Voice and Voicelessness
“Preaching, the Prophetic Voice, and Radical Urban Religion in the Era of the Reformations”
Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a number of cities experienced intertwined religious reforms and political rebellions. Some of these cities are quite well known in contemporary historiography, most notably Florence under the charismatic dominance of Savonarola in the 1490s and the polygamous theocracy of Münster in the 1530s. And while these cities offer the most spectacular expressions of late medieval and early modern urban theo-politics, they were by no means alone. Zurich in the 1520s, Magdeburg around 1550, Prague in the 1410s, and Paris around 1590: each of these cities also imagined themselves as a new Jerusalem which had received a divine revelation of truth that demanded a thoroughgoing reform of religious, social, and political life. And while these cities and their reformations developed within distinctive linguistic, confessional, and historical contexts, a careful analysis of the ideological tracts and apologetics that each produced reveals a remarkable number of correspondences in the ways that they justified their radical programs. All drew from a common font of biblical, political, and church historical examples that legitimized their agendas for reform. In this paper, I will examine in particular the role of charismatic preachers in these cities, paying particular attention to 1) the ways in which these preachers drew on biblical stories of political dissent (e.g. that of the Maccabees) or urban self-defense (e.g. that of Judith’s Bethulia) to justify their respective cities’ actions; and 2) the invocation of Old and New Testament prophets as a strategy for justifying their own role in radical urban reform. Overall, this paper will argue that the themes of urban autonomy and the prophetic justification of anti-tyrannical actions superseded confessional and historical differences in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and that we must therefore reconsider outbreaks of radical religious thought and practice in cities such as Florence and Münster as part of a broader trend in the religious and political life of early modern Europe.