Another hundred pages of MacCulloch’s Reformation this morning; wonderful stuff. The parallels with today are not in the least bit cheering; among them the way in which the printing press, like the Internet, allowed everyone, however ignorant, to join in theological hatreds. Reading out loud was the equivalent of forwarding emails.
The development of Luther’s thought after the 95 Theses follows exactly the pattern of an internet flame war, though more slowly and of course with real flames at the end. I’ll put up supporting quotes when I am near a scanner though I suppose it would be just as quick and easy to photograph the relevant pages with my phone.
Talking of real flames, it made me weep to read of the death of the early anabaptist leader Dr Balthasar Hubmaier, who was tortured and then burnt to death in Vienna. As the executioners were rubbing gunpowder into his hair and beard — a mercy, since it meant a quicker death — he asked them to “salt me, salt me well”. His wife, who would not renounce him, was tied to a stone and thrown into the Danube to drown. It’s stories like this which show the great difficulty of living without hope, as I believe we ought to. How is it possible to bear them without imagining the existence either of heaven or of progress? Is it really possible to believe that good men and women can die and leave nothing but what MacCulloch calls admiringly “a donnish joke”.
I know that this is what history tells us happens all the time; I know that hundreds of thousands of people have died just as heroically and completely unremembered in the last hundred years: by coincidence I have been to Nikolsburg, now Mikulov, where Hubmaier set up shop: I was taken there by a man whose father was the SS Governor General of Lodz and thus responsible for crimes beyond the imagination of the Inquisition. I don’t suppose that there is anything we can do about the world but work and love, but in an apocalyptic age that doesn’t feel like enough.