to induce her husband to join in the attack on Limburg Abbey, in return for his giving Berchtold the means to marry Meta, the mother refuses absolutely, asserting that "rather than aid thee in this unhallowed design; rather than do aught...against the altars of my God; rather than set my selfishness in array against his dread power...I could follow the girl to her grave with a tearless eye, and place my own head by her side..." (223). Lottchen sturdily endorses Ulricke’s refusal, declaring before God that "before a rebel wish of mine shall aid Count Emich in this act, there is no earthly sorrow I will not welcome, no humility that I will dread!" (237).

But, although neither woman will abet Count Emich’s plot against the Abbey, neither dreams of doing anything practical to forestall the attack.

[45] In a different novel, the pilgrimage to the Shrine at Einsiedlen might have been portrayed a moment of true repentance and moral rebirth. Einsiedlen is a real and very famous place of pilgrimage, near Zurich. Cooper visited it in 1828, and was deeply moved. He later noted "I knew that the temple was God’s and that his Spirit was present.... The mystery of the incarnation never appeared so sublime, and, if I may so express it, so palpable as at that moment."20

Helen Phinit-Akson, in her perceptive analysis of The Heidenmauer, sees it as a miracle play about redemption, in which the morality of the women serves to redeem the sinning young hero Berchtold.21 I disagree. The Heidenmauer is not, I think, a novel about redemption, but rather about the ways in which moral complexities of character are inherent to the individual, and remain essentially unchanged by events. Before and after the burning of Limburg Abbey, the characters of The Heidenmauer act primarily in accord with their backgrounds and upbringing.

Count Emich views the pilgrimage, and a large payment in gold, as a small price to pay for eliminating Limburg Abbey as a rival to his power. Abbot Bonifacius, now in exile, accepts his inability to rebuild the Abbey, and is prepared to take what monetary recompense he can get from the Count. The Catholic Church, represented by Abbot Rudiger of the Shrine at Einsiedlen, wants to put behind it an event that only reveals its growing weakness. To this end, indeed, he agrees to a formal feast in honor of Count Emich, the worst of the sinners, following which the Count and Abbot Bonifacius quietly agree to forget the past.

Burgomaster Heinrich Frey is equally unshamed; his principal regret is the discovery that, as in Aesop’s Fable of the Frogs (which Cooper cites) (462), he has exchanged King Log for King Stork, and Deurckheim is now at the mercy of Count Emich. The Count’s clerical guests, Albrecht and Monsieur Latouche, are only annoyed at having been caught up in the quarrels of others.

Only Father Arnolph and the women, who had nothing to do with the crime against Limburg Abbey, are spiritually moved by the pilgrimage to Einsiedlen. Cast into misery by the presumed death of their beloved Berchtold, Ulricke, Meta, and Lottchen have also been most afflicted by the physical hardships of a pilgrimage on foot from the Rhineland to the Swiss Alps. Their fervent appeals that the Shrine offer a Mass for the soul of the presumably dead Berchtold are coldly denied.

Thus all return home, morally speaking, much as they had left it. Berchtold reappears mysteriously -- he had been rescued and nursed back to health in secret -- but his personal problem is unresolved. Heinrich Frey remains adamantly opposed to the marriage of his daughter to a pauper. Only the generosity of the Hermit Odo, in memory of his lost love for Ulricke, gives Berchtold both castle and wealth, makes possible the traditional romantic wedding that ends the novel.

From this perspective, The Heidenmauer is a novel in which human frailty is viewed with understanding as an inherent part of human nature, imposed by nature, environment, and training. Men, Cooper suggests, should be judged leniently by other men, if not necessarily by God.

Cooper, like the pre-romantic philosophers and novelists, generally views human character as innate and unchanging.22 The role of a novel is to show how character is revealed by events, not how it is altered by them. If redemption is possible, as Christian theology teaches, and as some of Cooper’s later novels like The Sea Lions and The Oak Openings describe, it is as the result of forces beyond normal human psychology.

Why some men, and perhaps many women, are endowed with an inherent morality transcending circumstances, while most of the their fellow humans bend with the moral winds around them, is a paradox that Cooper never really resolves. But, as Geoffrey Rans has pointed out, Cooper’s ability to face paradox that neither he nor society can reconcile is an important part of his depth as a thinker and as a novelist.23

Cooper seems to me to be saying in The Heidenmauer that moral frailty is an inherent and almost inescapable part of the human condition, but that in every human there exist latent sympathies of humanity reflecting man’s divine creation. Therefore, however strong our moral views, we must be lenient in judging others. This is a message of tolerance we do not always associate with Cooper.

Perhaps the principal impact of Cooper’s life work as a novelist was to evoke sympathy for American Indians among generations of American and foreign readers. But Cooper, unlike some of the "politically correct" of more recent times, could never ignore what he believed to be historical truth. In the Leather- Stocking Tales, therefore, he portrayed the Indian as traditionally living in accordance with "gifts", as he terms them, that explain and in effect justify behavior like scalping and torture. We have tended to interpret this as ethnographic sophistication; my reading of The Heidenmauer suggests that it may reflect a more general, and essentially moral view of human existence.


1. Howard Mumford Jones, "Prose and Pictures: James Fenimore Cooper", in Tulane Studies in English, Vol. III (New Orleans: Tulane, 1952), pp. 133-154.

2. James Fenimore Cooper, The Heidenmauer, or, The Benedictines: A Legend of the Rhine (Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 2 vols., 1832). Page citations from one-volume "Darley Edition" (New York: W.A. Townsend, 1861).

3. Carey and Lea to Cooper, Oct. 8, 1832, in James F. Beard, ed., The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-68), Vol. II, p. 361, n. 3.

4. Thomas R. Lounsbury, James Fenimore Cooper (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1896), p. 109. Lounsbury found unbelievable and "contemptible" Ulricke’s renunciation of Odo for merely having "done violence to the sacred elements." (p. 280).

5. Henry Walcott Boynton, James Fenimore Cooper (New York: The Century Co., 1931), pp. 230-32.

6. John P. McWilliams, Jr., Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), p. 424.

7. Robert E. Spiller, Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times (New York: Minton, Balch & Co., 1931), pp. 219-20.

8. James Grossman, James Fenimore Cooper (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1949), pp. 80-81.

9. Marius Bewley, The Eccentric Design: Form in the Classic American Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), p. 56.

10. Kay Seymour House, Cooper’s Americans (Ohio State University Press, 1965), p. 117.

11. Donald A. Ringe, James Fenimore Cooper (New Haven: College and University Press, 1962), pp. 62-64.

12. Gary J. Williams, "Cooper and European Catholicism: A Reading of The Heidenmauer," in ESQ, Vol. 22, 3rd Quarter 1976, pp. 149-158. My thanks to Prof. Williams, now at the University of Idaho, for supplying me with a copy of this paper.

13. Helen Phinit-Akson, Ritual and Aesthetic: The Influence of Europe on the Art of Fenimore Cooper (Bangkok: Thammasat University Press, 1976). My thanks to Prof. Thomas Philbrick, who supervised this thesis at the University of Pittsburgh, for supplying me with a copy.

14. Hugh C. MacDougall, "Where was James? A James Fenimore Cooper Chronology from 1789 to 1851," James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers, No. 3, 1993.

15. James F. Beard, ed., The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-68), Vol. III, pp. 145, 148.

16. The real Limburg Abbey was destroyed by Count Emich VIII of Hartenburg-Leiningen in 1504. See, e.g., Karl Baedeker, The Rhine, including the Black Forest & the Vosges (Leipzig: Karl Baedeker, 1911) p. 458. Cooper does not give an exact date to his tale, but refers to the fall of Rhodes (1523) and the French defeat at the Battle of Pavia (1525). King Francis I, who was captured at Pavia and held captive for a year by the Emperor Charles V, is described as still imprisoned in Madrid, which would date the story to 1526. On the other hand, Cooper identifies the Elector Palatine as Friedrich, though the real Elector from 1508-1544 was Ludwig V. No doubt this is why, at the end of his Introduction, Cooper remarks that "should any musty German antiquary discover some immaterial anachronism, a name misplaced in the order of events, or a monk called prematurely from purgatory...." he should blame it on Cooper’s guide! (xxxi). See also Ernest H. Redekop, "Cooper’s Emblems of History/Fiction" in Canadian Review of American Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Winter 1989) pp. 137-56 which discusses (pp. 147-51) the historical basis of the ruins described in The Heidenmauer.

17. Phinit-Akson, p. 44.

18. The legend now told has Abbot Bonifacius worsted, not by the Count of Leiningen, but by the Burgomaster of a nearby town. See, e.g., Berlitz Travellers Guide to Germany (New York: Berlitz, 4th ed., 1994) p. 505.

19. James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna (Albany State University of New York Press, 1980).

20. James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: Switzerland (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980), p. 169.

21. Phinit-Akson, p. 55.

22. See, e.g., David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) p. 198.

23. Geoffrey Rans, Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), passim.

Return to Top of Page