09/21/05 - christian slaughter

In today's excerpt - we see the brutishness of the Middle Ages and immediate post-Middle Age period, the time of  Martin Luther and the birth of Protestantism. Luther had been arrested and ordered to retract his heresies by the Imperial Edict in the city of Worms in 1521—and used the occasion to rebuke the Holy Roman Emperor, bringing about riots and a war between Catholics and Protestants that would rage for years. This passage describes the immediate aftermath of that trial:

"No one has calculated how many sixteenth-century Christians slaughtered other Christians in the name of Christ, but the gore began to thicken early. Within a year of Worms, Von Sickingen was in the field fighting an army led by the [Catholic] archbishop of Trier—the prelate turned out to be the better general; the knight fell mortally wounded—and within four years the number of Germans killed or executed approached a quarter-million. Their faith cannot be indicted for their deaths. The homicidal lust had long been latent. Before the revolution, Christendom's common people, as brutal as their leaders, had enjoyed the sport known to the Germans as Barenhetze—setting famished dogs loose on a bear chained in a pit and watching them eat him alive. A part of them had wanted to be down in the pit, too. They had been awaiting an excuse for a rampage, and Worms would have provided it, whatever the outcome: the knights of Luther's volunteer escort had sworn to kill him unless he refused to recant.

"Even as word of [Luther's] successful defiance spread across Germany, the mayhem had begun ... a mob demolished forty houses belonging to the Church, burned rent rolls, razed a library and, invading the university, killed a humanist scholar.  In Wittenberg, another mob brandishing daggers and rocks invaded a parish service; women kneeling before an image of the Madonna were stoned, and the priest driven out. The following day a band of students destroyed the alters of the city's Franciscan monastery. Shortly thereafter, a leader of the local Augustinian congregation mounted a stump and called upon all who could hear him to follow their example—to roam the countryside applying the ax to Catholic images, alters and sacred paintings, and then feeding them to flames. Luther's colleague Professor Karlstadt, led students in assaults on local churches, tearing crucifixes and pictures from the walls and stoning priests who tried to intervene [and] ... persuaded Wittenberg's Ratsversammlung, the town's council, to ban music at all religious services. Both monks and priests, he argued, should be required to wed, and he observed his fortieth birthday by setting an example, marrying a fifteen-year-old girl."


William Manchester


A World Lit Only By Fire: the Medieval Mind and the Renaissance


Back Bay Books


Copyright 1992 by William Manchester


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