Fuzziness and Religious Syncretism in Upper Lusatia’s Reformation

In this guest post, Jaap Geraerts, post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for European History, Mainz, reviews Biographies of a Reformation. Religious Change and Confessional Coexistence in Upper Lusatia, 1520-1635 (OUP, 2021) by Martin Christ. The book was finished in the framework of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”.

In this exciting new book, Martin Christ further complicates our understanding of religion and religious change during the first century of the Reformation. Conditioned as most of us are by the so-called ‘confessionalization paradigm’, with its notion of firmly separated confessions (religious denominations), we are likely to find the early Reformation rather puzzling. Clear markers of confessional affiliation were only in the process of being established and in many ways the situation was rather fluid: strong confessional identities underpinned by sharply demarcated religiosities just started to emerge and uncertainty loomed large.

Christ uses the notion of ‘religious syncretism’ to come to terms with this fluid situation and, more importantly, to study how ‘religious plurality influenced belief systems and practices’ (15). Indeed, the presence of and interaction between various confessions, significantly shaped their religiosity. In order to study this process, Christ opted to study a number of individuals who were uniquely placed to influence the religious situation on the ground. The group of people central in his study belonged to the local religious and political elite and includes clergymen and burgomasters from various religious backgrounds. Often due to their actions, in concert with other important parties, local forms of a particular religion emerged, forms that often were recognized by contemporaries to be different in one way or another.

The focus on particular people not only enables Christ to show the agency of individuals and its important repercussions, but also helps to provide some flesh and bones to the story he is telling and to firmly anchor it to the various localities he is interested in. Moreover, ‘they show that individual interpretations of the Reformation are crucial for understanding how religious change and confessional coexistence functioned’ (24). Consider, for example, Johann Leisentrit, dean of the collegiate church of Saint Peter’s in Bautzen. Christ shows how this Catholic advocated and propagated a religiosity which included some clearly Lutheran elements, including communion in both kinds. According to Christ, Leisentrit was motivated by ‘a desire for peace, the wish for the church to be reunited, fear of the Lutheran’s power and a sense of pragmatism’ (152). Leisentrit thus consciously chose a different path than some of his co-religionists elsewhere, who embraced policies of re-catholization. This did make him vulnerable to criticism and Christ makes clear how, in reaction to this, Leisentrit was forced to become ‘outwardly more Catholic’. Nevertheless, he remained willing to accommodate Lutheranism to some extent and he thus serves as a particularly potent example of the fact that ‘in Upper Lusatia, confessional boundaries remained porous, even towards the end of the sixteenth century’ (152).

Christ’s book contains more example of religious syncretism and the desire to coexist with other religions. We thus read about Lutheran theologies which retained (medieval) Catholic elements and vice versa, the adaptation of the Gregorian calendar by Lutherans, the sharing of churches, the emergence of what we may call hybrid liturgies, and so forth. All these and other examples show ‘just how problematic it is to apply a Lutheran or Catholic confessionalization paradigm to a region like Upper Lusatia’ (174). The ‘syncretisic Reformation’ (50) in this region relied on the willingness and ability to compromise, to accommodate religious differences, and to coexist peacefully. In the end, this created a situation that remained blurry for a long time, defying the assumptions and expectations of more confessionally-orientated contemporaries and modern historians alike. 

Surely for specialists of Upper Lusatia and the Holy Roman Empire (which I am not), this book has a lot to offer. However, because it raises important questions about larger themes such a religious change and confessional coexistence, it is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in these topics as well. Confessions mutually influenced one another, but this was not only a passive and largely subconscious process. On the contrary, syncretically combining elements from Catholicism and Lutheranism was an active strategy and a way to compromise and to maintain peaceful relations. It should be noted that discerning such strategies is not always easy, in particular in a period where confessional markers often still had to be established and people were freely borrowing from a shared medieval legacy. Nevertheless, one of the strengths of this book is that it convincingly shows how elements from other confessions were adopted and incorporated and how this led to regional and local religious variations. Religious syncretism, then, was yet another item in the arsenal of strategies people could resort to in order to foster peaceful relations between confessions. Hence the legitimate conclusion that ‘forceful imposition of religious uniformity was only one possibility for settling religious disputes, and usually a last resort’ (228).

In addition, Christ’s study has a wider resonance since some of the arrangements and accommodations he describes existed in other parts of Europe as well. For example, one immediately recognises the overlap with a number of ritual practices in Westphalia, expertly told by David Luebke in his Hometown Religion. Regimes of Coexistence in Early Modern Westphalia (Charlottesville, 2016). But also in the Dutch Republic, the area of my specialization, we encounter similar practices of accommodation. For example, a visitation of rural churches in the province of Utrecht that took place in 1593, revealed that here and there the sacraments were offered in a Reformed Protestant and Catholic manner.[1] How widespread such practices were and how long they continued is unknown, but due to the piecemeal and stuttering expansion of the Reformed Protestant Church, such practices may have lasted well into the seventeenth century. To offer another example, my research has uncovered varying marriage practices among Dutch Catholics in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: despite the general tendency to marry in the Catholic Church and in the town hall (often Dutch Catholics did not only marry in their own Church since such marriages were not deemed to be legally valid), in some villages Catholics preferred to go to the Reformed Church instead.[2] While these diverging patterns probably were largely the result of financial considerations and do not reflect some sort of accommodation with the Reformed Church, they nevertheless reveal that even in the eighteenth century, confessional practices were less uniform than is sometimes assumed.

To conclude, not only in Upper Lusatia accommodation of various kind resulted in a blurry and ‘messy’ situation and what we may call intraconfessional diversity. Now a large number of national, regional, and local studies have appeared, comparative research might well uncover the extent to which, certainly in the sixteenth century, the fluid situation such as the one in Upper Lusatia was the norm rather than the exception, not only in the Holy Roman Empire, but elsewhere, too. Moreover, although the arrangements that people in Upper Lusatia relied upon may have been largely practical and pragmatic in nature, i.e. not relying on a robust and formal philosophical underpinning, they too were often based at least partly on the ideal to maintain unity and harmony in local communities. While some ‘regimes of coexistence’, to borrow David Luebke’s term, collapsed under the weight of increased confessional pressure, other arrangements proved to be surprisingly long-lasting. The hierarchy of an intellectually buttressed religious tolerance or liberty vs practical and pragmatic arrangements might therefore be well in need of revision. The fact that Christ’s excellent book forces us to revisit and reflect on overarching themes such as religious change and coexistence, speaks volumes about its importance.

— Jaap Geraerts


[1] ‘Visitatie der kerken ten platten landen in het sticht van Utrecht in 1593’, Bijdragen en Mededeelingen van het Historisch Genootschap 7 (1884), 207, 228 and passim.

[2] Jaap Geraerts, ‘Caught between canon and secular law. Catholic marriage practices in the Dutch Golden Age’, Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 111 (2020), 246-88.


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