03.02.22, Scribner, Religion and Culture in Germany (1400-1800)

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Ronald K. Rittgers

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.022


Scribner, R. W. Roper, Lyndal, ed.. Religion and Culture in Germany (1400-1800). Studies in Medieval and Reformation Thought, v. 81. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001. Pp. xviii, 380. ISBN: 90-04-11457-2.

Reviewed by:
Ronald K. Rittgers
Yale University Divinity School

The field of Reformation Studies has many reasons to regret the untimely passing of Bob Scribner. For over two decades, he was one of the great luminaries of the field, owing to his pioneering work in the social history of the Reformation. Scribner was part of a generation of scholars who successfully challenged the traditional approach to the Reformation, which focused largely on clerical reformers and their ideas, placing in its stead a concern for the history of the common folk. Scribner made popular culture central to the field of Reformation Studies. As his colleagues and students attest, Scribner was also one of the field's most generous scholars. When he died in 1998 at the age of fifty-six, Reformation Studies lost one of its most creative minds and one of its most valued mentors.

Scribner's early death is all the more unfortunate for, as Lyndal Roper notes in Religion and Culture in Germany, he was working on a new interpretation of the Reformation that would have synthesized the various strands of his brilliant and prodigious scholarly output. The collection of essays that Roper has edited contains the building blocks for Scribner's proposed synthesis. Based on conversations with Scribner shortly before his death, Roper sketches the broad outline of his intended project (1-4), and then organizes the rest of the volume around four themes that correspond roughly to this outline.

The first section, "The Popular," contains two selections that may be seen as a kind of programmatic statement for Scribner's intended project. Here Scribner articulated his opposition to the so-called "two-tier thesis," that posits a large gulf between elite and popular culture, arguing instead for what Tom Brady has dubbed "a pluralistic holism" (18). (Brady provides a very insightful essay at the beginning of the volume in which he places Scribner within the larger framework of the history of Reformation interpretation.) Scribner thought of late medieval and Reformation culture as a complex whole that contained various part-cultures, subcultures, and even antithetical-cultures (i.e., polarities), all of which shared an common worldview. This mental outlook viewed the relationship between the natural and the supernatural as being extremely porous. Scribner argued that this enchanted view of reality persisted through the Reformation period at the popular level, despite Protestant attempts to undermine it. Central to Scribner's project would have been the concern to show continuity between late medieval and Reformation popular culture, part of a larger effort to demonstrate the resourcefulness and plain stubbornness of the common folk throughout the early modern period.

The second section of the volume, "Ways of Seeing," contains three selections in which Scribner began to articulate his understanding of popular piety as a religion of the senses, especially sight. As Roper notes, rather than beginning his formal discussion of the Reformation with an exploration of the preconditions of reform, or with the life of Luther, Scribner wanted to commence with a treatment of popular piety and its understanding of the so-called "economy of the sacred." In these selections Scribner explored the ways in which the common folk accessed the divine through symbols and pictorial forms. He emphasized that at the heart of popular piety lay the "sacramental gaze" (91), i.e., the belief that Christ was made present to the laity through numerous visual symbols, especially the elevation of the sacred host in the mass, but also via myriad quasi-sacraments or "sacramentals," such as the dramatic portrayals of Christ's life that occurred throughout the liturgical year. According to Scribner, the sacramental gaze, along with the whole of popular piety, was not an example of superstition, as both its early modern and modern critics have alleged. Popular piety was a laicized version of the official sacramental worldview espoused by church officials; both operated within the same enchanted worldview. Scribner again stressed in these selections that Protestant attempts to replace the sacramental gaze with a purely "theological gaze" (123) -- i.e., contemplation of Christ to be reminded of right doctrine -- failed miserably.

The third section of the volume, "Power and Community," contains five loosely related selections in which Scribner argued for a number of important theses. He asserted that the Reformation had to be seen as a product of three generation's work, stretching from Erasmus to Luther to Melanchthon. The first generation successfully placed the vernacular Bible in the hands of the laity; the second one argued for a religion based solely on the Bible; the third generation insisted that the Bible only be read through officially approved doctrinal spectacles. Like their late medieval predecessors, Protestant clergy in the latter half of the sixteenth century were gatekeepers of knowledge, who provoked the same kind of anti-clericalism seen on the eve of the Reformation. (We again see the theme of continuity in Scribner's work.) Scribner also argued in these selections that the Reformation did not begin as a popular movement, but as a "an attack on the old church from within" (155, 245). In other words, it was a clerical movement that corresponded rather poorly to the felt needs of the laity, the vast majority of whom wanted a reformation of pastoral care, not one of doctrine. Those most receptive to the Reformation were "alienated intellectuals," who faced rather dim job prospects in the emerging bureaucratic state. Scribner also addressed in these selections his abiding interest in the Reformation as revolution, touching on the Peasants' War and Anabaptism, though this theme is less well-developed in the items cited here than in Scribner's other works. (See for example Bob Scribner and Gerhard Benecke, eds., The German Peasants' War of 1525: New Viewpoints [London, 1979]. See also Tom Scott and Bob Scribner, eds., The German Peasants' War: A History in Documents [London, 1991].)

The final section of the volume, "Protestantism and Magic," contains four selections that together illustrate the most provocative part of Scribner's proposed (re)interpretation of the Reformation. Here Scribner challenged the widely held assumption that the Reformation played a decisive role in the disenchantment of the world. Against the Weberian view of the Reformation, Scribner insisted that the vast majority of Protestants continued to live in a sacralized universe. He cited numerous examples of lay Protestants using Bibles, hymnbooks, and catechisms as ersatz sacramentals to access divine power in times of need. According to Scribner, there slowly emerged among Protestants a "covert evangelical sacramentalism" (289) that signaled an important line of continuity between late medieval and Reformation popular piety. Scribner conceded that by comparison with Catholicism, Protestantism offered the laity a weaker and less well-defined form of sacrality. He also argued that this difference contributed directly to one of the central challenges evangelical pastors faced in the early modern period how to deal with the continued co-existence of the sacred and the secular now that they no longer believed in many of the traditional means of dealing with this "porosity" (330). According to Scribner, some evangelical pastors simply gave in to the common folk's Protestant syncretism, a sign of the triumph of popular culture, or they became obsessed with moral discipline, seeing it as the only means of managing the divine for the good of humanity.

This collection of essays is extremely valuable both in its own right and, especially, for the glimpses it provides into Scribner^ñs proposed reinterpretation of the Reformation. Here we have Scribner at his best, impressing us with his unparalleled knowledge of German archival sources and secondary literature, and challenging us to reconsider our most basic assumptions about just what the Reformation was and how it impacted western culture. Scribner's own interpretation was (and would have been) open to criticism. His arguments were based on largely rural sources that came from the least Protestantized areas of Germany. One expects to find the kind of evangelical syncretism Scribner documents in the countryside. The question remains open as to how accurate Scribner's interpretation was for large evangelical urban centers like Nuremberg, where there was widespread popular support for the Reformation, and where the laity was arguably more "indoctrinated" against "superstition," whether popish or bauerish. It is most unfortunate that Bob Scribner is no longer with us to respond to this question and many others.

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Ronald K. Rittgers

Yale University Divinity School