Reformation Dialogues

[This page by Madeleine Brook]

Reformation Dialogues (1524)

The prose dialogue has long antecedents and was introduced to German literature through the humanists. In its original form, it generally presents a discussion or argument between two figures, often a teacher and his pupil or between allegorical figures. It became an important aspect of Reformation propaganda through the work of Ulrich van Hutten (1488-1523). Sachs’s Reformation dialogues are some of the earliest examples written in German rather than in Latin. Here, the situations are rooted in real life: the figures are not allegorical, but examples of people in settings that can be found almost anywhere in society, and the focus is on religious questions.

Hans Sachs wrote four Reformation dialogues, which were published in 1524:

1. Disputation zwischen einem Chorherren und Schuchmacher; Disputation between a canon and a shoemaker

This first dialogue was the most popular and was printed eleven times in 1524. It is a discussion between a canon and a shoemaker about fundamental aspects of Lutheran teaching, including justification through faith alone, and the role of the pope as (not) the sole arbiter of Scripture and thus of faith. The canon objects to the shoemaker’s engagement with Scripture and the shoemaker counters at every turn with arguments based in Scripture. The shoemaker’s approach relies on arguments based on several citations of the Bible and a list of grievances about previous councils.

Another theme is that of good works (criticism of Catholic practices such as fasting in order to ‘earn’ salvation) and the hypocritical and immoral practices of the clergy. The canon is shown to lead a comfortable life that is measured by his devotions, which he can just reel off as learned by, but not taken to, heart. A question and answer exchange is a striking element of the dialogue form, in which the canon (now the student) asks questions about the nature of good works and the shoemaker (now the teacher) answers them with the Lutheran teaching that good works are based in faith. He even produces Luther’s well known metaphor of the good tree producing good fruit.

The dialogue between the shoemaker and the canon ends when the bells ring to prayer. The shoemaker takes his leave and the canon complains to his cook that the shoemaker had him over a barrel. Instead of being able to counter argument with argument, the canon was sorely tempted to resort to violence. This contrasts with the shoemaker’s attitude, which is conciliatory and light-hearted throughout. Finding his own servant is also better versed in the Bible and a follower of Luther, the canon seeks comfort in food.

The dialogue is rich in irony: the Catholic canon, who ought to know his Bible and religious argumentation, is taught the tenets of the new faith and trounced in theological argument (and Scriptural knowledge) by the ordinary man, the shoemaker. The canon orders his cook to bring out his copy of the Bible and she does not know which book he means. He, the canon, also finds that he has been harbouring a Lutheran under his very roof in the form of his own servant. The extra characters, who take no part in the dialogue itself, add dramatic colour to the situation presented by Sachs.

2. Ein gesprech von den Scheinwercken der Gaystlichen; A discussion of the false works of the clergy

3. Ein Dialogus... den Geytz... betreffend; A dialogue concerning greed

4. Ain gesprech eins Evangelischen christen mit einem Lutherischen; The conversation of an Evangelical Christian with a Lutheran

The fourth of the Reformation dialogues is a conversation principally between Hans (the shoemaker) and Peter (who also figures in the third of Sachs’s Reformation dialogues). It is a critique of the behaviour of some Lutherans in the way they are spreading their new-found faith and argues for a less antagonistic approach to converting believers. As an historical source, it is also indicative of some of the problems already emerging at an early stage within the Reformation movement itself.

Peter describes how he has angered his father-in-law, Catholic Maister Ulrich, by eating meat on a Friday. Although Peter declares that abstaining from meat on Friday (and other Catholic practices) are not contained in the Bible, Hans remonstrates with him that he should have had more sensitivity for Ulrich, who is as yet unconverted to Protestantism. His responsibility as a Protestant, says Hans – and he cites I Corinthians 8 – is to guide the weak of faith and be patient with them; the Protestant responsibility is always to explain the reasons behind a particular teaching or practice, rather than merely state these things as irrefutable fact. The principle is ‘Nächstenliebe’ (love for thy neighbour). When Peter says that he thinks the reaction to Catholic burning of Lutheran works should be a violent one, Hans contradicts him. Always referring to the concept of loving thy neighbour, Hans argues that a violent reaction, contemptuous of Catholic practices, would be counterproductive for the Lutheran cause. Instead, they must use kind words and gentle means, and look to the example of Christ’s suffering to guide their own actions towards others. Ulrich, who has been listening to much of what Hans has said, is softened by the shoemaker’s stance and announces his willingness to attend a sermon by a Lutheran preacher to see if he can be persuaded by the new teachings. Hans’s approach is thus the successful one.