In the late Middle Ages, religion was at the centre of life for everyone. Whether everyone was sincere or robust in their beliefs is another question. As with most things that are generally accepted knowledge, individuals do not always rigorously question their own position. As an example, most Scottish or English people today would not question the concept of democracy being a “good thing”, and very few of them would spend a lot of time on arguments for or against it.
This was pretty much the position with religion in Europe in the late fifteenth century. However, just as today we can approve the concept of democracy but have little or no respect for our politicians, so across Europe people were questioning, not Christianity as a concept, but the practice of it by the Catholic Church.
By the latter years of the 15th century, the Church, under the leadership of a succession of Popes notorious for their hunger for temporal power, and their manifestly ill-conditioned personal lives, was being urged on all sides to effect reform. Until this period, the majority of scholars were clerics, but the spread of printing enabled thousands of men and women who would otherwise never have been able to afford books, to read the Bible, the Church Fathers and the commentaries of intellectuals, for themselves. What they read about their religion, and what they saw being practised around them, diverged so dramatically that calls for reformation began to be heard across Europe.
To begin with, reform was intended to be undertaken within the Church – men such as Savonarola in Florence preached against greed and vanity and urged repentance. Erasmus of Rotterdam, his friends, More, Linacre, Aegidius and others, exposed not only the greed, lack of humility and even downright depravity of the senior churchmen, but also challenged commonly accepted religious practices, such as the veneration of relics, as close to idolatry.
It was never the intention, however, of these Humanists, as they became known, to question the ultimate authority of the Church. They wanted reform through a general Council of the Church, which would review bad practices and enjoin strict observation of the teachings of the Church on clergy and laymen alike.
They found, though, that once the door has been opened, it cannot be closed again.The idea of reform from inside hit a rock with the preaching of Martin Luther.Luther, an Augustinian Canon, was initially stirred to outrage by the sale of Indulgences to pay for the rebuilding of St Peter’s in Rome.The theology behind Indulgences was complex, and thus they were open to abuse.
In 1516, the preaching of an Indulgence in Germany for the building of St Peter’s was the final straw. The Pope’s agents sold indulgences shamelessly, and the peasantry felt that they were being pretty much excluded from heaven because they could not afford to buy forgiveness. This was a step too far for many Germans, including Luther. He questioned, not just the sale of indulgences, but the whole concept of achieving salvation through confession and penance. He espoused the doctrine of Justification by Faith alone.
So if you didn’t need to confess, and salvation was achieved purely through the merits of Christ, what was the point of priests? Or Cardinals? Or the Pope? Luther outlined his arguments in ninety-five theses which he pinned to the door of the Cathedral in Wittenberg, the accepted practice for raising theological questions.
Without the printing press, they would probably have raised no more than some academic polemics, but with the new technology, they spread around Europe like wild-fire, falling on fertile ground with both educated people who were now studying the Church Fathers, and even reading a new translations of the New Testament from the original Greek by Erasmus, and the commons who were keenly aware of the failings of many of their parish clergy.
The genie was out of the bottle.