Lecture: The Reformations

The Northern Renaissance

In northern Europe, the climate conditions took a long time to change, and the going was tougher. Even so, many humanist works did make their way north. There the new ideas encountered a more intellectual kind of Christianity than that found in southern Europe. Scholasticism had emerged in northern Europe, and during the 16th century the centers of what we call "Christian humanism" or "northern humanism" were England, France, and the Netherlands.

The examination and discussion of Bible stories, saints lives, and the writings of the Church fathers had long been more an occupation of northern Europeans than of those close to the Church's centers of power. You can certainly see this in northern art, particularly in the popular woodblock etchings of the time.

Art and technology: printing

Woodblock printing had become more popular with the adoption of paper as a cheaper alternative to parchment, which was made from sheepskin. With the expansion of the economy in the High Middle Ages, there was greater use of linen as well as wool. Unlike wool, linen is made from a plant. Flax was able to grow well in much of Europe. To make it into cloth requires beating its fibers to separate them, then combing the fibers with huge spiky combs hung in a wall, then spinning the very long fibers into threads before weaving. It took a lot of labor, and flax couldn't be grown everywhere, and it always had to be replanted (wool just grows back on the sheep each year). The spinning of it was a specialty. Thus linen was more expensive than wool, and it was also very fine, so the wealthy wore it as chemises and underlayers of clothing.

When they wore out, the linen garments were made into smaller items until these too were useless, then the cloth was thrown away. The linen "rag" could be treated and pounded into paper. "Rag and bone men" were entrepreneurs of trash, travelling from town to town collecting linen rags and bones (the bones were ground up and made into bone meal for fertilizer). Paper mills (run by water power) expanded, and the price of paper, made of a raw material that had to be paid for only in labor, became cheaper. The rags were shredded, treated and mashed up into a pulp over several days.The slurry was spread onto a screen and dried to produce paper sheets. A codex was easier to bind with the thinner pages that good paper mills could produce, and the resulting books were cheaper to obtain, spreading literacy.

Albrecht Dürer, although also a painter, was known for his woodblock etchings. Here's an example of a perfect northern theme, the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (death, famine, war and pestilence):

Four Horsemen

Images like this were carved on wood and then pressed with ink onto paper. They could be displayed like a painting, or printed in copies and sold. Illustrations could be made into books. At the same time (1498) that Dürer was creating this print, a German blacksmith named Johannes Gutenberg was creating movable type.

Woodblock printing, when combined with cheap paper, made for cheaper books. Instead of copying a book by hand, one could carve each page in reverse on a plank of wood, then ink it and press it to paper. The woodblock would last for a number of printings, until the wood got pressed too often and led to blurriness. But it would produce an exact replica (unlike hand copying, which often copied over mistakes from early copied mistakes). Woodblock printing emerged in China centuries before, and they had been working there on making blocks of characters out of metal to create durable moveable type that could be reused and rearranged. That's the innovation. But it's easier to do with our letters, because (if you think waaaay back to our discussion of writing in the Ancient Peoples lecture) we have only 26 or so characters to make, versus thousands for Chinese.

printing pressGutenberg cast multiple copies of each letter and created a wooden frame for them so that letters could be rearranged. New technology meant new jobs (in this case for printsetters who could easily place the type backwards in a frame while looking at the original). Metal type lasted far longer than wood, so more copies could be made. And early printing presses were fairly portable, if you see hauling it on a wagon as portable, so they could come to towns and print off multiple copies of anything people were willing to pay for. The age of the fill-in form was here.

Christian Humanism

Woodblock printing and moveable type thus helped the spread of ideas, including the ideas of humanism being adopted in the north. The best examples of Christian or Northern Humanism are Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More, who were friends and correspondents. Erasmus' In Praise of Folly used humor and irony to show that the Church had moved far away from its initial Christian values:

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It was possible to get away with such criticism in 1509 because the Church was far away, and the governments of northern Europe had gotten used to controlling their local churches and ignoring unpopular dictates from Rome.

Sir Thomas More (who you'll see again soon as part of the English Reformation) went further than Erasmus in imagining what society would look like if people did follow the original tenets of Christianity. The result was communal, in an ideal medieval sense, but strangely modern and socialistic at the same time:

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The important thing to understand here is that both men were dedicated to the Church and its doctrines. This was not an argument about the doctrines of the Church, or what people should believe. It was about how the Church as an earthly institution has moved away from its basic ideals, especially in the behavior of churchmen.

At the same time, the mysticism and direct contact with God that had emerged after the Black Death was still very much alive. One popular author, Thomas Thomas à Kempis, had written The Imitation of Christ back in the 15th century, saying:

The teaching of Christ is more excellent than all the advice of the saints, and he who has His spirit will find in it a hidden manna. Now, there are many who hear the Gospel often but care little for it because they have not the spirit of Christ. Yet whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.

What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone.

I don't think it would be going too far to say that most intellectual Christians in the north felt the same way.

The Protestant Reformation

Catholic Church practices and abuses

Now, at this point I have to change my language. I have not used the word "Catholic" very often to describe the Church, the Roman Church. It was here that the Church itself began to use the word, which means "universal", to refer to itself and its doctrines in Europe. To use the word "Catholic" is a reminder that all Christians in Europe are in its fold. But of course the term will also be used after the Reformation to distinguish it from the new Protestant churches. The Catholic Church also continues to be called the Roman Church, to distinguish itself from the Greek.

You know from the Renaissance that the Church had become a very worldly place. Bastards of popes ran around the halls of the papal palace, brothels were run for churchmen, and some popes (like Julius II) even put on armor and fought to retain their power. The problems ran very deep, though, even far from Rome.

Christ and Antichrist
Woodcut by Lucas Cranach, c. 1522, showing Jesus washing the feet of the poor, but the Pope (the "Anti-Christ") having people kiss his feet.

The Church was doing a bad job of training its bishops and priests, despite the availability of university education. Positions in the Church were often given because of nepotism or connections rather than skill. As a result, many bishops and priests were not only immoral, they were illiterate. Thus the liturgy was said in Church, but the Latin was often memorized, and often mispronounced, because the clergy didn't actually know Latin. In some ways, this fed mysticism, because the words themselves, not understood by the priest or the people, became like magical incantations. They carried no intellectual meaning. In many ways, the great intellectual analysis going on in universities, where Church texts were studied, was completely separate from the everyday duties of churchmen.

People wanted to be bishops because it could make them rich. When bishops were given diocese or territories to run, they were able to collect tithes and taxes to create extravagant ecclesiastical palaces and courts. A bishop could rule more than one benefice, a practice called "pluralism". Their territories could be far away from each other. Some bishops never visited their benefices at all, so that left everything in the hands of ignorant priests. So there was absenteesim in addition to pluralism. Without leadership locally, and with corruption at the top, ordinary people in many ways were moving further away from Christianity. More and Erasmus had good reason to criticize.

At the same time, the popes wanted a more extravagant Church at the very center -- St Peter's in Rome. Julius II hired Michaelangelo and Bernini to create beautiful representations of the Christianity they weren't really practicing. This cost money. But money could be raised with indulgences.

An indulgence was a piece of paper, sealed with the pope's seal, absolving the bearer of sins. They were first created during the Crusades, as a way to issue forgiveness to those about to die while killing the infidels in the east. According to the Church, one had to receive last rites while dying, in order to go to heaven. But even though a few priests travelled with the Crusaders, there wasn't always a priest available when you needed one, and the Church did not want people avoiding Crusades because of this. So the first indulgences were given to Crusaders.


But by the 16th century, indulgences were being sold to make money. Indulgence preachers travelled from town to town, selling them for everything from personal forgiveness to getting your father out of purgatory. You could even buy an indulgence if you knew you were going to sin next Saturday, and be forgiven in advance. The preachers could be great salesmen: "As soon as coin in coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!"

Meanwhile, a monk turned scholar at the University of Wittenberg in Germany was having a personal crisis. He prayed and did all the acts of piety prescribed by the Church, but he didn't feel forgiven. Finally he had a revelation that salvation could be achieved only by faith. Good works (such as charity, being pious, going on Crusade, engaging in the sacraments) did not grant grace or forgiveness, even though the Church said they did. Having solved his problem, Martin Luther felt much better. Or he felt better until indulgence preacher Johann Tetzel came to town and set up his business in the town square. Luther was sickened by the idea of selling salvation, and in academic style set up a list of proposals to debate at the university. He posted them on the door of the Church, which was a kind of community bulletin board. He wrote them in Latin, but a student translated them into German, and took them to a local printing press.

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The debate never happened, but Luther's Ninety-Five Theses caused a sensation, and everyone took sides.

Spread of the Reformation

Germany was not a unified nation as it is today -- it was a collection of principalities in competition against each other. All saw political as well as spiritual opportunity in what Luther had started. One could declare oneself (and therefore ones people) to be in keeping with a more pure church that did not accept the Pope as spiritual leader. Then one could keep all the tithes and take over church land, appoint ones own bishops, and be more in keeping with pure Christianity, all at the same time. Some German princes did this, and protected Martin Luther from the Inquisition. Others stayed Catholic and became enemies of those who were "Protestant" (an epithet that stuck).

Gutenberg BibleLuther, like many other Christian humanists, believed that the key to faith was for people to be able to read the Bible for themselves. New vernacular Bibles should be based on the ancient Greek bibles, not the Latin Vulgate Bible used in the Catholic Church. The Latin bible had been copied over and over, with mistranslations and errors copied and added in each generation. Luther translated the Greek bible into German, and others did the same in their countries, until there were Bibles, printed cheaply using moveable type and paper, in the vernacular language of many countries in Europe.

Lutheranism interpreted the Bible in a particular way, and kept all the social hierarchies and many traditions of the Catholic faith. But others departed in their own direction. This is why there are many Protestant churches, and only one Catholic Church. Let's use the bread-and-wine ceremony as an example. To Catholics, when the priest blesses the bread and wine, it literally becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ -- its actual, physical substance is transformed (transubstantiation). To Lutherans, the bread and wine, and the body and blood, co-exist in the substance once it is blessed (consubstantiation). In Zwinglism and Calvinism, the ceremony is in commemoration of the sacrifice -- the substances do not change. Or look at baptism, which Lutherans and Calvinists say must be done as a baby, but Anabaptists say can only be done as an adult.

The two most important sects to know for the 16th century are the Calvinists and Anabaptists. Lutheranism remained primarily a German version of Protestantism, travelling only where Germans travelled (like to Minnesota). Calvinism was founded by French lawyer John Calvin in Geneva, with a goal of making the city of Geneva into an ideal Christian city.

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Here the entire society was organized according to the Calvinist teachings and hierarchy, and Calvinism was international. Calvinists would be called Puritans in England, and Huguenots in France, and would travel with them all over the world. Anabaptists, instead of creating an organized church that combined or collaborated with the political state, took a more radical path. Even those who were confirmed Catholics could understand the basic church-state relationship of Lutheranism and Calvinism. But Anabaptists separated from the state completely, literally interpreting the Sermon on the Mount, and refusing military service and payment of taxes to the state. They thus had the honor of being persecuted by Protestants and Catholics alike.

So it's important not to take the effects of Protestantism too far -- it did not lead to freedom of any kind. To associate American values of freedom with our Puritan (Calvinist) forbearers is thus incorrect. They came to America to set up their own church-and-state form of Geneva, to provide religious freedom only for themselves. And there were many intelligent objections to the way Protestantism was adopted. Both Erasmus and More were against it -- they wanted true reform inside the Catholic Church, not the creation of another Church. More would die for this principle, and Erasmus would disown Martin Luther, who thanked him for starting the Reformation. Even Luther could not agree with all the implications of what had happened. In 1525, several villages of German Swabian peasants formed a federation and rebelled because their reading of the Bible said they should not be subject to their lords' domination and oppressive taxes. Luther spoke in favor of putting down the rebellion. The righteousness of the Protestants, which emerged in opposition to the obvious corruption of the Catholic Church, in itself could become oppressive.

The English Reformation

It was in England that the combination of religious and political motivations for Reformation become most obvious.

King Henry VIII was the son of the king who had ended a series of massive civil wars where the top noble families vied for power. Because of this, he was very sensitive to providing a strong male heir to succeed him.

Henry VIIIHe wasn't meant to be king - his brother Arthur was older. Arthur had been married to princess Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. When he died, the alliance with Spain was threatened, so young Henry was encouraged to marry his brother's widow. To do this, he needed a dispensation from the pope (marrying your brother's widow wasn't allowed). Pope Julius II (the one who put on armor, and hired Michaelangelo) granted the dispensation. Henry married Catherine, who gave him a daughter. She then went into menopause, and Henry had no male heir. So, being a scholar of the Bible himself and highly educated, he requested an annulment from the new pope, Clement VII, in 1527, on the grounds that he had violated God's laws in marrying her in the first place. Clement refused. By this time, the pope was dealing with the Protestant Reformation, and had no intention of granting a case based on the premise that the pope had made a mistake.

Henry's response was to break away from the Church to grant himself an annulment. He was not going Protestant, but setting himself up as the head of the Church of England. His friend and chancellor was Thomas More, the humanist, so he thought he'd have support. But Thomas, a confirmed Catholic, did not assent, for which he was beheaded as Henry solidified his power as head of the church. Henry gained support of the landed gentry by taking church lands and giving them to his supporters. Thus Parliament passed acts that made Henry the head of the church, dissolved the monasteries and other church lands, and broke England away from Rome.

Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn, who bore him another daughter. According to Catholics, his first daughter, Mary, was the heir. Anne Boleyn's daughter, Elizabeth, was automatically a Protestant since she would be a bastard according to the Catholic Church. But neither was male, and Anne Boleyn got involved in conspiracies, so Henry had her condemned and married Jane Seymour, who finally bore him a son, Edward. Edward was sickly, and ruled as a teenager under strongly Protestant advisers, who tried to rout out Catholicism from England. On his death, his Catholic sister Mary took over. She married Philip II (his Most Catholic Majesty) of Spain, and persecuted Protestants until her death five years later. Anne Boleyn's daugher Elizabeth became queen, and although she didn't allow Catholics in high positions and arrested some who conspired against her, in general she preferred keeping the nation together to keeping religion pure.

Thus it is very difficult to separate political and religious motivations in the English Reformation. The Anglican Church to this day continues Catholic-style ceremony with a mildly Protestant theology.

The Catholic or Counter Reformation

There is a dispute over whether what the Catholic Church did in the 16th century should be called the "Catholic" Reformation or the "Counter" Reformation. Which you choose tells me your point of view. The "Catholic Reformation" implies that the Church was already engaged in serious reforms by 1517, which I believe it was. "Counter Reformation" implies that what they did was in reaction to the Protestant Reformation, without which they would not have cleaned house.

Images over literacy

The 16th century was the era of Baroque Art, which was the art of the Catholic Reformation. Clearly much was being created before 1517 - Bernini's extraordinary work was done under commission to Pope Julius II, who died in 1513. Humanism in general had caused problems for the Church, because the encouragement of pre-Christian ideas and the mass production of books meant that people were exposed to new ideas, much like had happened during the 13th century with new knowledge from the east.

The Protestant Reformation emphasized literacy in order to read the Bible in ones own language. But not everyone was literate, and most people didn't have time to become literate. The Catholic Church had long used imagery to teach ordinary people - paintings, stained glass, illuminations. Pictures can tell extensive, complex stories. In many ways, the cathedrals of the Middle Ages were huge picture books, its windows and paintings telling the stories of Christianity and teaching Christian ethics and morality. The massive construction and decoration of St Peter's and other churches in Rome during the Renaissance continued this tradition using the new techniques of perspective (remember Masaccio's Trinity?).

Bernini's work in particular is associated with the Catholic Reformation. I'll use one example, in conjunction with the story. Teresa of Avila was a mystic, and in times of outside threat the Church has welcomed mystics so long as they were not heretics. Her communion with God, unlike Joan of Arc's, was not just voices. It was intensely visceral, almost sexual. Some say not "almost":

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Bernini's statue of this moment, created 1647-52, shows this emotional contact.

St Teresa

Such imagery and stories emphasized an emotional, spiritual, mystical connection between the individual worshipper, saints and God. This was the one element of the Protestant experience that explained the popularity of Reformed religion. People in the 16th century wanted a closeness with God, and Protestants got this from reading Scripture. The Catholic emphasis on imagery was more open to the larger population, and the art it created was inspiring and beautiful. The drama of the human experience was more significant in this tradition than the intellectual aspects of life, and thus it appealed to many people.

Church reforms

Pope Paul III gets much of the credit for the reforming of the Catholic Church in terms of doctrine and regulations. In addition to instituting the proper education of bishops and priests, and outlawing all clerical abuses, Paul and the Councils with whom he worked (especially the Council of Trent in 1545) developed a number of new elements designed to clarify Christianity and provide stability.

New Orders
Paul instituted new orders of monks, friars and nuns. The two most famous are the Ursuline nuns, who established monasteries in faraway places like New Orleans, and the Jesuits. The Society of Jesus, founded by Ignatius Loyola, created an order of fearless "soldiers of Christ". His book Spiritual Exercises took them to the edge of death in the form of meditations, creating an inner, Stoic strength that could answer any threat. The Jesuits went out among pagan tribes in the Americas, and among civilized cultures like China and Japan, winning souls for the Catholic Church.

The Inquisition
The foundation here was in the crusades against the Cathari and other heretics in the 12th century. In the 13th century the Dominican order organized it more effectively. The Inquisition was instrumental in the destruction of the Knights Templar (to whom elites owed lots of money after the Crusades) and the condemnation of the Beguines (a lay order of women who lived in imitation of Jesus). Paul strengthened the order and gave it more authority to persecute heretics. The focus was on Jewish and Muslim converts, and on sorcery in an effort to root out devil-worship and other threats to orthodoxy among the people of Europe.

Index of Prohibited Books
A list was made of books that good Catholics were not supposed to read. It of course included works by Luther and Calvin, but you can see all the titles here, since it was added to over the years and was in effect until 1966. What's important here is that the list acknowledges the impact of books on people, the influence that writing has on the mind and heart.

Sublimus Dei
This 1537 document by Pope Paul outlawed the enslavement of native Americans, and focused on their peaceful conversion. He declared the natives to be rational people with souls, when others had argued that they were beasts who should be enslaved. Some see this document as the beginning of a shift in the understanding of native peoples and eventually slavery itself.

Lessons of History

1. Printing and paper technology played a major role in the Reformations.

2. The English Reformation is a model for the combination of religious and political motivations during this era.

3. The Catholic Reformation focused on images to make Catholic teaching accessible, and new rules to clean up the Church.



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.