Thursday, April 2, 2009

History 112: Renaissance and Reformation (Q&A)

The new quarter has started and my new History 112 class is coming along quite remarkably. I seem to have been given a remarkably strong group of students. Following in the footsteps of Professor Louis Feldman, I am having my students email me questions before class which I then use for my lecture. As part of my effor to continue to post material from my classes in order to give those who cannot be present a chance to take part in my class I thought to post some of these questions and my responses.

1. The text mentions to different sets of writings on the subject of the renaissance, these being writing on the smaller movements associated with change due to humanism on one hand which it says are really only affecting a small portion of society and then a changeover to writing about the lives and lifestyles of the people themselves in a broader context, is there also an element where both of these topics are written about at the same time (other than our book, so is it a large element of scholarship)? Along with this, I see no real reason to split them unless dealing with a very specific region where the prior was not occurring to any significant degree, so was this change in scholarship done because of a feeling that too little was being covered or was it perhaps a feeling that effort could be better spent on the latter topic?

I would say that the most important development in historiography over the past few decades has been the “discovery” of regular people. Traditionally history has been about wealthy male elites who were either literate themselves who could pay someone to write for them. There were certain ideological reason for this, but also pragmatic ones as well; as historians we are slaves or our source material and that usually means written texts. That creates a bias in favor of those who could write. Since in pre modern times most people were illiterate this is a problem. One of the major revolutionary books in this new movement, which Davies refers to, is Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worm (It is on the recommended list for paper topics.). This book is about a miller, Menocchio, with some fairly heterodox ideas. He believed that the universe and God with it came into existence through a process of fermentation not unlike that of cheese and he denied Original Sin. This brought him in front of the Inquisition. Unfortunately for Menocchio, but fortunately for us, Menocchio seems to have had some serious difficulties in keeping his mouth shut. This resulted in the demise of poor Menocchio and several volumes of Inquisition files just waiting for a modern, scholar such as Carlo Ginzburg, to find. Thanks to the Inquisition we now know all about this relatively normal person, Menocchio, the story of his life and of his beliefs even though he was not a member of the aristocracy, a high ranking church official or some great philosopher.
As Davies indicates there is now a tension between the traditional mode of history and this new form. On the one hand we have our traditional history of kings and popes and we have this new history of millers, shopkeepers, healer women/witches etc. They are both operating within their own spheres. One of the big questions facing historians today is how to integrate these two histories; we know that our millers, shopkeepers and healer women were living on the same planet as our kings and popes. I would agree with you that these things should be put together. Considering the nature of present day scholarship it is somewhat difficult.

2. What was the people's reaction to Luther's theses? Did they encourage others to act out their frustrations with the Church as well?

Luther was certainly very popular among the common people in Germany and he even managed to gain the protection of the Elector of Saxony. This is a good example of the importance of low history as opposed to the traditional history of the elites. In many respects the really important story is not Martin Luther but the thousands of regular people who joined him and made it a movement.
Luther, left to his own devices, was not much of a revolutionary. He was just a young theologian with some mildly radical ideas. In the 95 Theses he is still very Catholic. At this point he still believed in the papacy, confessions, the full list of sacraments and even in the value of works. Hand him thousands of followers and all of a sudden you have something far more extreme than just a debate over indulgences or papal power; you have a Protestant movement.

3. Who are "the Canons" that was mentioned in Luther's document? I assumed it was the Church, but not sure.

This is a good question to ask. There are going to be terms in the reading that are going to be unfamiliar. You should not be ashamed to ask. You have every legitimate reason not to know. In thesis five Luther states: “The pope does not intend to remit, and cannot remit any penalties other than those which he has imposed either by his own authority or by that of the Canons.” Canon refers to the Church legal structure. For example we talk about Canon Law and Canon Lawyers. This is important because it is clear that at this point, in 1517, Luther is still committed to working within the Church structure. While he may be on the side for less power to the Pope, he assumes that power lies in the hands of the body of the Church structure; we are talking about elite officials here and not lay believers. Luther is in no way handing people a blank check to simply pursue the dictates of their own Christian consciousness.

4. I am a little confused on how both, Luther and Calvin both contributed to the development of Protestantism. … So I guess for my question, could elaborate on how the two men placed such different ideals into the same religion without creating chaos?

The truth of the matter is that there really is no such thing as a Protestant religion. Protestant is just a convenient term for Christian movements in the Western tradition that are outside of the Catholic Church. (Mormons are in their own category.) Luther and Calvin were very different so there are very good reasons to put them in their own separate categories. Since they were both operating around the same time and were both fighting the Catholic Church we tend to group them together. As we shall see the major religious groups in Europe are going to be Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinist).

5. I don't understand why Luther didn't support the peasant political revolts. From what I gathered from the reading assignments, he was challenging the greed of the Church that was manifesting itself through the selling of indulgences. But I thought this kind of greed was also brewing in the ruling elite, so I don't quite understand why Luther wouldn't support a peasant revolt challenging that. My only guess is that it has something to do with Luther's prince. … Luther has been immortalized for challenging the Catholic Church and laying the egg that hatched the Protestant religion and the belief that a personal relationship with God can be attained without needing some sort of middle man. But were his sentiments really genuine? Or was he getting some extra incentive from his prince for challenging something he had banned? Why wouldn't he support a political revolt that challenged exactly the same kind of corruption, just in a different sphere of life? … I just feel like this seemingly insignificant refusal of Luther to support the peasants might be responsible for the later tendency of princes to embrace Luther's ideas.

You have hit the nail on the head. Again we see that Luther was not some revolutionary out to overturn the system. He was very much part and parcel of the established order. This is not to say that Luther was wrong for not supporting the peasants. We have to be careful and refrain from making personal judgments. One also needs to keep in mind that Luther was dependent on the Elector of Saxony. A major part of Luther’s success is that he is able to get support in all the right places. He has the political and popular support to make him untouchable. Unlike with most of the many radical preachers of the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was never in a position to eliminate Luther.

6. Why did the Christian sects have to fight instead of coexisting? Faith is based on personal choice not force.

In one sense this is a very bad question as it goes outside of the historical method and judges the past by our present day standards. We think of faith as a personal choice. People in the sixteenth century did not. They had their way of thinking, we have ours. That being said this is actually a very useful question when put in the right light. We take it as obvious that faith is a matter of personal choice and that it is not particularly beneficial to have full scale wars over the nature of the Eucharist or things of that nature. Why was this not obvious to them? Keep in mind that Luther, Leo X, and John Calvin were all very smart people; they probably had higher IQs than you or I. So why did they not get it? We will be exploring this issue in future classes. One thing that I will say here is that we think the way we do in large part because Europeans managed to make such a mess out of religion during this time period. For example when the Founding Fathers were writing our Constitution one of the major things that was on the back of all of their minds was we do not want to repeat what happened in Europe here in America so let us figure out some alternatives. So it is not that we are more “enlightened” than they were; we have the benefit of being able learn from their experience.


Miss S. said...

A few typos..

"In continuing to post material..." - I'm? order to give those who cannot be present I thought to post some of them... - ? (I think maybe a word is missing here).

Congratulations on getting such a great bunch of students. Hopefully it will turn out to be a fulfilling quarter for both yourself and them.

Izgad said...

You are right that was a bad sentence. I reworked it. Thank you.