Greatest German satirist of the sixteenth century, b. at Oberehnheim, Alsace, Dec. 24,1475; d. there, 1537
Murner, Thomas, greatest German satirist of the sixteenth century, b. at Oberehnheim, Alsace, December 24,1475; d. there, 1537. During the epoch immediately preceding and during the early years of the Reformation, three figures are especially prominent among the loyal champions of the Church in Germany, namely Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg, his friend Sebastian, the well known satirist, and Thomas Murner, the ablest and most formidable of Luther’s opponents. In 1481 Murner’s parents, pious people in comfortable circumstances, settled in Strasburg, where his father practiced as an advocate. Thomas, who was of delicate health, entered the Franciscan Order at the age of sixteen. After his ordination, he began his restless and unsettled life, visiting the most celebrated universities either as a student or as a teacher. He studied theology at Paris, philosophy and mathematics at Cracow, and law at Freiburg, where he was awarded the degree of Bachelor of Theology in 1500. Six years later, when again at Freiburg, he was made Doctor of Theology. In 1518 he graduated Doctor of Laws at Basle. His impulse towards a roving life was due, not only to his love of learning, but also to his mission as a preacher and his zeal for the interests of his order. From 1519 he took part in the controversies which began with the appearance of Luther as a reformer. In 1523 he went to England and was cordially received by Henry VIII, whose book on the sacraments he had translated into German the previous year. On his return to Strasburg, he found himself compelled to fly before the rebellious peasants and seek refuge at Lucerne. Here he became the most determined adversary of Zwingli. Together with Dr. Eck, he took part in the religious discussion at Baden in 1526. When Lucerne was taken in the first War of Kappel (1529), Murner was to have been given up. He managed, however, to escape, and, after many wanderings, was appointed pastor in his birth-place, where he spent the rest of his days.
As an author, Murner was at first an enthusiastic friend of Humanism. In Cracow he lectured on literary aesthetics, and in Freiburg on Vergil, whose “Eneid” he had translated. In token of gratitude for his appointment as poet laureate in 1505, he dedicated this translation to Emperor Maximilian. In his “Ludus studentum Friburgensium” (1511), Murner explains the rules of prosody and quantity after the fashion of a game of chess and backgammon. This method he had already employed four years before at Cracow in his “Chartiludium logic ae”, but his application of it to jurisprudence provoked the derision of the lawyers. His sympathy with Humanism did not save him from the resentment of the Alsatian Humanists, when he attacked Wimpfeling’s “Germania”, which aimed at proving that Alsace had never belonged to France. Murner’s defense of his position, the “Germania nova”, was suppressed by the Strasburg authorities: a further attempt at justifying himself against the attacks of the partisans of Wimpfeling also proved unsuccessful, and did not prevent his opponents from distorting his name into Murnar (growling fool). Even, in this early controversy, Murner had shown a sharp eye for his opponents’ weaknesses, and a marked gift for exposing them to ridicule: in his subsequent writings, he is revealed as a master of satire. Just as Geiler illustrated his popular sermons with comparisons drawn from everyday life, Murner compares, in his “Andachtige geistliche Badefahrt” (1511), the forgiveness of sins to a hydropathic treatment. In “Narrenbeschworung” and “Schelmenzunft” he deals with the same subject as Brant’s “Narrenschiff”, but his work is entirely original in treatment and far surpasses the earlier work in its popular appeal, its wit) and its vigor degenerating, indeed, at times into coarseness. His subsequent satires, “Gauchmatt” (Fools’ Meadow) and “Die Muhle von Schwindelsheim and Gretmullerin Jahrzeit”, in which he severely criticizes a special kind of fools, the “fools of love”, form a kind of sequel to the “Schelmenzunft”. There is no station, either clerical or lay, that is spared from his castigation.
The appearance of Luther diverted Murner’s satire into a new course. Regarding the Wittenberg monk at first as a well intentioned ally in the battle against the evils afflicting the Church, Murner addressed to him in 1520 an appeal entitled “Christliche and bruderliche Ermahnung an den hochgelehrten Doctor Martin Luther“, which was followed by other pamphlets refuting and warning him and beseeching him to abandon his ruinous undertaking. In his “Neues Lied vom Untergang des christlichen Glaubens” (1521), Murner gives feeling expression to his sorrow over the destructive tendencies of the religious innovation. But, when the sole effect of his attempts at conciliation was to bring upon him a shower of lies and calum-nies, Murner dealt Luther a crushing blow in his work, “Von dem grossen Lutherischen Narren wie ihn Doctor Murner beschworen hat”. Here Murner rises to heights of satire elsewhere unattained during this whole epoch. All the reformatory endeavors are embodied in the “Great Fool”, and the newly founded church is treated allegorically as Luther’s daughter Adelheid, who “has a shocking scald head.” Murner wrote many other satires against the reformers, but none which in energy and wit equals this work. This work, so full of fight and honest zeal for the old Faith, was subjected to much calumny and derision during his lifetime, but was never vanquished in controversy. Later generations did him justice. Lessing intended to write a “defense” of Murner, and literary historiographers (especially Kurtz, Vilmar, and Godeke) have recognized his great importance in the history of literature. Critics have pointed out in his works a peculiar and original metrical and rhythmical system, which distinguished him from all poets of his time. His writings show that he possessed in a conspicuous degree the culture of his age. No doubt is entertained today of the purity of his intentions and the probity of his character.