- Johann Sleidan and the Protestant Vision of History
Professor Donald R. Kelley has lauded Johann Philippson von Sleidan (1506-56) as the "father of Reformation history" and numbered him among "the greatest of modern historians." In the shadow of this praise, Dr. Alexandra Kess's efforts in Johann Sleidan and the Protestant Vision of History at presenting "the first detailed description of Sleidan's life as a diplomat and historian" (3) are a welcome undertaking.
Two aspects of Dr. Kess's work deserve to be singled out at once for praise: the first is her reliance on primary materials, especially the sixteenth-century correspondence by, to, or about Sleidan that she newly brings to light. As an appendix to the monograph, Dr. Kess has included a twenty-four-page index of Sleidan's correspondence and related documents. The other especially admirable aspect of Dr. Kess's work is the scholarly prudence with which she draws biographical conclusions from her evidence. Regarding Sleidan's motivations and strategies as a historian and advocate of religious accommodation in the spirit of Martin Bucer, for example, Dr. Kess demonstrates that there is much we can discern only "in oblique light" (179), if at all, simply because of the limitations of the evidence.
Dr. Kess's work will thus only satisfy those who are prepared to accept ambivalence and ambiguity in the historical figure she presents. She draws our attention to the fascinating story of a man who was employed variously by Cardinal Du Bellay, the Schmalkaldic League, and the city of Strasbourg, and who was much influenced by that city's religious and political liminality. In his younger years he was a religiously hopeful man. He fell under the influence of Bucer and Jakob Sturm, attended the Council of Trent as an observer, and counted as friends (and enemies) persons of every religious persuasion. His Commentaries on the State and Religion under the Emperor Charles V stand as the first historical account of how Martin Luther's Reformation unfolded. Although they would achieve canonical status in this respect, Dr. Kess points out that when they appeared in 1555, the Commentaries angered and disappointed many leading Catholics and Protestants alike. Moreover, Dr. Kess reveals a man whose revisionism in the service of [End Page 1309] Protestant identity formation included a polemical dimension against things Catholic that became typical of Protestant history writing, and mutatis mutandis, eventually of Catholic history writing as well. His other major historical composition was the apocalyptically inspired Four Empires, yet more polemical, more political, and less accommodationist than the Commentaries. At the end of his life, Sleidan expressed disappointment over a career that had "soured after once looking so promising" (179).
Dr. Kess's analysis of how the Commentaries were differently received in the empire and France is a fascinating part of her book: in the empire immediate reactions were strong and varied; but thereafter, the Commentaries, though translated, expanded upon, and many times reprinted, became not much of a weapon or a target in conflicts between Lutherans and Catholics. In contrast, once the French turned to the book, there was hardly a learned author, Protestant or Catholic, who did not address it in praise or denunciation. Dr. Kess explains these differences with reference to the separate trajectories religious conflicts took in the two countries. Dr. Kess's analysis of the Commentaries' reception ultimately points out the new directions for scholarship to head. In this regard, two points: first, Dr. Kess has shown that the Commentaries were but one of many works composed in the sixteenth century that contributed to Protestant visions of history; the quest for the Protestant vision of history in this period is better redirected than further pursued. And thus the second point: the work of Professor Irena Backus, among others, is also indicating the fruitfulness of examining historiographical developments in this period cross-confessionally. Dr. Kess draws some Catholic reaction to the Commentaries into her...