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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > D > Heinrich Seuse Denifle

Heinrich Seuse Denifle

(Baptized JOSEPH.)

Paleographer and historian, born at Imst in the Austrian Tyrol, 16 Jan., 1844, d. at Munich, 10 June, 1905. 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 Sept., 1861, into the Dominican Order, he took the name of Heinrich. His studies of Aristotle and St. Thomas were begun in Graz and continued in Rome and Marseilles. After his return to Graz, Father Denifle taught philosophy and theology for ten years (1870-1880), and during this period also he was one of the best preachers in Austria. A course of apologetic sermons delivered in Graz cathedral "Die katholische Kirche und das Ziel der Menschheit" 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: "Schonheit und Würde des Chorals". 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", 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.

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 fourteenth 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" (Graz, 1873). He also began a critical edition of Blessed Henry Suso's works (the first and 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 palæographer, German philologist, and textual critic arose from these investigations and especially from his studies on Tauler, Eckhart, and Blessed Henry Suso. Up to 1875 the most disputed problem in the history of German mysticism was that of the "Gottesfreund" 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 Preger and Schmidt, who had till then been looked up to as authorities on the history of mysticism, and also into controversy with 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. Catholic and non-Catholic savants. alike, as Schrörs, Kirsch, Müller, Schönbach, etc., have recognized that he was immeasurably superior to his adversaries. This was owing to his intimate knowledge of the Fathers, of theology — both scholastic and mystic — of medieval history, and lastly of Middle-High German with its dialects.

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 St. Thomas Aquinas should be begun, and Denifle was commissioned to search for the best manuscripts. He visited the libraries in Italy, Austria, Germany, Bavaria, Holland, England, France, Spain, and Portugal. Nothing escaped his eagle 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 1789 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, 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 first and only volume appeared in 1885 under the title "Die Universitäten des Mittelalters bis 1400" (xlv-814). The wealth of erudition it contains is extraordinary. The work was everywhere applauded; it led, however, to a somewhat bitter controversy. G. 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 thirteenth 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 gigantic 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 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". 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 palæography 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.

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 calls 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 fourteenth 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 sixteenth 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, for of this appalling depravity he was the personification as well as the preacher. 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, particularly those of Rostock and Kiel, 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 Romans 1:17 was the traditional one, by giving the relevant passages from no fewer than sixty-five commentators. Of these works many exist only in manuscript. To discover them it was necessary to traverse Europe; this part which appeared posthumously is a masterpiece of critical erudition. The third part shows that the year 1515 was the turning point in Luther's career, and that his own account of his early life is utterly untrustworthy, that his immorality was the real source of his doctrine, etc. No such analysis of Luther's theology and exegesis was ever given to the learned world for which it was written.

For some time previous it had been known that Denifle was engaged on such a work, but when in 1904 the first volume of 860 pages of "Luther und Luthertum in der ersten Entwicklung quelienmässig darstellt" appeared, it fell like a bomb into the midst of the Reformer's admirers. The edition was exhausted in a month. The leading Protestants and rationalists in Germany, Seeberg, Harnack, and seven other professors, besides a host of newspaper writers attempted to defend Luther, but in vain. Denifle's crushing answer to Harnack and Seeberg, "Luther in rationalistischer und christlicher Beleuchtung" appeared in March, 1904, and two months afterwards he issued a revised edition of the first part of the first volume; the second was brought out in 1905 and the third in 1906 by A. Weiss, O.P. He has the second volume on Lutheranism, for which the author left materials, ready (1908) for the press.

Denifle has been censured by some and praised by others for the tone of this work. Perhaps if it were less indignant the amazing erudition displayed would produce a greater effect. There was no need of hard words in a work, to use the words of Cambridge University when it honoured Denifle, on "Lutherum ab eodem ad fidem documentorum depictum". He has thrown more light on Luther's career and character than all the editors of Luther's works and all Luther's biographers taken together. Denifle wished to offend no man, but he certainly resolved on showing once and for all the Reformer in his true colours. He makes Luther exhibit himself. Protestant writers, he remarks betray an utter lack of the historical method in dealing with the subject, and the notions commonly accepted are all founded on fable. As he pointedly observes: "Critics, Harnack and Ritschl more than others, may say what they like about God Incarnate; but let no one dare to say a word of disapproval about Luther before 1521". Denifle's impeachment is no doubt a terrible one, but apart from some trifling inaccuracies in immaterial points it is established by irrefragable proofs.

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 Legion of Honour, of the Order of the Iron Crown, etc. He was on his way to Cambridge, where he and his friend Father Ehrle were to be made Honorary Doctors of that university, when he was struck down by the hand of death.


Denifle's Works in Acta Cap. Gen. Ord. Praed. 1907 (official obituary notice); KIRCH, Le P. Henri Suso Denifle O.P. (reprint Louvain, 1905); GRABMANN, P. Heinrich Denifle, O.P., Eine Würdigung seiner Forschungearbeit (Mainz, 1905); GRAUERT, P. Heinrich Denifle, O.P., Ein Wort zum Gedächtniss und zum Frieden. Ein Beitrag auch zum Luther-Streit (Freiburg 1906); WEISS, Lutherpsychologie als Schlüssel zur Lutherlegende — Denifle's Untersuchungen kritisch nachgeprüft (Mainz, 1906).

About this page

APA citation. Walsh, R. (1908). Heinrich Seuse Denifle. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Walsh, Reginald. "Heinrich Seuse Denifle." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Albert Judy, O.P.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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