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Johann Janssen

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Historian, born 10 April, 1829, at Xanten, Germany; died 24 December, 1891, at Frankfort-on-the-Main. He received his early education in a school of his native town. His course was interrupted, however, from the early part of 1842 to the spring of 1844, during which time he worked as an apprentice to a coppersmith. It soon became apparent, however that he had no aptitude for this trade, and he was allowed to return to school. In 1846 he went to the gymnasium of Recklinghausen, from which he graduated in the autumn of 1849. During the years 1849-54 he frequented the Universities of Munster, Louvain, Bonn, and Berlin, where he devoted himself to the study of theology and history; in August, 1853, he obtained the degree of Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Bonn, in virtue of a Latin dissertation on the life of Wibald, Abbot of Stablo and Corvey (1098-1158); in August, 1854, he opened a course of history as Privatdozent at the Academy of Munster, but shortly afterwards, in September of the same year, he was asked to take the chair of history for the Catholic students of the gymnasium at Frankfort-on-the-Main. He retained this position up to the time of his death in 1891.

Not satisfied with attending to the ordinary duties of the classroom, Janssen devoted his spare time to historical research, the results of which were embodied in many learned volumes. At the same time he took every opportunity to visit centres of learning; thus in 1865-64 he spent several months in Italy and Rome, where he consulted the archives of the Vatican on matters relating to the Thirty Years War and to the first partition of Poland. In 1875-76 he was a deputy to the Prussian Diet, joined the Centre party, and spent much time in Berlin. This sojourn in the German capital was used not only to defend the interests of his constituency in Parliament, but also to widen the range of his knowledge by personal intercourse with learned and public men. From the days of his childhood he conceived the desire of serving God in the priesthood. The delicate state of his health prevented the execution of this cherished plan for some time; but finally he was ordained priest at Limburg, 26 March, 1860. In 1866 he was appointed spiritual counsellor by Archbishop Hermann von Vicari of Freiburg, and in 1880 Pope Leo XIII made him a prelate and a prothonotary Apostolic ad instar participantium.

Janssen is the author of many valuable works on historical subjects. It was while he was at the University of Louvain that be resolved to make the study of history his principal work for the remainder of his life. His first work was a Latin biography of Abbot Wibald, which appeared in a revised form in German (1854). In 1856 he published a volume of historical documents relating to the Diocese of Munster (Die Geschichtsquellen des Bisthums Munster, 3 vols.). In 1881 appeared the essay "Frankreichs Rheingeluste und deutschfeindliche Politik in fruheren Jahrhunderten", in which he laid bare the traditional diplomacy of France, hostile to Germany and intent upon extending the boundary line as far as the Rhine. In 1863 he published an essay upon Schiller as an historian (Schiller als Historiker), in which he made it plain that the great German poet, in his historical writings, indulged too much in his imagination. For many years he was engaged in sifting part of the manuscript material found in the archives of Frankfort; and the result of these labours was the publication of "Frankfurts Reichscorrespondenz, 1376-1519" (2 vols., 1863-73). In the essay "Zur Genesis der ersten Theilung Polens" (1865) he explained the circumstances under which the former Kingdom of Poland was robbed of part of its dominions by neighbouring countries. A biography of the man whom he considered as his teacher and guide appeared in three volumes in 1868 under the title "Johann Friedrich Boehmers Leben, Briefe und kleinere Schriften". In 1876-77 appeared in two volumes another biography of a renowned scholar and convert to the Catholic Faith, Count Friedrich Leopold zu Stolberg. In the work "Zeit- und Lebensbilder" (1875) he published in book form a number of essays on the men and events of his time.

The most important work is his "History of the German people" (Geschichte des deutschen Volkes seit dem Ausgang des Mittelalters). The first suggestion of such an undertaking was made by his master and friend, Johann Friedrich Boehmer, in 1853. At first he planned to write a complete history of Germany from the remotest times to his own day but soon this plan had to be abandoned, and he confined himself to the period beginning with the end of the Middle Ages. Eight volumes have appeared; six were given to the public by Janssen himself (1876-88), and two by his pupil and friend Ludwig Pastor (1893-94) from materials collected by Janssen and they reach as far as the time of the Thirty Years War, which commenced in 1618. The great merit of this work is that Janssen treated not only of the political but also of the religious, social, and economic conditions of Germany, that he was very faithful to the sources of information and very impartial, that he made the authorities speak for themselves, and that he destroyed the common conception, according to which the Middle Ages presented nothing but corruption and moral decay. Valuable additions to this work are found in two small volumes written in reply to adverse criticism ("An meine Kritiker", 1882; "Ein zweites Wort an meine Kritiker", 1884). Most of the works of Janssen had a large sale, and appeared in several editions; this is particularly the case of the "History of the German People", which has been translated, partly, at least, into French and English. Janssen was a very prolific writer: to the works which have just been mentioned he added a number of articles written for reviews and other publications.

Owing to the literary and critical merits of his works Janssen must be placed among the foremost Catholic historians of the last century. In his great work he deals much with the origin and the great leaders of the Protestant Reformation, yet he is always most moderate in tone, and never uses expressions which might give offence. The same attitude of deference and respect was shown in his personal relations towards those who differed from him in faith; and in this manner he won the esteem and confidence of Protestants, among whom he found many friends.

Despite Janssen's great learning he remained humble; worldly honours and ecclesiastical dignities had no attraction for him.

In 1864 efforts were made to win him for the diplomatic service of the Vatican; some time later he was mentioned for a vacant bishopric; in 1883 Pope Leo XIII contemplated summoning him to Rome for the direction of the Vatican Archives; in 1890 the cardinalate was to be conferred on him; but Janssen succeeded in escaping all these honours. He gave often and abundantly to the poor, to the sick, to churches, and to institutions of mercy. An asylum for the poor and abandoned children of Frankfort, erected in 1894 in the town of Oberursel, owes its existence largely to his efforts. Janssen was a great scholar and an exemplary priest, though he never exercised the ecclesiastical ministry.

About this page

APA citation. Schaefer, F. (1910). Johann Janssen. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Schaefer, Francis. "Johann Janssen." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Matthew Dean.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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