Henry Denifle  

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""The famous dictum "Deus est sphaera intelligibilis cuius centrum ubique circumferentia musquam" which probably goes back to Alain de Lille, seems to have been the intermediary as well as the most important formulation of all these concepts. The successors of Alain were indeed illustrious: The successors of Alain were indeed illustrious : Bonaventura, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart and Seuse, Cusanus, Marsilio Ficino; and finally Rabelais and Pascal."" --Symbolism of the Sphere (1977) by Otto Brendel

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Henry Denifle, in German Heinrich Seuse Denifle (January 16, 1844, Imst, Austrian Tyrol - June 10, 1905, Munich), was an Austrian paleographer and historian.


Life and work

His father, who was the village schoolmaster and church organist, had him educated in the episcopal seminary of Brixen. On his reception, at Graz, 22 September 1861, into the Dominican Order, he took the name of Heinrich (he was baptized Joseph). Denifle began his studies of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas in Graz. Denifle was an alumnus of the College of St. Thomas, the future Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas Angelicum in Rome, where after ordination in 1866 in Graz he studied with Tommaso Maria Zigliara. Denifle next pursued studies at St. Maximin near Marseilles. After his return to Graz, Denifle taught philosophy and theology for ten years (1870–1880). In 1877 Denifle stood the examination "ad gradum" in Rome and was created a "Magister Theologiae" by the Master of the Order. During the period of his teaching in Graz he was recognized as one of the best preachers in Austria. A course of apologetic sermons delivered in Graz cathedral Die katholische Kirche und das Ziel der Menschheit (The Catholic Church and the goal of mankind) was printed in 1872. Denifle, who had loved music from his boyhood and composed pieces at fifteen, also published in 1872, as his first literary essay, an article on the Gregorian chant: Schönheit und Würde des Chorals (The beauty and value of choirs). That even then his mind was occupied with a subject about which his last and perhaps his greatest work was destined to be written, is evident from a series of articles entitled Tetzel und Luther (Tetzel and Luther), which appeared in 1873. From that time onward, though he preached occasionally, the biography of Denifle is the description of his literary achievements. His life therefore may be divided into four periods characterized respectively by work on theology and mysticism, medieval universities, the Hundred Years' War between France and England with its consequences to the Church, and Luther and Lutheranism.

Work on Mysticism

A subject to which in early years he devoted much of his attention was the relation existing between scholastic theology and medieval mysticism. It was comparatively unknown, and had in fact been grossly misrepresented by some flippant writers according to whom the German mystics were the precursors of the German Reformers. Denifle's researches put the matter in its true light. He discovered in various libraries of Austria, Germany, and Switzerland copious materials in 14th-century manuscripts, and a selection of 2500 texts was given to the public in his book Das geistliche Leben. Eine Blumenlese as den deutschen Mystikern des 14. Jahrhunderts (The spiritual life. A flower vintage from the German mystics of the 14th century) (Graz, 1873). He also began a critical edition of Henry Suso's works (the only volume of Denifle's edition appeared in 1888—another edition is in progress 1908), and on Suso and other mystics he wrote several articles (fifteen in all with appendices) published in various periodicals from 1873 to 1889. His fame as a paleographer, German philologist, and textual critic arose from these investigations and especially from his studies on Johannes Tauler, Meister Eckhart, and Suso. Up to 1875 the most disputed problem in the history of German mysticism was that of the Gottesfreund (Friend of God from the Oberland) and his marvellous influence. Denifle solved it simply by showing that the Gottesfreund was a myth. This discovery, which created quite a sensation, and several others brought him into controversy with Wilhelm Preger and Carl Wilhelm Schmidt, who had till then been looked up to as authorities on the history of mysticism, and also into controversy with Auguste Jundt. He proved and demonstrated that Catholic mysticism rests on scientific theology. Denifle's remarks were often sharp, but there could be no doubt that his arguments and his destructive criticism were unanswerable.

Work on Medieval Philosophy

In 1880 Denifle was made socius, or assistant, to the general of his order, and summoned to Rome, where a new field of inquiry awaited him. Leo XIII had commanded that a critical edition of the works of Thomas Aquinas should be begun, and Denifle was commissioned to search for the best manuscripts. He visited the libraries in Italy, Austria, Germany, Bavaria, the Netherlands, England, France, Spain, and Portugal. Nothing seems to have escaped his eye, and while preparing for the new edition, before his return to Italy in 1883, he had also gathered abundant materials for his own special study. In the autumn of 1880 Leo XIII had opened the secret archives of the Vatican to scholars; he had in 1879 appointed as archivist Cardinal Hergenröther. On the latter's recommendation the pope now (1 Dec., 1883) mace Denifle sub-archivist, a post which he held till his death. Since the beginning of his residence in Rome, Denifle, who found nothing there for his contemplated history of mysticism, had been investigating the career of a celebrated prophet, i.e. the Abbot Joachim of Fiore and the reasons of the condemnation of his Evangelium Æternum by the University of Paris. This led him to study the controversy between the university and the mendicant orders. As he found du Boulay's history of the university inaccurate, Denifle, who was a foe to adventurous statements and hasty generalizations, resolved to write a history based on original documents, and as an introduction to it, to commence with a volume on the origin of the medieval university system, for which he already had prepared copious transcripts and notes. His leading idea was that to appreciate the mystics one should understand not only the theology they had learned, but also the genius of the place where it was commonly taught. The only volume appeared in 1885 under the title Die Universitäten des Mittelalters bis 1400 (The university in the Middle Ages until 1400) (xlv-814). The work was everywhere applauded; it led, however, to a somewhat bitter controversy. Georg Kaufmann attacked it, but was worsted by the erudite and unsparing author. The most copious collection on the subject to be found in any archives is that possessed by the Vatican, and this Denifle was the first to use. Munich, Vienna, and other centres supplied the rest. Among his discoveries two may be mentioned, namely, that the universities did not, as a rule, owe their origin to cathedral schools, and that in the majority of them at first theology was not taught. The University of Paris formed an exception. Denifle had planned four other volumes; viz. a second on the development of the organization of universities, a third on the origin of the University of Paris, a fourth on its development to the end of the 13th century, and a fifth on its controversies with the mendicant orders. But the Conseil Général des Facultés de Paris, which had in 1885 decided on publishing the Chartularium, or records of the University of Paris, resolved on 27 March 1887, to entrust the work of Denifle, with Emile Chatelain, the Sorbonne librarian, as collaborateur. This quite suited Denifle, for he had resolved not to write before he had collected all the relevant documents, so with the assistance of Chatelain he began his task.

In less than ten years four folio volumes of the Chartularium appeared as follows: 1889, volume I, A.D. 1200-1286 (xxxvi-714 pp.), 530 original documents, with fifty-five from the preparatory period, 1163–1200; 1891, volume II, 1286-1350 (xxiii-808 pp.), 661 documents; 1894, volume III, 1350-1384 (xxxvii-777 pp.), 520 documents; 1897, volume IV, 1384-1452 (xxxvi-835 pp.), 988 documents, and two volumes of the Auctarium. This monumental work, the Chartularium Universitatis Parisiensis, contains invaluable information regarding its inner life, organization, famous professors and students, relations with popes and kings, controversies, etc., during the period when this university was the chief centre of theological learning. "With its aid", as Johann Peter Kirsch remarks, "a history of medieval theology has at last become possible." Some idea of the labour involved in its preparation may be gathered from the fact that all the great libraries and archives in Europe were visited, that Denifle travelled from Paris to Rome forty times, and that in the Vatican archives alone he examined 200,000 letters, of which he utilized 80,000 in his notes (see II, p. 17), though of course more material was found in Paris than in Rome. In order to preserve the unity of the Chartularium, any reference to the “nations” was relegated to the Auctarium. The two volumes published contain the Liber Procuratorum Nationis Anglicanæ 1333-1446. Marcel Fournier, who rashly criticized Denifle and Chatelain, fared badly at their hands. After Denifle's death the materials he had collected for another volume were entrusted to Chatelain, so that the work right be continued. Owing to the vastness and completeness of his research and to his amazing erudition, what Denifle gave to the world, even though for him it was only a preliminary study, has sufficed to make him the great authority on medieval universities. (See Merkle, Dreves, etc., or Rashdall's "Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages", Oxford, 1895.) In order to publish valuable texts which he had deciphered and the results of his studies on various subjects, together with Father Ehrle, S. J., the sub-librarian of the Vatican, he founded in 1885 the Archiv für Literatur und Kirchengeschichte des Mittelalters. The two friends were the only contributors. The first five years of this serial contain several articles from his pen, on various universities, on Abelard and other scholars, on religious orders, on popes, etc.

Denifle's extensive acquaintance with manuscripts and his skill in paleography were also put at the service of beginners in the art of deciphering by his annotated Specimina palæographica Regestorum Pontificum ab Innocentio III ad Urbanum V (Rome, 1888). Among its sixty-four plates, that representing the Vatican transcript of the Unam Sanctam is especially valuable. The work was the offering of the papal archivists to Leo XIII on his golden jubilee.

Work on the Hundred Years' War

A work of another kind suggested itself to him while gathering in the Vatican archives materials for his annotations on the Chartularium . Denifle noticed in the three hundred volumes of Registers of Petitions addressed to Clement VI and Urban V, between 1342 and 1393, that many came from France during the Hundred Years' War between that country and England. So for the sake of a change of occupation, or un travail accessoire as he called it, Denifle went again through these volumes (each about 600 pages folio). In 1897 he published: La désolation des églises, monasteres, hôpitaux, en France vers le milieu du XVe siècle. It contains a harrowing description of the state of France, based on 1063 contemporary documents, most of which were discovered in the Vatican. Then, in order to give an explanation a similar account of the cause of all these calamities, he published in 1889: La guerre de cent ans et la désolation des églises, monastères, et hôpitaux, tom. I, jusqu'à la mort de Charles V (1385). Though the work was not continued the enormous amount of recondite information brought together and illustrated for the first time makes the volume indispensable to historians (see e.g., his account of the Battle of Crécy and the Black Prince).

Denifle had for years been studying the history of medieval theology and mysticism, as well as the lives of saints and scholars by whom in both departments progress had been effected, on the other hand his investigations revealed the decadence of ecclesiastical life during the Hundred Years' War and caused him to amass documents (about 1200) showing the many abuses then prevalent among the clergy both secular and regular. The contrast was marked. As was his wont he resolved to solve the problem that arose, to see what could have been the result of such moral corruption. These new researches were not confined to France, they gradually extended to Germany. Denifle found proof that in both countries, with praiseworthy exceptions, during the 14th century things went from bad to worse, but he saw that the end had not been reached yet. He traced the downward course of profligacy to the third decade of the 16th century, and there he stopped for he had found the abyss. Crimes which ecclesiastics and religious were ashamed of in the preceding era now became to one section a cause of self-glorification, and were even regarded as miracles and signs of sanctity. At the beginning of this painful investigation Denifle had not a thought about Luther, but now he saw that he could not avoid him; to estimate the new departure it was necessary to understand Luther. So Denifle devoted many years to the task of ascertaining for himself how, and why, and when Luther “fell”. The Vatican archives and various libraries supplied original documents to which this independent study was confined. As usual Denifle made a series of discoveries. His work, which is divided into three parts, if we take its second edition, is in no sense a biography. The first part is a critique of Luther's treatise on monastic vows. It examines his views on the vow of chastity in detail, and convicts him of ignorance, mendaciousness, etc. The second part which is entitled a contribution to the history of exegesis, literature and dogmatic theology in the Middle Ages, refutes Luther's assertion that his doctrine of justification by faith, i.e. his interpretation of Rom., i, 17v, was the traditional one, by giving the relevant passages from no fewer than sixty-five commentators. Of these works many exist only in manuscript. The third part claims that the year 1515 was the turning point in Luther's career, and that his own account of his early life is utterly untrustworthy.

Work on Luther and Lutheranism

For some time previous it had been known that Denifle was engaged on such a work, and in 1904 the first volume of 860 pages of Luthertum in der ersten Entwicklung (Luther and Lutheranism in its first development) appeared. Denifle had access to a student copy of Luther's unpublished lectures on the Epistle to the Romans delivered in Wittenberg in 1515-16. “My only source for Luther,” claimed Denifle, “was Luther himself.”

Denifle, who was beloved by Leo XIII and Pius X was a conductor of the cardinalitial Commission of Studies, a member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences (Vienna), and of those of Paris, Prague, Berlin, Göttingen, honorary doctor of the Universities of Münster and Innsbruck, member of the Légion d'honneur, of the Order of the Iron Crown, etc. He was on his way to Cambridge, where he was to be made Honorary Doctor of that university, when he was struck down by the hand of death.

Denifle's thesis had two main prongs: (1) "Luther was so vile that he could not possibly be an instrument of God" and (2) "this so-called reformer [Luther] made no discovery at all in the theological realm, that he was not only a liar, but an ignorant liar." According to Atkinson, while Denifle's thesis has wreaked irreparable harm on Catholicism's understanding of Luther in general as well as its scholars in particular, it has invigorated Protestanism, particularly its scholars. By the 1920s Protestant scholars (e.g., Karl Holl) began to show mastery of medieval scholasticism and had embarked on a Lutheran renaissance.

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