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  • Life Writing in Reformation Europe: Lives of Reformers by Friends, Disciples and Foes
  • Diarmaid MacCulloch (bio)
Irena Backus. Life Writing in Reformation Europe: Lives of Reformers by Friends, Disciples and Foes. Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2008. 259 pp. ISBN 978-0-7546-6055-2, $114.95.

Irena Backus here continues her distinguished series of studies on writing history in the early modern era with a satisfying and gritty examination of the first biographies of leading early Protestants. She demonstrates that just as Augustine of Hippo looms behind the theological battles of the Western Church in the sixteenth century, so Augustine’s early biographer Possidius lurks behind Reformation life-writing. Possidius’s Life of Augustine, itself consciously following the pre-Christian tradition of Suetonius, provided a useful model for Protestant writers who were trying to explain the role of their heroes in a revolution intended not to innovate but to restore historic Catholicism to its original purity. The advantage of this model was that while seeking to provide both instruction and celebration, it did not resemble medieval hagiography. There were virtually no miracle-stories or marvelous legends in Possidius’s work to arouse Protestant skepticism; it came from an eyewitness explicitly committed to a truthful account; and it had a conveniently strong threefold structure discussing in turn life-chronology, personal character and last days and death. A good example of imitation of Possidius beyond Backus’s own discussion of Reformation biographies is the tripartite “life, state and story” of the martyred Archbishop Thomas Cranmer contained in John Foxe’s English Reformation classic, the Acts and Monuments, but in a rich variety of ways, the precedent provided by Possidius haunted the Reformation years. His work had the great advantage of providing an honorable precedent for commemorating the lives of great Christians who, unlike Cranmer, had the misfortune of escaping martyrdom and dying in their beds. Theodore Beza was even subjected to quotations from Possidius by friends at his deathbed, assimilating his approaching end to the experiences of both Augustine and Ambrose of Milan. Presbyterian Geneva showed no hatred of bishops, as long as they had been safely dead for more than a millennium.

Backus’s careful scrutiny of the contrasts among various genres of Reformation biography is itself tripartite in character. It reveals a great deal about three strands of the Reformation: Lutheranism, Swiss Reformed Protestantism, and the Genevan Reformation of John Calvin and Theodore Beza, as well as about the continuing Church of Rome. Luther came closest of all Reformers to being set up as a traditional saint. Already in the sixteenth century he was treated as the archetypal national German hero, as a symbol of the confessional unity which from 1530 Lutheranism spent half a century painfully constructing, and also for a wider audience beyond Germany, as a prophet of the last days of the world. The man himself tended to disappear under the weight [End Page 380] of these agendas. He was at the same time the first subject of a virtually new literary genre which forms one of Backus’s chief themes, the anti-biography. Few in previous Christian centuries had thought it worthwhile to produce detailed lives of heretics, though there were in fact precedents, both unknown in the sixteenth century: the scurrilous seventh-century anti-life of Maximus the Confessor recently rediscovered by Sebastian Brock, and from the sixth century, the wonderfully entertaining Secret History of Procopius, deconstructing the careers of the Emperor Justinian and his athletic bride Theodora.

During the Reformation, Catholics, outraged at the damage which Luther and his fellows had caused to the Universal Church, rediscovered the anti-biography. They turned to sustained and lengthy character assassination to discredit the Reformers’ claims to be rescuing God’s people from medieval corruption. They read with relish the pioneering major essay in this form, the Commentaria on the life and times of Luther by the talented polemicist Johannes Cochlaeus. Cochlaeus’s skill was in demonstrating his respectable credentials through accurate descriptions of historical events, but in then lacing them with the wildest stories which entertainingly turned Luther into a monster. After this, Catholics produced equally scabrous accounts of Calvin and Beza. Calvin has never...