The Uses of History in Religious Controversies from Erasmus to Baronio

Stefan Bauer (Editor)

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Special Issue:

The Uses of History in Religious Controversies from Erasmus to Baronio

Guest editor: Stefan Bauer

Renaissance Studies 35 (2021) no. 1

(page numbers are not final, please cite only by DOI reference)


Stefan Bauer
The Uses of History in Religious Controversies from Erasmus to Baronio (Introduction) -- DOI: 10.1111/rest.12637

From the Reformation, church history presented a challenge to each confession in its own right. Protestants were compelled to invent particularly creative answers because, as Euan Cameron has noted, ‘the core message of the Reformation called for a shift in perceptions of the Christian past’. This is because Protestants, who aimed to revert to the pristine early state of the Church, were confronted with the key issue of explaining why error had entered the Church after apostolic times. The prevailing models for church history did not suit their view of the degeneration of the medieval Church, so that Protestant historians in the Reformation had to re-invent the discipline. Catholics, on the other hand, aimed to show that Church institutions and doctrine from apostolic times had always been the same. The special issue The Uses of History in Religious Controversies from Erasmus to Baronio explores this subject from a variety of innovative angles. It opens a new chapter in our understanding of the relationship between religious polemic and the uses of history in the Reformation era.

Stefan Bauer
Pontianus Polman Re-imagined: How (Not) To Write a History of Religious Polemics -- DOI: 10.1111/rest.12638

This historiographical essay discusses several examples of how religious polemics have been studied with regard to their use of history. Only one book has ever treated the subject in a systematic way: Pontianus Polman’s L’élément historique dans la controverse religieuse du XVIe siècle (Gembloux, 1932). Applying a rigid scheme, Polman dealt first with Protestants and then with Catholics. For each side, he presented two sections: the first entitled ‘The accumulation of material’ (subdivided into ‘history of dogma’ and ‘church history’) and the second ‘The synthesis of material’. Polman’s general conclusion was that religious polemics stimulated historical research but that theological ideas were often considered to be of greater importance than evidence derived from historical documents and sources. After a consideration of contemporary reviewers such Hubert Jedin and Lucien Febvre, I discuss Irena Backus’ book Historical Method and Confessional Identity (2003) and argue that a new history of religious controversies should build on an ‘anatomy of polemics’, that is, on the study of scholarly conventions, their modification and rupture in Reformation polemics, with particular attention given to the criteria of religious knowledge as exemplified by debates about forgeries.

Marie Barral-Baron
A Church Without History? Luther and Historical Argument in the Context of Humanist Polemics -- DOI: 10.1111/rest.12639

Marie Barral-Baron reassesses the role that historical argument played in Martin Luther's works. It demonstrates the disjuncture between the use which Luther, the Reformer, made of history, and his reservations about the discipline. Luther (1483–1546) did not hesitate to grant historical arguments an important place in justifying the rupture that the Reformation had provoked. Historical arguments were used, but also misused, in his writings; and he encouraged those who claimed to be his followers to make use of the past whenever possible. His humanist adversaries, who had up until then marginalized the discipline of history, were forced to follow in his footsteps. However, in Luther’s eyes, historical arguments were part and parcel of his polemical armoury. He often deployed them, and he encouraged his contemporaries to do likewise, but he did not regard them as being of much intrinsic interest. Luther’s highly original attitude towards historical argument no doubt helps explain why dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans reached an impasse and why an entente between Erasmus and Luther proved to be impossible.

Sam Kennerley
Students of History, Masters of Tradition: Josse Clichtove, Noël Beda and the Limits of Historical Criticism -- DOI: 10.1111/rest.12640

Kennerley investigates the relationship between tradition and historical criticism in France during the earliest years of the Reformation. Its key sources are two polemics between Josse Clichtove (1472–1543) and Noël Beda (c. 1470–1537) over the cult of Mary Magdalene and the Exultet hymn. A student of Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, Clichtove enunciated modern‐sounding criticisms of received traditions. His opponent Beda is instead famous for his scholastic defences of inherited doctrine against humanists like Clichtove and Erasmus. Drawing on an in‐depth reading of Clichtove and Beda’s tracts, this essay will contextualize the clashes between these two scholars and analyse their respective methods and conclusions. While demonstrating the sophistication of Clichtove’s historical thought and Beda’s own surprising skill as a historian, this essay will contend that the central issue of these polemics was not history, but whether tradition was a legitimate subject for historical criticism. It will conclude by considering the implications of these polemics for the study of sacred history in the Reformation, as shown in the change of Clichtove’s method after his conflict with Beda.

David V. N. Bagchi
The Historical Argument in Early Reformation Controversy Revisited: The Council of Constance in the Writings of Eck and Cochlaeus -- DOI: 10.1111/rest.12641

Pontianus Polman, in his classic study L’élément historique dans la controverse religieuse du XVIe siècle, was critical of the historical abilities of the earliest Catholic opponents of the Reformation, regarding the efforts of the likes of Johann Eck and Johann Cochlaeus as mediocre and superficial. His verdict, that the use of history in religious controversy achieved maturity only much later in the sixteenth century, has proved influential. But a review of Reformation‐era treatments of the Council of Constance (1414–18) shows that Polman underestimated the work of the early Catholic controversialists in this regard. Writing against Luther after the Leipzig Disputation of 1519, Eck emphasized the importance of using primary sources when discussing the decrees of church councils. Cochlaeus, in a series of writings on Constance and the execution of Jan Hus, showed a similar concern for the importance of consulting original documents, of citing them correctly and of quoting them accurately. While one looks in vain to the early controversialists for a recognizably modern, critical approach to history‐writing, we do see a nascent interest in the importance of primary sources, of accurate citation, and a relative openness to new interpretations – the building blocks of history as a critical discipline.

Harald Bollbuck
Searching for the True Religion: The Church History of the Magdeburg Centuries Between Critical Methods and Confessional Polemics -- DOI: 10.1111/rest.12642

The Magdeburg Centuries (1559–74) constituted the first attempt at a comprehensive Lutheran church history. Written as a collaborative project and starting its account in the Apostolic age, the Centuries aimed also to describe the theological changes of their own century, although the printed version extended only to the thirteenth century. In its development, the project was closely connected to the so‐called Chancery of God, a propaganda office of strict Lutheran theologians in Magdeburg which worked against the emperor, the Catholic Church and confessional opponents in Wittenberg. Written during a time of political threats, the work was driven by apocalyptic thinking and a certain scepticism about authorities. The search for historical testimonies of religious truth, the critical methods of a humanist education, the deconstruction of myths, and the writing for specific confessional goals intermingled and formed the compilation of excerpts from historical sources. The authors of the Magdeburg Centuries used these different techniques according to their needs.

Thomas S. Freeman
1077 and All That: Gregory VII in Reformation Historical Writing -- DOI: 10.1111/rest.12643

From the late Middle Ages onwards, the reputation of Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073–85) was hotly debated. Lionized during the Catholic Reformation, the controversial pope was also the target of strident polemic from conciliarists, German humanists and then, most intensely, from Protestants. This essay focusses on the development of polemic against Gregory by Lutherans and English Protestants. Important contemporary sources against Gregory were unearthed by humanist and conciliarist scholars such as Johannes Aventinus and Ortwin Gratius and then published by Protestants such as Philipp Melanchthon and Kaspar Hedio. English writers with strong connections to the Lutherans such as Thomas Swinnerton and Robert Barnes presented the polemical history of Gregory's pontificate to English audiences. It was further extended by Matthias Flacius, John Bale and John Foxe. Yet while all Protestant accounts of Gregory agreed that he epitomized papal depravity, there were significant variations in emphasizing which qualities of his were truly Antichristian. For some writers it was his imposition of clerical celibacy, for others his excommunication and deposition of an emperor and for others it was his activities as a sorcerer. This essay concludes by discussing these variations and evaluating the reasons for their popularity. While Gianmarco Giuliani’s essay in this collection describes how Gregory VII became a keystone in Catholic interpretations of the Church and the papacy, this essay attempts to show how he became a keystone of Protestant interpretations of ecclesiastical and papal history.

Gianmarco Giuliani
Reformatio or restauratio? The Rehabilitation of Pope Gregory VII in Catholic Historiography after Trent -- DOI: 10.1111/rest.12644

This essay highlights the role played by Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073–85) in the confessional historiography of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A pivotal figure in ecclesiastical history, this medieval pope was the subject of lively historical debate. The Lutheran Magdeburg Centuries assessed Gregory as the best example of the increasing dominion of the Antichrist’s spirit in the Latin Church, and this view was generally shared by all Protestant scholars. The eleventh volume of the Annales ecclesiastici (Ecclesiastical Annals, 1605) by Caesar Baronio was the major attempt to rehabilitate Gregory’s status, in particular broadening the richness of contemporary sources. Baronio succeeded in creating a new critical account of Gregory. Contrary to the Protestant apocalyptic view, Gregory was not the symbol of the end of the first Christian millennium; instead, he safeguarded the apostolic purity of the Church. Baronio became a spokesman for the Doctrina Hildebrandina, a doctrine sanctioned by the decrees of the Council of Trent (1545–63) and reinforced by subsequent Catholic theologians. What emerges is, above all, a certain uniformity of historical method in all confessional parties. In addition, the pontificate of Gregory VII represented a crucial turning point in the Catholic interpretation of history as well as in the Protestant one.

Page numbers are not final, please cite only by DOI reference, not by page numbers

Original languageEnglish
JournalRenaissance Studies
Issue number1
Early online date19 Nov 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 19 Nov 2019

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