Friday, May 08, 2015

Byways of the Reformation, courtesy of Diarmaid MacCulloch

Watching the excellent BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall filled me with a desire to read the novels again--which, let's be clear, would be absurd. As Hussein Haddaway says in the introduction to his translation of the Arabian Nights, "There are other fair creatures in the world." I do not need to read Wolf Hall a fourth time right now.

To quell that desire, I decided instead to pull down from the shelf Diarmaid MacCulloch's 700-page history of the Reformation. I read about 100 pages of it back in 2005, when it was published in paperback, but other books intervened, and onto the shelf it went. Now, however, with my head full of power politics and protestant fervor, I dove back in. And I'm glad I did. On the one hand, there's no way I need to know as much about the Reformation as MacCulloch is telling me. I'm quickly going to forget 90% of the names, places, and events. But the vast sweep of it will stay, and, because MacCulloch is a good storyteller, attached to it will be memorable moments, ideas, and people.

I've got two to share tonight. First, a thumbnail sketch of Martin Luther's wife, Katharina von Bora, "an aristocratic former Cistercian nun," whom he married when he was forty-two and already an established figure:
Luther had at first somewhat unromantic intentions to give a good home to one of several destitute former nuns in return for being properly looked after, but Katharina turned out to be a high-spirited, long-suffering and extremely capable partner, who brought him much happiness and much-loved children. She presided over a famously convivial atmosphere at the Luther family dinner table, usually with an admiring student or two ready to take down every passing thought or joke of Dr Luther. . . . The result of Katie's careful budgeting and generous catering can be seen in the marked contrast between the lean austere friar of Luther's first portraits and the married reformer who inspired the proverb "as fat as Martin Luther."
I'm always interested by the capable people who hold the mooring lines of an ambitious, self-regarding, self-involved partner. What must Katie have been like? How did she claim her territory and power within the relationship in its early days? How did she deal with Luther's prominence, outspokenness, and fiery temper? MacCulloch's description runs but a few sentences, yet it's hard not to feel as if in some way you actually know Katie after you read it.

The second passage follows the account of a complicated and bizarre series of events in Munster in 1534. A group of Anabaptists seized the city and were soon besieged by Catholic forces led by Bishop von Waldeck. A "charismatic former tailor," Dutchman Jan Beukels, assumed leadership of the besieged forces, taking on the name John of Leiden and professing two aims: "to usher in the Last Days," and " to sustain the urgent needs of a crowded city in military crisis." Beukels redistributed property for communal use and attempted to mount a defense, but it was of no use. After about four months, the Anabaptists were betrayed from within and the Bishop's forces were let inside the walls. Public executions, "unsurprisingly exercises in exemplary sadism," were carried out on Beukels and his two leading supporters. At that point in the story, MacCulloch offers an aside that will, I think, pique the interest of any engaged city dweller:
A vigilant visitor to Munster today finds . . . reminders: the city churches reveal plenty of evidence of the city's medieval wealth, but a marked lack of pre-1534 furnishings--no stained glass, no tombs. Evidently the Anabaptists, trapped in the besieged city, had ample time to eliminate everything that they hated. A poignant discovery in the 1890s was a series of fragments of a beautiful fourteenth-century font, recovered from inside the rubble of one of the city wall towers; it can be identified as having come from the Benedictine abbey church known as the Uberwasserkirche, and it was evidently smashed up and contemptuously redeployed by the defenders in a symbolic humiliation of infant baptism. Likewise, one of the distinctive features of Munster churches is the amount of mid-sixteenth-century art: the product of a frantic effort of refurnishing. The priority of the triumphant besiegers was to edit the immediate past and remember only what they needed to.
I love the detective work on display there: cities will tell us stories, if we just ask the right questions about what we're seeing and why it is the way it is.


  1. It is a wonderful book, Two thoughts on Munster: first, didn't the narrator of Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller serve at the siege? Second, in the course of other reading I was charmed by the German word for Anabaptist, "Wiedertaufer".

  2. the reformation did a terrible amount of damage, see The Stripping of the Altars by Eammon Duffy on the Reformation in England. Very sad.