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The Empire and Its Reformation – Lazarus von Schwendi’s Advice to Emperor Maximilian II (1574)

For more than a generation after the Religious Peace of 1555, the Empire lived in relative peace. Imperial governance was strengthened, the situation with the Ottomans in Hungary stabilized, and the Protestant religion continued its advance in the Empire, where it seemed, to some observers, to be approaching something akin to total victory. To the west, however, in the Low Countries and in France, prolonged, savage struggles erupted. The religious schism partly defined the contending parties in these conflicts, which repeatedly threatened to draw in the Imperial estates.

These conditions underlie the memoranda that Lazarus von Schwendi (1522-84) penned in the first half of the 1570s for Emperor Maximilian II (r. 1564-76). Although he had retired to his castle in Alsace in 1568, Schwendi found no rest, for Maximilian continued to call for his advice in political as well as military affairs. Schwendi was a nationalist advocate of strong central government. His strongest wish was to see a concerted effort, led by the emperor, to restore the Germans to the virtue and military prowess of their ancient ancestors. In matters of religion, he was a moderate Protestant who advised Maximilian that the Catholic Church was approaching its ruin in the German lands, where its adherents were growing fewer and its clergy less prestigious by the day.

This abridged text of Schwendi’s memorandum of 1574 draws on all of Schwendi’s ideas about the Empire and its political and religious reformations. Yet Schwendi’s advice to Maximilian ran counter to the political and religious realities of Imperial life. For example, at the time he was writing, the Catholic Church lay on the brink of a great revival that would enable it, within a mere generation, to mount its own reforms, halt the Protestant advance, and begin recovering the lands and properties it had lost to the Protestant princes, cities, and nobles.

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Most gracious Lord and Emperor!

[ . . . ] Because I can both perceive and sense that Your Majesty has most graciously and paternally taken to heart the difficult times and circumstances and the great and weighty matters currently facing our Fatherland, [ . . . ] and because in such cases great rulers and princes often lack people who tell them the truth and report what ought to be done without reticence or hypocrisy, I – with the humblest, loyal intentions – did not want to neglect to report to Your Majesty my simple reflections, composed at Your Majesty’s own gracious request and pleasure. I do this so that Your Majesty will be much better able to consider the aforementioned weighty, universal issues on a firm foundation and to a certain end.

[ . . . ] Nevertheless, Your Majesty and your government have come into a difficult and evil time, for the commonwealth is full of conflict and upheaval, and one cannot easily continue or maintain the strong rules and guidelines for governance, nor can the force of the times or the variety of invasive and expanding change be controlled.

[Schwendi reflects on the dependence of all human endeavors on both the circumstances of the times and the dispositions of the Almighty. Given the “force of circumstances,” a realistic analysis of conditions is both necessary and the responsibility of the ruler. This analysis must emphasize the historical development of present afflictions, while attempting to diagnose the malady, so to speak. It is dangerous when failures and breakdowns occur in both political and religious matters.]

And because events, just like illnesses, arise out of disorderly lives and characters, increase, and develop to a climax, it is most dangerous and difficult for those heads of state and rulers whose reign falls in such times and at such moments when there is turnaround and change.

[Schwendi now continues with a sweeping historical excursus. For two thousand years, he believes, the Germans have successfully defended their freedom against the Romans as well as against the pretensions of the papacy. Internally, too, relative to the Holy Roman emperors, they have asserted this old, traditional, “staunch, free nature” toward their emperors. The emperors, popes, and Church councils even had to tolerate private warfare as a daily occurrence.]

[This was the case] until the last century, when, by [different] means and the adoption of the lifestyle and manners of more recent times, through the introduction of learning and schools, but in particular also through the invention and spread of printing and books, and through the uncommonly sensible contributions of the recent emperors, this old, stubborn, and excessively impudent German character was softened, and everything was brought to a state of greater peace, better government, and a more temperate condition and way of life.

At the same time, however, other general and particular deficiencies, tribulations, and corruptions have arisen, whereby the old German simplicity, reverence and probity, as well as zeal, unanimity, and obedience to the government of the commonwealth and the authority of the Empire have significantly declined.

In particular, the Germans at that time began to open their eyes more and were no longer willing to watch silently and to tolerate blindly the clergy’s excessive power and coercion or the inordinate public abuses, greed, and deceit which led to the publication of the gravamina of the German Nation against the Papal See almost a century ago (1).

(1) Refers to the lists of grievances (gravamina) against the papacy compiled by German churchmen in 1451 on the occasion of the visit of the papal legate, Nicholas of Cusa, to Germany – trans.

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