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Affair of the Sausages

Updated: May 13, 2022

"To sum up briefly: if you want to fast, do so; if you do not want to eat meat, don’t eat it; but allow Christians a free choice."

Huldrych Zwingli, Of Freedom of Choice and Selection of Food, 1522

March 9, 1522. Christoph Froschauer, a printer in Zurich, Switzerland, had just completed a run of a compilation of sermons by a canon of the Grossmunster church, Huldrych Zwingli. The printer invited some of his workers and a handful of other men to have dinner with him at his shop in the Grabengasse section of Zurich. The men gathered in the late afternoon between the printing presses, woodcut blocks, and boxes of type. Besides his employees, Froschauer's guests included a tailor, a shoemaker, a weaver, and a baker. The baker, Heinrich Aberli, was a known provocateur in Zurich. On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, he dared eat a roast at the guild house. Huldrych Zwingli and his closest confidant, Leo Jud, a priest for Einsiedeln near Lake Lucerne, were also invited to attend. When his guests arrived, Froschauer served them traditional Swiss Fasnachtskiechli, a regional variety of fried dough. But accompanying the fried dough were two smoked sausages which the men shared between them. The problem was that it was the first Sunday of Lent, and the eating of meat was strictly forbidden.

In the Catholic Church, Lent was observed during the forty days before Easter. Fasting during this time was often observed, but during the early period of the church, the rules and restrictions varied from region to region. Beginning with the Council of Nicea in the 4th century CE and then with Pope Gregory I in the 7th century, the doctrines around fasting during the Lenten season were codified and made universal throughout the church. Lent was firmly established beginning with Ash Wednesday, and Catholics would abstain from eating any meat, dairy, and eggs for forty days. Fish would be the exception to the no meat restrictions.

Certainly, Froschauer and his companions had been derelict in their Christian duties in the eyes of the Catholic Church. But in the 16th century, it was hard to disentangle canonical law from civil law. The city of Zurich, like so many other places, had laws in place forbidding the eating of meat during Lent. The men had committed not only a religious offense but also a criminal offense. Yet the men knew what they were doing, and they made no effort to keep their act of defiance secret. They wanted their eating sausages to be a very public protest against the strict fasting regulations. Such severe fasting often deprived the poor of their only subsistence. Froschauer, as the host, was arrested.

Huldrych Zwingli

Huldrych Zwingli was the only person not to partake of the sausages. His job was to defend the rebellious action publicly. Zwingli was no stranger to controversy. He was born in Wildhaus in 1484. His father was a successful farmer and local magistrate. The family was part of the emerging middle class and was keen on education. Zwingli studied at the University of Vienna and then the University of Basel, where he was exposed to the influential Christian humanist movement. Humanism had its roots in the Italian Renaissance of the 14th century. As Europe rediscovered the works of Ancient Greece and Rome, scholars sought to revive the study of classical antiquity. Humanists focused on studying rhetoric, grammar, history, and philosophy. They examined classical texts and the works of the early Church fathers, men like St. Augustine, Origin, and St. Ambrose. Mistrusting Latin translations, they read the New Testament in the original Greek and the Old Testament in the original Hebrew. In this manner, humanism broke away from the older Medieval scholastic traditions and the reliance on Aristotle as an authority. By the 16th century, humanism was more than just a way of learning, but it had grown into a more significant intellectual movement. They argued in support of man's importance in the world and his ability to reason. Christian humanists sought to reform the Catholic Church from within through reason and the return to classical sources.

Desiderius Erasmus

The ideas of the humanists greatly influenced Zwingli's views. After he became a priest in 1506, he corresponded with several Swiss humanists and began reading the works of Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus, a Catholic priest, was the foremost Christian humanist philosopher and was considered the movement's leader. In 1518, he was appointed Leutpriesterum, the "people's priest," at the Grossmunster (Great Church) in Zurich. Though there was some opposition, most of the canons at the church liked Zwingli's humanist tendencies and reputation as a writer and preacher. Zwingli's opposition to the French and the use of Swiss mercenaries endeared him to Zurich's civic leaders. He urged his listeners to work towards moral and spiritual improvement in the true humanist tradition in his sermons. But by 1520, he was beginning to become aware of Martin Luther's theological stance. Zwingli, though, started to diverge from both Luther and Erasmus in his theology, and his attacks on the church became more pointed and targeted. He saw monks as indolent, and he rejected the veneration of saints. He believed that children who had not been baptized yet were not damned, and he challenged the practices of ex-communication and tithing. These stances did not win Zwingli many friends in the established church, but he argued that his ideas came from sola scriptura, that is, from scripture alone.

Regarding the Choice and Freedom of Foods

It is uncertain whether Zwingli organized the sausage-eating protest at Froschauer's print shop, but he gave the affair tacit approval through his presence. Two weeks after Froschauer's arrest, Zwingli delivers a sermon in the printer's defense. It is entitled Regarding the Choice and Freedom of Foods. In this sermon, Zwingli argues that there is no scriptural basis for Lent or for fasting. Thus, fasting was a private choice, a matter of conscience rather than a law to be enforced. He wrote, "If the spirit of your belief teaches you thus, then fast, but grant also your neighbor the privilege of Christian liberty, and fear God greatly, if you have transgressed his laws, nor make what man has invented greater before God than what God himself has commanded." Zwingli was also keenly aware of the socio-economic implications of fasting. Rules surrounding fasting impacted the working classes more severely as they were deprived of the sustenance they required. The wealthy were able to find loopholes and continue to indulge in rich, satisfying meals even during times of fasting: "If you are a person of leisure, you should fast often and abstain from food that excites you; the worker moderates his desires by hoeing and plowing in the field. You say, ‘but the idlers will eat meat without needing to.’ The answer is that these very same people fill themselves with even richer foods, which enflame them even more than the highly-seasoned highly-spiced meats."

Grossmunster, Zurich, Switzerland

Froschauer, having been released from prison, published Zwingli's sermon on April 16, 1522. This ultimately drew the ire of the Bishop of Constance, Hugo von Hohenlandenberg, who had authority over several Swiss cantons. Though he agreed with Zwingli on the need for specific reforms within the church, he was outraged by Zwingli's rejection of Lenten fasting. Yet, seeing what happened with Martin Luther, he had no desire for a public confrontation. The bishop requested that the city council of Zurich dismiss Zwingli from his position at the Grossmunster. The Zurich city council had sympathies for both Zwingli and Luther. They had failed to publish the Edict of Worms that proclaimed Luther a heretic the previous year, and they quietly approved Zwingli's opposition to church policies. The affair with the sausages and the bishop's request forced them to make a public stance. The council, in the end, denied the bishop's request and instead invited the bishop to debate Zwingli in Zurich.

Bishop Hohenlandenberg declined to go in person, and instead, he appointed a delegation to travel to Zurich with instructions not to debate theological matters publicly. On the other hand, Zwingli wrote up and published his 67 Articles. Much like Martin Luther's 95 Theses, the 67 Articles outlined the various issues within the church that needed to be addressed and reformed. Zwingli articulated the unbiblical nature of the church, challenged the authority of the pope and priesthood, rejected the practice of clerical celibacy, and denied the existence of purgatory, among other points of contention. Therefore, the bishop's delegation was caught off guard when nearly 600 people attended what is now called the First Disputation in January 1523. Under strict orders, the delegation could not engage Zwingli in a theological debate, and therefore, they weakly defended the church's position. Zwingli delivered is 67 Articles and thereby won the debate. The Zurich city council decided to allow him to continue to preach at the Grossmunster.

Zurich Disputation 1523

At a second debate later in 1523, Zwingli advocated for individual churches to set religious policy, and the following year many churches began doing away with many traditional Catholic practices. Throughout the rest of the 1520s, Zwingli continued to gain support for his positions. By 1529, he was convinced that Switzerland, then a loose confederation of provinces, needed to be unified as a Protestant country. This did not sit well with the Catholic provinces, and they resisted his efforts. Zwingli launched what is known as the Kappel Wars in order to force Catholic submission to his vision. He was killed in battle in 1531.

A sausage-eating dinner ignited the Swiss reformation. Zwingli would guide the reform movement until his death. Later, it would be John Calvin who would shape the course of the reformation in a different direction than Martin Luther. From the teachings of Calvin, the Swiss Reformed Church would emerge, as would other reformed churches in other areas of Europe.


Further Reading

The Swiss Reformation: Bruce Gordon

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