Theologia Germanica: what it is and how it was translated

1-86 Sebastian Châteillon, alias Joannes Theophilus: Theologia Germanica, translated from the Latin of Joannes Theophilus: 17th cent. ff. 87 b-90 Eckard: Banquet of spiritual poverty: 17th cent.:

Sloane MS 2538 : 17th century


  • Title:
    Owners of Manuscripts: Guide, Family of.includes:ff. 1-86 Sebastian Châteillon, alias Joannes Theophilus: Theologia Germanica, translated from the Latin of Joannes Theophilus: 17th cent. ff. 87 b-90 Eckard: Banquet of spiritual poverty: 17th cent.:
  • Collection Area: Western Manuscripts
  • Reference: Sloane MS 2538
  • Creation Date: 17th century
  • Extent and Access:
    Extent: 1 item
  • Contents and Scope:
    Owners of Manuscripts: Guide, Family of.includes:

    • ff. 1-86 Sebastian Châteillon, alias Joannes Theophilus: Theologia Germanica, translated from the Latin of Joannes Theophilus: 17th cent.
    • ff. 87 b-90 Eckard: Banquet of spiritual poverty: 17th cent.: Imperf.
    • f. 91 Johann Tauler, Dominican Preacher: Communication of, with a poor beggar: 17th cent.
  • History:
    Custodial History:
    Guide family: Formerly owned MSS.

The Theologia Germanica – what is it? Basically it is an anonymous mystic text probably written in the mid to late 1300s (although the earliest extant copy is 100 years later) somewhere in the area surrounding Frankfurt. It may well have had its roots in the Friends of God movement originally from Basel, Switzerland but also very closely tied to the emergence of the German Spiritual movement, familiar still through the work of Thomas A Kempis.


Why was it considered so important? It was discovered and named by Martin Luther in 1516 and that fact in itself hugely raised its status. The Germanica name (or Theologia Deutsch) is Luther’s wording. Initially he wanted it right at the heart of the Reformed Church. And, of course, he called it what he did because, unlike most ecclesiastical texts of the period which were in Latin, it was in German.

But, of course, it was obvious enough to many that whilst German functioned well enough as a lingua franca in Central Europe, beyond it, it would be precious little use as a medium. The first translation into Latin was undertaken by Ludwig Haetzer, a real early radical of the religion. Haetzer had initially been in close contact with Hans Denck before the latter expulsion from Strasbourg. This is the point at which some might say that the Theologia got hi-jacked: Denck (essentially a Spiritist but seen as Anabaptist) replaced the Luther introduction. Meanwhile Luther’s main concerns switched from the radical to consolidation, leaving no further room for the Theologia. Under accusations of antinomianism by Catholic adversaries, Protestants developed a ‘third use of the law’ whereby Law was still binding. There were some objectors such as Johannes Agricola who rejected any place for Law.

And the Haetzer translation clearly influenced the later Castellion Latin translation (left). Sebastien Castellion was a French proponent of freedom of thought and translator of some important mystical and heterodox texts whose fortunes went through the most remarkable ups and downs. Denck’s ‘Hauptreden’ (‘Certain grave sayings’) survived the change of translator for inclusion. And it is this Castellion translation which seems to have found its way into England at some point during the first half of the 1600s.


By 1638 Giles Creech had clearly been directly involved with the Mount or ‘Of the Mountains’ …or whatever name you care it to go by. But he also openly admitted that he had done the full round of underground conventicles including the Valley, the oddly-named Essentualists and the eponymous Antinomians. There is no sign of the Castalians, the Caps or the Scattered Flock – unless they also carried the Essentualist name? At that point Creech decided that he might be best served ditching the Familists and sneaking on them to the ecclesiastic establishment at Lambeth Palace. He would not have known it at the time but he was not the first to do so. The records show us that Lambeth already had an informant. Creech knew her too and trotted out her name – Jane Farthing (or Farthing Jane) – dutifully enough. She had actually led them to the Cloth Fair perfumiers Callow (Callon – took me a while to link those two names) and Cox who had actually both been picked up on the streets of London in separate places.


He was young, still an apprentice (that lasted seven years in those days and often started at age 14), and his memory was either excellent or it was some sort of ploy. For the scribes could hardly keep up with him. There were two of them and they are sometimes inconsistent in their records. Creech was also fully aware of the underground’s connections with the nominally mainstream ministry who had fallen for the same ideas.


That was what Sir John Lamb was actually more interested in. He was convinced that Thomas Hodges ran some kind of conventicle called ‘The Hodgekin’ – for which there is absolutely no evidence. He would later ditch his younger beliefs in favour of a very cosy CoE career. He was not spotless though for he possessed both the Theologia Germanica and Fitch’s Rule of Perfection and he had the admiration of Robert Towne. But Lamb’s central concern was not even Hodges but John Everard who had also been operating a private conventicle for two nobles. The scribes missed something altogether and Lamb himself had to intervene to record the most important of findings: that the underground had got hold of Theologica (sic) Germanica via the barber-gone-bookseller, Edward Fisher, and that it had been translated by either Brierley or Tennant, a minister from ‘Grendleton’…


The Theologia Germanica, Brierley and the Grindletonians

During James I’s reign, an extraordinary text found its way into England. It had originally been written centuries earlier, probably by a monk in a monastery in the Frankfurt area. It was especially unusual in that it had been written in German (as opposed to Latin) and was ‘rediscovered’ by a Wittenberg theologian who took it instantly to heart: none other than Luther shortly before he rocked Rome’s world. As Luther tried to gain control of the wild notions that flowed so freely following the break with Rome and threatened to splinter the Reformation into a hundred and one irreconcilable factions, he quietly buried his influence from it. It was simply too radical and controversial a basis upon which to build any kind of new consensus.

Prior to Luther, the sparse number of extant copies would indicate that relatively few people had read the ‘Theologia Germanica’. But subsequently it began to circulate amongst those who were to become Luther’s harshest critics – Spirituals and certain obscure wings of Anabaptism – as well as amongst others on the Protestant fringe and even Catholic mystics (who might legitimately have claimed it to be their own). Over the remaining years of the sixteenth century several translations into Latin and other languages were made by eminent scholars.

The version that arrived in England was in Latin, the work of Sebastien Castellion. That was precious little use in England. True, Latin still operated as an effective medium amongst the educated and ecclesiastic. Across a wider spectrum of society, the English tradition from Wycliffe onward had encouraged reading and this was particularly the case amongst the ‘godly’ Puritans. But it was categorically reading in English. There was at that time no English translation of the text and, until recently, it was assumed that the first such translation had not been undertaken until sometime in the mid-1630s (or 1628 if Rufus Jones is to be believed) by the great English heretic-mystic, John Everard (who also appears in the London part of this novel). It now appears that Everard was actually beaten to it by a man who some suspect was a close friend and associate of his, Roger Brierley, possibly with the help of an assistant, Richard Tennant: a man from a very different background from Brierley but also from an isolated Northern settlement (Malham at the heart of the Yorkshire Dales) and seemingly also brought up within the confines of Northern Puritanism. As a result it is now possible at least tentatively to identify two translations of the Theologia as Everard’s and one as the ‘Breirley-Tennant’ version. This fact alone would make Brierley a character worthy of a good deal of new research.

However, a significant body of separate documentation confirms that over the period commencing in 1615 and lasting for several years, Brierley was known to be preaching some kind of radical, Non-Conformist Protestantism infused with a thoroughly atypical mysticism based around the ‘motion of the Spirit’. It might also be suggested that the gap between what his (much later) recorded sermons say and what his congregation seems to have understood in the fifty charges levelled against him by the High Commission of York in 1617 is evidence that he lost control of what he had started in Grindleton. However, the respect afforded to him by his congregation within those fifty accusations does imply that he was absolutely central to the ‘Grindletonian heterodoxy’, no matter how much he might have attempted to distance himself from it from that point onward and no matter how much he protested that he was just some ordinary, Northern godly curate. Evidently, he was not!

What is perhaps most extraordinary is that the real secret of the Reformation’s roots now rested not with some great academic Divine in one of the great university cities but rather with the grammar school-educated son of a farmer from Rochdale , a complete backwater prior to the Industrial Revolution.

This novel is inspired by this extraordinary man and by his own unique – and frequently, unfathomable – theology which briefly illuminated a small, dark corner of Northern England in the years before the Civil Wars and which almost certainly had a profound influence on some later Non-Conformist traditions such as the Quakers and doubtlessly upon other ‘sects’ which fared less well in terms of survival and adaptability, their names often lost to posterity.