The Urban Reformation: An Overview

Martin Luther did not always appreciate the urban environment. Supposedly, he said once during a conversation with students and colleagues that “poverty is great in the city, but laziness much greater”. Although this quote comes from the table talk, a collection of what Luther said in a jovial atmosphere, and therefore a difficult source, on other occasions, Luther could also be critical of towns, seeing them as centres of sin and debauchery.

Wittenberg 1556

Yet for all of Luther’s criticism of towns, they were crucial in the spread of the European Reformations. Towns and cities in the early modern period (c. 1500-1750), of course, were nothing like what we think of when we hear the term today, not least because a population of 10.000 inhabitants would have been a significant urban settlement in this period. Indeed, there is an ongoing debate on how to define a city at all and there are various ways of categorising what constitutes a town. 

Research on the urban Reformation has been ongoing for many decades. One of the most important works was Bernd Moeller’s Reichsstadt und Reformation, which investigates systematically, why towns were important when it came to the spread of the evangelical faith. Steven Ozment and other continued this work on the evangelical faith in cities. Since then, there have been a range of studies on the urban Reformation and while previously towns were seen as centres of orthodoxy, now historians stress that in many towns religious plurality was just as common. Augsburg, one of the best researched towns, has a long history of pluricofnessionalism, for example.

There were several urban features which meant that the Reformation message spread there particularly quickly. Many towns were founded along important trade routes and so they were the first locales were new ideas could spread and then be developed further. Merchants and travellers could bring these new ideas and turned towns into hotspots for novel approaches to religiosity. Once ideas had been introduced to a town, the possibility of reformers to work together with councillors and other urban actors enabled a thorough introduction of changes in the urban and religious fabric. Geneva is a prime example for this kind of combination of religious and political motivations. Guilds, too, could be a driving force for religious change, as artisans hoped that the Reformation changes would give them greater political representation.  

Many of the early modern towns also shared another feature, which was crucial for the spread of the Reformation message: printing presses. Luther managed to harvest the new printing techniques and soon learned that in order to spread his theological message, pamphlets and broadsheet were crucial to reach many people in a relatively short space of time. Together with the arist Lucas Cranach the Elder, who was responsible for many of the woodcuts which featured in Luther’s publications, he managed to establish Wittenberg as one of the most important printing centres in the Holy Roman Empire.

Universities, usually also located in towns, could be another reason for theconnection between urbanity and religiosu reform. Wittenberg, of course, was one of the most important universities for Lutheranism. From there, many Lutheran theologians were sent to other territories and established the Lutheran faith there. Other important universities like Strasbourg or Basel could play similarly important roles in other territories. Later in the sixteenth century, Leipzig and Frankfurt/Oder also developed into centres for Lutheranism because of their universities.  

The spread of Lutheranism from urban centres to other locales could be particularly pronounced in urban coalitions or when important centres of the Reformation dominated the surrounding area. In the Lusatian League, a town coalition founded in 1346, Lutheran preachers deemed too radical in one of the towns moved to another town to work there. Christopher Close has also shown how Augsburg influenced the Reformation in the towns of Kaufbeuren and Donauwörth, coining the term “Negotiated Reformation” for this kind of spread of Lutheranism. The same process could also work for Catholicism. The Catholic imperial free town of Schwäbisch Gmünd delayed the Reformation in nearby Esslingen, for example.

The importance of Lutheranism in towns did not mean that other urban institutions always followed suit. Town councils could resist the introduction of Lutheranism and mayors and councillors could try to keep the Catholic faith in the towns intact. In Görlitz in Bohemia, the Catholic mayor Johannes Hass complained about the Lutheran changes, for example, and hoped to hinder the introduction of the Lutheran faith.

Görlitz 1575

That is not to say, of course, that the countryside could not experience equally drastic changes in religiosity. Itinerant preachers were an important feature of the rural countryside and Thomas Müntzer and other more radical preachers found ready listeners there. As Kat Hill has shown, many Anabaptists travelled and preached in rural areas in central Germany.  

For economic, cultural and political reasons, towns were at the forefront of the spread of the European Reformations. They were early in receiving new religious messages and influenced other regions and towns, in turn. Regardless of what Luther himself thought about the urban setting, towns and the Reformation were closely connected.  

— Martin Christ 

Bibliography (in order of appearance):

Bern Moeller, Reichsstadt und Reformation (first edition, 1962; various translations and editions since). 

Steven Ozment, The Reformation in the Cities. The Appeal of Protestantism to Sixteenth-Century Germany and Switzerland (1975).

Lee Palmer Wandel, ‘Locating the Sacred in Biconfessional Augsburg’, in Lynne Tatlock, Enduring Loss in Early Modern Germany (2010).  

Christopher W. Close, The Negotiated Reformation: Imperial Cities and the Politics of Urban Reform (2009). 

Kat Hill, Baptism, Brotherhood and Belief in Reformation Germany: Anabaptism and Lutheranism, 1525-1585 (2015). 

 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.