Ancient and Modern

M.A. Screech

  • Masters of the Reformation: The Emergence of a New Intellectual Life in Europe by Heiko Augustinus Oberman, translated by Dennis Martin
    Cambridge, 269 pp, £22.50, June 1981, ISBN 0 521 23098 5
  • Montaigne by Peter Burke
    Oxford, 96 pp, £5.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 19 287523 X

Does Luther explain Hitler? Oberman, an international Dutchman at home in Tuebingen, asks the question only to toss it aside: the Reformation was not a ‘German tragedy’. Into this English version of Werden und Wertung der Reformation he interpolates an abrupt sentence: ‘The appalling experiences of the Third Reich incline historians to assume that what went wrong with the Reformation was Luther’s sell-out to the princes’ – which supposedly led to a German tendency to give the last word in politics or morals, not to the individual or the Church, but to the collective and the State. Oberman rejects all this as too easy a way out of a complex problem. It may well salve ‘forever the German religious conscience’, but it does violence to truth. Generalisations must wait till we know a lot more. Confessional distortions are out of fashion; some political and social ones less so. Oberman’s book is a massive contribution to a debate. He cannot see the Reformation solely in terms of social or political forces. He believes in a variety of Geistesgeschichte. His thesis is a controversial one, and is presented as such in the blurb.

Most of those who mattered in the religious strife of the 16th century went to university. They often turned on their masters: but they had been formed by them. In his Harvest of Medieval Theology (1963) and Forerunners of the Reformation (1966), Oberman showed how odd it is to prise the Reformation and Renaissance away from the Middle Ages. Medieval, Renaissance and Reformation are not really names of periods for Oberman, but names of differing perspectives. They mark differences amongst contemporaries. People of the time should be understood in the light of the education which moulded their cast of mind. Their masters were not all bumbling Obscure Men. We must not be taken in by propaganda: it is profitable to see events from the perspective of the masters too. An ivory tower can afford a good vantage-point, and Oberman takes the university of Tuebingen, founded in 1477. Its printing-presses made it widely known: every one of the dozens of silly books Rabelais laughed at in Pantagruel (1532) was supposed to have been printed ‘in our noble town of Tubingue’. It was long influenced by the Devotio moderna – the Netherland Brothers of the Common Life had a house nearby. In 1521, a new chair of Greek was founded – a consciously progressive act. In addition, a new chair of Hebrew was filled by no less a pundit than Reuchlin, the aging champion of Hebrew studies against the obscurantists of Cologne. (Rabelais laughed at them too.) Once there, Reuchlin was disappointed.

Tuebingen was well placed to monitor the Reformation at Zurich. But its main attraction for Oberman is that, from the start, it welcomed both the Ways of scholastic inquiry. Merely to mention these Ways can provoke weariness. Medieval and Renaissance scholars know of them but often treat them as peripheral. Yet they dominated university thinking and were not without social and political implications. The Old Way was Realist, teaching that universals have a real existence: the notion ‘Man’ represents something real, individual men are imperfect copies of it. Realists invoked Scotus and Aquinas. The rival Moderni had swept across Europe from Oxford and Paris. They were Nominalists, teaching that universals such as ‘Man’, ‘Beauty’ and so on are not real entities, but names for groups of particular things. Their authorities included Occam, Gerson, d’Ailly. They favoured strict definitions, plain meanings, plain texts; science, theology and philosophy are best left to use their own methods; divine truth is to be found in revelation, not arrogant reasoning. These two Ways were subject to immense complication. Noisy squabbles brought the reputations of universities to their lowest ebb ever. For many, they were mere talking-shops.

Oberman prefers the Moderni, who were open to the Devotio moderna – adjectives matter. Luther was a Modern Nominalist all his life. Viewed from that perspective, he makes better sense. We ought to understand these Ways since we still mostly fall in with them: ‘In the writing of Reformation history, the struggle between Via antiqua and Via moderna continues to shape ideology and history to the very present.’ The English version ends with these words, warning that those who claim to find one single source for all that went to produce the Reformation are neo-Realists. Even studying the quarrel of the Ways cannot provide ultimate answers: no one thing can. The Reformation was not a seed which grew into an inevitable tree.

Oberman’s gauntlet was courteously thrown down years ago. Others have taken it up. That is as it should be. At the very least, Oberman succeeds in one of his aims: he shows how profitable it is to look at events and people from the perspective of the ivory towers. One can have doubts: Realist and Nominalist go back to Parmenides, Plato and Aristotle. And they are, we are reminded, still about today. Fifteenth and early 16th-century universities are examples of these divisions: are the ‘masters’ of these same universities always contributory causes of what came later? Their successors might be influenced by Plato or Aristotle directly. Or is that naive? Certainly most 16th-century authors seem to fall easily into one group or the other.

Oberman doesn’t idealise the universities. Not one of them would have accepted the Reformation without prodding (the animal doesn’t change much). There is plenty of detail in Masters of the Reformation, expounding and testing the theories. And there are three sections. The first sets the scene for intellectual renewal and a fresh approach to Augustine. The title of the second part (‘The First School at Tuebingen’ in the original) is ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, savouring of Steinbeck and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. A nice point is lost when Oeconomia moderna drops its ‘modern’ to become, ‘The Ethics of Capitalism: the Clash of Interests’. (Is the pun intentional, in the style of the Economist?) The third section concentrates on South Germany, where Luther appears as no single-handed Dr Valiant-for-Truth.

There is plenty to get your teeth into. It is fascinating to see new-economic moralists justifying the Fugger millions – Fugger wanted to get through the eye of that needle (Italian bankers had squeezed through already). Fascinating, too, at the onset of the witchcraft craze, to find a little-known Nominalist, Martin Plantsch, marshalling arguments which ought to have nipped it in the bud and saved countless women from torture. Plantsch denied that hosts or holy water had real powers that witches could exploit for devilish purposes. Luther’s lack of iconoclastic zeal is explained by his Nominalism: why smash statues which have no intrinsic powers? He was more concerned to free the laity from ignorance than from objects.

Reactions to Oberman’s case can be external (rejecting the importance he attaches to the Ways) or internal (discussing the import of particular texts or cases). Some see discontinuity where he does not, though he sees a lot.

Erasmus taught us to laugh in a new manner when he mingled together the anti-Christian Greek satirist Lucian, a Greek-writing St Paul, the earliest major Greek theologian (the controversial Origen) and the only Latin ever placed on the same level, Jerome. How far did Erasmus, with all this Greek and his knowledge of the Fathers, break the mould in which his masters had cast his mind? He seemed revolutionarily new to Rabelais, who, at 50, wrote to tell him so. How far were they deceiving themselves? Publishing Jerome was a Renaissance for Erasmus. He told Leo X so in 1519. The passage has been weakly translated here: there was no question of Jerome’s ‘reemergence’ – he was being ‘born again’ (renascatur). How far did such rebirths wipe out the intervening past? It would be nice to know in a variety of cases.

This book is not easy reading; the syntax of the translation sticks very close to the original. Cambridge have cut out a fourth section containing documents. Some footnotes are pruned. Translations of translations are always a problem: in some cases we end up a fair way from the original. But Oberman’s book is very much to be welcomed.

We can argue for ever over what Reformation or Renaissance actually achieved and what brought them into being. In 1520, Erasmus told Pirckheimer of minds once ‘chilled and sickened’ by scholastic theology but now ‘rejoicing in evangelical truth’. The philosophy of Christ had no rival for him. But a mere four years later Pierre Toussaint was lamenting that new pastor was just old priest, writ large. Both seem to have been right.

What went on in the universities interests scholars as seldom before. Masters of the Reformation appears at a good time. Oberman is a generous scholar, learned and stimulating.

Montaigne was not ‘master’ of anything but an amateur, ‘not as modern as he looks’. In the 74 pages of his contribution to the ‘Past Masters’ series, Peter Burke has to select and condense. He writes clearly on the main topics: scepticism, religion, politics and so on. There is much good sense in this little book, which strives to be fair to opposing views. There are some errors: the prologue to Raimund de Sebunde’s Theologia Naturalls was not condemned until 1669 – in Montaigne’s day the book was the darling of many Roman Catholic apologists; Montaigne’s contention that miracles depend on our ignorance of nature, not on the esse of nature, was not a debunking statement nor a bold one. He accepted even miraculous relics when properly authorised – by St Augustine, for example. To do otherwise he considered madness (folie). Pascal took over many of his ideas. One can disagree with Burke but always enjoy him, and Montaigne would have liked the way he invites the reader to a dialogue. But can one ever ask an author to prove his religious sincerity in relation to other people’s subjective standards? At that rate St Paul himself might not get by.