This article investigates the Marian dimension to the Reformation’s first executions, the burning of the Augustinian friars Heinrich Voes and Johann van den Esschen in Brussels on July 1, 1523. Using sources generated by their case, it argues that the Reformation debate over how Christians should understand the Virgin Mary became interwoven with their case, and more specifically that their deaths were utilized by the ecclesiastical authorities (both Catholic and pro-Reformation) as a platform to debate Mary’s powers and efficacy. It further reveals the surreptitious nature of ways in which Catholic forces integrated beliefs surrounding the Virgin Mary into their explanation of events of the case, and the equally cunning strategy of their opponents to respond to such implications in implicit rather than overt ways. The result is a more textured and nuanced understanding of the meaning, methods, and utility of the conflict over Marian piety in the early Reformation.
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In1509, for example, while criticizing the superstitions he saw in lay religiosity, Erasmus of Rotterdam raised the point that “the common person comes close to attributing more to [Mary] than to her son.” “… cui vulgus hominum plus prope tribuit quam filio.” Morae Ecomivm id est Stvltitiae Lavs, ed. Clarence Miller, Erasmi opera omnia (Amsterdam, 1969–), v. 4:3, 124. For pre-Reformation critique of the cult of the Virgin, see MacCulloch, “Mary and Sixteenth-Century Protestants,” 192–196; and Bridget Heal, The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Early Modern Germany: Protestant and Catholic Piety, 1500–1648 (Cambridge, Eng., 2007), 47–53.
Already in the early1520s, Luther, Zwingli, and Erasmus all found themselves refuting statements that they had allegedly made about Mary. Zwingli was forced to respond to the accusation that he had referred to her as a stupid woman and had ridiculed her purity, rumors used by his opponents to discredit him. Luther had to defend himself against the charge that he had preached against Mary’s perpetual virginity. Heal, The Cult of the Virgin Mary, 63.
Ortwin Rudloff, “Quod Dictus Assertus Frater Henricus de Ambone Publice Praedicabat: Zu Heinrich von Zütphens Bremer Predigten im Januar und Februar 1523,”Hospitium Ecclesiae: Forschungen zur Bremischen Kirchengeschichte15 (1987) 77–107, here at 78.
We know this because on January 10,1523, the emperor wrote to Margaret, “And with regard to the destruction of said cloister and church that you have requested be carried out as an everlasting reminder of the events that occurred there, it is my opinion that, with our Holy Father’s consent, the living quarters of the cloister be demolished, but the church be retained in its entirety to serve as a parish church.” “Et quant à la démolicion que désirez faire dudit cloister et de l’ église pour une perpétuelle mémoire du cas y advenu, je suis bien d’ aviz, quant en aurez eu le congié de nostre sint père, que les habitacions des religieux soient desmolies en réservant seulement en son entire l’ église pour en faire une paroisse …” Letter from Charles V to Margaret, January 10, 1523. CD, 4: doc 120.