John Dahmus

title.none: Mackenzie, Caritas Pirckheimer (John Dahmus )

identifier.other: baj9928.0806.013 08.06.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Dahmus , Stephen F. Austin State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Pirckheimer, Caritas. MacKenzie, Paul A., trans. Caritas Pirckheimer: A Journal of the Reformation Years 1524-1528. The Library of Medieval Women. Woddbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2006. Pp. vii, 189. $80.00 1-84384-076-6. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.06.13

Pirckheimer, Caritas. MacKenzie, Paul A., trans. Caritas Pirckheimer: A Journal of the Reformation Years 1524-1528. The Library of Medieval Women. Woddbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2006. Pp. vii, 189. $80.00 1-84384-076-6. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

John Dahmus
Stephen F. Austin State University

Caritas Pirckheimer (1467-1532) served as abbess for the convent of St. Clare in Nürnberg from 1503 to her death in 1532. The Library of Medieval Women series goes beyond its stipulated boundary of the fifteenth century to publish this volume, appropriately so because although Caritas's Journal of the years 1524-1528 addresses the stormy beginnings of the Reformation in Nürnberg, she and her fellow sisters provide the reader with a picture of a convent determined to preserve its commitment to Franciscan ideals established in the thirteenth century. St. Clare's convent was not a corrupt convent, and its abbess not an ignorant nun. A woman praised for her learning by Erasmus, the sister of the German humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, a correspondent with Conrad Celtis, Caritas shows herself in her Journal a clever debater able to hold her own with Andreas Osiander, Wenzel Linck, Philipp Melanchthon, and several less famous men, this despite her repeated claims of her lack of learning.

The Journal, as the editor points out in the appended "interpretive essay," does not provide a history of these years, and Caritas neglects to provide a definite chronology for some of the events she relates. Yet the sixty-nine chapters containing her own observations and many letters to and from her and/or the nuns and the City Council, the Superintendent Kaspar Nützel, who served as liaison between the Council and the Convent, Wenzel Linck, and others reads like a history. The account of the convent's conflicts with the City Council builds to a crisis point, at which point Caritas claims that the Council had decided to destroy the cloisters or at least to force all the old nuns into a single cloister and all the younger ones into the world. Then she met Philipp Melanchthon, whom Caritas describes as "more moderate in his speech than any Lutheran I had ever heard" (141). She must have been heartened when she heard later that Melanchthon upbraided the city leaders for their "great sin" (141) in driving the Franciscan friars away from the convent, who had been supplying spiritual direction for the nuns, as Caritas reiterates, for two and a half centuries, and for removing three of the younger nuns from the cloister by force. Nevertheless, the convent was not able to regain what it had lost. The Franciscan friars did not return, nor did the three sisters, and the rest of Caritas's Journal records the continuing, petty oppression of the Council's tax policies against St. Clare. In the end the Council refused to allow any more women to join the convent, the sisters were not allowed priests or confessors of their choice, and so they had none, and when the last nun died in 1596, St. Clare's convent was closed. The editor's reference to the loss of "such basic elements as confession, mass, and communion," as "a degree of 'compromise'" undoubtedly seriously underestimates the nuns' painful deprivation, for which fellowship, books, sewing, weaving, and other activities could never compensate (180).

Some of the most fascinating material in the Journal revolves around the dialogue between Caritas and her fellow sisters on one side and the Lutheran leaders on the other over issues like the Bible, good works, grace, the saints, religious vows, and the rights of conscience. Caritas insists that the nuns already have the "clear, bright word of God" (16) that the Lutherans claim to have freshly discovered, that the nuns read both Testaments, in Latin and in German, in common and individually. In a written appeal to the Council the nuns assert that they do not trust in their own good works but rather in their faith in the crucified Christ, and yet they believe with St. James that faith without good works is dead. When Sister Tetzel's mother demands her daughter's release from the cloister because "from the clear Gospel and the preachers she had learned so much that she could not in good conscience leave her daughter here," Caritas responds that the daughter can leave voluntarily, but force "would not be in accordance with the Gospel" (25). In another appeal to the Council the convent defends the cloistered life as an imitation of the shared, communal life of the early Christians as described in the Acts of the Apostles. The City Council insisted on sending Lutheran preachers to the convent, but in the end only one sister converted and left the convent voluntarily. Caritas says that the sisters heard Lutheran preachers 111 times! The reader wonders whether this calculation is an example of the humor that Caritas occasionally demonstrates throughout the Journal. The sisters had to undergo direct attacks from these preachers, who told them that they were "in a state of damnation, heretics, idolaters, blasphemers and would belong to the devil forever" (63). Caritas complains that the city prostitutes were tolerated but not they. In fact, at least one preacher claimed that the nuns were worse than prostitutes. But the sisters absolutely refused to accept any new confessors, and they made it clear individually to the Council representatives that they agreed completely with their abbess, who some on the City Council believed was dictating the convent's policy. Caritas herself claims that the sisters would not follow their abbess against their consciences.

Caritas constantly defends the right of conscience in religious matters, a point which Luther himself could not have disputed. The Council seems to have tried in vain to bully St. Clare's, claiming on one occasion through Kaspar Nützel that "the entire city had accepted the new doctrines except for us," (41) and that the peasants in their zeal for the pure Gospel wished to attack all the cloisters, and so the nuns, and especially Caritas, would be responsible for the bloodshed that resulted. Caritas composed a petition signed by the other nuns that pointed out that even the Turks did not use force in matters of faith; nor should the City Council force the sisters to accept the Lutheran faith. They had made their vows to God, and human beings could not abrogate those vows any more than Christians might deny their baptismal vows. In response to Wenzel Linck's attacks on the nuns' devotion to the saints, Caritas replied that Francis "is no god for us," and if they who were only "simple women" pay too much attention to the saints, they should be pardoned since even Linck used to think highly of St. Augustine! (120) As time passed, Caritas began to point out that different people interpret the "pure Word of God" differently--Karlstadt, Zwingli, Bucer and Capito--the last two according to the report she had received claiming that Christ was only a man--and the Anabaptists. On several occasions she lamented the lack of Christian charity shown by preachers who trumpet the Word of God. She in her confusion is waiting, she says, until a council of the Church is called "or God grant[s] unity to Christianity" (149).

Paul A. MacKenzie unfortunately died before he could complete the finishing touches to this volume, and his wife, Christine, finished the work, which must have been a difficult labor of love. It is not clear which text Paul MacKenzie used as his basic source. But apparently it was the modern German translation of 1983 rather than the sixteenth-century German text printed in both 1962 and 1982, all of which he mentions in his bibliography. For in chapter 37 the modern German edition links together the sixteenth-German "quotemer" (ember fast) with the following Latin word "Rorate" (drop down dew) from the Advent liturgy as "Quatemberrorate," and MacKenzie repeats the word "Quatemberrorate." He correctly follows the modern German text and dates the day to the Advent period but loses the concept of the ember fast. The text contains a number of misprints, most of which are immediately obvious and cause no trouble. One that might cause some slight confusion occurs on page 111, line 29 where "eternal things" should read "external things." On page 139, line 7 "serious" might better read "serious to them." On page 149 the reader immediately senses that the first word on the page should be a missing "not." Likewise the next sentence "not have the right to accept any [clergy] from the new [Lutheran] sect" clearly should read "have the right not to accept." Here the modern German 1983 translation has the first "not," but MacKenzie is faithful in translating the second phrase from the modern German; the correct reading of the second phrase, however, appears in the sixteenth-century texts printed in 1962 and 1982. On page 128 the editor correctly inserts ellipsis dots to note some missing words in the original manuscript. But three lines later he should have replaced another set of ellipsis dots with the word "Notter" (sixteenth-century German) or "Natter" (twentieth-century German). The line probably should then be translated thus: "We must...not plug up our ears as the serpent [Devil], who does not want to hear the exorcist" instead of "not want to hear the complainer." "Complet" should be "Compline" (151, 3rd line from the bottom) Despite the corrections listed here, the translation appears to be well done and to follow faithfully and quite literally the modern German text.

The introduction might have included a brief description of the Sodalitas Staupitziana, especially since Kaspar Nützel, the liaison between the City Council and the convent, was a member. [1] The annotated bibliography should include Harold Grimm's Lazarus Spengler: A Lay Leader of the Reformation, 1978, another member of this Sodalitas and secretary of the City Council of Nürnberg. Eichstatt was a bishopric not an archbishopric. St. Catherine's was not closed (7) as is clear from the reference on page 167. In fact, it, like St. Clare's, survived until the end of the century. [2]

This volume supplies an extremely valuable source for the history of this period, which before the efforts of Paul and Christine MacKenzie was not available to those lacking fluency in German. It is unfortunate that many other works from the social classes below the theological and political leaders of the time do not also survive. Caritas Pirckheimer, despite her literary brilliance, was too cloistered to have been one of those theological and political leaders. She claims, for example, that some residents of Nürnberg accepted the religious changes as reluctantly as did the nuns, refusing to attend sermons because they were so confused they did not know what to believe. If writings by many such ordinary citizens had survived, we would have a fuller knowledge of the period. Caritas clearly knew about Zwingli, the Anabaptists, and Melanchthon before she actually met him. What were her sources of information since she did not leave the cloister? An interesting family, social, or gender dynamic, which personal diaries from the period might have further illuminated, appears in the case of the three young nuns who were removed from the convent "with great weeping, screaming, pleading and begging, but [for these three young women] there was less mercy there than in hell" (90). The young women, aged 19, 20, and 23, vainly insisted on talking to their fathers rather than their mothers, and Caritas, who almost always refers to the males to whom she speaks in deferential terms, upbraids these mothers as "wicked women" and "fierce she-wolves" (88-89). The young women were literally dragged from the convent. Yet Nützel, whose daughter was one of the three removed from the cloister, continued to serve as liaison between the convent and the Council. It would be wonderful, as the editor points out, if we had his private journal to see how he viewed those stormy days.


1. Gerald Strauss, Nuremberg in the Sixteenth Century: City Politics and Life between Middle Ages and Modern Times (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2nd ed., 1976), 160.

2. Ibid., 178.