• Email
  • Print

A Secret Conspiracy Exposed!

Il Nicodemismo: Simulazione e dissimulazione religiosa nell’ Europa del 1500

by Carlo Ginzburg
Giulio Einaudi (Torino), 223 pp., 5,000 lire

The meaning of the term “Nicodemism” is briefly explained in the subtitle of Carlo Ginzburg’s book, namely, religious simulation and dissimulation; a Nicodemite is someone who conceals his own religious convictions, while outwardly conforming to the dominant religion of his country. The origin of the term is the title of one of Calvin’s pamphlets, Excuse à Messieurs les Nicodémites (1544), a sarcastic reply to those who had protested against the harshness of an earlier pamphlet directed against converts to some kind of Protestant doctrine who, living among Roman Catholics, took part in Catholic ceremonies, in particular the Mass, in order to avoid persecution. Calvin claimed that they misused the example of Nicodemus to excuse their conduct. Nicodemus was a Pharisee who came to Christ, having recognized that He was a prophet of God, but came by night, that is, secretly (John 3:1). The modern use of the term Nicodemite was launched by the great Italian historian of religion, Delio Cantimori, in his Eretici italiani del Cinquecento (1939).

Ginzburg, a worthy pupil of Cantimori, to whose memory he dedicates this book, has produced an extremely important study of Nicodemism, which is complementary to the latter’s work on the subject. Cantimori had dealt mainly with the second half of the sixteenth century, his starting point being Calvin’s attacks on Nicodemites around 1540, and he was primarily interested in Italian heretics. Ginzburg takes the same starting point, but goes backward from it by asking, and answering, the questions: who exactly were the people Calvin was attacking, and what were the origins of their Nicodemism?

The obvious and simple answer to these questions is inadequate: that in an age of extreme intolerance and bloody persecution many people holding unorthodox religious views would be driven into hypocritical behavior. No doubt purely practical motives, unwillingness to face martyrdom or the miseries of exile, were in some cases major causes of Nicodemism, but by no means in all; and, even where they were present, they alone do not account for the fact that the Nicodemites Calvin was attacking apparently held a positive doctrine of systematic concealment and conformism, and justified themselves by appeal to Scriptural examples. It is with this doctrinal aspect of Nicodemism that Ginzburg is mainly concerned, and he does not aim at giving a historical panorama of practicing Nicodemites, though inevitably many of them appear in his pages.

There are difficulties and dangers inherent in trying to trace the history of a clandestine movement: the historian is inevitably dealing with deliberately masked, ambiguous documents. Indeed, if the movement were successfully secret, it should have left behind no documentary evidence at all, and there is a real danger of historians being tempted into inventing fictitious secret societies. But Ginzburg is acutely aware of these dangers, and, in this particular case, there are several reasons why such movements should have left some unequivocal traces.

Once the Reformers had acquired politically secure centers in Germany and Switzerland, from which they could continue their effective propaganda in Catholic countries, that is, from the late 1520s onward, they were faced with the urgent practical problem of what advice to give converts living outside these centers. Though most of the leaders of the orthodox Protestant churches, both before and after Calvin, resolutely exhorted their brethren in captivity to have no truck with papist idolatry, but rather to accept exile or martyrdom, there were some, such as Melanchthon, who gave more moderate counsel, and there were a very few, neither leaders nor very orthodox, who appeared to advise concealment and outward conformity.

Ginzburg shows that one of the earliest and most influential of these advocates of Nicodemism was Otto Brunfels, now better known as a botanist than as a theologian. But Ginzburg also argues, very convincingly I think, that Brunfels was not addressing himself to Protestants living in Catholic countries, but was putting forward a radically heretical religion, near to the more spiritualized forms of Anabaptism, an entirely inward, personal religion for which all ceremonies, all outward forms of worship, were a matter of total indifference. From such a religious position the legitimacy of outward conformism follows logically, and, with Scriptural justification, can be practiced with a quiet conscience.

Thus Nicodemism, as a doctrine, begins independently of the dilemma faced by Protestants living in Catholic lands, and it continues as a doctrine held, not by orthodox Protestants, but by various kinds of spiritualist heretics. Calvin’s attribution of it, in his earlier pamphlets, to crypto-Protestants was a mistake, but a fortunate mistake from the historian’s point of view, since it put Ginzburg on the track of the true nature of Nicodemism, which now appears as a tradition far more important historically than the mere theological justification of the timidity of crypto-Protestants.

The work of Brunfels which promulgated his Nicodemite views was his Pandectarum veteris et novi Testamenti Libri XII, first published at Strasburg in 1527. This consists of a collection of Biblical texts, arranged under headings, one of which is: “Among unbelievers and the stubborn we can dissemble and feign, especially if there is no hope: for God weighs the heart” (“Inter incredulos et pertinaces dissimulare possumus et fingere, praesertim si non sit spes: quia Deus ponderat cor“). Under this rubric are the texts which again and again will be used to justify dissembling and feigning, such as 2 Kings 5, where the Syrian Naaman, cured of leprosy and converted by Elisha, is allowed by the prophet to bow down before an idol, or St. Paul’s statement (1 Corinthians 9:22): “I am made all things to all men, that I might save all” (“omnibus omnia factus sum, ut omnes facerem salvos“). And there are several other sections justifying prudence and deception.

To the modern reader it may seem unconvincing to claim that such a book could be an important instrument of propaganda for Nicodemism. But anyone who has actually worked on sixteenth-century theological controversies will know the enormous importance of proof-texts from Scripture, the weight of meaning and authority that they acquired, and, for the historian, what a valuable Ariadne’s thread they provide through theological labyrinths—a brilliant example of this last, which Ginzburg recalls, is M. A. Screech’s work on Rabelais’s religion, in particular his L’Evangélisme de Rabelais (1959). Moreover Brunfels’s Pandectae had a very great success: by 1530 there had been five editions and two translations, and by the end of the century twenty-one printings in all. Its apparently neutral and harmless nature—just a collection of Biblical texts for the use of preachers or for private edification—helped its wide diffusion and influence.

Brunfels, a Carthusian, had left his monastery in Strasburg in 1521 and became an evangelical preacher. He began by being an admirer of Erasmus and of the great French evangelical humanist, Lefèvre d’Etaples, and he was a reader of Ficino and other Renaissance Platonists. At Strasburg, a city early gained for the Reformation and one of the main centers of refuge for Protestants of all shades of opinion, Brunfels came into contact with innumerable Anabaptists, “spiritual Libertines,” and other heretics to the left of Luther, Butzer, and Zwingli—members of that Radical Reformation whose history we can read in the masterly work of that title by G. H. Williams. Any or all of these might have suggested to Brunfels, or confirmed in him, the conception of a purely personal religion, needing no outward ceremonies or sacraments, above or beyond all creeds, private and secret. But Ginzburg suggests, on very good grounds, that it was the guilt and despair caused by the disaster of the Peasants’ War (1524) that acted as a catalyst, and that turned him away from any hopes that a reformed religion might produce a reformed society.

One of the refugees who came to Strasburg was Lefèvre d’Etaples, to whom Brunfels dedicated the first edition of his Pandectae. Lefèvre had been, just before this date, 1525, taking part in an attempt to carry out non-schismatic reform in the diocese of Meaux, whose bishop, Guillaume Briçonnet, was the spiritual director of Marguerite of Navarre, that remarkable evangelic and Platonic poetess. When the wave of persecution was over, he returned to France, and lived in silent retirement at Marguerite’s court till his death in 1536. It is difficult to read the well-attested account of the death of this repentant Nicodemite without a shudder of pity and horror. After a blameless life spent in the service of scholarship and what he believed to be true religion, this very old man said to his friend Gérard Roussel, another Nicodemite, who was trying to comfort him: “We are damned; we have hidden the truth which we ought to have openly professed and borne witness to.”

The disciples of Lefèvre, and other protégés of Marguerite, evangelical, spiritualist mystics, who did not openly break with the Roman Church, were the real targets of Calvin’s anti-Nicodemite writings. But Nicodemism was by no means confined to France. A major source of it in the Netherlands and Germany was the ultra-liberal, nearly deistic heretic, Sebastian Franck, who also had links with Strasburg and Brunfels. At the time that Franck was writing, in the 1530s and early 1540s, there were growing hopes of reuniting Christendom, hopes that were first disappointed at the Colloquy of Ratisbon (1541) and then concentrated on the General Council, which eventually opened at Trent in 1545.

Owing to these eirenic hopes the character of Nicodemite motives undergoes a shift. For Brunfels Nicodemism had been a provisional doctrine, based on his eschatological beliefs: the Second Coming was near and the small body of the elect, the members of the invisible church, need lie hidden for only a little time, until the Last Days, when there shall be “one shepherd and one fold.” For the later Nicodemites, the doctrine is still provisional, but the imminent millennium is replaced by the hope of reunion. The Nicodemites’ indifference to ceremonies and sacraments, their avoidance of precise doctrinal formulations, and their extreme tolerance would obviously make the creation of a truly catholic church much easier.

Liberal Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, agreed that some ceremonies and other exterior forms of religious life were matters of indifference (adiaphora), about which concessions could be made by both sides (e.g., communion in two species, celibacy of the priesthood). But the great stumbling block was the Mass: for the Catholics it was the central essential sacrament and mystery, for the Protestants, at least the Sacramentarian ones, it was blasphemous idolatry. The Nicodemites not only included the Mass among their adiaphora; but they extended their indifferentism further and further into doctrine, reducing to a deliberately vague minimum the “fundamental points” necessary to salvation. It is here that lies their great historical importance. They were indeed truly and sincerely striving for Christian unity; but, at the end of their efforts, would there be anything left to unite? It was, I think, these extreme liberals that Montaigne had in mind when he wrote (Essais, 3:8):

Those who have recently wished to construct for us such a contemplative and immaterial kind of religion should not be surprised if there be some who think that religion would have melted and slipped through their fingers, if it did not hold fast among us as a mark, title and instrument of division and party, rather than by itself.

I have been able to present only the barest outline of this very rich and dense book. Like all good works of scholarship, it points the way to further lines of research. Before discussing some of these, I must mention another recently published book, Eugénie Droz’s Chemins de L’hérésie (1970), since a considerable part of it deals with the early history of Nicodemism. As this is only the first volume of two, I do not now wish to discuss it in full; a work by so eminent a historian, one who, both as a scholar and a publisher, has probably done more for Renaissance studies in this century than any other single person, deserves to be reviewed as a whole. I will therefore limit myself to pointing out that, although her approach is quite different, Mademoiselle Droz’s work on Nicodemism is in some ways complementary to Ginzburg’s, going into greater detail about the origins and motives of Calvin’s anti-Nicodemite pamphlets, and that she gives the full text of an important dialogue on the subject, Wolfgang Musculus’s Proscaerus (i.e., the Temporizer) of 1549, in the early French translation by Valerand Poullain.

One of the most important lines of research suggested by Ginzburg’s book is the close connection between Nicodemism and tolerance—tolerance, not in the sense of merely putting up with a bad job, but as an active attitude leading to the establishment of some “third party” that could stand between intransigent Catholics and Protestants, and bring peace to a Europe torn in pieces by religious persecution and civil wars. Ginzburg, whose book covers only the first half of the sixteenth century, indicates briefly what a study of the second half might yield on this connection. The politiques in France, of whom Montaigne was an active member, were such a third party, which was in fact successful, by establishing Henry (“Paris vaut bien une messe“) of Navarre as king of France; and the politiques had close relations with the forces of liberation in the Netherlands and their eminently tolerant leader William the Silent, a story movingly recounted by Frances Yates in her fascinating book, The Valois Tapestries (1959). How many of these great rulers and statesmen, many of whom passed so easily from one church to the other, were Nicodemites?

Some precise answer to this question might be given by further research into the Family of Love. This Nicodemite sect, deriving ultimately from Sebastian Franck and the Anabaptist David Joris, was founded by Hendrik Niclaes (H. N. = homo novus) in the 1540s, and flourished in the Netherlands, France, and England. There has been surprisingly little work done on this sect, but enough to show that it was on the whole successfully secret, that it had many powerful members, and that it exerted a considerable influence over a wide area in religion and politics, always in the direction of tolerance and peace. Two recent studies by an excellent young Dutch historian of Anglo-Dutch cultural relations, J. A. Van Dorsten (Thomas Basson [1961] and The Radical Arts [1970]), have emphasized the importance of Familism in the Elizabethan period, both in England and in the Netherlands. Far more detailed and dramatic evidence of the historical importance of this sect appears in a book by another Dutch historian, Bernard Rekers, on the Spanish humanist and Biblical scholar, Arias Montano (Diss., Amsterdam, 1961).

It has been known for a long time, on ample evidence, that the great Flemish publisher Christopher Plantin was a Familist and that he secretly printed Familist literature. It now appears that his publishing house in Antwerp became the center of a network of scholars, authors, merchants, and statesmen who also belonged to the Family; cutting across religious and political barriers, they were able to help each other personally, and were sometimes extremely influential in practical affairs.

Arias Montano, who occupied a very high position at the court of Philip II, was sent to Antwerp in 1568 to supervise the production of Plantin’s polyglot Bible, to be published under the patronage of the Spanish king. It can be proved that almost everyone working on this Bible, intended by its patron to be a monument of Counter Reformation scholarship, was a member of the Family, and that, at the latest by 1572, Arias himself had been converted to the sect. Arias became Philip’s chief adviser on political affairs in the Netherlands, and, after his conversion, was the main cause of the withdrawal of the iron-handed Duke of Alba and his replacement by the milder governor, Requesens. When Arias returned to Spain and became librarian at the Escorial, he continued to correspond secretly with Plantin and his other Familist friends in the Netherlands, and made several converts among the monks at the Escorial. All these extraordinary facts are amply documented by correspondence and other written evidence.

Since an English translation of Rekers’s book will appear in the near future in one of a series published by the Warburg Institute, I do not want to write more about it now; I wished merely to say enough about it to make the following point. Although “conspiracy” theories are generally distrusted in the explanation of present-day affairs, and although they are certainly unfashionable among historians, we should not close our minds to the possibility of their being in fact true, nor refuse to accept them in cases where reasonably hard evidence exists, either here and now or in history. To future historians the activities of the CIA will appear quite as extraordinary as those of the Family of Love, if less edifying.

I think that the quite understandable fear of overestimating the importance of secret societies has led to undue neglect of them by modern historians; we need more work, not only on Nicodemites and Familists, but also on Rosicrucians, crypto-Socinians, Freemasons, and the Compagnie du Saint Sacrement.

I have introduced this last society, now little known though its history was competently written long ago by Raoul Allier (La Cabale des dévots, 1902, repr. 1970), in order to point out that Nicodemism is by no means confined to the unorthodox and liberal. The Compagnie du Saint Sacrement, which flourished in France from the 1630s to the 1660s, was a carefully organized secret society of pious Catholics who devoted their considerable political, ecclesiastical, and economic power partly to works of charity (St. Vincent de Paul was a member), partly to missionary activities, and partly to eliminating Huguenots and prostitutes. In all these fields they were extremely influential, while their organization, which cut right across the established hierarchies of church and state, remained successfully secret for more than thirty years.

  • Email
  • Print