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Peter Matheson, "Breaking the Silence: Women, Censorship, and the Reformation,"

Sixteenth Century Journal 27 (1996): 97-109.


Reviewed by Larissa Juliet Taylor
(originally published by H-German on 3 September 1996)

This article, taken together with Peter Matheson's Argula von Grumbach: A Woman's Voice in the
Reformation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), brings to public notice an important writer and
polemicist of the early Reformation who has been all but ignored.
Argula von Grumbach (1492-c.1554), who at the height of the controversy over her writings in
1523-24 was labeled, among other things, a "female desperado," a "shameless whore," a
"heretical bitch" and a "wretched and pathetic daughter of Eve," was born to the von Stauff
family, leading members of the Bavarian nobility. Her early life was marked by a strong religious
education. When she was only ten, her father bought Argula a German Bible. Her parents died
of plague in 1509 and her uncle was tortured and executed in 1516, around the time she married
Friedrich von Grumbach. She gave birth to four children, all of whom she raised as Protestants
despite her husband's continued adherence to the Catholic faith. She remarried after his death
in 1530, and died around 1554.
Argula's fame and notoriety was greatest in 1523 and 1524. This is not a coincidence; it was in
these early years of the Reformation that there was what Matheson terms a "window of
opportunity" for lay and even women's voices to be heard. The affair began when an 18-year-
old Lutheran student at the University of Ingolstadt, Arsacius Seehofer, was arrested, one in a
series of clumsy efforts by the Bavarian authorities to stamp out Lutheranism. Already Argula was
conversant with the ideas coming out of Wittenberg and, incensed at these events, she sought
advice from Osiander. On September 20, 1523, she wrote a letter of protest to the university,
asking that a debate be held in German. Argula was aware of how unusual such an action was,
stating that because of Paul's injunction for women to be silent in church, "I suppressed my
inclinations. Heavy of heart, I did nothing" (101). But the Seehofer arrest had forced her hand,
and displaying her knowledge of scripture, she rebukes them, saying "[y]ou lofty experts,
nowhere in the Bible do I find that Christ, or his prophets, put people in prison, burnt or murdered
them, or sent them into exile..." (102). She warned that if they tried to silence her, other women
would take up the pen, making the university a laughingstock.
The Ingolstadt theologians were intent on taming the "silly bag" and thus what had been a
private letter became a cause célèbre, and an immediate bestseller. Soon even Wittenberg
knew that she had taken on the university. Friedrich Peypus, who had published Caritas
Pirckheimer's letters earlier, printed the pamphlet, which went through fourteen editions. The last
ten of these Matheson describes as "information packs," for they also contain Seehofer's
condemned propositions. Argula did not stop there. A letter writing campaign to some of the
leading princes of the empire commenced, with calls for reformation and an end to censorship
and coercion. Much as Catherine of Siena had done two centuries earlier at a time of church
crisis, Argula felt empowered and indeed obliged to speak out against abuses. The first pamphlet
was followed by seven other writings. Matheson estimates that 30,000 copies of her eight writings
were circulating throughout the Holy Roman Empire within two years.
Part of what impelled Argula to step beyond traditional gender roles was her sense of
eschatological imminence, which was particularly strong in the years before 1524 in anticipation
of a conjunction of planets in Pisces (see Robin Bruce Barnes, Prophecy and Gnosis:
Apocalypticism in the Wake of the Lutheran Reformation [Stanford University Press, 1988]).
Argula's writings fit in very neatly with an increasing Lutheran preoccupation in these years with
finding the signs of the Judgment, and her writings describe in "...apocalyptic terms...the battle
that is now being fought between Christ and Satan, the power of God and the power of the
pope" (106). Hence this was no time for temporizing; the approach of the Judgment

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transcended the natural order on earth, for salvation itself was at stake. And this is precisely why
Argula's writings and views were so profoundly threatening. The prophetic expectation that
informed her beliefs could overturn the social order, as would be all too obvious in the next few
years with the preaching of Thomas Müntzer and the Peasants' War. Other women also penned
polemical works. In Bavaria in 1524, Ursula Weydin wrote a fiercely anticlerical pamphlet;
Matheson notes that the "...exceptionally large role of women in the reforming movement in
Bavaria was noted at the time by its proponents and opponents alike" (108).
Besides their prophetic tenor, Argula's writings demonstrate an excellent knowledge of scripture
and Lutheran thought. She calls for open discussion of controversial ideas in the vernacular, for
she believed that lay men and women had the ability to think about and decide such issues for
themselves. Her revulsion against censorship is the theme that guides much of her prose, and
here Argula practiced what she preached. When her first writings were attacked
pseudonymously in a poem by "Johannes of Landshut," who argued that "It's not a woman's
place to strut/With the words of God, or lecture men/But to listen like the Magdalene" (106),
Argula included it uncensored in her printed editions. She was less tolerant, however, of
traditional Catholic preachers, who "should not be listened to," undoubtedly because of their
ability, via the spoken word, to propagate error.
Matheson's studies of the woman he calls "perhaps, the most significant reforming voice in
Bavaria" (109), is an extremely important addition to the growing corpus of works about and by
women. It poses provocative questions regarding the factors that came together, during a very
short period of time, to allow those who had never had a public voice to make their ideas known
to large numbers of people. Argula's "program for a more open society" shows, according to
Matheson, one of the first marks of modernity -- the existence of public opinion, when "[i]deas are
not confined to privileged, professional circles." The convergence of the printing press, a new
and more democratic theology, increasing educational opportunities among the laity, and the
sense of apocalyptic expectation in the sixteenth century all made the first tentative steps in this
direction possible.

Larissa Juliet Taylor, Colby College


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