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THE PLACE OF SEBASTIAN FRANCK AND JAKOB
BOEHME IN THE HISTORY OF
BY KUNO FRANCKE
setting to two writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who in most histories of German literature are passed by with a few words, although they are the two foremost representatives of the free-religious undercurrent of German thought in the age of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation: Sebastian Franck and Jakob Boehme. Franck (15001543), one of the most forcible popular philosophers of the Reformation, is usually crowded into a corner by the consideration of commonplace biblical plays or narrow-minded sectarian polemics. And "Boehme († 1624), without doubt the most imaginative genius of the beginning of the seventeenth century, is given secondary rank by the side of or behind the barren formalists and criticasters of Pseudo-Classicism, such as Martin Opitz and his school. By claiming for these men their rightful place in the history of literature, I wish incidentally to emphasize the necessity of a large conception of literature as an emotional expression of life or of ideals of life, in whatever form, from the simplest popular song to the most abstruse visions of mystic philosophy.
1 W. Scherer in his Gesch. d. d. Lit., p. 286, sums him up in the words: “S. F. erlangte als Historiker, Geograph und Sammler von Sprichwörtern am meisten schriftstellerischen Ruhm.” Friedrich Vogt (Vogt u. Koch, Gesch. d. d. Lit., I, 341) refers to him only by the way, in connection with Johann Fischart. Nadler barely mentions his name. Borinski, I, 420 f., has half a paragraph on him, showing at least a certain amount of understanding and appreciation.
2 Scherer, p. 295, alludes to him in connection with Theophrastus Paracelsus in this bare fashion: “Paracelsus stellte eine phantastische Naturphilosophie auf, deren Principien sich später mit der wahlverwandten Mystik vereinigten und so zu den theologischen Anschauungen eines J. B. führten.” What other literary historians like the above mentioned have to say of him is equally colorless and hardly worth quoting.
From the time when it became apparent that the Reformation was not going to carry the whole German people with it, nor usher in a new era of national greatness, i.e., about the thirties of the sixteenth century, up to the Thirty Years' War and the utter disintegration of national existence produced by it, there runs a pessimistic strain, a tone of depression and spiritlessness through most of German literature. Only a few typical figures, indicative of this general depression, may here be singled out.
In the first hopeful years of the Reformation, how joyfully had Hans Sachs greeted the “Wittenbergische Nachtigall," how sympathetically had he extolled wherein he saw Luther's great achievement—the delivery of the souls from the incubus of ecclesiasticism, the exaltation of faith as the only way to salvation, the demand for inner purification and spiritualization:
Derselb Mensch neu geboren heißt
weder Höll, Teufel, Tod noch Sünde.3 But soon such words of hope give way in him to lamentations over the fact that the work of reform was being hampered by dogmatic subtleties and sectarian fanaticism, and that the gospel of a new humanity by most people was being made the excuse for selfish desires and excesses. And then the political and social catastrophes which follow in the wake of the religious struggle take hold of him and darken his soul. He who is accustomed to think of Hans Sachs only as a writer of humorous Schwänke and Shrovetide plays, should read his poems written during and after the Schmalkaldian War in which he depicts in glaring colors the fearful devastations of German soil by vicious princes and a degenerate soldiery, pours out his grief over the decay of national greatness, and expresses his desire to be done with it all. For Germany's fate, he says, was robbing him of sleep at night and made him feel: 't was better to die than to live.5
3 Hans Sachs, ed. Keller, VI, 377 ff.
Johann Fischart, the only writer of the middle of the sixteenth century worthy to be classed with Hans Sachs, probably tried hard to overcome such gloomy thoughts as these. For he, too, was by nature of a joyous and playful disposition. But he, also, fell a victim to the general depression of spirit. He consumed himself in blind hatred of political and intellectual opponents; and he lost himself in satirical excesses too formless and heavy to rise above mediocrity. It is hard to see how his anti-Jesuit writings can by intelligent critics 6 be extolled as patriotic achievements. Rather would I call them sad testimonies to the brutalizing and degrading effects of a disjointed age even upon the best minds. And it is equally hard to see how these same critics can prevail upon themselves to praise his “Geschichtklitterung" as the child of an inexhaustible imagination. Rather would I call it a tragic confirmation of the fact that, without the sovereign selection by the artist raised above his subject, even the most exuberant imagination can produce nothing but a congeries of depressing details.
If thus men like Hans Sachs and Fischart succumbed to the pressure of the gloomy German conditions, it is not to be wondered at that there lies something like paralysis upon most of the other writers from the middle of the sixteenth century to the middle of the seventeenth. Hans Wilhelm Kirchhoff, author of the "Wendunmut," a collection of anecdotes and popular jokes intended to serve as an antidote against melancholia, falls after all back to resigning himself passively to the sad experience of all mankind: "'t has always been thus on the earth—those who know most have the least power, or no power at all." ? Georg Rollenhagen, whose modernization of the "Batrachomyomachia" is a thinly disguised allegory of the civil wars brought upon Germany by the rivalry and internecine greed of the territorial princes, ends his satire with the pessimistic words:
So fahl, so schal, so kahl geht's aus,
* As, for instance, Ad. Hauffen in his introduction to Fischart's writings, D.N.L., XVIII, 1, and in his comprehensive and in many ways final Fischart biography.
7 D.N.L., XXIV, 320.
Aller Welt Rat, Macht, Trotz und Streit
Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas.8
Daß mancher Mensch in Dorf und Stadt
Und wünscht, daß er nur läg im Grab.o These are testimonies of gloom from the last decades of the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century, especially from the Thirty Years' War on, this gloom goes on ever thickening; until finally, in the grim Stoicism-or Pseudostoicism-of Logau, Grimmelshausen, and Gryphius, the climax of pessimism is reached, and all joys of life, all hopes and strivings appear as one great delusion. Among many other similar protestations of the nothingness of life by Gryphius may be quoted the following:
Ihr irrt, indem ihr lebt; die ganz verschränkte Bahn
Ihr irrt, indem ihr traurt; ihr irrt, indem ihr lachet.10 The moral indifference to which this negation of all true values in human affairs must lead could hardly find a more striking expression.
This background of outer gloom and inner depression must not be lost out of sight, if one wishes to understand the free religious movement from Sebastian Franck to Jakob Boehme and to appreciate its meaning for the delivery of the German spirit. Leaders as well as followers of this movement have not lacked in bitter experiences and sore trials of their own. The bloody executions which were visited by the ruling classes upon thousands and thousands of peaceful Anabaptists of South Germany and Switzerland in the twenties and thirties of the sixteenth century were followed throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by continuous persecutions of free thought, from the Protestant church as well as the Catholic. Sebastian Franck and Jakob Boehme suffered less deeply from this persecution than many others. They were spared the fate of Servetus or Giordano Bruno. But they, too, suffered martyrdom, and through martyrdom they rose to leadership.
· Edition of 1597, p. 4. For similar evidence from the sixteenth century, cf. E. H. Zeydel, The Holy Roman Empire in German Literature, Ch. III.
10 Deutsche Dichter des 17. Jhdts., XIV, 27 f.
Sebastian Franck 11 deserves the credit of having been the first strictly non-partisan thinker in German intellectual history. His whole career is a record of ever-increasing isolation. He was successively Catholic priest, Protestant minister, soap maker, printer, publisher, independent writer. He died early, worn out by harassing experiences. From Ulm he was expelled through the intrigues of an overzealous Protestant pastor, from Strassburg through the ill will of Erasmus. Luther, whose greatness he himself freely acknowledged, slandered him throughout his life and did not shrink from heaping even post-mortem calumnies upon him as a man who “had lived on blasphemy and backbiting for his daily food.” All this cannot darken his memory; for in all these persecutions he remained the same free, objective, and unprejudiced advocate of the truly human. Similar was the career of Jakob Boehme. A more sincere and deeply religious seeker after God never lived than this honest shoemaker of Görlitz. Never was his ecstatic contemplativeness led astray into anything resembling moral dissoluteness. 13 And yet he, too, suffered much from blind and fanatic zealots. Upon the appearance of his first book, the Aurora of 1612, the pastor primarius of Görlitz incites the municipal council against him.14 The pious man is brought before a penal court and
11 Cf. W. Dilthey, Auffassung und Analyse des Menschen im 15. und 16. Jh., in Ges. Schriften3 (1923), II, 80 ff.
12 In the preface to a dialogue by Freder; Werke, Erl. Ausg. LXIII, 384 ff.
13 Even though one may be inclined to accept the application of the Freudian sex impulse theory upon Boehme's visions, attempted by A. Kielholz, Jakob Boehme, ein pathographischer Beitrag zur Psychologie der Mystik (1919).
* Cf. A. von Franckenberg's biography (1651), in Schriften Jakob Boehmes, herausg. v. H. Kayser (1923), p. 26 ff. P. Deussen, Jakob Boehme? (1911), p. 11 ff.