Tuesday, September 21, 2010

LHP Review: Religious Satire

Rummel, Erika, translator. Scheming Papists and Lutheran Fools: Five Reformation Satires. New York: Fordham University Press, 1993. 122 Pages. Paper. $23.00. http://www.fordhampress.com/detail.html?session=8ea02297b45c7aa53f0feb1248bec2b1&cat=1&id=9780823214839 (LHP)

I have always enjoyed history. The workings of cultures, nations, and individuals is fascinating. As a student I was seldom good at dates and the details that are important to historical study. I had a college history professor who would give dates, names, decrees, and documents along with the best. However, he would always ask, “Ah, but what were the people thinking?”

Erika Rummel presents Five Reformation Satires to give the reader a glimpse of what the attitudes of people might have been in Germany in the early 1500’s. Satire is a genre which must draw the reader in and get the point across without direct narrative and explanation. Satire is not benign. It works to infect with an idea and influence thinking.

Rummel does a good job of setting some degree of context for each of the five pieces and gives an overview of the characters so that the reader can get a glimpse of “what the people were thinking”, and why the each satire may have been written.

This book is not for the youth or the fragile. Saturday Night Live has nothing on these satires with regard to adult content and situations. Luther sometimes writes about “coarse Germans”, and these works are evidence of that critique. Conversations that are presented in the satires seem to be absurd, and yet they strike at the truth. The satires reveal that the absurd goes on under the nose of the Emperor, under the supervision of the Pope and the cardinals, and in the face of the people. It takes the cover off of the abuses of authority and power. In places these satires are blunt. They accuse the abusers for their actions and they accuse the abused for their complacency and apathy. As satires, the words cut both ways.

Some of the subtleties of the culture certainly may be lost as none of us who read them now are 16th century Germans. This book is a good read, none-the-less, and more importantly a good “re-read”. A second reading helps to keep the characters clear and new insight become evident.

Satire is not a genre that is common to our current culture with regard to religious and spiritual subjects. We often think that we have advanced from cultures of the past. Erika Rummel provides us with the sophistication of discourse that was used by “coarse German’s” nearly 500 years ago. With some cautions concerning the maturity of the reader, this book is profitable to those seeking to understand the need for the Reformation of Christ’s Church.

"This volume is a collection of five satires from the Reformation period, written between 1517 and 1526. In her Introduction to the work, Rummel explains that the battle between reformers and champions of the old faith was waged on many fronts, 'not only by preachers thundering from the pulpits, theologians facing each other in acrimonious disputations, and church authorities issuing censures and condemnations.' This collection focuses on the impact and importance of a supporting cast of satirists whose ad hoc productions reached a wider audience, in a more visceral manner, than the rational approach which typified scholarly theological arguments. Rummel explains: 'Satire, a genre that requires finely honed language skills, was the preferred weapon of the humanists, who by and large sympathizes with the reformers.' The humanists and reformers were often so closely associated in the reading public’s mind that the earliest phase of the Reformation was sometimes interpreted as a quarrel between philogists and theologians, a manifestation of professional jealousies. Thus Erasmus claimed that the debates of his time were the result of antagonism between the faculties of Arts and Theology.

"Three of the selections contained in the volume represent the Reformers, and two support the Catholics, the 'Papists' of the title. These satirical essays, circulated widely among educated laypersons, use wit and biting humor to ridicule and discredit their adversaries and belong to a genre which was part of a larger body of sixteenth-century satire. The proliferation of satires became a concern of authorities who moved to suppress what they called 'hate-mongering.' Officials banned the publication of anonymously authored writings, effectively ending the publication of the satires, which were largely published either anonymously or carried only the name of the publisher. As a result, many of the pieces did not survive to the present day, many more are only known to us through obscure references in other literature.

"This volume brings to light five of these satiric pieces, written in the pivotal period when the Reformation ceased to be a protest and organized itself as a full-fledged movement. The topical issues featured in each satire are brought into historical context by a headnote explaining the circumstances surrounding its publication and giving bibliographical information about the satire’s author. The witty style makes this collection entertaining reading and the impact of these writings sheds new light on the history of the Reformation.

"Erika Rummel has taught at University of Toronto prior to accepting her current position with the History Department of Wilfrid Laurier University" (publisher's website).

The Rev. Kirk Peters is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Buffalo, Wyoming, Third Vice President of the Wyoming District of The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, and Advising Editor of QBR.