Academic journal article History Review

The Radical Reformers: Russel Tarr Asks Key Questions about the Religious Radicals of the 16th Century. (New Agendas)

Academic journal article History Review

The Radical Reformers: Russel Tarr Asks Key Questions about the Religious Radicals of the 16th Century. (New Agendas)

Article excerpt

If coroners' reports had existed in the sixteenth century, those on the Radical Reformers would have made interesting reading. `King' Jan Beukels, the insane leader of Munster, had his tongue ripped out with red hot tongs and was then suspended in an iron cage from the church tower until his corpse fell apart. Jakob Hutter was dipped in freezing water, his skin was sliced open, brandy was rubbed into the open wounds and then he was ignited.

These sorts of sentences -- brutal even by sixteenth-century standards -- were not meted out by the Papal Inquisition or other Catholic zealots. Rather, they were imposed by fellow Protestants -- or, even worse, by fellow Protestants acting in cahoots with the Papal Inquisition. Bewilderingly, at a time when mainstream Catholics and Protestants would rather see the Ottoman Empire swamp Europe than contemplate uniting in its defence, they considered it imperative to work together to ensure the complete annihilation of the Radicals, who generated suspicion and bloodthirsty ferocity out of all proportion to their numbers.


The degree to which the Radicals were persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike is, at face value, hard to fathom. The `Radical Movement' was actually not particularly Radical, and certainly never constituted anything vaguely approaching an organised movement. And yet those facts in themselves ironically provide us with an explanation for the level of persecution that the Radicals faced.


Firstly, by not constituting a proper `movement', they lacked the unity to resist their persecutors effectively. In reality a hotchpotch of sects and wandering bands who had very little in common, the names of these groups in themselves wonderfully reflect the general confusion: Huttites and Hutterites, Munsterites and Muntzerites, Mennonites and Melchiorites. As Dickens puts it, the Radicals `had no great spiritual leader, no generally accepted epitome of doctrine, no central directive organs'.

The Radicals were particularly unfortunate to make their views known at a time when the states of Europe were not only more jittery, but also more powerful, than they ever had been before. This process had been initiated by the Papacy, whose territorial ambitions may have been defensive but had the effect of turning it into a separate state. Luther's protest resulted from the implications of this development and had led to a parallel change in the German Protestant States. Europe was dividing itself into two armed camps, with the battle-lines being drawn on the issue of religious belief: faith was no longer a private matter but one of state security. Radical sects were therefore prime targets for persecution -- not strictly because they were radical, but simply because they did not fit in.


Secondly, the Radicals were not particularly outlandish in their religious views, but merely resurrected medieval religious heresies and followed the ideas of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin through to their most logical conclusions. This, however, meant that they were regarded as being altogether more dangerous than a bunch of free-thinking crackpots ever could have been. On the one hand, the secular rulers newly empowered by the moderate impulses of the `Magisterial Reformers' regarded the Radicals as being dangerously subversive -- theological loose cannons who jeopardised the new status quo. On the other hand, the Magisterial Reformers themselves were keen to distance themselves from their `misguided' disciples by sanctioning their utter destruction by the secular authorities. This process can be seen at work both in Zwingli's Zurich and in Luther's Germany.


Geographically, the Radicals can be traced to Switzerland, where Zwingli's simplification of worship, viewing the Eucharist merely as a commemorative service and showing willingness to debate the scriptural validity of infant baptism, fired imaginations and whetted appetites for more radical reforms. …

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