Category Archives: Medieval Christianity and the Reformations series

What’s so magisterial about it?: Magistrates and the Swiss and German reformations (Reformations 11)

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Scholars use the term “magisterial reformation(s)” to refer to the mainline German and Swiss reformation movements under the leadership of Luther and Zwingli (or Calvin) respectively. The term is used because magistrates (the elite, princes, or ruling classes) were so instrumental in both cases, though in quite different ways. Politics had an extremely important role to play in these reformation movements.

Martin Luther’s well-known Appeal to the German Nobility (written 1520, online here) begins to illustrate just how important magistrates, princes, and other rulers were for the Lutheran reformation. In that writing, Luther appeals directly to the German aristocracy to assert their “temporal” authority over against the supposed authority of the “Romanists” (the papacy of the time and those that supported it). German magistrates were called on to apply their punishing role throughout the whole Christian body: “Forasmuch as the temporal power has been ordained by God for the punishment of the bad and the protection of the good, therefore we must let it do its duty throughout the whole Christian body, without respect of persons, whether it strikes popes, bishops, priests, monks, nuns, or whoever it may be” (trans by C. A. Buchheim). There is a sense in which Luther’s appeal to magistrates, which continued well after this was written, was successful. Already the prince who had recently founded the University of Wittenberg (where Luther was a “star” professor), prince Frederick, was a strong supporter of Luther and was instrumental in saving Luther from being tried or burnt as a heretic by the papacy. Soon, many other magistrates likewise came to support the Lutheran reformation and made their territories officially Lutheran, over against other German princes and rulers whose territories remained Catholic. As a result, many actual wars were fought between these territories.

The situation with the Swiss reformation was quite different, but magistrates were heavily involved again. This time, it is city-magistrates that give the descriptor “magisterial” to this movement. The reformations led by Zwingli in Zurich and Calvin in Geneva were intimately tied in with the city-council, led by civic magistrates, and the city council continued to be the main force behind reformation movements in various other Swiss towns. The role of magistrates in both the Lutheran and Zwinglian movements contrasts strongly to the so-called “radicals” within these same areas who insisted that being a Christian and being a magistrate were by nature incompatible (more about these “radicals” later).

Salvation according to the “modern way” in the middle ages (Reformations 10)

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As many scholars have noticed, there is a sense in which the Lutheran (German) reformation (in contrast to the Swiss reformation, for instance) emerged out of a personal struggle with the question of salvation, of how a righteous God was to have relations with sinful Luther (as Luther might put it). Important as background to Luther’s personal struggle is the traditional explanation of salvation offered by the so-called via moderna, the “modern way” (in the late middle ages), in which Luther had been trained as a scholastic (schoolman) in the university, only to reject it in his own re-discovery of Augustine.

This tradition within scholasticism emphasized the notion of a covenant between God and humans, as Alister McGrath explains (for the following, see Reformation Thought, pp. 53-61; compare Ozment, Age of Reform, 22-42, 231-39). This covenant, initiated by God alone, set up an arrangement wherein God would accept and provide salvation for humans if a person strove to “do his / her best”. In this view, God was not unfair in expecting more than what humans could do.

Scholastics who adopted the “modern way” were sometimes accused of being Pelagian. Pelagius (not to be confused with pope Pelagius) was a Christian who, in the early 400s CE, was concerned with what he perceived to be problems of moral laxity among Christians. Ultimately Pelagius had a run-in with Augustine of Hippo precisely over the question of how humans were to relate with a righteous God (i.e. salvation). On the one hand, Pelagius stressed that God had given people an ability to do what is right (otherwise his requirements would be unfair, since God created people, according to most Christians). On the other, Augustine stressed that humans could do nothing to overcome sin, as they were born inherently sinful (original sin at birth), and salvation could only be given by God as a gift, as grace (see Augustine’s On Nature and Grace, against Pelagius and On the Proceedings of Pelagius). So the university-types of the scholastic “modern way” were accused by some of being Pelagian, of being too optimistic about the abilities of humans to overcome sin and do the good works or moral behaviours that were necessary in God’s view (in this perspective).

Some among the “modern way” (in the late middle ages) responded that they were not Pelagian by using the economic analogy of the king who recalls gold coins for emergency purposes (e.g. a war). When a king recalls all gold coins, he offers lead replacement coins with the promise that, once the crisis is over, the king will ascribe the value of gold to the lead and do the exchange. Worthless lead was counted as if gold. In the same way, so these schoolmen would explain, God has made an arrangement (covenant) wherein he has decided to provide salvation by accepting the best works that humans can do (however inadequate and lead-like they may be) as if they were deserving of salvation (gold), so long as they strove to do what was right (keeping their side of the covenant).

In his own personal experience, Luther strove to do his best but continued to feel that it was never enough and he was anxious about his own personal salvation: “I was a good monk, and kept my order so strictly that I could say that if ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I was that monk. . . And yet my conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, ‘You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough’. . . ” (as cited by McGrath, p. 72). Luther ultimately rejected the “modern way” and much of scholasticism as a whole for a (new to him) Augustinian way in which salvation was solely an action of God with no human good works involved in the process of salvation itself.

The sacraments and divisions in the reformations (Reformations 9)

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An understanding of the sacraments is essential in making sense of the reformations of the sixteenth century. The seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, marriage, extreme unction, eucharist, confession, orders) were central to the medieval concept of the church (and would continue to be central within Roman Catholicism in the wake of the Council of Trent). The official church under the leadership of the pope, the representative of Christ on earth, was the mediator between God and the people. In the view of the papacy, it was through the administration of the seven sacraments in particular that God’s grace was communicated through the church to the people.

Reformers in the early sixteenth century, including Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and those considered “radical” (Anabaptists) by others, unanimously rejected the traditional understanding of sacraments. For both the German and Swiss reformations (including the “radicals”), only baptism and the eucharist remained (and even these were not usually understood as “sacraments” in the traditional sense). Yet despite this agreement in rejecting a central aspect of medieval Christianity, the precise understanding of baptism and the eucharist remained a point of contention and division among reformation movements.

Thus, for instance, the leaders of the magisterial reformations (Luther in Germany and Zwingli in Switzerland) maintained certain medieval concepts of baptism, namely baptism of infants. Yet the Anabaptists, as their name shows (literally “re-baptizers”) felt that only the adult who could choose to follow Christ was to receive baptism. Anabaptists were executed (by Lutherans, Zwinglians, and Catholics alike) for their views, sometimes with the ironic death by drowning as in the case of Felix Mantz at Zurich (died 1526, among the first Anabaptists executed).

Divisions were also very apparent in the case of the eucharist (or communion or Lord’s supper). Despite their agreement on many other factors and despite the shared threat from Catholic (military) powers who opposed the reformation movements, Luther and Zwingli just could not agree to disagree on the precise understanding of the eucharist. On the one hand, Luther held to a view (closer to the medieval) that Christ was really present in the bread and wine based on the phrase “this is my body” (Matthew 26:26) (he nonetheless rejected the medieval explanation of this presence–the theory of transubstantiation). On the other, Zwingli understood Christ’s statement to mean that “this signifies my body” (understanding “is” in a metaphorical sense), and that Christ was not really present in the bread itself (but rather in the hearts of participants). When a meeting aimed at unifying the German and Swiss reformation movements took place in 1529 (the Colloquy of Marburg), this issue of “is” vs. “signifies” was the only factor that continued to separate these two major branches of the reformations (the German or Lutheran and the Swiss or Reformed).

For more on this topic see, for instance, Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), especially the chapter on the sacraments.

Into the mystic: Meister Eckhart and medieval mysticism (Reformations 8)

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“I say that if a man will turn away from himself and from all created things, by so much will you be made one and blessed in the spark of the soul, which has never touched either time or place. This spark rejects all created things, and wants nothing but its naked God, as he is in himself. It is not content with the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit. . . [This spark] wants to know the source of this [divine] essence, it wants to go into the simple ground, into the quiet desert, into which distinction never gazed, not the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit. In the innermost part, where no one dwells, there is contentment for that light. . . ” Meister Eckhart (Sermon 48 [in German]; trans. by Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn, as cited below, p.198).

Getting into the mind of the medieval mystic is very difficult. Even contemporaries of figures such as Meister (Master) Eckhart (c. 1260-1327; some works online here and here) frequently were mind-boggled by what they read in the mystic’s accounts or heard in the mystic’s sermons about what union with God or the divine might entail. In some cases, the misunderstandings could result in accusations of heresy (and Eckhart was condemned by a papal bull or proclamation in 1329). So it is no wonder that we moderns find medieval mysticism, which was centred precisely on union with the divine in an immediate manner, hard to understand. Though not necessarily all mystics came into conflict with the official church, by its very nature mysticism claimed direct experience of God. This could be considered at odds with the official medieval church’s sense that there was a need for a mediator between God and humans, and that that mediator was the church under the leadership of the pope, the representative of Christ on earth.

There were varieties of mysticism, however, with some focussing on identification with the suffering Christ (e.g. Francis of Assisi) as the means to union with God, and others that took a different approach, such as the so-called Rhineland mystics. Meister (Master) Eckhart’s brand of medieval mysticism became very influential among other mystics in the lands of the Rhine valley (i.e. future Germany–there was no German nation at this time). Eckhart’s notion of union with God owed very much to neo-Platonism (Plato’s ideas as they had been expanded, developed, and later Christianized following the Middle Platonic period, which I discussed here in connection with “gnosticism”). For a discussion of Eckhart and philosophy, go here. Neo-Platonists (new-Platonists) emphasized the existence of a supreme and perfect Being (God) from whom all other things, including all heavenly beings and earthly creations, had emanated (On emanation, think of a stone being dropped in water, with the circular waves emanating out from the centre and distance from the centre being accompanied by a lessening of contact with the divine origin). Ultimately, the goal and end was return to the divine origin from which the emanations came.

Thus, for Eckhart, the Trinitarian Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were emanations from the perfect “Godhead” or divine nature (the God behind God, so to speak), and all of creation (including us) are further emanations. More importantly for questions of how a human being might come to union with God, despite the fact that humans are mere creatures, each human being has a spark or light within the soul, referred to in the quotation above, which intersects with the Godhead itself. Shedding off all attachment to creatureliness was the means by which one could come into contact with, or “break through” to, the eternal part of the soul that was one with the Godhead.

See Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn, trans. Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense (New York: Paulist Press, 1981).

Menocchio on judgement and hell (Reformations 7)

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I have previously posted in this series on the intriguing figure of Menocchio, a peasant miller of the late sixteenth century. One of Carlo Ginzburg’s main arguments in his book (The Cheese and the Worms) is that Menocchio, although extraordinary in being literate, is nonetheless representative of an underlying peasant oral culture. This oral culture, suggests Ginzburg, remained out of the historian’s sight for centuries until this odd case of a literate peasant was combined with the atmosphere of expression and inquisition in the wake of the reformations. Finally, so the argument goes, we are able to witness some ongoing characteristics of peasant attitudes to various aspects of religious life that had remained hidden for centuries. Although the argument is difficult to refute (how do you refute an argument which says that a peasant oral culture remained hidden–it’s an argument from silence, of course), there is certainly some truth in this way of putting things.

There is a sense in which Menoccho’s attitudes regarding judgement and hell, for instance, may reflect some strands of peasant opinion and may, therefore, qualify the notion that all peasants believed in the official church line on hell (which seemed to suggest that the majority of the population would end up there). Menocchio addresses the inquisitors: “No sir, I do not believe that we can be resurrected with the body on Judgment Day. It seems impossible to me, because if we should be resurrected, bodies would fill up heaven and earth. . .” (p. 76). This is Menocchio the late-medieval Corinthian, so to speak (see 1 Corinthians 15), but there is little sign of a philosophical basis for Menocchio’s denial of the bodily resurrection.

Surely we do have clear evidence of anti-clericalism (dislike of the higher-ups in the church hierarchies) among the populous in various sources beyond Menocchio. Mennochio (perhaps along with other peasants) criticizes the notion of hell in connection with his negative attitude towards church leaders: “Preaching that men should live in peace pleases me but in preaching about hell, Paul says one thing, Peter another, so that I think it is a business, an invention of men who know more than others” (p. 76). Hell is neither here nor there, so to speak, for this peasant, and perhaps for others.

Menocchio on the Synoptic problem (Reformations 6)

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In a previous entry in this series, I have discussed the peasant miller Menocchio who lived in the 16th century and was put on trial in the inquisitions. For those of you who study the synoptic gospels, I thought you might find his brief take on the synoptic problem and redaction criticism, so to speak, humorous and maybe a little insightful:

As for the things in the Gospels, I believe that parts of them are true and parts were made up by the Evangelists out of their heads, as we see in the passages that one tells in one way and one in another way” (Ginzburg, p. 11).

At another point in the trial, he suggested that a good portion of the New Testament writings were, in fact, made up in his own time (or just before) by devious priests and monks. Here and in other statements he reflects a peasant’s dislike for the higher-ups in the system. Don’t expect consistency from Menocchio, but do expect creative thinking and fascinating statements.

Demons and everyday life: Giving birth to monsters (Reformations 5)

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One of the more difficult things for (most) modern people to get their minds around is the medieval popular belief in demons and spirits. These malevolent, benevolent, or neutral (sometimes just a nuisance) beings permeated the air (“swarming like flies”) and were in continual interaction with people in their daily lives, at least according to the ghost and demon stories that were written down.

Among the tales documented by a German Dominican in the thirteenth century is one about a noble knight and his wife. The story goes that “demons quite often appeared to [the knight]” and on one occasion while he was away on “business”, a demon decided to appear to his wife instead:

When his wife got into bed that night, it seemed to her that her husband came to her and had realtions with her in due manner. From this, so she believed, she became pregnant. The next day her husband returned, which caused his wife to be very much amazed, and she said to him ‘Where have you come from?’ He answered, ‘From our other castle’. She said, ‘Surely you were with me last night, and had relations with me contrary to your custom.’ He answered, ‘I did not.’ Terrified and upset almost to death, the woman learned that she had given birth to three monsters at once. One monster had teeth like a hog’s, the second had a startlingly long beard, the third had one eye in its face, so reported someone who saw them. But the mother, after the birrth of these children, died”
John Shinners, ed.,
Medieval Popular Religion 1000-1500: A Reader (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 1997), 217.

“So reported someone who saw them”, a common claim for many of these tales. For historians of popular religion, it is less important what grain of truth, if any, is reflected in the story (e.g. deformities at birth) than what the telling and retelling of stories such as this means about the worldviews of those living in the middle ages: evil powers are at work in the world around us and we need to beware of what havoc they can cause even in our own family’s life. The horror movie comes to life.

Menocchio, the peasant, on cheese and maggots (Reformations 4)

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Carlo Ginzburg’s classic social historical study of an obscure peasant living in Italy provides a fascinating window into popular culture during the late medieval and reformation periods. Menocchio, a peasant miller who considered himself among the poor and yet was also literate at a basic level, was put on trial in Italy during the later inquisitions, church run court-cases against heresy (in the late 1500s). As one witness put it, Menocchio “is always arguing with somebody about the faith just for the sake of arguing – even with the priest” (Ginzberg, p. 2). His well-documented testimony and the perspectives of other peasants and priests on his views (from the court records) provide a picture of an independent thinker who was nonetheless in some respects reflecting a deeper stream of medieval popular religion, as Ginzburg argues.

Quite captivating is Menocchio’s view on creation, his cosmogony, which draws on the analogy of putrefaction:

“I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed – just as cheese is made out of milk – and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels. The most holy majesty decreed that these should be God and the angels, and among that number of angels, there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time, and he was made lord, with four captains, Lucifer, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael” (Menocchio as cited by Ginzburg, pp. 5-6 )

The inquisitorial judges just could not get their minds around these elaborate and imaginative ideas of a relatively uneducated peasant. The angels emerged like worms in rotting cheese? God was created as one of these angels? Where did you come up with this stuff, and why do you insist on continually sharing your strange ideas with others (was the sentiment)?

More on Menocchio and popular religion later, which you can also read about in Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (trans. by John and Anne Tedeschi; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992 [1980]).

Ginzburg was among the pioneers of “microhistory”, a type of social history which focusses attention on detailing what we can known about one particular individual, family or village, for instance. You can read an online interview with him about microhistory and his work on the witches’ sabbat here.

Another social historian that engages in microhistory is Natalie Zemon Davis, well known for her book on The Return of Martin Guerre: Imposture and Identity in a Sixteenth-Century Village (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983). As you may know, Martin Guerre’s story was also made into a film (in French, 1982) followed by a less historically-injected Hollywood version called Sommersby (1993), which was instead set in post-Civil War America (rather than a 16th century French village).

Reformations: Continuity or disjunction? (Reformations 2)

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One of the more important scholarly questions regarding the nature of the reformations of the 16th century is the degree to which the reformations had their roots in what preceded or were something new that broke from what preceded. Most recent scholars of the reformation period would answer that it is far more complicated than choosing between the two, but that many scholars in the past have emphasized the “new” to the neglect of continuity.

A very important work by Steven Ozment (The Age of Reform 1250-1550, 1980) argues strongly and convincingly that, in many respects, the reformations were strongly rooted in the intellectual and religious traditions of the late middle ages. And by that he does not mean simply things like the movements which followed the lead of Wycliff in England or Huss in Bohemia (in the late 1300s and into the 1400s), to which we will return. There is a sense in which the reformations would not have happened without the important influences of the spiritual traditions of the Franciscans and Dominicans or the intellectual traditions of scholasticism, or the reforming agendas of certain popes (which we will explain soon).

The cultural history of late-medieval Christianity is worthy of study in its own right, but it is also the place to look if you want to understand the reformations. Luther and other “reformers” were part of this late-medieval world despite the changes that their movements brought, namely the birth of a new branch of Christianity now known as Protestantism.

Reformations and Late-Medieval Christianity (1300-1650) course (Reformations 1)

Welcome to the ongoing discussion of Christianity in the late middle ages and the Reformations in connection with an undergraduate course. The outline for the course, which will also give you a sense of what topics and readings may be covered in blog entries, is available under courses above.

I will do my best to write these entries in a way that will be of profit not only to the students in the class, but also to other readers who have an interest in the social and cultural history of Christianity and the Reformations specifically. (My own area of expertise is in the earliest period of Christianity and its Greco-Roman and Jewish contexts, about which I also do blog entries here). Feel free to leave comments or questions (by clicking on “comments” below and registering your name with blogger).

The nature of the blog genre requires that entries be somewhat brief and to the point (and hopefully interesting!). So reading this blog will by no means substitute for reading about the cultural history of Christianity (both primary and scholarly sources) for yourself in “good-old-fashioned” books or for attending the classes (if you are a student;). Come again!

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