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Church Robbers and Reformers in Germany, 1525-1547: Confiscation and Religious Purpose in the Holy Roman Empire.

Christopher Ocker. Church Robbers and Reformers in Germany, 1525-1547: Confiscation and Religious Purpose in the Holy Roman Empire.

Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions: History, Culture, Religion, Ideas 114. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2006. xx + 338 pp. index. append. illus. map. tbls. bibl. $129. ISBN: 90-04-15206-7.

Christopher Ocker, professor of history at San Francisco Theological Seminary, has written a fascinating study of an often ignored, yet important, aspect of political and religious life in the sixteenth century. Confiscation of religious property in the sixteenth century is most often studied with reference to Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries in England. Similar confiscations took place across the Holy Roman Empire, and yet only a few brief articles and no monographs have examined the practice. Ocker's work can also be grouped with a number of other recent studies on the Schmalkaldic League and War. The Schmalkaldic War was one of the most significant conflicts of the century and laid the groundwork for the Peace of Augsburg. But it, like confiscations in the Holy Roman Empire, has been until recently largely ignored. Thus, on two levels this is a most welcome monograph.

Ocker begins by explaining (on the first page of the preface) that this is not a history of confiscations per se. Rather, it is a study in how confiscations were justified theologically, politically, and legally and why the confiscations were accepted. I am less convinced of Ocker's next point that sixteenth-century confiscations might be considered a part of the "pre-history of European secularization" (xiv). While I understand his point, each of the actors discussed in the book undertook confiscation for religious as well as what we might call secular purposes. The point of confiscation, however, remained religious and Ocker does keep this before the reader.

Ocker begins with a thoughtful introduction that lays out the general framework for the study. Church Robbers is a rather hybrid affair dealing with aspects of legal, theological, and social history and the introduction provides a useful map through the work. Chapter 1 lays the foundation by examining the status (both legal and ecclesial) of church property in the Holy Roman Empire during the late medieval era. It may be a tautology to say that the Holy Roman Empire is different than other places, but this chapter helps one grasp the ways in which the Holy Roman Empire really was different than, say, England. These sometimes-small differences highlight how and why confiscation worked itself out differently than the Tudor dissolutions. In chapter 2, Ocker looks at the earliest examples of confiscation. He begins with the violent confiscations of religious property during the 1525 Peasants' War. Chapter 3 examines the ways in which the Protestant Schmalkaldic League used confiscations to further their religious and political ends. Chapter 4 turns to theological advice used to support and defend confiscations. The fifth chapter moves us further into the 1530s where a consensus opinion on the reasons for confiscations seemed to emerge. This consensus also highlighted the limits of possible confiscation. Chapter 6 offers a close reading of the important 1540 Schmalkaldic League statement on church property. This chapter is simply fascinating. Ocker shows how something as seemingly trivial as church property had enormous implications for imperial policy, even to the extent of the empire's reactions to the Turks. Ocker also provides in an appendix a translation of the statement together with a very detailed history of the text's provenience and the original text with all the variants noted (in about four pages worth of real text he has nearly 300 footnotes with variants.)

This is a fascinating study of a too-often-ignored issue. The text is full of footnotes that both support his argument and call out for further study on their own. There were some who worried that Brill's Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions might languish once separated from the guiding hand of Heiko Oberman. One need not worry.


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Author:Whitford, David M.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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