Recently a publisher contacted me asking for permission to use something I've written in a book. I also get this type of request from other websites or bloggers. This happens from time to time. It's nice that in the age of cyberspace someone would take the time to do this. I typically don't expect someone to contact me when they're citing me in order to challenge or refute something I've written (those doing this want everyone to know who it is that's going to get trounced!). There have been situations though in which someone takes something I've written and presents it as their own. There was a fairly humorous occurrence of this when a Roman Catholic website used something I wrote and took my name off of it. Now, there was lapse of judgment on their part, for sure.
But what should I do if someone takes something I've written, and re-writes it in their own words? Since my blog often involves history, I've probably done this myself at times- that is, taken something someone has written and put it in my own words. When I do this, I always try to give credit to the source I've taken the material from. According to this website, if I present something here as "new and original" that I've actually taken from an existing source, I've plagiarized. I've probably been guilty of neglecting to cite a source for something I've written. Sometimes when you've got five books open and you're compiling an entry, something will slip through the cracks. Sometimes it's just basic information that's too tedious to document. Sometimes the material is based on my notes from a class I've taken.
But if I were to take a large chunk of information and compile it into a blog entry of my own, in my own words, is this plagiarism?
R.W. Scribner: The Incombustible Luther
Some years back I came across a study by R.W. Scribner entitled "Incombustible Luther: the Image of the Reformer in Early Modern Germany." Scribner's study documented how some turned Luther into a saint after his death. Stories circulated that paintings of Luther refused to burn (Luther's special saint miracle was his incombustibility). The picture on the top left is one that would not burn. Scribner presented his research in his book, Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Reformation Germany (London: The Hambledon Press, 1987). In two key chapters Scribner documents those turning Luther into a saint and Luther's special gift of not being able to burn- his saintly power of incombustiblity. Scribner's work on this has appeared in a number of journals as well.
reformation 21: The Fireproof Martin Luther
This past week I came across an article on reformation 21 entitled, The Fireproof Martin Luther compiled by a professor of church history. There is certainly a similarity between Scribner's title, "The Incombustible Luther" and reformation 21's "The Fireproof Martin Luther." As I read through the reformation 21 article, the blog entry appeared to me to be nothing more than a well-written summary of Scribner's work, undocumented, with not a mention of Scribner anywhere. While there wasn't a word for word similarity between Ref 21's blog entry and Scribner, there was certainly a borrowing of ideas and conclusions without any credit given to the person who originally did the tedious work on this subject: R.W. Scribner.
Compare and Contrast: reformation 21 and R.W. Scribner
Below is a comparison of the information found in The Fireproof Martin Luther and Scribner's book. I think there are a few original paragraphs in The Fireproof Martin Luther (paragraphs 1,3, and the conclusion about fireproof objects), but none of them contain any original factual information not originally found in Scribner's book.
1. The Fireproof Martin Luther: Arguments for Luther's innate fireproof status were summarized in an early eighteenth-century Latin work titled Lutherus non combustus by Justus Schoeppfer, pastor of St. Anna's Kirche in Eisleben, Germany. Schoeppfer's work was taken seriously enough, even in the midst of the European Enlightenment, to merit a second, German edition of the work - Unverbrannter Luther - some years later.
Scribner: In a footnote on 324 and on page 330 Scribner documents the same information. Scribner though says he actually was supplied with a copy of Lutherus non combustus. The only factual difference is that ref 21 spells "Schoeppfer" with on "f" while Scribner uses 2 (Schoeppffer).
2. The Fireproof Martin Luther: So, for instance, a 1521 pamphlet describing Luther's trial at Worms notes that, while Luther was permitted to leave Worms unharmed, the Diet decided to burn his books and a picture of his person to reinforce charges of heresy against him. The books apparently burned just fine, but the picture of Luther refused to succumb to the flames, at least until it was removed, enclosed in a box made of pitch, and reinserted into the fire.
Scribner (p. 324):
3. The Fireproof Martin Luther: In 1522, on the occasion of a burning of Luther's books in Thorn, Prussia, another picture of Luther similarly defied its natural fate.
Scribner (p.326): "By 1522 literary fiction had become historical 'fact': it was said when Luther's books were burned in Thorn in Prussia during that year, a portrait of Luther placed with them refused to burn."
4. The Fireproof Martin Luther: In 1634, nearly a century after Luther's death, an image of Luther inexplicably survived the destruction by fire of a Lutheran pastor's study in Artern, Germany. And in 1689 when fire broke out in Luther's birth-house in Eisleben, the only surviving picture from the areas affected by flame was one of the reformer.
5. The Fireproof Martin Luther: Luther seems to have imparted his gift of incombustibility to places he previously occupied in addition to portraits of himself. When fires destroyed the Augustinian monastery in Magdeburg in 1631, the cell and bunk an adolescent Luther had occupied during a one-year stint as a student there were remarkably preserved.
Scribner (p. 328-329): "A description published in 1702 of the numerous attractions of Magdeburg mentioned the Augustinian monastery where Luther had spent some time. It claimed that one could still see Luther's cell and bunk, and that both had 'in wondrous fashion' survived the burning down of the town in 1631."
6. The Fireproof Martin Luther: Even more remarkably, the house in which Luther was born -- although it finally succumbed, as noted, to flames in 1689 -- was preserved from fires which ravaged the surrounding houses and town of Eisleben in 1569, 1601, and 1671.
Scribner has the 1689 date on page 323. The other dates are on page 329, along with descriptions of the other surrounding houses.
7. The Fireproof Martin Luther: Even more extraordinary than such miraculous preservation of pictures and places associated with Luther was that of one particular person associated with him. In 1527 a disciple of Luther named Leonhard Keyser was sentenced to death for heresy in Schärding in Bavaria. According to a published pamphlet which detailed his execution, the ropes binding Keyser to the stake burned when his pyre was lit but the man himself remained unharmed. Displeased with this turn of events, Keyser's executioners pulled him from the flames and dismembered him, and then returned him in pieces to the fire. Even then, his body wouldn't burn. Authorities were ultimately forced to wait for the flames to subside so they could take Keyser's unsinged body parts and throw them into the local river.
Scribner (page 327-328):
threw them in the river Inn. The pamphlet concluded that "the
holy Leonhard Keyser's old man or flesh was hacked to pieces,
burned and drowned, but his spirit lived on.
8. The Fireproof Martin Luther: Needless to say, Rome was keen to discredit stories about the incombustibility of Luther's person, pictures, or disciples as soon as such began circulating in early modern Europe. Thus she pointed out that Luther had been successfully burned in effigy in the ecclesiastical capital city itself in 1519. To put the matter to rest (among other points made), Luther-puppets were tried, condemned to death for heresy, and successfully burned in Altenburg, Vienna, and Munich in 1522, 1567, and 1597 respectively.
Scribner (page 326) says "Luther had been burned in effigy in Rome in 1519..." (page 327):
9. The Fireproof Martin Luther: There are, by my reckoning, at least three ways of accounting for historical belief in Luther's fireproof status. One could categorize such belief as a continuation of medieval superstition which credited other religious items -- most notably, the consecrated bread of the Mass -- as insusceptible to fire. So strong, in fact, was the conviction that the Eucharistic host could not burn that persons were known to cast the consecrated bread (Christ's body, in medieval understanding) into buildings where fires had broken out in order to quell the flames and preserve said buildings, thus treating the sacred element as the medieval equivalent of a fire extinguisher.
Scribner (page 328):
Such reports show unmistakable traces of the Catholic cult of the saints. Not only were the saints held to be incombustible, but so were their relics. Incombustiblity was also a quality of the Communion host and, by sympathy, of the corporal, the cloth on which it rested during the Mass. both host and corporal were effective in stilling fires, being thrust into the heart of the flames to do so. Images of the Virgin and the saints, along with crucifixes, were also impervious to fire and flame. some of these cultic associations almost certainly passed on to Luther at the very beginning of the Reformation.
10. The Fireproof Martin Luther: One could, alternatively, ascribe belief in Luther's incombustibility to Jan Hus's legendary prophecy on the occasion of his own burning at the Council of Constance (1415) that, whatever the institutional church's success in cooking his goose, a swan would arise whom they would prove unable to burn. The problem here, however, is that Hus never actually made such a prophecy. Hus did express, shortly before his martyrdom, his expectation that stronger "birds" than he (Hus meaning "goose" in Czech) would arise to carry on his reforming work. Luther himself, in 1531, transformed Hus's comment into a prophecy which found its fulfillment in him. But it wasn't until several years after Luther's death that Hus's "prophecy" assumed the form it possesses in church historical folklore today (complete with the description of a potentially incombustible swan). Indeed, the evolution of the legend concerning Hus's prophecy would seem to be the result, rather than the cause, of convictions about Luther's incombustibility, which (as noted) were taking shape as early as 1521.
Scribner (page 326-327):
By 1531 many of these disparate notions about incombustibility had solidifed into the more powerful form of a prophecy. Two separate staternents by Hus and Jerome of Prague were conflated, either by Luther himself or by someone in his circle with Bohemian connections. From his prison cell Hus had said that he might be a weak goose (in Czech Hus means goose), but more powerful and clear-sighted birds, eagles and falcons, would come after him. Quite independently of this, Jerome of Prague stated that he would wish to see what would be made of his own condemnation in a hundred years. Luther merged both statements into a single prophetic saying from Hus: that they may roast a goose in 1415, but in a hundred years a swan would sing to whom they would be forced to listen. Luther seems to have applied the image of the swan to himself to signify the clear, sweet song of the evangelical message. But in 1546 this "prophecy" was given a further twist by Johann Bugenhagen in his funeral sermon for Luther. The Hus saying was now cast in this form" "You may burn a goose, but in a hundred years will come a swan you will not be able to burn". By 1556 it was taken up by Johann Mathesius, in what became the first Luther biography, as one of three authentic prophecies attesting to the divine inspiration of Luther's mission.
I've written many blog entries over the years and I don't recall ever having an original thought in regard to anything Reformation-related. The majority of what I've compiled is often the result of someone's else's tedious labor, and all I'm doing is reapplying it. I don't think I've ever uncovered an original historical detail, about... anything. The closest I think I've come is this past week I found something in one of Luther's writings that required a footnote to another source (Luther was quoting a secondary source), and I located that secondary source, while Luther's Works (English edition) had not.
What bothered me about the reformation 21 article is that it presented something seemingly new and original but in actuality may have been derived from an existing source. I can see a detail here or there that's unattributed, but what ref 21 may have done was simply rewrite what someone else had written. Now it could very well be ref 21 did do the same research and arrived at the same conclusions as R.W. Scribner. Or, it could be that ref 21 asked for and received permission from R.W. Scribner to re-present his material. These are certainly within the realm of possibility.
I did write reformation 21 on 2/27/15 as follows:
I just took a look at your article "The Fireproof Luther." While well-written, I think it would be appropriate to cite your source for a lot, (if not most) of the information, which I assume was R.W. Scribner, Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Reformation Germany (London: The Hambledon Press, 1987). That books has the chapter, "Incombustible Luther: the Image of the Reformer in Early Modern Germany." If I recall correctly, this was also an article in a few journals.
I know this sounds like nitpicking, but someone could easily say you basically rewrote this chapter as your own for the reformation 21 article. I think summarizing the material is fine, but you should at least give credit where it's due. If by some chance you arrived at all the historical facts you did without utilizing Scribner, please accept my apology, and by all means, track down Scribner's study on this.
I did not hear back from them. Interestingly, this change has occurred in The Fireproof Luther since the posting of my blog entry:
The copy of the reformation 21 article I reviewed originally said,
Now it says: