The 1415 “Western Schism” in Konstanz (Travels in revolutionary Mitteleuropa, from the Rhine to the Danube/3)

In the German border town of Konstanz I listen for “The voice … of the noblest of rivers,/Of free-born Rhine.”

The Alpine Rhine begins in the Swiss Alps, flows into Lake Constance, which lies between Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, passes under a bridge connecting the modern and the old parts of the city, and continues westward to become High Rhine.  Sitting at the lakeside terrace of the Steinberger Inselhotel in Konstanz, I contemplate the river-god merged with the lake in serene beauty, and recall the ode “The Rheine” (1801-2), which Hölderlin dedicated to his great friend Isaak von Sinclair.  Its 6th stanza captures my terrace view when it intones that “it is good to see/How then, after leaving the mountains,/Content with German lands he calmly/Moves on and stills his longing/In useful industry, when he tills the land,/Now Father Rhine, and supports dear children/In cities which he has founded” (tr. Michael Hamburger, p. 413).

But this place has not been always serene.  Before becoming a modern hotel, this building complex on the small Dominican island had been a monastery since the 13th century.  Many of the Catholic religious leaders attending the Council of Constance (1414-18) stayed here, contemplating the enchanting lake, as I do, and worrying about the survival of their fractured Holy Roman Church.  They were among the hundreds of cardinals, archbishops, bishops and others who came to participate in the ecumenical council, held in this town, that ended the “Western Schism,” which had started in 1378 and had led to three claimants to the papacy.  It was the same Council, representing all Catholic nations, that in 1415 condemned as a heretic Jan Hus, the Czech religious thinker, reformer, and philosopher, and had him sentenced by a town court and burned at the stake.  [Addendum:  I am grateful to Professor Ian Fielding, my wonderful colleague in Classical Studies at Michigan, who reminded me that the Council of Constance is the setting of the rediscovery of many manuscripts of important ancient texts, especially in 1417 of Lucretius’ De rerum natura, in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve:  How the World Became Modern, 2011, esp. pp. 162-81), the start of the revolution indicated in the book’s subtitle.]

Today it is easy to forget that, over the centuries, this medieval town has been fraught with several kinds of dissent, rebellion, and civil war.  The terminology for these eruptions varied.  “Quite different expressions were usual for the bloody struggles themselves, and for the blind passion with which conflicts during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were conducted.  As in the Middle Ages, so in the century of the terrible confessional confrontations, which successively and simultaneously laid waste to France, the Netherlands, Germany, and England:  a range of definitions was employed.  These definitions ranged from uprising and revolt to riot, insurrection, and rebellion, and on to Zweiung, internal and civil war.  Civil war, guerre civile, Bürgerkrieg – these were the central concepts by which the suffering and experience of fanatical confessional struggles were precipitated, by means of which, moreover, they were legally formulated” (Reinhardt Kosseleck:  “Historical Criteria of the Modern Concept of Revolution,” Futures Past, 1985, p. 43).

November 15, 2018

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