Pessimas Lutheri Fraudes: A Carthusian Sequence against Luther

Less than a century after hosting the seventeenth œcumenical council, the city of Basle on the banks of the Rhine had been swallowed in the maws of heresy. By 1520 a number of printed Lutheran tracts had begun to circulate around the city, finding an eager audience in the humanist circle that had formed around the incorrigible Erasmus. Despite that Dutchman’s half-hearted efforts to arrest the spread of error, certain parish priests and religious soon began to spew false doctrine in their sermons, and an evangelical party formed around Johannes Heussgen, who haughtily styled himself Johannes Œcolampadius. 

These wayward clergymen began to eat meat ostentatiously during Lent, spurn the veneration of relics, celebrate the liturgy in German, and legitimize their carnal lusts through wedlock. Thus they deceived the commonfolk, happy for an excuse to stop paying their tithes. The city council, for its part, attempted to chart a middle path—as the bourgeois are wont to do—between the heretics and the defenders of the old faith, all the while seizing the opportunity to declare independence from the long-absentee prince-bishop and to take over Church lands. Things finally turned to violence in 1528, when hordes of iconoclasts began to destroy images in churches throughout the city. After an attack on the cathedral, the craven council gave up any effort to stop the wave of Protestantism, and proceeded to establish a “Reformed” church. 

The last church images were burned in a bonfire on Ash Wednesday 1529, and religious were obligated to abandon their vows. Most, including the cathedral canons, departed rather than forswear themselves. The Carthusians, however, were suffered to remain, so long as they did not accept novices or celebrate public masses. When their prior died in 1536 they were forbidden to elect a new one, and the last monk, Thomas Kreß, passed to his reward in 1564.

The Charterhouse of St. Margaret in Basle, as depicted in Matthäus Merian’s Vogelschauplan der Stadt Basel von Norden (1615).

During the turbulent times that led to the loss of Basle, between 1517 and 1525, that same Thomas Kreß penned a Cancionale, or collection of songs, now preserved in the Basle University library, An II 26. The prolix title explains that Kreß collected pious canticles from the usages of various churches in order to foment devotion and relieve the accedie that afflicts those saddened by worldly temptations. The sequences, hymns, antiphons, and responsories he included had no place in the austere Carthusian liturgy, the title grants, but many of the brethren might have heard them when still living in the world. Lest they grieve at their loss, and for the sake of spiritual recreation, Kreß gathered them into this book.[1] Perhaps the rampant destruction of liturgical life outside the Charterhouse was a further reason Kreß felt compelled to record these devout chants. 

One chant in this Cancionale, however, is clearly non-liturgical, and must have been of Kreß’s own invention, or one of his brethren’s. It was the last piece to be written down, hastily in a page that had been left blank, with no effort at calligraphic elegance. Nor was it provided with any musical notation, although a note explains it is to be sung to the tune of the Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes. Its subject was that which must have been sorely troubling Kreß and his community: the heretical infestation of their hometown, and specifically the heresiarch who had spawned it, Martin Luther. 

The heresiarch Luther represented as the devil’s instrument. Print by Erhard Schön, c. 1530.

The text cleverly adapts the Easter sequence to portray Luther as a veritable Antichrist. Whereas the resurrected Christ had redeemed the sheep (redemit oves), Luther scatters them (dispergit oves). Christ is the lord of life who had died but now lives and reigns (dux vitae mortuus regnat vivus), but Luther is the lord of death who deceives the living (dux mortis Martinus fallit vivos). He seeks to take away the glory of the Resurrected one, falsely interpreting the angelic witnesses (angelicos testes) who, in the original sequence, had announced the good news to Mary Magdalene. The original sequence, in a verse oddly absent from the Tridentine missal, protested its faith in Mary and its rejection of the Jews’ lies (Credendum est magis soli Mariae veraci quam Judaeorum turbae fallaci): Christ did truly rise again from the dead (Scimus Christum surrexisse a mortuis vere). Likewise, Kreß and his Carthusians firmly protest their certainty that the novelties preached by the avant-garde parsons in the town outside their monastery were lies leading to perdition (Credendum est tuam tam perversam doctrinam tibi et tuis esse ruinam), and aver their conviction that the pope is Christ’s true vicar (Scimus papam esse Christi vicarium vere). 

The Sequence Pessimas Lutheri fraudes in Kreß’s Cancionale, Universitätsbibliothek Basel, AN II 46, fol. 16v.

No other source has survived containing this pastiche, and it is unknown whether it ever trespassed the monastery walls to the agitated streets of Basle. More likely the Carthusians sang it to strengthen their own faith in such tempestuous times. Perhaps Kreß sang it until his last days, when he remained “alone with Christ, desolate else, left by mankind.”

The sequence has been recorded by Dr. Luca Ricossa, professor of Gregorian chant at the Haute école de musique in Geneva, to whom we owe our awareness of this remarkable piece: 

Pessimas Lutheri fraudes
fugiant Christiani.
Luther’s most wicked deceits 
let Christians flee.
Luther dispergit oues
quas xps congregarat.
Lutheriani omnes
Luther scattereth the sheep 
which Christ had gathered. 
Lutherans are all 
Falsos viri libellos
combussere Thomani.
Dux mortis Martinus 
fallit viuos. 
The man’s false books
Thomists did burn.
Martin, lord of death,
deceiveth the living.
Dic nobis Luthere
quid deuastas tam crebre 
ouile xpi viuentis
et gloriam tollis resurgentis?
Tell us, Luther,
wherefore doth thou lay waste time and again
the flock of the living Christ,
and take away the glory of the Resurrected one?
Angelicos testes,
Paulum, ewangelistas,
tu false interpretaris,
seducens multos ex xpi charis.
The angelic witnesses,
Paul, the evangelists,
thou falsely interpretst, 
beguiling many dear to Christ.
Credendum est tuam 
tam peruersam doctrinam
tibi et tuis
esse ruinam.
It is to be believed
that thy doctrine so perverse
shall be the ruin
of thee and thine.
Scimus papam esse xpi
Vicarium vere.
Tu nobis illum
Deus tuere. 

We know the pope to be Christ’s
vicar in sooth. 
For our sake, 
keep him, O God. 

Sequencia contra Lutherum et canitur sicut Victime pascali laudes ymolent Christiani.A sequence against Luther, and it is sung like Victimae paschali laudes immolent Christiani.

[1] Liber Cartusiensium Vallis beate Margarethe Basilee minoris scriptus manu confratris nostri Thomas Kreß, collectusque undecumque ex diuersarum ecclesiarum deuotissimis canticis (unde haud merito Cancionale appelatur) in fomentum subministrande deuocionis et tedij releuandi quod nonnumquam hijs qui in tentacione secularum tristicie (que mortem operatur) pulsantur, accidere solet. Tum quia in ordine nostro talismodi canciones id est apocriphe, licet deuote, non habeantur in usu, et forte quispiam illis dum adhuc in seculo viueret delectatus, ne prorsus intra incitamentis talibus se perpetuo cariturum doloret. Ideo eidem fratri placuit eatenus talia corradere, ut ne dum sibi, sed et plerisque fratribus ad hec inclinatis pro spirituale recreamine foret accomoda Maria.