Conversion and Urbanity in Early Modern Germany (Part 1)

In September 1652, Petrus Overier came to Leipzig. His life had been an itinerant one and he had been to many places in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, as Germany was called at that time. He had been in Limburg, Bamberg, Fulda and many other places. In or around 1652 he ended up in Leipzig. As we know from the work of Alexander Schunka and others, it was very common for people to be “on the move” in this period. But Overier was not one of the many travelers, merchants or diplomats of seventeenth-century Europe. Overier was in Leipzig for a reason that was perhaps even more important to him. He was there, not just to receive money or political favours, but for, as he wrote “his soul”.

Overier was in Leipzig because he had decided to convert to Lutheranism, following, as he stressed in a sermon, in the footsteps of Martin Luther. Overier had been a monk for fourteen years and, by his own account, had been a popular and successful Catholic. Unlike today, in the seventeenth century, a change from one Christian confession to another one was significant and, people thought, could be the difference between the soul going to heaven or hell. This was especially the case in the years that Overius converted because it was soon after the Thirty Years War, a conflict that was also motivated by religious differences between Protestants and Catholics.

Leipzig in 1632, during a siege during the Thirty Years War (see here for coypright information).

We also know that these covnersions could be contentios because some of them resulted in responses from the religion the covnert had just left. One of the earliest such cases is that of Gottfried Rabe, a former Augustinian monk, who changed his faith in Wittenberg in 1601 and a total of four texts were written by Catholic clerics against Rabe and the theology faculty of Wittenberg. Another case from the earlier seventeenth century, explored in a recent article by Richard Kirwan, is that of the former Jesuit Jakob Reihing, who converted to Lutheranism in Tübingen in Württemberg and was attacked by other Jesuits for this decision. The severity of accusations and the resulting defences indicate that many conversions struck a nerve with contemporaries.

Scholars have long been fascinated with conversions and there is a signficant body of scholarship, especially on ducal conversions (“Fürstenkonversionen”), Jewish changes of faith and conversions connected to Islam, particularly in Istanbul. Another focus of much scholarship has been on conversions to Catholicism through missionary societies, like the Jesuits, in overseas territories. Many of these conversions were reported back to a European audience, who eagerly consumed news of spectacular conversions of indigenous peoples. Research on these practices has yielded some fascinating insights into, amongst others, combinations of belief systems, force and coercion in conversion and the competition between Catholic institutions. Much less attention has been paid to conversions between Christian groups, especially those to Lutheranism. (There are some notable exceptions, of course, for example a research project that was based at the Unviersity of Hamburg.)

Yet cases like that of Overier can point to much broader questions, for instance about authority and truth. Who decided whether a conversion was legitimate? How could both Lutherans and Catholics appeal to the bible as the central source of authority, yet exchange aggressive polemics about conversions? What happened to these dynamics if a person reverted back to their original faith? Who deceived whom in conversion narratives? Was it the monks who forced boys to join an order or Lutheran theologians who promised a religion that was based more firmly on Scripture?

In this piece, I would like to explore another set of questions more closely linked to our KFG “Religion and Urbanity”. It asks what features in towns made them so appealing for many converts. If we look at the individuals who converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism, it becomes clear that most of them officially announced their conversion in an urban centre. Tracing where exactly a conversion “took place” (if, indeed, that is possible at all) is more difficult, but there are indications that the final decision of many individuals to convert also took palce in an urban context.

A particularly useful type of source for this kind of analysis is the revocation sermon. In these sermons, former Catholic monks and priests justified their conversions to Lutheranism. Later, these sermons were printed, frequently containing endorsements, prefaces or poems by important Lutheran theologians or other dignitaries. These sermons, like any source, can not be taken at face value and many of them followed a clear narrative pattern about the conversion. Nonetheless, they are a fascinating source for conversions, but have only received little scholarly attention.

One important function of the sermons was their ability to generate (additional) support or financial gifts from powerful dignitaries. Converts frequently dedicated their sermons to the rulers of Württemberg, Saxon electors, their wives or other important dukes and duchesses. The dukes, in return, could support them with salaries and their endorsements helped them to find new positions as preachers. The Saxon dukes, and other Lutheran rulers, promtoed the covnersions so that they could show themselves as powerful and benevolent rulers of their lands. A similar process was at play when Jews converted to Lutheranism in cities like Leipzig or Dresden.

But, and more important for our focus, there was another group of dedicatees in conversion accounts: town councils, mayors and important urban dignitaries. They, too, could serve to promote a convert and the converts had to dedicate their sermosn wisely, so as to ensure maximum support. Some of them even wrote two separate dedications for different individuals for two editions of the same sermon in order to increase the chances to receive some patronage.

One particularly telling example of this is the sermon of the former Franciscan monk Bertram Reinartz, printed in Hamburg in 1696. A whole page is dedicated to celebrating the mayor and councils of Hamburg. Of course, a good part of such dedications was also about flattery and so Reinart called Hamburg a “worldfamous” port city and the councilors learned, wise and honourable. Even the size and font emphasised the importance of the mayor and the councilors. The first thing that jumps out at anyone seeing the page are the words “mayor” and “councils”. This dedication is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the sermon was not delivered in Hamburg, but in Giessen. Clearly, Reinartz hoped to gain employment or support from the mayor and council in Hamburg, who had little to do with his original conversion. But Hamburg was an important and prosperous city, employment as a Lutheran preacher here meant great possiblities.

If we consider the opportunities in the towns, it comes as no surprise that converts emphasised the power and help of the councils so much. Much of the political power and wealth was concentrated in the cities and, additionally, some towns had insitutions that could legitmise a conversion, including printers, universities or courts. Wittenberg was particularly important in this regard, as the theology facutly of Wittenberg could recommend a convert and therefore increase the chances of employment.

Let us return to Overier one more time: He dedicated his sermon to the “great and honurable” Leipzig town council. But he went even further and mentioned traders (“Handelsleute”) in Leipzig, to whom he also dedicated his sermon and whom he also described as having supported him in the past. With Overier, the setting of the conversion in the town was also in marked contrast to some of the rural monansteries that he had been in as a monk. Some converts chose to mention individual mayors and councilors by name to increase the effect of their sermon and flatter not just the collective of the town council, but specific individuals. At the end of the dedications, a prayer for the councilors and their families added a further dimension in the complex relationship between the converts and town councils, both of whom sought to benefit from the urban conversion of men like Overier or Reinartz.

There are many more layers to this story of urban conversions: urban actors also benefitted from the converts and printers promoted controversial conversions. Indeed, some of the converts changed the towns themselves, as dukes and councils established new institutiosn to deal with the influx of converts. In this way, an urban conversion also changed the built environment of the town itself. And of course cities like Rome, but also biblical cities like Babylon, played an important role for the converts. Some of these themes will be explored further in this series on urban conversions…

— Martin Christ

Martin Christ is a KFG post-doctoral research fellow working on ducal burials and urban cemeteries in early modern Germany.


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