Order in a new church: Behind the headlines of the Reformation

Within any organization there is a constant tension between the original inspiration and its structure, and this is the case, too, within the various Christian churches. Auguste Sabatier (1839-1901) minted the phrases religion de l’Esprit against religion de la Lettre. When sixteenth-century reformers started to create their own church, the support many people gave them fueled their own enthusiasm about their views, but fairly quickly the need for proper structures arose. Luther famously burned the books of canon law in Wittenberg on December 10, 1520, but laws and regulations nevertheless rapidly did find a place in the Protestant churches.

Logo DigiRefAt the new Reformationsportal Mitteldeutschland, nicely abbreviated as DigiRef, you will find digitized archival records from four German archives and libraries bringing you documents which tell the story of these young churches in their daily business of getting things organized, dealing with problems and meeting all kinds of people. The portal has three main sections, Visitationsakten, records of official visitations, Schaufenster, “showcases”, sets of records and images arranged around a number of themes, and last but not least Recherche, an interactive map of Europe where you can search and select information for particular regions and locations. The visitation records and church regulations at this portal prompted me to write here about this project, because these have clear connections with legal history. In Germany preparations for the Luther year 2017 have indeed already started, and it can do no harm to look in time at some of the accompanying projects.

Three archives and a library

DigiRef has been created by three German archives, the Thüringisches Hauptstaatsarchiv Weimar, the Hessisches Staatsarchiv Marburg and the Landesarchiv Sachsen-Anhalt, joined by a library, the Thüringische Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Jena. This library organized in 2014 a two-day conference Reformation vor Ort. Zum Quellenwert von Visitationsprotokollen about the value of visitation records; Dagmar Blaha and Christopher Spehr will edit the papers of this conference (Leipzig 2016). Let’s look first at the actual records of church visitations in this project. The visitations aimed at reviewing systematically the situation of a particular church and its vicar(s). Apart from him whenever possible deacons, schoolmasters, sacristans and other officials, too, were interviewed. The visitation committees also looked at the moral behaviour of the parish and at its revenues, possessions and special funds. In this project not only the official reports of these visitations, the Protokolle, come into view, but also the Beiakten, the less conspicuous documents around the official reports, ranging from travel expenses to notes from interviews, come into the limelight.

Visitation at Wittenberg, 1528

Visitation at Wittenberg, 1528 – Weimar, LASA, A 29b, II Nr. 63, fol. 1v

The 118 archival records digitized for this project stem also from archives outside the four main DigiRef institutions. It is interesting to note monasteries, too, were visited. The aim was to present here the first visitations in the Reformation period. At Weimar four instructions have been preserved. The committees often indited people to come to a city from nearby villages or from lesser cities to a major town. As an example I have chosen the first ordinance for Wittenberg [Weimar, LASA, A 29b, II Nr. 63]. Wittenberg is dealt with in connection with the Amt surrounding this town and other towns and their surrounding territories. The register covers the years 1528-1529 and 1533-1534, it has 352 folia, and fol. 1r-34v contain an ordinance for the city of Wittenberg. Fol. 37r to 127r contain visitations for other locations in the Amt Wittenberg and two other towns in the Amt Wittenberg, Kernberg and Schmiedeberg.

The records can be shown in different ways: just the document, document and transcription or an image, transcription and modern German translation, and you can even add a column for a commentary (Historische Einordnung). Alas this service is not available for every item, and some items have been provided only partially with it. I list these possibilities in particular to show the value of this presentation next to earlier editions of a number of these protocols. The DigiRef portal does point to these editions and to relevant scholarly literature. When I looked at the 1525 visitation of the Allerheiligenstift at Wittenberg (Dresden, HStA, 10024, Loc. 8980/19) I did not find a transcription, translation or commentary. At Weimar a short list with questions in Latin from 1533 written by Justus Jonas from Wittenberg for visitation in Sachsen has been preserved (Weimar, ThHStAW, EGA, Reg. Ii 574), with at the website only images of this pivotal document for conducting a visitation. The portal promises you for some records a translation into English.

Admittedly you will have to become versatile in deciphering Early Modern German handwriting, and sixteenth-century handwriting can be notoriously challenging to read. When searching for online guidance you might start looking at the materials of the Ad fontes team in Zürich. Their website contains comprehensive information, examples of different scripts and exercises, references to literature, and since two years there is even an app. The Staatliche Archive Bayerns offer a lot of online examples of German writing in archival records from the eighth to the twentieth century, with transcriptions and brief introductions.

Showcasing the Reformation

Screenprint DigiRef

The second approach to the digitized records is using the showcases. With 18 themes and 17 historic persons – including popes and princes – you are sure to find something that might interest you. You can choose to look first at the metadata concerning a record, view it immediately or to look at ist geographic origin. Taking again the Kirchenvisitationen you get now six documents in this showcase. I found in particular the printed ordinance about the visitations from 1528 by Kurfurst Johann von Sachsen interesting (Gotha, Thüringisches Staatsarchiv, Geheimes Archiv, KK2, vol. 1) . This document shows to a large extent the matters to be reviewed during the visitations, and it makes clear how important the backing of secular authorities was for the emerging new churches. Indeed the secular authorities proved to be decisive for their success or lack of success in particular towns, regions and countries.

It is tempting to single out here other archival records worthy of your attention, because I am sure you will find something in such sections as Reichstage (Imperial Diets), UniversitätenKirchenordnungenBündnisse (contacts and leagues), and Kirchliche Neuordnung, ecclesiastical reform. In this last section you will find for example a letter by Luther from 1526 urging earl Johann von Sachsen to support church visitations for all his lands, not just for one or more Ämter. Founding new universities became another important matter.

A geographical approach

At first I was rather surprised the tab Recherche of DigiRef leads to an interactive map showing a large part of Europe instead of only a simple search form with a button leading me to an advanced search mode. At the top of the screen you can use a time bar to narrow you search, open an index of persons or a filter for locations, and there is a simple search field as well. It turns out to be really important to use these filters, because searching directly on the map can appear to be cumbersome and confusing. Not by clicking on a location with search results, but by clicking on an icon at the right side of the screen you arrive finally at a list of results for this location. The map does show locations with documents in its initial position, thus inviting you to go to particular places., but you will notice quickly some towns which do have results do not come into view immediately when you zoom in. In comparison with the interactive historical-geographical maps discussed here lately this operation mode is not quite what you would currently expect. The interactive map does save your latest choice for filtering. Instead of clicking a button you have to remove your choices from the red filter bar at the top of the screen. The filter for locations is also helpful to find locations mentioned in a visitation.

I cannot hide here my mixed feelings about the navigation of the DigiRef map, but in the end one thing is more important than only noticing the pros and cons of the navigation. The map makes it very clear that archival records in the three archives and the library at Jena do focus on Sachsen and Thüringen. Other regions figure mainly when there are clear relations with them within some document. Among the persons covered in the records I missed Erasmus.

Casting your nets wider

In my view the Reformationsportal Mitteldeutschland can be welcomed as a most useful resource to create a much more detailed image of the early Reformation. The archival records bring you a lot of things not found in contemporary books and treatises, and thus they help you to connect the issues at stake with actual people and places instead of staying content with a more abstract vision of the discussions, confusion and turmoil. Nevertheless it is of course necessary to use these records as elements of a much wider history, a decisive period in European history. Although the navigation of the interactive map is not as comfortable as you encounter elsewhere, this feature does not hamper completely access to digitized sources. In the last section of this post I will look at some other online resources for studying the history and impact of the Reformation, starting with the institutions behind DigiRef.

The Landesarchiv Hessen has created a relatively large number of online resources, but the Reformation is only seldom touched upon. At the Digitales Archiv Marburg a new online exhibition on Luther and Europa is currently being prepared. The Digitales Archiv Hessen-Darmstadt has a small section on the Reformation. It is good to remember here also the HISGIS system for Hessen, the Landesgeschichtliches Informationssystem Hessen (LAGIS), without a section on religion, but you might like to consult the Hessische Bibliographie.

The Thüringische Staatsarchive do offer a general website for searching and accessing digitized archival records at the various offices, with for religious history for example the Oberkonsistorium Gotha and the Konsistorium Sondershausen, and they also have important digital resources for legal historians. Its Themis portal has been created together with the ThULB at Jena, and brings you digitized legislation nicely ordered along the several old territorial units of Thüringen. Thüringen Legislativ & Exekutiv is another project of these two partners, now for digitized official gazettes publishing laws and regulations for roughly the same set of territories. There is a separate portal to inform you about all archives in Thüringen.

For the third archive, the Landesarchiv Sachsen-Anhalt, I can point to a general search engine for archival records, but apart from their content at DigiRef there is no other project specifically dealing with the Reformation. Among its other projects the digital archive for the Friedliche Revolution 1989/90 [Friendly Revolution 1989-1990] deserves a mention.

Banner Luther Flugschriften

With the Thüringische Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Jena we do reach a very important partner for the DigiRef project. Without its earlier projects touching upon the history of sixteen-century Germany, and the actual use of its servers for the digitized items, the three archives might still be struggling to work together. The ThULB can boast among its digital projects at the UrMEL server the Bibliotheca Electoralis with books stemming from the library of Kurfürst Friedrich der Weise, 800 of the so-called Lutherflugschriften, pamphlets kept at the Wartburg castle in Eisenach, and the Sammlung Georg Rörer. Rörer (1492-1557) worked closely with Martin Luther and was responsable for the Jenaer Lutherausgabe, one of the first complete editions of Luther’s prolific production. Rörer was probably responsable for creating Luther’s most famous but apocryphal words: “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise”, and he made the long neglected contemporary note about Luther proposing his theses at Wittenberg in 1517. Earlier on the ThULB helped creating the portal Digitales Thüringen with a search interface in German and English.

Instead of offering here as a bonus a nutshell guide to research on the Reformation I will mention just a few more general online resources concerning German history, some specific websites, and a good online guide and introduction for delving deeper into the Reformation. For some years you could benefit from the BAM portal for quickly accessing materials in German libraries, archives and museums, but this portal has recently been closed, with a notice that a number of its services are now part of the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek. For finding German archives you can use the Archivportal, a related project of this digital library. At the portal Kulturerbe Digital you can use the search interface – switchable to German, English or French – to find digital projects for a particular subject. For search terms such as the Reformation or Luther you will find easily projects, including those at the ThULB described here above. Museums in Sachsen-Anhalt have their own portal. The website of the Stiftung Luthergedenkstätten in Sachsen-Anhalt can only be viewed in German. In this respect the multilingual portal Luther 2017 does its job properly. For those convinced of the very power Luther gave to the German language going to the fine introduction and guide Reformation Digital at Historicum.net brings you much you will need to know, and in fact even a model to be followed. Historicum.net offers an impressing range of introductions, web guides and bibliographies for several historical subjects. Portals such as the Post-Reformation Digital Library and the Universal Short Title-Catalogue will help you to trace digital versions of many sixteenth-century books. At the blog Zwingli Redivivus: Flagellum Dei by Jim West you can find much about current research on early Protestant theology. His blog roll ends with a nice list of online editions of the works of the major reformers.

Looking at all these resources can help to shake yourself free from the temptation to view the Reformation as just a clash of theological views, an unfortunate mixture of events and persons leading sometimes to an outright war between religions. Matters were actually much more complicated. Theological questions and problems touched a raw nerve for many people in sixteenth-century Europe. How to lead a good life? How to be a Christian, and to form or reform a church actively committing itself to people and the Christian message? The need for structures or reform of structures connects the internal affairs of churches to matters pertaining also to legal history. The Reformation is one of these movements that changed Europe’s history and culture forever, and it can do no harm to be aware of its history and impact which reached far beyond the imagination of even such a creative mind as Luther himself.

A postscript

Soon after finishing this post I started thinking about adding at least a note that Luther was not the only major theologian of the new churches. His colleagues and adversaries are also present at DigiRef. It seemed this contribution yet lacked a Dutch touch. In April 2014 the Digital Humanities Lab of Utrecht University announced the inclusion of Luther’s own annotated bible at Annotated Books Online, more precisely his copy of Erasmus’ edition of the Novum Testamentum and Erasmus’ Annotationes in Novum Testamentum, both in the edition Basel 1527, from the holdings of the University Library at Groningen (HS 494).

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