How Augsburg remained an oasis of calm in a time of religious strife
A lawyer, a priest and a businessman sat down at the table together, discussing a local controversy: Were thaumaturges in the countryside legitimate? Or were they all frauds?
At the end of the 16th century, the independent city of Augsburg was perhaps one of the only places where such a conversation could take place. Much of Europe was ravaged by the religious war between Catholics and Protestants. And yet these three men – the powerful Jesuit priest Peter Canisius, a Catholic scion of the wealthy Fugger family and the family’s Protestant lawyer – sat together and debated the matter openly, speaking with a disarming level of candor. and frank disagreement. Remarkably, Canisius and the lawyer recounted the conversation in their diaries.
By the 16th century, Protestants and Catholics were engaged in bitter conflict across much of Europe, but Augsburg, located in what is now southern Germany, remained largely immune. The new book by Sean Dunwoody, assistant professor of history at Binghamton University, Passionate Peace: Emotions and Religious Coexistence in Late 16th-Century Augsburg, explore why.
To reconstruct the daily lives and inner worlds of citizens, Dunwoody drew on a wide range of sources, ranging from police records and municipal correspondence to private memoranda, internal administrative documents and more – such as newspapers that preserved the conversation in the Fugger household. The key to this coexistence: emotional practices that allowed Augsburgers to remain good citizens and neighbors, while acting and living like good believers.
Modesty and zeal
As an independent city, Augsburg had its own elected government. Although small, it was an important place; much of the early banking system passed through the city, establishing links with the royal courts of Madrid, Paris and Vienna. Many international visitors have passed through, including Michel de Montaigne, a French statesman who popularized the essay as a literary form.
“When Montaigne passed through Augsburg on his way to the thermal baths in northern Italy, he was truly very shocked at what he had encountered there. Not only were there Protestants and Catholics, but they resided peacefully in the same space, with more than just reluctant acceptance,” Dunwoody explained. “He notices their positive cooperation with each other and noted how intermarriage was quite common.
Today, scholars cannot determine exactly how common intermarriage was in the city, but anecdotal evidence suggests it was widespread. The couple who ran the inn where Montaigne stayed represented one of those unions between a Lutheran and a Catholic. According to Montaigne’s observations and surviving marriage contracts, the religious upbringing of children was left to the spouse who cared more about it – an attitude not at all typical of the time.
During the time of Montaigne’s visit, his native France was in the midst of a decades-long series of civil and religious wars. Thousands of Protestants had been massacred in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, beginning in Paris and sweeping across the country over the course of several weeks – one of the largest massacres in pre-modern history.
From the 1560s to the early 17th century, sectarian religious conflicts mingled in northwest Europe and drew many participants from German-speaking countries, often to serve in Protestant armies. One such conflict took place in what is now the Netherlands, then ruled by the Catholic King of Spain; many people in the Netherlands embraced Calvinism, turning a civil conflict into a religious one.
“The 16th century in much of Europe is truly a time of religious strife. It’s the defining feature of the post-reform landscape,” Dunwoody said.
Augsburg’s practices of tolerance were driven, in part, by shrewd pragmatism and a keen awareness of the importance of the city’s financial relationship with the ruling House of Habsburg, which was Catholic, and other provinces and cities. .
Like everyone else, the citizens of Augsburg had different personal identities: as citizens, artisans, family members, and followers of a particular religion. The emotions people felt depended, to some extent, on what part of their identity they were engaging at any time, what “emotional community” they felt they were part of at any time.
“On the one hand, you were very attached to who you were as a citizen of this free imperial city, with its proud traditions of self-government. You could also feel very deeply your identity as a craftsman and as a member of a guild, which had its own centuries-old social and political traditions. And, of course, people were Christians,” Dunwoody said.
How did the Augsburgs prevent these identities from colliding, as they did in so many other communities at the time? Dunwoody points to the political community’s emphasis on modesty as opposed to zeal, the latter a kind of emotionally fueled religious enthusiasm. People were expected to show deference and restraint not only in their dealings with each other, but also in the way they held their bodies in physical space.
“You, as a citizen, were expected to maintain that modesty, a kind of poise and, most importantly, physical control over your own body and its emotional expressions,” he said. “It is inscribed in the language of the legislation and even in the iconography of the town hall.”
This was not always the case; Catholics had been exiled from Augsburg after the Reformation. After their return in the late 1540s, the way Protestant clergy spoke of firmly held faith commitments changed; calls for enthusiastic and moving demonstrations of faith disappeared from sermons, catechisms and popular tracts sold in the market.
Instead, preachers and authors emphasized deference and trust. The same phenomenon occurred among Catholics.
“They moved away from antagonistic language and instead emphasized a sort of deferential expression of one’s faith, so there was a harmony between the feelings of the believer and the feelings of the citizen,” Dunwoody said.
Recidivism and consequences
The Peace of Augsburg lasted more than a generation. Then, in the 1570s, new Jesuit pastors and priests came to town and renewed the emphasis on confrontational zeal and open displays of religious reverence, such as processions. In the early 1580s, a riot ravaged the city.
Determined to return to peaceful coexistence, city leaders imposed strict political consequences on ringleaders and oversaw the installation of new Protestant ministers, ensuring that these new preachers would maintain the city’s commitment to modest behavior.
“People hired to serve in churches in Augsburg had to sign a contract in which they said, ‘I know this is a place where Protestants and Catholics live together, and I promise I will do nothing to excite the folks,” Dunwoody recounted.
Augsburg continued to enforce these practices of tolerance, even as most of the German-speaking lands descended into the Thirty Years’ War, the last of the early modern religious wars, beginning in 1618. As such, the city demonstrates how a strong commitment to a political system enabled the population to overcome a pervasive atmosphere of religious tension and conflict – something we could perhaps learn from today.
“Even in the 1620s, in the midst of this religious war raging all around them, people of Catholic and Protestant background could marry, share a table together, appear as witnesses in court,” said said Dunwoody.