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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 59. State of Public Opinion. Popular Literature.


K. Hagen: Der Geist der Reformation und seine Gegensätze. Erlangen, 1843. Bd. I. 158 sqq. Janssen, II. 181–197, gives extracts from revolutionary pamphlets to disparage the cause of the Reformation.


Among the most potent causes which defeated the ban of the empire, and helped the triumph of Protestantism, was the teeming ephemeral literature which appeared between 1521 and 1524, and did the work of the periodical newspaper press of our days, in seasons of public excitement. In spite of the prohibition of unauthorized printing by the edict of Worms, Germany was inundated by a flood of books, pamphlets, and leaflets in favor of true and false freedom. They created a public opinion which prevented the execution of the law.

Luther had started this popular literary warfare by his ninety-five Theses. He was by far the most original, fertile, and effective controversialist and pamphleteer of his age. He commanded the resources of genius, learning, courage, eloquence, wit, humor, irony, and ridicule, and had, notwithstanding his many physical infirmities, an astounding power of work. He could express the deepest thought in the clearest and strongest language, and had an abundant supply of juicy and forcible epithets.395395    Kraftwörter, as the Germans call them. His very opponents had to imitate his German speech if they wished to reach the masses, and to hit the nail on the head. He had a genial heart, but also a most violent temper, and used it as a weapon for popular effect. He felt himself called to the rough work of "removing stumps and stones, cutting away thistles and thorns, and clearing the wild forests." He found aid and comfort in the severe language of the prophets. He had, as he says, the threefold spirit of Elijah,—the storm, the earthquake, and the fire, which subverts mountains and tears the rocks in pieces. He thoroughly understood the wants and tastes of his countrymen who preferred force to elegance, and the club to the dagger. Foreigners, who knew him only from his Latin writings, could not account for his influence.

Roman historians, in denouncing his polemics, are apt to forget the fearful severity of the papal bull, the edict of Worms, and the condemnatory decisions of the universities.396396    Janssen says (II. 181 and 193): "Den Ton für die ganze damalige polemische Literatur gabLuther an, wie durch seine früheren Schriften, so auch durch die neuen, welche er von der Wartburg aus in die Welt schickte." Then he quotes a number of the coarsest outbursts of Luther’s wrath, and his disparaging remarks on some books of the New Testament (the Eusebian Antilegomena), all of which, however, are disowned by the Lutheran Church, and more than counterbalanced by his profound reverence for, and submission to, the undoubted writings (the Homologumena). See § 6, pp. 16 sqq.

His pen was powerfully aided by the pencil of his friend Lucas Cranach, the court-painter of Frederick the Wise.

Melanchthon had no popular talent, but he employed his scholarly pen in a Latin apology for Luther, against the furious decree of the Parisian theologasters."397397    "Adversus furiosum Parisiensium theologastrorum Decretum pro Luthero Apologia," 1521. In the "Corpus Reformat.," vol. I. 398-416. A copy of the original edition is in the Royal Library at Berlin. An extract, in Carl Schmidt’s Philipp Melanchthon, pp. 55 sqq. The Sorbonne, hitherto the most famous theological faculty, which in the days of the reformatory Councils had stood up for the cause of reform, followed the example of the universities of Louvain and Cologne, and denounced Luther during the sessions of the Diet of Worms, April 15, 1521, as an arch-heretic who had renewed and intensified the blasphemous errors of the Manichaeans, Hussites, Beghards, Cathari, Waldenses, Ebionites, Arians, etc., and who should be destroyed by fire rather than refuted by arguments.398398    Determinatio Theologorum Parisiensium super Doctrina Lutheriana. "Corp. Reform." I. 366-388. Eck translated the decision at once into German. Melanchthon dared to charge the faculty of Paris with apostasy from Christ to Aristotle, and from biblical theology to scholastic sophistry. Luther translated the Apology into German at the Wartburg, and, finding it too mild, he added to it some strokes of his "peasant’s axe."399399    "Mein lieber Philipp," he says, "hat ihnen [den groben Pariser Eseln] wohl meisterlich geantwortet, hat sie aber doch zu sanft angerührt und mit dem leichten Hobel überlaufen; ich sehe wohl, ich muss mit der Bauernaxt über die groben Blöcke kommen." At the same time there appeared an anonymous satire against the Paris theologians, in the style of the Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum. See Schmidt, l.c. p. 58.

Ulrich von Hutten was almost equal to Luther in literary power, eloquence, wit, and sarcasm, as well as in courage, and aided him with all his might from the Ebernburg during his trial at Worms; but he weakened his cause by want of principle. He had previously republished and ridiculed the Pope’s bull of excommunication. He now attacked the edict of Worms, and wrote invectives against its authors, the papal legates, and its supporters, the bishops.400400    In Hieron. Aleandrum, et Marinum Caracciolum Oratores Leonis X. apud Vormaciam Invectivae singulae.—In Cardinales, episcopos et Sacerdotes, Lutherum Vormaciae oppugnantes, Invectiva.—Ad Carolum Imp. pro Luthero exhortatoria. See Strauss, Ulrich v. Hutten, pp. 397 sqq. He told the former how foolish it was to proceed with such impudence and violence against Luther, in opposition to the spirit of the age, that the time of revenge would soon come; that the Germans were by no means so blind and indifferent as they imagined; that the young Emperor would soon come to a better knowledge. He indignantly reminded Aleander of his shameful private utterance (which was also reported to Luther by Spalatin), that, if the Germans should shake off the papal yoke, Rome would take care to sow so much seed of discord among them that they would eat each other up. He reproached the archbishops and higher clergy for using force instead of persuasion, the secular magistrate instead of the word of Christ against Luther. He told them that they were no real priests; that they had bought their dignities; that they violated common morality; that they were carnal, worldly, avaricious; that they were unable or ashamed to preach the gospel which condemned their conduct, and that if God raised a preacher like Luther, they sought to oppress him. But the measure is full. "Away with you," he exclaims, "ye unclean hogs, away from the pure fountains! Away with you, wicked traffickers, from the sanctuary! Touch no longer the altars with your profane hands! What right have ye to waste the pious benefactions of our fathers in luxury, fornication, and vain pomp, while many honest and pious people are starving? The measure is full. See ye not that the air of freedom is stirring, that men, disgusted with the present state of things, demand improvement? Luther and I may perish at your hands, but what of that? There are many more Luthers and Huttens who will take revenge, and raise a new and more violent reformation."

He added, however, to the second edition, a sort of apologetic letter to Albrecht, the head of the German archbishops, his former friend and patron, assuring him of his continued friendship, and expressing regret that he should have been alienated from the protection of the cause of progress and liberty.

In a different spirit Hans Sachs, the pious poet-shoemaker of Nürnberg,401401    Characteristic for his poetry is the well-known rhyme (which is, however, not found in his works):—
   "Hans Sachs war ein Schuh-

   Macher und Poet dazu."

   A new edition of his poems appeared at Stuttgart, 1870 sqq. He figures prominently in Kaulbach’s picture of the Reformation.
wrote many ephemeral compositions in prose and poetry for the cause of Luther and the gospel. He met Luther at Augsburg in 1518, collected till 1522 forty books in his favor, and published in 1523 a poem of seven hundred verses under the title: "Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall, Die man jetzt hört überall," and with the concluding words: "Christus amator, Papa peccator." It was soon followed by four polemical dialogues in prose.

Among the most popular pamphleteers on the Protestant side were a farmer named "Karsthans," who labored in the Rhine country between Strassburg and Basel, and his imitator, "Neukarsthans." Many pamphlets were anonymous or pseudonymous.

It is a significant fact, that the Reformation was defended by so many laymen. All the great German classics who arose in more recent times (Klopstock, Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Uhland, Rückert), as well as philosophers (Leibnitz, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Herbart, Lotze), are Protestants, at least nominally, and could not have grown on papal soil.

The newness and freshness of this fugitive popular literature called out by the Reformation, and especially by the edict of Worms, made it all the more effective. The people were hungry for intellectual and spiritual food, and the appetite grew with the supply.

The polemical productions of that period are usually brief, pointed, and aimed at the common-sense of the masses. They abound in strong arguments, rude wit, and coarse abuse. They plead the cause of freedom against oppression, of the laity against priestcraft and monkery. A favorite form of composition was the dialogue in which a peasant or a laboring-man defeats an ecclesiastic.

The Devil figures prominently in league with the Pope, sometimes as his servant, sometimes as his master. Very often the Pope is contrasted with Christ as his antipode. The Pope, says one of the controversialists, proclaimed the terrible bull of condemnation of Luther and all heretics on the day commemorative of the institution of the holy communion; and turned the divine mercy into human wrath, brotherly love into persecuting hatred, the very blessing into a curse.

St. Peter also appears often in these productions: he stands at the gate of heaven, examining priests, monks, and popes, whether they are fit to enter, and decides in most cases against them. Here is a specimen: A fat and drunken monk knocks at the gate, and is angry that he is not at once admitted; Peter tells him first to get sober, and laughs at his foolish dress. Then he catechises him; the monk enumerates all his fasts, self-mortifications, and pious exercises; Peter orders that his belly be cut open, and, behold! chickens, wild game, fish, omelets, wine, and other contents come forth and bear witness against the hypocrite, who is forthwith sent to the place of punishment.

The writer of a pamphlet entitled "Doctor Martin Luther’s Passion," draws an irreverent parallel between Luther’s treatment by the Diet, with Christ’s crucifixion: Luther’s entry into Worms is compared to Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, the Diet to the Sanhedrin, Archbishop Albrecht to Caiaphas, the papal legates to the Pharisees, the Elector of Saxony to Peter, Eck and Cochlaeus to the false witnesses, the Archbishop of Treves to Pilate, the German nation to Pilate’s wife; at last Luther’s books and likeness are thrown into the fire, but his likeness will not burn, and the spectators exclaim, "Verily, he is a Christian."

The same warfare was going on in German Switzerland. Nicolas Manuel, a poet and painter (died 1530), in a carnival play which was enacted at Berne, 1522, introduces first the whole hierarchy, confessing one after another their sins, and expressing regret that they now are to be stopped by the rising opposition of the people; then the various classes of laymen attack the priests, expose their vices, and refute their sophistries; and at last Peter and Paul decide in favor of the laity, and charge the clergy with flatly contradicting the teaching of Christ and the Apostles.402402    See Grüneisen’s Nicolaus Manuels Leben und Werke (1837), pp. 339-392.

These pamphlets and fugitive papers were illustrated by rude woodcuts and caricatures of obnoxious persons, which added much to their popular effect. Popes, cardinals, and bishops are represented in their clerical costume, but with faces of wolves or foxes, and surrounded by geese praying a Paternoster or Ave Maria. The "Passion of Christ and Antichrist" has twenty-six woodcuts, from the elder Lucas Cranach or his school, which exhibit the contrast between Christ and his pretended vicar in parallel pictures: in one Christ declines the crown of this world, in the other the Pope refuses to open the gate to the Emperor (at Canossa); in one Christ wears the crown of thorns, in the other the Pope the triple crown of gold and jewels; in one Christ washes the feet of his disciples, in the other the Pope suffers emperors and kings to kiss his toe; in one Christ preaches the glad tidings to the poor, in the other the Pope feasts with his cardinals at a rich banquet; in one Christ expels the profane traffickers, in the other the Pope sits in the temple of God; in one Christ rides meekly on an ass into Jerusalem, in the other the Pope and his cardinals ride on fiery steeds into hell.403403    Passional Christi und Antichristi, mit Luther’s Nachrede, 1521, in the Frkf. ed., LXIII., 240-248. Luther accompanied the pictures with texts.

The controversial literature of the Roman-Catholic Church was far behind the Protestant in ability and fertility. The most popular and effective writer on the Roman side was the Franciscan monk and crowned poet, Thomas Murner. He was an Alsatian, and lived in Strassburg, afterwards at Luzern, and died at Heidelberg (1537). He had formerly, in his Narrenbeschwörung (1512) and other writings, unmercifully chastised the vices of all classes, including clergy and monks, and had sided with Reuchlin in his controversy with the Dominicans, but in 1520 he turned against Luther, and assailed his cause in a poetical satire: "Vom grossen lutherischen Narren wie ihn Doctor Murner beschworen hat, 1522."404404    Newly edited by H. Kurz, Zürich, 1848. Janssen makes much use of this poem (II. 123-128, 190, 415, 416). Murner thus describes the Protestant attack on the sacraments:—
   "Die Mess, die sol nim gelten

   Im Leben noch im Tod.

   Die Sacrament sie schelten,

   Die seien uns nit Not.

   Fünf hont sie gar vernichtet,

   Die andern lon sie ston,

   Dermassen zugerichtet,

   Dass sie auch bald zergon."

   Of Luther’s doctrine of the general priesthood of the laity he says:—

   "Wir sein all Pfaffen worden,

   Beid Weiber und die Man,

   Wiewol wir hant kein Orden

   Kein Weihe gnomen an"




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