Andrea StrÖÂ¼bind. Eifriger als Zwingli: Die frÖÂ¼he TÖÂ¤uferbewegung in der Schweiz. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2003. 617 pp. EUR 63.80 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-428-10653-0.
Reviewed by Stephen Buckwalter (Bucer-Forschungsstelle, Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften)
Published on H-German (May, 2006)
Church History Versus Social History of Anabaptism
The field of Anabaptist studies has rarely experienced scholarly consensus for longer than several decades--perhaps a sign of its vitality and relative youth. The American Mennonite scholar Harold S. Bender (1897-1962) deserves credit for bringing the Anabaptists out of the ignominious marginality to which mainstream Reformers and their court historians had confined these radicals for over four centuries, turning them in the course of the 1940s and 1950s into respectable objects of study, even into mainline evangelicals, and inspiring a plethora of research. By the early 1970s, however, a many-pronged revisionist thrust inspired by this very research and spearheaded, among others, by James M. Stayer, Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Gottfried Seebass and Werner O. Packull began counteracting Bender's "normative" Anabaptist vision by discovering important personal and theological continuities between the Peasants' Revolt and the Anabaptists that earlier scholars had glossed over as inopportune, and contending that the movement was exceedingly diverse and just as much social and political as it was theological. Bender's vision of a homogeneous, pacifist free church born in the bosom of Zwinglian Protestantism was replaced with that of a heterogeneous movement of revolutionary, occasionally sword-wielding, always anticlerical peasants and craftsmen inspired by Andreas Karlstadt and Thomas Müntzer, who translated their social and economic grievances into ecclesiastical protest and retreated to separatist, pious pacifism only after overwhelming military defeat and sobering political repression had left no alternative.
Andrea Strübind's book has one clear goal: to confront this latter consensus head on and prove it false. She sets about, in her own words, to "revise the revisionist view of Anabaptism" (p. 581). Strübind unequivocally professes her academic identity as a Christian and as a church historian (the book was submitted as a Habilitationsschrift to the faculty of Protestant theology at the University of Heidelberg in 2001) and unabashedly identifies secular social historians as responsible for what she sees as a deplorable distortion of the true nature of the Anabaptist movement. She particularly sees the unwarranted application of Peter Blickle's model of "Communal Reformation" to the beginnings of Anabaptism as detrimental to understanding the true nature of this movement, which she perceives as essentially religious.
Strübind begins her book by summarizing the current state of Anabaptist scholarship and discussing historiographical and methodological controversies as they relate to Anabaptist studies, giving particularly detailed and critical attention to Peter Blickle's theory of Gemeindereformation. After this rather lengthy theoretical prolegomenon, Strübind finally begins her own independent analysis of Swiss Anabaptist beginnings, which takes up the greater part of the volume. A refreshingly brief conclusion repeats and reinforces theses asserted throughout the book. These could be summarized as follows: it is Strübind's foremost wish to take the Reformation out of the hands of social historians and reclaim it for church history. The women and men involved in the Reformation movement, Strübind reminds us, were involved in it intentionally and were guided primarily by religious convictions sincerely held--they were not the unwitting objects of anonymous historical forces beyond their control, be these social, economic, political or psychological (such as "anticlericalism," a concept Strübind rejects as having no interpretive value).
As far as the beginning of Anabaptism in Zurich and its hinterland is concerned, Strübind meticulously rereads the classic sources of the 1522-30 period and asserts, on the basis of her findings, that the revisionist school grossly exaggerated the role of rural communal grievances (such as protests against the tithe) in turning Anabaptism from an initially urban, humanistic, elite circle into a mass movement encompassing peasants and craftsmen. In these sources Strübind misses the supposed dichotomy of pre- and post-revolutionary Anabaptism posited by the revisionists, who saw the Anabaptists initially intent on reforming entire rural communities as political entities (much as Zwingli had reformed Zurich) and only later, sobered by the negative outcome of the Peasants' Revolt, retreated to a more quietist religious separatism. On the contrary, Strübind affirms that the seeds of separatism were present already in the earliest statements of Zwingli's radical followers; for example, in their letter to Thomas Müntzer of September 1524 or in Felix Mantz' "Protestation" of December of that same year. Indeed, the sober analysis of all sources relating to the incipient Anabaptist movement, from participation in Zwingli's breaking of the Lenten fast of 1522 to the spread of the movement to St. Gall and the Appenzell region in the years 1525 to 1527 reveals, according to Strübind, an astonishingly homogeneous, theologically coherent and historically continuous religious movement that had its roots in lay Bible-study groups, not rebellious peasants. The social historical school, she tells us, has misled us through its tendentious reading of the sources.
There are several problems with this book. To begin with, Strübind is overly self-conscious of her revisionist-bashing agenda. Her aim--the all-out deconstruction of social history--is affirmed so explicitly and repeated so vehemently throughout the book that it ultimately defeats the author's intentions. If instead Strübind had quietly gone about analyzing the sources and presenting the very same conclusions in a sober manner, without indulging in sarcastic polemic, she would have made a much more convincing case for her theses. Furthermore, it is striking that that the author at no time explicitly ponders the extent to which the central conclusions of her book might be contingent upon the specific circumstances of Swiss Anabaptism and not hold true for other branches of the movement. If the Peasants' Revolt was not the cradle of Swiss Anabaptism (and Strübind indeed may have a point here) it might nonetheless have played a role--in fact, a very significant one--in the emergence of central German Anabaptism (one thinks here of Hans Hut or Melchior Rinck). Finally, the author's obsession with confronting social historians leaves one wondering whether she is not aware of newer, more interesting academic adversaries who have appeared on the scholarly scene in the meantime, such as cultural historians and historians of gender. Would it not be more fruitful for the furtherance of Anabaptist studies to engage all of these scholarly adversaries in a cordial and fair exchange from the legitimate perspective of a church historian, instead of singling out just one of them for the rerun of an almost anachronistic debate?
Non-native readers of German will not find Strübind's book captivating reading. An opaque, convoluted prose, persistent use of the passive voice, inflationary use of certain stylistically awkward abbreviations (such as "i.E." [ihres Erachtens] and "s.E." [seines Erachtens]) and, finally, the inexplicable refusal to render first names other than through initials (for example, Konrad Celtis, François Lambert d'Avignon and Heinrich Bullinger are rendered throughout the book as K. Celtis, F. Lambert and H. Bullinger) make reading this work unnecessarily tedious.
For all its drawbacks, the positive contribution of Strübind's book to Anabaptist studies should not be discounted: not least, it jolts scholars out of lethargic acquiescence to the consensus that happens to hold sway currently and boldly presents a position that will certainly trigger opposition and thus stimulate further research. Strübind's reinterpretation of the nature and the development of the Swiss Anabaptist movement is compelling and must be taken seriously by her critics. Finally, her book invites students of the Reformation to take the religious side of this movement seriously once again and to give the theological statements of the men and women of the sixteenth century their due importance.
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Stephen Buckwalter. Review of StrÖÂ¼bind, Andrea, Eifriger als Zwingli: Die frÖÂ¼he TÖÂ¤uferbewegung in der Schweiz.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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