Erasmus on Denmark : ‘the journey is long, the climate unbearable, and the people barbarous’ — and other Reformation tidbits


Reformation Monument on Bispetorvet in Copenhagen. Photo: Mark and Adam’s Adventures [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

One nice thing about exploring the dustier, remoter byways of history — you find unexpected little treasures by serendipity. And sometimes you can make unexpected connections. Also by serendipity.

So it was this morning when I was dutifully plowing through a review of Reformation history in the Nordic countries by Dr. Simo Heininen, Professor of Theology at the University of Helsinki, and Dr. Otfried Czaika, Professor of Church History at the Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society (MF vitenskapelig høyskole for teologi, religion og samfunn) in Oslo. As you would expect from a couple of European herr professor doktors, it was cogent, authoritative and crammed full of facts, dates and learned quotations. Among them, this evaluation of Denmark by Erasmus of Rotterdam, the 16th-century Dutch humanist:

The journey there is long, the climate unbearable, and the people barbarous.

Erasmus is “widely considered to have been the greatest scholar of the northern Renaissance,” at least according to Wikipedia, but I’d say he was batting about .300 on that one.

Heininen and Czaika quote Erasmus in the context of the theological debates that gave rise to the Reformation. In its early days, the movement had strong academic overtones as reformers who had studied under Luther — also a herr professor doktor — down at Wittenberg University fanned out through northern Europe. In 1527 the Danish bishops, who were still Catholic at that time, asked for reinforcements to combat the new heresy. Instead, they got a polite turndown, prompted at least in part by Erasmus’ remark.

All of which, in turn, called back a memory.

Can we say it led me from the byways of ecclesiastical history to Bispetorvet, at the intersection of Nørregade and Studiestræde in Copenhagen? We can make a strong case that in 1537 the Danish Reformation started there — or across the street, in Vor Frue cathedral. Debi and I visited there 475 years later. As so often happens when I travel, I didn’t fully realize what I was seeing till I read up on it later. But I did see a commemorative monument, an oblisk with scenes from the Reformation on the pedestal, so I at least had a glimmering of its significance.

And eventually I learned the square — Bispetorv mean’s “Bishop’s Square” in Danish — commemorated events in the cathedral where the new order was proclaimed and new bishops installed on Sept. 2, 1537. (Vor Frue means “Our Lady” in Danish.) Also heavily involved was the University of Copenhagen, on Studiestræde (which means studies lane) adjacent to the cathedral.

Here’s how it all came about. In the 1530s, Danish reformers — who weren’t yet called Lutherans in the 1530s — also called for outside assistance. We forget today how much of an international movement the Reformation was; the medieval church and the universities were also internationally minded, of course, and intricately interrelated. So it was only natural that the Rev. Johannes Bugenhagen, pastor of Luther’s church in Wittenberg, came to Copenhagen 1537.

… In May 1527, four Bishops in Jutland appealed for help to two German theologians who adhered to the old faith, Johannes Cochlaeus (1479–1552) and Johannes Eck (1486–1543). They requested that one of these two opponents of Luther come to Denmark, because they felt they were fighting a losing battle. But both of the theologians refused. Cochlaeus even asked Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469–1536) for his advice on the matter. The great humanist discouraged him from going: “The journey there is long, the climate unbearable, and the people barbarous.”

Erasmus’ quote is cited to Martin Schwarz Lausten, Die Reformation in Dänemark (Gütersloh, Germany: Schriften des Vereins für Reformationsgeschichte, 2008), p. 64, transl. by N. W. The original letter is contained in: Erasmi Epistolae, ed. P.S. Allen, Tom. VII (Oxford 1928), Epist. 1863 (28/08/1527).

More quotes from Heininen and Czaika:

Denmark’s royal Reformation was marked by a series of public celebrations. The role played by Johannes Bugenhagen, who arrived in Copenhagen in July 1537, in establishing a new order for the church was an important aspect of this process. He was accompanied to Copenhagen by the Dane Peder Palladius (1503–1560), who had recently been conferred with a doctorate in theology in Wittenberg. On August 12, the king’s birthday, Bugenhagen crowned the new king, Christian III, and his wife Dorothy (1511–1571) in the Church of Our Lady (Vor Frue Kirke) in Copenhagen.

After the conclusion of the festivities, which lasted for a number of days, another ceremonial act was conducted in the Church of Our Lady. On September 2, Bugenhagen ordained seven Lutheran bishops who had been selected by the king and his advisers. As Bugenhagen was not an ordained bishop himself, this meant the interruption of the apostolic succession. …

* * *

A week after the ordination of the bishops, the last ceremonial act occurred in the Church of Our Lady. After teaching there had been suspended around 1530, Copenhagen University, which was founded in 1479, was reopened in 1537 “to the glory of God and for the maintenance of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ”. It was now an evangelical university. Bugenhagen drafted the statutes, which were based on those of Wittenberg University, for which Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560) had drafted new statutes as recently as 1536. Christian III tried in vain to persuade Bugenhagen to accept a professorship. Bugenhagen gave a few lectures in theology, but he returned to Wittenberg in the summer of 1539.

The priests who had served in the old church remained in their offices and received instructions in line with the Reformation. The monasteries were gradually dissolved. Catechisms – Peder Palladius’s translation of Luther’s Small Catechism went through 14 print runs between 1537 and 1600 – and hymnals were compiled to educate the masses. The first Danish Bible was published in 1550.

* * *

As in Germany, the campaign against proponents of the old faith was also conducted in print, by means of books, pamphlets, and handbills in the vernacular. One of the most important Reformation texts was the Book of Malmö written by Peder Laurensen in 1530, the full title of which was “The Cause and a Correct Explanation for the Ordination and the Use of the New Reformation of the Mass, of Preaching, in the Church Service and in the Execution of Other Christian Activities, Which Have Begun and Are Being Carried Out in the Christian City of Malmö”.

Works Cited

Simo Heininen and Otfried Czaika, “Wittenberg Influences on the Reformation in Scandinavia,” Brewminate: A Bold Blend of News & Ideas, Jan. 8, 2019 Originally published by EGO: Journal of European History Online under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.

“Reformation Memorial, Copenhagen” Wikipedia,_Copenhagen.

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