Geiler von Kaysersberg, Johannes
GEILER VON KAYSERSBERG, JOHANNES
Theologian and preacher; b. Schaffhausen, Switzerland, March 16, 1445; d. Strassburg, March 10, 1510. In 1446 his father went to Ammerschweier, Upper Alsace, as city clerk; he was killed in an accident when Johannes was three years old. The boy's grandfather in nearby Kaysersberg brought him up. At the age of 15 he began the study of philosophy at the recently established University of Freiburg im Breisgau, and in 1465 he taught philosophy and grammar there and for a brief period was dean of the philosophical faculty. In 1470 he resigned his position in order to study theology at the University of Basel, which had also been founded a short time before. He obtained his doctorate in 1475, and the following year he returned to the University of Freiburg, where he had received an appointment and where he was elected rector the next year. Teaching, however, was less congenial to him than preaching, and in 1478 he accepted an invitation to go to Strassburg as cathedral preacher, an office in which he continued until his death. He was buried under a magnificent late-Gothic pulpit built especially in his honor.
Geiler was a man of broad humanistic, philosophical, and theological learning. With his teacher, John Heynlin—an outstanding teacher, preacher, and university administrator—and many other friends and acquaintances, he belonged to a group of early German humanists. Despite his classical and national historical interests, he was steadfast in his adherence to the fundamentals of the old faith. In his theological inspiration he was chiefly dependent upon J. gerson, and although he vigorously criticized the ecclesiastical conditions of his time, he was in no way a revolutionary. His tie with late medieval scholasticism shows itself externally in the ramified classifications that characterized his sermons. He possessed an extraordinary knowledge of the Fathers, and made abundant use of the Bible. He also had recourse to profane authors, and was given to the use of literary patterns in his preaching. He preached, with great acclaim, a series of sermons that had the Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools ) of his friend Sebastian Brant for their theme.
He could, when he wished, preach well upon dogmatic topics, but for the most part he preferred moral subjects, and in treating of these he gave less attention to the building up of positive ideals than to the condemnation of the moral decadence of his time. From his pulpit there flowed a richly colored picture of the moral corruption of the world he knew. He excoriated the obscene conversation of the bath houses, the ridicule of the Sacraments, and the sexual mores of the times with shocking frankness. From his mordant observations about their inordinate preoccupation with dress and finery one could write a book of fashions for the times around the year 1500. Indeed, his sermons are an important source of knowledge of the speech, customs, and beliefs of the common people at the beginning of the 16th century.
He cast an especially critical eye upon the social evils of the time. He denounced the avarice of the lawyers,
the injustice of certain laws, the raising of prices, and the practice of usury. With great apostolic courage he attacked the laxity of monasteries and the concubinage practiced by the clergy, and he did not hesitate to pillory the patrons in high places whom he considered to be mainly responsible. The influence of the nobility in securing for their offspring ecclesiastical offices, especially bishoprics, he considered to be a cancerous social evil.
Geiler prepared his sermons with great care, writing them out beforehand, but these compositions were drawn up in Latin rather than in German. Few of the sermons that have been published under his name came directly from his pen; most of them were taken down by others and later published.
As was true also of Berthold of Regensburg and abraham of sancta clara, Geiler's homeliness and originality of speech lent power to his words and contributed to his popularity. But, like the other two great popular preachers, he yielded sometimes to the coarseness of his age.
From the fact of his popularity and from the testimony of contemporaries it is evident that Geiler's sermons produced a marked effect upon those who heard him. Still, for all his apostolic zeal and his strenuous labors, this effect fell far short of his target. He lamented that neither clergy nor laity could be persuaded to join in an effort toward reform. His preaching appears to have produced no lasting effect. Perhaps his manner was too gruff, his language too hard, his criticism too merciless, or his moralizing sermons too negative, to bring about the results he wanted. Or perhaps it was too late. A few years after his death Strassburg became Protestant.
Bibliography: n. scheid, The Catholic Encyclopedia 6:403–405. e. barnikol, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart 2:1266–67. j. m. b. clausz, "Kritische Übersicht der Schriften über Geiler von Kaysersberg," Historisches Jahrbuch der Görres-Gesellschaft 31 (1910) 485–519. e. f. roeder von diersburg, Komik und Humor bei Geiler von Kaisersberg (Berlin 1921).
[j. f. groner]
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