Tongues as Sharp as Snakes

Rebellious peasants of 1525 – Public Domain

Thomas Muntzer’s name is indelibly inscribed in the blood of the peasants who were slaughtered in the Peasants’ War of 1524-5 in Germany. The German revolutionary and bon vivant, Friedrich Engels, celebrated Muntzer as a proto-revolutionary; streets were named after him in the former Democratic Republic of Germany (he was hated in West Germany). Today there is a minor Muntzer industry amongst Reformation historians. There are many fields carved out in this fertile land; one of them tries hard, perhaps desperately so, to see grave and great revolutionary significance in this mystical and contorted figure. Like the quest for the historical Luther, the quest for the historical Muntzer is alive. In this brief reflection, I would like to focus attention on the vile dispute between Muntzer and Martin Luther. It is offered as a contribution to understanding the violence of contemporary rhetoric in our daily politics.

Respected Reformation historian Carter Lindberg’s portrayal of Thomas Muntzer in the European Reformations (1996) nests in his chapter on “The reformation of the common man.” Like MacCulloch, Lindberg observes that the modern stimulus to Muntzer studies was sparked by Marxist historians and social theorists. In the GDR, some perceived Muntzer to be a kind of John the Baptist to the Bolshevik revolution. While celebrating him as the forerunner of commitment to the common man may cheer up one’s flagging spirits, this has little to do with the historical Muntzer. Lindberg portrays Muntzer as a strange and muddled mystic who wanted to “end all days” rather than improve them.

He had another agenda altogether; in fact, one that would give Marxists the creeps. He was sympathetic with Luther for a short time, but broke sharply with him. His attacks heaped vitriol on Luther, now deformed into Dr. Liar in bed with the demonic princes. In turn, Luther launched a full-bore attack on him, deeply concerned as he was that the reformation had careened in a deadly direction. The spiritualists and enthusiasts, impelled by an inner mystic Spirit-fire, believed that the “inner order of Spirit led directly to change the outer order of the world; mysticism became the theological basis for revolution” (p. 143). Sola Scriptura had been replaced by Sola Experienta. Those who were burning to read ended up burning those who chose not to read their way.

Peter Matheson’s The Rhetoric of the Reformation (1998) is a gorgeous book: worth reading by anyone who cares about the language we use to speak with each other. The scholarly focus on the language of the Reformation reflects larger cultural and intellectual developments in the last two decades: the linguistic turn in philosophy and the humanities. I focus on chapter 7, “The down-side of polemic.” Matheson begins with a citation from Psalm 140.3: “They make their tongue sharp as a snake’s/and under their lips is the venom of vipers.” It is terribly disconcerting, he observes, to read how psalmist, prophet and apostle “regularly cut down their opponents” (p. 183).

Polemic characterized the writing and preaching and woodcuts of the 16th century. Matheson thinks that much that offends our ear today, didn’t offend conventions of 16th century discourse. Satirical literature relished scatology and bestial language. Muntzer’s gloss on Lamentations 4:5 states: “Then a man with no spirit, a filthy sack of shit, wanted to possess the whole world,…” He called enemies of the Church “runny-shitters.” Luther’s writings are filled with farts and scatology. In his Table Talk Luther said: “But I resist the devil and often with a fart that I chase him away.” Would that it were that easy!

But it is the “ferocity of the personal attacks of humanists, Reformers and apologists for the Old Church takes our breath away” (p. 184). “It is one thing to see oneself involved in a life and death battle with Satan. It is another to identify one’s opponents with the devil, for once the ‘other’ has been demolished there is no room for reasonable argument or careful differentiation and scant need for precise attention to detail.

One notes, for example, Muntzer’s carelessness about facts, not least his global accusations about Luther’s soft-living, or Luther’s absurd claim that Muntzer wanted to abolish Scripture and the sacraments. Large generalizations such as these are developed from one or two particular instances. Divergent voices are tuned out. Statements are not read in context. Distinctions become blurred, as for example, when Luther fails to distinguish between the pacific Karlstadt and the militarily active Muntzer” (p. 185). This chapter is full of such insights and nuggets of wisdom. Of course, when these logical distinctions are breached, we stare at each other through broken and grimy lenses. The untidy world is simplified.

The heart of this chapter is Matheson’s brilliant discussion of the polemical battle between Luther and Muntzer. They couldn’t hear what the other was saying (even though Luther’s theology of the cross overlapped Muntzer’s notion of the “bitter Christ”). They did have, though, real theological differences. But these two men took criticism personally, with opponents viewed with apocalyptic categories. Polemic ceased to be a useful heuristic tool; now it was a blunt weapon. Polemical accusations that one is stupid, or corrupt or incompetent hit home, they sting, and end up haunting our nights and days. Luther called Muntzer that “bloodthirsty Satan,” “rebellious spirit of Allstedt” and “murderous and bloodthirsty prophet.” In turn, Muntzer castigated Luther as “Brother Fatted Pig and Brother Soft Life.”

Why do we unleash such hateful and hurtful language? One is humiliated before one’s peers. We can see this in Erasmus and Karlstadt’s writings. In Luther’s tract Against the Murderous Hordes of Peasants, he lashes the peasant rebels; they are hung up to die the next. Luther, as even his friends like Melanchthon said, was too vindictive in his writings. Luther “stirred the pot” and Muntzer had to be the devil incarnate. The light delicacy of humanist discourse disappeared (even someone like Erasmus wrote some shocking stuff).

What might be going on here? This cruel language may emerge from some profound dissonance between their “own sense of calling, and the dark imputations of infamy directed at them. Muntzer placed himself in the prophetic lineage of Elijah, Daniel, and John the Baptist. Luther’s brutal accusations were aimed to unnerve Muntzer’s soul; uncontrollable reaching for language to lash the other is sought out; matters escalate, the language gets more bestial, actually awful. Luther, for example, could speak of “the pigs who had taken up residence in the theological faculty of Ingolstadt” (p. 190).

The aim, says Matheson, is to “embarrass, to wound, to discredit”. He says we can scarcely read these polemical writings—are these men projecting their own deep anxieties on to the other?—but one notes the “hurt, self-pity, sense of betrayal and injustice with which they overflow” (ibid.). A vicious circle is created: I am attacked, maligned, I launch a counter-attack; then another one comes back. Then, we collapse, exhausted, consumed, despairing, darkly melancholic.

Matheson thinks that, in part, the frustration of “apocalyptic hope” generated awesome grief and rage. When we are gripped by rage or grief, we see no middle ground; it is all black and white. Combined with ill-health (Luther suffered from angina, headaches, acute indigestion, dizzy spells, Meniere’s disease) and weariness of spirit, one’s rage at one’s perceived enemies is magnified infinitely. Perhaps, too, if every issue is viewed apocalyptically, one’s language stretches to the outer reaches of polemical bitter rage. Insult now becomes cultic language.

Matheson uses Luther’s attack on the papacy as case study (he reads the Appeal to the German Nobility). He does this with great sensitivity. Perhaps it is best to simply say that exaggeration runs riot. Matheson says: “The Pope and his ‘crew’ are portrayed as complete unbelievers, hypocrites and pleasure-lovers, contemptuous of the Germans; they lead them around like a bear with a ring in its nose” (p. 212). His anti-semitic writings are also appalling (anti-semitic themes in Luther have been probed by Heiko Oberman in Part III: “The growth of anti-semitism” in The Impact of the Reformation [1994] and Mark Edwards, Luther’s Last Battles: Politics and Polemics 1531-46 [1983], particularly ch. 6, “Against the Jews”. But the most lucid brief description of the sources of anti-semitism in Europe is in Oberman’s exquisite essay, “The travail of tolerance: containing chaos in early modern Europe” in Tolerance and intolerance in the European reformation [1996], edited by Ole Grell and Bob Scribner).

This latter volume is important, because, among other things, it challenges the secular, whig narrative that posits Locke’s work On Tolerance (1689) as the capstone of the fight against religious strife and intolerance. The volume also includes a brilliant essay on Thomas Cranmer (“Archbishop Cranmer: concord and tolerance in a changing church”) by Diarmid MacCulloch. Among other brilliant bon mots, MacCulloch argues that concord can be reached by coercion, discussion, tolerance or religious freedom. Matheson concludes: “Too much zeal for God simply leads us to forfeit our humanity. Luther’s later polemics are no mere warts on a magnificent countenance, which a magnanimous eye should overlook. They are malignant growths which no surgeon can prune, an awesome warning against the use of polemic” (p. 214).


Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.