ZELL, Matthias (1477-1548) and Katharina (1497-1562)

Matthias and Katharina Zell were German Protestant preachers, activists, and Reformers in the city of Strasbourg. After a brief tenure as rector at the Uni­versity of Freiburg (1517-18), Matthias Zell arrived in the city of Strasbourg in order to serve as Roman Catholic priest of the cathedral parish. He also held the office of poenitentiarius (penitentiary), charged with carrying the bishop's right to absolve grave sins. Zell soon found himself attracted by the views of Martin Luther,* and as early as 1521 he began preaching sermons with a Lu­theran emphasis. He insisted that he was preaching the "pure Gospel," but the authorities took notice. The bishop of Strasbourg attempted to have the cathedral chapter oust Zell, but the effort failed in the face of the popularity of his ser­mons. So great was his reputation that the city council decided to extend its protection to the preacher. Clearly the majority in this sovereign city wanted a reform of the church.
Zell led the movement for reform in Strasbourg from 1521 until 1523, when he was joined by Wolfgang Capito and by the former Dominican Martin Bucer.* Following Bucer's example, Zell broke his vow of celibacy and married Katharina Schütz in 1523, an action that resulted in his excommunication at the hands of the bishop. That same year he published a defense of the Reformation titled Christliche Verantwortung (Christian Answer). In 1525 Zell published the city of Strasbourg's first evangelical catechism, and he took a principled stand against the use of force in religious matters. Throughout his professional life Zell focused on preaching and pastoral work.
Katharina Zell was Matthias's junior by twenty years. She came from a re­spected and politically influential Strasbourg family, and she had read Luther's early works before the marriage to Matthias. The priest was immediately at­tacked as a libertine, but Katharina spoke publicly in defense of her husband, even publishing an attack on priestly celibacy in 1524. She was one of the few women to continue writing lay pamphlets after 1525.
Katharina Zell maintained a high public profile in the city of her birth. She was a tireless worker for the Reformation cause. Strasbourg, as one of the free cities in the empire, became a haven for Lutheran Reformers from nearby lands, especially after the peasant revolt of 1525 was crushed by the authorities. Thousands of refugees flooded into the city of 25,000 in the aftermath of the slaughter.
Katharina played a central role in the relief effort until the fighting stopped and the refugees could return to their homes. She also composed a pamphlet aimed at Lutheran women whose husbands had fled to Strasbourg at this time, and in the 1530s she edited four hymn booklets. When her husband died in 1548, Katharina participated in the service, breaking the traditional injunction that women remain silent in church and separate from the official ministries. In 1557 she published A Letter to All the Citizens of Strasbourg, in which she criticized ministers who persecuted Anabaptists and spiritualists. Toward the end of her life she conducted funerals for two women who had been refused clerical services because of their association with sectarians.
Both Zells were exceedingly tolerant of all who suffered from religious per­secution. Katharina went so far as to call for the toleration of Roman Catholics and Anabaptists. At times she and her husband alarmed the city authorities with their insistence that charity take precedence over profit and convenience. They lived the conviction that all work must be spiritualized, and their repeated efforts on behalf of countless refugees and nonconformists linked secular tasks with moral duty.
Bibliography
L. J. Abray, The People's Reformation: Magistrates, Clergy, and Commons in Stras­bourg, 1500-1598, 1985.
William Spellman

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.


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