02.02.07, Bast and Gow, eds., Continuity and Change

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Raymond A. Mentzer

The Medieval Review baj9928.0202.007


Bast, Robert and Andrew Gow, eds.. Continuity and Change: The Harvest of Late-Medieval and Reformation History. Leiden: Brill, 2000. Pp. iv, 500. ISBN: 9-004-11633-8.

Reviewed by:
Raymond A. Mentzer
University of Iowa

The friends, colleagues and former students of Heiko Oberman who contributed to the present collection meant to honor the celebrated Reformation scholar on the occasion of his seventieth birthday and approaching retirement. The results are a resounding success. Tragically, Oberman's unforeseen death within months of publication has only served to underscore his achievement and our indebtedness to his perceptive insights and challenging interpretations. Since the 1963 publication of The Harvest of Medieval Theology, Oberman has forced scholars to reconsider the relationship between developments in the late Middle Ages and the Reformation. His work focused principally on theology, philosophy and piety; others have extended the investigation to the broad range of human endeavor, as the eighteen chapters in this anthology so richly demonstrate.

While the essays share no overarching single theme, aside from a clear inspiration by and admiration for Oberman's many scholarly achievements, the editors have arranged them into four principal groupings: the theory and practice of governance, the relationship between printing and piety, textual exegesis and interpretation, and the foundations and reverberations of religious devotion. Throughout, the contributors emphasize qualities long associated with Oberman's work: an absolute insistence on the primacy of the texts and their vigorous interrogation, a willingness to engage in reconsideration of any and all historical questions, the recognition that scholarship can only advance through collegial efforts, and, above all, an interpretative framework that highlights the continuities as well as changes between late medieval culture and the subsequent Reformation era.

The first clutch of essays, though not a seamless garment, is reasonably well organized around various theoretic and practical issues concerning government both ecclesiastical and secular. The authors question older, less flattering understandings of the medieval world, all the while accentuating the connections between medieval and early modern developments. Cary Nederman revises established ideas regarding medieval scholasticism and its purported limitations on free market enterprise. There were a variety of voices, and individuals such as John of Paris and William of Pagula were not opposed to "capitalist" perspectives. Thomas Brady vigorously reassesses the frequently expressed view that the extensive political authority exercised by German imperial bishops on the eve of the Reformation was harmful. He suggests a number of constructive elements and points, in particular, to the unique if not indispensable role that the bishops played in the empire's governance. The case might even be made that James Estes's reflections on Luther's despair over the Roman hierarchy and consequent appeal to the German Christian nobility for support of his call to reform the church continued a long medieval debate over the appropriate roles for the secular and spiritual authorities. Adopting a slightly different approach, James Tracy contests the idea that early modern Dutch society was uniquely tolerant and enlightened and, in this sense, strikingly modern. Rather, Dutch political officials consciously limited non-Calvinist public religious activities and, in any event, the relationship between medieval and modern ideas on tolerance was more evolutionary than revolutionary. Again, continuity with earlier centuries ought not to be overlooked. In a related essay, Jeffery Tyler poses an intriguing set of questions about religious exile and the limits of modern toleration. He analyses the parameters of banishment and expulsion at Protestant Augsburg, using the rich materials to inform us about beggars and prostitutes, the social repercussions of religious change, and the manner whereby the Reformation, much as religious conflict before and after, spawned refugee movements.

A second, smaller section on printing and the Reformation touches another fundamental historical problem. The advent of the printing press, after all, distinguished religious reform during the sixteenth century from earlier medieval movements. Yet the importance of late medieval texts, scores of them printed in the second half of the fifteenth century, ought not to be underestimated. Michael Milway argues that while many of the most popular printed books from the period before Luther's initial call for reform in 1517 have been forgotten or overlooked, these incunabula warrant meticulous investigation as they reveal much about the religious culture and devotion in which Luther and others lived and worked. Again, Milway highlights the conviction that the division into Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation is artificial; they constitute a whole and must, much as Oberman observed, be "reunited." A practical application of this understanding comes in Peter Dykema's comparison of late medieval manuals for parish priests with those written for later sixteenth century Lutheran pastors. The commonalities in terms of overall objectives, identifiable problems, suggested approaches, and basic guidance are far stronger than the differences. In the final essay for this segment of the anthology, Andrew Pettegree proposes that the growth of French Protestantism in the 1560s profoundly stimulated the publishing industry, arguing the case by way of a close examination of Protestant printers at the Norman town of Caen.

The pieces included in section three--exegesis and interpretation--represent yet another focal point of Oberman's numerous interests and accomplishments. Fittingly, the chapters offer a full range of exegetical possibilities. Alan Bernstein presents a classic treatment of monastic consideration of tristitia and the fear of hell from John Cassian through the Rule of St. Benedict, Isidore of Seville, Smaragdus of St. Mihiel, to Hildemar of Corbie. Oberman's own study, The Roots of Anti-Semitism (1984), prompts Bernard McGinn to explore the philosophical encounter of Judaism and Christianity. Although generally hostile to Jews and Jewish tradition, scholastic authors, even when they rejected the positions advocated by Jewish thinkers, profited enormously from reading their works. The focus on Jewish thought continues with Andrew Gow's piece on Luther's exegesis of Hebrew Scripture. Among other things, Gow extends Oberman's point that Luther's anti-Semitism derives from his objection to Jewish interpretation of the Hebrew Bible rather than his objection to their persons. Irena Backus's brief but thorough consideration of Calvin's use of the Greek Fathers completes this section. She concludes that while Calvin was never a patristic scholar, he did read the Greek Fathers voraciously. Still, he invoked them in limited number in his own writings and demonstrated a marked preference for those from the post-Nicene age.

The fourth and final portion of this collection concentrates on religious devotion, gathering a somewhat disparate yet significant group of essays. John Van Engen carefully examines a mid-fifteenth century text from a household of Brothers of the New Devout movement. It contains fifty-five dicta or sayings, which provide a fascinating portrait of a community continually reshaping and disciplining itself in the attempt to exist within the narrow margins between secular society and the formal religious orders. Preaching, a subject that goes to the heart of the Reformation, is the subject of Berndt Hamm's examination of three pre-Reformation urban preachers: Girolamo Savonarola, Johannes von Staupitz, and Johannes Geiler von Kaysersberg. Once more, the argument turns on the notion that the success of Protestant preachers must be viewed in the context of late medieval developments. Susan Karant-Nunn shifts away from the strong textual orientation of other contributions in her exploration of baptism and the social nexus of this fundamental ritual. Baptism became, of course, a hotly contested issue, separating Catholics and Protestants from Anabaptists. It was also, in Karant-Nunn's view, deeply gendered and subject to stricter church control with the advent of reform. If baptism was among the most ancient Christian rites, martyrdom and its attendant rituals were no less time-honored. Brad Gregory offers the observation that a stunning revival of martyrdom occurred during the sixteenth century and then, though fully cognizant of early Christian models, proceeds to examine late medieval martyrs and their influence upon later Protestants, Anabaptist, and Catholics. Scott Manetsch pursues yet another feature of Reformation piety the resurgence of the psalms and, in particular, Theodore Beza's translation of them into metrical French and their subsequent incorporation into Reformed worship. The essay centers on the complex relationship between Renaissance humanism and religious reform the two essential facets of Beza's life work. Naturally enough, Manetsch's discussion points toward the larger question of the connections between Renaissance and Reformation. Finally, Sigrun Haude raises timeless questions about ordinary people's religious piety and the ways in which it helped them to cope with catastrophe and warfare, in this instance the Thirty Years War. Religion provided, in her words, a "strong anchor" and allowed them to envision a better future. This concluding chapter is wholly consonant with Oberman's own life as scholar and pastor.

As with any Festschrift, some essays are stronger than others and thematic unity occasionally flags. On the other hand, this collection is remarkable for the way in which it illuminates and demonstrates Oberman's ability to influence and encourage scholarship. The individual chapters repeatedly illustrate the breadth of Oberman's interests and his ability to inspire others to pursue these matters. His extremely precise and rigorous examination of textual materials immediately springs to mind and we have many examples in this collection. Equally important has been a dogged determination to question received interpretations and, here again, others have followed his lead. Finally and most notably, Oberman's renowned interpretative paradigm--breaking down false barriers between the medieval and early modern, and insisting upon the Reformation's substantial connections to the Middle Ages, has had an obvious, pervasive and enduring influence on how we understand the events that occurred in that distant yet significant past.

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Author Biography

Raymond A. Mentzer

University of Iowa