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Centuriators of Magdeburg

Group of Lutheran scholars

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Centuriators of Magdeburg.—In 1559 there appeared at Basle the first three folio volumes of a work entitled “Ecclesiastics Historia secundum singulas centurias per aliquot studiosos et pios viros in Urbe Magdeburgica” (i.e. A History of the Church…according to centuries,…done at Magdeburg by some learned and pious men). It was the work of a group of Lutheran scholars who had gathered at Magdeburg, and who are now known to history as the “Centuriators of Magdeburg” because of the way in which they divided their work (century by century) and the place in which the first five volumes were written; most of the others were written at Wismar or elsewhere, but the sub-title “in Urbe Magdeburgica.” was retained. The originator of the idea and the moving spirit of the organization which produced the work was Matthias Vlacich (latinized Flacius), also known as Francovich, and, from the country of his birth (Istria), Illyricus. Born in 1520, the influence of his uncle Baldo Lupertino, an apostate friar, prevented him from becoming a monk and directed his steps in 1539 to Germany, where, at Augsburg, Basle, Tubingen, and Wittenberg, he developed a fanatical anti-Roman temper. The Augsburg Interim of 1547 led to the Adiaphoristic controversy, in the course of which he poured forth a flood of calumnious abuse upon the Reformer Philip Melanchthon; the bitter feeling generated gave rise to the hostile parties of Philippists and Flacians. All attempts to restore peace failed, and the University of Jena, where Flacius was appointed professor of theology in 1557, became a center of rigid Lutheranism in strong opposition to Melanchthon. His wanderings after 1562, and the numerous domestic controversies between the Reformers, in which Flacius took part until his death (March 11, 1575), did not prevent him from becoming the most learned Lutheran theologian of his day, while, in addition to numerous minor controversial works, his untiring energy led him to devise the vast historical work known as “The Centuries”.

After Luther’s death (1546) anti-Catholic controversy tended to lose its dogmatic character and to become historical. Flacius sought historical weapons wherewith to destroy Catholicism, and in that spirit wrote his once famous and influential catalogue of anti-papal witnesses, “Catalogue testium veritatis qui ante nostram tetatem Pontifici Romano eiusque erroribus reclamarunt” (Basle, 1556; enlarged ed., Strasburg, 1562; ed. by Dietericus, Frankfort, 1672). Some four hundred anti-papal witnesses to truth were cited, St. Gregory the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas being included in the number of those who had stood up for truth against “the Papal Antichrist“. As early as 1553 Flacius was seeking patrons whose financial support should enable him to carry out his comprehensive plan of a church history which was “to reveal the beginnings, the development and the ruthless designs of the Antichrist“. The German princes, and the burghers particularly of Augsburg and Nuremberg, helped him generously, but no support was forthcoming from the followers of Melanchthon. He travelled through Germany in search of material, while his zealous fellow-worker, Marcus Wagner (from Weimar near Gotha), searched the libraries of Austria, Bavaria, Scotland, and Denmark for the same purpose. Into the vexed question of 68 dishonorable means alleged to have been used by Flacius in acquiring MSS., and his use of the knife to mutilate them, thus giving rise to the proverbial Manus Flaciana and cutter Flacianus, we cannot enter here. An examination of the remains of his library, now at Wolfenbtittel, does not tend to lessen the force of the accusation. Recent research emphasizes the importance of the assistance given by the crypto-Protestant, Caspar von Nydbruck, imperial councillor, and head of the Imperial Library of Vienna, whose influence was exerted throughout Europe on behalf of the work. The editorial board, Gubernatores et Inspectores institutae historiae Ecclesiasticae, was composed of Flacius, John Wigand (b. 1523, d. 1587), superintendent at Magdeburg, Matthew Judex (b. 1528, d. 1564), preacher at Magdeburg, Basil Faber (b. 1525, d. 1576), humanist, who collaborated in the first four “Centuries”, Martin Copus, a physician who acted as treasurer, and Ebelinck Alman, a burgher of Magdeburg, each of whom had his own assistants. Seven junior assistants were appointed to compile extracts from early Christian writers and historians in accordance with a fixed plan, two more mature scholars acted as “Architects”, grouped the material, and submitted it to the editors. When approved of, the materials were worked up into chapters and again submitted before the final form was fair-copied.

Even when at Jena, and during his subsequent wanderings, Flacius retained the direction of the work. Each century was systematically treated under sixteen headings bearing uniform titles in the various volumes. An analysis of the “Quarta Centuria”, which appeared in 1560, will give an idea of the contents: Title page; dedication to Queen Elizabeth (col. 3-12); (i) brief statement of the chief events of the century (col. 13); (ii) spread of the Church: where and how (13-35); (iii) persecution and peace of the Church under Diocletian and Maximian (35-159); [iv] the Church‘s teaching and its history (160-312); [v] heresies (312-406); (vi) rites and ceremonies (406 483); (vii) Church discipline and government (483-582); (viii) schisms and controversies (583-609); (ix) councils (609-880); (x) leading bishops and doctors (880-1337); (xi) leading heretics (1338-1403); (xii) the martyrs (1403-1432); (xiii) miracles and miraculous occurrences (1433-1456); (xiv) political relations of the Jews (1456-1462); (xv) other non-Christian religions (1462-1560); (xvi) political changes (1560-1574); Scriptural index (8 cols.); general index (92 pages of four columns). This method was applied only to the first thirteen centuries, which were published separately in folio volumes at Basle; I-III in 1559; IV in 1560; V and VI in 1562; VII and VIII in 1564; IX in 1566; X and XI in 1567;XII in 1569; and XIII in 1574. The three remaining centuries were completed in manuscript by Wigand (who was largely responsible for all the work done between 1564-74), but never published, and the various attempts made in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to continue the work came to naught. In 1624 a complete edition of the “Centuries” in six folio volumes was issued at Basle by Louis Lucius, who omitted the authors’ names and the dedications, and introduced various modifications of the text in a Calvinistic sense. A third edition appeared at Nuremburg 1757-1765, but did not get beyond the fifth “century”.

The underlying idea of the work, and that which determined the choice and use of materials, was to show that while “at the beginning of the Church it was not popish anti-Christian doctrine, but evangelical doctrine and religion, which had prevailed”, from the death of the last of the Apostles down to the restoration of the true religion by Martin Luther, the Church had gone astray, misled by the Roman Antichrist. Consequently as early as the second century errors are discovered in the teachings of Clement, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus on the fundamental doctrines of free will and justification. On the other hand Catholic controversialists were not slow to make use of the numerous and important admissions of the early appearance of characteristic Catholic teaching. The plan of the book was a noble one, and, as the work of the first among modern writers on ecclesiastical history who profess to treat the subject critically, it marks an epoch in church history; its method, with its return to original sources, is quite sound, and the skill with which the vast masses of material were marshalled is worthy of all praise, hampered though it is by the chronological division of the work. Yet noble as was the plan, the same cannot be said of its execution; virulent anti-papal abuse is common to the whole work. The exercise of the critical faculty is limited by the demands of anti-Roman controversy, and no attempt is made to take a calm and impartial survey of the Church‘s history. Its constant polemical tone, its grouping of facts colored by party spirit, its unjust treatment of the Church, its uncritical accumulation of anti-papal story and legend, made the “Centuries” for a long time the arsenal of Protestant controversialists. From its pages they learnt to look upon St. Boniface as “the apostle of lies”, who “shamelessly imposed the yoke of Antichrist upon the necks of the Germans”; and upon Pope Gregory VII as a man to whom every imaginable crime was ascribed, and whose iniquities were the despair even of the vituperative vocabulary of Flacius. “The marks of Antichrist” were to be found in Pope Alexander III, who is said to have “worshipped strange gods, strengthened and confirmed the teaching of the devil, and thought highly of Baalism”. Through the ages no crime is too monstrous, no story too incredible, provided it furnish a means of blackening the memory of the occupants of Peter’s Chair. It was this work, stigmatized by Canisius as opus pestilentissimum, that led Cesare Baronius (q.v.) to write his “Annales Ecclesiastici”, in twelve folio volumes (Rome, 1588-1607), covering the period from the birth of Christ to the year 1198. Such was its success that it completely superseded the work of the Centuriators, the principal value of which now is its use as a key to the historical arguments of Protestant controversial writers in the late sixteenth and the seventeenth century.



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