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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 9 — History of Protestantism From the Diet of Worms, 1521, to the Augsburg Confession, 1530

Chapter 5 — Nuremberg (this chapter is founded on notes made on the spot by the author in 1871)

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NUREMBERG. (THIS CHAPTER IS FOUNDED ON NOTES MADE ON THE SPOT BY THE AUTHOR IN 1871.)

Three Hundred Years Since – Site of Nuremberg – Depot of Commerce in Middle Ages – Its Population – Its Patricians and Plebeians – Their Artistic Skill – Nuremberg a Free Town – Its Burgraves – Its Oligarchy – Its Subject Towns – Fame of its Arts – Albert Durer – Hans Sachs – Its Architecture and Marvels – Enchantment of the Place – Rath-Haus – State Dungeons – Implements of Torture.

NUREMBERG three hundred years ago was one of the more famous of the cities of Europe. It invites our study as a specimen of those few fortunate communities which, preserving a feeble intelligence in times of almost universal ignorance and barbarism, and enjoying a measure of independence in an age when freedom was all but unknown, were able, as the result of the exceptional position they occupied, to render services of no mean value to the civilization and religion of the world.

The distinction and opulence which Nuremberg enjoyed, in the fifteenth century and onward to the time of the Reformation, it owed to a variety of causes. Its salubrious air; the sweep of its vast plains, on all sides touching the horizon, with a single chain of purple hills to redeem the landscape from monotony; and the facilities for hunting and other exercises which it afforded, made it a pleasant residence, and often drew thither the emperor and his court. With the court came, of course, other visitors. The presence of the emperor in Nuremberg helped to assemble men of genius and culture within its walls, and invested it, moreover, with no little political importance.

Nuremberg owed more to another cause, namely, its singularly central position. Being set down on one of the world's greatest highways, it formed the center of a network of commercial routes, which ramified over a large part of the globe, and embraced the two hemispheres.

Situated on the great Franconian plain–a plain which was the Mesopotamia of the West, seeing that, like the Oriental Mesopotamia, it lay between two great rivers, the Danube and the Rhine–Nuremberg became one of the great emporiums of the commerce carried on between Asia and Europe. In those ages, when roads were far from common, and railways did not exist at all, rivers were the main channels of communication between nation and nation, and the principal means by which they effected an interchange of their commodities. The products of Asia and the Levant entered the mouths of the Danube by the Black Sea, and, ascending that stream into Germany, they were carried across the plain to Nuremberg. From Nuremberg this merchandise was sent on its way to the Rhine, and, by the numerous outlets of that river, diffused among the nations of the northwest of Europe. The commerce of the Adriatic reached Nuremberg by another route which crossed the Tyrol.

Thus many converging lines found here their common meeting-place, and from hence radiated over the West. Founded in the beginning of the tenth century, the seat of the first Diet of the Empire, the meeting-place moreover of numerous nationalities, the depot of a vast and enriching commerce, and inhabited by a singularly quick and inventive population, Nuremberg rose steadily in size and importance. The fifteenth century saw it a hive of industry, a cradle of art, and a school of letters.

In the times we speak of, Nuremberg had a population of 70,000. This, in our day, would not suffice to place a city in the first rank; but it was different then, when towns of only 30,000 were accounted populous. Frankfort-on-the-Main could not boast of more than half the population of Nuremberg. But though large for its day, the number of its population contributed but little to the city's eminence. Its renown rested on higher grounds–on the enterprise, the genius, and the wealth of its inhabitants.

Its citizens were divided into two classes, the patrician and the plebeian. The line that separated the two orders was immovable. No amount of wealth or of worth could lift up the plebeian into the patrician rank. In the same social grade in which the cradle of the citizen had been placed must the evening of life find him. The patricians held their patents of nobility from the emperor, a circumstance of which they were not a little proud, as attesting the descent of their families from very ancient times. They inhabited fine mansions, and expended the revenues of their estates in a princely splendor and a lavish hospitality, delighting greatly in fetes and tournaments, but not unmindful the while of the claims to patronage which the arts around them possessed, and the splendors of which invested their city with so great a halo.

The plebeians were mostly craftsmen, but craftstmen of exceeding skill. No artificers in all Europe could compete with them. Since the great sculptors of Greece, there had arisen no race of artists which could wield the chisel like the men of Nuremberg. Not so bold perhaps as their Greek predecessors, their invention was as prolific and their touch as exquisite. They excelled in all manner of cunning workmanship in marble and bronze, in metal and ivory, in stone and wood. Their city of Nuremberg they filled with their creations, which strangers from afar came to gaze upon and admire. The fame of its artists was spread throughout Europe, and scarce was there a town of any note in any kingdom in which the "Nuremberg hand" was not to be seen unmistakably certified in some embodiment of quaintness, or of beauty, or of utility. [1]

A more precious possession still than either its exquisite genius or its unrivalled art did Nuremberg boast: liberty, namely–liberty, lacking which genius droops, and the right hand forgets its cunning. Nuremberg was one of the free cities of Germany. In those days there were not fewer than ninety-three such towns in the Empire. They were

green oases in the all but boundless desert of oppression and misery which the Europe of those days presented. They owed their rise in part to war, but mainly to commerce. When the emperors on occasion found themselves hard pushed, in the long war which they waged with the Popes, when their soldiers were becoming few and their exchequer empty, they applied to the towns to furnish them with the means of renewing the contest. They offered them charters of freedom on condition of their raising so many men-at-arms, or paying over a certain sum to enable them to continue their campaigns. The bargain was a welcome one on both sides. Many of these towns had to buy their enfranchisement with a great sum, but a little liberty is worth a great deal of gold. Thus it was on the red fields of the period that their freedom put forth its earliest blossoms; and it was amid the din of arms that the arts of peace grew up.

But commerce did more than war to call into existence such towns as Nuremberg. With the prosecution of foreign trade came wealth, and with wealth came independence and intelligence. Men began to have a glimpse of higher powers than those of brute force, and of wider rights than any included within the narrow circle of feudalism. They bought with their money, or they wrested by their power, charters of freedom from their sovereigns, or their feudal barons. They constituted themselves into independent and self-governed bodies. They were, in fact, republics on a small scale, in the heart of great monarchies. Within the walls of their cities slavery was abolished, laws were administered, and rights were enjoyed.

Such towns began to multiply as it drew towards the era of the Reformation, not in Germany only, but in France, in Italy, and in the Low Countries, and they were among the first to welcome the approach of that great moral and social renovation.

Nuremberg, which held so conspicuous a place in this galaxy of free towns, was first of all governed by a Burgrave, or Stadtholder. It is a curious fact that the royal house of Prussia make their first appearance in history as the Burgraves of Nuremberg. That office they held till about the year 1414, when Frederick IV. sold his right, together with his castle, to the Nurembergers, and with the sum thus obtained purchased the Marquisate of Brandenburg. This was the second stage in the advance of that house to the pinnacle of political greatness to which it long afterwards attained.

When the reign of the burgrave came to an end, a republic, or rather oligarchy, next succeeded as the form of government in Nuremberg. First of all was a Council of Three Hundred, which had the power of imposing taxes and contributions, and of deciding on the weighty question of peace and war. The Council of Three Hundred annually elected a smaller body, consisting of only thirty members, by whom the ordinary government of the city was administered. The Great Council was composed of patricians, with a sprinkling of the more opulent of the merchants and artificers. The Council of Thirty was composed of patricians only.

Further, Nuremberg had a considerable territory around it, of which it was the capital, and which was amply studded with towns. Outside its walls was a circuit of some hundred miles, in which were seven cities, and 480 boroughs and villages, of all of which Nuremberg was mistress. When we take into account the fertility of the land, and the extensiveness of the trade that enriched the region, and in which all these towns shared, we see in Nuremberg and its dependencies a principality far from contemptible in either men or resources. "The kingdom of Bohemia," says Gibbon, "was less opulent than the adjacent city of Nuremberg." [2] Lying in the center of Southern Germany, the surrounding States in defending themselves were defending Nuremberg, and thus it could give its undivided attention to the cultivation of those arts in which it so greatly excelled, when its less happily situated neighbors were wasting their treasure and pouring out their blood on the battle-field.

The "Golden Bull," in distributing the imperial honors among the more famous of the German cities, did not overlook this one. If it assigned to Frankfort the distinction of being the place of the emperor's "election," and if it yielded to Augsburg the honor of seeing him crowned, it required that the emperor should hold his first court in Nuremberg. The castle of the mediaeval emperors is still to be seen. It crowns the height which rises on the northern bank of the Pegnitz, immediately within the city-gate, on the right, as one enters from the north, and from this eminence it overlooks the town which lies at its feet, thickly planted along the stream that divides it into two equal halves. The builder of the royal chateau obviously was compelled to follow, not the rules of architecture, but the angles and irregularities of the rock on which he placed the castle, which is a strong, uncouth, unshapely fabric, forming a striking contrast to the many graceful edifices in the city on which it looks down.

In this city was the Diet at this time assembled. It was the seat (938) of the first Diet of the Empire, and since that day how often had the grandees, the mailed chivalry, and the spiritual princedoms of Germany gathered within its walls! One can imagine how gay Nuremberg was on these occasions, when the banner of the emperor floated on its castle, and warders were going their rounds on its walls, and sentinels were posted in its flanking towers, and a crowd of lordly and knightly company, together with a good deal that was neither lordly nor knightly, were thronging its streets, and peering curiously into its studios and workshops, and ransacking its marts and warehouses, stocked with the precious products of far-distant

climes. Nor would the Nurembergers be slow to display to the eyes of their visitors the marvels of their art and the products of their enterprise, in both of which they were at that time unequalled on this side of the Alps. Nuremberg was, in its way, on these occasions an international exhibition, and not without advantage to both exhibitor and visitor, stimulating, as no doubt it did, the trade of the one, and refining the taste of the other. The men who gathered at these times to Nuremberg were but too accustomed to attach glory to nothing save tournaments and battle-fields; but the sight of this city, so rich in achievements of another kind, would help to open their eyes, and show them that there was a more excellent way to fame, and that the chisel could win triumphs which, if less bloody than those of the sword, were far more beneficial to mankind, and gave to their authors a renown that was far purer and more lasting than that of arms.

Now it was the turn of the Nurembergers themselves to wonder. The Gospel had entered their gates, and many welcomed it as a "pearl" more to be esteemed than the richest jewel or the finest fabric that India or Asia had ever sent to their markets. It was to listen to the new wonders now for the first time brought to their knowledge, that the citizens of Nuremberg were day by day crowding the Church of St. Sebaldus and the Cathedral of St. Lawrence. Among these multitudes, now hanging on the lips of Osiander and other preachers, was Albert Durer, the great painter, sculptor, and mathematician. This man of genius embraced the faith of Protestantism, and became a friend of Luther. His house is still shown, near the old imperial castle, hard by the northern gate of the city. Of his great works, only a few remain in Nuremberg; they have mostly gone to enrich other cities, that were rich enough to buy what Albert Durer's native town was not wealthy enough in these latter times to retain.

In Nuremberg, too, lived Hans Sachs, the poet, also a disciple of the Gospel and a friend of Luther. The history of Sachs is a most romantic one. He was the son of a tailor in Nuremberg, and was born in 1494, and named Hans after his father. Hans adopted the profession of a shoemaker, and the house in which he worked still exists, and is situated in the same quarter of the town as that of Albert Durer. But the workshop of Hans Sachs could not hold his genius. Quitting his stall one day, he sallied forth bent on seeing the world. He passed some time in the brilliant train of the Emperor Maximilian. He returned to Nuremberg and married. The Reformation breaking forth, his mind opened to the glow of the truth, and then it was that his poetic imagination, invigorated and sanctified, burst out in holy song, which resounded through Germany, and helped to prepare the minds of men for the mighty revolution that was going forward. "The spiritual songs of Hans Sachs," says D'Aubigne, "and his Bible in verse, were a powerful help to this great work.

It would perhaps be hard to decide who did the most for it–the Prince-Elector of Saxony, administrator of the Empire, or the Nuremberg shoemaker!"

Here, too, and about the same period, lived Peter Vischer, the sculptor and caster in bronze; Adam Craft, the sculptor, whose "seven pillars" are still to be seen in the Church of; St. Claire; Veit Stoss, the carver in wood; and many besides, quick of eye and cunning of hand, whose names have perished, now live in their works alone, which not only served as models to the men of their own age, but have stimulated the ingenuity and improved the taste of many in ours.

On another ground Nuremberg is worth our study. It is perhaps the best-preserved mediaeval town north of the Alps. To visit it, then, though only in the page of the describer, is to see the very scenes amid which some of the great events of the Reformation were transacted, and the very streets on which their actors walked and the houses in which they lived. In Spain there remain to this day cities of an age still more remote, and an architecture still more curious. There is Toledo, whose seven-hilled site, washed by the furious torrent of the Tagus, lifts high in the air, and sets in bold relief against the sky, its many beautiful structures–its lovely Alcazar, its cathedral roofs, its ruined synagogues, its Moorish castles– the whole looking more like the creation of a magician than the work of the mason. There is Cordova, with its wonderful mosque, fashioned out of the spolia opima of Africa and the Levant, and spread around this unique temple is perhaps the greatest labyrinth of narrow and winding lanes that anywhere exists. There is Granada, whose streets and fountains and gardens are still redolent of the Moor, and which borrows a further glory from the two magnificent objects by which it is overhung – the one of art, the Alhambra,whose unique and dazzling beauty it has defied the spoiler to destroy; and the other of nature, the Sierra Nevada, which towers aloft in snowy grandeur, and greets its brother Atlas across the Straits. And, not to multiply instances, there is Malaga, a relic of a still more ancient time than the Moorish age, showing us how the Phoenicians built, and what sort of cities were upon the earth when civilization was confined to the shores of the Mediterranean, and the mariner had not yet ventured to steer his bark beyond "Pillars of Hercules."

But there is no city in Northern Europe–no relic of the architecture of the Germanic nations, when that architecture was in its prime, or had but recently begun to decline, at all to be compared with Nuremberg.

As it was when the emperor trod its streets, and the magnificence of Germany was gathered into it, and the flourish of trumpets and the roll of drums blended with the peaceful din of its chisels and hammers, so is it now. The same portals with their rich carvings; the same windows with their deep mullions; the same fountains with their curious emblematic devices and groups, in bronze or in stone; the same peaked and picturesque gables; the same lofty roofs, running up into the sky and presenting successive rows of attic windows, their fronts all richly embellished and hung with draperies of wreathed work, wrought in stone by the hands of cunning men–in short, the same assemblage of curious, droll, beautiful, and majestic objects which were before the eyes of the men who have been four centuries in their grave, meet the eye of the traveler at this day.

In the middle of the city is the depression or valley through which the stream of the Pegnitz flows. There the buildings cluster thickly together, forming a perfect labyrinth of winding lanes, with no end of bridges and canals, and while their peaked roofs tower into the air their bases dip into the water. The rest of the city lies on the two slopes that run up from the Pegnitz, on either bank, forming thus two divisions which look at each other across the intervening valley. In this part of Nuremberg the streets are spacious, the houses of stone, large and massy, and retaining the remarkable feature we have already mentioned–exceedingly lofty roofs; for in some instances six storeys of upright mason-work are surmounted by other six storeys of slanting roof, with their complement of attic windows, suggesting the idea of a house upon a house, or of two cities, the one upon the ground, the other in the air, and forming no unmeet emblem of the ancient classification of the citizens of Nuremberg into plebeian and patrician.

To walk through Nuremberg with the hasty step and cursory eye with which a mere modern town may be surveyed is impossible. The city, amid all its decay, is a cabinet of rare curiosities, a gallery of master-pieces. At every step one is brought up by some marvel or other–a witty motto; a quaint device; a droll face; a mediaeval saint in wood, lying as lumber, it may be, in some workshop; a bishop, or knight, or pilgrim, in stone, who has seen better days; an elegant fountain, at which prince or emperor may have stopped to drink, giving its waters as copiously as ever; a superb portal, from which patrician may have walked forth when good Maximilian was emperor; or rich oriel, at which bright eyes looked out when gallant knight rode past; or some palatial mansion that speaks of times when the mariner's compass was unknown, and the stream of commerce on its way to the West flowed through Nuremberg, and not as now round the Cape, or through the Straits of Gibraltar. [3]

After a time the place, so full of fanciful and droll and beautifitl imagining, begins to act upon one like an enchantment. The spirit that lives in these creations is as unabated as if the artist had just laid down his chisel. One cannot persuade one's self that the hands that fashioned them have long ago mouldered into dust. No; their authors are living still, and one looks to see them walk out at their doors, and feels sure that one would know them – those cunning men, that race of geniuses, whose wit and wisdom, whose humor and drollery and mirth burst out and overflowed till the very stones of their city laughed along with them. Where are all these men now? All sleeping together in the burial-ground, about a mile and a half outside the city gate, each in his narrow cell, the skill of their right hand forgotten, but the spelI of their power still lingering on the city where they lived, to fascinate and delight and instruct the men of after-times.

Of the edifices of Nuremberg we shall visit only one–the Rath-Haus, or Hotel de Ville, where the Diets of the Empire held their sitting, and where, of course, the Diet that had just ended in the resolution which so exasperated Campeggio and terrified the Vatican had held its deliberations. It is a magnificent pile, in the Italian style, and externally in perfect preservation. A lofty portal gives admission to a spacious quadrangle. This building was erected in 1619, but it includes an older town-hall of date 1340. To this older portion belongs the great saloon, variously used in former times as a banqueting hall, an audience chamber, and a place of conference for the Diet. Its floor looks as if it would afford standing-room for all the citizens of Nuremberg. But vastness is the only attribute now left it of its former splendor. It is long since emperor trod that floor, or warrior feasted under that roof, or Diet assembled within those walls. Time's effacing finger has been busy with it, and what was magnificence in the days of the emperor, is in ours simply tawdriness. The paintings on its walls and roof, some of which are from the pencil of Albert Durer, have lost their brilliance, and are now little better than mere patches of color.

The gloss has passed from the silks and velvets of its furniture; the few chairs that remain are rickety and worm-eaten, and one fears to trust one's self to them. A magnificent chandelier still hangs suspended from the roof, its gilding sadly tarnished, its lights burned out; and suggesting, as it does, to the mind the gaiety of the past, makes the dreariness and solitariness of the present to be only the more felt. So passes the glory of the world, and so has passed the imperial grandeur which often found in this hall a stage for its display.

Let us visit the

dungeons immediately below the building. This will help us to form some idea of the horrors through which Liberty had to pass in her march down to modern times. Our guide leaves us for a few minutes, and when he returns he is carrying a bunch of keys in one hand and a lantern in the other. We descend a flight of stairs, and stand before a great wooden door. It is fastened crosswise with a heavy iron bar, which the guide removes. Then, selecting a key from the bunch, he undoes one lock, then another, and heaving back the ponderous door, we enter and take our first step into the gloom. We traverse a long dark corridor; at the end of it we come to another massy door, secured like the first by a heavy cross-beam. The guide undoes the fastenings, and with a creak which echoes drearily through the vaulted passage, the door is thrown open and gives us admittance. We descend several flights of stairs. The last ray of light has forsaken us a long while ago, but we go forward by the help of the lantern. What a contrast to the gilded and painted chambers above!

On either hand as we go on are the silent stone walls; overhead is the vaulted roof; at every other pace the guide stops, and calls our attention to doors in the wall on either hand, which open into numerous side chambers, or vaulted dungeons, for the reception of prisoners. To lie here, in this living grave, in utter darkness, in cold and misery, was dreadful enough; but there were more horrible things near at hand, ready to do their terrible work, and which made the unhappy occupants of these cells forget all the other honors of their dismal abode.

Passing on a pace or two further, we come to a roomier cell. We enter it, and the guide throws the glare of his lantern all round, and shows us the apparatus of torture, which rots here unused, though not unused in former days. It is a gaunt iron frame, resembling a long and narrow bedstead, fitted from end to end with a series of angular rollers. The person who was to undergo the torture was laid on this horizontal rack. With every motion of his body to and fro, the rolling prisms on which he rested grazed the vertebrae of his back, causing great suffering. This was one mode of applying the rack, the next was still more frightful. The feet of the poor victim were fastened to one end of the iron frame; his arms were raised over his head and tied with a rope, which wound round a windlass. The windlass was worked by a lever; the executioner put his hand on the lever; the windlass revolves; the rope tightens; the limbs of the victim are stretched. Another wrench: his eyes flash, his lips quiver, his teeth are clenched; he groans, he shrieks; the joints start from their sockets; and now the livid face and the sinking pulse tell that the torture has been prolonged to the furthest limit of physical endurance. The sufferer is carried back to his cell. In the course of a few weeks, when his mangled body has regained a little strength, he is brought out a second time, and laid upon the same bed of torture, to undergo yet again the same dreadful ordeal.

Let us go forward a little farther into this subterranean realm. We come at length to the central chamber. It is much more roomy than the others. Its air is dank and cold, and the water is filtering through the rock overhead. It is full of darkness, but there are worse things in it than darkness, which we can see by the help of our guide's lantern. Against the wall leans what seems a ladder; it is a machine of torture of the kind we have already described, only used vertically instead of horizontally. The person is hauled up by a rope, with a weight attached to his feet, and then he is let suddenly down, the rolling prisms grazing, as before, his naked back in his rapid descent.

There is yet another "torture" in this horrible chamber. In the center of the roof is an iron ring. Through the ring passes a strong iron chain, which hangs down and is attached to a windlass. On the floor lies a great block of stone with a ring in it. This block was attached to the feet of the victim; his hands were tied behind his back with the iron chain; and, thus bound, he was pulled up to the roof, and suddenly let fall to within a foot or so of the floor. The jerk of the descending block was so severe as commonly to dislocate his limbs.

The unhappy man when suspended in this fashion could be dealt with as his tormentors chose. They could tear his flesh with pincers, scorch his feet with live coals, insert burning matches beneath his skin, flay him alive, or practice upon him any barbarity their malignity or cruelty suggested. The subject is an ungrateful one, and we quit it. These cells were reserved for political offenders. They were accounted too good for those tainted with heretical pravity. Deeper dungeons, and more horrible instruments of torture, were prepared for the confessors of the Gospel. The memorials of the awful cruelties perpetrated on the Protestants of the sixteenth century are to be seen in Nuremberg at this day. The "Holy Offices" of Spain and Italy have been dismantled, and little now remains save the walls of the buildings in which the business of the Inquisition was carried on; but, strange to say, in Nuremberg, as we can testify from actual observation, the whole apparatus of torture is still shown in the subterranean chambers that were used by the agents of the "Holy Office." We reserve the description of these dungeons, with their

horrible instruments, till we come to speak more particularly of the Inquisition. Even the political prisons are sufficiently dismal. It is sad to think that such prisons existed in the heart of Germany, and in the free town of Nuremberg, in the sixteenth century.

The far-famed "prisons of Venice"–and here too we speak from actual inspection–are not half so gloomy and terrible. These dungeons in Nuremberg show us how stern a thing government was in the Middle Ages, before the Reformation had come with its balmy breath to chase away the world's winter, and temper the rigors of law, by teaching mercy as well as vengeance to the ruler. Verily it was no easy matter to be a patriot in the sixteenth century!


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the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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