The Heidenmauer; or, The Benedictines. A legend of the Rhine
Cooper, James Fenimore
W.A. Townsend and Company, New York, 1861
One of Cooper’s lesser-known novels, this book focuses on the destruction of the Limburg monastery by the combined forces of Durkheim and Hartenburg in the sixteenth century. While the story itself is historical fiction, as a frequent visitor to Grethen, the village in the valley between the ruins of the Limburg and the Heidenmauer, and withing sight of the ruins of the Hardenburg, I easily found myself immersed in the location while reading.
There are two main stories intertwined in this book. The first is the love story between Berchthold and Meta, and the second is the destruction of the monastery. The book starts with an introduction to the first story, where the love between the two youths is shown along with the obstacles in its way. The main obstacle is the financial difference between Meta (who is the only child of the wealthy Burgermeister Heinrich) and Berchthold (who is the poor son of a widowed mother and a vassal to Emich). Both mothers support the union (they were good friends growing up) of their only children, but Heinrich is strongly opposed, looking for a wealthy and well-to-do suitor for Meta, even against the wishes of his daughter and wife. Berchthold is much in favor with Emich, who promises the mothers his support (financial and otherwise) to the union if Ulrike will help influence Heinrich to have Duerkheim join with him to destroy the monastery (which was already the predominant disposition in Duerkheim), which had had a long-running dispute with both the town and the count as to payment of certain taxes and use of certain lands and was seen by both as a threat to their prosperity.
The mothers, both of whom are very devout, resign themselves to suffer seeing their children joined to others than to sanction a blow against the Church. Ulrike then learns that the hermit who has set up his hermitage on the Heidenmauer, a ruined Celtic settlement on the hill opposite the Limburg and over Duerkheim, is actually Odo von Ritterstein, her first suitor who was forced to leave after killing a monk during an argument 20 years before the story takes place and has now returned after years of wandering and penance with the intent to finally make his peace with the monastery, and goes and asks for his help in the matter.
Their meeting is interrupted by the bells calling Odo to the monastery for his long awaited service of repentance, and Ulrike follows him there. The ceremony is interrupted by the entrance of Heinrich and Berchthold (acting as the leader of the force sent from the Hartenburg under orders from Emich) with their men as they sack the monastery. Ulrike tries a last effort to dissuade the two from the sacrilegious act, when Emich removes the cloak in which he had muffled his features as he stood among his followers and causes her to realize that she could have no effect. Berchthold and Heinrich leave to find an escort to assure her safe passage home while Emich leads the sacking. Prior to abandoning his monastery, the Abbot pronounces Emich excommunicated. As the other two return, they find Emich conversing with Father Arnolph (the one monk in Limburg that Emich respects), who tries to halt the destruction, but Emich is not to be stopped at this point. Another monk remains after Father Arnolph leaves, who, pulling out a chest of relics and devoutly praying, attempts to obtain Divine interference in their behalf while the church burns around him. As the roof begins to collapse, the attackers try to convince the monk to save himself, but he will not. Berchthold and Emich’s cousin (who is a Knight of Rhodes who happened to become involved in his cousin’s adventure) re-enter the church and try to bodily remove the monk, who eludes their grasp and returns to the alter in the midst of the flames. The Knight of Rhodes retreats, but Berchthold goes back in after the monk, only to be trapped by a piece of the fallen roof.
Days later, the town receives the conditions upon which the monks will be willing to forget the incident, which, among a sizable monetary sum, also requires penance and pilgrimage by certain people, including Heinrich and Emich. The terms are negotiated and met, and a selected group is chosen for the pilgrimage. They journey to a shrine in Switzerland under the guidance of Father Arnolph and there deliver certain offerings, which range from valuable jewels from Emich to a crude sketch of Berchthold from Meta, which symbolized that with her beloved gone she had devoted her heart to God. Prior to leaving, the pilgrims ask for masses to be said for Berchthold, which are refused with the reasoning that he died an enemy of the Church. The party returns, only to be met with tales of Berchthold and his hunting dogs being seen around the area. Convinced that it is a story spread by agents of the monks to cause the re-erection of the church, Emich and Heinrich lead a procession to investigate the situation. Upon reaching the Heidenmauer, they do in fact see Berchthold with the dogs in the flesh. Blocked from retreat and from the view of the others by the fallen roof, he had made his way to the crypt. While going in that direction, he had seen the form of Odo and had carried him with him into the crypt, where they survived the fire and were found by the monks, who nursed them back to health but required of them to avoid others until the pilgrims returned.
Ulrike then received the deed to Ritterstein from Odo, made up in Berchthold’s name, which removed any obstacles that Heinrich could find. The two were happily married and everyone died happily in due time.