1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Nicholas of Basel

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NICHOLAS OF BASEL (d. 1397), a prominent member of the Beghard community, who travelled widely as a missionary and propagated the teachings of his sect. Though vigorously sought after by the Inquisition he eluded its agents for many years until in 1397 he was seized in Vienna, and burned at the stake as a heretic, together with two of his followers, John and James. A considerable legend has attached itself to Nicholas through the persistent but mistaken identification of him with the mysterious “Friend of God from the Oberland,” the “double” of Rulman Merswin, the Strassburg banker who was one of the leaders of the 14th-century German mystics known as the Friends of God. In Merswin's Story of the First Four Years of a New Life, he writes: “Of all the wonderful works which God had wrought in me I was not allowed to tell a single word to anybody until the time when it should please God to reveal to a man in the Oberland to come to me. When he came to me God gave me the power to tell him everything.” The identity and personality of this “Friend of God,” who bulks so largely in the great collection of mystical literature, and is everywhere treated as a half supernatural character, is one of the most difficult problems in the history of mysticism. The tradition, dating from the 15th century and supported by the weighty authority of the Strassburg historian Karl Schmidt (Nicolaus von Basel, Vienna, 1866), identified him with Nicholas, but is now discredited by all scholars. A. Jundt (Les Amis de Dieu, 1879) shared Preger's view that the Friend was a great unknown who lived in or near Chur (Coire) in Switzerland. But since Denifle's researches (see especially Der Gottesfreund im Oberlande und Nikolaus von Basel, 1870) the belief has gained ground that the “Friend” is not a historical personage at all. Apart from the collection of literature ascribed to him and Merswin there is no historical evidence of his existence. The accounts of his life say that about 1343 he was forbidden to reveal his identity to anyone save Rulman Merswin. And as all the writings bear the marks of a single authorship it has been assumed, especially by Denifle, that “the Friend of God” is a literary creation of Merswin and that the whole collection of literature is the work of Merswin (and his school), tendency-literature designed to set forth the ideals of the movement to which he had given his life. Thus “the great unknown” from the Oberland is the ideal character, “who illustrates how God does his work tor the world and for the church through a divinely trained and spiritually illuminated layman,” just as William Langland in England about the same time drew the figure of Piers Plowman.

To rescue Merswin from the charge of deceit involved in this theory, Jundt puts forward the suggestion, more ingenious than convincing, that Merswin was a “double personality,” who in his primary state wrote the books ascribed to him, and in his secondary state became “the Friend of God from the Oberland,” writing the other treatises. A third hypothesis is that advanced by Karl Rieder (Der Gottesfreund von Oberland, Innsbruck, 1905), who thinks that not even Merswin himself wrote any of the literature, but that his secretary and associate Nicholas of Löwen, head of the House of St John at Grünenwörth, the retreat founded by Merswin for the circle, worked over all the writings which emanated from different members of the group but bore no author's names, and to glorify the founder of the house attached Merswin's name to some of them and out of his imagination created “the Friend of God from the Oberland,” whom he named as the writer of the others. As his design took shape he expanded the supernatural element and made the narratives autobiographical. There is much in this contention that is sound, but Rieder seems to go unnecessarily far in denying altogether that Merswin wrote any of the mystical books. The conclusion remains that the literature must be treated as tendency-writing and not as genuine biography and history.

See besides the works cited, Rufus M. Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion, ch. xiii. (London, 1909).