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Preaching to Laymen in their Own Language – Johannes Geiler von Keysersberg, Sermon on the Ants (March 20, 1508)

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Now I come to a third point: you ask whether a general reformation may be accomplished. I say, “No!” There is no hope that things will get better in Christendom. Why not? For three reasons and on account of three groups of people: the rulers, the subjects, and the pious folk.

As to the first: no general reformation can be made on account of the rulers. If a Council were to be called tomorrow, just consider what sort of persons would be sent to it. When persons are being selected to be sent to a Council, the abbot is chosen. Regard this same abbot, or the provost, or the dean—whomever—or the doctors who are called as learned experts. When we arrive, what sort of people are we? Good for nothing. As to the second: on account of the subjects. They and all of Christendom with them are against a general reformation. As to the third: on account of the pious, honorable folk. For they live as good people among evil folk and are much plagued by them, which is much to their credit. This would not happen, if the world were good; and if a general reformation were brought about, it would become no better. No more so than thirty years ago, before I came to Ammerschwyhr up there, where I learned my ABCs and was confirmed, though not baptized.* In that whole town there was not one man who wore a short coat, except for the beadle. They all wore long coats down to the knee, just like the old peasants. Nowadays, however, they go around in coats that are cut short and slashed, worse than in the great cities. Thus are vice and pleasure-seeking on the increase among the peasants, and thus do I say that thirty years ago, when I came, both here and elsewhere people lived in a more sober, disciplined way.

Now I come to a fourth point. There can be no reformation of Christendom in general. In particular, however, each one may well reform his own condition, and every ruler may reform his subjects. A bishop in his diocese. An abbot in his monastery. A city council in its city. A burgher in his house. That would be easy. But a general reformation of all Christendom, that is difficult and tough, and no Council has been able to deliberate on the problem and find a solution to it. Why not? I'll tell you. You see how much labor and expense it requires. Take the case of a monastery to be reformed. First, you must go to the pope, for which you must take leave, and then to the king. But to deform a monastery requires no permission, everyone may do that, and everyone does it on his own hook.** The entire Council of Basel was not powerful enough to reform a single women's convent in a single city, if the city backed the nuns. How could a General Council reform the whole of Christendom, when it is so difficult to reform a single women's convent? And if that is hard, how much harder is it to reform a single male convent, especially if all the monks are nobles, and if they have a great crowd of lay supporters. Some years ago, but within our time, several male and female convents were reformed and cloistered, and this endured for a long time, though now laxity is creeping in. This is why it is so difficult to reform the whole of Christendom and the individual estates. Therefore, stick your head in a corner, in a hole, and see that you keep God's commandments and do good, so that you may be saved.

* Ammerschwyhr (Ammersweiher) is a small town in central Alsace, where Geiler's father was employed as town secretary in 1446, the year after Geiler was born at Schaffhausen. Hence, his comment that he was not baptized in this town – trans.
** Geiler is playing on the parallel between the latinate German words “reformieren” and “difformieren” – trans.

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