On 3 November 1568, over fifty men gathered in the north German city of Wesel to debate a list of articles for organizing the Reformed church in the Low Countries. Known as the Synod or Convent of Wesel, this meeting set the framework for the subsequent development of the Reformed church in the German and Dutch territories. At least, so goes the story that generations of historians have told, one that Jesse Spohnholz exposes as a myth that developed over several centuries. In this fascinating and thought-provoking book, Spohnholz traces how the myth of the Convent of Wesel emerged, what factors gave it staying power, and how its persistence highlights methodological challenges that confront all historians. Spohnholz structures his book in two sections that reflect the work’s ambitious hybrid nature. The first part offers a microhistory of the 1568 Wesel articles, while the second part provides a macrohistory of the articles’ reception from 1618 to the present. In the first four body chapters, Spohnholz argues that no physical meeting like the mythical Convent of Wesel ever occurred, although he does maintain that conditions in Wesel in November 1568 explain why the articles were drafted in the first place. Wesel housed many exiles who had fled across the Dutch border, and the area served as a muster place for William of Orange’s soldiers in preparation for his invasion of the Netherlands in fall 1568. These factors created the immediate regional context for the articles’ creation. Spohnholz contends that the brief era of optimism that accompanied William’s invasion provided a window in which planning for the immediate future of the Dutch Reformed church seemed not only logical but necessary. It makes sense, therefore, that the articles were drafted during this timeframe. Spohnholz then offers detailed analysis of the 122 articles, which were written in Latin. To Spohnholz, the fact that the articles hewed close to the Genevan model suggests an author hoping to fashion a pure prototype for the Netherlandish church that could head off calls for compromise with Lutheran thought. From this and other circumstantial evidence, Spohnholz makes the plausible, albeit speculative claim that the exiled minister Petrus Dathenus authored the Wesel articles. Dathenus travelled widely and had good knowledge of Reformed practice in France, the Palatinate, and Geneva. His personal theological concerns also aligned well with the articles. Ultimately, he appears to have envisioned a church model that, if an arrangement like the Peace of Augsburg were introduced in the Netherlands, could act as a Reformed alternative to the Lutheran Augsburg Confession for inclusion in the Peace. Having identified the author, Spohnholz turns to the articles’ 63 signatories. Based on his analysis of their whereabouts in November 1568, Spohnholz concludes that not only did no grand Convent of Wesel occur, but not all the signatures were even collected in Wesel. Instead, the articles moved across the Reformed refugee world, gaining their first signatures in Wesel but accruing more in Emden and then London over several months. Spohnholz performs some impressive prosopographical work tracking down the various signatories, although the lack of records for some individuals hampers his ability to make definitive statements about their location and interest in signing the document. Nevertheless, the evidence he does have shows the importance of personal ties for those who signed, and that Dathenus was more interested in amassing a large number of signatures than on wooing prominent Reformed leaders. Events, however, overtook the articles fairly quickly, and by the early 1570s, they had been set aside to languish in an archive in London. As such, Spohnholz advances the forceful claim that their role in the actual construction of the Dutch church was non-existent. These conclusions raise an important question: If the Convent of Wesel did not happen, and the articles of Wesel had no real identifiable influence, why have later generations imbued the supposed meeting with such significance? The second half of Spohnholz’s book focuses on this conundrum by charting how archivists and historians worked together to elevate the articles to the status of a verifiable starting point for the Dutch Reformed church. The notion that a Convent of Wesel had occurred did not appear until 1618 in the midst of the Remonstrants-Counter-Remonstrants struggle that roiled the United Provinces. It owed its origins to one man, Simeon Ruytinck, a minister at a Dutch church in London, who discovered the articles in his church archive. Rutyinck took them as evidence of an early synod that stretched the Counter-Remonstrant cause back to the 1560s, and he embedded the articles in a history that emphasized the deep roots of orthodox Counter-Remonstrant thought. As subsequent authors depended on Ruytinck’s research and repeated his mistakes, the Convent of Wesel grew in significance. The copying of the articles and their placement in archives across Northern Europe gave added legitimacy to the Convent’s reality, as the sparse evidence supporting the meeting became linked in the logic of archival storage to verifiable church synods. This pattern continued during the Enlightenment, when the archival embeddedness of the Convent allowed it to withstand the heightened standards of eighteenth-century writing. These dynamics ironically produced ‘a stability of knowledge’ (148) about the Convent that allowed it to survive, largely unquestioned, as the origin point for the Reformed church in Northwestern Europe. In the nineteenth century, uses of the Convent for nationalistic or romantic purposes culminated in a large festival held in 1868 to celebrate the meeting’s 300th anniversary. Such commemoration enshrined the Convent’s importance with a wide audience. In the twentieth century, by contrast, professional academic historians destabilized the certainty that a major meeting had happened, even as they perpetuated the importance of the articles as a milestone in the Dutch Reformation. Accordingly, despite the lack of evidence for an actual meeting, and the obscurity into which the articles quickly fell, historians continued to emphasize the articles’ importance and believed that some kind of Convent of Wesel had in fact occurred, if only on a small scale. Spohnholz has done excellent detective work in this book, although the nature of his sources from the 1560s leaves many of the conclusions in the first part rather speculative. The arguments in the second part are on firmer ground, and Spohnholz does an excellent job of tracing the evolution of the Wesel myth. One area where he is thoroughly persuasive is his contention that no meeting happened that could be called the Convent of Wesel. Most importantly, Spohnholz’s book offers a clear methodological challenge to all historians to consider the origins and provenance of their sources with greater clarity, accounting both for the biases of those who created the sources and the biases of those who categorized and archived them. These methodological implications, which stem from the yeoman’s work that Spohnholz has done in tracking the archival history and representations of the Wesel articles, make this book a must read not only for Reformation historians, but for all scholars of early modern Europe. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 7, 2018
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