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Why Early Modern historians should know their catechism

The first blog-entry is written by historian Nina Javette Koefoed. She reflects on the value of a more specific knowledge of theology, in this case the catechism, to her research on household, authority and socio-emotional relations.

16.04.2018 | AU Admins Template

The Ten Commandments. Lucas Cranach d. Ältere (1516)

By Nina Javette Koefoed

Why should early modern historians read the catechism? At first sight, reading the catechism only seems to present classical methodical problem. It is a wholly-normative source, we don’t know if people actually read it (or what they thought of it), and it doesn’t say anything about how people lived their life in practice – or does it? I have worked on household, marriage and the regulation of sexuality in 18th century Denmark for a good part of the last 20 years, and paid quite some attention to the influence from religion in my studies. Nevertheless, including the catechism, and especially the explanation of the Ten Commandments, in my current research project on the Lutheran household in 18th century Denmark, has been quite an eye-opener.

My project is part of a larger collaboration on the influence from Lutheranism on the development of Danish society. It is an interdisciplinary venture encompassing history, theology and social science. We attempt to establish an understanding of Lutheran social teaching and investigate different ways in which this might have influenced society. The concept of authority is central to the project, in my case household authority, together with social relations within the household.

Every child had to know the catechism

Luther’s Small Catechism and Large Catechism together with later Danish explanations of Luther’s catechisms, has been my source on the religion’s understanding of authority and the character of social relations. The Small Catechism had a special standing in Danish society after the Reformation. It was singled out as the central component of childhood teaching. Every child had to know his or her catechism. This actually happened to a significant degree, especially from the beginning of the 17th century. In 1737, The Small Catechism was supplemented by an explanation of the catechism. This explanation was authorized by the absolute king. The fact that almost every child in the country had read and known the content of the Small Catechism for such an extended period of time has been my point of departure. It is my belief that we should try to understand the impact of this teaching.

The Ten Commandments and the Table of Duties

Therefore, I started to read the catechism and especially the explanations of the Ten Commandments and the table of duties. This is not because the importance of the Ten Commandments hasn’t been recognized in Danish historiography. Danish Code from 1683 organized its criminal law according to the structure and content of the Decalogue. But, in accordance with this, focus has been on the criminalization of sins against the commandments. What I found notable was the very broad understanding of the Commandments, as well as the amount of positive deeds you were supposed to do in order to keep those commandments.

The command to love as the key to the Ten Commandments

The key to Luther’s understanding of the Ten Commandments is the double command: to love (to love God and your neighbour); and the golden rule (to do to others as you wish them to do to yourself). This put emphasis on the positive aspects of the Commandments, the way in which they instructs you to behave towards the neighbour. The explanations of the commandments is thus to a large extend an explanation of the duties you have towards others in the household and in society. It is a social and moral teaching, not just a description of sins. Salvation by faith sets people free to act in love towards the neighbor. Deeds in them self did according to Lutheran theology of course not influence salvation, but the true Christian should act out of concern for and love towards the neighbor. And deeds had to be done from a true heart. This means that the catechism not only contained a social teaching telling people how they ought to act towards each other, but also an emotional teaching, merging social and emotional obligations into socio-emotional obligations. They were one. Both good and bad deeds resulted from emotions.      

Commandments concerning household

In my research, I have focused so far on the fourth commandment (honour your father and your mother), and the sixth commandment (against adultery), since those are the commandments most directly concerned with the household. I have found that the commandments not only influence legislation through their understanding of sin, and the secular prohibition of sin through criminalization, but also through the understanding of the socio-emotional obligation people had towards each other. Most notable is the sense of mutual obligation, and how authority was connected with different obligations in return for the obligation to honor and obey them. An example is how the obligation of parents to raise their children as good Christian people was turned into legislation concerning the parent’s duty to keep children at school and in honest work.

Did the Catechism form society?

My suggestion is that it is worth considering the extent to which the understanding of the duties of the individual towards society, fellow citizens, household, and even the state was formed by and developed through a confessional specific understanding of the Ten Commandments – and how legislation were informed by this understanding.

The importance of socio-emotional obligations

So far, reading the catechism has provided me with an understanding of a moral universe, of social relations constructed by socio-emotional obligations, which I believe will bring me to a better understanding of how people in early modern society conceived the world, their place in it, and not least their actions. My research will go on to investigate the way in which the socio-emotional obligation read out of the catechism might explain the way in which people understood and explained different actions and incidents. Court cases are widely used by both legal and cultural historians, and are an important source material for the understanding of early modern society. The better we understand how early modern people perceived the world, the more sense their explanation in court makes. We can only recognize the argument or explanation of a behavior unconsciously originating from, or consciously grounded, in a religious, protestant or even Lutheran social teaching, if we know this teaching. This is why early modern historians should know their catechism.

What I am now intending to work out is how specific the understanding of the commandments within each of the Christian confessions was to the theology of that confession, and consequently the way in which it could – and did – influence society.