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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 355-356

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Book Review

The Confessionalization of Humanism in Reformation Germany

The Confessionalization of Humanism in Reformation Germany. By Erika Rummel. [Oxford Studies in Historical Theology.] (New York: Oxford University Press. 2000. Pp. vii, 211. $45.00.)

This book explores what happened to humanist scholars in the German-speaking lands of the Holy Roman Empire between about 1520 and 1550, as the Reformation took hold. Professor Rummel argues first that the idea of humanism and Protestantism making common cause against scholastic obscurantism, though based on a misunderstanding of fundamental differences between the two movements, was nonetheless promoted by zealots on both sides, Catholics hoping to tar humanist critics of the Church with the brush of heresy, and Evangelicals hoping to win over as yet uncommitted admirers of Erasmus. Partisans of humanist ideas of reform, unable to accept dogmatism on either side, withdrew into a dignified silence, or pretended conformism—the so-called Nicodemite option. Meanwhile, although devout pedagogues claimed to carry forward the humanist program of education, they in fact subordinated broad ideals of Erasmus and Petrarch to narrow doctrinal and moral aims. Finally, the idea of a peaceful accommodation between the rival doctrines, a natural outgrowth of the Christian skepticism that was inherent in the humanist tradition, was drowned amid the din of increasingly strident theological battles.

Professor Rummel knows the humanist movement of the early sixteenth century as well as or better than anyone, and along the way she offers much interesting detail about forgotten scholars and controversies. Nonetheless, the main arguments fall short. First, given the time limits, this cannot be a book about "confessionalization," since in 1550 the state-supported indoctrination that Reformation scholars describe under that heading was just getting under way. Instead, it is a book about how the liberal intellectual outlook of humanist pedagogy was shunted aside by rival dogmatisms. But one cannot make such a case without taking into account that schools are institutions. A Christoph von Hegendorf will indeed seem narrow-minded if his treatises are compared with those of Petrarch or Erasmus, neither of whom ever stood before a room full of the unruly sons of pious burghers. But if one compares him with a German school-humanist of the pre-Reformation generation, like Heinrich Bebel, this Lutheran pedagogue's views will seem more like a reasonable accommodation of Erasmian ideals to the social reality of a large town school.

Second, to lament what might have been "had confessionalization not circumvented the progress of humanism" (p. 151) is historically naive. Religious pluralism came to be accepted in Europe because the contending parties learned in the only way possible, through bitter experience, that 'false' forms of Christianity were not to be rooted out, not even by fire and sword. To this outcome, the wise warnings of an Erasmus or a Castellio about the dangers of dogmatism mattered less than the sermons of fanatical preachers who on all sides stoked the flames of wars that would end by bringing religious peace; for such is the circuitous logic of history. [End Page 355]

Third, the book traces in the writings of Erasmus, Cornelis Agrippa von Nettesheim, and Sebastien Castellio an irenic tradition of "Christian skepticism." But this interesting idea remains at the level of an observation, because, owing to the author's self-imposed geographical and chronological limits, she does notengage with the larger literature on irenicism and skepticism, much ofwhich deals with Italy, or with France in the second half of the sixteenth century (e.g., Silvana Seidel Menchi, Erasmo in Italia, 1520-1580; and MarioTurchetti, Concordia o Tolleranza? François Bauduin (1520-1573) e i "Moyenneurs").

Like many good scholars, Professor Rummel is suspicious of subjective interpretations: "It has been my aim... to document rather than evaluate sixteenth-century opinions" (p. 5). But those who know an area particularly well are the angels that ought to tread the slippery ground of interpretation, lest fools rush in. I for one hope that in her next book Professor Rummel will allow herself to be more...


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