German Society at the Close of The Middle Ages. Belfort Bax

Chapter III
Popular Literature of the Reformation

In accordance with the conventional view we have assumed in the preceding chapter that the Reichstag at Worms was a landmark in the history of the Reformation. This is, however, only true as regards the political side of the movement. The popular feeling was really quite continuous, at least from 1517 to 1525. With the latter year and the collapse of the peasant revolt a change is noticeable. In 1525, the Reformation as a great upstirring of the popular mind of Central Europe, in contradistinction to its character as an academic and purely political movement, reached high-water mark, and may almost be said to have exhausted itself. Until the latter year it was purely a revolutionary movement, attracting to itself all the disruptive elements of its time. Later, the reactionary possibilities within it declared themselves. The emancipation from the thraldom of the Catholic hierarchy and its Papal head, it was soon found, meant not emancipation from the arbitrary tyranny of the new political and centralising authorities then springing up, but, on the contrary, rather their consecration. The ultimate outcome, in fact, of the whole business was, as we shall see later on, the inculcation of the non-resistance theory as regards the civil power, and the clearing of the way for its extremest expression in the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, a theory utterly alien to the belief and practice of the Mediaeval Church.

The Reichstag of Worms, by cutting off all possibility of reconciliation, rather gave further edge to the popular revolutionary side of the movement than otherwise. The whole progress of the change in public feeling is plainly traceable in the mass of ephemeral literature that has come down to us from this period, broadsides, pamphlets, satires, folksongs, and the rest. The anonymous literature to which we more especially refer is distinguished by its coarse brutality and humour, even in the writings of the Reformers, which were themselves in no case remarkable for the suavity of their polemic.

Hutten, in some of his later vernacular poems, approaches the character of the less cultured broadside literature. To the critical mind it is somewhat amusing to note the enthusiasm with which the modern Dissenting and Puritan class contemplates the period of which we are writing, — an enthusiasm that would probably be effectively damped if the laudators of the Reformation knew the real character of the movement and of its principal actors.

The first attacks made by the broadside literature were naturally directed against the simony and benefice-gabbing of the clergy, a characteristic of the priestly office that has always powerfully appealed to the popular mind. Thus the “Courtisan and Benefice-eater” attacks the parasite of the Roman Court, who absorbs ecclesiastical revenues wholesale, putting in perfunctory locum tenens on the cheap, and begins:-

I'm fairly called a Simonist and eke a Courtisan,
And here to every peasant and every common man
My knavery will very well appear.
I called and cried to all who'd give me ear,
To nobleman and knight and all above me
"Behold me! And ye'll find I'll truly love ye."
In another we read:-

The Paternoster teaches well

How one for another his prayers should tell,
Thro’ brotherly love and not for gold,
And good those same prayers God doth hold.
So too with Holy Paul right clearly,
Each shall his brother’s load bear dearly.

But now, it declares, all that is changed. Now we are being taught just the opposite of God’s teachings:-

Such doctrine hath the priests increased,
Whom men as masters now must feast,
‘Fore all the crowd of Simonists,
Whose waxing number no man wists,
The towns and thorps seem full of them,
And in all lands they’re seen with shame.
Their violence and knavery
Leave not a church or living free.

A prose pamphlet, apparently published about the summer of 1520, shortly after Luther’s excommunication, was the so-called “Wolf Song” (Wolf-gesang), which paints the enemies of Luther as wolves. It begins with a screed on the creation and fall of Adam, and a dissertation on the dogma of the Redemption; and then proceeds: “as one might say, dear brother, instruct me, for there; is now in our times so great commotion in faith come upon us. There is one in Saxony who is called Luther, of whom many pious and honest folk tell how that he doth write so consolingly the good evangelical (evangelische) truth. But again I hear that the Pope and the cardinals at Rome have but him under the ban as a heretic; and certain of our own preachers, too, scold him from their pulpits as a knave, a misleader, and a heretic. I am utterly confounded and know not where to turn; albeit my reason and heart do speak to me even as Luther writeth. But yet again it bethinks me that when the Pope, the cardinal, the bishop, the doctor, the monk and the priest, for the greater part are against him, and so that all save the common men and a few gentlemen, doctors, councillors and knights, are his adversaries, what shall I do?” “For answer, dear friend, get thee back and search the Scriptures, and thou shall find that so it hath gone with all the holy prophets even as it now fareth with Doctor Martin Luther, who is in truth a godly Christian and manly heart and only true Pope and apostle, when he the true office of the Apostles publicly fulfilleth..... If the godly man Luther were pleasing to the world, that were indeed a true sign that his doctrine were not from God the word of God is a fiery sword, that breaketh in pieces the rocks, and not a fox’s tail or a reed that may be bent according to our pleasure.” Seventeen noxious qualities of the wolf are adduced, his ravenousness, his cunning, his falseness, his cowardice, his thirst for robbery, amongst others. The Popes, the cardinals and the bishops are compared to the wolves in all their attributes: “The greater his pomp and splendour, the more shouldst thou beware of such an one; for he is a wolf that cometh in the shape of a good shepherd’s dog. Beware! it is against the custom of Christ and His Apostles.” It is again but the song of the wolves when they claim to mix themselves with worldly affairs and maintain the temporal supremacy. The greediness of the wolf is discernible in the means adopted to get money for the building of St. Peter’s. The interlocutor is warned against giving to mendicant priests and monks. In this strain is the pamphlet continued, reference being made to Luther’s dispute with Eck, who is sometimes called Dr. Gech, that is, Dr. Fop.

We have given this as a specimen of the almost purely theological pamphlet; although, as will have been evident, even this is directly connected with the material abuses from which the people were suffering. Another pamphlet of about the same date deals with usury, the burden of which had been greatly increased by the growth of the new commercial combinations already referred to in the Introduction, which combinations Dr. Eck had been defending at Bologna on theological grounds, in order to curry favour with the Augsburg merchant-prince, Fugger-schwatz.[1] It is called “Concerning Dues. Hither comes a poor peasant to a rich citizen. A priest comes also thereby, and then a monk. Full pleasant to read.” A peasant visits a burgher when he is counting money, and asks him where he gets it all from. “My dear peasant,” says the townsman, “thou askest me who give me this money. I will tell thee. There cometh hither a peasant, and beggeth me to lend him ten or twenty gulden. Thereupon I ask him an he possesseth not a goodly meadow or cornfield. ‘Yea! good Sir! ‘ saith he, ‘I have indeed a good meadow and a good corn-field. The twain are worth a hundred gulden’. Then say I to him: ‘Good, my friend, wilt thou pledge me thy holding? and an thou givest me one gulden of thy money every year I will lend thee twenty gulden now’. Then is the peasant right glad, and saith he: ‘Willingly will I pledge it thee’. ‘ I will warn thee,’ say I, ‘ that an thou furnishest not the one gulden of money each year, I will take thy holding for my own having.’ Therewith is the peasant well content, and writeth him down accordingly. I lend him the money; he payeth me one year, or may be twain, the due; thereafter can he no longer furnish it, and thereupon I take the holding and drive away the peasant therefrom. Thus I get the holding and the money. The same things do I with handicraftsmen. Hath he a good house? He pledgeth that house until I bring it behind me. Therewith gain I much in goods and money, and thus do I pass my days.” “I thought,” rejoined the peasant, “that ‘twere only the Jew who did usury, but I hear that ye also ply that trade.” The burgher answers that interest is not usury, to which the peasant replies that interest (Gült) is only a “subtle name”. The burgher then quotes Scripture, as commanding men to help one another. The peasant readily answers that in doing this they have no right to get advantage from the assistance they proffer. “Thou art a good fellow!” Says the townsman. “If I take no money for the money that I lend, how shall I then increase my hoard?” The peasant then reproaches him that he sees well that his object in life is to wax fat on the substance of others; “But I tell thee, indeed,” he says, “that it is a great and heavy sin”. Whereupon his opponent waxes wroth, and will have nothing more to do with him, threatening to kick him out in the name of a thousand devils; but the peasant returns to the charge, and expresses his opinion that rich men do not willingly hear the truth. A priest now enters, and to him the townsman explains the dispute. “Dear peasant,” says the priest, “wherefore camest thou hither, that thou shouldst make of a due[2] usury? May not a man buy with his money what he will?” But the peasant stands by his previous assertion, demanding how anything can be considered as bought which is only a pledge. “We priests,” replies the ecclesiastic, “must perforce lend money for dues, since thereby we get our living;” to which, after sundry ejaculations of surprise, the peasant retorts: “Who gave to you the power? I well hear ye have another God than we poor people. We have our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath forbidden such money-Iending for gain.” Hence it comes, he does on, that land is no longer free; to attempt to whitewash usury under the name of due or interest, he says, is just the same as if one were to call a child christened Friedrich or Hansel, Fritz or Hans, and then maintain it was no longer the same child. They require no more Jews, he says, since the Christians have taken their business in hand. The townsman is once more about to turn the peasant out of his house, when a monk enters. He then lays the matter before the new-comer, who promises to talk the peasant over with soft words; for, says he, there is nothing accomplished with vainglory. He thereupon takes him aside and explains it to him by the illustration of a merchant whose gain on the wares he sells is not called usury, and argues that therefore other forms of vain in business should not be described by this odious name. But the peasant will have none of this comparison; for the merchant, he says, needs to incur much risk in order to gain and traffic with his wares; while money-lending on security is, on the other hand, without risk or labour, and is a treacherous mode of cheating. Finding that they can make nothing of the obstinate countryman, the others leave him; but he, as a parting shot, exclaims: “Ah, Well-a-day! I would to have talked with thee at first, but it is now ended. Farewell, gracious sir, and my other kind sirs. I, poor little peasant, I go my way. Farewell, farewell, due remains usury for evermore. Yea, yea! due, indeed!”

One more example will suffice to give the reader an idea of the character of these first specimens of pamphlet literature; and this time it shall be taken from the widely-read anonymous tract entitled “Der Karsthans”. [The Man who wields the Hoe, that is, the Peasant.] This production is specially- directed against the monk, Murner, who had at first, as already stated, endeavoured to sit on the fence, admitting certain abuses in the Church, but who before long took sides against Luther and the Reformation, becoming, in fact, after the disputation with Eck, the author of a series of polemical writings against the hero of the Reformation. The most important of these appeared in the autumn of 1520; and the “Karsthans” is the answer to them from the popular side of the movement. On the title-page Murner is depicted as a monk with a cat’s head; and in the dialogue there are five dramatis personae, Karsthans, Murner, Luther, a Student, and Mercury, the latter interjecting sarcastic remarks in Latin. Turner begins by mewing like a cat. Karsthans, the peasant, and his son, the student, listen, and describe to each other the manners and characters of cats, especially, their slyness and cunning. The son at the bidding of his father is about to pelt the cat with stones, but comes back, saying: “ Oh, father what a loathsome beast! It is no true cat, though it looketh to be one. It waxeth even greater and greater. Its hue is grey, and it hath a wondrous head.” As the father, Karsthans, is seeking his flail that he may annihilate the beast, his son discovers that it is human, at which the father exclaims: “It is a devil!” They advance towards it, and discover it to be a churchman. “I am a clerk and more than a clerk,” cries Murner in anger. “I am eke a man and a monk.” Karsthans asks pardon; but Murner threatens him, and, as the monk grows more exasperated, the son exhorts the father to modesty in the presence so exalted a spiritual personage. “Oh, father!” cries the son, “ It is indeed a great man. I have read his title. He is a poet, who bath been crowned with the laurel wreath, and is a doctor in both disciplines, and also in the Holy Scriptures. Moreover, he is one of the: free regular clergy, and is called Thomas Murner of Strassburg.” Some chaff follows between the father and son as to all the monk’s spirituality residing in his garb. This gives rise to a quarrel between Karsthans and Murner, in which the student again exhorts his father to moderation in his language, on the ground that Murner is a good jurist. Karsthans demands how it is compatible to be spiritual in the cloister and cunning in the world, to which Murner replies: Incompatibilia auctoritate papae unici possunt. (“Incompatibles can be made to agree by the authority of the Pope.”) Karsthans, who calls this a lie, is roundly abused by Murner: “Thou boorish clown, injustum est ut monachis operandibus servi eorum otio torpeunt”. (“It is unjust that while monks are their servants should slumber in idleness.”) “Yea, truly!” answers Karsthans, “ye stink of secrets. During the dispute Luther enters. Ah!” exclaims Murner, “doth that fellow come? There are too many people here. Let me go out by the back.” Karsthans wonders at Murner’s attitude, as in a general way the Churches were glad to meet each other, and as Luther was everywhere recognised as a good man and a pious Christian. Murner begs Karsthans not to reveal him, as he is pledged to regard Luther as a heretic, and he is determined to prove him one. Karsthans wants to know why he does not dispute personally with Luther like “Dr. Genzhuss,” meaning Eck, in Leipzig. “But, father,” interposes the son, “Dr. Eck, as some say, hath not won for himself much honour or victory- over Luther.” Karsthans is amazed, and replies: “But yet he hath so cried out and fought that scarce an one might speak before him”. “He hath also,” the student observes, “received 500 ducats from the Pope for his works; and,” he adds, “if Dr. Eckius had overcome Luther, as he hath been overcome by him, he (that is, the Pope) would have made of him a camel with broad hoofs,” the latter being a current phrase to indicate a cardinal; “and Murner also hopes to pluck some feathers out of the crow, like Eck.” Luther knocks again, and Murner tries to get away, but Karsthans holds him hack. After sundry pleasantries between Karsthans and Murner, in the course of which the monk advises the peasant to go to the bookseller, Grüninger, in Strassburg, and buy his two books, the one on “Baptism,” and the other entitled “A Christian and Brotherly Warning,” Murner takes his leave, and Luther enters. On Karsthans wanting to know what brings him to Germany, he replies: “The simplicity of the German people — to wit, that they are of so small an understanding. What any man feigns and lies to them, that they at once believe, and think no further of the matter. Therefore are they so much deceived, and a laughing stock for other peoples.” The student reminds his father that Murner had declared Luther to be a heretic. Karsthans thereupon again seeks his flail; but Luther demands impartiality. Since he had heard Murner he should hear him also. Karsthans agrees; but the son objects, as the Dominicans and doctors in Cologne, especially Hochstraten,[3] had said that it was dangerous to dispute with or, give ear to such people, since even the Ketzermeister (refuters of heretics) often came off second best in the contest; as in the case of Dr. Reuchlin, who in spite of their condemnation had been exonerated by Rome, and the Papal sentence against him revoked. “And again what a miracle happened in the 20th year at Mainz! There came a legate from Rome, who was to see that Luther’s books were thoroughly burnt; and while all were awaiting the issue at the appointed place, the hangman asked whether judgement had been given that the books should be burnt; and since no one could tell him the truth, the careless fellow would not execute the sentence, and went his way. Oh! what great shame and ignominy was shown to the legate! And since he was not willing to bear the shame, he must persuade the hangman with cunning and presents that he should the next day burn two or four little books. I had thought,” concluded the student, “that he had not need to have asked further in the face of the Pope’s legate and strict command, and of the heretic-confuter’s office.” Karsthans is indignant, and threatens every “rascal from home” with his flail; to which the student rejoins: “Oh, father ! thou thinkest it is with the Pope’s power as with thy headship in the village which thou hast, where thou canst not of thy will act a straw’s breadth except with the knowledge and consent of thy neighbours, who are all vile peasants, and who think there will be sore trouble if they judge other than as witness-bearing dictateth. But it is not so with the Pope; ofttimes it is: Sic volumus, sic jubemus, oportet; sufficit, vicisse. (“As we will, as we command, so let it be; it sufficeth to have prevailed.”) Karsthans requires that if the Pope has divine power, he should also do divine works; whereas the student defends the absolute power of the Pope and the bishops. He complains that his father is an enemy of the priests, like all the rest of the peasants. Karsthans rejoins that there are four propositions on which the whole controversy turns: “Thou art Peter; on St. Peter I will build my Church. Feed my sheep. What I bid you, that do ye. He who despiseth you, despiseth me also.” He then demands of Luther that he should write in the German tongue, and let them see whether they could not save him from the power of the Pope and from the wearers of broad-brimmed hats. But Luther declines such help, and thereupon departs. Karsthans is offended that the Pope is called by his son, the student, the highest authority of the Christian faith. “For,” says he, “Christ alone is this authority. He is the only bridegroom, and the bride can know no other. Else were she impure and wrinkled, and not a pure bride. Moreover, the bride is not at variance with her bridegroom, but with the Pope she is well-nigh always at variance. That which one will, the other will not. Furthermore, the bride is spiritual, but this Roman is bodily and worldly.” The student answers: “The bridegroom hath given the bride a bodily head,” a point which the peasant disputes, while admitting it may be good to have spiritual and carnal authority; “but,” says he, “Christ has called to this office not only one but all the Apostles,” and he enlarges on the difference between this and the scramble for office then apparent in the State. The student again remonstrates with his peasant father for his unceremonious treatment of the learned man; and, at the same time, he blames Luther for attacking certain articles of the Christian faith, which all 1men ought to hold sacred. Karsthans wants to know if he refers to the dogma of the Trinity. This the student denies, saying that it is no such thing as that, or any other question which the theologians seek to prick with the point of a needle. He finally admits that he is referring to the question of the supremacy of the Pope, affirming that it “were a deadly sin to believe that the Pope had stood one quarter of an hour in deadly sin. Item, that the Pope alone shall interpret the right sense and meaning of the Scriptures, and shall alone have full power, not only on earth, but also in Purgatory.” The student then proceeds to quote the various Credos, the Athanasian, the Nicene, and so forth; till at last Karsthans bursts out: “Look you now! if you make it so, the articles of faith will at last be a great bookful. ... The pious doctor, Martin Luther, doth teach aright: ‘Rest thy faith on Christ alone, and therewith hath the matter an end’. “Karsthans, in addition, proceeds to uphold the right of the common man to his own interpretation of the articles of faith, maintaining the appeal to Holy Writ against all ecclesiastical authority; “for by the Scripture one knoweth unfailingly at all time whether such authority do rule righteously or not, since the Scripture is the true article of covenant which Christ hath left us “. The dispute continues, with occasional interjections in Latin by Mercury, in his capacity as cynical chorus, till Karsthans gets very rude indeed, accuses the absent Murner of having lice in his cowl, calls him an evil cat that licks before and scratches behind, and demands why he dare not go to Wittenberg to dispute with Dr. Martin Lather, as Eck had just done. Then with an Aldi, ich far dakin, equivalent to the modern English, “Well, I'm off,” from the peasant, a Dii secundent from Mercury, and an Uterque valeat from the student, the party separates, and the dialogue comes to an end.

We have given a somewhat lengthy account of this dialogue, on account of its importance, even at the risk of wearying the reader. Its drastic assertion of the right of the common man to independence of his superiors in spiritual matters, with its side hints and suggestions justifying resistance to all authority that had become oppressive, was not without its effects on the social movements of the following years. For the reader who wishes to further study this literature we give the titles, which sufficiently indicate their contents, of a selection of other similar pamphlets and broadsheets: ‘’ A New Epistle from the Evil Clergy sent to their righteous Lord, with an answer from their Lord. Most merry to read “ (152 t ). “A Great Prize which the Prince of Hell, hight Lucifer, now offereth to the Clergy, to the Pope, Bishops, Cardinals, and their like” (1521). ‘'A Written Call, made by the Prince of Hell to his clear devoted, of all and every condition in his kingdom “ (1521). “Dialogue or Converse of the Apostolicum, Angelica, and other spices of the Druggist, anent Dr. Martin Luther and his disciples” (1521). “A Very Pleasant Dialogue and Remonstrance from the Sheriff of Gaissdorf and his pupil against the pastor of the same and his assistant” (1521). The popularity of “Karsthans” amongst the people is illustrated by the publication and wide distribution of a new “Karsthans” a few months later, in which it is sought to show that the knighthood should make common cause with the peasants, the dramatis personae being Karsthans and Franz von Sickingen. Referring to the same subject we find a “Dialogue which Franciscus von Sickingen held fore heaven’s gate with St. Peter and the knights of St. George before he was let in “. This was published in 152;, almost immediately after the death of Sickingen. “A Talk between a Nobleman, a Monk, and a Courtier” (1525). “A Talk between a Fox and a Wolf” (1523). “A Pleasant Dialogue between Dr. Martin Luther and the cunning Messenger from Hell” (1523). “A Conversation of the Pope with his Cardinals of how it goeth with him, and how he may destroy the Word of God. Let every man very well note” (t125). “A Christian and Merry Talk, that it is more pleasing to God and more wholesome for men to come out of the monasteries and to marry, than to tarry therein and to burn; which talk is not with human folly and the false teachings thereof, but is founded alone in the holy, divine, biblical and evangelical Scripture” (1524). “A Pleasant Dialogue of a Peasant with a Monk that he should cast his Cowl from him. Merry and fair to read” (1525).

The above is only a selection of specimens taken haphazard from the mass of fugitive literature which the early years of the Reformation brought forth. In spite of certain rough but not unattractive directness of diction, a prolonged reading of them is very tedious, as will have been sufficiently seen from the extracts we have given. The humour is of a particularly juvenile and obvious character, and consists almost entirely in the childish device of clothing the personages with ridiculous but non-essential attributes, or in placing them in grotesque but pointless situations. Of the more subtle humour, which consists in the discovery of real but hidden incongruities, and the perception of what is innately absurd, there is no trace. The obvious abuses of the time are satirised in this way ad nauseam. The rapacity of the clergy in general, the idleness and lasciviousness of the monks, the pomp and luxury of the prince-prelates, the inconsistencies of Church traditions and practices with Scripture, with which they could now be compared, since it was everywhere circulated in the vulgar tongue, form their never-ending theme. They reveal to the reader a state of things that strikes one none the less in English literature of the period, — the intense interest of all classes in theological matters. It shows us how they looked at all things through a theological lens. Although we have left this phase of popular thought so recently behind us, we can even now scarcely imagine ourselves back into it. The idea of ordinary men, or of the vast majority, holding their religion as anything else than a very pious opinion absolutely unconnected with their daily life, public or private, has already become almost inconceivable to us. In all the writings of the time, the theological interest is in the forefront. The economic and social ground-work only casually reveals itself. This it is that makes the reading of the sixteenth century polemics so insufferably jejune and dreary. They bring before us the ghosts of controversies in which most men have ceased to take any part, albeit they have not been dead and forgotten long enough to have acquired a revived antiquarian interest. It reminds one of the faint echoes of the doctrinal disputes of a generation ago, which, already dying on the Continent of Europe, still continued to agitate the English middle classes of all ranks, and are remembered now with but a smile at their immense puerility.

The great bomb-shell which Luther cast forth on the 24th of June, 1520, in his address to the German nobility,[] indeed contains strong appeals to the economical and political necessities of Germany, and therein we see the veil torn from the half-unconscious motives that lay behind the theological mask; but, as already said, in the popular literature, with a few exceptions, the theological controversy rules undisputed.

The noticeable feature of all this irruption of the cacoëthes scribendi was the direct appeal to the Bible for the settlement not only of strictly theological controversies but of points of social and political ethics also. This practice, which even to the modern Protestant seems insipid and played out after three centuries and a half of wear, had at that time the to us inconceivable charm of novelty; and the perusal of the literature and controversies of the time shows that men used it with all the delight of a child with a new toy, and seemed never tired of the game of searching out texts to justify their position. The diffusion of the whole Bible in the vernacular, itself a consequence of the rebellion against priestly tradition and the authority of the Fathers, intensified the revolt by making the pastime possible to all ranks of society.

1. See Appendix C.

2. We use the word “due” here for the German word Gült. The corresponding, English of the time does not make any distinction between Gült or interest, and Wucher or usury.

3. Hochstraten was one of the great adversaries of Reuchlin.

4. “An der Christlichen Adel deutscher Nation.”