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‘Cities were the main driving force of the Reformation in Germany’ – explain whether you agree or disagree (15 marks)
There were many factors contributing to why Lutheranism spread in Germany. One of the main reasons is that Luther’s message was flexible and therefore had a broad appeal. Other features that acted as a driving force of the Reformation in Germany are the use of the vernacular, Martin Luther’s message itself and Charles V. However, the towns and cities can be seen as the main driving force as vast amounts of people heard of the Reformation and Luther’s ideas in a short period of time. The cities were the main driving force most notably from 1521 to 1525. 51 out of 65 imperial cities became Lutheran however, the main driving force was taken over by the Princes after 1547 e.g. the Battle of Muhlberg.
The cities played a major role in the spreading of the Reformation as a large and disproportionately high number of literate people could be found in them, among whom the method could be spread. The urban population was more likely to understand the more advanced points of Luther’s theology. The cities were also the Humanist centres of learning, as this is who originally Luther had wanted his teachings to be aimed at ( e.g. as the 95 thesis were first originally written in Latin). Although not all were able to understand the minutiae of ‘the Priesthood of all Believers’, many were able to grasp the concept of the anti-clerical message that accompanied it.
The cities also inhabited the universities, where the word of God could be translated, therefore many scholars where living in the cities and could help spread the Lutheran ideas. The cities also contained the printing presses where the pamphlets, Lutheran rhymes and the Bible in the vernacular could be printed. For example a copy of the 95 Thesis reached Thomas More in London in only three weeks). Pamphlets played a huge role in educating the literate and rhymes were often an easier way for the Lutheran message to be conveyed by for the less educated. Such pamphlets included ‘Of the Liberty of a Christian Man’. The towns and cities also housed the woodcuts, images and illustrations which accompanied the written word. This, in effect, helped to make the message of Lutheranism ever clearer for all types of people. Many cities such as Hamburg, was situated on internal and external trade routes. This allowed the message to be spread acutely among the merchant classes.
As a result of the towns and cities, Lutheranism was able to spread to all classes of the population, from the illiterate; to the highly educated theologians. Large numbers of Luther’s supporters were consequently found in the cities and consequently the German Reformation took off in the cities between 1521 and 1525. The people of Germany hence provided the pressure of the local authority to embrace the reform. By 1550, a total of 50 out of 65 imperial cities were conforming to the new faith. By 1525, Erfurt, Magdeburg, Nuremberg and Bremen had adhered to the reform and by 1534 Ausburg and Strasburg joined too. Thus proving that the cities and down were the main reason for the spread of Lutheranism as so many major German cities converted. However, not all German cities converted, many were fearful of the Emperor and fearful of loss of trade so many did reform back to Catholicism. As a result of this, there were other factors that contributed to the spread of the Reformation, especially in 1525.
However, due to the flexibility of Luther’s message, supporters came from different backgrounds; ranging from the peasants to the imperial knights, indicating that the broadened appeal of the message played a major role in suiting all people. Luther promptly tailored his message to agree with differing audiences. For example the ‘Priesthood of all Believers’ appealed amongst the peasants whereas the criticisms of papal taxation attracted Germans. By making his ideas appeal to both ends of the population spectrum, Luther was able to gain a larger audience as possible.
Therefore the suppleness of his message can be viewed as the main reason for his success as it helped it spread from the original success in the cities, to the country side where the majority of the German population actually lived. However, as a result of Luther’s ideas been so flexible and open to interpretation, Luther did face problems concerning people construing his message in ways that he had not originally intended. For example, the Peasants Revolt in 1525 and Andreas Carlstadt’s interpretations. Thus the contributions of the flexible message of Luther is limited; as although overall it helped the conversion of many Germans to Lutheranism, it caused some major problems for Luther even though it was his intention to make the message so broad.
In consequence of the broad appeal of the message it attracted the Princes who became in favour of the Reformation. Originally, the Princes did not want to commit to Lutheranism as they saw it as a radical movement and did not want to be associated with it if it were to fail. Even after Luther had appealed to the German nobility in 1520 for support, the Church remained detached, waiting to see if Lutheranism would excel. However, after the Peasants Revolt, 1525, Luther realised that reform needed to be backed form the Princes. In order for Lutheranism to survive following the Edict of Worms, it would need both the support and the protection of the Princes. Therefore, as a result of Lutheranism gaining followers, from the attraction of a broad message, some Princes began to alter their opinions of Lutheranism and support the movement.
As a result of this, Albrecht of Hohenzollern, Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, was first, followed in 1526 by Philip of Hesse who with the Elector of Saxony led the League of Torgau (a group of Lutheran Princes which prevented the execution of the Edict of Worms. As Lutheran Princes followed Luther, more Princes were influenced and some took the attitude of ‘safety in numbers’. Although, some Princes were committed believers in Luther’s message such as John of Saxony. Many were pressured by the local lay people into adopting Lutheranism, such as Archbishop of Mainz at Erfurt. Some Princes were more occupied with gaining greater freedom for Hapsburg authority rather than the actual teachings of Lutheranism. Secularisation of lands previously owned by the Church brought even more revenue and supremacy, demonstrated by Albrecht of Hohenzollern, which attracted many Princes.
Once the Princes themselves had become Lutheran, they converted their subjects to the new faith, thus spreading Lutheranism. Even though the Princes seem to play a major role in the spreading of Lutheranism, without the flexibility of the message and the towns and cities enabling the easiness for Lutheranism to spread, many Princes may not have converted at the risk of being in part of a failing reformed religion. However, Frederick the Wise backed Luther from the start and Philip of Hesse also converted in 1520. Therefore, the Princes cane to play a much bigger role in the spreading of the Reformation and be seen as taking over the main driving forces after 1525.
The peasants themselves played a key role in the spreading of Lutheranism, in order for Luther’s message to be successful and popular, it would have to spread from the original home in the cities. As it was flexible, accessible and appealing, it instantly made an impact in the countryside amongst the peasants. The scriptures which Luther so eagerly based his religion on were opened up to the rural districts by using woodcuts, rhyming passages and visits from Lutheran missionaries from the towns and cities. Although there was indeed the risk of the Peasants misinterpreting Luther’s message, e.g. the Peasants Revolt, many were peaceful conversions as they many social and economic benefits to the new faith. The reforms would mean that village communes would have greater control over the Church, so local village leaders saw the Reformation as a change to establish greater control over the parish church at the expense of the existing clergy.
This shows how many Germans felt that Luther’s message could easily be adapted to their own way of life. For example Luther’s message of ‘The Priesthood of all Believers’ and his attack of clerical hierarchy could be adapted to the circumstances of the relationship between the landlord and peasants. Therefore peasants found that through Lutheranism they acquired more rights which were justified by their religion.
Throughout the early 16th Century, there was the rising of prices and taxation and those who worked the land were under considerable financial pressure and had to pay considerable amounts to the Roman Catholic Church, therefore by converting to Lutheranism, peasants could save money. Therefore there were reasons as to why the peasants did take up Luther’s beliefs; however not all were necessarily religious ones. It can be argued that the peasants were never a driving force behind the Reformation, they only supported Luther up to 1525 and then abandoned Lutheranism. Hence they therefore did not play such an important part in the spreading of Lutheranism compared to the cities due to the printing presses and high literacy rates.
However not all those who were willing to conform to Lutheranism were willingly accepted. The Imperial Knights offered to raise arms in Luther’s name against the Emperor and some German Princes e.g. Ulrich von Hutten, a humanist who recognised national appear of Luther. Yet Luther revoked this offer in 1521, as he sustained a strictly pacifist approach to reform at this time. Luther felt that there was little to be gained by violent methods at this stage of the Reformation and already had the influential support of Frederick the Wise. Luther was proved correct in 1523 when Franz von Sickingen was defeated by a group of local Princes after he had attempted to seize the Archbishop of Trier. Therefore it can be seen that the spreading of Lutheranism was not dependant on having previously elite, rich and influential people converting, but rather the majority of the populace; who were open to the knew ideas without violence. Also as the message was so flexible, the peasants were more likely to be more open minded that the old fashioned Imperial Knights.
The methods of communication and use of the vernacular contributed to the spread of Lutheranism as it allowed the country to read the scriptures and Luther’s teachings in their mother tongue. Although they were accessible to the literate section of the population, the fact that it was in the country’s native language still gave an impression to those who could not read, as the services were increasingly being told in the vernacular. Luther’s translation of the New Testament from Greek sold out within three weeks and went through another 300 editions before Luther’s death in 1546. The large demand for these publications, indicate that there was a longing of both the laity and the more educated of the population to hear their religion in their own language.
Lutheran sermons and documents created by the printing press in the vernacular can be seen as important reason for the spreading of Lutheranism, yet without the effect that the town and cities had on the way in which the material was spread and conveyed, the use of the vernacular may not have had such a large impact. It can be seen that the cities and towns were hence more important than the printing press, as without the environment of the cities they would not have thrived.
During the 16th Century one of the most important figures in Europe was the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Charles V helped to spread Lutheranism for two main factors. Firstly, Charles V became Emperor was he was just 19 years old, thus being inexperienced and needing the support of the princes. Therefore at Worms in 1521, Luther’s survival was helped as Charles V agreed to what the princes believed. Secondly, Charles was not wholly focused on the Reformation and was not able to remain in the Empire. The nature of Charles position meant that he was unable to give his full attention to the spread of Lutheranism in Germany, as between 1522 – 9, Charles himself was not even in the country. As a result of this, Charles delegated his powers of day-to-day running of the Empire to his younger brother, Ferdinand of Austria.
As the Emperor was preoccupied with the threat of France posed in northern Italy and the rebellions in Spain, Lutheranism gained a grip, so when Charles did return to Germany, the problem that he had to deal with, was irresolvable. As a result of Charles not being present at such a crucial and changing time, Lutheranism was able to develop and spread without control or guidance of the Emperor. The importance of the Princes can also be seen as Charles V could not fight the Schmalkaldic league and be triumphant. Even when Charles did beat them in a battle, he still could not beat them, as the Princes can be viewed as semi-autonomous.
However, even though Charles V was not present at this crucial time, the Reformation was inevitable to occur. With the rate at which Lutheran publications were being produced and the easy spread throughout the towns and cities, it can be seen that Lutheranism would unavoidably spread. In conclusion, many factors contribute to the spread of Lutheranism, yet the town and cities can be seen as the initial first main driving force of the Reformation, as without the large impact they played, the spread of Lutheranism may have been limited and not gained such a large following.
However, it can be seen that the Princes over took the cities status of the driving force for the Reformation in the late 1520’s, as the cities alone did not have the political clout to stand against Charles, whereas the Princes did. Without the Princes, the Reformation would not have succeeded to the extent that it did, as the Reformation needed someone to stand up to Charles V, and these were the only people who had the political power.