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Free Books » Humphreys, Henry Noel » Satirical Medals of the Time of the Reformation

Satirical Medals of the Time of the Reformation Satirical Medals of the Time of the Reformation by Humphreys, Henry Noel


SATIRICAL MEDALS OF THE TIME OF THE REFORMATION. Once-a-Week. June 14, 1862. Pp. 691-694.


The importance attached to a medallic caricature at the close of the sixteenth and throughout the seventeenth centuries appears to have been much greater than can be conceived at the present time, without a few words of explanation-at all events, to those who have not studied the subject. It will be readily conceded that ridicule has always been a most potent weapon, and then naturally follows the question, In what form? Spoken ridicule can only tell upon the special audience addressed. In our day the telling speech, with all its humorous or sarcastic passages, is widely disseminated by penny newspapers, and illustrated in other publications by cheaply printed caricatures from woodcuts or other kinds of engravings. But at a time when the powers of the printing-press were still in their infancy, and printed books, and even rude printed pictures, were nearly as expensive as manuscripts, or drawings done by hand, they could be of little use in popularizing, by a wide-spread distribution, any kind of ridicule, especially that in the form of caricature, which required the illustration of form to give to it its chiefest pungency.

At that period, however, modern die-sinkers had already begun to achieve a success in their art which very nearly rivaled the most beautiful models of classical antiquity; and while book-printing was in a rude infancy, and the reproduction of pictorial subjects by engraving almost unknown, medals were engraved, especially in Italy, exhibiting an extraordinary degree of excellence. It may easily be conceived, then, that a satirical medal would, at such a time, form the most convenient form in which political enemies could cast any special forms of ridicule upon their opponents in Church or State. A medal of this kind could be conveniently carried in the pocket without injury, and be produced upon suitable occasions. The design was generally sufficiently obvious to exhibit its import in a striking manner, even without the assistance of the legend or inscription, which, however, when interpreted by a competent person, seldom failed to give additional point to the satire.

At the time of the great controversy arising out of the innovative principles of Luther on the one hand, and the conservative determination of the papacy on the other, printing had, however, made vast progress, and books, woodcuts, and impressions from engraved steel plates, had already become, comparatively speaking, both cheap and common, and these new engines of power were freely used in the controversial warfare then raging: yet the convenient form of the satirical medal was still appreciated. It is, indeed, from the satirical medals struck at that period that many curious and important facts connected with the great promoters of the Reformation have been gleaned, which might otherwise have perished, leaving gaps in the history of that epoch which could not have been satisfactorily filled up from any other source. A medallic history of Luther has, in fact, been published in the form of a series of engravings from the satirical medals of the time, which is much more graphically entertaining than the best of the written lives of the great reformer. The meaning of some of these curious historical monuments, though clear enough at the time, when every little event of the great drama of the Reformation, was fresh and vivid, have, however, become by lapse of time somewhat obscure. Several expert and learned medalists have, however, recently endeavored to recover and explain the meaning of some of the more striking devices used, and it is to some of these that I am about to refer in this brief essay.

Among the interpreters of the medallic devices alluding to the different phases of the Reformation none have distinguished themselves more than M. Montellier, whose essay upon historic medals is full of interesting and curious research. At a time, says the French numismatist, when society, so long under the tutelage of the Church, had at last attained its majority, its new-born spirit felt itself trammeled by the vast assumed powers of the Pope, and when Luther put forth his plea for the right of free examination, and declared for a translation of the Bible into the native tongue, he was supported by large bodies of men who had taken but little interest in the technical quarrel about the sale of indulgences. It was not till then that the true conflict began.

The first medal illustrative of that epoch which I shall produce as an example (No. 1.) was one struck by the Catholic party. The Emperor Charles V., after ,at first siding with the Reformers, had become a decided papist; and even Melanchthon, having been induced to declare himself favorable to the authority of the Pope and that of the Cardinals and bishops, for which he incurred the hatred of the more advanced Protestants, a medal was struck by the papal party in honor of the temporary triumph.

The alliance of the imperial and papal authorities is shown by a favorite device of the period a double head which,turned one way represents that of the Pope. and turned the other way that of the Emperor. This is the device of the obverse, the motto being," In virtute tua laetabitur justus," which is the complimentary declaration of the Pope to the Emperor, on his reentering the bosom of the church-"The just will rejoice in thy virtue." On the reverse are the heads of a bishop and a cardinal joined after the same fashion, the motto being "Constitues eos principes super omnem terram," which was in effect a declaration that the Emperor had restored to the church its full spiritual powers-"Thou  shalt constitute them" (that is, the bishop and cardinal) "princes over all the earth."

In support of the principle of imperial sanction to the power of the Popes as expressed on the medal, the ancient and original assertion of the same power  by Celestinus, in the reign of Theodosius II., was typified upon a companion medal. On the obverse were joined heads of a Pope and an Emperor, with the motto-"Celestinus Pont (ifex) Max (imus) Theodosius II. Impirat (or)." This conjunction of names is an allusion to the well-known historical fact that Theodosius in the fifth century, like Charles V. in the sixteenth, had first unfortunately opposed, and then happily defended the church. On the reverse appears the heads of a cardinal  and bishop, with the motto-"Palladius, Germa. Aux., anno ccccxiii." These abbreviated names and titles were thought to refer to a Palladius, Bishop of St. Germains Auxerrois; I but the allusions contained in that name were found difficult to explain, and for some time their interpretation defeated the ingenuity of modern medalists.

In the first place, there were three eminent prelates in the fifth century, named Palladius, but not one of them was bishop of St. Germains d'Auxerre. One of them, however, undoubtedly had some connection with St. Germain, and that is the very same Palladius who was dispatched to Britain by Celestinus to combat the errors which were being promulgated in Wales and Scotland by Pelagius. Having been successful in his mission, he became bishop of the Scots, and afterwards "Apostle of Ireland," where he was succeeded in his apostolic labors by St. Patrick, whose name has completely superseded that of his predecessor. The introduction of the name of Palladius, therefore, alludes without doubt to the then fast spreading "heresy" of the Reformation in England, and forms a well-timed notification that a similar heresy had been successfully suppressed on a former occasion by the efforts of a priest of Rome, and that it would doubtless, under the auspices of the allied Pope and Emperor, be so again. The Pope was the more hopeful of the return of the English monarchy to papal allegiance, as the king had so recently dedicated the famous book to the Pope in defense of the ancient forms of the church, for which he had received that title of "defensor fidei," defender of the faith, still borne by our Protestant sovereigns notwithstanding its popish origin. It is now thought that this book was not written by the king, as formerly supposed, but by Fisher, Bishop of Rochester. Before the king had time to change his views and join the Reformers, the energetic Luther had already attacked the unexpected English ally of the Pope - call the Royal Henry, the supposed author, such names as he usually made use of, by way of invective against his opponents - the Royal Henry being denounced as an "idiot, madman, blasphemer; a rejected even of swine."

The good Bishop Fisher replied pretty vigorously on the side of the king, but with certainly rather more regard for the common decencies of language. It is thought that the medal in question may have been executed under the direction of Erasmus, who was then at Basle, as he was an old friend and continual correspondent of Fisher. It is also conjectured that he may have employed Holbein to carry out the devices, as they are much in the style of some works executed by the artist about that period - especially some of the designs he made for the "Praise of Folly," under the immediate direction of the author; Erasmus having taken great interest in securing the illustrative talents of Holbein himself for that work.

There was also a medal struck by the Catholics against Calvin about this time, which is curious as having been taken a a model of some struck by the Reformers immediately after. On the obverse of the coin, the head of the Pope, when reversed, becomes the head of the Devil - meaning that the things opposed to the Pope were satanic, especially the opponent whose name forms the motto of the medal, IOAN CALVINVS HERESIARCHA PESSIMVS, which inscription (supplying the abbreviations) may be translated, "John Calvin, the worst of the heresiarchs." The reverse has the joined heads of a doctor and a jester or fool, with the motto, ET STVLTI ALIQVANDO SAPITE, from the Vulgate of Psalm xciii., thus intimating that Calvin was a combination of learning and folly.

The Protestant, or reforming party, as I have said, were not behindhand with similar attacks upon the Papists, and Klotz attributes some of the most ingenious designs found upon their satirical medals, struck between 1537 and 1557, to one Nicholas Amsdorf, a friend of Luther. The great Reformer had in a way sanctified this artistic friend of his work by proclaiming him a "bishop" in his art, "without the aid of holy oil, or any other kind of anointing," having elevated him to his office, as he said himself, in his usual graphic strain, "without holy cream, without lard, without butter, without grease, and without incense," &c., &c.

One of these satirical medals of the Reformers, struck under the auspices of Luther, was that with the legend, ECCLESIA PERVERSA TENET FACIEM DIABOLI "The perverted church has the countenance of the Devil." The device was nearly the same as that of the Catholic medal, with the head of the Devil opposite that of the Pope, but with the inference to be deduced therefrom turned against the Papists by means of the motto.

The motto adopted upon this medal is thought to have been taken from one or other of the eloquent but violent discourses of Luther - possibly from that one which fulminated at the meeting of the Protestant princes at Smalkalde, when he was furious against Melanchthon for his hesitation in declaring the rupture with Rome final and complete.

On one of the Reformist medals of this class the mystic number 666 is applied to the Pope, as containing an Apocalyptic meaning which has reference to the Antichrist. It had previously been applied to Julian the Apostate, who was made to represent these figures by the cabalistic values of the letter a@posta<thj-the method of ascertaining which would take too long to describe. The Catholics, however, understood this cabalistic form of calculating the numerical value of letters as well as the Protestants, and, of course, took care to find the same abusive numerals in the letters MARTINVS LVTHERVS.

Other legends of medals struck by the Lutherans have for mottoes, "Malus corvus malum ovum" ("From a bad bird a bad egg"), and serve to commemorate the publication of Luther's pamphlet, entitled "The Papacy instituted by the Devil." The motto adopted was intended to show that the Papacy having so originated  was necessarily as bad as the source from which it sprung. This derivation of the quality of the egg necessarily from the nature of the bird, was a common illustrative form of speech at the period, when it was sought to show that good things could not emanate from a bad source. It was applied to Erasmus, who, although remaining a staunch Catholic, had yet written with great satirical power against the abuses of his church-insomuch that it was remarked that Luther had only "hatched" the egg that Erasmus had "laid."

Some of the Protestant medals of Germany have the mottoes in German instead of the more usual Latin, in allusion to the new translation of the Bible into the vulgar tongue. One of these, having for devices the heads of the Devil and the Pope, reversed and joined at the mouth, has the German motto DV BISTS, which admits of no other translation that "two beasts."

Another, which is engraved below, and which is the last illustration of which our space admits, has a very singular device for the reverse, which, I think has never been fully explained. The upper figure, as has been described by others, is, no doubt, the Antichrist under the symbol of the "Woman of Babylon;" but the book, and what has been thought a cross, have not been properly interpreted, nor has the meaning of the sword which she holds. The book is I must think the Bible, and the seeming cross upon it is formed by the crossed keys of St. Peter, which, as a badge of Papal authority, have locked the book against the people; and, that any attempt to examine it will also be resisted by the "sword," if necessary, is also indicated, as I believe, by the drawn sword held in the right hand. The reversed figure is that of the Pope, holding one of the implements of the Mass. The motto explains the general bearing, though not the detail, of both portions of this singular device. It runs, "FAISCHE LERE GILT NICHT MEHR MDXLIII." That is to say, "False doctrine no longer prevails. 1543." This is sufficiently clear, but the interpretation of the details of the device is also necessary to the full interpretation of the whole design.

During our civil wars, when the family of Charles I. took refuge in Holland, similar coins were struck in ridicule of the Commonwealth, in which th head of Cromwell, when turned round, formed that of the Devil, as in the portraits of the Pope just described; and these coins bore for motto, "One is the evil genius of the other." On the reverse was the head of Fairfax, joined to that of a fool or jester, as on the medal against Calvin, and the motto is, "The idiot serves the folly of the other." The mottoes on the medals themselves, which were probably issued about 1650, are in Dutch.

The class of medals of which I have described a few specimens in this article are some of them executed with great artistic skill, and sometimes struck in silver or bronze, but the great bulk are in lead, for circulation among the people, and are but inferior copies of the bronze or silver models.

H. Noel Humphreys.