‘The Cobbler Should Stick to His Last’: University Dissertations on Shoemakers as Religious Fanatics

Sari Kivistö

Three years ago I became interested in the controversies that emerged around the social class of shoemakers, their learning and religious and social activities in late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth century Europe. This was the time when the world of learning was broadening to include social classes other than the university-based professions. Latin dissertations and pamphlets in late seventeenth-and early eighteenth-century Germany and Sweden paid attention to the growing social heterogeneity in the Republic of Letters by focusing on such literate men coming from lower social classes whose practical expertise challenged the conventional views of what constitutes learning. These emerging lower classes also expressed themselves in ways that did not always please those in power, and they were often involved in religious and political controversies. In addition to academic issues on proper learning, these disputes were related to religious activism in early modern Europe.

I will explore the criticism that was presented against dissident shoemakers in some university dissertations, particularly Adam Sigismund Bürger’s De sutoribus fanaticis (Leipzig, 1730). Bürger counted shoemakers among religious fanatics (or Schwermers), since they were connected with radical Pietists, mystics and other dissident thinkers. These “dangerous” or “fanatical” shoemakers included, among others, the Christian mystic Jacob Böhme and the English seventeenth-century dissenter George Fox, who founded the Quakers, and their followers, all of whom also abandoned traditional school and university curricula and denied having benefited from previous literature, attributing their ideas to divine illumination. Critics claimed that Fox boasted to have illumination from God and that he could perform miracles, and this was rather straightforwardly condemned as an indication of arrogance and pride. I will examine how polemical writings expressed a conservative theological reaction against the allegedly heretical or atheistic teachings of shoemakers who had the power to modify men’s practices of devotion and education.


Sari Kivistö is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Tampere, Finland, and former alumna and Director of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. She has published widely on the history and theory of satire. Her monographs include Kantian Antitheodicy: Philosophical and Literary Varieties (with S.Pihlström, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), Vices of Learning: Morality and Knowledge at Early Modern Universities (Brill, 2014), and Medical Analogy in Latin Satire (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).