Church Robbers and Reformers in Germany, 1525-1547: Confiscation and Religious Purpose in the Holy Roman Empire

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Church Robbers and Reformers in Germany, 1525-1547: Confiscation and Religious Purpose in the Holy Roman Empire. By Christopher Ocker. [Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions, 114.] (Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers. 2007. Pp. xx, 338.)

The confiscation or destruction of church property in the Reformation has, in the English-speaking literature, commonly been seen under two signs: either the wave of image-breaking in the early phase of enthusiastic activism, or the expropriation or dissolution of ecclesiastical corporations, principally the religious houses, in the later years of calculated policy. For the Holy Roman Empire this has always been too simple a view. The legal status, administration, and deployment of church assets have in recent years been touched upon in studies of the Schmalkaldic League (Haug-Moritz), ecclesiastical governance in the territorial states (Sieglerschmidt), Protestant politics on a regional level (Brady), the ecclesiastical principalities themselves (Wolgast), or Luther and Melanchthon's concept of secular rule (Estes), but none has addressed the issue of "church robbery" head-on. Reading Christopher Ocker's detailed and scholarly analysis (which draws heavily upon these works), one can see why: the picture he paints is of an issue at once legal and theological, territorial and imperial, confronting long-standing Catholic efforts at church reform with attempted Protestant innovation, the outcome of which was often messy, at times contradictory, and always prey to wider political and diplomatic considerations. One of the most startling of Ocker's findings is how infrequently and haltingly Protestant theologians in the 152Os and 153Os sought to elaborate a coherent doctrine of the legal status of church property, but then they were caught between the competing interests of princes and cities, evangelical and Reformed "wings, and within the Wittenberg camp between Melanchthon and Luther himself. When a clear line emerged at the end of the 153Os (in submissions to the Eisenach diet of the Schmalkaldic League), it was Wolfgang Musculus and Bonifacius Wolfahrt (rather than the eirenic Martin Bucer) who affirmed that confiscations or reassignments could be justified under existing Catholic legal teaching, underpinning their case with copious citations from both canon and Roman law. …