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Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1536-1572: The Reformers and Pacifist-Anabaptists   Leave a comment

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Luther’s Last Decade and His Legacy:

In the final decade of his life, Luther became even more bitter in his attitude towards the papists. He was denied another public hearing such as those at Worms and Speyer, and he managed to avoid the martyrdom which came to other reformers, whether at the stake or, in the case of Zwingli, in battle (at Kappel in 1531). He compensated by hurling vitriol at the papacy and the Roman Curia. Towards the end of his life, he issued an illustrated tract with outrageously vulgar cartoons. In all of this, he was utterly unrestrained. The Holy Roman Empire was a constitutional monarchy, and the emperor had sworn at his coronation that no German subject should be outlawed unheard and uncondemned. Although this clause had not yet invoked to protect a monk accused of heresy, yet when princes and electors came to be involved the case was altered. If Charles V were faithless to that oath, then he might be resisted even in arms by the lower magistrates. The formula thus suggested by the jurists to Luther was destined to have a very wide an extended vogue. The Lutherans employed it only until they gained legal recognition at Augsburg in 1555. Thereafter the Calvinists took up the slogan and equated the lower magistrates with the lesser nobility in France. Later historians were accustomed to regard Lutheranism as politically subservient and Calvinism as intransigent, but the origin of this doctrine was in the Lutheran soil.

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Martin Luther was made for the ministry. During his last years, he continued to attend faithfully to all the obligations of the university and his parish. To the end he was preaching, lecturing, counselling and writing. At the end of his life, he was in such a panic of disgust because the young women at Wittenberg were wearing low necks that he left home declaring that he would not return. His physician brought him back, but then came a request from the counts of Mansfeld for a mediator in a dispute. Melanchthon was too sick to go, and though Luther was also very ill, he went, reconciled the counts and died on the way home.

His later years should not, however, be written off as the splutterings of a dying flame. If in his polemical tracts he was at times savage and course, in the works which really counted in the cannon of his life’s endeavour he grew constantly in maturity and artistic creativity. Improvements in the translation of the Bible continued to the very end. The sermons and biblical commentaries reached superb heights. Many of the passages quoted to illustrate Luther’s religious and ethical principles are also from this later period.

When historians and theologians come to assess his legacy, there are three areas which naturally suggest themselves. The first is his contribution to his own country. He called himself the German prophet, saying that against the papist assess he must assume so presumptuous a title and he addressed himself to his beloved Germans. The claim has been made frequently that no individual did so much to fashion the character of the German people. He shared their passion for music and their language was greatly influenced by his writings, not least by his translation of the Bible. His reformation also profoundly affected the ordinary German family home. Roland Bainton (1950) commented:

Economics went the way of capitalism and politics the way of absolutism, but the home took on that quality of affectionate and godly patriarchalism which Luther had set as the pattern of his own household.

Luther’s most profound impact was in their religion, of course. His sermons were read to the congregations, his liturgy was sung, his catechism was rehearsed by the father of the household, his Bible cheered the faint-hearted and consoled the dying. By contrast, no single Englishman had the range of Luther. The Bible translation was largely the work of Tyndale, the prayer-book was that of Cranmer, the Catechism of the Westminster Divines. The style of sermons followed Latimer’s example and the hymn book was owed much to George Herbert from the beginning. Luther, therefore, did the work of five Englishmen, and for the sheer richness and exuberance of vocabulary and mastery of style, his use of German can only be compared with Shakespeare’s use of English.

In the second great area of influence, that of the Church, Luther’s influence extended far beyond his native land, as is shown below. In addition to his influence in Germany, Switzerland, Hungary and England, Lutheranism took possession of virtually the whole of Scandinavia. His movement gave the impetus that sometimes launched and sometimes gently encouraged the establishment of other varieties of Protestantism. Catholicism also owes much to him. It is often said that had Luther not appeared, an Erasmian reform would have triumphed, or at any rate a reform after the Spanish model. All this is, of course, conjectural, but it is obvious that the Catholic Church received a tremendous shock from the Lutheran Reformation and a terrific urge to reform after its own pattern.

The third area is the one which mattered most to Luther, that of religion itself. In his religion, he was a Hebrew, Paul the Jew, not a Greek fancying gods and goddesses in a pantheon in which Christ was given a niche. The God of Luther, as of Moses, was the God who inhabits the storm clouds and rides on the wings of the wind. He is a God of majesty and power, inscrutable, terrifying, devastating, and consuming in his anger. Yet he is all merciful too, like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord… 

Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans and Pacifists:

The movement initiated by Luther soon spread throughout Germany. Luther provided its chief source of energy and vision until his death in 1546. Once Luther had passed from the scene, a period of bitter theological warfare occurred within Protestantism. There was controversy over such matters as the difference between ‘justification’ and ‘sanctification’; what doctrine was essential or non-essential; faith and works; and the nature of the real presence at the Eucharist. This is the period when Lutheranism developed, something which Luther himself predicted and condemned. The Schmalkald Articles had been drawn up in 1537 as a statement of faith. The Protestant princes had formed the Schmalkald League as a kind of defensive alliance against the Emperor. The tragic Schmalkald War broke out in 1547 in which the Emperor defeated the Protestant forces and imprisoned their leaders. But the Protestant Maurice of Saxony fought back successfully and by the Treaty of Passau (1552), Protestantism was legally recognised. This settlement was confirmed by the Interim of 1555. It was during this period that some of the Lutheran theologians drove large numbers of their own people over to the Calvinists through their dogmatism.

The Battle of Kappel, in which Zwingli was killed, had brought the Reformation in Switzerland to an abrupt halt, but in 1536 John Calvin (1509-64) was unwillingly pressed into reviving the cause in French-speaking Switzerland. Calvin was an exiled Frenchman, born in at Noyon in Picardy, whose theological writings, especially the Institutes of the Christian Religion and numerous commentaries on the Bible, did much to shape the Reformed churches and their confessions of faith. In contrast to Luther, Calvin was a quiet, sensitive man. Always a conscientious student, at Orléans, Bourges and the University of Paris, he soon took up the methods of humanism, which he later used ‘to combat humanism’. In Paris, the young Calvin had encountered the teachings of Luther and in 1533, he had experienced a sudden conversion:

God subdued and brought my heart to docility. It was more hardened against such matters than was to be expected in such a young man.

After that, he wrote little about his inner life, content to trace God’s hand controlling him. He next broke with Roman Catholicism, leaving France to live as an exile in Basle. It was there that he began to formulate his theology, and in 1536 published the first edition of The Institutes. It was a brief, clear defence of Reformation beliefs. Guillaume Farel, the Reformer of Geneva, persuaded Calvin to help consolidate the Reformation there. He had inherited from his father an immovable will, which stood him in good stead in turbulent Geneva.  In 1537 all the townspeople were called upon to swear loyalty to a Protestant statement of belief. But the Genevans opposed Calvin strongly, and disputes in the town, together with a quarrel with the city of Berne, resulted in the expulsion of both Calvin and Farel.

Calvin went to Strasbourg, where he made contact with Martin Bucer, who influenced him greatly. Bucer (1491-1551) had been a Dominican friar but had left the order and married a former nun in 1522. He went to Strasbourg in 1523 and took over leadership of the reform, becoming one of the chief statesmen among the Reformers. He was present at most of the important conferences, or colloquies of the Reformers, and tried to mediate between Zwingli and Luther in an attempt to unite the German and Swiss Reformed churches. His discussions with Melanchthon led to peace in the debate over the sacraments at the Concord of Wittenberg. He also took part in the unsuccessful conferences with the Roman Catholics at Hagenau, Worms and Ratisbon.

In 1539, while in Strasbourg, Calvin published his commentary on the Book of Romans. Many other commentaries followed, in addition to a new, enlarged version of the Institutes. The French Reformer led the congregation of French Protestant refugees in Strasbourg, an experience which matured him for his task on returning to Geneva. He was invited back there in September 1541, and the town council accepted his revision of the of the city laws, but many more bitter disputes followed. Calvin tried to bring every citizen under the moral discipline of the church. Many naturally resented such restrictions, especially when imposed by a foreigner. He then set about attaining of establishing a mature church by preaching daily to the people. He also devoted much energy to settling differences within Protestantism. The Consensus Tigurinus, on the Lord’s Supper (1549), resulted in the German-speaking and French-speaking churches of Switzerland moving closer together. Michael Servetus, a notorious critic of Calvin, and of the doctrine of the Trinity, was arrested and burnt in Geneva.

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John Calvin, caricatured by one of his students, during an idle moment in a lecture.

Calvin was, in a way, trying to build a more visible ‘City of God’ in Europe, with Geneva as its base and model. In his later years, Calvin’s authority in Geneva was less disputed. He founded the Geneva Academy, to which students of theology came from all parts of western and central Europe, particularly France. Calvin systemised the Reformed tradition in Protestantism, taking up and reapplying the ideas of the first generation of Reformers. He developed the Presbyterian form of church government, in which all ministers served at the same level, and the congregation was represented by lay elders. His work was characterised by intellectual discipline and practical application. His Institutes have been a classic statement of Reformation theology for centuries, as is evident from the following extracts:

Wherever we find the Word of God surely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to the Institution of Christ, there, it is not to be doubted, is a church of God.

We declare that by God’s providence, not only heaven and earth and inanimate creatures, but also the counsels and wills of men are governed so as to move precisely to that end destined by him.   

Lutheranism strongly influenced Calvin’s doctrine. Like Luther, Calvin was also a careful interpreter of the Bible. He intended that his theology should interpret Scripture faithfully, rather than developing his own ideas. For him, all knowledge of God and man is to be found only in the Word of God. Man can only know God if he chooses to make himself known. Pardon and salvation are possible only through the free working of the grace of God. Calvin claimed that even before the creation, God chose some of his creatures for salvation and others for destruction. He is often known best for this severe doctrine of election, particularly that some people are predestined to eternal damnation. But Calvin also set out the way of repentance, faith and sanctification for believers. In his doctrine, the church was supreme and should not be restricted in any way by the state. He gave greater importance than Luther to the external organisation of the church. He regarded only baptism and communion as sacraments. Baptism was the individual’s initiation into the new community of Christ. He rejected Zwingli’s view that the communion elements were purely symbolic, but also warned against a magical belief in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament.

The Calvinists went further than the Lutherans in their opposition to traditions which had been handed down. They rejected a good deal of church music, art, architecture and many more superficial matters such as the use of the ring in marriage, and the signs of devotional practice. But all the Reformers rejected the authority of the pope, the merit of good works, indulgences, the mediation of the Virgin Mary and the saints, and all the sacraments which had not been instituted by Christ. They rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation (the teaching that the bread and wine of the communion became the body and blood of Christ when the priest consecrated them), the view of the mass as a sacrifice, purgatory and prayers for the dead, private confession of sin to a priest, celibacy of the clergy, and the use of Latin in the services.They also rejected all the paraphernalia that expressed these ideas, such as holy water, shrines, chantries, images, rosaries, paternoster stones and candles.

Meanwhile, in 1549 Bucer was forced to leave Strasbourg for Cambridge, and while in England, he advised Cranmer on The Book of Common Prayer. He had a great impact on the establishment of the Church of England, pointing it in the direction of Puritanism. Although he died in 1551, his body was exhumed and burned during the Catholic reaction under Queen Mary. Bucer wrote a large number of commentaries on the Bible and worked strenuously for reconciliation between various religious parties. In France, the pattern of reform was very different. Whereas in Germany and Switzerland there was solid support for the Reformation from the people, in France people, court and church provided less support. As a result, the first Protestants suffered death or exile. But once the Reformed faith had been established in French-speaking Switzerland and in Strasbourg, Calvinists formed a congregation in Paris in 1555. Four years later, over seventy churches were represented at a national synod in the capital.

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Henry VIII may have destroyed the power of the papacy and ended monasticism in England, but he remained firmly Catholic in doctrine. England was no safe place for William Tyndale to translate the Bible into English, as Henry and the bishops were more concerned to prevent the spread of Lutheran ideas than to promote the study of Scripture. Tyndale narrowly escaped arrest in Cologne but managed to have the New Testament published in Worms in 1525. He was unable to complete the Old Testament because he was betrayed and arrested near Brussels in 1535. In October 1536 he was strangled and burnt at the stake. His last words were reported as, Lord, open the king of England’s eyes. In the meantime, Miles Coverdale completed the translation, which became the basis for later official translations.

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The title page of the first Bible to be printed in English: Miles Coverdale’s translation (1535). Coverdale had helped Tyndale to revise his translation of the Pentateuch.

Though the king’s eyes were not immediately opened, a powerful religious movement towards reform among his people was going on at the same time. Despite the publication of the Great Bible in 1538, it was only under Edward VI (1547-53) that the Reformation was positively and effectively established in England. The leading figure was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, supported by the scholar, Nicholas Ridley and the preacher, Hugh Latimer. Cranmer (1489-1556) was largely responsible for the shaping the Protestant Church of England. Born in Nottinghamshire, he was educated at Cambridge until he was suddenly summoned to Canterbury as Archbishop in 1532, as a result of Henry VIII’s divorce crisis. There he remained until he was deposed by Mary and burnt as a heretic at Oxford in 1556. He was a godly man, Lutheran in his theology, well read in the Church Fathers, a gifted liturgist with an excellent command of English. He was sensitive, cautious and slow to decide in a period of turbulence and treachery. He preferred reformation by gentle persuasion rather than by force, and, unlike Luther, also sought reconciliation with Roman Catholicism. Like Luther, however, he believed firmly in the role of the ‘godly prince’ who had a God-given task to uphold a just society and give free scope to the gospel.

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Archbishop Cranmer (pictured above) was responsible for the Great Bible (1538) and its prefaces; the Litany (1545) and the two Prayer Books (1549, 1552). The driving force of Cranmer’s life was to restore to the Catholic Church of the West the faith it had lost long ago. When the Church of Rome refused to reform, Cranmer took it upon himself to reform his own province of Canterbury. He then sought an ecumenical council with the Lutherans and Calvinists, but Melanchthon was too timid. His second great concern was to restore a living theology based on the experience of the person and work of Christ. Thirdly, he developed the doctrine of the Holy Spirit which lay behind his high view of scripture and tradition, and the meaning of union with Christ. He was brainwashed into recanting, but at his final trial in 1556 he put up a magnificent defence and died bravely at the stake, thrusting the hand that had signed the recantations into the fire first. The Martyrs’ Memorial at Oxford commemorates his death, together with those of Ridley and Latimer whose deaths he had witnessed from prison a year earlier.

Several European Reformers also contributed to the Anglican Reformation, notably Martin , exiled from Strasbourg. These men, Calvinists rather than Lutherans, Bucerbecame professors at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Under the Counter-Reforming Catholic Queen Mary (1553-58), with Cardinal Pole as Archbishop of Canterbury, about two hundred bishops, scholars, ministers and preachers were burnt at the stake. Many Protestant reformers fled to the continent and became even more Calvinist in their convictions, influencing the direction of the English Reformation when they returned at the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign. The young Queen gradually replaced the Catholic church leaders with Protestants, restored the church Articles and Cranmer’s Prayer Book. She took the title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Her Anglican church kept episcopal government and a liturgy which offended many of the strict Protestants, particularly those who were returning religious refugees who had been further radicalised in Calvinist Switzerland or France.

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Scotland was first awakened to Lutheranism by Patrick Hamilton, a student of Luther, who had been burned for his faith in 1528. George Wishart and John Knox (1505-72) continued Hamilton’s work, but Knox was taken prisoner by the French in 1547 and forced to serve as a galley-slave. When freed, he studied under Calvin at Geneva and did not return to Scotland until 1559, when he fearlessly launched the Reformation. He attacked the papacy, the mass and Catholic idolatry. The Catholic Mary Queen of Scots opposed Knox, but was beaten in battle. Knox then consolidated the Scots reformation by drawing up a Confession of Faith (1560), a Book of Discipline (1561) and the Book of Common Order (1564). While the Scottish Reformation was achieved independently from England, it was a great tragedy that it was imposed on Ireland, albeit through an Act of Uniformity passed by the Irish Parliament in 1560 which set up Anglicanism as the national religion. In this way, Protestantism became inseparably linked with English rule of a country which remained predominantly Catholic.

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Western Europe during the Wars of Religion, to 1572.

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The Empire of Charles V in 1551 (inset: The Swiss Confederation)

In Hungary, students of Luther and Melanchthon at Wittenberg took the message of the Reformation back to their homeland in about 1524, though there were Lollard and Hussite connections, going back to 1466, which I’ve written about in previous posts. As in Bohemia, Calvinism took hold later, but the two churches grew up in parallel. The first Lutheran synod was in 1545, followed by the first Calvinist synod in 1557. In the second half of the sixteenth century, a definite interest in Protestant England was already noticeable in Hungary. In contemporary Hungarian literature, there is a long poem describing the martyr’s death of Thomas Cranmer (Sztáray, 1582).  A few years before this poem was written, in 1571, Matthew Skaritza, the first Hungarian Protestant theologian made his appearance in England, on a pilgrimage to ‘its renowned cities’ induced by the common religious interest.

Protestant ministers were recruited from godly and learned men. The Church of England and large parts of the Lutheran church, particularly in Sweden, tried to keep the outward structure and ministry of their national, territorial churches. Two brothers, Olav and Lars Petri, both disciples of Luther, inaugurated the Reformation in Sweden. The courageous King Gustavus Vasa, who delivered Sweden from the Danes in 1523, greatly favoured Protestantism. The whole country became Lutheran, with bishops of the old church incorporated into the new, and in 1527 the Reformation was established by Swedish law. This national, state church was attacked by both conservative Catholics and radical Protestants.

The Danish Church, too, went over completely to Protestantism. Some Danes, including Hans Tausen and Jörgen Sadolin, studied under Luther at Wittenberg. King Frederick I pressed strongly for church reform, particularly by appointing reforming bishops and preachers. As a result, there was an alarming defection of Catholics and in some churches no preaching at all, and a service only three times a year. After this, King Christian III stripped the bishops of their lands and property at the Diet of Copenhagen (1536) and transferred the church’s wealth to the state. Christian III then turned for help to Luther, who sent Bugenhagen, the only Wittenberger theologian who could speak the dialects of Denmark. Bugenhagen crowned the king and appointed seven superintendents. This severed the old line of bishops and established a new line of presbyters. At the synods which followed church ordinances were published, and the Reformation recognised in Danish law. The decayed University of Copenhagen was enlarged and revitalised. A new liturgy was drawn up, a Danish Bible was completed, and a modified version of the Augsburg Confession was eventually adopted.

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Heddal Stave church, Norway.

This form of construction is characteristic of this part of Scandinavia

The Reformation spread from Denmark to Norway in 1536. The pattern was similar to that of Denmark. Most of the bishops fled and, as the older clergy died, they were replaced with Reformed ministers. A war between Denmark and Norway worsened social and political conditions. When the Danish Lutherans went to instruct the Norwegians, they found that many of the Norwegians spoke the incomprehensible old Norse, and communications broke down. In Iceland, an attempt to impose the Danish ecclesiastical system caused a revolt. This was eventually quelled and the Reformation was imposed, but with a New Testament published in 1540.

Calvinists held an exalted and biblical view of the church as the chosen people of God, separated from the state and wider society. They, therefore, broke away from the traditional church structures as well as the Roman ministry. The spread of Calvinism through key sections of the French nobility, and through the merchant classes in towns such as La Rochelle alarmed Catherine de Medici, the French Regent, resulting eventually in the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. Philip II faced a similarly strong Calvinist challenge in the United Provinces of the Netherlands. In 1565, an outbreak of anti-Catholic rioting could not be contained because all the available forces were deployed in the Mediterranean to defend southern Italy from the Turks and to lift the siege of Malta. The spread of Calvinism was a coral growth in ports and free cities, compared with the territorial growth of Lutheranism which was dependent on earthly principalities and powers.

In this, the free churches later followed them. These churches were mainly fresh expressions of Calvinism which started to grow at the beginning of the next century, but some did have links to, or were influenced by, the churches founded in the aftermath of the Radical Reformation. Only three groups of Anabaptists were able to survive beyond the mid-sixteenth century as ordered communities: the ‘brethren’ in Switzerland and southern Germany, the Hutterites in Moravia and the Mennonites in the Netherlands and northern Germany.

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In the aftermath of the suppression of Münster, the dispirited Anabaptists of the Lower-Rhine area were given new heart by the ministry of Menno Simons (about 1496-1561). The former priest travelled widely, although always in great personal danger. He visited the scattered Anabaptist groups of northern Europe and inspired them with his night-time preaching. Menno was an unswerving, committed pacifist. As a result, his name in time came to stand for the movement’s repudiation of violence. Although Menno was not the founder of the movement, most of the descendants of the Anabaptists are still called ‘Mennonites’. The extent to which the early Baptists in England were influenced by the thinking of the Radical Reformation in Europe is still hotly disputed, but it is clear that there were links with the Dutch Mennonites in the very earliest days.

Reformers, Revolutionaries and Anti-Semites:

Luther had early believed that the Jews were a stiff-necked people who rejected Christ, but that contemporary Jews could not be blamed for the sins of their fathers and might readily be excused for their rejection of Christianity by reason of the corruption of the Medieval Papacy.  He wrote, sympathetically:

If I were a Jew, I would suffer the rack ten times before I would go over to the pope.

The papists have so demeaned themselves that a good Christian would rather be a Jew than one of them, and a Jew would rather be a sow than a Christian.

What good can we do the Jews when we constrain them, malign them, and hate them as dogs? When we deny them work and force them to usury, how can that help? We should use towards the Jews not the pope’s but Christ’s law of love. If some are stiff-necked, what does that matter? We are not all good Christians.

Luther was sanguine that his own reforms, by eliminating the abuses of the papacy, would accomplish the conversion of the Jews. But the coverts were few and unstable. When he endeavoured to proselytise some rabbis, they undertook in return to make a Jew out of him. The rumour that a Jew had been authorised by the papists to murder him was not received with complete incredulity. In his latter days, when he was more easily irritated, news came that in Moravia, Christians were being induced to become Judaic in beliefs and practice. That was what induced him to come out with his rather vulgar blast in which he recommended that all Jews be deported to Palestine. Failing that, he wrote, they should be forbidden to practice usury, should be compelled to earn their living on the land, their synagogues should be burned, and their books, including The Torah, should be taken away from them.

The content of this tract was certainly far more intolerant than his earlier comments, yet we need to be clear about what he was recommending and why. His position was entirely religious and not racially motivated. The supreme sin for him was the persistent rejection of God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. The centuries of persecution suffered by the Jews were in themselves a mark of divine displeasure. The territorial principle should, therefore, be applied to the Jews. They should be compelled to leave and go to a land of their own. This was a programme of enforced Zionism. But, if this were not feasible, Luther would recommend that the Jews be compelled to live from the soil. He was, perhaps unwittingly, proposing a return to the situation which had existed in the early Middle Ages, when the Jews had worked in agriculture. Forced off the land, they had gone into commerce and, having been expelled from commerce, into money-lending. Luther wished to reverse this process and to accord the Jews a more secure, though just as segregated position than the one they had in his day, following centuries of persecutions and expulsions.

His advocacy of burning synagogues and the confiscation of holy books was, however, a revival of the worst features of the programme of a fanatical Jewish convert to Christianity, Pfefferkorn by name, who had sought to have all Hebrew books in Germany and the Holy Roman Empire destroyed. In this conflict of the early years of the Reformation, Luther had supported the Humanists, including Reuchlin, the great German Hebraist and Melanchthon’s great-uncle. Of course, during the Reformation throughout Europe, there was little mention of the Jews except in those German territories, like Luther’s Saxony, Frankfurt and Worms, where they were tolerated and had not been expelled as they had been from the whole of England, France and Spain. Ironically, Luther himself was very Hebraic in his thinking, appealing to the wrath of Jehovah against any who would impugn his picture of a vengeful, Old Testament God. On the other hand, both Luther and Erasmus were antagonistic towards the way in which the Church of their day had relapsed into the kind of Judaic legalism castigated by the Apostle Paul. Christianity, said Erasmus, was not about abstaining from butter and cheese during Lent, but about loving one’s neighbour. This may help to explain Luther’s reaction to the Moravian ‘heresy’ in terms which, nevertheless, only be described as anti-Semitic, even by the standards of his time.

The story told in Cohn’s great book Pursuit of the Millennium, originally written six decades ago, is a story which began more than five centuries ago and ended four and a half centuries ago. However, it is a book and a story not without relevance to our own times. In another work, Warrant for Genocide: the myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, published in 1967, Cohn shows how closely the Nazi fantasy of a world-wide Jewish conspiracy of destruction is related to the fantasies that inspired millenarian revolutionaries from the Master of Hungary to Thomas Müntzer.  The narrative is one of how mass disorientation and insecurity have fostered the demonisation of the misbelievers, especially the Jews, in this as much as in previous centuries.

We can also reflect on the damage wrought in the twentieth century by left-wing revolutions and revolutionary movements, which are just as capable of demonising religious and ethnic groups, including Jews, through their love of conspiracy theories and narratives. What is most curious about the popular Müntzer ‘biopic’, for example, is the resurrection and apotheosis which it has undergone during the past hundred and fifty years. From Engels through to the post-Marxist historians of this century, whether Russian, German or English-speaking, Müntzer has been conflated into a giant symbol, a prodigious hero in the history of ‘class warfare’. This is a naive view and one which non-Marxist historians have been able to contradict easily by pointing to the essentially mystical nature of Müntzer’s preoccupations which usually blinded him to the material sufferings of the poor artisans and peasants. He was essentially a propheta obsessed by eschatological fantasies which he attempted to turn into reality by exploiting social discontent and dislocation through revolutionary violence against the misbelievers. Perhaps it was this obsessive tendency which led Marxist theorists to claim him as one of their own.

Just like the medieval artisans integrated in their guilds, industrial workers in technologically advanced societies have shown themselves very eager to improve their own conditions; their aim has been the eminently practical one of achieving a larger share of economic security, prosperity and social privilege through winning political power. Emotionally charged fantasies of a final, apocalyptic struggle leading to an egalitarian Millennium have been far less attractive to them. Those who are fascinated by such ideas are, on the one hand, the peoples of overpopulated and desperately poor societies, dislocated and disoriented, and, on the other hand, certain politically marginalised echelons in advanced societies, typically young or unemployed workers led by a small minority of intellectuals.

Working people in economically advanced parts of the world, especially in modern Europe, have been able to improve their lot out of all recognition, through the agency of trade unions, co-operatives and parliamentary parties. Nevertheless, during the century since 1917 there has been a constant repetition, on an ever-increasing scale, of the socio-psychological process which once connected the Táborite priests or Thomas Müntzer with the most disoriented and desperate among the poor, in fantasies of a final, exterminating struggle against ‘the great ones’; and of a perfect, egalitarian world from which self-seeking would be forever banished.  We are currently engaged in yet another cycle in this process, with a number of fresh ‘messiahs’ ready to assume the mantles of previous generations of charismatic revolutionaries, being elevated to the status of personality cults. Of course, the old religious idiom has been replaced by a secular one, and this tends to obscure what would otherwise be obvious. For it is a simple truth that stripped of its original supernatural mythology, revolutionary millenarianism is still with us.

Sources:

John H. Y. Briggs (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

Sándor Fest (2000), Skóciai Szent Margittól, A Walesi Bárdokig: Magyar-Angol történeti és irodalmi kapcsalatok. 

Norman Cohn (1970), The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. St Albans: Granada Publishing.

Roland H. Bainton (1950), Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Nashville, USA: Abingdon Press.

András Bereznay (1994, 2001), The Times Atlas of European History. London: HarperCollins.

 

 

 

Posted February 4, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anabaptism, Anglican Reformation, anti-Semitism, Apocalypse, Austria-Hungary, Britain, British history, Christian Faith, Church, Commemoration, Early Modern English, Egalitarianism, Empire, English Language, Europe, France, Germany, Henry VIII, History, Humanism, Hungarian History, Hungary, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Jews, Linguistics, Lutheranism, Martin Luther, Medieval, Mediterranean, Messiah, Middle English, Migration, Millenarianism, Monarchy, Music, Mysticism, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, New Testament, Old Testament, Papacy, Reformation, Remembrance, Shakespeare, Switzerland, theology, Tudor England, Uncategorized, Warfare, Zionism

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Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Five   Leave a comment

Part Five – The Peasants’ War of 1525: A Puritan Revolution?

The causes of the German Peasants’ War have been a subject of controversy among historians for a considerable time. They generally agree that the background of the rising of 1525 resembled that of the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, rather than the Puritan revolts of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, in which men and women of lower orders in society were also involved. Neither did the Peasants’ War in Germany resemble previous local revolts among the Jacquerie of France which were usually of a purely local nature, related to abuses of feudal rights by particular lords. For one thing, the German peasant class was not uniformly impoverished; the initiative for the redress of grievances came not from the downtrodden, but rather from the more prosperous and enterprising, possessed themselves of both lands and a respectable competence in farming them. In fact, the well-being of the German peasantry throughout the territories was better than it had ever been, and those who took the initiative in the insurrection, far from being driven on by sheer misery and desperation, belonged to a rising and self-confident class. They were people whose position was improving both socially and economically and who, for that very reason, were impatient for the obstacles which stood in the way of their further advance to be removed.

It is therefore hardly surprising that in their efforts to remove these obstacles for themselves, the peasants showed that they were not at all eschatologically minded but, on the contrary, politically minded in the sense that they thought in terms of real situations and realizable possibilities. The most that a peasant community ever sought under the leadership of its own peasant aristocracy was local self-government. The first stage of the movement, from March 1525 to the beginning of May, consisted simply of a series of local struggles in which a great number of communities really did extract from their immediate lords, ecclesiastical or lay, concessions giving them greater autonomy. This was achieved, not through bloodshed but by an intensification of the tough, hard-headed bargaining which the peasantry had been conducting for generations.

Underlying the rising there was, however, a deeper conflict. With the progressive collapse of the royal power, the German state had disintegrated into a welter of discordant and often warring feudal authorities. But by 1525 this condition of near anarchy was approaching its end, for the great territorial princes were busily creating their absolutist principalities. The peasantry saw its traditional way of life disrupted and its inherited rights threatened by the development of new types of states. It resented the additional taxes, the substitution of Roman Law for ‘custom’, the interference of centralised administration in local affairs, and it fought back. The law was being unified by displacing the local codes in favour of Roman Law whereby the peasant again suffered since that Law knew only private property and therefore imperilled the commons – the woods, streams and meadows shared by the community in old Germanic tradition. The Roman Law also only had three categories of peasant – free men, freedmen and slaves. It had no category which quite fitted the medieval serf.

The princes, for their part, realized clearly enough that the peasantry stood in their way of their plans for state-building and that the peasant insurrection offered them a chance to assert and consolidate their authority. It was they, or rather a particular group of them, who saw to it that the rising ended catastrophically, in a series of battles or massacres, in which perhaps as many as a hundred thousand peasants were killed. It was also those princely dynasties which gained most from the reduction alike of the peasantry, the lower nobility and the ecclesiastical foundations to a condition of hopeless dependence which was to last for centuries.

Another change, associated with the revival of commerce in cities after the crusades, was the substitution of exchange in coin for exchange in kind. The increased demand in precious metals enhanced their value; the peasants, who had at first benefited from the payment of a fixed sum of money rather than a percentage in kind, found themselves hurt by deflation. Those who could not meet the imposts sank from freeholders to renters, and from renters to serfs. The solution which at first presented itself to the peasants was simply to resist the changes as they operated in their society and return to ‘the good old ways’. They did not, to begin with, demand the abolition of serfdom but only the prevention of any further extension of peonage. They demanded a return to the free use of the woods, waters and meadows; the reduction of imposts and the reinstatement of ancient Germanic law and local custom. The methods used in the attainment of these ends were at first conservative. On the occasion of a special grievance, the peasants would assemble in thousands in quite spontaneous fashion and would present their petitions to the rulers with a request for arbitration. Not infrequently the petition was received in a patriarchal manner and the burdens were in some measure eased, yet never to the extent of forestalling a future recurrence.

Somewhat inevitably, therefore, the peasants’ demands began to go beyond economic amelioration to political programmes designed to ensure an influence commensurate with and even exceeding their economic importance. The demands also changed as the movement worked north to the region around the big bend of the Rhine where peasants were also townsmen, since artisans were farmers. In this area, urban aspirations were added to agrarian concerns. Further down the Rhine, the struggle became almost wholly urban, and the characteristic programme called for a more democratic complexion in the town councils, a less restrictive membership in the guilds, the subjection of the clergy to civil burdens and uncurtailed rights for citizens to engage in brewing.

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Many of these demands had coalesced in a movement in Alsace which had taken place just prior to the Reformation. This movement had used the symbol which became characteristic of the Peasants’ War of 1525. This was the Bundschuh, deriving its name from the traditional leather shoe of the peasant. The word had a double meaning because Bund was also the word for an ‘association’ or ‘covenant’. Müntzer had already used for his ‘covenant of the elect’ and before that, the peasants had adopted the term for a ‘compact’ of revolution. The aims of this Bundschuh had centred not so much on economics as on politics. Its adherents believed that ‘the axe should be laid to the root of the tree’ and all government abolished save that of the pope and the emperor. These were the two traditional ‘swords of Christendom’, the joint rulers of a universal society. To them, the little men had always turned for protection against overlords, bishops, metropolitans, knights and princes. The Bundschuh proposed to complete the process by wiping out all the intermediate grades and leaving only the two great lords, Caesar and the Apostle.

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Prior to the Peasants’ War of 1525, therefore, this movement was often anticlerical, but not anti-Catholic. Bishops and Abbots were resented as great landowners and exploiters, but “Down with the bishop” did not mean “Down with the Church.” The banners of the Bundschuh often carried, besides the shoe, some religious symbol, such as a picture of the Virgin, a crucifix, or a papal tiara. The woodcut shown below shows the crucifix resting on a black shoe. On the right, a group of peasants are tilling the soil, and Abraham is sacrificing Isaac, a sign of the potential cost of being a member of the Bund. A movement so religiously minded could not but be affected by the Reformation. Luther’s Freedom of the Christian Man was purely religious but could very readily be given a social turn. The ‘priesthood of all believers’ did not mean for him egalitarianism, but it did for Carlstadt. Luther had certainly blasted usury and in 1524 had come out with another tract on the subject, in which he also attacked the subterfuge of annuities, a device whereby capital was loaned in perpetuity for an annual return. His attitude on monasticism likewise admirably suited peasant covetousness for the spoliation of cloisters. The peasants, with good reason, felt strongly drawn to Luther. 

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The part played by Thomas Müntzer in the Peasants’ War as a whole has often been exaggerated. The main theatres of the struggle were the areas where the development of the new states had gone the furthest. These all lay in southern and western Germany, which had already seen many peasant risings in the years before 1525; there, Müntzer seems to have had no influence at all. In Thuringia however, the situation was a peculiar one, for there had been no previous peasant revolts and there was little sign of an impending revolt even in 1525. The insurrection came very late and took a curiously anarchic form. Whereas in the south and west the peasants had conducted themselves in an orderly and disciplined fashion, in Thuringia they formed small, unorganised bands which scoured the countryside, looting and burning monasteries and convents. It may well be that these outbreaks were encouraged, if not caused, by the agitation which Müntzer had been conducting.

The hardcore of Müntzer’s following still consisted of the League of the Elect. Some of his congregation from Allstedt joined him at Mühlhausen and no doubt helped him in building up a new organisation. Above all, he continued to rely on the workers from the copper-mines at Mansfeld, who had joined the League in their hundreds. These workers, often recruited from abroad, often migrants, often exposed to unemployment and every kind of insecurity, were notoriously prone to revolutionary excitement, just as were the weavers, and they were correspondingly dreaded by the authorities. That he was able to command such a following naturally gave Müntzer a great reputation as a revolutionary leader; so that, if in Mühlhausen itself he never rivalled Pfeiffer in influence, in the context of the peasant insurrection he loomed far larger. Although, as their written demands clearly show, the Thuringian peasants did not share Müntzer’s millenarian fantasies, they certainly looked up to him as the one famous, learned and pious man who had unreservedly thrown in his lot with theirs. They certainly had no other leader.

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When the ‘great upheaval’ came in 1525, the polemical papalist cartoonists lost no time in portraying Luther as the leader of the Bundschuh, and the Catholic princes never ceased to hold him responsible for the uprising. Some historians have also tried to prove that Luther was actually the author of the movement which he so vehemently repudiated. Such an explanation fails to take account of more than a century of agrarian unrest which preceded the Reformation.

One contributory factor as to why the revolts were so widespread in 1525, which had nothing to do with Luther or his Reformation, was astrology, which had remained an important feature of medieval life alongside the Church. Medicine, in particular, was largely determined by the theory of the four humours, relating the bodily fluids to the movements of the planets and stars. Since ancient times, heavenly signs were taken to be harbingers and forebodings of great events.

Astrological speculation may well explain why so many uprisings were in the constellation of the occurred in 1524-25, as it was in 1524 that all planets were in the constellation of the Fish. This had been foreseen twenty years earlier and a great disturbance had been predicted for that year. As the time approached, the foreboding was so intense that in 1523 no fewer than fifty-one tracts were published on the subject. Woodcuts like the one below displayed the fish in the heavens and upheavals upon earth. The peasants with their banners and flails watch on one side, while on the other the emperor, the pope and the ecclesiastics all gather. Some peasant leaders held back from taking action before 1524 in the hope that the emperor would call an imperial diet to redress their grievances in 1524. The Diet of Nürnberg had taken place in March 1523 and had deferred action on reform until a second diet could be called to issue an Edict on 18 April 1524. This did nothing to deal with peasant grievances, however, and another diet was not due until the summer of 1526. In the meantime, the ‘great fish’ unloosed the waters upon the peasants, princes, prelates and papacy.

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All this was foreign superstition to Luther, if not entirely to Melanchthon, but at the same time, he could not claim a complete dissociation with the outbreak of the Peasants’ War. The attempts to enforce the imperial edicts through the arrest of Lutheran pastors were often the immediate cause of assemblies of peasant bands to demand their release. Luther was regarded as a friend by these peasants, and when some of them were asked to name persons whom they would accept as their arbiters, the first name on the list was Martin Luther. No formal court was ever established to try the peasants for rebellion, and no legal judgement was ever given. But Luther himself did pronounce a verdict on their demands as couched in the most popular of their manifestoes, The Twelve Articles, first distributed in March 1525. These opened with conciliatory phrases reminiscent of those used by Luther himself in his Address to the German Nobility and On the Freedom of the Christian Man of 1520:

To the Christian reader, peace and the grace of God through Christ… The gospel is not a cause of rebellion and disturbance… If it be the will of God to hear the peasants, who will resist his Majesty? Did he not hear the children of Israel and deliver them out of the hand of Pharaoh? 

The first articles have to do with the Church. The congregation should have the right to appoint and remove the minister, who is to preach the Holy Gospel without human addition, a phrase which sounds as if Luther could have written it. Ministers were to be supported on a modest stipend by congregations out of the so-called great tithe on produce. The surplus should go to relieve the poor and to obviate emergency taxation in war. The so-called little tithe on cattle should be abolished, for the Lord God created cattle for the free use of man. The main articles embodied the old agrarian programme of common fields, forests and waters. The farmer should be free to hunt, to fish, and to protect his lands against game. Under supervision, he might take wood for fuel and building. Death dues, which impoverish the widow and orphan by requisitioning the best cloak or the best cow, were to be abolished. Rents should be revised in accord with the productivity of the land. New laws should not displace the old, and the community meadows should not pass into private hands.

The only article which exceeded the old demands was the one calling for the total abolition of serfdom. Land should be held on lease with stipulated conditions. If any labour in excess of the agreement was exacted by the lord, he should pay for it on a wage basis. The Twelve Articles conceded that any demand not consonant with the Word of God should be null. The whole programme was a conservative one, in line with the traditional feudal economy. Notably, there was no attack on legitimate government. The evangelical tone of the articles pleased Luther, but in addressing the peasants he disparaged most of their demands. As to the right of the congregation to choose its own pastor, it would depend on whether they would pay his stipend. The abolition of tithes would be highway robbery and the abrogation of serfdom would be turning Christian liberty into a thing of the flesh.

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Having thus criticised their programme, Luther then turned to the means envisaged for its realisation. Under no circumstances, Luther declared, must the common man seize the sword on his own behalf. If each man were to take justice into his own hands, there would be neither authority, government, nor order nor land, but only murder and bloodshed. But all this was not intended to justify the unspeakable wrongs perpetrated by the rulers. To the princes, Luther addressed an appeal in which he justified many more of the peasant demands than he had done when speaking to them. He told them that the will of the congregation should be respected in the choice of a minister, just as he had told the peasants that they should not rebel against the opinion of the prince. The demands of the peasants for redress of their grievances were fair and just and the princes had no-one but themselves to blame for these disorders. They had done nothing but disport themselves in grandeur while robbing and flaying their subjects. The true solution was by the traditional means of arbitration.

But neither side was disposed to take that course and Luther’s prediction was all too abundantly fulfilled, that nothing would ensue but murder and bloodshed. Luther had long since declared that he would not support the private citizen taking up arms, however just the cause, since such means inevitably entailed wrong to the innocent. He could not envisage an orderly revolution, much less a nonviolent one. Indeed, it is difficult for historians to envisage how there could have been one in the early sixteenth century, or even in the following century, given the amount of bloodshed in wars and rebellions throughout Europe. The Peasants’ War lacked the cohesion of the Puritan Revolution because there was no clear-cut programme and no coherent leadership. Some groups wanted a peasant dictatorship, some a classless society, some a return to feudalism, some the abolition of all rulers except the pope and the emperor.

The separate bands were not coordinated; their chiefs were sometimes peasants, sometimes sectaries, like Müntzer, and sometimes even knights. There was not even unity in religion since there were ‘Papalists’ and ‘Lutherans’ on both sides, though the distinction was not yet a clear one. In Alsace, where the programme called for the elimination of the pope, the struggle took on the complexion of a religious war. The Duke and his brother, the Cardinal, hunted the peasants as unbelieving, divisive, undisciplined Lutherans, ravaging like Huns and Vandals. There can be no question that the hordes were undisciplined, interested mainly in pillaging castles and cloisters, raiding game, and depleting fish ponds. The drawing below of the plundering of a cloister is typical of the Peasants’ War. Observe the group in the upper left with a net in the fish pond. Some are carrying off provisions. The bloodshed does not appear to be considerable, though one man has lost a hand. At various points peasants are guzzling and vomiting, justifying the stricture that the struggle was not so much a peasants’ war as a ‘wine fest’.

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A further glimpse of the peasants’ behaviour is revealed in a letter from an abbess who says that her cloister was raided until not an egg nor a pat of butter was left. Through their windows, the nuns could see the populace being abused and the smoke rising from burning castles. When the war ended, seventy cloisters had been demolished in Thuringia, in Franconia 270 castles and 52 cloisters. When the Palatinate succumbed to the peasants, the disorder was so great that their own leaders had to invite the former authorities to return to assist in the restoration of order. But the authorities preferred to wait until the peasants had first been beaten.

There was no one individual, not even the emperor, who could have carried through an alternative, constructive plan for bringing the peasants into the new economic and political order of the sixteenth century. The only other man who was sufficiently well-known and trusted throughout Germany was Martin Luther, but he refused, not out of cowardice but because he believed that it was the role of the magistrate to keep the peace. The magistrate must also, if necessary, wield the sword. It was certainly not for him to forsake his ministry for the sword and, by leading the peasants, to establish a new theocracy of the saints to replace the papal one he had not yet fully demolished. That would be a betrayal of his territorial Reformation.

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Yet Luther would never have condemned the peasants quite so savagely had it not been that there was someone else who aspired to the role he himself rejected. In Saxony there would have been no Peasants’ War  without Thomas Müntzer. After all his wanderings across Germany to Bohemia and the Swiss borders, he had now, at last, found in the peasants the Bund of the Elect who would slaughter the ungodly and erect the kingdom of the saints. The point was not the redress of economic grievance, which in Saxony was not as acute as elsewhere, since serfdom had long since been abolished there. Müntzer was interested in economic amelioration only for the sake of religion, and he did have the insight to see what no one else in his generation observed, that faith itself does not thrive on physical exhaustion. He renewed his attack on Luther on this point, in familiar terms:

Luther says that the poor people have enough in their faith. Doesn’t he see that usury and taxes impede the reception of the faith? He claims that the Word of God is sufficient. Doesn’t he realise that men whose every moment is consumed in the making of a living have no time to learn to read the Word of God? The princes bleed the people with usury and count as their own the fish in the stream, the bird of the air, and the grass of the field, and Dr Liar says  “Amen!” What courage has he, Dr Pussyfoot, the new pope of Wittenberg, Dr Easychair, the basking sycophant? He says there should be no rebellion because the sword has been committed by God to the ruler, but the power of the sword belongs to the whole community. In the good old days the people stood by when the judgement was rendered  lest the ruler pervert justice, and the rulers have perverted justice. They shall be cast down from their seats. The fowls of the heavens are gathering to devour their carcasses.

It was in this sort of temper that Thomas Müntzer came to Mülhausen and began fomenting a local peasants’ war. In April 1525, Müntzer set up, in the church he had been called to in Mühlhausen, a long, white silk banner bearing a rainbow as a symbol of God’s covenant and the motto, The Word of the Lord Abideth Forever. Under this, he began to preach:

Now is the time, if you be only three wholly committed unto God , you need not fear one hundred thousand. On! On! On! Spare not. Pity not the godless when they cry! Remember the command of God to Moses to destroy utterly and show no mercy. The whole countryside is in commotion. Strike! Clang! On! On!

He announced that he would shortly be marching out under this standard at the head of two thousand ‘strangers’ (real or imaginary members of his league). At the end of the month, he and Pfeiffer did take part in a marauding expedition in the course of which a number of monasteries and convents were destroyed; but this was not yet, by any means, the apocalyptic struggle of which he dreamed. In a letter which he sent to his followers at Allstedt can be recognised the same tone that was once used by John Ball in the English Peasants’ Revolt of a century and a half previously:

I tell you, if you will not suffer for God’s sake, then you must be the Devil’s martyrs. So take care! Don’t be so disheartened, supine, don’t fawn upon the perverse visionaries, the godless scoundrels! Start and fight the Lord’s fight! It’s high time. Keep all your brethren to it, so that they don’t mock the divine testimony, otherwise they must all be destroyed. All Germany, France and Italy are on the alert. The master wants to have sport, so the scoundrels must go through it. The peasants in Klettgau and Hegau and in the Black Forest have risen, three thousand strong, and the crowd is getting bigger all the time. My only fear is that the foolish fellows will let themselves be taken in by some treacherous agreement, simply because they haven’t yet seen the harm of it…

Stir up the people in villages and towns, and most of all the miners and other good fellows who will be good at the job. We must sleep no more! … Get this letter to the miners! … 

At them, at them, while the fire is hot! Don’t let your sword get cold! Don’t let it go lame! Hammer cling, clang, on Nimrod’s anvil! Throw their tower to the ground! So long as you are alive you will never shake off the fear of men. One can’t speak to you about God so long as they are reigning over you. At them, at them, while you still have daylight! God goes ahead of you, so follow, follow!

This letter shows in what fantasies Müntzer was living, for Nimrod was supposed to have built the Tower of Babel, which in turn was identified with Babylon; and he was popularly regarded not only as the first builder of cities but as the originator of private property and class distinctions, as the destroyer of the primal, egalitarian State of Nature.And to his summons to cast down Nimrod and his tower Müntzer adds a whole series of references to apocalyptic prophecies in the Bible: the prophecy of the messianic kingdom (Ezekiel xxxiv), Christ’s prophecy of his Second Coming (Matthew xxiv), the prophecy of ‘the Day of Wrath’ (Revelation vi), and, of course, ‘Daniel’s dream’. All this shows how completely, even at this late stage in Müntzer’s mission, the assumptions on which he worked and the terms in which he thought were still prescribed by the eschatological tradition. He was assuming the role of the messianic saviour.

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At the same time as Müntzer and Storch, the latter recently expelled from Zwickau were preparing their followers for the Millennium, Luther was composing his ferocious pamphlet, Against the thievish, murderous gangs of the peasants. This work did much to arouse the princes of central Germany, who had so far shown far less resolution than those in the south and west. Frederick the Wise was weary, unwilling to act against the peasants, and on the point of death when he wrote to his brother John:

Perhaps the peasants have been given just occasion for their uprising through the impeding of the Word of God. In many ways the poor folk have been wronged by the rulers, and now God is visiting his wrath upon us. If it be his will, the common man will come to rule; and if it be not his will, the end will soon be otherwise. Let us then pray to God to forgive our sins, and commit the case to him. He will work it out according to his good pleasure and glory.

Brother John, for his part, yielded to the peasants in his territory the right of the government to collect tithes. He wrote back to Frederick, declaring,… as princes we are ruined. The old Elector died on 4 May and brother John succeeded him. Luther had tried to dyke the deluge by going down into the midst of the peasants to remonstrate with them, but he was met with derision and violence. It was then that he decided to write his tract in which he claimed that all hell had been let loose and all the devils had gone into the peasants, and the archdevil was in Thomas Müntzer, who does nothing else but stir up robbery, murder and bloodshed. A Christian ruler like Frederick the Wise should, indeed, search his heart and humbly pray for help against the Devil, since our warfare is not with flesh and blood but with spiritual wickedness. The prince should, indeed, exceed his duty in offering terms to the mad peasants, as John had done. If they declined, he must quickly grasp the sword. He had no use for Frederick’s plan to sit still and leave the outcome to the Lord, preferring the more pro-active approach of the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, who claimed if I hadn’t been quick on my toes, the whole movement in my district would have been out of hand in four days. In his tract, Luther wasted no words in setting out how the princes should deal with those peasants who rejected their terms:

If the peasant is in open rebellion , then he is outside the law of God, for rebellion is not simply murder, but it is like a great fire which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus, rebellion brings with it a land full of murders and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down like a great disaster. 

Therefore, let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab , secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you don’t strike him, he will strike you, and the whole land with you.

Some of the princes were only too ready to smite, stab and slay; and Thomas Müntzer was only too ready to provoke them. Duke George, the new Elector John and other princes called for help from the Landgrave Philip, a young man scarcely twenty years of age, but already with a considerable reputation as a military commander, who had just put down the uprising in his own territories. He marched at once to Thuringia and headed for Mühlhausen, which the princes agreed as being the centre of the whole Thuringian insurrection. Müntzer and the peasants, eight thousand strong, had formed themselves into an army at nearby Frankenhausen. They sent word to the princes that they sought nothing but the righteousness of God and desired to avoid bloodshed. The princes replied that if they delivered up Thomas Müntzer, the rest of them would be spared. But they had already turned to Müntzer as their saviour, who seems to have chosen Frankhausen as a rallying point because it was close to the castle of his old arch-enemy, Ernest of Mansfeld. They now called him to take his place among them, and Müntzer was quick to answer their call. He set out from Mühlhausen with some three hundred of his most fanatical followers. The number was significant because it was with the exact same number that Gideon overthrew the Midianites. He arrived at the peasants’ camp on 11th May. On his arrival he spoke out: Fear not, Gideon with a handful discomfited the Midianites and David slew Goliath.

He then ordered the peasants from the surrounding villages to join the army, threatening that they would otherwise be brought in by force. He also sent an urgent appeal to the town of Erfurt for reinforcements and threatening letters to the enemy. Clearly, he was not going to give himself up. He wrote to Count Ernest of Mansfeld in particularly vitriolic terms:

Say, you wretched, shabby bag of worms, who made you a prince over the people whom God has purchased with his precious blood?… By God’s almighty power you are delivered up to destruction. If you do not humble yourself before the lowly, you will be saddled with everlasting infamy in the eyes of all Christendom and will become the devil’s martyr.

But neither of his missives had much effect. Erfurt either could not or would not respond, and the princes took advantage of the delay to surround the peasant army. By the 15th May, Philip of Hesse’s troops had been joined by those of all the other regional princes and had occupied a strong position on a nearby hill overlooking the peasant army. Although somewhat outnumbered, the princes also had ample artillery, whereas the peasants had very little. They also had about two thousand cavalry, whereas the peasants had none. A battle fought under such circumstances could have only one possible result, but the princes again offered terms, requiring the handing over of Müntzer and his immediate following. The offer was made in good faith, as the princes had already avoided unnecessary bloodshed elsewhere, following Luther’s advice. The offer would probably have been accepted, had it not been for Müntzer’s intervention.

The propheta made a passionate speech in which he declared that God had spoken to him directly and promised him victory; that he himself would catch the enemy’s cannonballs in the sleeves of his cloak; that in the end God would transform heaven and earth rather than allow his people to perish. Just at that moment, a rainbow appeared in the sky, the very symbol on Müntzer’s banner, as if to prove that God would keep his covenant. Müntzer’s fanatical followers were convinced that some tremendous miracle was about to transpire and were somehow able to convince the confused, amorphous and relatively leaderless mass of peasantry of this.

Having received no reply to their terms, the princes grew impatient and the order was given to the artillery to fire the cannon in an opening salvo. The peasants had made no preparations to use their cannon, nor to escape the field. Seemingly in a mass trance and still singing, ‘Come, Holy Spirit’, they seemed to be expecting the Second Coming at that very moment. The effect of the salvo was devastating, with the peasants breaking ranks and fleeing in panic while the princes’ cavalry ran them down and slaughtered them. Losing just half a dozen men, the army of the princes dispersed the peasants and captured Frankenhausen, killing some five thousand peasants in the process. Only six hundred were taken prisoner, so perhaps another two thousand somehow escaped. A few days later, Mühlhausen surrendered without a struggle and was made to pay heavily for its part in the general insurrection, also losing its status as a free imperial city. Müntzer himself escaped from the battle-field but was soon found hiding in a cellar in Frankenhausen. He was handed over to Ernest of Mansfeld, tortured, made to sign a confession, after which he was beheaded in the princes’ camp, along with Pfeiffer, on 27 May. Storch died as a fugitive later in the same year. The princes continued to ‘clean up’ the countryside.

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Other bands of peasants were also savagely put down. The forces of the Swabian League were led by a general who, when outnumbered, would have recourse to diplomacy, duplicity, strategy and, when necessary, combat. He managed to isolate the bands and destroy them one at a time. The peasants were tricked and finally outnumbered themselves. It was claimed that over a hundred thousand were massacred altogether. Although they were not exterminated as a class, the hopes of the peasants for a share in the political life of Germany were at an end, at least for the following three centuries.

Luther’s savage pamphlet was late in leaving the press and appeared just at the time when the peasants were being butchered. But the tract was noticed by them, and the set of phrases, smite… stab… slay… were never forgotten by them. He tried to counter the effect by another pamphlet in which, though he held to his original conviction over the consequences of rebellion, he criticised the princes for their failure to show mercy to captives and their venting of vengeance on the countryside, in which the bishops also took part. Despite Luther’s stance, hundreds of ‘Lutheran’ ministers throughout Germany took part in the war on the peasants’ side. The rulers of Catholic lands thereafter used this participation as a reason to exclude evangelical preachers from their lands. Luther himself became less tolerant of radical preachers, lest some of them might turn out to be little Müntzers in disguise.  Nevertheless, his support for the princes in the peasants’ war led to others becoming Lutheran and to the repeal of the edicts against him at the Diet of Speyer in 1526.

Though there were elements of a puritan movement on the side of the peasants, a clear divide had opened up among Lutherans whose goal was to establish a territorial church, and the few who were prepared to sign up to a more radical congregationalism more biased towards the poor. The battle lines in both church and society, in both material and spiritual life, had been clearly drawn. The Peasants’ War had been a war in the sense of a series of battles and stand-offs in which the peasants in some areas won some concessions from the princes. Apart from the Twelve Articles, some of which were connected with church reform, there was no agreed manifesto which could be referred to as a revolutionary platform or programme. That was something that some later historians, looking for a legacy, gave to the uprisings. Millenarian movements grew up in parallel and took advantage of the general mood of unrest, rather than directing or leading it in any coordinated way.

(to be continued…)

 

 

Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Three   Leave a comment

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Part Three – From Zwickau to Worms: Martin Luther and Thomas Müntzer:

Thomas Müntzer was born into modest comfort in Thuringia in 1488 or 1489. When he first came clearly into public view, in his early thirties, Müntzer appears neither as a victim nor as an enemy of social injustice but rather as an ‘eternal student’, extraordinary learned and intensely intellectual. After graduating from university he became a priest and led a restless, wandering life, always choosing places where he could hope to further his studies. Profoundly versed in the Scriptures, he learned Greek and Hebrew, read patristic and scholastic theology and philosophy, also immersing himself in the writings of the German mystics. Yet he was never a pure scholar; his voracious reading was carried on in a desperate attempt to solve a personal problem. For Müntzer was at that time a troubled soul, full of doubts about the truth of Christianity and even about the existence of God but obstinately struggling after certainty, in fact in that labile condition which so often ends in a conversion.

Müntzer came from Zwickau and revived some of the ideas of the earlier ‘prophets’ from that town, but with much greater allure because of his learning, ability and intense enthusiasm. Müntzer held, with the Catholic Church, that the Bible is inadequate without a divinely inspired interpreter, but that interpreter is not the Church nor the pope but the prophet, the new Elijah, the new Daniel, to whom is given the key of David to open the book sealed with seven seals.

Martin Luther, who was some five or six years older than Müntzer, was just then emerging as the most formidable opponent that the Church of Rome had ever known and also, if only incidentally and transiently, as the effective leader of the German nation. In 1519 he had questioned the supremacy of the Pope in public disputation with John Eck in Leipzig and in 1520 he published, and was excommunicated for publishing, the three treatises which formed the manifestos of the German Reformation. During the summer of 1520, he delivered to the printer a sheaf of tracts which are still referred to as his primary works: The Sermon on Good works in May, The Papacy at Rome in June, and The Address to the German Nobility in August. The Babylonian Captivity followed in September and The Freedom of the Christian Man in November. The latter three were more immediately pertinent to the controversy with the Papal Curia.

The most radical of these three in the eyes of contemporaries was the one dealing with the sacraments, entitled  The Babylonian Captivity, with reference to the enslavement of the sacraments of the Church. This assault on Catholic teaching was more devastating than anything that had preceded it: and when Erasmus read the tract, he exclaimed, “the breach is irreparable.” The reason was that the pretensions of the Roman Catholic Church rested so completely on the sacraments as the exclusive channels of grace and upon the prerogatives of the clergy, by whom the sacraments were administered. Luther with one stroke reduced the number of sacraments from seven to two. Confirmation, marriage, ordination, penance, and extreme unction were eliminated. The Lord’s Supper and baptism alone remained. According to Luther, a sacrament must have been directly instituted by Christ and must be distinctively Christian. He did not utterly abolish penance, recognising the need for contrition and regarding confession as useful, provided it was not institutionalised. The key point of divergence was with regard to absolution, which he said was only a declaration by a man of what God had decreed in heaven and not a ratification by God of what that man had ruled on earth.

In Luther’s eyes, the Church had made the sacrament of the mass mechanical and magical. He, too, would not subject it to human frailty and would not concede that he had done so by positing the necessity of faith, since faith was a gift from God, but given when, where and to whom he will and efficacious without the sacrament, whereas the sacrament was not efficacious without faith. On this belief, Luther affirmed:

I may be wrong on indulgencies, but as to the need for faith in the sacraments I will die before I will recant. 

This insistence upon faith diminished the role of the priests who may place a wafer in the mouth but cannot engender faith in the heart. Neither is Christ sacrificed in the mass because his sacrifice was made once and for all upon the cross, but God is present in the elements because Christ, being God, declared, “This is my body.” The ‘official’ view called transubstantiation was that the elements retained their accidents of shape, taste, colour and so on, but lose their substance, for which is substituted the substance of God. Luther rejected this position on rational rather than biblical grounds. The sacrament for him was not a chunk of God fallen like a meteorite from heaven. God does not need to fall from heaven because he is everywhere present throughout his creation as a sustaining and animating force, and Christ as God is likewise universal, but his presence is hidden from human eyes. For that reason, God has chosen to declare himself to mankind at three loci of revelation. The first is Christ, in whom the word was made flesh. The second is Scripture, where the word uttered is recorded. The third is the sacrament, in which the Word is manifest in food and drink. The sacrament does not conjure up God as the witch of Endor but reveals him where he is.

Nonetheless, Luther’s view of the Lord’s Supper pointed the Church in one direction and his view of baptism pointed it to another. That is why he could be at once to a degree the father of the Congregationalism of the Anabaptists and of the territorial church of the later Evangelicals. This was the product of Luther’s individualism, not that of the Renaissance Humanists, but the fulfilment of the individual’s capacities; it is not the individualism of the late scholastic, who on metaphysical grounds declared that reality consists only of individuals and that aggregates like Church and State are not entities but simply the sum of their components. Luther was not concerned to philosophise about the structures of the Church and State; his insistence was simply that every man must answer for himself to God. That was the extent of his individualism.

Baptism rather than the Lord’s Supper was, for Luther, the sacrament which linked the Church to society. For the medieval Christian community, every child outside the ghetto was by birth a citizen and by baptism a Christian. Regardless of personal conviction, the same persons constituted the State and the Church. An alliance of the two institutions was thus natural. Here was a basis for Christian society. The greatness and the tragedy of Luther were that he could never relinquish either the individualism of the eucharistic cup or the corporatism of the baptismal font. This doctrinal duality would have made him a troubled spirit in a tranquil age, but his age was not tranquil. Rome had not forgotten him. The lifting of the pressure on him was merely opportunistic, with the papacy waiting for the arrival of the Most Catholic Emperor in Germany,  from Spain,  before resuming its persecution of Luther. On 10 October, Luther received the Papal Bull, Exsurge Domine, excommunicating him.

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The Bull was sparse in its reproof. Luther’s views on the mass were condemned only at the point of the cup to the laity. None other of the seven sacraments received notice, except for penance. There was nothing about monastic vows, only a disavowal of Luther’s desire that princes and prelates might suppress the sacks of the mendicants. There was nothing about the priesthood of all believers. The articles centred on Luther’s disparagement of human capacity even after baptism, on his derogation from the power of the pope to bind and loose penalties and sins, from the power of the pope and councils to declare doctrine, from the primacy of the pope and of the Roman Church. The charge of Bohemianism had plainly lodged, because he was condemned on the score of introducing certain of the articles of John Hus. Luther’s articles were not pronounced uniformly heretical but condemned as heretical, or scandalous, or false, or offensive to pious ears, or seductive of simple minds, or repugnant to Catholic truth, respectively. The entire formula was stereotyped and had been used in the condemnation of Hus. Despite his initial blasts against the Bull, Luther’s prevailing mood was expressed in a pastoral letter to a minister who was prompted to leave his post, written in October:

Our warfare is not with flesh or blood, but against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places, against the world rulers of this darkness. Let us then stand firm and heed the trumpet of the Lord. Satan is fighting, not against us, but against Christ in us. We fight the battles of the Lord. Be strong therefore, if God is for us, who can be against us?…

If you have the spirit, do not leave your post, lest another receive your crown. It is but a little thing that we should die with the Lord, who in our flesh laid down his life for us. We shall rise with him and abide with him in eternity. See then that you do not despise your holy calling. He will come, he will not tarry, who will deliver us from every ill. 

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Meanwhile, Luther had already published another mighty manifesto of Reformation in his Address to the German Nobility. The term ‘nobility’ was used, in a broad sense, to cover the ruling classes in Germany from the emperor down. Some contend that in this tract Luther broke with his earlier view of the Church as a persecuted remnant and instead laid the basis for a church allied with and dependent on the State.  Luther adduced three grounds for his appeal. The first was simply that the magistrate was the magistrate, ordained by God to punish evildoers. All that Luther demanded of him was that he should hold the clergy to account before the civil courts, that he should protect citizens against ecclesiastical extortion and that he should vindicate the state in the exercise of its civil functions, free from clerical interference. The theocratic pretentiousness of the Church was to be rejected.

Yet Luther was far more concerned for the purification of the Church than for the emancipation of the state. The second ground was that the Church’s temporal power and inordinate wealth must be stripped away in order to emancipate it from worldly concerns and enable it to better perform its spiritual functions. He used the language of the Christian society in asserting that the temporal authorities are baptised with the same baptism as we, building upon the sociological sacrament administered to every babe born into the community. In such a society, Church and State are mutually responsible for the support and correction of each other. His third ground for the appeal was that magistrates were fellow Christians sharing in the priesthood of all believers, which was made to rest on the lower grade of faith implicit in the baptised infant. Luther’s whole attitude to the reformatory role of the magistrate was essentially medieval, but it was deeply religious in tone. The complaints of Germany were combined with the reform of the Church, and the civil power itself was directed to rely less on the arm of the flesh than upon the hand of the Lord.

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Underlying his ‘appeal to Caesar’ was a deep indignation against the corruption of the Church, however, as again and again the pope was shamed by a comparison with Christ (seen in the cartoon by Cranach above). This theme went back through Hus to Wyclif. In contrast to the pope’s view that promises to heretics are not binding, Luther argues that heretics should be vanquished with books, not with burnings. He ended his Address to the German Nobility with an uncompromising appeal to heaven:

O Christ, my lord, look down. Let the day of thy judgment break and destroy the devil’s nest at Rome!

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In the meantime, the papal bull was being executed in Rome and Luther’s books were being burned in the Piazza Navona. The bull was printed and sealed for wider dissemination. The two men charged with this task as papal nuncios were John Eck and Jerome Aleander, a distinguished Humanist and former rector of the University of Paris. But in the Rhineland, the emperor ruled only by virtue of his election. When at Cologne on 12 November Aleander tried to have a bonfire, having gained the consent of archbishop, the executioner refused to proceed without an express imperial mandate. The archbishop asserted his authority, and the books were burned. At Mainz, at the end of the month, the opposition was more violent. Before applying the torch, the executioner asked the assembled crowd whether the books had been legally condemned. When they, with one voice, cried “No!”, he stepped down and refused to act. Aleander again appealed to Albert, the archbishop, and secured his authorisation to destroy a few books the following day. The order was carried out by a gravedigger with no witnesses apart from Aleander and a few women who had brought their geese to market. Aleander was pelted with stones and had to be rescued by the abbot. Ulrich von Hutten came out in verse with an invective both in Latin and German:

 O God, Luther’s books they burn.

Thy godly truth is slain in turn.

Pardon in advance is sold,

And heaven marketed for gold

The German people is bled white

And is not asked to be contrite.

 

To Martin Luther wrong is done –

O God, be thou our champion.

My goods for him I will not spare,

My life, my blood for him I dare.

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Luther’s ‘private’ response to receiving the papal bull, given in his letter to Spalatin, to which he appended a copy of his reply in Latin, Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist, was apocalyptic in tone and content:

When since the beginning of the world did Satan ever so rage against God? I am overcome by the magnitude of the horrible blasphemies of this bull. I am almost persuaded by many and weighty arguments that the last day is on the threshold. The Kingdom of Antichrist begins to fall. I see an unsuppressible insurrection coming out of this bull, which the Roman ‘curia’ deserves.

His public pronouncements were also, now, almost equally uncompromising in their millenarianist, direct condemnation of the ‘curia’:

You then, Leo X, you cardinals and the rest of you at Rome, I tell you to your faces: “If this bull has come out in your name then… I call upon you to renounce your diabolical blasphemy and audacious impiety, and, if you will not, we shall all hold your seat as possessed and oppressed by Satan, the damned seat of Antichrist, in the name of Jesus Christ, whom you persecute.”

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He added the caveat, however, that he was still not persuaded that the bull was the work of the pope, but rather that of that apostle of impiety, John Eck. Nevertheless, as to the content of his reply, he left his readers in no doubt of his determination to hold to the beliefs he had expressed in it and his previous articles:

It is better that I should die a thousand times than that I should retract one syllable of the condemned articles. And as they excommunicated me for the sacrilege of heresy, so I excommunicate them in the name of the sacred truth of God. Christ will judge whose excommunication will stand.

Two weeks after the appearance of this tract another came out so amazingly different as to make historians wonder if it was written by the same man. It was entitled Freedom of the Christian Man and commenced with a deferential address to Leo X. In it, he issued a disclaimer of personal abusiveness and a statement of faith. He was not fighting a man, but a system. Then followed Luther’s canticle of freedom, but if he supposed that this would mollify the pope, he was naïve. The deferential letter itself denied the primacy of the pope over councils, and the treatise asserted the priesthood of all believers. The pretence that the attack was directed, not against the pope, but against the curia is the device commonly employed by constitutionally minded revolutionaries who do not like to admit that they are rebelling against a head of a  government or church.

Although it was to be many years before Evangelical churches appeared on a territorial basis, there now existed a recognisable Lutheran party among the German ‘nobles’ to whom Luther had appealed. Many of the clergy also joined it, though they clung firmly to ‘the old religion’. It was as a follower of Luther that Thomas Müntzer first broke away from Catholic orthodoxy; all the deeds which have made him famous were done in the midst of the great religious earthquake which first cracked and at length destroyed the massive structure of the medieval Church. Yet he himself abandoned Luther almost as soon as he had found him; it was in ever fiercer opposition to Luther that he worked out and proclaimed his own doctrine.

What Müntzer needed if he was to become a new man, sure of himself and of his aim in life, was not to be found in Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone.  It was to be found, rather, in the militant and bloodthirsty millenarianism that was unfolded to him when in 1520 he took up a ministry in the town of Zwickau and came into contact with a weaver called Nikla Storch. Zwickau lies close to the Bohemian border, where Storch himself had been born. It was essentially the old Táborite doctrines which were being revived in his teaching. He proclaimed that now, as in the days of the Apostles, God was communicating directly with his Elect; the reason for this was that the Last Days were at hand. First, the Turks must conquer the world and Antichrist must rule over it; but then, and it would be very soon, the Elect would rise up and annihilate all the godless so that the Second Coming could take place and the millennium begin. What most appealed to Müntzer in this programme was the war of extermination which the righteous were to wage against the unrighteous. Abandoning Luther, who had the previous year refused to lead a knights’ crusade with Hutten, he now talked and thought only of the Book of Revelation and of such incidents from the Old Testament of as Elijah’s slaughter of the priests of Baal, Jehu’s slaying of the sons of Ahab and Jael’s assassination of the sleeping Sisera. Contemporaries noted and lamented the change that had come over him, the lust for blood which at times expressed itself in sheer raving. By contrast, for all his use of apocalyptic tropes to attack the papacy, Luther wrote to Spalatin in January 1521:

I am not willing to fight for the gospel with bloodshed… The world is conquered by the Word, and by the Word the Church is served and rebuilt. As Antichrist rose without the hand of man, so without the hand of man will he fall. 

For Müntzer, the Elect must prepare the way for the Millennium. Like Luther, however, he believed that he who would be saved must be prepared to suffer as the historical Christ had done, must be purged of all self-will and freed from everything that binds him to the world and to created beings. ‘The Cross’ may include sickness and poverty and persecution, all of which must be borne in patience, but above all, they will include intense mental agonies, weariness with the world and with oneself, loss of hope, despair, terror. According to Müntzer, but also in traditional doctrine, only when this point has been reached, when the soul has been stripped utterly naked, can direct communication with God take place. Such beliefs had been held by many Medieval Catholic mystics, but when Müntzer came to speak of the outcome of this suffering, he followed an altogether less orthodox tradition. For him, once ‘the living Christ’ enters the soul it is for evermore; the man so favoured becomes a vessel of the Holy Spirit. Müntzer even speaks of his ‘becoming God’; endowed with perfect insight into the divine will and living in perfect conformity with it, such a man is incontestably qualified to discharge the divinely appointed eschatological mission. That is precisely what Müntzer claimed for himself.

As soon as Storch had enabled him to find himself Müntzer changed his way of life, abandoning reading and the pursuit of learning, condemning the Humanists who abounded among Luther’s followers, ceaselessly propagating his eschatological faith among the poor. In the middle of the fifteenth-century silver-mines had been opened up at Zwickau, turning the town into an important industrial centre, three times the size of Dresden. From all over southern and central Germany labourers streamed to the mines, with the result that there was a chronic surplus of manpower. Moreover, the uncontrolled exploitation of the silver ore resulted in an inflation which reduced all the skilled workers, including those in the traditional weaving industry, to near-penury. A few months after he arrived at Zwickau, Müntzer became a preacher at the church where the weavers had their special altar, and he used the pulpit to denounce the local preacher, a friend of Luther’s, who enjoyed the favour of the well-to-do burghers. Before long the whole town was divided into two hostile camps and the antagonism between them was becoming so sharp that violent disorders seemed imminent.

Müntzer was readily able to find support for his view of the spirit in the Scripture itself, where it is said that the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life (II Cor. 3:6). Luther replied that of course the letter without the spirit is dead, but the two are no more to be divorced than the soul is to be separated from the body. The real menace of Müntzer in Luther’s eyes was that he destroyed the uniqueness of Christian revelation in the past by his elevation of revelation in the present. In his own experience, Luther had no great contemporary revelation of his own. On the contrary, in times of despondency, the advice to rely upon the spirit was for him a counsel of despair, since within he could find only utter blackness. In such times, only the assurance he received from the written Word of God of the stupendous act of God in Christ would suffice. Luther freely avowed his weakness and his need for historic revelation. Had Müntzer drawn no practical consequences from his view, Luther would have been less outraged, but Müntzer proceeded to use the gift of the Spirit as a basis for the formation of a church. He is the progenitor of sectarian Protestant theocracies, based not as in Judaism primarily on blood and soil, nor as in Catholicism on sacramentalism, but rather on inner experience and the infusion of the Spirit. Those who are thus reborn can recognise each other and can join a covenant of the Elect, whose mission is to erect God’s kingdom.

Müntzer did not expect the elect to enter into their inheritance without a struggle. They would have to slaughter the ungodly. At this point, Luther was horrified because the sword is given to the magistrate, not the minister, let alone to the saints. In the struggle, Müntzer recognised that many of the godly would fall, and he was constantly preaching on suffering and cross-bearing as a mark of the elect. Luther was often taunted as “Dr Easychair and Dr Pussyfoot,” basking in the favour of the princes. His reply was that the outward cross is neither to be sought nor evaded. The constant cross is suffering within. So, who was really the champion of the inner spiritual life?

Meanwhile, Luther was himself facing a divided public opinion. Those who were for him were numerous, powerful and vocal. Aleander, the papal nuncio in Germany, reported that nine-tenths of the Germans cried “Luther” and the other one-tenth, “Death to the pope.” This was undoubtedly an exaggeration as far as the Germans were concerned, but even if it were true, there was by now a middle party, both within the German states and more broadly in Europe, headed personally by Erasmus, who, despite his statement that the breach was irreparable, did not desist from efforts at mediation and even penned a memorandum proposing the appointment by the emperor and the kings of England and Hungary of an impartial tribunal. The Erasmians as a party sensed less than their leader the depth of the cleavage between Luther and the Church and between Luther and themselves.

Curiously, however, some of the greatest obstructionists were in the Vatican, because the pope had seen his worst fears realized in the election of Charles as emperor, and was trying to curb his power by supporting France. But Charles, for all his Spanish orthodoxy, knew how to use Luther as a weapon in this power struggle. At the same time, Aleander was intimidated by Hutten’s fulminating, and when the pope sent his bull of excommunication against both Luther and Hutten, Aleander withheld the publication and sent it back to Rome to have Hutten’s name removed. Such communications took months, which explains why Luther was actually outlawed by the empire before he was formally excommunicated by the Church.

Where, how and by whom his case should be handled was, therefore, the dilemma which was faced by Charles V. A decision was reached upon the point on 4 November 1520, after his coronation at Aachen, when he went to confer with ‘Uncle Frederick’ the Wise, who was marooned by gout in Cologne. Frederick secured an agreement from Charles that Luther would not be condemned without a hearing. The University of Wittenberg promptly pointed to the possibility of a hearing before the forthcoming Diet of Worms, before the assembled German nation. Frederick transmitted the proposal to the emperor’s counsellors and received a reply from His Majesty a reply dated 28 November addressed to his “beloved Uncle Frederick” in which he invited Luther to defend his views at Worms. The appeal to Caesar had been heard, the invitation marking an amazing reversal of policy. The Defender of the Faith, who had been burning Luther’s books, now invited their author to a hearing. Had the emperor been won over by Erasmus’ policy? Had some disquieting political news disposed him to bait the pope and cultivate the Germans? His motives elude historians. The invitation was issued at the end of November, but Luther did not actually appear at the diet until the April of 1521.

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As the princes and nobles began to arrive in Worms at Epiphany, Charles gave Frederick the Wise an assurance that he would take personal responsibility for Luther’s case. When Luther received this news, he replied to Frederick that he was heartily glad that His Majesty will take to himself this affair, which is not mine but that of the whole German nation. While Luther’s coming was awaited, a lampoon was published in Worms, entitled the Litany of the Germans:

Christ hear the Germans; Christ hear the Germans. From evil counselors deliver Charles, O Lord. From poison on the way to Worms deliver Martin Luther, preserve Ulrich von Hutten, O Lord. Suffer not thyself to be crucified afresh. Purge Aleander, O Lord. The nuncios working against Luther at Worms, smite from heaven. O Lord Christ, hear the Germans.

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Had Luther been prepared to abandon the attack on the sacraments he had made in The Babylonian Captivity, he might indeed have rallied a united German nation for the reduction of papal power and extortion. The diet might have wrung from the pope the sort of concessions already granted to the strong nation-states of France, Spain and England. Schism might have been avoided, and religious war could have been averted. To a man like Frederick, this compromise proposed by the Erasmians must have seemed most appealing, but he was also resolved to make no overtures which would give the emperor an opportunity to evade his newly accepted responsibility. So it was that on the sixteenth of April, Luther entered Worms in a Saxon two-wheeled cart with a few companions. He was examined by an official of the Archbishop of Trier, who confronted him with a pile of his books and asked whether he had written them and whether he wanted to defend or retract all or part of them. 

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He asked for time to consider his response and was recalled at six the following evening, when the same question was put to him. He answered:

Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.

The earliest printed version added, before ‘God help me’, the words:

Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.

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These words, though not recorded on the spot, may nevertheless be genuine, because the listeners at the moment may have been moved to write them down. The emperor then called in the electors and a number of the princes to ask their opinions. They requested time to reflect before responding. “Very well,” he said, “I will give you my opinion,” and he read a statement from a paper that he himself had composed in French:

A single friar who goes counter to all Christianity for a thousand years must be wrong. Therefore I am resolved to stake my lands, my friends, my body, my blood, my life and my soul. Not only I, but you of this noble German nation, would be forever disgraced if by our negligence not only heresy but the very suspicion of heresy were to survive… I will proceed against him as a notorious heretic, and ask you to declare yourselves as you promised me.

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On the following day the electors declared themselves fully in accord with the emperor, but out of six, only four signed the declaration. The dissenters were Ludwig of the Palatinate and Frederick of Saxony. On the sixth of May, the Emperor presented to a diminishing diet the final draft of the Edict of Worms, prepared by Aleander. Luther was charged with attacking the seven sacraments after the manner of ‘the damned Bohemians’. The Edict of Worms, passed by a secular tribunal entrusted with a case of heresy at the instance of Lutherans and against the opposition of the papists, was at once repudiated by the Lutherans as having been passed by only a rump, and was sponsored by the papists because it was a confirmation of the Catholic faith. The Church of Rome, which had so strenuously sought to prevent turning the Diet of Worms into an ecclesiastical council, became in the light of the outcome the great vindicator of the pronouncement of a secular tribunal on heresy. Now an outlaw, on his way home to Wittenberg he was taken into refuge in the Wartburg Castle under the protection of Frederick of Saxony. There he devoted his energies to translating the New Testament from Greek into German, in the tradition of Wyclif, so that all Germans might be able to read it for themselves.

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Above: Luther’s room at the Wartburg, where he translated the New Testament.

Meanwhile, that same month, the Town Council of Zwickau had intervened to dismiss the troublesome newcomer, Thomas Münzer; whereupon a large section of the populace, under Storch’s leadership, rose in revolt. The rising was put down, and many arrests were made, including more than fifty weavers. Müntzer himself went into exile in Bohemia, apparently in the hope of finding some Táborite groups there. In Prague he preached with the help of an interpreter; he also published in German, Czech and Latin a manifesto announcing the founding of a new church in Bohemia which was to consist entirely of the Elect and which would, therefore, be directly inspired by God. His own role he now defined in terms of the same eschatological parable of the wheat and the tares which had been invoked during the English Peasants’ Revolt:

Harvest-time is here, so God himself has hired me for his harvest. I have sharpened my scythe, for my thoughts are most strongly fixed on the truth, and my lips, hands, skin, hair,soul, body, life curse the unbelievers.

Müntzer’s appeal to the Bohemians was a failure and he was expelled from Prague. For the next couple of years, he wandered from place to place in central Germany, in great poverty but sustained by an unshakable confidence in his prophetic mission. He no longer used his academic titles but signed himself Christ’s messenger. His very hardships assumed in his eyes a messianic value:

Let my sufferings be a model for you. Let the tares all puff themselves up as much as ever they like, they will still have to go under the flail along with the pure wheat. The living God is sharpening his scythe in me, so that later I can cut down the red poppies and the blue cornflowers.

His wanderings came to an end when, in 1523, he was invited to take up a ministry at the small Thuringian town of Alstedt. There he married, created the first liturgy in the German language, translated Latin hymns into the vernacular and established a reputation as a preacher which extended throughout central Germany. Peasants from the surrounding countryside, above all some hundreds of miners from the Mansfeld copper-mines, came regularly to hear him. As many as two thousand outsiders flocked to his preaching. Together with the residents of Alstedt, these people provided him with a following which he set about turning into a revolutionary organisation, the League of the Elect. This league, consisting in the main of uneducated, was Müntzer’s answer to the university which had always been the centre of Luther’s influence. Now spiritual illumination was to oust the learning of the scribes; Alstedt was to replace Wittenberg and become the centre of a new Reformation which was to be both total and final and which was to usher in the Millennium. He was able to report thirty units ready to slaughter the ungodly…

(…to be continued).

Appendix: From R. Stupperich’s article (1977) in The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing. 

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