Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Fireproof Martin Luther vs. The Incombustible Luther, Compare and Contrast

[Please note the addendum at the bottom of this entry]

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 LutherArguments 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 LutherSo, 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 LutherIn 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 LutherIn 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.

Scribner (p.323):

5. The Fireproof Martin LutherLuther 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.

Addendum 3/1/2015
I did write reformation 21 on 2/27/15 as follows:

Mr. Denlinger,

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.


James Swan

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:


steve said...

Plagiarism is a far more serious lapse for an academic church historian than a pastor (e.g. Driscoll). That's a serious violation of professional (as well as personal) ethics. What he did could get a student expelled.

James Swan said...

Yes, that's a good point. It's really very difficult to get away with anything now in this technological age. A few yearrs back I had a class with a Ph.d professor on The Doctrine of God and Man. He was kind enough to give the class his extensive notes. Quite by accident I was searching for some further information on something in his notes, and was surprised to discover a large chunk of his notes were from Wikipedia.

In this current example from ref 21, at least Rome's defenders can't say I just nitpick them.

Adenlinger said...

Hi James (and Steve),

I appreciate your concern to see sources cited when appropriate. I'm quite happy to acknowledge Scribner's work as the basis for the blog post I wrote. It was never my intention to pass off anything I wrote in that blog entry (or, for that matter, anything else as I write for Ref21) as original research. I'm frankly quite surprised that anyone would even think that I was attempting to do so.

Plagiarism is a failure to cite sources where there's an expectation to cite those sources. We don't expect pastors to reference the commentaries they've utilized in their sermons. As a college professor, I'm not expected to cite sources to my students for the material I'm teaching them in class. And we don't typically cite sources in blog entries (at least at Ref21).

Sources should be cited for published matter (books, articles) and papers submitted for academic credit. But you're wrong to think that sources should be cited in every context. For example: I've just completed an article on Jan Hus for a popular Christian magazine. It doesn't contain any footnotes, because none of their articles do. That doesn't mean I'm claiming to have ever done any original research on Hus. It just means a reference to sources wasn't required in that context.

All that to say, I've not committed any breach of the ethics that govern my profession. But, if it makes you feel better, I've edited the blog post to make it clear where the information I'm reporting has come from. You would do well to do some further research into what kinds of writing/speaking require a citation of sources before you throw around a word like 'plagiarism'.

Kind regards,

Aaron D.

James Swan said...

Professor Denlinger,

Thanks for stopping by. What concerned me about your reformation 21 article was explained above in my entry- that you re-wrote someone else's essay on the topic of Luther's incombustibility, without even the slightest mention of the original author who did this tedious study.

You went as far saying, "There are, by my reckoning, at least three ways of accounting for historical belief in Luther's fireproof status," and then you summarized some of the main points of Scribner. At least two of those explanations weren't your "reckoning" at all, they were Scribner's.

I'm not arguing that someone must document their every sentence in all contexts, but certainly if you re-write someone else's work and hit "publish" on your reformation 21 blog, and the reformation 21 blog at the bottom says, "Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Inc. © 2005-2015," well, my convictions wouldn't let me do that, personally. If I simply re-wrote someone else's work, I would at least mention it- if for nothing more than humility- that people should not consider me to be the authority on this subject- but rather another pupil of a greater mind than mine.

From my perspective, cyberspace is the modern wild west. As I navigate though this antinomian virtual reality of written documents, it appears you and I have different standards we abide by.


Adenlinger said...

Thanks James. I understand your point of view. And I agree that cyberspace is a kind of "modern wild west" where the rules which are fairly established for other forms of writing remain to be defined. Please forgive me if my tone in my last comment sounded at all snippety.

I'm still of the mind that blog entries don't require citations of sources, even if they more or less reflect a single source. As someone who, by profession, is involved both in scholarly research and in popularizing scholarly research--both my own and that of others--for lay audiences, I can assure you that "re-writing" (as you call it) of academic work in a popular style, without citation of sources (or THE source) happens regularly. Scholars aren't offended when they see their own research presented in some popular forum without reference to themselves--as, I'm sure, Scribner would attest were he still with us.

I do, however, see how my use of the words "by my reckoning" could seem to communicate that I had learned all of what I was writing by my own research. I'll go back and do some further edits on the blog post to make it clear that two of the three ways of interpreting early modern perception of Luther's incombustibility were reflected in Scribner's work.

I suspect in the end of the day we will, as you say, abide by different standards when it comes to determining what's acceptable for blogging. That's fine by me, and I trust it's fine by you. All the best to you in whatever your walk of life is.


James Swan said...

Professor Denlinger,

I appreciate your hearing of my concerns, and the editing on your entry as well.