Mathilde Monge’s Des communautés mouvantes: Les «Sociétés des frères chrétiens» en Rhénanie du Nord: Juliers, Berg, Cologne vers 1530-1694: A Review

In the historiography of early modern Anabaptism, the imperial city of Cologne and its surrounding areas have long been understudied. The multivolume Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer  series, a valuable repository of reprinted primary sources on sixteenth-century Anabaptist topics, contains no volumes on Cologne, and the 2007 Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700 included only four references to Cologne, slight attention compared to that paid to nearby Amsterdam or Strasbourg.1 Sigrun Haude’s In the Shadow of Savage Wolves contains a chapter on the Cologne authorities’ response to religious dissenters2  before and after the Anabaptist takeover of Münster, but much work remained to be done on the history of Anabaptist and Anabaptist-adjacent communities in Cologne.3 Mathilde Monge’s 2015 monograph Des communautés mouvantes: Les «Sociétés des frères chrétiens» en Rhénanie du Nord: Juliers, Berg, Cologne vers 1530-1694 (Community in Motion: The “Societies of Christian Brothers” in the Northern Rhineland: Julich, Berg, Cologne Circa 1530-1694), published in Geneva by Droz, goes a long way towards filling that lacuna.des-communautés-mouvantes

Monge’s book is wide in scope, both geographically and temporally. She looks not only at the city of Cologne and its territories, but also the adjacent duchies of Jülich (Juliers) and Berg, and her research covers the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, rather than stopping in the mid to late 1500s. In fact, this wider geographical focus enables the longer time scale, since dissidents with Anabaptist leanings residing in Cologne proper had virtually disappeared by the beginning of the seventeenth century.4

The monograph is divided into eight chapters; Monge deals with accusations of heresy as a means of exclusion, the prosecution of heresy as a pastoral task, the practice of denunciation by heretics’ neighbors and associates, how the Christian Brothers fit into sixteenth-century Christianity, the local and international networks to which Anabaptist and Anabaptist-adjacent persons in the Northern Rhineland belonged, the rituals and practices they used in worship, the ways in which they were integrated into the broader social fabric, and finally the groups’ eventual dissolution by the end of the seventeenth century.

Monge grapples, as all historians of early modern Anabaptism must, with the complications inherent in studying a religious group (or rather, groups) whose label was not freely chosen, but was rather imposed on them by governing authorities. Even sixteenth-century Christians who received baptism as adults did not self-identify as Anabaptists—the subjects of Monge’s study simply referred to themselves as Christian brothers and sisters—and a far larger number of Christians questioned the practice of infant baptism, even if they did not go so far as to undergo believers’ baptism themselves, or even refuse to baptize their children. The question of identifying which sixteenth-century Christians were “truly Anabaptist” is thus fraught with difficulty, and Monge sidesteps it altogether. She treats Anabaptism in early modern Cologne not as a religious group with clearly defined boundaries and membership requirements, but rather as a relational phenomenon; those designated Anabaptist received their label as a result of their relationships with the governing authorities and with other heretics. 5

While Anabaptist and Anabaptist-adjacent groups in the early modern Northern Rhineland did not have a single uniform theology and practice, Monge nevertheless uncovers several recurring themes in inquisitorial records: refutation of infant baptism (this rejection, Monge argues, was of greater importance to the Cologne authorities than the act of re-baptism itself), rejection of Catholic sacraments (with the exception of modified forms of baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and belief in a Melchiorite celestial flesh Christology among them.6 Monge’s work on the Societies of Christian Brothers of the Northern Rhineland is an important addition to the historiography of sixteenth-century Anabaptisms and other non-Magisterial Protestantisms, and I can only hope that an English translation, which would make it accessible to a greater number of North American undergraduates, will be forthcoming.

Footnotes:


  1. John D. Roth and James M. Stayer (eds.), A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700 (Leiden: Brill, 2007), passim. 
  2.  In the Catholic imperial city, this was a label that encompassed not only Anabaptists but also Lutherans and Sacramentarians as well. 
  3. Sigrun Haude, In the Shadow of Savage Wolves: Anabaptist Münster and the German Reformation during the 1530s (Boston: Humanities Press, 2000), 39-69. 
  4. Mathilde Monge, Des communautés mouvantes: Les «Sociétés des frères chrétiens» en Rhénanie du Nord: Juliers, Berg, Cologne vers 1530-1694 (Geneva: Droz, 2015), 48; 223. 
  5. Monge, 7. Melchior Hoffman taught that Christ had not received his human flesh from Mary (since her flesh, like all human flesh, was corrupted by sin), but rather brought his own flesh from heaven. For more information on Melchiorite celestial flesh Christology, see Sjouke Voolstra, Het woord is vlees geworden : de Melchioritisch-Menniste incarnatieleer (Kampen: J.H. Kok, 1982.) 
  6. Monge, 112; 115; 120. 

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