Companion Piece Think Piece

A German Olive Tree in Barcelona: Textual Truths and Religious Consequences

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

This post is a companion piece to Spencer’s article in volume 80, number 1 of JHI, “Hagiography by the Book: Bibliomancy and Early Modern Cultures of Compilation in Francisco Zumel’s De vitis patrum (1588).”

He slept, and was transported. There seemed to be an olive tree of spectacular size rooted in a spacious hall, beneath which he saw himself walk, and sit down from time to time. What is more, certain solemn and noble men approached him, who said they had been sent by a great king to aid him, lest any uproot the tree beneath which he sat. Now other men came towards them, bearing axes and shovels; in the greatest haste, they attempted to uproot and unearth the beautiful tree. And yet, as they were making the attempt, the more they tried to destroy this lovely olive tree, they more they became stuck in the thickest and hardiest roots. Indeed, just then innumerable, splendid sprigs emerged from the surviving roots, filling the entire hall. (Zumel 65–66)

“He” is Saint Peter Nolasco, the thirteenth-century founder of the Mercedarians, a Catholic religious order dedicated to ransoming captive Christians. The text comes from De vitis patrum (1588), a life of the saint composed by the Mercedarian theologian Francisco Zumel and the subject of my article in JHI. I show that De vitis patrum incorporates text from nine other saint’s lives, and argue that Zumel chose these sources by opening a hagiography collection at random—that is, bibliomancy. The article explores the implications of Zumel’s divinatory method of composition for early modern authorship; here I want to highlight the consequences for the Mercedarians.

The vision of the olive tree, symbolizing Nolasco’s task to defend the Church, is easily the most striking and most substantial importation among Zumel’s appropriations. The episode comes from a 1054 life of the Benedictine reformer and bishop Saint Godehard of Hildesheim (960–1038), penned by the latter’s disciple Wolfhere. The theme itself is likely indebted to Psalm 52:8, whose speaker declares, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God” (NRSV).

No extant medieval source refers to Nolasco having such a vision, but after De vitis patrum this scene, and the olive tree or branch, became staples of Mercedarian literary and visual culture (see García Gutiérrez), beginning with the campaign for papal recognition of Nolasco’s sainthood. 1588 saw the end of a 65-year drought in papal canonizations; drought was followed by flood, as Tridentine Catholicism embraced the cult of the saints as a weapon against the Protestants. When, in the 1620s, influential Mercedarians began to agitate on behalf of their founder, their timing was impeccable. This high tide of canonizations was particularly favorable to religious founders, such as Frances of Rome (canonized 1608), Teresa of Ávila (1622), and Ignatius Loyola (1622) (Burke 48–62). In 1628, Nolasco joined their number, by decree of Pope Urban VIII.

In 1956, the Mercedarian scholar P. J. M. Delgado Varela discovered a visual component to the canonization campaign, a set of engravings designed by Jusepe Martínez and executed by Johann Friedrich Greuter (see Barrera). These images, depicting Nolasco’s life and legend, are largely inspired either by De vitis patrum or by later Mercedarian authors who in turn relied upon Zumel. (Other artists employed by the Mercedarians were referred to De vitis patrum for historical material [Olson-Rudenko 71]). Mártinez understandably seized upon the dramatic episode of the olive tree.

Johann Friedrich Greuter and Jusepe Martínez, Vida de San Pedro Nolasco (1627), image 5 (Image credit: Biblioteca Digital Hispánica, Biblioteca Nacional de España).

This memorable image, capturing the saint mid-strike beneath the instantly recognizable foliage of the olive tree, not only as an illustration of Nolasco’s divine vocation but also as a demonstration of his iconographic potential as a saint-to-be.

The engravings were not the only visual arguments for Nolasco’s sainthood. The same year, the Mercedarian Alonso Rémon published Discursos elógicos y apologéticos (1627), narrating Nolasco’s life in the recherché medium of a book of emblems (erudite, symbolic juxtapositions of texts and images).

Alonso Remón, Discursos elógicos y apologéticos (1627), 26r.

Remón’s sixth emblem concerns the vision of the olive tree. The Latin lemma (heading) reads, “Sicut ad pullum Aquila” (“Like the eagle to the chick”). The image is an eagle holding up a chick to the rays of the sun. Two sets of verses caption the construction: the first quatrain, in Latin, runs,

Just as (held up to the sun’s shining beams)
She proves the newborn birds by Jove’s hook;
Thus the Virgin proved you, Nolasco:
She was your sun, you will be the bird.

The second, Spanish set of verses are as follows:

Meditating upon the passion
With extreme care and woe,
He was shown an olive tree,
Budding with copious fruit,
And several men who were
Cutting away at the beautiful trunk.
And he was to defend it.
Now let all who can prove
That the eagle is Mary,
The neck of the mystical body.

Once again, the vision guarantees the divine impetus of the order’s foundation, this time following Zumel in invoking the Virgin Mary. On this score, Remón’s view was shared by a contemporary of considerably greater talents and renown: the terrifyingly prolific playwright Lope de Vega.

Lope de Vega

Lope de Vega, one of the leading lights of Spain’s literary golden age, revolutionized Spanish theater. Though best remembered today for his moral dramas, such as The Dog in the Manger (1618) and Fuenteovejuna (1619), he was no less energetic as an author of plays and poetry on religious themes. One such sacred drama was La vida de San Pedro Nolasco, premiered before the royal family in 1629 and published in 1635, the year of the playwright’s death. The play relies heavily on the standard Mercedarian narrative of Nolasco’s life, which is to say on Zumel and his imitators.


Trees begin to emerge in La vida well before Nolasco’s vision. In the first act, personifications of Spain and France take the stage to quarrel over the saint’s glory. Spain insists, “the order and the way of life that awaits Peter Nolasco, you shall soon see founded in me, as it is spread through you. A tree transplanted from where it is born to some other place” (I.402–07). France retorts, “It seems an ungrateful thing to give the fruit to some other land, for it is owed to the place it was born” (I.408–10). Spain, however, wins out with the reply, “The tree owes more to the water than to the earth, for it is heaven that sustains and irrigates it. And so, since heaven wishes to sustain it in me, do not resist its intentions” (I.411–13).

Having established Spain’s God-given prerogative, Lope de Vega can turn to the iconic moment itself. Toward the end of the first act, Nolasco recounts his dream to Pierres, a servant and comedic foil invented for La vida:

Things are different with me since I was shown a noble olive tree above a carpet of a field, so verdant in its twigs and branches that it seemed a blessing for Spain, such as the Prophet-King paints. But against it with headstrong ferocity came several frenzied men, who tore at its shoots. The heavens themselves, taking pity upon the echoing cries of the sundered branches, begged the world for aid. […] With all this I cannot rest, hoping that heaven will instruct me in something I know not, encoded within this olive tree. (I.640–55, 660–63)

A certain dramatic irony obtains, for the audience knows what the baffled Nolasco does not: he is presently to become a saint. Pierres hazards a rather crass interpretation: “Perhaps that olive tree is the sheaves of Joseph, and a day will come when your kin shall reverence you” (I.667–70). Nolasco does not even bother to respond to this (an indication that the audience may do likewise). Instead, Pierres falls asleep—onstage—while the saint begins to pray for insight.

Wondrous Virgin, the olive tree whose flowers give the oil that gives us life, immaculate dawn, who, clothed in the sun, covers heaven and earth with splendor. […] What olive tree is this, which they seek to abuse, which calls me to its aid with the tongues of leaves, while the world falls silent? (I.700–03, 708–10)

At this point, dea ex machina intervenes, in form of the Virgin herself, “upon a throne of angels drawing back a cloud.” The Mother of God supplies the correct gloss:

I am the olive tree of the field: you are the one who must take the branches of a heavenly militia for my defense. With my name and my favor, create an order, garbed in white for my unspotted purity. Imitate my son Jesus’s title of redeemer in rescuing the Christians held captive by the barbarians. This is what the savage men and the olive tree signify.  (I.718–31)

This revelation colors the rest of the play, as Lope de Vega continues to weave references to the vision into the text. In the second act, Pierres describes joining the order as “having taken these branches” (II.99–100), while in the third he mentions Nolasco’s continued visions of different trees, including olives (III.20). These reprises reactivate the audience’s association between the dream, the Virgin Mary, and Nolasco’s divine mission.

My aim in tracing the olive tree’s German roots is not to play the iconoclast; far be it from me to stand in judgment upon sincere piety. And I have no doubt that Zumel wrote in the sincerest piety—he turned to bibliomancy precisely in order to let God’s providence, not his own judgment, guide the narrative of Nolasco’s life. That decision had far-reaching artistic, literary, and devotional consequences, integral to the foundation story of an order that last year celebrated its octocentenary, and counts some eight hundred friars spread across five continents. Nolasco’s spiritual children continue his defense of the olive tree.

Think Piece

The Protestant Origins of the French Republican Revolution? The Case of Edgar Quinet

by guest contributor Bryan A. Banks

In his 1865 La Révolution, Edgar Quinet addressed the question: Why did the republican experiments of 1792 and 1848 seem to turn to terror, empire, and tyranny? “The French, having been unable to accept the advantages of the religious revolution of the sixteenth century, were eventually led to deny them … and from there, how many false views did they end up embracing.” (158) Caught between political “absolute domination” of this world and the Catholic Church’s “spiritual absolutism” over the next, any republican experiment in Catholic France was doomed to fail in Quinet’s mind.

Edgar Quinet

Edgar Quinet by Louis Bochard, 1870

Quinet looked towards the Netherlands, England, and the United States to see the benefits of Protestantism. These states benefitted from their revolutions (the Golden Age following the creation of the Dutch Republic in 1649, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the American Revolution), because they had learned from Protestantism the value of liberty of conscience. In France, the people remained in servitude — whether it be to the bishopric, to a Bonaparte, or to a Bourbon.

Such remarks should not be surprising given that Quinet spent the majority of his republican political life deriding Catholic Church. Born from Calvinist stock at the turn of the century in 1803, Quinet attempted to make a name for himself in the world of letters during the Restoration period. He found his voice and message through his early attempts at philosophical poetry and political essays, but eventually he turned to the history of religion. In his early writing, Quinet began to conceive of a republican religion opposed to the domestic conservatism of the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy, similar to that of his colleague, friend, and collaborator, Jules Michelet. In 1838, Quinet took up the appointed position as professor of the history of literature at Lyons. Four years later, he moved to the Collège de France, where he began to write a history of the French Revolution. In the early 1840s, the Catholic Church sought to gain greater control over the university system. Quinet and Michelet entered into a polemical debate with the Jesuits and Ultramontanists on this issue. The Collège de France in 1846 dismissed Quinet for his attacks against the Roman Catholic Church and his open espousal of republicanism.

Later, Quinet participated in the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy during the Revolution of 1848, only to go into exile in Belgium and Switzerland following Louis Napoleon’s coup and the subsequent establishment of the Second French Empire. So given his historical context, it should not be surprising to find Quinet reflecting on the “failures” of the republican revolutionary tradition. Only later in his life, after the fall of the Empire and the establishment of the French Third Republic, did Quinet return to the country and resume his professorship at the Collège de France.

Quinet’s link between the emancipatory individualism of the Reformation and the outbreak of republican revolution needs to be understood in its transtemporal tradition. At the beginning of the century, the connection between the Reformed faith and the republican revolution were prevalent. In his 1800 travelogue, the German Johann Georg Heinzmann remarked:

The French counter-revolutionaries say that the Protestants are the cause of the Revolution and that they degraded the clergy and disseminated free ideas, which are those of foreigners, not the French … The republican French value Protestants and give them credit for the first victory of light over dark. The true revolutionary … is a friend of the Protestants.(158, 172-3)

Heinzmann’s observation reflected both the persistent confessional divisions in revolutionary France as well as a much larger debate over religious predilections for political expression. Counter-revolutionaries, as Heinzmann noted, imagined a seditious Protestant plot to bring down the Old Regime and replace it with a republic, but this idea was not new to the nineteenth century.

Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, the French bishop and theologian, along with the controversialists that stoked the fires of Louis XIV’s Revocation of the Edict of Nantes at the end of the seventeenth century, too had drawn a direct correlation between the regeneration of the Christian conscience espoused by the Reformed and the “seeds of liberty” that would spring republicanism. In 1689, the Catholic conspiratorial theorist Antoine Varillas published a tract entitled Histoire des revolutions arrivées dans l’Europe en matiere de Religion. The Reformation became a violent revolution hellbent on abolishing the monarchy and establishing a republic.

This connection between Calvinism and republicanism was fostered in part by certain Huguenots in exile like Pierre Jurieu who spread arguments for popular sovereignty based on Scripture. Understanding the political ramifications of these statements led fellow refugees like Pierre Bayle to denounce republican formulations as fomentations. Despite the efforts of many Huguenots in the diaspora to thwart republican sentiment, many philosophers of the Enlightenment furthered reified such a religio-political-cultural connection. Inspired by Montesquieu’s L’Ésprit des lois, the Calvinist La Beaumelle summarized this link as: “The Protestant religion is better suited to a republic because its fundamental principles are directly linked to the republican form of government. An enlightened faith is in perfect harmony with the spirit of independence and liberty.”(29)

The Reformed republican mythos was a persistent political narrative in the French imagination before, during, and after the revolutionary tumult, which installed the first French Republic. Yet this genealogy of the republican-Protestant connection emphasizes a common discursive field that pervaded the early modern and modern periods. Catholic monarchists, Protestant anti-monarchists flirting with republicanism, Huguenot skeptics, French natural philosophers, and nineteenth-century avowed republicans all employed such a connection to celebrate or condemn the religious link to the political — all recognizing such a connection as causal and not constructed from deeper socio-economic drivers. More importantly, this connection valorized the individual as best served by republicanism and best suited to foster a Republic. Following the second of two “failed” republican experiments, thinkers like Quinet, dredged up over two centuries of the French social imaginary to rebuke Catholicism as totalitarian in favor of the republican Reformed.

Bryan A. Banks is Assistant Professor of History at SUNY Adirondack and co-editor of the blog Age of Revolutions. His current research focuses on Huguenot refugees during the long eighteenth century. You can follow him on Twitter @Bryan_A_Banks.

Think Piece

Shooting the Moon: Martyrdom and Sacred Kingship in the Twenty-First Century

by guest contributor Peter Walker

On the cold afternoon of January 30, 1649, King Charles I was publicly beheaded in London, condemned as a traitor by parliamentarians. Royalists, who viewed the king as head of the church, immediately began celebrating the executed King as a martyr. Three hundred and sixty eight years later, this devotional cult remains alive and well, flourishing in unexpected places. This year, the American Society of King Charles the Martyr met for a church service commemorating “Martyrdom Day” at St. Clement’s Church in Philadelphia, a dozen blocks from Independence Hall.

What is the appeal of a royalist devotional cult in the twenty-first-century United States? The cult of King Charles the Martyr had its beginnings in seventeenth-century conflicts between royalists and parliamentarians, and remains entangled with the political theology of sacred kingship. Politics in the United States have taken some unexpected twists recently, but—whatever else might happen—the American experiment in democracy and republicanism probably won’t end with a return to monarchy. Of course, Americans retain an appetite for royalty, as Hello! magazine attests, but Charles I is hardly a celebrity. According to Mark Kishlansky’s unfortunately-named biography, Charles I: An Abbreviated Life, he remains “the most despised monarch in Britain’s historical memory. Considering that among his predecessors were murderers, rapists, psychotics and the mentally challenged, this is no small distinction.” Yet to his fans, King Charles I was and remains a Christian martyr whose spiritual importance transcends the politics of the seventeenth-century Civil War.

The frontispiece to the 'Eikon Basilke' (1649)
The frontispiece to the ‘Eikon Basilke’ (1649)

Historians tend to disagree about Charles’s reign: was he a victim, a tyrant, or simply incompetent? Whatever the case, once he was deposed he played his part as a martyr with dignity, bravery, and political acumen. On the morning of his execution, he wrote that he would greet the day as “my second wedding day; I would be as trim today as may be, for before tonight I hope to be espoused to my blessed Jesus.” He wore two shirts so that he would not shiver from the cold and appear frightened. Addressing the crowd from the scaffolding, he declared himself “the martyr of the people.” He left a spiritual autobiography titled Eikon Basilke (“The Royal Portrait”), which provided an account and justification of his conduct. Here, Charles explained that he could have saved his life if he had given into the demands of the parliamentarians and abolished the bishops of the Church of England. The historian Andrew Lacey calls the Eikon “the most successful book of the century.” Its heavily symbolic frontispiece was particularly influential, showing Charles exchanging the royal crown for a martyr’s crown. Charles himself thus provided his supporters with the material for his cult.

Charles’s martyrdom was his greatest political success. Widespread uneasiness about this national sin eased the restoration of his son, Charles II, in 1660. In 1662, Charles’s martyrdom was incorporated into the liturgical calendar of the Church of England.

Portrait of Henry Sacheverell holding a portrait of Charles I (1709)
Portrait of Henry Sacheverell holding a portrait of Charles I (1709)

The commemoration of Charles’s execution on January 30 was one of three explicitly political services enjoined by the Book of Common Prayer. On May 29, congregations observed the Restoration of Charles II, and on November 5, the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. The latter, directed against Catholics, has remained popular to this day. Martyrdom Day, by contrast, was politically divisive, and was denounced as idolatrous by reforming Protestants.

Following the expulsion of the Stuart dynasty at the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-89, Martyrdom Day remained part of the Anglican liturgy but its divisiveness made it a political liability. The festival was popular with high churchmen such as Henry Sacheverell, who feared that the generous toleration given to Protestant Dissenters threatened the safety of both church and state. Nevertheless, the theory of sacred monarchy articulated in the January 30 service, and the close association of Charles’s cult with the exiled Stuart dynasty, clashed with the political imperatives of the new regime. By 1772, when Sir Roger Newdigate defended the Church of England’s “only canonized saint” in the House of Commons, he was met with derisive laughter. Charles’s status as a martyr proved even more divisive in the American colonies. His memory was venerated by loyalist Anglicans during the American Revolution, who found in his patient, steadfast suffering a model for their own behavior during the political crisis. For American Anglicans who supported independence, however, Martyrdom Day was an embarrassment. Following independence, the newly-formed Episcopal Church excised the service from its Book of Common Prayer. In Britain, meanwhile, it remained officially observed until 1858, when the service was removed from the Book of Common Prayer by an Act of Parliament.

Today, the cult of King Charles the Martyr is thoroughly anachronistic, doubly so for its American adherents. The festival is not officially observed in either the UK or the US, and it no longer serves the political uses to which it was put in the seventeenth century. It nevertheless retains supporters among high church Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Anglo-Catholics. The cult was revived by the Oxford Movement, and the Society of King Charles the Martyr was founded in 1894. Part of the cult’s attraction, perhaps, lies in the nostalgic and reactionary appeal of deliberate political anachronism. This appears to have been the case for the Society’s Anglo-Irish founder, the Hon. Mrs. Ermengarda Greville-Nugent. But rather more important is its theological meaning to Anglicans who place a particularly high value on the longevity and perpetuation of the church’s institutions. As the cult’s political utility recedes, it becomes easier to see the theological concerns which have always underpinned it.

Perhaps the greatest part of the cult’s power, from its origins to the present, is not so much the sacred monarchy part as the martyrdom part. Charles provides that rare thing, a specifically Anglican martyr. The Society’s hymns celebrate “Royal Charles, who chose to die / Rather than the Faith deny.” The power of martyrdom lies in this choice: by choosing death, the martyr triumphs over the worst that the world can throw at them. Like shooting the moon in a game of cards, martyrdom turns a weak hand into a trump hand. It is the ultimate weapon of the weak, with the potential to upend structures of social and political power. This tradition is embedded in Christianity, ultimately referring to the model of Christ’s death and resurrection. As Brad Gregory showed in his classic book Salvation at Stake, martyrdom was revived during the Reformation, when the martyr’s willingness to die seemed to indicate that they died for the true faith. However, this claim was progressively undone by the undiminishing capacity of rival versions of Christianity to produce their own martyrs. While martyrdom could no longer be counted on to point the way to religious truth, it continued to demonstrate the irreducible resilience of individual religious belief, marking out the limits of the coercive power of the modern state. For all its deliberate anachronism, then, the cult of King Charles the Martyr might just be an essentially modern form of religious observance.

Peter Walker has a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University. His dissertation is about Anglicanism and martyrdom (among other things).

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The Historian Rudolf Hospinian

by guest contributor William Theiss

The 1517 book On Gems by Erasmus Stella, a doctor and mythologist from Leipzig, never enjoyed a wide readership—though two hundred years later it was enough in demand to merit a reprint. It takes its reader on a brisk journey through the world of precious stones, their distinguishing features, and their most famous uses. It was first printed together with the passage on stones from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, on which Stella’s book is largely based.

The passage on smaragdus, or emerald, contains commonplace allusions to famous emerald structures: an emerald spear in a temple to Hercules in Tyre, an emerald Seraphim in a mythological Egyptian labyrinth (p. 17). Stella lingers on one object the longest: an emerald cup in a church in Genoa said to be the one used by Jesus at the Last Supper. We then hear a genealogy of this cup, cobbled together from accounts by medieval romancers: it had first belonged to a set of dinnerware owned by Herod, who had sent it from Galilee to Jerusalem in time for Passover; it was diverted by “divine providence” into the hands of Jesus. Stella, who might well have seen the cup during one of his many travels to Italy, waxes poetic: “Nobody ever saw a more precious cup, a more dignified stone, or more marvelous craftsmanship!” This is not an idle argument: if Jesus at the Last Supper drank from one of the most valuable gems known to the entire West, a gem now residing in an Italian church, controversial things are implied about what kind of man Jesus was, and about which countries could claim the correct worship of him.

Of a different view about the cup’s provenance was Jean Brodeau, a French courtier known, if at all, for his interpretations of Greek poetry. In a chapter of his 1555 Miscellanea (c. 5.19, pp. 193-194) he tried to set straight what he knew about the kinds of vessels used in ancient sacrifices. From Ovid he gathered that the oldest Romans were too poor to use anything other than earthenware or beech. And Porphyrius and Dionysius of Halicarnassus convinced him that even when the wealth of the empire grew, the pious Romans never graduated to fancier equipment. All of this, plus some passages from Apuleius and Cicero, was enough evidence for Brodeau to reject Erasmus Stella’s genealogy of the Genoan cup. Since Jesus lived in the ancient world, his Passover sacrifice must have proceeded by ancient rules, and those called for fictilia, or humble earthenware.

Rudolf Hospinian related this minor scuffle over an Italian cup in his two-part Historia Sacramentaria (1598 and 1602, p. 7). Hospinian adds his own erudition to the mix: according to him, the word for the cup in the Luther translation, Kelch, misleads, since a Kelch is a particular kind of cup. But a poterion, as the Greek New Testament has it, means any old cup, and indeed the Latin word calix should be interpreted the same way. After all, Plautus once wrote the line, “Aulas calicesque confregit”—“He shattered all the pots and cups [of any kind]”—and Erasmus recorded the saying, “Multa cadunt inter calicem supremaque labra”—“Lots of things fall out between the cup and the lips.” Plautus and Erasmus knew the exact weight of each word they used. Ipso facto, Jesus drank from an ordinary cup.

Lucas Cranach the Elder's Wittenberg Altarpiece with a Last Supper. A close friend of Martin Luther, Cranach here represented the administration of the sacrament directly into the mouth of the participant. Whereas some of Luther's Protestant opponents suggested that the minister might simply hand over the body of Christ to the congregation for them to break and eat, Luther always maintained the propriety of the old practice.
Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Wittenberg Altarpiece with a Last Supper. A close friend of Martin Luther, Cranach here represented the administration of the sacrament directly into the mouth of the participant. Whereas some of Luther’s Protestant opponents suggested that the minister might simply hand over the body of Christ to the congregation for them to break and eat, Luther always maintained the propriety of the old practice.

This Rudolf Hospinian was born as Rudolf Wirt in Fehraltorf, near Zurich, on November 7, 1547. His biographer points out that this made Hospinian only nineteen days younger than the far more famous Justus Lipsius. But “if not in genius, then certainly in piety, theological erudition, and even constancy—for that man wrote and professed many things, rather prettily, de Constantia, but never matched his words with deeds—our Hospinian was leagues ahead of Lipsius.”

If the subjects that historians choose are predetermined by their upbringing, then it is telling that as a child Hospinian watched his father imprisoned and tortured, and his uncle executed, for heresy. He was educated in nearby Zurich, and quickly ascended academic and ecclesiastical ladders. For a time, he taught in Heidelberg. Already as a young man, says his biographer, Hospinian conceived of a way of doing history that would put ecclesiastical truths in an “immovable citadel,” far from the reach of the crowd of everyday pamphleteers: “Our Hospinian believed that the false dye of antiquity could be shaken off [of the arguments of others] if the first origins of their errors, the incunabula themselves, as if tiny fibers placed beneath the sun and so shining through more clearly, could be distinguished from all the rest.”

Each of Hospinian’s works told the story of the Church from its prehistory in paganism and Judaism, through its foundation, up until its perversion in Rome and its pristine restoration in Germany. These themes tie together his book On Temples, his book On the sacred days of the Jews and Gentiles (encompassing also the Greeks, Romans, Turks, and Indians), his Historia Sacramentaria, the magnum opus, and even his works on the history of monasteries and on the strange, new Society of Jesus.

Hospinian makes no secret about which side he is on. The only segment of his work to appear in English describes how the Jesuits train their students to assassinate Protestant kings. The Historia Sacramentaria helped Hospinian come to be regarded as the most qualified Protestant writing ecclesiastical history—which meant, in the first decade of the seventeenth century, the most qualified to refute the history written by Cesare Baronio. Thomas Holland, the Oxford scholar who helped make the King James Bible, tried to recruit Hospinian for just that task. But he was already over sixty, and, as he wrote in a letter to England, “I am alone in this study, having nobody to converse with about such dark and difficult matters, nor am I so outfitted with libraries here as you are there in Oxford, not to mention other things I would need for such a work.” This was for the better: trying to refute Baronio made quick work of Isaac Casaubon, Hospinian’s junior by twelve years, if one accepts the popular account that Casaubon’s body (that is, his bladder) failed under the strain of his work.

Hospinian wrote the Historia Sacramentaria after he had been given a post in Zurich that was, his biographer admits, largely ceremonial, and so admitting of a lot of free time. His reputation hangs on this work more than any other. The first volume narrates the history of the Eucharist from the night of the Last Supper up through the Middle Ages. In the second, published four years after the first, two characters loom the largest: Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. We read, year by year, as they retreat into separate camps and send missiles back and forth.

The history of Eucharist doctrine in the early sixteenth century—the structural center of Hospinian’s diptych—can be a rebarbative subject. It is the story of theologians closing their minds, of talented thinkers expending huge energy on behalf of unbelievably subtle dogmas that seem unworthy of them. But Hospinian’s history is capacious, and it has room for other portraits than this one. Because the chronology of the history places Luther and Zwingli into the unbroken tradition of the early Church, these characters assume the aura and drama of antiquity. The arguments they propose, change, and propose again take on a humanity that other histories of the period do not offer. Jean Brodeau and Erasmus Stella are not the only ones in Hospinian’s history to think with creativity and imagination.

Hospinian humanizes the history of dogma, above all, by including humanists: the personalities whose friendships, rivalries, and passions enliven the march of escalating pamphlets and futile colloquies. He writes piercingly on the symbiosis between Luther and Philip Melanchthon—how the irascible Luther needed the melancholy, slow-thinking Melanchthon to endear him to the authorities. Or, to answer the charge that these theologians lacked self-awareness to a laughable degree, one could supply the passage Hospinian drew from a dinner conversation in Nuremberg in 1526:

That year Philip Melanchthon was in Nuremberg. In those days he was still of the same mind as Martin Luther, on whose behalf nobody fought more strongly than Pirckheimer, a senator in Nuremberg, whose sharpness of mind, force of character, and wide-ranging erudition Melanchthon noticed at every turn of the conversation. And at the same drinking table sat Albrecht Dürer, the artist and learned man… again and again, disputes about the recent Eucharist controversy broke out between Pirckheimer and Dürer. The painter, since he excelled in his mind too, faced off fiercely against Pirckheimer; what the latter proposed, the former rebutted, fully up to the task; Pirckheimer grew heated; indeed he was quick to anger, not to mention his severe case of gout. At last Pirckheimer exploded: “What you’re saying, that couldn’t be painted!” “Ah,” responded Dürer, “but your views can’t be clearly said, or even imagined.” And Dürer went on to recall the stupidity of a certain Doctor Lempius, at Tübingen, who used to attempt, in the course of his lectures, to draw the transsubstantiation on a white canvas.

So goes the Reformation, as it unfolds in Hospinian: heated, yes, but softened somewhat by the ironic humor of those in the very center of it. That is the lesson to draw from the Historia Sacramentaria. To approach the Sacrament, one needs fine distinctions and a nose for metaphysics; to approach the history, one needs people and their stories.

William Theiss is an M.Phil. student in history at the University of Cambridge, where he is a Gates Cambridge Scholar. His dissertation examines aspects of the Eucharist controversy in the Reformation.

Think Piece

Giving Up Stuff, Then and Now

by contributing editor Jake Purcell

Several people have said to me that I would have made a good medieval monk. I never asked why: mostly out of self-preservation, but also because I’m fairly confident that they are wrong.

I like my things way too much. Examples include a bowl that a neighbor used to give out Halloween candy, a table I got from a friendly stranger on Craigslist, the several pieces of furniture that I have spent many days of my life building from rough planks of construction-grade pine.

I’m not a hoarder or a social climber or even that much of a consumer. Instead, that stuff represents social connections, remembrance, and investment of labor. According to a certain set of modern sensibilities, these attachments could be considered benign. There are at least two groups of who would disagree: hardcore minimalists and certain early medieval nuns.

I’m wary of suggesting that tech-bubble beneficiary Graham Hill and the Merovingian Queen Radegund, to take an example of each, have all that much in common. But this is an instance in which the medieval past, however different, can help to illuminate the present. Both individuals organized their lives around the ideal of giving up property: minimalism in the parlance of the former, poverty (though not as we would understand it today) in that of the latter. In both instances, the renunciation of property also sits uneasily alongside their elite status, which I do not think is a coincidence. The comparison illuminates several features of the minimalist movement, including its formal similarities to early Christian ascesis and the incessant revival in the Middle Ages of “apostolic poverty.”


Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Venantius Fortunatus Reading His Poems to Radegund offers a dreamy depiction of life at the Convent of the Holy Cross. Though with Radegund’s connections to the Byzantine court, Venantius’s Italian training and bona fides, and perhaps an architectural plan borrowed from Jerusalem, it might be right to think of the convent as an international cultural hub.

Poverty—in the sense of the renouncing of legal ownership of money and moveable and immoveable goods, and not in the sense of lacking the resources to meet basic needs of survival—ebbed and flowed as an ideal throughout Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. The version which which I’m most familiar relates to the institutionalization of female monasticism in the cloister under an abbess and defined by a set of rules. In Gaul, bishops articulated this vision of monasticism in a haphazard and localized fashion through diverse church councils and monastic rules; it was enacted in practice through widespread royal and noble endowments of monasteries according to different religious preferences and through the administration of bishops who could be more or less interested in the extent to which nuns held to a cenobitic (communal, as opposed to hermetic) ideal.


One well-known example is the Convent of the Holy Cross at Poitiers, founded in the mid-sixth century by Radegund, a Merovingian queen. Radegund’s convent adopted the Regula ad virgines of Bishop Caesarius of Arles, written and revised throughout the early sixth century for a convent that he founded and that his sister headed. Caesarius wanted, above all, for the nuns and convent to be as removed as possible from the world around them. But independence was a difficult ideal to manufacture in practice, largely because of property. Individual nuns had to give up their own property in an effort to divest themselves of markers of difference from the other sisters and of all sorts of bonds of obligation with people outside the convent. Unfortunately, giving away property generated yet more obligations, and any given nun could also inherit property at any future date. All these claims also had to be given up. Once inside the convent, the nuns could not even have their own locked chest or cupboard; almost everything was shared. For Caesarius and those who followed his rule, any reveling in the material should be avoided. But materiality that anchors you in a particular social context is the most pernicious inhibitor of transcendence.

Because the vow of poverty was so important to theoretically pure visions of cloister, one nun could accuse another of—horribile dictu—owning something. In 589, some forty nuns fled the convent. According to the event’s chronicler, Gregory of Tours, the errant monastics denounced their miserable living conditions and the impious behavior of their abbess, Leubovera. Chrodieldis and Basina, the leaders of the revolt and members of the Merovingian royal family, struggled to get secular or religious authorities to address their legal complaints, so they gathered a group of armed men, occupied the nunnery estates, and eventually kidnapped the abbess.

An unbelievably protracted jurisdictional conflict ensued, but Chrodieldis finally got her day in court. There, her effort to show that the abbess had ruled unjustly centered almost entirely around various failures to adequately avoid owning things. Leubovera had misused monastery funds, she owned her own property, she had exchanged goods and done so in secret, and she had used silks and precious metals for purposes other than decorating the oratory. These charges, and others, all violated specific provisions of Caesarius’ Regula.

There is something particularly galling about this series of accusations. Chrodieldis was a princess; Leubovera is usually assumed not to have been especially high-born. A princess claimed that someone of lesser status failed to embody poverty well enough. And she did so in order to reorder, according to the hierarchy of secular society, a space where status was not supposed to matter, where it was even supposed to be a hindrance to holiness. It is difficult to avoid the impression that what matters here is knowing the rules of the game, rather than actual renunciation. At least one savvy nun could conceive of an accusation of ownership as a legal strategy that was, of course, ultimately a strategy for righting the social order. (Her argument failed, but only because she could not prove the facts of her case.)

The ability of elites to co-opt supposedly equalizing spaces or values and remake them in their own image is one of the disturbingly pernicious aspects of the renunciation of poverty. The most prolific minimalists today, those who receive New York Times and New York Magazine profiles, are male millionaires who have decided to downsize to seek happiness. Encouraging others to live in small spaces and make do with a limited amount of stuff does wonders for their personal brands. The wealthy who live a restrained lifestyle receive speaking fees, advertising revenue from traffic to their websites, and book deals as a result; those who inhabit small apartments or eschew accumulation out of need do not.

The comparison between early medieval monasticism and the current minimalist movement is not quite as strained as it looks, in particular because minimalism has all of the trappings of early Christianity. There is always a conversion narrative. It offers happiness, financial well-being, and relief from many ills of contemporary life, like feeling out of control. Calling yourself a minimalist denotes not just an aesthetic, but an enlightened cosmology that separates practitioners from others: there is more to life than the increasing accumulation of stuff. (The reader is usually allowed to define for her- or himself what the “more” is.) Like those of any good religion, the principles of minimalism are easily modulated according to class and gender. The magazine profiles of male Silicon Valley entrepreneur-minimalists are one corner of a vast landscape that also includes wildly popular “simple living” blogs primarily by and for young women with children, as well as more masculine-skewing personal finance communities centered around frugality and Financial Independence/Retire Early. “Minimalism Is for Everyone; Be More with Less.”

Minimalism’s similarity of form to early Christianity highlights some uncomfortable differences as well. Medieval monastics renounced property to seek perfection of self and community, but most minimalists comment only on the relationship between self and stuff. Minimalism offers no critique of systems that produce stuff, of how economies are organized, or of the social or environmental impact of consumption. These blinders lead to the very strange state of affairs that someone who owns several electronic devices, flies long distances on a weekly or monthly basis, and stays primarily in short-term domiciles is understood to consume less than someone with an apartment and a slightly larger wardrobe, which is complete nonsense by any normal metric of sustainability or impact. Minimalism claims much of its status because it offers special, countercultural insight. In comparison with early medieval monasticism, which attempted to build from the ground up systems that separated entire communities from the demands of the material world, minimalism’s exhortation to own less to feel better appears neither particularly well-thought nor all that radical.

Think Piece

Censoring Early Modern Hebrew Texts: A Review of The Manfred R. Lehmann Memorial Master Workshop in the History of the Hebrew Book at the University of Pennsylvania

by Yitzchak Schwartz

Each year, The Manfred R. Lehmann Memorial Master Workshop at the University of Pennsylvania brings together enthusiasts of the Hebrew book to study topics in Hebrew book history with leading scholars in the field. Housed at the Katz Center for Jewish Studies in downtown Philadelphia, the workshop is a rare event that brings scholars, professionals and laymen together for in-depth learning and conversation. Participants generally include academics, graduate students, book collectors and museum, library and auction house professionals. Topics range across various disciplines but the workshops are generally grounded in careful material study of books. Recent past topics have included the implications of processes of printing (misprints, for example) on Jewish law and late medieval Hebrew manuscript illumination.

A censored page from a 1546 edition of Isaac ben Moses Arama's commentary on the Bible Akedat Yitshak, The Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania. A signature by the censor reads: "Revisto p[er] me Antonio Fran[cesco] Enrique Alessandria, 1688."
A censored page from a 1546 edition of Isaac ben Moses Arama’s commentary on the Bible Akedat Yitshak, The Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania. A signature by the censor reads: “Revisto p[er] me Antonio Fran[cesco] Enrique Alessandria, 1688.”

This year’s workshop, held May 8-9, was led by Dr. Piet van Boxel and focused on the censorship of Jewish books during the early modern period. Professor van Boxel is Distinguished Professor at the Oxford University Oriental Institute and is the former Curator of Hebraica and Judaica Collections at the Oxford University Libraries. In 2009, he curated the landmark exhibition of the Bodleian Library’s Hebrew manuscripts Crossing Borders: Hebrew Manuscripts as a Meeting-place of Cultures, which examined medieval Hebrew manuscripts as a site of cooperation and cultural exchange among  Jews and Christians. The exhibition brought together some of the highlights from the Bodleian’s collection of medieval illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, which is the largest in the world, and a version of it traveled to the Jewish Museum in New York City in 2012-2013.

Over the two days of the workshop, Dr. van Boxel traced the history of censorship of Jewish books in the early modern Papal State. It has long been known that Jewish texts were censored during the early modern period, but the Church policy that informed this censorship and the realities of its implementation remain murky. Dr. van Boxel’s presentations aimed to elucidate both the theory and practice of early modern censorship of Jewish texts through research that draws on the history of the Catholic Church’s policies and examination of censored books housed in libraries around the world.

He began by discussing the infamous burning of the Talmud in Rome, which occurred during the Council of Trent in 1553. The 1553 burning was not the first time the Church had burned the Talmud: In 1244, after a disputation in Paris in which four Rabbis were forced to defend the Talmud against accusations that it contained blasphemous statements, twenty-four carriage loads of Talmudic manuscripts were burned. However, it represented a shift in Church policy: Prior to the Counter-Reformation, Jewish texts had for the most part been protected by the Papal decree. In particular, the bull Sicut Judaeis, issued by Pope Callixtus II (1065-1124) in 1120, states that suasion, not violence, is the only proper means to evangelize to Jews to and that it is forbidden to take their property as a means of encouraging conversion. The burning of the Talmud contradicted this Papal decree but was made possible, Van Boxel argues, because Cardinal Gian Pietro Carafa (1476-1559), the head of the Roman Inquisition, argued that the blasphemous teachings of the Talmud would lead Christians into the arms of Luther. Carafa used his power to compel local rulers and Bishops to collect copies of the Talmud and punish individuals who did not forfeit their copies. The books were collected and taken to Rome, where they were publicly burned.

Shortly after he burned the Talmud, Carafa planned to order the burning of other Jewish texts that contained blasphemous statements. However Pope Julius III (1487-1555) intervened and ordered that henceforth such texts merely be expurgated, that their blasphemous sections be blacked out by Church-appointed censors. Julius III’s decree made official Church policy harsher than it had been before the Council of Trent but van Boxel argues that the implementation of his decree was highly inconsistent and varied by location and by censor. At times censors, who were paid per book by Jewish communities, would expurgate a few lines at the beginning and end of a book and leave the rest. At other times they went far beyond protocol and blacked out words that had any association with blasphemous Jewish teachings.

Moreover, the professionalization of censorship necessitated the preservation of heretical portions of texts: Both the Church and Jewish communities created indices for expurgation, which excerpted heretical portions of Jewish and Christian texts to be expurgated. These were intended only for the eyes of censors but in the wrong hands they are veritable encyclopedias of heresy. The inconsistency of censorship also aided text’s survival in that many publishers, knowing that only some copies of a given edition of a book would be censored, continued to print texts in full. Other Christian and Jewish publishers collected all offending portions of texts they were printing on separate pages meant to be appended to the censored books, allowing their owners to dispose of these in the event of a censor visiting them and keep them otherwise.

One of the arguments Professor van Boxel made that I found most interesting was that because of the inconsistency of censorship very little if anything was lost to posterity because of it. Many uncensored copies of books survive today and it is hard to say if expurgation ever led to the complete disappearance of the original version of a text. I personally have often been taken by the romance of the notion that there might be countless early modern texts that vanished because of censorship, but that sentiment illustrates precisely what was so informative about the workshop: Equipped with a careful understanding of the process of censorship of Jewish books in the early modern period that penetrates the myths surrounding the subject, scholars can begin to consider this widespread phenomenon’s actual social and intellectual-historical implications.