Friday, November 25, 2011

Luther's "Fit in the Choir"

"People like James Swan, who “feel the need” to paint virtually every aspect and historical detail of Luther’s life in the most “positive” (sanitized) light imaginable, also have every reason to want people to completely dismiss the “fit” as being some sort of anti-Luther “myth” which was manufactured by the Catholic Church to discredit the man." [source]
That's what one of my critics recently said in regard to my opinion on Luther's alleged "fit in the choir." In actuality, as I searched through my blog, it appears I've rarely mentioned this myth on this blog, and only in passing (for instance: 5/02/06; 6/04/06; 6/06/06; 7/17/07). The irony of this Roman Catholic critic is his shying away from the original Roman Catholic interpretations of Luther's "fit in the choir" as demon possession favoring instead modern secular psychological interpretations.

Here's how the story goes, as stated by Luther's Roman Catholic biographer Hartmann Grisar:
One day that Luther was present at High Mass in the monks' choir, he had a fit during the Gospel, which, as it happened, told the story of the man possessed. He fell to the ground and in his paroxysms behaved like one mad. At the same time he cried out, as his brother monks affirmed: "It is not I, it is not I," meaning that he was not the man possessed.1 It might seem to have been an epileptic fit, but there is no other instance of Luther having such attacks, though he did suffer from ordinary fits of fainting. Strange to say, some of his companions in the monastery had an idea that he had dealings with the devil, while others, mainly on account of the above-mentioned attack, actually declared him an epileptic. We learn both these facts from his opponent and contemporary, Johann Cochlacus, who was on good terms with Luther's former associates. He asserts positively that a "certain singularity of manner" had been remarked upon by his fellows in the monastery.2 Later on his brother monk, Johann Nathin, went so far as to assert that "an apostate spirit had mastered him," i.e. that he stood under the influence of the devil.3
1. Dungersheim, " Erzeigung der Falschheit des unchristlichen lutherischen Comments usw.," in " AHqua opuscula," p. 15, cited above on p. 4. 2. Joh. Cochlaeus, "Commentaria de actis et scriptis M. Lutheri," Mogunt., 1549, p. 1. 3. Dungersheim, ut supra. [source]
The spurious origins of this tale alone should be enough to caution one from giving it more value than its actual worth. Historians have traced this story not back to anything Luther wrote, or even a Table Talk utterance recorded by one of his acquaintances. Rather, this story originates from one of Luther's earliest Roman Catholic biographers, Cochlaeus. It comes from the very first paragraphs of his lengthy biography of Luther: 
“…[W]hen [Luther] was in the country, either because he was terrified and prostrated by a bolt of lightning, as is commonly said, or because he was overwhelmed with grief at the death of a companion, through contempt of this world he suddenly - to the astonishment of many - entered the Monastery of the brothers of St Augustine, who are commonly called the Hermits. After a year's probation, his profession of that order was made legitimate, and there in his studies and spiritual exercises he fought strenuously for God for four years. However, he appeared to the brothers to have a certain amount of peculiarity, either from some secret commerce with a Demon, or (according to certain other indications) from the disease of epilepsy. They thought this especially, because several times in the Choir, when during the Mass the passage from the Evangelist about the ejection of the deaf and mute Demon was read, he suddenly fell down, crying 'It is not I, it is not I.' And thus it is the opinion of many, that he enjoyed an occult familiarity with some demon, since he himself sometimes wrote such things about himself as were able to engender a suspicion in the reader of this kind of commerce and nefarious association. For he says in a certain sermon addressed to the people, that he knows the Devil well, and is in turn well known by him, and that he has eaten more than one grain of salt with him. And furthermore he published his own book in German, About the 'Corner' Mass (as he calls it), where he remembers a disputation against the Mass that the Devil held with him at night. There are other pieces of evidence about this matter as well, and not trivial ones, since he was even seen by certain people to keep company bodily with the Devil.” [source]
Roland Bainton notes:
“The story is poorly authenticated. It received distribution through Cochlaeus, whose virulent misrepresentations of Luther have poisoned the Catholic attitude toward him until recently refuted by the Catholic scholar Adolf Herte. Cochlaeus wrote later than, and presumably was dependent on, Dungersheim, who took the tale from Nathin, who appears to have derived it from the Bishop of Mansfield. Thus we get it fourth hand.” (Roger Johnson, ed, Psychohistory and Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), p.42)
But it's actually worse than simply a fourth-hand apocryphal story. Gordon Rupp explains,
The story that Luther had a fit during Mass, while the story of the epileptic boy was being read, is more than dubious. It comes to us from four catholic writers: Nathin, Dungersheim, Cochlaeus,Oldecop, all of whom were his enemies, all of whom believed that he was possessed by a demon. An examination of these sources shows that they are not four separate accounts but each is repeating the other, as W. S. Gilbert would say, adding a few corroborative details intended to give an air of artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. Such is Cochlaeus’s addition of the cry ’ I am not’. [Gordon Rupp, John Osborne and the Historical Luther, The Expository Times 1962; 73; 148).

When this story was first told by Luther's detractors the goal was to prove Luther was possessed by a demon. Cochlaeus believed Luther was a child of the devil, the fruit of a union between Satan and Luther's mother (who later regretted not having murdered him in the cradle). Luther's life was characterized as a man who lusts after wine and women, is without conscience, and approves any means to gain his end. Luther was a liar and a hypocrite, cowardly and quarrelsome. Demonic monstrosities boiled out of Luther’s powerful perverted mind. At Luther's death, Satan came to drag him off to hell [source].

Fast forward a few hundred years and Luther's secular interpreters gravitate towards this tale in their probings into Luther's psyche. The most famous of all the psychohistorical approaches to Luther was Erik Erikson's Young Man Luther (1958). This is the favored interpreter of my Roman Catholic critic (see here, here, and here).

Erikson used a modified Freudian approach to Luther. Erikson analyzed Luther’s writings with Ego Development psychology, which evaluates important crisis’s in Luther’s life. For Erikson, Luther's fit in the choir was an identity crisis. He calls it a persistent identity crisis "the epileptoid paroxysm of egoloss." Erikson argued that Luther so identifies with the story of a boy possessed with a demon that he has to scream out to try to establish his non-identity with the boy. What's truly fascinating to me is not Erkison's interpretation but rather his admission that its historical verity doesn't really matter: 
If some of it is legend, so be it; the making of legend is as much part of the scholarly rewriting of history as it is part of the original facts used in the work of scholars. We are thus obliged to accept half-legend as half-history,provided only that a reported episode does not contradict other well-established facts; persists in having a ring of truth; and yields a meaning consistent with psychological theory" (Young Man Luther, p. 37).
What's also fascinating is that my Roman Catholic critic also grants the story is not an "undisputed fact." For this person though, "the fit in the choir is more than likely" because it is consistent with Luther's behavior in the monastery "like six hour confessions, extreme self mortification, obsession with the devil, and being found unconscious from fasting" and "some of Luther’s brother monks thought him to be either insane or demon possessed and that fact is entirely consistent with the 'fit'." This is the level to which some Roman Catholics will go: if it sounds like it could be true, then it probably is. That's certainly a far cry from "to be deep in history is to cease being Protestant."

Rupp points out "This story is in fact the only kind of evidence that Luther ever had such attacks. There is no trace of epilepsy before or after. Psychosomatic attacks show themselves in his forties, 1527-1528, but they are connected with his heart, dizziness,palpitations, and fainting fits" (Rupp, 148). Roman Catholic scholar Franz Posset states that in the monastery "Luther was not a loner or a constantly depressed introvert" (The Real Luther, p. 94).

Indeed, Luther did claim "I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work." My Roman Catholic critic thinks Luther's behavior in the monastery was abnormal for a 16th century monk. I would rather argue Luther was being a consistent Romanist.  Let's play in a Roman Catholic reality for a moment: If Luther was abnormal according to my Romanist critic, so was Pope John Paul II with his penitential practices and self-mortification (for example, the use of hair shirts).

Interestingly my critic quotes Erikson's overview of other psychological interpreters of the choir fit, but neglects to point out that each of these interpreters (Denifle, Reiter, Smith) arrived at a different conclusion about this alleged story. Erikson actually catches Reiter changing the story from Luther saying "That's me!" to "That's not me!" (Erikson, pp. 27-28). Men like Denifle, Smith, Reiter, or Erikson did use, in a sense, a similar approach in trying to understand Luther, but none of them arrive at the same conclusions, or even minimize or maximize similar conclusions. To simply lump them all together is the way of propaganda.

My critic can claim that my presentations of Luther are sanitized and present a distorted image of a historical personage. But above you'll notice my method for arriving at the conclusions I do about the choir fit story. The above would be the same sort of scrutiny I would use on any historical person.


Pastor Aaron said...

I am surprised that anyone would bring this kind of thing up in relation to you, James. It's begging their readers to come look at how you deal with the propaganda against Luther. better for them, I would think, to ignore you... Keep up the good work!

James Swan said...

Thank you!