Wiblingen Monastery Library and Bleg: Joseph Nickel

A few years ago I bicycled around the Allgäu, a succulent part of Germany on the border between its two large and influential southern states, Baden Württemburg and Bavaria. Gentle hills, meter-wide brooks, and frothy South German baroque churches.

I happened to ride by Wiblingen, which hosts a Benedictine monastery church with a library that looks like this:

Wiblingen Monastery Library

The camera was a Canon Powershot G11, nothing special. The photographer in me regrets the overexposed bits, but overall, it's an eye-feast, and the monastery itself works the magic. Most of what looks like solid marble is actually plaster that resounds when you tap it.

The bleg is this: I paid a couple of euros to visit the museum here, which was detailed — maps of the monastery's shifting domains, dioramas of the practical winemaking and woodworking and property management of the industrious ora et labora Benedictines, and maps illustrating the fascinating legal history of the local Benedictines: when they were granted their first clerical fiefs, which pieces of land they lost during the War of the Moravian Pretender in 1715, what percentage of their land they rented to tenant farmers, etc.

All relentlessly informative and dull, even for a lawyer. But then one of the pull-out wooden information tablets (the curator had gotten pretty frisky) spoke of The Benedictine Monks receiving the Blutrecht (literally blood-right) from the local prince in the early 1700s. This meant they had the power to enact their own criminal code and inflict corporal penalties. The abbey had become a large local landowner, and the local prince was tired of policing it, so he transferred that authority to the monks themselves. They enacted a crude criminal code, punishing unrepentant blasphemers by death.

Here, the (likely tendentious and unreliable) monastery records describe an interesting case. A local man named Joseph Nickel came to monks' attention. He'd studied in Paris and then returned to Wiblingen to spread his free-thinking views and eke out a living as a highway robber. He even robbed a monk. He was punished a few times. Then one evening he was overheard in a tavern denying the divinity of and blaspheming Mary. He denied nothing at trial, and the monks sentenced him — as a repeat offender and blasphemer — to death. They had to have a special scaffold erected since they'd never done this before. He was hung by the river in front of a crowd. The historical account in the museum stressed that the monks were awfully broken up about having to hang Nickel, and, if memory serves, never hanged anyone again.

I remember reading this and being more than a bit surprised, since I'd never heard of a monastery acquiring sovereignty, enacting a criminal code, and actually hanging someone. Perhaps I'm naive.

In any event, that's the story as I remember it, from my memory and blurry photos of the card. I think it's about 80% accurate. My bleg to you is if anyone can find me some other written sources about Joseph Nickel? 98% sure that's his name, because I drilled it into my memory. But I've never found anything more about him. An educated, free-thinking vagabond hanged by monks in the 1700s interests me. Can anyone point me to more information about Joseph Nickel?

4 thoughts on “Wiblingen Monastery Library and Bleg: Joseph Nickel

  1. He’s referred to on the internet. Surely that monastery was a territory which could pass its own laws?

    Wozu das in seltenen Extremfällen führen konnte, zeigt ein krasses Beispiel: südlich von Ulm – damals eine freie Reichsstadt – liegt das Benediktinerkloster Wiblingen – damals eine selbständige Herrschaft.


    Also mentioned in this PDF:

    OK, it’s not much!


  2. The Holy Roman Empire was actually scattered with sovereign abbeys and priories (Reichsabtei and Reichspriorei) and even sovereign nuns’ convents. E.g. the city of Essen was the domain of the local convent, which I remember was extremely rich and powerful. Most of the time however their area of sovereignty was rather tiny. The 600+ sovereign members of the Empire had to come from somewhere. The abbot or the mother superior of a sovereign abbey even would get a seat in the Reichstag. It was only in 1803 when the so sovereign monasteries together with the sovereign bishops were a abolished.
    I suspect historical elements like this might go somewhere to explain the German attitude towards seperation of Church and State, which is a whole lot more relaxed compared to places like the U.S. or even France.


  3. If you google

    joseph nickel wiblingen

    you will find a google books link to

    Albrecht Weyermann, Neue historisch-biographisch-artistische Nachrichten von Gelehrten und Künstlern auch alten und neuen adelichen und bürgerlichen Familien aus der vormaligen Reichsstadt Ulm, Ulm 1829.

    The second colume contains a biographical sketch on Joseph Nickel on pages 366-373.

    For archival sources you would probabaly have to go there…


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