Bart Jan Spruyt. Cornelius Henrici Hoen (Honius) and his Epistle on the Eucharist (1525): Medieval Heresy, Erasmian Humanism, and Reform in the Early Sixteenth-Century Low Countries. Leiden: Brill, 2006. xiii + 296 pp. $155.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-04-15464-3.
Reviewed by Amy Nelson Burnett (Department of History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
Published on H-German (June, 2008)
The Heretical Roots of the Eucharistic Controversy
To those uninterested in the arcane details of the Reformation-era debate over the Lord's Supper, an entire book devoted to one brief pamphlet might seem excessive. The pamphlet examined here, however, Cornelius Hoen's Christian Epistle (1525), achieved notoriety in the sixteenth century, because Ulrich Zwingli acknowledged that he adopted his figurative understanding of Christ's words, "this is my body," after reading it. B. J. Spruyt has left no stone unturned in his effort to free the letter and its author from the historical myths that have grown up around them since then. The result is a study that places both author and pamphlet more firmly in the heterodox religious climate of the Netherlands in the early years of the Reformation.
Spruyt describes the development of those historical myths in the first chapter, an account of how Dutch church historians have interpreted Hoen's letter since the end of the sixteenth century. The chapter is particularly useful for providing an Anglophone audience with an overview of Dutch religious history. As Spruyt acknowledges, almost everything to know about Hoen was already known at the end of the sixteenth century; subsequent discussions have been more important as reflections of the dominant historiographical debates than as genuine advances in knowledge. Most fateful for the evaluation of Hoen's pamphlet has been a tendency to see it as evidence of an indigenous biblical humanist reform movement in the early years of the Reformation, distinct from the more rigid views imported by Calvinists in the later sixteenth century. Complicating the matter is the questionable reliability of the most detailed account of how the letter became known. In a short biography of the late medieval theologian Wessel Gansfort, the sixteenth-century Reformed pastor Albert Hardenberg linked Hoen's composition of the letter to the discovery of an old treatise on the Eucharist among papers that included some of Wessel's works. Hardenberg then described how Hinne Rode, the rector of the Brethren of the Common Life in Utrecht, took the manuscript to both Wittenberg, where it was rejected, and to Switzerland, where it was enthusiastically endorsed. Hardenberg thereby provided a convenient connection between late medieval Dutch piety and Reformed Eucharistic theology that continues to be a standard part of English accounts of the Eucharistic controversy.
Much of the rest of the book is devoted to debunking this account of the specifically Dutch roots of Reformed theology. Spruyt begins by giving as detailed an account of Hoen's life as he can, which is hard to do, given the lack of sources. He is forced to resort to substitutes, such as capsule biographies of other reform-minded humanists in Delft and The Hague, where Hoen lived, and to grasp at straws, such as the fact that Erasmus knew of Hoen, though he probably never met him. The most detailed information about Hoen concerns his arrest for heresy in 1522, because the ultimate dismissal of the charges against him established the principle that heresy cases must be tried at the provincial level.
The longest chapter, and the core of the book, is a detailed examination of the contents of the Christian Epistle with an eye to identifying the sources of its ideas. The letter itself presents a series of arguments against Christ's corporeal presence in the Eucharist. Spruyt finds some traces of Erasmus and Luther, but neither played a great role in shaping the contents of the Epistle. More importantly, Spruyt points to significant differences between Wessel Gansfort's traditional understanding of transubstantiation and his fully orthodox emphasis on spiritual communion, and Hoen's radical rejection of the former and lack of concern with the latter. Having dismissed those figures universally considered to have had the most influence on Hoen, Spruyt turns to a less familiar current of thought, late medieval heresy. In what is the most important contribution of the book, he shows how the ideas of John Wyclif and Jan Hus, as well as criticisms of transubstantiation that went back as far as the Cathars, formed a prominent part of Hoen's argumentation. Spruyt is careful not to make direct connections between specific heretical works and Hoen's Christian Epistle, but instead points to the circulation of heretical ideas in the Low Countries in the early fifteenth century and suggests that they were a significant part of the religious climate on the eve of the Reformation. In light of his findings, he suggests that Hoen did not write the Christian Epistle from scratch; instead, he redacted an older, heretical work he had found, adding ideas taken from both Erasmus and Luther.
In the final chapter Spruyt discusses the printing history and diffusion of the Christian Letter, which necessarily focuses on the figure of Hinne Rode. Much of the chapter consists of corrections to and clarifications of existing knowledge: thus Spruyt rejects the traditional view that Zwingli was responsible for the Epistle's publication and suggests instead the Strasbourg physician Otto Brunfels was behind it. He discusses whether and to what extent Hardenberg's account of Rode's travels is reliable. This debate has broader implications, among other things, as its results would determine when Luther first read the manuscript and when Zwingli adopted a figurative understanding of the words of institution. In the appendices the author includes critical editions of the letter, in both the Latin original and the German translation published in 1526.
The book is not without faults. There are some small factual errors (Luther's Sermon on the New Testament was published in 1520, not 1519, pp. 124-5) and curious omissions (Spruyt discusses Jan Hus, who never rejected transubstantiation, but not the Taborite theologians who developed their own Eucharistic theology). The capsule biographies of tangential figures distract somewhat from the main argument of the book, and while the author's demonstration of the links between late medieval heresy and the Christian Epistle is convincing, his suggestion that Hoen was merely the Epistle's redactor is less persuasive. The book does provide two services. With regard to the Eucharistic controversy, it significantly revises the traditional understanding of the context and significance of Hoen's letter by associating it not with "intellectually respectable" biblical humanism but with the more "suspect" currents of late medieval religious dissent. On a more general level, it introduces an English-reading audience to recent Dutch research on the early Reformation in the Low Countries. Hoen's Christian Letter does indeed prove to be worth a book.
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Amy Nelson Burnett. Review of Spruyt, Bart Jan, Cornelius Henrici Hoen (Honius) and his Epistle on the Eucharist (1525): Medieval Heresy, Erasmian Humanism, and Reform in the Early Sixteenth-Century Low Countries.
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