Posts Tagged 'The Reformation'

The first blogger

495 year ago today Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg Germany.

He did this as a protest against the selling of indulgences, but the theses go farther than merely protesting indulgences. Luther had not yet developed the doctrine of sola fide but these theses push in that direction.

The response Luther got, that so many people were interested indicates how much resentment there was against Rome, otherwise everyone would have just ignored it.

Most of us will never blog anything remotely as significant as Luther’s 95 theses, but we should never forget that sometimes just speaking out can make a difference.

Neil Oliver on Mary Queen of Scotts

Most English historians fall into the Elizabeth was the clever one who ruled with her head while Mary was the pretty one who ruled with her heart cliché. We have a special word for these kinds of historians. We call them men.

In spite of being a man Oliver, perhaps because he is Scottish, succeeds in seeing past this sexist drivel to give us a fuller historical portrait of Mary Queen of Scotts. When Mary’s husband, Francis II, died and Catherine de Medici booted her out of France, Mary had a decision to make about how she was to approach the Scottish throne. She wisely decided to work with the Protestant government which had just taken power. This shows me that she understood that there were limits to royal power and that the Reformation was a done deal in Scotland, or at least if it wasn’t, she could not just order everyone to return to the Church of Rome. Clearly she had some understanding of politics and human nature.

Early when she returned to Scotland she was confronted by John Knox, who challenged her right to rule. She faced him down. Let that sink in. Mary Queen of Scotts faced down John Knox. Clearly she must have been a very formidable lady. Queenly you might say.

So here is my assessment of Mary Queen of Scotts, she made three big errors in her life. First of all she carelessly permitted herself to be born female. While the life of Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great shows us that this error need not be fatal, it was certainly very careless of her. Had she made the more prudent choice of being born a man, she would have been raised in Scotland with a better understanding of its politics and the possibility of acquiring some allies, possibly somebody she could even trust, at least some of the time.

Mary’s second error, and the most serious one in my judgment, was to maintain her religion rather than become a Presbyterian. People do not like to be ruled by a member of a religious minority. That goes double for those who have just established their religious majority and are fearful of backsliders. When you think of all the controversy when Jack Kennedy ran for President in 1960 in a nation that had established the separation of church and state (something Knox never believed in), you realize how much more serious this would have been in 16th century Scotland. The Protestant majority just could not stand a Catholic monarch. On the other hand, they could not just eject her either, because they could not imagine a non-monarchical form of government. But inevitably there would be plots against her, and her bastard half brother who was a Protestant must have seen himself as a suitable replacement for her.

If Paris was worth a mass, surely Edinburgh was worth more than a mass. Of course, if you really believed that such a bargain would condemn you to the ever lasting fires of hell, then no, it would not be much of a bargain. But certainly her keeping her religion set the Protestant lords against her, and equally dangerous, Elizabeth I. Elizabeth did not want a Catholic state on her border, neither did she want a Catholic heir. So Mary’s religion put her in a very dangerous position.

Then she made a disastrous marriage. It is just way too easy to say she was ruled by her heart. Nothing in her fantastic Renaissance education would have prepared her for the Henry Darnley’s of this world. All the literature about abusive men says that they are classically super attentive in the beginning. Add attentiveness to a handsome appearance and a high birth with a claim to the English throne, and you can see why Mary went for Henry in a big way.

How different would history be in Darnley had been built a little more along the lines of Prince Albert, or even a harmless drone like Prince George of Denmark. Who knows, Mary might have made a go of it. However, Darnley was a malevolent drunk. It is a pity we don’t talk about him more. Maybe more men would understand how pride can be a man’s undoing. Maybe men would understand how much of their own well being is wrapped up in being a good husband, or at least not being a horrible one. We always blame Mary for her poor choice in men, we never blame Darnley for being a lout. Maybe if we pointed to Darnley as being an example of what happens when a man gives in to pride, more men would avoid becoming a lout.

Darnley murdered Mary’s advisor, David Riccio. Here I think Mary made a dreadful error. She should have put Darnley and the rest of the murderers on trial and chopped off their heads. By failing to do so, she demonstrated her lack of power. At that point she was defacto, no longer queen. At minimum a monarch must show that direct challenges to power will have terrible consequences.

So Darnley was murdered, apparently, by Bothwell. Mary married Bothwell. It is said that he raped her; that she married him to keep her honor. Well, if he had raped her, and she got pregnant, then how would Mary explain the pregnancy? So I can see why she married him, but wow, it looks horrible, even 500 years later. So the mob drove her out of power.

Oliver does not explain why Mary ran to England, and I don’t know the history at all, so I don’t know why Mary would think that Elizabeth would help her. Even if Elizabeth falsely promised help, why would Mary believe her? Why didn’t Mary run to Norway? we will never know.

Oliver’s program on the Covenanters is fascinating, with such evocative music. If you have only heard this story from the English side, you don’t realize the crucial role the Covenanters had in starting the series of events that lead to the English Civil war. It all started with Charles I foolish decision to impose the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Scottish Presbyterians wanted no part of the Book of Common Prayer, and so one thing led to another.

Oliver describes Oliver Cromwell as a king killer in a tone that indicates that that is a bad thing. Charles I attacked his subjects, first the Irish, then the Scots, and then the English and he was beaten on every count. How many of his subjects was it OK for Charles I to kill before his subjects up and killed him? I mean, what would anyone expect? Had Cromwell been a tad less righteous and a tad more cynical he was have banished Charles I and his family to the colonies. Let Charles be King of Virginia. Depend upon it, given Charles’ gift for the ineffective use of violence, it would only be a question of time before Charles and his entire family perished in a slave rebellion. They would have been condemned to the sort of sordid death they were so eager to inflict upon others. Criticize Cromwell for his march through Ireland, criticize him for being a military dictator; but when he killed a king, he struck a tremendous blow for liberty and executive accountability.

I must say that I admire the Covenanters tremendously. Probably because their descendants live up the road from me in West Virginia. Oliver summerizes the Covenanters as “One nation under god, bound for glory”. Doesn’t that describe West Virginia and Kentucky perfectly? I don’t know what the Covenanters’ impact upon Scotland was; but it is clear what their impact upon the Southern Mountains has been. I don’t know anything about the politics of southwest Scotland; but I suspect it is far calmer than the turbulent politics of the southern mountains.

Oliver says that Scotland is no longer god’s country. True enough, now the United States of America is god’s country. Yes indeedy ladies and gentlemen, the Covenanters, now with nuclear weapons!


Roger Ebert has an entertaining review of Luther, as much as I disagree with his take. However, he got the main point correct:

It is unlikely audiences will attend this film for an objective historical portrait; its primary audience is probably among believers who seek inspiration.

The primary audience for this film is Protestants who will watch it to cheer for their hero. And contrary to what Ebert suggests, you will not be disappointed. This is a tremendous film, highly recommended.

The challenges of making a religious film, and wisely the film makers decided to go with the religious approach, are great. It is just too easy to be too cliché, to bombastic, or too holy. This film avoids all those errors. Neither is it a period piece, not a costume drama. This is an exciting movie about an exciting story. Excellent scenes with horses riding through dark forests, french horns, and everything that could be desired.

The music is excellent. Richard Harvey‘s score perfectly supports the script. At first I was disappointed that he did not incorporate A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. But upon reflection that might have been too much of a Protestant sledgehammer. He did use one of Luther’s hymns, one I did not recognize. This movie could have used more of Luther the musician. A few scenes of Fiennes playing the lute and singing would have gone a long way to brightening this very intense movie.

The Protestants who will love this film will fall into two groups, those with only a vague knowledge of the historical events in this film, and those of us who have read numerous histories of the Reformation. It is very difficult to satisfy both groups, but this film does.

The film opens with the famous lightening storm where the young Luther promises God to become a monk in exchange for his life and takes us to the Augsburg Confession.

Ebert again:

He must have been quite a man. I doubt if he was much like the uncertain, tremulous figure in “Luther,” who confesses, “Most days, I’m so depressed I can’t even get out of bed.”

This is actually drawn directly from the historical record. Luther was famously subject to prolonged periods of deep depression. He was also famous for his arguments with the devil. If you visit Erfut Castle you can see where Luther threw ink at the devil. The stain is still there.

My favorite scenes are the exchanges between Luther and Spalatin, such as early in the film when Luther has been summoned to Rome and Luther says “I cannot believe that the Pope would issue such an order,” whereupon Spalatin replies “welcome to the world of politics.” There is another great exchange in Erfurt Castle where Spalatin says, of translating the bible into German, “It’s the thing Rome fears most,” whereupon Luther responds with a sly smile, “Well, you must blame the author for that.”

Alfred Molina is brilliant as Johann Tetzel, playing the infamous seller of indulgence with just the perfect blend of stern Dominican and ingenious traveling salesman.

The iconic scene of nailing the 95 theseses is done brilliantly, with the pounding of the hammer echoing into the nave of Castle Church, and by inference, every church in Europe. The scene is mixes with scenes of printing presses (who might as well be listed as a supporting cast member) and crashing indulgence sales.

I like the Cardinal Cajetan in this movie and sympathize with his frustration. Like the historical Cajetan, the one in the movie portrayed as a reformer. However, the historical Cajetan was, like most Dominicans of that era, far too keen on burning people.

The question arises as to why they did not burn Luther after his meeting with Cajetan in 1518. The reason is that burning Luther would have offended Frederick the Wise. Since Frederick was an Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, and since the Emperor Maximilian I was ailing, the Pope did not want to risk offending any of the Electors, lest the Papacy lose influence on the selection of the next Holy Roman Emperor. Ranke details how Frederick the Wise required a promise of a trial in Germany for anyone accused of a crime, in anticipation of charges against Luther, before he voted for Charles V for Emperor.

Ebert again:

The movie follows the movie hat rule: The more corrupt the character, the more absurd his hat. Of course Luther has the monk’s shaven tonsure. He’s one of those wise guys you find in every class, who knows more than the teacher. When one hapless cleric is preaching “there is no salvation outside the Church,” Luther asks, “What of the Greek Christians?” and the professor is stumped.

The professor of course is the famous Andreas Karlstadt. This is the challenge of telling Luther’s story; Luther is surrounded by so many historical giants. The uprising that Karlstadt would lead was not Protestant versus Catholics, but Anabaptist radicals against conservative reformers. Protestantism began to fracture from the very moment of its birth.

The excommunication scene is wonderfully presented. The text of the bull is read over a scene of Leo X spearing a boar with a sound track of french horns blazing. It could not be more splendidly told.

I like the way this movie handles Luther at the Diet of Worms. The very quiet voice that Fiennes employs is counter intuitive, but creates a great tension. Of course he uses the most famous words Luther never said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Luther never said that, but since that is the only thing people know about him, you can’t leave it out of the movie. The rest of the speech is drawn directly from the historical record and it pretty splendid that Luther was brave enough to look the Emperor in the eye and say it. It made him a national hero.

Ebert again:

When he leaves the priesthood and marries the nun Katharina von Bora (Claire Cox), where is the passion that should fill him? Their romance is treated like an obligatory stop on the biographical treadmill, and although I am sure Katharina told Martin many tender things, I doubt one of them was “We’ll make joyous music together.” This Martin Luther is simply not a joyous music kind of guy.

Compared to the historical record the movie gives us a red hot romance. Luther was very worried about the nuns who had run away from the convents and was anxious to find husbands for all of them. Katharina von Bora was the only one left and she suggested that she could marry Luther or one of the other reformers (whose name now escapes me). Luther decided that he would marry her. It was not until he was married that he decided he really really really really liked Katharina von Bora. In all his letters he constantly praises his wife.

This is a wonderful movie and highly recommended.

Diarmaid MacCulloch The Reformation

I am just finishing Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation. It’s great. He completely demolishes Weber’s and Tawney’s theory about Protestantism and the rise of capitalism. Few things are as satisfying as watching a historian demolish a widely accepted theory, even if it is one of your favorites.

MacCulloch is a truly witty historian and provides plenty of comedic relief, which is so important when you are dealing with a subject like the Reformation. His history is comprehensive, as it includes the Reformation in central and eastern Europe. I was previously unfamiliar with the Reformation in Poland and Transylvania, I had just assumed that it never got that far east. This is also the best history of the 30 years war that I have read, althought that might reflect more on my limited reading than anything else.

MacCulloch brings out and explains the back and forth between the various reformers. Previously I had no idea that Strasbourg had played such a crucial role in the Reformation.

MacCulloch also gives us a glimpse of what life during the Reformation must have been like for ordinary people with he detailed looked into ideas about death, magic, and sex.

One thing he explains is why anyone would put up with, never mind be attracted to strict Calvinism. This is something that I have often wondered about, as like MacCulloch, I am descended from Huguenots. People in the 16th Century did not have the same assumptions about personal freedom as those of us who inhabit 21st century America. They did yearn for order in a disorderly world and Calvinsim provided that in spades.

MacCulloch is also the only Reformation historian with which I am familiar who credits music with the spread of the Reformaiton. Previously I had never heard of Clement Marot; now I plan to research his music. I wonder if anyone has recorded it?

UPDATE: Kevin Drum was not impressed. He should have skipped ahead to the section on the United States, which I suspect he would like. The Reformation is a huge subject, is simply must be covered at length at with some detail. Drum might prefer Preserved Smith’s Age of the Reformation, which is organzied by country, and then a series of chapters on the times of the Reformation, arts and literature, science, economics, and so on. I am going to write about Smith’s book later.