François Lambert and career mediocrity

By Dave Papendorf

Sometimes, as a PhD student, you feel like you will never measure up to your peers.  Okay maybe all the time.  But, as a strange sort of encouragement to me, one of the key subjects for my dissertation research had just such an experience.  François Lambert (1486/7-1531) had a career that was full of opportunity, promise, and intersected with some of the most influential people in 16th-century Europe.  However, Lambert’s efforts to carve out a place in key Reformation cities, his proposals toward church reform, and his career in the newly-forming evangelical academy fell short of the lofty heights of most of his colleagues. Perhaps Lambert’s shortcomings should not be so comforting to me, but his story is one that is not only intriguing for Reformation historians like myself, but also for struggling early-career scholars looking to establish themselves in the big bad world of academia.

At age 15, Lambert entered the Franciscan monastery in his hometown of Avignon, France.  Though this move demonstrates his precociousness as a teen, it was outside of the monastery where he shined the most; namely, Lambert was an active preacher throughout the south and east of France for around 10 years.  He even achieved the highly-honored title of predictor apostolicussometime in his 30s.  It is likely that in his preaching perambulations that Lambert first came into contact with the early evangelical works of Martin Luther.  By 1522, at age 35, Lambert had had enough of his Franciscan home.  He was sent by the order to deliver correspondence to leader Pierre de Milan in Eisenach, jumped ship, and eventually made his way to Wittenberg with the initial support of Martin Luther in 1523.

 The Gospel of John from the Luther Bible in Wittenberg, Germany, photo by Dave Papendorf

The Gospel of John from the Luther Bible in Wittenberg, Germany, photo by Dave Papendorf

At this point, Lambert’s career was looking up. He had just been welcomed into the epicenter of the Reformation and had a chance to minister together with Luther. Remember, he was no rambunctious youngster – he was a seasoned preacher who was well into his career as a theologian. Despite all that he had going for him, Lambert struggled.  He did not speak German, and he possessed an intensity that rubbed people the wrong way. In fact, it rubbed so many people the wrong way that he left Wittenberg just a year later without recommendations from the city’s key leaders.

 Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, photo by Dave Papendorf

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, photo by Dave Papendorf

Next, preaching along the way as was his custom, Lambert made his way to Strasbourg – another important Reformation city in the 1520s.  Though his stay lasted 6 months longer, and he published most of his theological works from this location, he still struggled to make friends and find a place as a voice for the Reformation.  In fact, his colleagues Wolfgang Capito and Martin Bucer had less than flattering things to say about Lambert during his time in Strasbourg.  As it turns out, Lambert was a bit of a controversialist as well, and so he struggled to embrace reform with the sort of moderation and temperance the aforementioned theologians suggested.  In short, though passionate, capable, and theologically astute, Lambert was unable to make his opportunities work for him professionally.

In 1526, Philip of Hesse offered Lambert a final chance; specifically, Lambert was invited to move to Marburg in order to direct the reform of church practice and theology in the state of Hesse. Furthermore, he was given a post as a professor of theology at the newly-minted University of Marburg that was founded the following year in 1527.  In preparation for synod discussing reform, Lambert authored an impressive (and overwhelmingly-wordy) 128 propositions for debate and from which the church was meant to be reshaped.  Dismissed by Luther as an “inscrutable heap” of words, this work was trashed by contemporaries; particularly, it was dismissed by the monastic Nicholas Herborn as impetuous, irreverent, and not fitting as the basis for reform.  Attacked on all sides, Lambert, of course, responded to Herborn in a scathing letter and send copies of his 128-proposition work to his old haunts.  

In the end, the state of Hesse was reformed based on different grounds, and Lambert died just 4 years later in 1531.  From a place of such promise, Lambert achieved only a small measure of professional success. Yes, his commentaries were reproduced throughout the 16thcentury (especially those on Luke and Revelation), but his fervent and prickly voice was drowned out by other figures. Though he had a larger than life personality, Lambert was an overlooked proponent of the Reformation in both France and Germany.

Why recount the story of François Lambert? Well, in a way, it is a weird sort of comfort; particularly, Lambert reminds me that even those that are given the greatest opportunity do not always end up being remembered.  Of course, as a historian, I ought to be concerned with retelling Lambert’s life as an example of the theological journey of early sixteenth-century theologians.  And I am.  On the other hand, though, his story is worth telling here because of its personal benefit. Not all of our work will go on to be read and cherished – Lambert is a great example of this.  Beyond that, we will probably not be recognized in our time or beyond.  But that does not make our work any less significant.  As historians reexamine the nature of the French Reformation outside of the inescapable vortex of John Calvin, they are looking for individuals like François Lambert to fill out the nature of early-Reform France.  Though my work is not likely to make a monumental impact on scholarship, it functions as Lambert does to a certain degree.  Who knows, maybe scholars will be studying my mediocre academic career 500 years from now!