Scandal and Punishment: The Holy Roman Empire

by Allyson F. Creasman, Sewanee, University of the South

The religious conflicts of the sixteenth century confronted communities throughout Europe with the challenge of accommodating religious difference and dissent. In the Holy Roman Empire, years of religious war were brought to an end with the Religious Peace of Augsburg of 1555, which extended legal recognition within the Empire to both the Catholic and Lutheran faiths. In a principle jurists later summed up as cujus regio, ejus religio -- "whose the rule, his the religion" -- the Religious Peace authorized the princes of the Empire to determine which of the two recognized faiths was to be practiced in their territories. Those imperial cities with religiously-mixed populations, however, were obligated under the Religious Peace to guarantee the rights of both Catholic and Lutheran citizens to live and worship within their jurisdictions. The most prominent of these so-called "parity cities" was the south German city of Augsburg, which housed a sizable Catholic minority alongside a majority Lutheran population.

Although the Augsburg City Council maintained an official policy of accommodation between the two officially-sanctioned confessions after 1555, religious tensions remained a recurrent problem. In Augsburg, where political participation was organized around religious affiliation, religion emerged as a defining element of individual identity. As confessional tensions heightened throughout the Empire in the later 16th century, religious polemic -- and the disorder that sometimes accompanied it -- severely tested the City Council's ideal of peaceful co-existence between the permitted faiths.

To keep the peace between the religious factions, Augsburg's City Council used the citys censorship policies to suppress religious invective and promote an ethos of civic responsibility and cooperation between the confessions. In this, Augsburg authorities were drawing on long-standing concepts of good government and social order, in which governmental regulation of expression was seen as essential to the promotion of communal harmony and the welfare of all citizens. To keep the peace, Augsburg's City Council outlawed religious invective, expressly invoking the Peace of Augsburg as an overarching, religiously-neutral source of legitimacy for its policies. Relying on the Religious Peace, city officials prosecuted individuals dealing in anti-Catholic or anti-Protestant polemical writings or making religiously-motivated insults or threats against members of the other faith. Judges were instructed to refer all such cases to the City Council for adjudication, as the expression of such views was considered likely to disrupt the fragile peace between the confessions and explode the city into violence. The City Council also employed the Peace of Augsburg in its efforts to reeducate the citizenry in a communal ethic of interdependence and mutual respect. In its public pronouncements, the Council emphasized that Catholics and Protestants at all levels of society owed a duty to one another under the Religious Peace to coexist peacefully and maintain the social order. Augsburg magistrates stressed these themes in criminal interrogations and sentencing, using the criminal process to indoctrinate offenders in their proper duties under the Religious Peace. Augsburg's City Council thus employed censorial controls both as an enforcement mechanism to suppress religious polemic and a didactic tool to foster cooperation and religious co-existence among the populace.

The Council's efforts to suppress division and promote consensus under the Religious Peace of Augsburg were both an expression of the long-held public ideal of civic harmony and an effort to create and promote new concepts of community. The city had accommodated religious difference to the extent it could be incorporated within certain commonly-held notions of goodwill and civic cooperation. Tolerance of religious pluralism, however, was grounded essentially on pragmatic considerations; legal or moral recognition of individual rights in matters of conscience remained limited throughout the period. Despite these limitations, the city's efforts to accommodate religious difference provides an important example of the strategies by which religiously-mixed communities negotiated some form of practical religious toleration in the confessional age.

Suggested Readings

  • Augsburger Reichsabschied. 1555. Der Augsburger Religionsfriede vom 25. September, 1555. Kritische Ausgabe des Textes mit den Entwürfen und der kniglichen Deklaration. Ed. Karl Brandi. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1927.
  • François, Etienne. Die unsichtbare Grenze: Protestanten und Katholiken in Augsburg 1648-1806. Sigmaringen: Jan Thorbecke Verlag, 1991.
  • Warmbrunn, Paul. Zwei Konfessionen in einer Stadt: das Zusammenleben von Katholiken und Protestanten in den paritätischen Reichsstädten Augsburg, Biberach, Ravensburg und Dinklesbühl von 1548 bis 1648. Weisbaden: F. Steiner, 1983.