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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 58. The Ban of the Empire. May 8 (26), 1521.


After Luther’s departure (April 26), his enemies had full possession of the ground. Frederick of Saxony wrote, May 4: "Martin’s cause is in a bad state: he will be persecuted; not only Annas and Caiaphas, but also Pilate and Herod, are against him." Aleander reported to Rome, May 5, that Luther had by his bad habits, his obstinacy, and his "beastly" speeches against Councils, alienated the people, but that still many adhered to him from love of disobedience to the Pope, and desire to seize the church property.

The Emperor commissioned Aleander to draw up a Latin edict against Luther.387387    Aleander reports, May 5: "Poi me fù commesso per Cesar et el Consilio (the imperial council),che io stesso facesse el decreto, con quelle più justificationi si potesse, acciochè il popolo se contentasse." It was completed and dated May 8 (but not signed till May 26). On the same day the Emperor concluded an alliance with the Pope against France. They pledged themselves "to have the same friends and the same enemies," and to aid each other in attack and defense.

The edict was kept back till the Elector Frederick and the Elector of the Palatinate with a large number of other members of the Diet had gone home. It was not regularly submitted to, nor discussed and voted on, by the Diet, nor signed by the Chancellor, but secured by a sort of surprise.388388    "Das Edict," says Ranke (i. 342), "ward den Ständen nicht in ihrer Versammlung vorgelegt; keiner neuen Deliberation ward es unterworfen; unerwartet, in der kaiserlichen Behausung bekamen sie Kunde davon, nachdem man nichts versäumt, um sie guenstig zu stimmen; die Billigung desselben, die nicht einmal formell genannt werden kann, ward ihnen durch eine Art von Ueberraschung abgewonnen." On Trinity Sunday, May 26, Aleander went with the Latin and German copy to church, and induced the Emperor to sign both after high mass, "with his pious hand." The Emperor said in French, "Now you will be satisfied."—"Yes," replied the legate in the same language, "but much more satisfied will be the Holy See and all Christendom, and will thank God for such a good, holy, and religious Emperor."389389    Dispatch of May 26. Brieger, I. 224. The edict appeared in print on the following Thursday, May 30, and on Friday the Emperor left Worms.

The edict is not so long, but as turgid, bombastic, intolerant, fierce, and Cruel, as the Pope’s bull of excommunication.390390    Aleander himself calls it more terrible than any previous edict (cosi horribile quanto mai altro editto), June 27, 1521. Brieger, I. 241. Ranke says (I. 343): "Es war so scharf, so entschieden wie möglich." It gave legal force to the bull within the German Empire. It denounces Luther as a devil in the dress of a monk, who had gathered a mass of old and new heresies into one pool, and pronounces upon him the ban and re-ban.391391    Die Acht und Aberacht. The Acht is the civil counterpart of the ecclesiastical excommunication and excludes the victim from all protection of the law. The Aberacht or Oberacht follows if the Acht remains without effect. It is in the German definition die völlige Fried- und Rechtslos- oder Vogelfrei-Erklärung. The imperial Acht is called the Reichsacht. It commands the burning, and forbids the printing, publication, and sale, of his books, the sheltering and feeding of his person, and that of his followers, and directs the magistrates to seize him wherever he may be found, and to hand him over to the Emperor, to be dealt with according to the penal laws against heretics. At the same time the whole press of the empire was put under strict surveillance.392392    See the edict in full in Walch, XV. 2264-2280. It was published officially in Latin and German, and translated into the languages of the Dutch and French dominions of Charles. Aleander himself, as he says, prepared the French translation.

This was the last occasion on which the mediaeval union of the secular empire with the papacy was expressed in official form so as to make the German emperor the executor of the decrees of the bishop of Rome. The gravamina of the nation were unheeded. Hutten wrote: "I am ashamed of my fatherland."393393    Letter to Pirkheimer, May 1, 1521: "Me pudere incipit patriae."Opera II. 59.

Thus Luther was outlawed by Church and State, condemned by the Pope, the Emperor, the universities, cast out of human society, and left exposed to a violent death.

But he had Providence and the future on his side. The verdict of the Diet was not the verdict of the nation.

The departure of the Emperor through the Netherlands to Spain, where he subdued a dangerous insurrection, his subsequent wars with Francis in Italy, the victorious advance of the Turks in Hungary, the protection of Luther by the Elector Frederick, and the rapid spread of Protestant doctrines, these circumstances, combined to reduce the imperial edict, as well as the papal bull, to a dead letter in the greater part of Germany. The empire was not a centralized monarchy, but a loose confederation of seven great electorates, a larger number of smaller principalities, and free cities, each with an ecclesiastical establishment of its own. The love of individual independence among the rival states and cities was stronger than the love of national union; and hence it was difficult to enforce the decisions of the Diet against a dissenting minority or even a single recalcitrant member. An attempt to execute the edict in electoral Saxony or the free cities by military force would have kindled the flame of civil war which no wise and moderate ruler would be willing to risk without imperative necessity. Charles was an earnest Roman Catholic, but also a shrewd statesman who had to consult political interests. Even the Elector Albrecht of Mainz prevented, as far as he could, the execution of the bull and ban in the dioceses of Mainz, Magdeburg, and Halberstadt. He did not sign the edict as chancellor of the empire.394394    Janssen, II. 208 sq.: "Albrecht musste sich beugen vor Luther, der Primus vor dem excommunicirten Mönch, welcher ihm mit Enthuellungen drohte." Capito, his chaplain and private counselor, described him in a letter to Zwingli, Aug. 4, 1521, as a promoter of "the gospel," who would not permit that Luther be attacked on the pulpit. And this was the prelate who had been intrusted by the Pope with the sale of indulgences. Such a change had been wrought in public sentiment in the short course of four years.

The settlement of the religious question was ultimately left to the several states, and depended very much upon the religious preferences and personal character of the civil magistrate. Saxony, Hesse, Brandenburg, the greater part of Northern Germany, also the Palatinate, Würtemberg, Nürnberg, Frankfurt, Strassburg, and Ulm, embraced Protestantism in whole or in part; while Southern and Western Germany, especially Bavaria and Austria, remained predominantly Roman Catholic. But it required a long and bloody struggle before Protestantism acquired equal legal rights with Romanism, and the Pope protests to this day against the Treaty of Westphalia which finally secured those rights.



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