The Reformation in Germany, to the general public, was a fairly cut-and-dried affair. Once Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to a church door, this patchwork portion of the Holy Roman Empire threw off the thousand-year-old shackles of the Roman Catholic Church. Churches were stripped. Papal officials peddling indulgences were run out of town. Jubilant Katharina von Boras were swept into the arms of smitten Martin Luthers. Not so, says Amy Leonard. Leonard takes as her example the intractable Dominican nuns who survived-and occasionally, even thrived-in the decidedly Protestant Strasbourg of the sixteenth- and seventeenth centuries. These nuns used whatever means came to hand to maintain their religious identity and their vocation in a city bent first on completely dissolving the convents and then on simply waiting the aging nuns out by attempting to starve the convents of new novices. However, two of the city’s eight Dominican convents survived until 1792, when the French Revolution deprived them of their usefulness to their community.
Leonard does not paint Strasbourg as a “typical” German city, astutely noting that “nothing is typical in the fractured world of the Holy Roman Empire” (7). She focuses instead on what made the relationship between the nuns and Strasbourg’s city council so unique: “accommodation, flexibility, and negotiation” (9). The city proved surprisingly lenient-perhaps too lenient, Leonard later notes-when deciding what to do with its female religious, many of whom came from guild families or the local nobility. That Strasbourg gradually abandoned the notion of completely dissolving the convents spoke to the continuing need to educate its daughters before marriage. This, Leonard argues, was key to the city’s generally benign treatment of its female religious even as those women refused to abandon Catholic dress and rituals. Whatever the confession of the teachers themselves, Strasbourg’s leading families needed places where their daughters would be kept safe-and chaste-until a suitable marriage was arranged. Utility became the nuns’ catchphrase; they fervently maintained their “usefulness to the community… measured by how much [they] loved, supported, and helped” the city’s inhabitants (46).
A less judicious reading of Leonard’s sources, most of which are letters and various official documents from Strasbourg’s own collections, might imply from the council’s frequent concessions that the body was stuffed with crypto-Catholics only biding their time until this Reformation business burned itself out. While it is true that there were likely a number of Strasbourgeois who secretly remained Catholic, many in the city embraced the Reformation and would have preferred that lay schools for their daughters, had any existed. Nails in the Wall adroitly skirts allegations that the nuns ran roughshod over the council by including instances in which the nuns did not get their way. Some novices were reclaimed by parents. Convents were merged or closed completely. For every Anna Wurm, who resisted her brothers’ efforts to remove her and her dowry from a convent, there were multiple novices like fourteen-year-old Margarethe Kniebs, whose father successfully wrested her away from the nuns at St. Nicholas-in-Undis (66). No matter how useful a convent was to a community and no matter how desperately a girl might have wanted to remain, no prioress could keep an unprofessed novice’s father from removing her.
Leonard translates nearly all primary sources herself, while making judicious use of other historians’ work, prominently incorporating Lyndal Roper’s assertion that “the urban reformation, both as a religious and a social movement, must be understood as a theology of gender,” with some important qualifications, into her larger thesis that combines the nuns’ frequent exploitation of their gender in combination with their policy of accommodating and negotiating change with the Strasbourg city council (4). Nails in the Wall is at its strongest when portraying the nuns at their weakest, struggling to survive and maintain relevance in a Protestant city. Leonard’s weakest chapters are those detailing first the Augsburg Interim, adopted in June 1548, and the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. With Catholicism officially protected, Strasbourg’s nuns are no longer a struggling and technically illegal minority keeping afloat by providing a useful service to their community. It seems in these chapters that neither the sisters nor Leonard has enough to do in Strasbourg.
Leonard offers a refreshing reprieve from the general assumption that most early modern nuns in Germany fled their convents in a mad rush to marry and secularize themselves. Though occasionally floundering when Catholicism reigns supreme in Strasbourg, she keeps her work steadily tied to her thesis: that “accommodation, flexibility, and negotiation” from both the nuns and the uniquely tolerant city council ensured that the convents, though technically illegal, maintained their mission to provide a necessary service to Strasbourg.