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The Catholic Historical Review 89.3 (2003) 553-555

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Die Heiligenerhebung Bennos von Meißen (1523/24): Spätmittelalterliche Frömmigkeit, landesherrliche Kirchenpolitik und reformatorische Kritik im albertinischen Sachsen in der frühen Reformationszeit. By Christoph Volkmar. [Reformationsgeschichtliche Studien und Texte, Vol. 146.] (Münster: Aschendorff Verlag. 2002. Pp. vi, 230. € 34 paperback.)

For more than thirty years Benno of Meissen—an eleventh-century Saxon bishop, among the very last saints canonized in the Middle Ages, and patron saint of Munich—has been surfacing in scholarly literature with some regularity. This marks a renewal of interest. An earlier phase of Benno research occurred a century earlier. What these two periods have in common is a set of texts, most of which were composed in the early sixteenth century, including the Life of Saint Benno (Leipzig, 1512) by the Dresden humanist Jerome Emser and the polemical tracts exchanged over the Benno cult by Emser and Martin Luther. What separate the two periods are, not surprisingly, the questions with which historians have approached these texts: the nineteenth-century interest was in Emser's sources and the scanty medieval documentation for Benno's life and [End Page 553] deeds. Today the questions focus on the politics of Benno's canonization, his ritual de-canonization in Protestant Meissen in 1539, and his re-instrumentalization in Counter-Reformation Bavaria after 1576.

In front of this backdrop, Christoph Volkmar performs three great services in Die Heiligenerhebung Bennos von Meißen (1523/24) [Benno of Meissen's Elevation to Sainthood, 1523-1524]: first, he perspicaciously analyzes the abundant secondary literature on Benno's cult and canonization; second, he brings to light additional primary sources, mainly from archives in Dresden and Meissen; and third, he examines this material from a fruitful new perspective, indicated in the book's subtitle, which may be freely rendered as "religion and reform in Albertine Saxony under Duke George the Bearded."

Indeed the most stimulating parts of this book have to do with George. George—in contrast to his cousin the Elector Frederick the Wise, Luther's famed protector—remained Catholic until his death in 1539. Moreover, he was engaged in a program of church reform throughout his reign astonishing in its scope. Developed by such leading German intellectuals as Jacob Wimpfeling, the program encouraged the activism of temporal authorities (when the pope refused George the right to make formal visitations to monasteries in his duchy, George went about it anyway) and put reforming bishops front and center in revitalizing first individual dioceses and then the entire imperial church. Volkmar situates the canonization in this reform effort: Benno's canonization was intended to signal the kind of holy, activist bishop with whom George wanted to reform the Church (pp. 18-22, 152-156).

Volkmar astutely debunks two stubborn, malformed conventions about the Benno cult. First, he shows that the canonization effort should not be principally understood as "counter-reformation." George's attraction to Benno began in the late fifteenth century and initially had nothing to do with Luther. After 1517, the burgeoning Reformation first increased the canonization's urgency among Benno's advocates and then transformed the actual canonization's significance for all sides; but Volkmar points out, carefully relying on such evidence as George's own correspondence, that the motivations and aims of the canonization effort are still best labeled "late medieval" (pp. 157-180).

Second, Volkmar sets aside a common explanation of George's interest in Benno, namely, that he sought a patron-saint for Albertine Saxony. Volkmar adapts criteria from the generous literature on the early modern formation of regional and national identities in Germany and determines that Benno's cult and canonization do not measure up. It is George's desire to reform the Church, Volkmar reminds the reader, that motivated the duke's desire to see Benno canonized; and thus Benno's canonization was of a different sort from Sebald's for Nuremberg in 1425 and Leopold the Pious's for the Emperor Frederick...


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