The Background to the Reformation

The Reformation can be defined as the open expression of dissatisfaction with the abuses within the Church, with the role of the priesthood and with the ecclesiastical hierarchy itself. At the same time, it adapted to particular regions and was connected with the process of secularization; this was mainly because papal authority was challenged by state rulers and anti-Italian feeling reached a climax in the early sixteenth century, especially in Germany. The close liaison between Protestant reformers and the political authorities resulted in the development of national churches and the appropriation of Church property, including, of course, the dissolution of monasteries. Popular support was sought through the translation of the scriptures into the vernacular, the new versions generally being sanctioned and enforced by the law of the land.

As has been pointed out by many historians of this period, radical movements and the expression of dissent were not unique to the sixteenth century; the Church had a long record of corruption and there had been attempts at reform long before Luther. On the political side, the Church had frequently come into conflict with state rulers, especially with the Holy Roman Emperors. Yet conditions in the Middle Ages were unfavourable to revolutionary change. Hus and Wycliffe were no less impressive as religious leaders than Luther, but they appeared in the wrong parts of Europe at the wrong time; Hus was burned as a heretic, while Luther prospered as a reformer. The Reformation took place in the sixteenth century rather than the fifteenth or fourteenth because of the combination of three things in the right proportion. First, the papacy reached the lowest depths of unpopularity at the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth. Second, this was precisely the time when the Renaissance was producing more potent weapons of criticism, while the introduction of the printing press provided a vital means of communication. Third, the Church could no longer depend upon a general political acceptance of its concept of universalism and now had to hold its own against the growth of nation states and nationalism. Each of these problems will now be examined separately.

The basic problem confronting the Church was a crisis of leadership. In 1302 Pope Boniface VIII had asserted, in the Bull Unam Sanctam, the papal claim to supreme spiritual and temporal authority in Europe. This, however, was not made effective over the next hundred years, largely because of the Avignon captivity between 1305 and 1376 and the Great Schism (1378–1417), which produced two and, in one instance, three, rival popes. During the first half of the fifteenth century the Church made a great effort to reform its organization and to compensate for the lack of an effective authority. The Conciliar Movement (examples of which were the Councils of Pisa, 1409, Constance 1414–17, and Basle, 1431–49) attempted to persuade the papacy to delegate authority, and writers like Nicholas of Cusa argued that papal absolutism was no more justifiable than secular tyranny. The failure of the Conciliar Movement was due mainly to the intransigence of the Popes themselves, and it had dire consequences. The papacy degenerated further and by the end of the fifteenth century there was a sense of bitter frustration among the faithful, bred by the knowledge that institutional reform led from above was impossible.

The outward manifestations of papal decline were perhaps exaggerated, but there was probably more cause for complaint in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries than at any other time in history. In 1514 Erasmus launched a bitter attack on Pope Julius II in his satire Iulius Exclusus, in which St Peter was depicted turning the Pope away from the gates of Heaven and concluding: ‘O wretched man! O miserable Church! … I am not surprised that so few now apply here for admission, when the Church has such rulers. Yet there must be good in the world, too, when such a sink of iniquity can be honoured merely because he bears the name of Pope.’1 The sensationalism of Iulius Exclusus did Erasmus little credit, but it was widely accepted as being a true description of a corrupt institution. After the first twenty years of the Reformation the need for radical reform came to be accepted even in Rome, and a special commission of Cardinals, appointed by Paul III to consider the basic priorities, pointed an accusing finger in the same direction as had Erasmus. The report, published under the title Consilium dilectorum cardinalium de emendanda ecclesia(1538) attacked the papacy as the source ‘from which, as from the Trojan Horse, every abuse broke forth into the Church’.2 Much as the Catholic world distrusted Erasmus there appeared to be basic agreement on this one point.

It is possible to find examples of Popes who were quite unsuited for their position (for example, between 1492 and 1503 Alexander VI is known to have given priority to furthering the careers of his illegitimate children), but the more serious problem was what has been described as the ‘secularization of the papacy’ over a long period of time, a process in which morally upright Popes were also involved. With its declining reputation the papacy forfeited its image as a power above national considerations, and the depredation of Italy by European monarchs forced it to compete directly with the political forces of the day in a struggle for temporal survival. A whole series of Popes became involved in the Italian Wars; these included Alexander VI (1492–1503), Julius II (150313), Leo X (1513–21), Adrian VI (1522–3) and Clement VII (1523–34). The measure of disregard for the papacy can be seen by the way in which the national powers, especially France, were prepared to align themselves with or against Rome as and when it suited them. The ultimate catastrophe was the destruction of Rome in 1527 by the supposedly Catholic armies of the Emperor Charles V; this evoked from a contemporary the words: ‘What Goths, what Vandals, what Turks were ever like this army of the Emperor in the sacrilege they have committed?’

Political entanglements inevitably created heavy financial demands, and it was the methods used to meet these which created the most bitter hostility and provided the immediate background to the Reformation in Germany in 1517. The papacy, being a temporal state as well as the supreme spiritual power, had gradually built up an extensive fiscal system. In order to defray the expenses of the Italian Wars, to finance a proposed crusade against the Turks and to pay for the rebuilding of St Peter's basilica in Rome, traditional forms of extracting revenue were now used in exaggerated and intensified form. Mainly affected were the Tenths, First Fruits, Annates, Tithes, Dispensations for uncanonical marriages and, most notorious of all, Indulgences. Somehow the papacy needed to augment its average total revenue of 450,000 ducats (compared with that of 600,000 for Naples3—a state with far fewer obligations). It therefore resorted to selling Cardinalates; in 1500 Alexander VI sold twelve for a total of 120,000 ducats. Another method was to farm out the sale of Indulgences to the Fuggers (the Augsburg bankers), and this spurred Luther into action. In his Ninety-Five Theses (1517) he denounced the whole principle of Indulgences. These were being hawked near Wittenberg by the Dominican Tetzel on behalf of the Archbishop of Mainz, who intended to clear himself of a debt to the Fuggers by undertaking the distribution of Indulgences in his part of Germany. The Fuggers themselves were extensively involved in the sale of Indulgences and sometimes retained 50 per cent of the total proceeds. Luther was, therefore, also attacking a vast and complex financial network which demonstrated as much as anything how secular the papacy had become.

Lack of effective papal leadership inevitably meant the proliferation of abuses among the lower clergy. In the late fifteenth century, for example, 36 of the 83 incumbents of Paris were non-resident.3 This situation was pointed out by the 1537 Commission of Cardinals, which maintained that ‘almost all the shepherds have deserted their flocks and entrusted them to hirelings’.2 The Church as a whole underwent a general decline which affected the entire continent, although areas like Spain and Ireland were less susceptible than Italy and Germany. Particularly distressing was the impact on the soul of the Church—monasticism. Many monasteries were renowned for their corruption and their domination by non-clerical owners and interests. Erasmus and Luther saw monasticism at its worst, and had no hesitation in attacking it openly, while many state rulers welcomed the opportunity provided by the Reformation to close down religious houses and appropriate their lands. This was entirely in keeping with the growing cynicism and pragmatism which dominated the attitudes of most European rulers towards the papacy and its possessions.

It was unfortunate for the papacy that the period of its greatest weakness should have coincided with an era of increased intellec tual activity and more extensive and articulate criticism. The problems of the Church had been publicly discussed at several points in the Middle Ages; for example, both Wycliffe and Hus had criticized the sale of Indulgences and emphasized the supremacy of the scriptures long before Luther. But the intellectual environment of their time was hostile and they could never stimulate the interest of the universities and the political authorities. By the beginning of the sixteenth century reformers who attacked the Church had more extensive support, engendered by the force of the Renaissance. The works of Erasmus of Rotterdam and of a series of German humanists led to a basic re–examination of medieval theology and of the power of the papacy. The main writers were Rudolf Agricola (1444–85), Conrad Celtis (1459–1508), Johannes Reuchlin (1455– 1522) and Ulrich von Hutten (1488–1523). German humanism appeared to develop into two identifiable but overlapping planes. The first was progress towards religious change, even revolution, and the second was the development of a powerful nationalist opposition to Italian influences in Germany. The former provided extensive support for Luther's proposed reforms, while the latter convinced the rulers of northern Germany that they had ideological justification in severing their ties with the papacy.

It would be misleading to emphasize too strongly the links between the Renaissance and Lutheranism; many aspects of Luther's theology were, after all, early medieval, bearing a close resemblance to the doctrines of Augustine. Nevertheless, he was greatly assisted by the preliminary spread of humanism. This had been accompanied by the foundation of new universities, including, in 1502, the University of Wittenberg, which became the intellectual headquarters of Lutheranism. Luther lived in an age when criticism of established institutions was an accepted part of the intellectual life of the new Academies and he did not, therefore, have to break new ground to get his views heard. The response to his Ninety-Five Theses was immediate and beyond his expectations. The Catholic Church attempted to counter the growing dissent in a series of debates with Luther, the disputation between Luther and Eck at Leipzig in 1519 being the most important. It soon became obvious, however, that Catholic arguments based on rigid Scholasticism made no impression on humanist university environments, and the experiment was discontinued.

Luther's initial impact, therefore, was made possible by the New Learning. The spread of his ideas beyond Saxony was made physically possible by the invention of the printing press. This originated in Germany, with the efforts of John Gutenberg of Mainz. The technology spread to Italy, Paris, London, Stockholm and Madrid, gaining a firm foothold in most of Europe by 1500. By this time, it has been estimated, there were approximately nine million printed books in circulation. Luther benefited as much from this as anyone. For example, he was able to circulate copies of the Ninety-Five Theses throughout Germany. This was followed, at the time of his excommunication by the Pope in 1520, by the widespread distribution of three new works: To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, The Babylonish Captivity of the Church and The Liberty of a Christian Man. As the Reformation gathered momentum the printing press remained the vital instrument with which the reformers cut into the fabric of the Church. It would have been surprising indeed if such an immense technical advance in the dissemination of ideas had not had a major impact on contemporary thought and institutions.

The third necessary component for revolutionary change within the Church was political support and sanction, without which reformers would have remained heretics, excommunicated by the Church and ‘relaxed to the secular arm’ for punishment. In the face of open political defiance, however, the papacy was usually helpless. Again, this conflict was not entirely new to Europe. The Middle Ages had seen disputes between Church and state on three main grounds. The first was legal: the papacy had asserted the judicial autonomy of the clergy from the state, and this had precipitated constitutional arguments with rulers like Henry II of England. The second was political: most monarchs had pointed out that papal representatives, usually legates, exercised too much influence in state affairs. The third was economic: Pope Boniface VIII (1294–1303) had claimed that no form of taxation should be levied on ecclesiastical property by the state, and most monarchs ignored or defied this. Serious as these issues had been, however, they had not produced a situation where rulers were actually prepared to break with the Church and make use of new theological trends to establish regional or national alternatives (which is, of course, what happened in the sixteenth century).

What really made the crucial difference was the development of more centralized states, like England and Sweden, in which the Church came to be regarded as part of the internal constitutional structure and not as an external unit based on Rome. The methods varied considerably; Anglicanism was originally intended to substitute royal for papal authority with minimal doctrinal change, whereas the Swedish Lutheran Church introduced doctrinal changes at the beginning. But the fear of the Pope, which had once cowed medieval monarchs and caused the Emperor Henry IV to kneel in the snow of Canossa as a penitent before Pope Gregory VII in 1077, had now entirely disappeared. Even those monarchs who remained Catholic adopted an increasingly territorial approach and maintained a tight control over the Church, an example of which was the development of Gallicanism in France.

Another factor preparing the ground for the Reformation, this time in Germany, was the growth of nationalism or, at least, a strong national consciousness which antedated the growth of a national frontier. There is considerable evidence of a powerful anti-Italian and anti-Roman feeling in Germany, based on the belief that Germany was being exploited by the papacy. In 1457, for example, Martin Mair, Chancellor to the Archbishop of Mainz, wrote: ‘As a result of these abuses, our proud nation, once renowned for the ability and courage with which it gained the Roman Imperium and became lord and master over the world, has been reduced to beggary, subjected to humiliating exactions, and left to cower in the dust, bemoaning its misery.’4 The sale of indulgences, as we have seen, stirred up strong anti-Italian propaganda. Luther's Ninety-Five Thesesexpressed the thoughts of a large part of northern Germany in attacking the use of Germany's money for the reconstruction of St Peter's. ‘The revenues of all Christendom are being sucked into this insatiable basilica. The Germans laugh at calling this the common treasure of Christendom. Before long all the churches, palaces, walls and bridges of Rome will be built out of our money. … We Germans cannot attend St Peter's. Better that it should never be built than that our parochial churches should be despoiled.’5

At the beginning of the sixteenth century Germany was, paradoxically, becoming increasingly disunited and decentralized at the very time that German national pride and resentment were expressing themselves most forcefully. The reason for this was that the traditional form of imperial unity was based on medieval institutions sanctioned by the Church and the Pope; nationalism, on the other hand, became anti-imperial and anti-papal and often manifested itself in the struggle of state rulers for independence from central control. The association between the state rulers and Lutheranism was therefore a natural alliance of political and religious dissent, the results of which will be examined in the next chapter.

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