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Methodological Study in face of the Controversies Representing the Reformation and Peasants’ War of 1525

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I thought I was going to write my dissertation on Martin Luther and the Peasants’ War of 1525, which I had been studying for many years. The historiographical problem about interpreting the Reformation from a social and political perspective or even more extremely, as the Bourgeois Revolution, versus interpreting it from a religious perspective needed to be faced. With the collapse of the Christian-Marxist Dialogue and its perspective, I had to struggle to find another one. I wanted to point out that the Reformation was a period in history when religious factors predominated and social and political factors so predominant today, should not erase this historical reality.

I don’t believe my doctoral committee ever saw this essay of mine and I ended up writing about Luther from the perspective of pamphlet studies. I believe this essay, launched from the work of Marc Bloch could still be a helpful guide to a work with a historical perspective along these lines.

Methodological Considerations for the History of the

Reformation, Luther, and the Peasants’ War

February 13th 1996

1. Introduction

This essay would attempt to discuss critically the useful methodologies for the kind of work this student plans to undertake, if he were completely sure what direction his work would take. But in the long interim, in which work upon his specialty was suspended, the former “sense of direction” – a dialogue with the Marxist approach to the Reformation and the Peasants’ War – has now been lost, and a new approach has not yet emerged. It is hoped that one will do so in the reading of primary documents.

Candidates for a new approach might be

1) Communion debate as the debate over the nature of community: discerning the social body, communion and the estates, the ban, excommunication. The problem with this topic is that the great communion debate takes place after the Peasants’ War.

2) Luther’s stand against the peasants was an inner contradiction in his theology, which burst the confines of even his dialectic. This thesis opposes Paul Althaus, who claims Luther’s stand is completely consistent with his theology.

3) A language investigation of that of Luther and the peasants to see whether performative language can elucidate the Word of God dynamic for the Reformation, the Peasants’ War, and continual renewals from the Gospel.

4) An attempt could be made to situate Luther and the Peasants’ War in a more accurately described sociological setting, in which religion becomes the dominant note. It could also take a closer look at the diverse objectives, settings, and character of those areas taking part and affected by the uprising: Swabia, Austria, Franconia, Alsace, Thueringia, Tyrol, etc. This work would deal with the contrast between our predominant political, social, and economic presuppositions, and the predominant religious presuppositions and factors, which are often discounted causing historical distortion.

5) Another approach may still develop or emerge from some concentrated reading and rereading of the primary sources.

The issues that any chosen approach to these subjects will touch upon, are fraught with religious and political controversy. Marc Bloch’s chapter on “Nomenclature” is a survey that promises some help for this concern. It moves from the problem of using our words and categories to understand the early sixteenth century, (in this case), as opposed to using the vocabulary and categories of the persons of that history to understand the time; the different cases in the relation between words and things for a historian follow. The problem of charged words and crucial concepts and labels, for which there is no agreement, also need to be addressed, because naming groups is problematical: the Anabaptists or Enthusiasts, for example: It is not very sensitive to even write the latter name anymore. The labels, ‘Counter Reformation’ as opposed to ‘Catholic Reformation,’ ‘Peasants’ War’ versus ‘Rebellion’ or ‘Revolution,’ or even, Peter Blickle’s term, the ‘Communal Reformation’ follow in this study because they need airing for ideological content! No matter what approach one takes in a dissertation, language questions need to be taken into account to deal with the controversial nature of this history both for Luther and the Reformation, as well as, for the Peasants’ War, according to the religious and political stand one takes. Marc Bloch’s insight into the issues of nomenclature here is crucial.

Bloch also helps throw light on the difference between a scholar as a historian and judge, and then, because a historian has powerful feelings about the issues – and the times were certainly not ecumenical – how can a historian give an honest representation, an honest account, of this time?

These questions will take up the major portion of this essay, but some illustrations will also come from Otto Brunner, et al., Begriffsgeschichte,  (the historical career of social and political concepts); some illustrations will come from Peter Burke; and finally, in order to read primary sources, some material on Early New High German, and its location in the history of German, are included as an aid to reading primary source documents. Language is also historical evidence, and words and concepts are like artifacts or fossils of earlier social formations of history.

2. Marc Bloch presents one of the major questions of this methodological study when he notes that historians have a problem with nomenclature, because they cannot agree on definitions of terms. While scientists can name their objects, in history the “subjects” name themselves.[i] A chemist can name realities that are incapable of naming themselves, but historical persons have already named their actions, beliefs, and various aspects of their social life without waiting for the historian to make them objects of disinterested research.[ii] The documents perused, tend to impose their own nomenclature on the historian,[iii] but the latter, of course, is thinking according to the categories of his or her own time and consequently with its words. Thus two distinct orientations almost necessarily divide the language of the historian.[iv]

An analogy can be drawn between a contemporary orientation and that of another historical period with counseling. The counselor, like the historian, needs to be able to surrender his or her vocabulary and learn that of the client, but then be able to understand, diagnose and interpret the client’s condition in his or her own words, be they technical or otherwise. There is a point where the analogy breaks down, because the historian does not have to help the people of a previous historical period understand themselves, but help his or her contemporaries understand that period and themselves better for it.

Thus a historian needs to learn the vocabulary of that period, because, according to Bloch:

“A nomenclature thrust on the past will always end by distorting it whether by design, or simply as a consequence of equating its categories with [one’s] own.”[v]

An apt example: the Marxist historians have labeled the Reformation the “Early Bourgeois Revolution,” and featured its predominant event as the Peasants’ War with Thomas Müntzer as its hero. Martin Luther and the religious events were interpreted as a mere shadow of the really significant social and material upheaval (epiphenomenalism). In the case of the Marxists not only a nomenclature was thrust upon the period, but dialectical materialism as well, all of which was not surrendered in order to first understand the people of the period on their own terms. One could ask the Marxists, who were the early bourgeoisie? They would have to answer, the burghers, of course. But the Burghers in the cities did not support the peasants. Peter Blickle would then speak about the “common man” (der gemeine Man) rather than the early bourgeoisie, but, at least, he represents real struggle to understand the people of that day in their own terms.    It is a distortion of history to have a theory and to make every historical period become an illustration of it.

This study will follow Bloch’s outline of the methodological problems caused by nomenclature:

In the first place, “[then] changes in things do not by any means always entail similar changes in names.”[vi]

Bloch attaches the examples of modern vehicles of transport. A car is still called a coupé and a limousine, but they are no longer horse-drawn. Because medieval people kept the same names, too, he takes a plow for example: he could not tell if one with wheels, a carruca, or one without wheels, a aratrum, was being used.[vii] His discussion here of the term servus, from which the term ‘serf’ is derived is an excellent introduction into the complexity of the nomenclature problem. Especially in the surprising discovery that the term ‘slave’ originated in about 1000 A.D. when Slavic people were sold in the “market of human flesh,” in such utter subjection, that the indigenous western serf was shocked.[viii] Thus the servi or ‘servants’ of Roman times began to be called ‘slaves,’ and became distinguished from the serfs, who were tied to the land, but whose bodies could not be bought and sold on an auction block.

Bloch continues that,

“Conversely, moreover, the names sometimes vary according to time or place, independently of any variation in the things themselves.”[ix]

The many different dialects involved in the Peasants’ War, means that almost different languages are involved, rather than just a variations in names. But even here in North America, where dialects do not diverge much from standard English, we can still speak of soda or pop, or tonic in New England.

Some words when translated will bring distortion, because they are too close to a unique situation, to a Sitz im Leben, to be translated without postulating a sociological resemblance to the social referent of a term from another language.[x] Bloch notes the German word ‘Reich’ which does not really mean ’empire’ so much as a German experience of a political form constantly oscillating between particularism and unity.[xi] The mercenary of the early sixteenth century is called the Landsknecht and is not translated, because a ‘field-hand’ would be a completely false idea. The Landsknecht was a highly trained, professional soldier recruited from among the peasants. How can one translate Bundschuh, the symbol of the heavy shoe or boot that peasants under Joss Fritz used as the standard for their rebellions? The league of the peasant’s shoe? The bond of the peasant’s boot?

But, as an aside, translation itself is a problem. It often does not understand how fields of meaning in one language are different and differently divided by words from fields in another. For example, in German a Bauer can be both a peasant or a farmer. In English there is the helpful distinction between the terms, relating each to its particular social order. Again in German, Gemeinde means ‘community’ and ‘congregation’ at the same time, which has implications for the two kingdom theory. In English the terms are separated, while the German language refuses to abide by Luther’s theology![xii] Joking aside, what must be distinguished theologically cannot be separated sociologically, except by distinguishing internal roles.

As soon as illegitimate translation is mentioned, Bloch needs to warn the historian from leaving all the concepts, like Landsknecht, in their original language. “To renounce any attempt at equivalence is often to do injury to reality itself.”[xiii] Common labels are necessary, and because the serf may have been slightly different in the various European and Asian countries, it is not helpful to have a different concept for each national variant. A term has to be used or

“we miss the essential point, which is to map the underlying connections between the facts by expressing them with an accurate nomenclature.”[xiv]

Bloch would agree that convention is involved in communication. ‘Convention’ in the double sense[xv] meaning of an ‘assembly of people’ and their ‘consensus’ or ‘agreement’ that a word will roughly designate a certain referent. Scientists still use the word ‘atom’ which means indivisible, knowing what they refer to, even if it is the “object of his [or her] most daring dissections.”[xvi] People have to agree to use the same symbol roughly for the same thing, and after that refinements for the concrete particulars can be made.

In history the thing can exist, before the word for it has been conceived. Then at some point in history, people become consciously aware of it and coin the term. An example is ‘revolution,’ or ‘slavery,’ or ‘class consciousness.’ Although the latter does not apply to the early modern period, Bloch mentions such a “sentiment of conscious and aroused solidarity” manifested itself with great force and clarity “among the agricultural laborers of northern France at the end of the Ancien Régime,” i.e., in 1789, and he notes:

“Nevertheless, this sentiment could not then have been named, because there was still no name for it.”[xvii]

Peter Blickle responding to anticipated criticism of his using the name “Revolution of 1525” for the Peasants’ War, notes:

“One can deny the revolutionary quality of 1525 only by arguing that the concept of revolution properly applies only when the word appears in history with its full modern meaning.”[xviii]

The previous analogy of the counselor used to explain the relationship of the words and consciousness of a historical period as opposed to that of the historian, explains why Blickle can use the term ‘revolution.’ All the categories and empathetic power (Einfühlungsvermögen) of the historian are needed to understand the people of that day, people different and other, in some ways more limited and in others more advanced than the people in the period of the historian. Thus there is only distortion if the historian equates the words, and along with them, the social formation of that period, with his or her own. For example, now perhaps 20% of the population live in the country, while 80% live in the cities and megopolies stretching through cities in European industrialized countries. In the time of the Peasants’ War, it was the reverse. More than 80% of the population lived in the villages and rural areas. And what is called, “household based, proto-industry” was non-urban. That has interesting implications and makes worker strikes and peasant rebellions somewhat analogous.

In some cases, one that Bloch does not mention, the thing only existed later, the word only appeared later in history, and it is still falsely or anachronistically ascribed to an earlier time. For the word ‘slavery,’ that is acceptable because the thing existed before the origination of the word in 1000 A.D., and the term ‘serf’ had come to mean something else, something milder. But ‘nationalism’ is often used to refer to the fervor that supported Luther against Rome, when Germany had more than three centuries to go before it would become a nation state. Nationalism of the people only became politically important in the late nineteenth century.[xix] An alternative explanation might be that the collective identity of the people was attaching itself to a religious stand on an issue and to language. Peter Burke comments:

“The power of memory, of imagination, and of symbols – notably language – in the construction of communities is increasingly recognized.”[xx]

Such new insights could support a thesis that the fervor was not nationalism, but a religious fervor that also revolved around a renewal, recognition, and promotion of the German language by Luther.

Bloch’s survey of the methodological problems match many of the concerns of this historian, making him very helpful at this juncture. He continues by dealing with what he calls ‘historical semantics’[xxi] and what Otto Brunner, Werne Conze, and Reinhart Koselleck call Begriffsgeschichte, i.e., the historical ‘career’ of concepts. Listen to Bloch:

“The advent of a name is always a great event even though the thing named preceded it; for it signifies the decisive moment of conscious awareness. What a forward stride was taken the day the initiates of a new faith first called themselves Christians!”[xxii]

Bloch illustrates this advent of names further by considering the cases of ‘feudalism,’ ‘capitalism,’ and ‘revolution.’ The latter term changed from former astrological associations for a very human meaning. In the heavens it was and still is a regular motion, while on earth it is a sharp crisis always aimed straight ahead.[xxiii] The word, ‘revolution’ was slowly received in the progress of the eighteenth century, then became a fashionable word, and only came into its own through the Enlightenment.[xxiv]

When considering the historical career of concepts, one needs to take a step beyond the same word for different things, different words for the same things, and words coming after or before things, etc. Words and things and social formations are all in flux. Thus words are also historical creatures, and are artifacts of social formations which themselves change over history. Should someone say that the Roman society based on slavery, changed into medieval feudalism, based on serfdom, which in turn became capitalism with its labor-force, then it would be right, but far too general a statement, and one that also seems to prevent further analysis, by proposing to know more than it does.

Bloch points to this change in social formations when he states:

“When … we consider the evolution of society as a whole, can we characterize its successive stages? The problem is to find its dominant note.”[xxv]

But that dominant note was religious and couched in theological language for the time of the Reformation, while now the dominant note is very much social, economic, and political. Note that the period has a religious label, and features a religious renewal, and is not dated according to Charles V or Francis I or one of the popes. Voltaire would be upset that the age was characterized by a religious movement, but otherwise it follows his stricture to periodize history without paying attention to battles, court politics, and the rise and fall of great dynasties. Voltaire would not like it, because it is not secular culture, but the Reformation is an example which fulfills his other wish. ‘Reformation’ does not refer to the politics of a king or military conquest, but to religion, one of “the most refined manifestations of the human spirit which, by [its] varying progress…set the tone of [this] historical epoch.”[xxvi]

What is the sense of these statements? A historian can delve into the early modern period, the time of the Reformation, and miss the dominant note of this historical stage in European social formation. This may be very obvious in terms of Marxist interpretations, but it is no less a distortion from a socio-economic, and political perspective that fails to regard the religious factors and take seriously the theological issues of the day.

The Reformation is still a controversial period, and adding to that the political controversy in terms of revolution and the Peasants’ War, any historical methodology needs to find a way to avoid charged words with powerful emotional overtones. Writing this history without a thought about the controversy over nomenclature will certainly distort it and lead it down the paths of the historian’s personal prejudices.[xxvii] Charged words thus need to be avoided, but then, the labels themselves for this period coming out of different religious traditions, are controversial. But if the role of judge is renounced for the role of scholar, as Bloch demands, then there is hope for an honest, balanced, and fair accounting.

Charged words can be looked at first. The documents are filled with them: ‘papists,’ ‘enthusiasts,’ ‘pfaffen,’ for ‘pastors.’ ‘Old believers’ as opposed to ‘new believers’ seems helpful to avoid the pejoratives used during the polemics of this time. The word, ‘pfaffe,’ used for a pastor or priest comes from an anti-clerical tradition, and is usually accompanied by derision. The word is close to Affe, meaning, ‘monkey’ or ‘ape.’

In terms of the word ‘enthusiasts,’ even if it has a rather positive Greek derivation, in the words of Bloch again, “A word is valued less for its etymology than for the use to which it is put.”[xxviii] And its use has become pejorative. The term, ‘Schwärmer’ when Luther first used it, of course, was also pejorative. But the people so named not only have a spiritual intensity about them, but also the quality of being dreamers, of being utopians, which the name intends to capture. Perhaps they could be called ‘militant spiritual activists.’[xxix]

Astrid Stedje writing her work, the German Language Yesterday and Today, in dealing with Luther’s contribution, as well as, language change in the Peasants’ War, uses a dialogue between a peasant and a Schwärmer for one of her language illustrations (The peasant is reproaching the Schwärmer):

Schwärmer: What use are the powerful on earth, except that they exercise pomp and arrogance?

Peasant: What concern is that of yours? We have to have them to punish evil-doers. Otherwise no one would be able to live with the evil-doers, and most likely, one man would devour the other, if there was no punishment. Thus they are established to pour wrath on and punish evil-doers.

Schwärmer:    But we are not evil-doers, because we fought for the sake of the will of God.

Peasant:    But if you are not evil-doers, then why did you crisscross the Eissfeld while you robbed, murdered, and burned?[xxx]

This dialogue should be taken with a grain of salt, however, because it was written by an associate of Luther’s, Agricola, who would not have been sympathetic with the ‘spiritual activists,’ the Schwärmer. It is interesting to note that John Agricola, in the Humanist fashion, bears the Latinized form of his German name, Bauer. Actually in this excerpt he defends the peasants by trying to relegate what he considers blameworthy about the Peasants’ War to another group, the militant Anabaptists.

To have noticed and included the latter dialogue shows how difficult it is to be impartial for this particular period in history. This historian is a Lutheran. Openness about one’s tradition as a historian may be helpful. Usually if it is not admitted, the tradition becomes obvious after considering a work anyway. It is probably not yet possible to be completely impartial about this particular period. Thus being open about one’s tradition and perspective, and attempting to be as fair and honest as possibly is necessary.

Bloch notes that one can be impartial in the role of a scholar or a judge. Both have a common root in their honest submission to the truth. “The scholar records – better still, invites – the experience which may, perhaps, upset his [or her] most cherished theories.”[xxxi] But we dare not get into blaming. From a biblical Pauline perspective, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”[xxxii] Therefore no one can be self righteous, and be a judge. Even according to Bloch, one must renounce the role of a judge to be a scholar, to be a historian. Bloch continues by citing Montaigne:

“Whenever judgment leans to one side we cannot help distorting and twisting the narrative in this direction.”[xxxiii]

Bloch recommends the difficult task of laying aside one’s own ego, to understand, not to judge, but try to fathom the soul of a Luther, for example.[xxxiv] For this historian, that would mean to fathom the soul of a Thomas Müntzer or John Eck or a Leo X, Charles V, or Ignatius Loyola.

Of course, if values are expressed by the people of the day, and they contradict their own values, then this can be reported. If they set goals for themselves and fail to meet them, then that failure narrated by the historian does not come from a contemporary value system outside the one of that historical period. From the outside, such a value system is most often illegitimately applied. In opposition to this position, Bloch cites Lord Acton, who told historians “not to debase the moral currency.” By this he meant that the historian should always point out what is good and evil in his or her particular period. But Bloch counters:

“Being judges usually makes us judge by the values of our time and the people and the events need to be judged by the values of their time first. [And if we judge from our values, then history] becomes the instrument for the cultivation of our own prejudices.”[xxxv]

When the historian considers the conduct of the people in the light of their society, then the scatology, for example, turns up in the writings of most of the polemicists. But some of the writings are more scurrilous than others, and some seems to be intended humorously, while other samples are vicious. For example, when Oecolampadius deemed Luther to be cruel enough to prepare a Thyestian banquet, (one where a king serves the meat of his own sons to their father, Thyestes, without the father knowing what he is eating), the reproach is rather vicious.[xxxvi] If Luther – noting that such an allusion is also related to Oecolampadius’ criticism of Holy Communion – calls it blasphemy, then that charge does not seem too far fetched for this Lutheran, (of course), and his pelting him with dung verbally, does not seem such a bad thing. Sometimes, however, Luther is quite humorous, admittedly at another’s expense. At other times, Luther could also be cruel.

To give an honest and fair account of this controversial history will not be easy. Certainly these times were not ecumenical, which is a very precious value in the time of the present historian. One cannot read this material like a log without feelings, and one does not want to bring bad blood into the present, but a fair reading of this material reveals many short-comings and failings of the people of the church. Because real reconciliation has not taken place, even the labels for designating this period and its events are controversial and even adversarial.

Bloch wrote only concerning the problems of the nomenclature classifying this period and its events, but here the problem for methodology is the controversial nature of the labels, not only for a group but for the whole historical period, the whole event.

Revolving only around some of the pertinent issues a long list of the controversial names for this period can be listed: Reformation, Catholic Reformation, Counter-Reformation, magisterial Reformation as opposed to the radical Reformation, or marginal Reformation, Northern European Renaissance, Sixteenth Century Church Renewal, etc. All these names point to this unresolved, classification controversy. Certainly it is prejudicial to consider the Reformation in a completely negative light, to emphasize only the Catholic Reformation, and to consider a country with the inquisition, better off than a country with the Reformation. Nor, on the other hand, is it honest to emphasize only the Counter Reformation without mentioning the Catholic one. But much history needs to be left unmentioned if the Catholic Reformation is used to cover the events of the Counter Reformation, St. Bartholomew’s Day in France, the short reign of Bloody Mary, Jesuit strategy, etc.

In the “Lexicon of Basic Social Concepts” by Otto Brunner and others, for the Evangelicals, the name, ‘Reformation’ already was a firm designation for this period in the literature for the first Luther Jubilee in 1617.[xxxvii] The term, ‘Counter-Reformation’ begins to appear in 1654.[xxxviii] Then the term, ‘Catholic Reformation’ was coined in 1864 by Wilhelm Maurenbrecher to characterize the inner-ecclesial reform movement before and alongside the Reformation.[xxxix] Also in Catholic circles, Ludwig Pastor avoided the antithetical term ‘Counter-Reformation’ and used ‘Catholic Reformation and Restoration.’[xl]

This is the issue between the Catholics and Protestants, but there is also an issue in the nomenclature between the mainstream Reformation and the more marginal one(s). This issue is more difficult because it is situated in the label itself. When the mainstream Reformation is designated the ‘magisterial’ one, then it implies that the political consideration dominated the religious one. But the label itself depends upon many controversial conclusions drawn mostly from the Peasants’ War.

Because only the methodological problem is the concern of this study, it cannot deal with the problems involved with such labeling, except to say that a sociological understanding of the time can miss the dominant religious note of the era. Religion played a strong role in the events, even if that may not be the case today.

To continue with the sociological problem, even if this is a small excursion from the issue of nomenclature: sociology can be used in history, giving it the false veneer of a ‘scientific’ study, such as of a natural science, which hides the ideological narrative of one of the traditions, be it Catholic, Protestant, (in Lutheran or Calvinist dress), or that of the more radical Reformation. Following R. G. Collingwood, history must be seen as a unique and individual form of thinking which adheres to truth, and which cannot be replaced by a form of thinking descriptively characterized and fitted for processes of natural science. To cite him:

“Thus history…is recognized as a special and autonomous form of thought, lately established.”[xli]

Collingwood is declaring this autonomy from a scientific method of thought, which is appropriate to the natural processes but not the historical ones. He notes that the right way of investigating human mind is the historical, plain method, citing Locke.[xlii] And irrational elements exist in the historical process, which psychology or sociology can elucidate, but

“So far as our scientific and historical knowledge goes, the processes of events which constitute the world of nature are altogether different in kind from the processes of thought which constitute the world of history.”[xliii]

This study will not take this methodological problem further, because it only became relevant because of the sociological presuppositions in such a label as the ‘magisterial’ Reformation (George H. William’s concept). It can discount a religious process of life and ecclesiastical realities, which existed at that time, but not in our own. Is it social change to disrupt an ecclesiastical power and to dismantle a clericalism capable of initiating an inquisition in a country? When such a change theologically initiated is appreciated, then other considerations also become important, for example, whether changes are from the top down to the people, or from the people up to the top.

The label ‘Reformation’ has also proliferated in other ways: the Erasmian Reformation of the cities, the Second Reformation, referring to the one from Geneva, from Calvin. And perhaps this has tempted some historians to forget the label altogether and speak of the Northern European Religious Renaissance (Spitz) or of the Sixteenth Century Religious Renewal Movement.[xliv]

But another approach to this problem of labels is taken by Heiko Oberman, in which he analyzes the concept ‘Reformation’ itself, and questions its validity. He states:

“Luther never styled himself as a ‘reformer.’ He did not shrink back from being seen as a prophet….Yet he never presumed to be a reformer, nor did he ever claim his movement to be the ‘Reformation.’…He didn’t and he couldn’t because ‘Reformation’ is God’s ultimate intervention.”[xlv]

Perhaps Bloch’s point, that a label often gives the false impression that no further analysis is necessary, is overcome by Oberman, who gives the label a closer look. For Luther he argues the counter reformation precedes God’s Reformation. Luther had a very apocalyptic world view which held that humans were powerless, but [for their ability] to pray for God to intervene.[xlvi] “When the gospel was preached in its true spirit and without human distortion” it was really the message of the cross, and thus a prelude to counter reformation. After the witness to the gospel, the end of the world, and the great Reformation, would have to come. For Luther there can be no pursuit of the millennium, because neither sweat nor sword can advance the messianic kingdom.[xlvii]

Oberman takes this in a Christian this-worldliness-direction:

“Where Christian teachings tear the authorities from the clutches of the Anti-Christ, the world can once again come into its own. Luther regarded the emancipation of the world, the restoration of its secular rights and its political order, as both necessary and possible. But for this dimension he used the sober, secular, practical, temporal, and above all relative term betterment, rather than glorious Reformation. In short Reformation is the work of God, betterment is the task of Adam and Eve.”[xlviii]

This may be somewhat of an apology for Luther, because after the Peasants’ War, he did not believe much in human power for self-betterment either.

Although it may be possible in all the volumes of Luther’s work to show that Luther did refer to the movement he initiated as the Reformation, Oberman is supported by Eike Wolgast in her article tracing the career of the term, ‘Reformation,’ who remarks that Luther seldom uses the concept, and when he does, once, it refers to correcting the abuses of indulgences, pilgrimages, and the greed of clerics. Thus she states:

“With that the actual Reformation is the prerogative (Sache) of God, the task of the people, on the other hand, the doing away with abuses and the removal of distortions.”[xlix]

Thus by not allowing a completely familiar label to obviate the need for continued analysis, Oberman discovered that by means of the label, the idea of progress had crept into the understanding of this period, a very foreign idea to the apocalyptic consciousness of the time. The historian must take account that during history, meanings migrate out of words and become replaced by others reflecting values of the current social formation.

Bloch asserts that a symbol is supposed to assist with analysis, but it can do the opposite, giving the impression that analysis can be dispensed with, and thus “it promotes anachronism: the most unpardonable of sins in a time-science.”[l]

In this discussion, Bloch is referring to the use of the labels ‘capitalism’ and ‘feudalism,’ but evidently, ‘reformation’ can also be a term that conceals more than it reveals.

The same kind of problem plays a role in the nomenclature of the Peasants’ War. The criticism of Blickle for calling it the ‘Revolution of the Common Man’ was noted before. In order to understand the period in our categories, the term, ‘revolution’ is not misguided, especially because Blickle is conscious of the later appearance of the term. He even helps his cause by trying to achieve a technical definition for it (terminus technicus): Revolution needs to have a mass basis, the use of force, and new ideas of a future state or society.[li] But the term, ‘revolution’ is controversial, too. One definition is poignant, but not too accurate for the Peasants’ War: “an extreme case of an explosion of political participation.”[lii] Often a sense of criticism of the peasants is placed into the label itself by calling it the ‘Peasants’ Rebellion.’ But according to Blickle the Peasants’ War was not a rebellion or a revolt, which can also be characterized by the use of force, because the posture of a rebellion or revolt is purely one of resistance, lacking the ability to innovate. An event so labeled is merely an outbreak of rage amidst unbearable conditions.[liii] Blickle takes pains to give evidence for the political vision of the peasants.

Thus the beginning of an argument and interpretation of an event is already situated in the nomenclature for it, and if ideological, then the historian needs to be on guard. When Blickle uses the term, ‘Communal Reformation’ for the Peasants’ War, he is placing many of his historical conclusions into his label: its character as a social-political movement making it more important than the religious Reformation, the idea that the magisterial Reformation betrayed the important one, which was the grass-roots movement, that the two kingdom theory is meaningless, and perhaps more. These are all very controversial issues couched right in his nomenclature, with which he entitles a chapter: “The State Seizure of the Communal Reformation.”[liv]

But revolutions are very controversial – something easily forgotten in a time in which they have become an ideal.[lv] But in this post revolutionary era, now that the communist one has proven to be such a delusion, Edmund Burke may receive more of a hearing when he advises: “Our patience will achieve more than our force.”[lvi] Of course, in the words of Helen Caldecut, what is necessary is a revolution. But not a revolution with blood and guts, but one of people’s hearts and minds.[lvii] But that resembles Luther’s movement more than the Peasants’ War. And when an ecclesial power was really foremost in an empire which often confused spiritual and temporal power, then the “priesthood of all believers” is much more the revolutionary slogan, although rejecting the use of force, than “There shall be no lords over us,” to be established with its use. In terms of Marc Bloch’s definition of revolution, as “a sharp crisis always aimed straight ahead,”[lviii] a religious reformation, in a society in which religion played the predominant note, may have been more revolutionary than the Peasants’ War.

Heiko Oberman by-passes some of these issues when he refers to the Peasants’ War with a Latin name, tumultus rusticorum, which moved from a ‘kloisterkrieg’ to the Fürstensieg, or from a “monastery war” to the “victory of the princes.”[lix] Very prominent in his rationale for a negative perception of the uprising is a discovered letter of Pr. Cristoph Schappeler to Zwingli, filled with remorse about participation in the war: “We pray for forgiveness and ask that we who started because of faith will not perish without it.”[lx] With a report from Erasmus and one from an ambassador, Oberman underscores the religious objectives of the peasants considered as agents of the Reformation.[lxi]

Finally labels can be easily forgotten in order to cover up part of the history of the time. The question about the relationship of the Anabaptist and the Peasants’ War has been opened by James A. Stayer in his Anabaptists and the Sword.[lxii] Interestingly enough many Anabaptists can be found on the different battlegrounds of the war. He notes that there were two kinds of Anabaptists: the Schwertler and the Stäbler, those of the sword and those of the staff, militants and pacifists, respectively. But Heinrich Pfeiffer, who fought beside Thomas Müntzer, called himself, Schwertfeger; Balthasar Hubmeier was certainly a Schwertler, and a debate among the peasants had continued after a former uprising 1512-1515, whether to use violence or peaceful means to establish the divine law.[lxiii] Anabaptist history has left out this militant wing of its origins and chosen to claim only the peaceful non-violent wing as part of its heritage.[lxiv]

Just another note on nomenclature: in German Wiedertäuffer is considered a pejorative term and they prefer Täuffer, but to call them ‘Baptists’ in English would confuse them with modern Baptists, who derive from the Puritan tradition, and not from the Anabaptists.

These illustrations are more than enough to demonstrate the controversy and the conflictual nature inherent even in the names themselves chosen for these two events, the Reformation and Peasants’ War, and of groups and traditions of the early sixteenth century. The only fair thing to do, when the same events are given positive and negative coefficients by different traditions and different political positions, is to honestly admit the tradition and perhaps political leanings of the historian, (although never in this historian’s experience has he seen this done), and make the attempt to be as honest as possible about these controversies from his or her tradition and political stance.

Finally, very briefly some methodological questions about language and history and the history of language. The “confused language of daily life”[lxv] is a good warning coming from Marc Bloch against relying too much on ordinary language philosophy to give reliable insights into issues for modern times let alone be able to do language philosophy for sixteenth century issues. But language does help to give some social insights, such as the social significance of dual language societies, in this case Latin and a vernacular. Bloch calls it a “hierarchic bilingualism: two languages side by side, the one popular the other learned.”[lxvi] There are many other examples of this phenomenon.[lxvii]

But when early modern conditions are described in Latin, they are seen as if through a veil by the historian. Bloch tells of a case where in the Doomsday Book, which would hold true for later history as well, the serfs are called coloni and the counts ‘consuls.’[lxviii] Such words easily confuse Roman social formations with very different ones over a millennium later.

But from the problems of the historian, one can also delve into the social impact of language, and consider what a veil must have been lifted from common people in that day, when a social distinction reinforced by another language was subverted by expanding the popular language to include the substance of higher concerns which had been the reserve of an intellectual elite in ecclesiastical circles and among the lawyers in the chancelleries. Significantly, Luther’s tremendous impact on the German language was brought about by taking the German of the Saxon chancellery and liberating it from its Latinate structure, and in its place using the syntax of the spoken language of the common people.[lxix] That actually continues the long Christian tradition since writing the New Testament in the Koiné, the common language, and in this way advancing the common people with accessibility to the gospel. Thus language can be a method, with which the historical issues of its social impact can be explored.

Translation of language can also be a helpful analogy for a historical methodology. Peter von Polenz uses some phrases learned from H.G. Gadamer to describe Luther’s ability to translate.

Luther blended the horizons [of meaning] between the author and the translator. Luther’s own thought always entered the reawakening of the meaning of the text again.[lxx]

Through the blending of the horizons of meaning, which is to fathom another time period or understand it, the historian can view the two different contrasting social formations impressed upon the languages, with his or her thought processes awakening the thought and life processes of the historical period for the present.

One usually thinks only in terms of translation from one language into another, or in terms of geo-dialectics, from one dialect into another. But because languages change diachronically through history, through time, intra-language translation is also necessary. With that it is important to situate the historical phase of a language for a particular historical period. In Luther’s case and that of the peasants, it is Early New High German. A chart may be helpful:

The Historical Phases of the German Language

Germanic                100 B.C. to 600 A.D.

Early Old German        600      to   750A.D.

Old High[lxxi] German       750      to  1050.

Old Saxon               800      to  1150.

Middle High German      1050     to  1350.

Yiddish[lxxii] a MHG dialect     1050     to modern times.

Middle Low German       1150     to  1650.

Early New High German   1350     to  1650. (Luther)

New High German         1650     to  1900 or 1945.[lxxiii]

If language is also historical evidence, much historical information could be discovered in a very informed reading of the language of a historical time and place, being aware of the changes in the meanings of the words in that phase and then also learning the difference between the various dialects disbursed through the geography.

In Conclusion: Opening up more than can be closed!

This conclusion will also allow the outline provided by Marc Bloch to extend into it, that he might have a word even here. From his methodological discussion and survey of historical nomenclature, it is hoped that a glimpse of what might be called a language methodology of history is given, which can be developed further and tested.

The bifurcation of the language of the historian is still the point of his or her predicament. What about the words, the self-consciousness, and the social formation of that day, and what about that captured in the language of today?

Bloch concludes that the historian has to use the words of the present day, but as to historical vocabulary:

Names however imperfect their over-all inaccuracy, have far too strong a grip on reality ever to permit us to describe a society without making a considerable use of its words, duly explained and interpreted.[lxxiv]

Here there is a ‘use’ of words of that period. Take for example, Collingwood quoting John Locke, about the plain, historical method, and Collingwood finding him saying something by his words far beyond what he meant by his statement or could have said. Luther, too, injected his thought into the text, according to Polenz, for the reawakening of new meaning and social formation from that historical, language-life formation again.

So in turn to use Bloch’s words – in a deeper sense than he realizes (in Collingwood’s terms: however little he understood what he was saying[lxxv]) – “the grip of words on reality” could be all-encompassing so that they contain the society, in the sense that the structure of language is idealtypical of social structure. Thus there is a mutual and reciprocal reflection of words and society within language, which the searching thought of the historian can penetrate. In such a way, something can be found in Bloch’s words that he said, but did not know he said, nor meant.[lxxvi]

Bloch continues:

“To consider that the nomenclature of the documents was perfectly capable of determining our own would, in short, be tantamount to admitting that they had provided us with a ready made analysis. That is why we are forced to seek elsewhere for a broad framework of classification.”[lxxvii]

In terms of the translation analogy, to accept all the terms of their historical consciousness and social formation is to leave it ‘untranslated’ and incomprehensible for the words, categories, consciousness, and personal, social, language-life formation of today. Having understood that time, having fathomed it down to its inmost soul, and captured its predominant note, the historian can then interpret it for the present. Perhaps it is not so much choosing another framework of classification, but dying to ones own words, language, and social and personal formation, getting buried in those of history, and rising up with the understanding and interpretation of that time for contemporaries.


To sum it all up in a word, the vocabulary of a document is, in its way, only another form of evidence. It is no doubt an extremely valuable one, but, like all evidence, imperfect and hence subject to criticism. Each significant term, each characteristic turn of style becomes a true component of knowledge – but not until it has been placed into context, related to the usage of an epoch, of the society or of the author; and above all, if it is a survival of an ancient date, secured of its ever present danger of anachronistic misinterpretation.[lxxviii]

Thus again speaking of language structures, and idealtypical social structures inherent in them, is not meant to preclude getting intimate with words couched in their social context. It is precisely meant to be a challenge to the historian to achieve a greater intimacy with the people, the events, the social and life formation of that period through language.

If the blending of horizons of meaning takes place, then its purpose is not anachronism, but the reverse[lxxix] – the historical period needs to be transported into the present time, with the fresh light of resurrection, because it was dead, and behold, it comes alive again, by thought, reenactment, and faith. In this way the historian raises it and it lives again. (Naturally this is all grace, total grace. Who can raise anyone from the dead, let alone a historical period, but God?)

Bloch notes that to leave history in their words means to accept their analysis, but also their verdicts and their value system. Dying to one’s own, does not validate theirs in place of those of the historian, but opens both to be accountable to God’s judgment over and above the present value system as well as theirs.

Bloch exhorted the historian not only to be open to criticism of his or her own most cherished presuppositions, (which to me is an implication of the cross), but also even to invite them. One should not become an intellectual masochist, nor equate suicide with self-denial. A practical suggestion amidst all this bewildering controversy and disagreement can be made beyond what has already been said. Give the other, the opponent, the adversary a careful and open reading, attempting a suspension of one’s preconceived notions about their positions and intentions. Such an exercise will help in a small way toward dying to one’s prejudice, and awakening in some living, healing, reconciling, and wholesome historical accounts for the present age.

In the issue between Bloch and Lord Acton: the horror, the evil, the religious violence, needs to be reported, as a kind of historical confession. But as confession in the historian it needs enfolding in forgiveness, which means giving accounts only in an environment of forgiveness, and not where it will fuel new animosity, or God forbid, religious violence. The precious gift of history should not be engaged in desultory or destructive purposes.

Lastly, when Bloch speaks of needing words even as rough approximations, and guarding against words obviating plunges into the depth of analysis, he is looking into the inside of events, into their thought, as Collingwood would say. Bloch speaks of the underlying connections, in which networks, imprints of persons, events, social formations are caught and recaptured in words, like fossils impressed in language, so that the language can be entered and found to be containing that whole time, its people, and events, which can take place over again in the life of the mind, and be made accessible by the historian to the present for contemporaries.


Blickle, Peter. The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants= War from a New Perspective. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1981.

Bloch, Marc. The Historian’s Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It. New York: Vintage Book, a Division of Random House, 1953.

Brunner, Otto, Conze, Werne, and  Koselleck, Reinhart, editors. Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-socialen Sprache in Deutschland,volumes 1 and 5. Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Verlag, 1972 and 1984.

Burke, Peter. History and Social Theory. Ithaca, New York:  Cornell University Press, 1992.

Collingwood, R. G. The Idea of History. London: Oxford University Press, 1956.

Erlander, Daniel.  Baptized We Live: Lutheranism as a Way of Life. Chelan, Washington: Holden Village, 1981.

Lehmann, Helmut and Fischer, Robert H., editors. Luther’s Works,    vol. 37. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1961.

Oberman, Heiko.  Luther: Man between God and the Devil. New   Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.

————– “The Gospel of Social Unrest: 450 Years After the    So-called ‘German Peasants’ War’ of 1525,” in the Harvard Theological Review 69 (1976), 103-129.

O’Regan, Cyril. The Heterodox Hegel. Albany: State University of    New York Press, 1994.

de Souza Filho, Danilo Marcondes. Language and Action. Philadelphia: John Benjamin Publishing Company, 1984.

von Polenz, Peter.  Deutsche Sprachgeschichte vom Spätmittelalter bis zur Gegenwart: Einführung: Grundbegriffe – Deutsch in der frühbürgerlichen Zeit. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1991.

Stayer, James A.  Anabaptists and the Sword. Lawrence, Kansas: Corona Press, 1976.

Stedje, Astrid. Deutsche Sprache Gestern und Heute. Munich:   Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1989.

[i]Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It, (New York: Vintage Book, a Division of Random House, 1953), p. 157.

[ii]Ibid., p. 158.


[iv]Ibid., p. 158.

[v]Ibid., p. 174.

[vi]Ibid., p. 159.


[viii]Ibid., p. 160.


[x]Ibid., p. 162. In Bloch’s words: For to choose an equivalent is to postulate a resemblance.


[xii] The community includes the political dimension and should have the law and reason as its basis, while in the congregation the Gospel should be the most pronounced. In German the word Gemeinde, however, does not distinguish between the two.

[xiii]Bloch, p. 163.

[xiv]Ibid., p. 164.

[xv]This word ‘convention’ is like the word, ‘thing.’ In the Germanic period of the history of the German language it meant the ‘court’ or the ‘assembly of free men’ and then the ‘legal action’ the ‘matter’ the ‘object’ coming from it. Thus the “thing” was the assembly and the decrees it issued. Astrid Stedje, Deutsche Sprache Gestern und Heute, (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1989), p. 10 et passim.

[xvi]Bloch, p. 171. Not for convention, but for the quest of understanding Bloch writes: “But we experience scarcely less difficulty in finding names, free from both ambiguity and false precision, to express the fluid social realities in which we have our very being. The most usual terms are never more than approximations” (p. 167).

[xvii]Ibid., p. 167.

[xviii]Peter Blickle, The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants’ War from a New Perspective, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1981), p. 193.

[xix]Peter Burke, History and Social Theory, (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 57. Burke is citing Eric Hobsbawm.


[xxi]Bloch, p. 168.


[xxiii]Ibid., p. 170.

[xxiv]Otto Brunner, Werne Conze, and Reinhart Koselleck, editors, Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-socialen Sprache in Deutschland, volumes 1 and 5, (Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Verlag, 1972 and 1984), v.5, p. 714.

[xxv]Bloch, p. 185.

[xxvi]Bloch, p. 180.

[xxvii]Ibid., p. 143.

[xxviii]Bloch, p. 170.

[xxix]If this label has no textual authority, and intrudes upon that history with people very much recognizable from the present, then it is somewhat like Bloch’s example of calling the serfs ‘half-free’ and obstructing further analysis. Bloch notes that “There is no reasonable attitude toward such labels except to eliminate them” (page 174). But what can one call the Schwärmer?

[xxx]Astrid Stedje, p.131.

[xxxi]Bloch, p. 138.

[xxxii]Romans 3:23.

[xxxiii]Bloch, p. 140.

[xxxiv]Ibid., p. 141 – 143.

[xxxv]Ibid., p. 143.

[xxxvi]Helmut Lehmann and Robert H. Fischer, editors, Luther’s Works, vol. 37, (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1961), p. 138.

[xxxvii]Otto Brunner, et al., v. 5,  p.  329.

[xxxviii]Ibid., p. 330.

[xxxix]Ibid., p. 334 – 335.

[xl]Ibid., p. 335.

[xli]R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, (London: Oxford University Press, 1956), p. 209.


[xliii]Ibid., p. 217.

[xliv]Daniel Erlander, Baptized We Live: Lutheranism as a Way of Life, (Chelan, Washington: Holden Village, 1981), from inside the cover.

[xlv]Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), p. 79.

[xlvi]Ibid., p. 71.

[xlvii]Ibid., p. 72.

[xlviii]Ibid., p. 74.

[xlix]Otto Brunner, et al., v. 5, p. 326.

[l]Bloch, p. 174.

[li]Blickle, p. 191.

[lii]Ibid., p. 192.

[liii]Ibid., p. 191.

[liv]Blickle, p. 183.

[lv]Bloch explains that the reactionaries of 1815 hid their faces in horror at the very name of revolution. Those of 1940 used it to camouflage their coup d’ état (page 172).

[lvi]Otto Brunner, et al., v. 5, p. 343.

[lvii]Her speech was heard on Public Radio on November 2, 1995.

[lviii]Bloch.,  p. 170.

[lix]Heiko Oberman, “The Gospel of Social Unrest: 450 Years After the So-called ‘German Peasants’ War= of 1525,” in the Harvard Theological Review 69 (1976), 103-129), p.103,115-116.

[lx]Ibid., p. 120.

[lxi]Ibid., p. 118.

[lxii]James A. Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, (Lawrence, Kansas: Corona Press, 1976).

[lxiii]Heiko Oberman, “The Gospel of Social Unrest,”   p. 106.

[lxiv]Stayer, p. xxvii, 11, 167-169.

[lxv]Bloch, p. 170.

[lxvi]Ibid.,  p. 164.

[lxvii]Ibid. In the 11th to the 17th centuries the Abyssinians wrote Gueze but spoke Amharic. The evangelists wrote Greek and probably spoke Aramaic. In Danilo Marcondes  de Sousa Filho, Language and Action, (Philadelphia: John Benjamin Publishing Company, 1984), p. 98: Greek has an informal dialect called, Demotic, and a formal one called, Kathareusis. In Paraguay, Guarany is the language of intimacy and solidarity used among friends in informal occasions and in the family circle; and Spanish is the language used in formal contexts. (P. 98).

[lxviii]Bloch, p. 165.

[lxix]Stedje, p. 125. And Peter von Polenz, Deutsche Sprachgeschichte vom Spätmittelalter bis zur Gegenwart: Einführung: Grundbegriffe – Deutsch in der frühbürgerlichen Zeit, (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1991), see p. 175 -176 for Luther’s conscious purpose to compose a communis lingua, common German? Polenz notes on p. 243: “The church’s Reformation and the so-called Peasants’ War signify a social developmental thrust for the German language – over and beyond the time of absolutism – to which one can only find parallels and re-appropriation in the social and industrial transformations of speech in the 19th and 20th centuries” (page 243). Polenz also reports the interesting habit of peasants learning the contents of pamphlets by singing them to a familiar melody, and spreading them by having learned to sing them (p. 146 – 147).

[lxx]Polenz,  p. 247.

[lxxi]In this nomenclature ‘high’ refers to upper Germany, while ‘low’ refers to the Low countries, or lower Germany.

[lxxii]Yiddish is important because the only study that includes anti-Semitic campaigns of the peasants in the Peasants’ War is published in Tel Aviv, in the Hebrew script, but in the Yiddish language.

[lxxiii]Stedje, p. 80, 85, 106, 107, 115, 140. See p. 63 for a very comprehensive chart. New Low German is also listed as 1600 to the present. Grimm placed MHG from 1050 to 1500, i.e., very close to Luther’s time. But others place its boundary after the Black Death of 1350. Thus Luther is in the ENHG phase of the German language.

[lxxiv]Bloch, p. 169.

[lxxv]Collingwood, p. 209.

[lxxvi]Another illustration can be the discovery of the reflection of Greek society and family life embedded in the mythologies of the Greek pantheon. So language reflected far more information than the author intended.

[lxxvii]Bloch, p. 169.

[lxxviii]Bloch, p. 162.

[lxxix]A word for this phenomenon might be ‘analepsis.’ In his work called, The Heterodox Hegel, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), p. 10-11, Cyril O’Regan defines this term among others: ‘Analepsis’ is the recollection of completed episodes or events. And for this study of “a period of history” could easily be added to that. ‘Prolepsis’ is defined by O’Regan, as the anticipation of yet unrealized episodes or events. ‘Proleptic’ can be used as a synonym for ‘anachronistic.’ Thus ‘analepsis’ could be a term used to label its reverse.


Written by peterkrey

June 15, 2010 at 7:46 pm

Posted in Reformation

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