As the sixteenth century opened, Europe was standing unconscious on the brink of a crater destined to change profoundly by its eruption the course of modern civilisation. The Church had acquired so complete a control over the souls of men, its venerable antiquity and its majestic organisation so filled the imagination, the services it had rendered seemed to call for such reverential gratitude, and its acknowledged claim to interpret the will of God to man rendered obedience so plain a duty, that the continuance of its power appeared to be an unchanging law of the universe, destined to operate throughout the limitless future. To understand the combination of forces which rent the domination of the Church into fragments, we must investigate in detail its relations with society on the eve of the disruption, and consider how it was regarded by the men of that day, with their diverse grievances, more or less justifying revolt. We must here omit from consideration the benefits which the Church had conferred, and confine our attention to the antagonisms which it provoked and to the evils for which it was held responsible. The interests and the motives at work were numerous and complex, some of them dating back for centuries, others comparatively recent, but all of them growing in intensity with the development of political institutions and popular intelligence. There has been a natural tendency to regard the Reformation as solely a religious movement; but this is an error. In the curious theocracy which dominated the Middle Ages, secular and spiritual interests became so inextricably intermingled that it is impossible wholly to disentangle them; but the motives, both remote and proximate, which led to the Lutheran revolt were largely secular rather than spiritual. So far, indeed, as concerns our present purpose we may dismiss the religious changes incident to the Reformation with the remark that they were not the object sought but the means for attaining that object. The existing ecclesiastical system was the practical evolution of dogma, and the overthrow of dogma was the only way to obtain permanent relief from the intolerable abuses of that system.
In primitive society the kingly and the priestly functions are commonly united; the Church and the State are one. Development leads to specialisation; the functions are divided; and the struggle for supremacy, like that between the Brahman and Kshatriya castes, becomes inevitable. In medieval Europe this struggle was peculiarly intricate, for, in the conversion of the Barbarians, a strange religion was imposed by the conquered on the conquerors; and the history of the relations between Church and State thenceforth becomes a record of the efforts of the priestly class to acquire domination and of the military class to maintain its independence. The former gradually won. It had two enormous advantages, for it virtually monopolised education and culture, and, through its democratic organisation, absorbed an undue share of the vigour and energy of successive generations by means of the career which it alone offered to those of lowly birth but lofty ambition. When Charles the Great fostered the Church as a civilising agency he was careful to preserve his mastership; but the anarchy attending the dissolution of his empire enabled the Church to assert its pretensions, as formulated in the False Decretals, and, when the slow process of enlightenment again began in the eleventh century, it had a most advantageous base of operations. With the development of scholastic theology in the twelfth century, its claims on the obedience of the faithful were reduced to a system under which the priest became the arbiter of the eternal destiny of man, a power readily transmuted into control of his worldly fortunes by the use of excommunication and interdict. During this period, moreover, the hierarchical organisation was strengthened and the claims of the Pope as the Vicar of Christ and as the supreme and irresponsible head of the Church became more firmly established through the extension of its jurisdiction, original and appellate. The first half of the thirteenth century saw the power of these agencies fully developed, when Raymond of Toulouse was humbled with fleshly arms, and John of England with spiritual weapons, and when the long rivalry of the papacy and Empire was virtually ended with the extinction of the House of Hohenstaufen. The expression of the supremacy thus won is to be found in the Gloss of Innocent IV on the Decretals and was proclaimed to the world by Boniface VIII in the bull Unam Sanctam.
This sovereignty was temporal as well as spiritual. The power of the Pope, as the earthly representative of God, was illimitable. The official theory, as expressed in the De Principum Regimine, which passes under the name of St Thomas Aquinas, declared the temporal jurisdiction of kings to be simply derived from the authority intrusted by Christ to St Peter and his successors; whence it followed that the exercise of the royal authority was subject to papal control. As Matthew of Vendome had already sung—
Papa regit reges, dominos dominatur, acerbis
Principibus stabili jure jubere jubet.
The arguments of Marsiglio of Padua, intended to restore the imperial system of a Church subordinate to the State, were of some assistance to Louis of Bavaria in his long struggle with the papacy; but at his death they virtually disappeared from view. The Councils of Constance and Basel were an effort on the part of the prelates and princes to limit the papal authority, and if they had succeeded they would have rendered the Church a constitutional monarchy in place of a despotism; but the disastrous failure at Basel greatly strengthened papal absolutism. The superiority of Councils over Popes, though it continued to be asserted by France in the Pragmatic Sanction of 1438, and from time to time by Germany, gradually sank into an academic question, and the Popes were finally able to treat it with contempt. In 1459, at the Congress of Mantua, Pius II, in his speech to the French envoys, took occasion to assert his irresponsible supremacy, which could not be limited by general councils and to which all princes were subject. In his extraordinary letter to Mohammad II, then in the full flush of his conquests, Pius tempted the Turk to embrace Christianity with the promise to appoint him Emperor of Greece and of the East, so that what he had won by force he might enjoy with justice. If the Pope could thus grant kingdoms, he could also take them away. George Podiebrad, King of Bohemia, committed the offence of insisting on the terms under which the Hussites had been reconciled to the Church by the Fathers of Basel; whereupon Pius II in 1464, and Paul II in 1465, summoned him to Rome to stand his trial for heresy; and the latter, without awaiting the expiration of the term assigned, declared him deprived of the royal power, released his subjects from their allegiance and made over his kingdom to Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, with the result of a long and devastating war. Julius II, in his strife with France, gave the finishing blow to the little kingdom of Navarre by excommunicating in 1511 those children of perdition Jean d’Albret and his wife Catherine, and empowering the first comer to seize their dominions—an act of piety for which the rapacious Ferdinand of Aragon had made all necessary preparations. In the bull of excommunication Julius formally asserted his plenary power, granted by God, over all nations and kingdoms; and this claim, amounting to a quasi-divinity, was sententiously expressed in one of the inscriptions at the consecration of Alexander VI in 1492—
Caesare magna fuit, nunc Roma est maxima. Sextus
Regnat Alexander: ille vir, iste Deus.
While it is true that the extreme exercise of papal authority in making and unmaking Kings was exceptional, still the unlimited jurisdiction claimed by the Holy See was irksome in many ways to the sovereigns of Europe and, as time wore on and the secular authority became consolidated, it was endured with more and more impatience. There could be no hard and fast line of delimitation between the spiritual and the temporal, for the two were mutually interdependent, and the convenient phrase, temporalia ad spiritualia ordinata, was devised to define those temporal matters, over which, as requisite to the due enjoyment of the spiritual, the Church claimed exclusive control. Moreover it assumed the right to determine in doubtful matters the definition of this elastic term and the secular ruler constantly found himself inconveniently limited in the exercise of his authority. The tension thence arising was increased by the happy device of legates and nuncios, by which the Holy See established in every country a representative whose business it was to exercise supreme spiritual jurisdiction and to maintain the claims of the Church, resulting in a divided sovereignty, at times exceedingly galling and even incompatible with a well-ordered State. Rulers so orthodox as Ferdinand and Isabel asked the great national Council of Seville, in 1478, how they could best prevent the residence of legates and nuncios who not only carried much gold out of the kingdom but interfered seriously with the royal pre-eminence. In this they only expressed the desires of the people; for the Estates of Castile, in 1480, asked the sovereigns to make some provision with respect to the nuncios who were of no benefit and only a source of evil.
Another fruitful source of complaint, on the part not only of the rulers but of the national Churches, was the gradual extension of the claim of the Holy See to control all patronage. Innocent III has the credit of first systematically asserting this claim and exploiting it for the benefit of his Cardinals and other officials. The practice increased, and Villani tells us that, in 1319, John XXII assumed to himself the control of all prebends in every collegiate church, from the sale of which he gathered immense sums. Finally the assertion was made that the Holy See owned all benefices and in the rules of the papal Chanceries appear the prices to be charged for them, whether with or without cure of souls, showing that the traffic had become an established source of revenue. Even the rights of lay patrons and founders were disregarded and in the provisions granted by the popes there was a special clause derogating their claims. Partly this patronage was used for direct profit, partly it was employed for the benefit of the Cardinals and their retainers, on whom pluralities were heaped with unstinted hand, and the further refinement was introduced of granting to them pensions imposed on benefices and monastic foundations. Abbeys, also, were bestowed in commendam on titular abbots who collected the revenues through stewards, with little heed to the maintenance of the inmates or the performance of the offices. In the eager desire to anticipate these profits of simony, vacancies were not awaited, and rights of succession, under the name of expectatives, were given or sold in advance. The deplorable results of this spiritual commerce were early apparent and formed the subject of bitter lamentation and complaint, but to no purpose. In the thirteenth century Bishop Grosseteste and St Louis assailed it in vigorous terms; in the fourteenth, Bishop Alvar Pelayo, a penitentiary of John XXII, was equally fearless and unsparing in his denunciation. In 1385 Charles V of France asserted in an ordonnance that the Cardinals had absorbed all the preferment in the kingdom—benefices, abbeys, orphanages, hospitals etc.—exacting revenue to the utmost and leaving the institutions disabled and the fabric to fall into ruin. At the Council of Siena, in 1423, the French prelates declared that all the benefices in France were sold by the Curia, so that the churches were reduced to desolation. In 1475 the Abbot of Abbots of the great Cistercian Order complained that all the abbeys in France were held in commendam, and consequently were laid waste. England in self-defence had enacted, in the fourteenth century, the Statutes of Provisors and Praemunire; while in 1438 France protected herself with the Pragmatic Sanction, but other nations lacked the strength or the resolution to do likewise and the resultant irritation continued to grow ominously. In Spain, which refused to throw off the yoke as late as 1547, the Primate Siliceo of Toledo asserted, in a memorial to Charles V, that there were then in Rome five or six thousand Spaniards engaged in bargaining for benefices, “such being, for our sins, the present custom”; and he added that in every cathedral chapter in the land the majority of canons had been either hostlers in Rome or traders in benefices who scarce knew grammar enough to read their hours.
In this absorption of patronage the feature most provocative of friction with the sovereigns was the claim gradually advanced to nominate bishops; for these prelates were mostly temporal lords of no little influence, and in the political schemes of the papacy the character of its nominees might well create uneasiness in the State. Quarrels over the exercise of this power were of frequent occurrence. Venice, for instance, which was chronically in open or concealed hostility to Rome, was very sensitive as to the fidelity of its acquisitions on the mainland, where a bishop who was the agent of an enemy might be the source of infinite mischief. Thus, in 1485, there was a struggle over the vacant see of Padua, in which Venice triumphed by sequestrating other revenues of Cardinal Michiel, appointed by Innocent VIII. Again, in 1491, a contest arose over the patriarchate of Aquileia, the primatial see of Venetia, resulting in the exile of the celebrated humanist Ermolao Barbaro, on whom Innocent had bestowed it, and the see remained vacant until Alexander VI accepted Niccolò Donato, the Venetian nominee. In 1505 Julius II refused to confirm a bishop appointed by the Signoria to the see of Cremona, as he designed the place for his favourite nephew Galeotto della Rovere; he held out for two years and finally compromised for a money payment to the Cardinal. So, when the latter died in 1508, Venice filled his see of Vicenza with Jacopo Dandolo, while Julius gave it to another nephew, Sisto Gara della Rovere, and the unseemly contest over the bishopric lasted for years. Matters were scarce better between the Holy See and its crusader Matthias Corvinus. A serious breach was occasioned, in 1465, by the effort of Paul II to enforce his claims; but Matthias took a position so aggressive that finally Sixtus IV conceded the point and confirmed his appointments. The quarrel was renewed in 1480, over the see of Modrus, which Sixtus wanted for a retainer of his nephew, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere. The King told Sixtus that Hungary, in her customary spirit, would rather, for a third time, cut herself loose from the Catholic Church and go over to the infidel than permit the benefices of the land to be appropriated in violation of the royal right of presentation; but, after holding out for three years, he submitted. He was more successful, in 1485, when he gave the archbishopric of Gran to Ippolito d’Este, who was a youth under age, and when Innocent VIII remonstrated he retorted that the Pope had granted such favours to many less worthy persons; any person appointed by the Pope might bear the title, but Ippolito should enjoy the revenues. He carried his point and, in 1487, Ippolito took possession.
Spain was still less patient. Even under so weak a monarch as Henry IV Sixtus failed to secure for his worthless nephew, Cardinal Piero Riario, the archbishopric of Seville, which fell vacant in 1473 through the death of Alfonso de Fonseca. Although he had been regularly appointed the Spaniards refused to receive Riario, and the see was administered by Pero Gonzalez Mendoza, Bishop of Sigiienza, until 1482, when it was filled by Iñigo Manrique. The stronger and abler Ferdinand of Aragon was even more recalcitrant. He adopted the most arbitrary measures to secure the archbishopric of Saragossa for his natural son Alfonso against Ausias Dezpuch, the nominee of Sixtus IV. Still more decisive was the struggle in Castile over the see of Cuenca, in 1482, to which Sixtus appointed a Genoese cousin. Ferdinand and Isabel demanded that Spanish bishoprics should be filled only with Spaniards of their selection, to which Sixtus replied that all benefices were in the gift of the Pope and that his power, derived from Christ, was unlimited. The sovereigns answered by calling home all their subjects resident at the papal Court and threatening to take steps for the convocation of a General Council. This brought Sixtus to terms; he sent a special nuncio to Spain, but they refused to receive him and stood on their dignity until Cardinal Mendoza, then Archbishop of Toledo, intervened, when, on Sixtus withdrawing his pretensions, they allowed themselves to be reconciled. Ferdinand and his successor Charles V displayed the same vigour in resisting the encroachments of the cardinals when they seized upon vacant abbacies which happened to belong to the patronage of the Crown. It marks the abasement to which the Holy Roman Empire had fallen when we hear that Sixtus confirmed to Frederick III and his son Maximilian a privilege granted by Eugenius IV to nominate to the sees of Brixen, Trent, Gurk, Triest, Coire, Vienna, and Wiener-Neustadt, adding thereto the presentation to three hundred benefices.
These cases have a double interest as illustrating the growing tension between the Holy See and secular potentates and the increasing disposition to meet its claims with scant measure of respect. It was constantly arrogating to itself enlarged prerogatives and the sovereigns were less and less inclined to submission. But, whether exercised by King or Pope, the distribution of ecclesiastical patronage had become simple jobbery, to reward dependents or to gain pecuniary or political advantage, without regard to the character of the incumbent or the sacred duties of the office. These evils were aggravated by habitual and extravagant pluralism, of which the Holy See set an example eagerly imitated by the sovereigns. Bishoprics and benefices were showered upon the Cardinals and their retainers, and upon the favourites of the Popes in all parts of Europe, whose revenues were drawn to Rome, to the impoverishment of each locality; while the functions for which the revenues had been granted remained for the most part unperformed, to the irritation of the populations. Rodrigo Borgia (subsequently Alexander VI), created Cardinal in his youth by his uncle Calixtus III, accumulated benefices to the aggregate of 70,000 ducats a year. Giuliano della Rovere (Julius II) likewise owed his cardinalate to his uncle Sixtus IV, who bestowed on him also the archbishopric of Avignon and the bishoprics of Bologna, Lausanne, Coutances, Viviers, Mende, Ostia, and Velletri, with the abbeys of Nonantola and Grottaferrata. Another Cardinal nephew of Sixtus was Piero Riario, who held a crowd of bishoprics yielding him 60,000 ducats a year, which he lavished in shameless excesses, dying deeply in debt. But this abuse was not confined to Rome. A notable example is that of Jean, son of René II, Duke of Lorraine. Born in 1498, he was in 1501 appointed coadjutor to his uncle Henri, Bishop of Metz, after whose death in 1505 Jean took possession in 1508, and held the see until 1529. He then resigned it in favour of his nephew Nicholas, aged four, but reserved the revenues and right of resumption in case of death or resignation. In 1517 he became also Bishop of Toul and in 1518 of Térouanne, besides obtaining the cardinalate. In 1521 he added the sees of Valence and Die, in 1523 that of Verdun. Then followed the three archbishoprics of Narbonne, Reims, and Lyons in 1524, 1533 and 1537. In 1536 he obtained the see of Alby, soon afterwards that of Macon, in 1541 that of Agen, and in 1542 that of Nantes. In addition he held the abbeys of Gorze, Fécamp, Cluny, Marmoutiers, St Ouen, St Jean de Laon, St Germer, St Médard of Soissons, and St Mansuy of Toul. The see of Verdun he resigned to his nephew Nicholas on the same terms as that of Metz and when the latter, in 1548, abdicated in order to marry Marguerite d’Egmont, he resumed them both. The archbishopric of Reims he resigned in 1538 in favour of his nephew Charles, and Lyons he abandoned in 1539. In spite of the enormous revenues derived from these scandalous pluralities his extravagance kept him always poor and we can imagine the condition, spiritual and temporal, of the churches and abbeys thus consigned to the negligence of a worldly prelate whose life was spent in Courts. It was bad enough when these pluralists employed coadjutors to look after their numerous prelacies, but worse when they farmed them out to the highest bidder.
Another ecclesiastical abuse severely felt by all sovereigns who were jealous of their jurisdiction and earnest in enforcing justice was the exemption enjoyed by all ranks of the clergy from the authority of the secular tribunals. They were justiciable only by the spiritual Courts, which could pronounce no judgments of blood, and whose leniency towards clerical offenders virtually assured to them immunity from punishment—an immunity long maintained in English jurisprudence under the well-known name of Benefit of Clergy. So complete was the freedom of the priesthood from all responsibility to secular authority that the ingenuity of the doctors was taxed to find excuses for the banishment of Abiathar by Solomon. The evil of this consisted not only in the temptation to crime which it offered to those regularly bred to the Church and performing its functions, but it attracted to the lower orders of the clergy, which were not bound to celibacy or debarred from worldly pursuits, numberless criminals and vagabonds, who were thus enabled to set the officers of justice at defiance. The first defence of a thief or assassin when arrested was to claim that he belonged to the Church and to display his tonsure, and the episcopal officials were vigilant in the defence of these wretches, thus stimulating crime and grievously impeding the administration of justice. Frequent efforts were made by the secular authorities to remedy these evils; but the Church resolutely maintained its prerogatives, provoking quarrels which led to increased antagonism between the laity and the clergy. The Gravamina of the German Nation, adopted by the Diet of Nürnberg, in 1522, stated no more than the truth in asserting that this clerical immunity was responsible for countless cases of adultery, robbery, coining, arson, homicide, and false-witness committed by ecclesiastics; and there was peculiar significance in the declaration that, unless the clergy were subjected to the secular Courts, there was reason to fear an uprising of the people, for no justice was to be had against a clerical offender in the spiritual tribunals.
Venice was peculiarly sensitive as to this interference with social order, and it is well known how her insistence on her right to enforce the laws on all offenders led to the prolonged rupture between the Republic and Paul V in the early years of the seventeenth century. It was a special concession to her when, in 1474, Sixtus IV admitted that, in view of the numerous clerical counterfeiters and State criminals, such offenders might be tried by secular process, with the assistance, however, of the vicar of the Patriarch of Aquileia. The extent of the abuse is indicated by an order of Leo X, in 1514, to the governor of Ascoli, authorising him, for the sake of the peace of the community, to hand over to the secular courts all criminal married clerks who did not wear vestment and tonsure. What exasperating use could be made of this clerical privilege was shown, in 1478, in the Florentine conspiracy of the Pazzi, which was engineered, with the privity of Sixtus IV, by his nephew Girolamo Riario. The assassins were two clerics, Stefano da Bagnoni and Antonio Maffei; they succeeded in killing Giuliano de’ Medici and wounding Lorenzo, during the mass, thus adding sacrilege to murder, while Salviati, Archbishop of Pisa, was endeavouring to seize the palace of the Signoria. The enraged populace promptly hanged Salviati, the two assassins were put to death, and Cardinal Raffaelle Sansoni Riario, another papal nephew, who was suspiciously in Florence as the guest of the Pazzi, was imprisoned. Sixtus had the effrontery to complain loudly of the violation of the liberties of the Church and to demand of Florence satisfaction, including the banishment of Lorenzo. The Cardinal was liberated after a few weeks, during which he was detained as a hostage for the Florentines who were in Rome, but this did not appease Sixtus. He laid Florence under an interdict, which was not observed, and a local Council was assembled which issued a manifesto denouncing the Pope as a servant of adulterers and a vicar of Satan and praying God to liberate His Church from a pastor who was a ravening wolf in sheep’s clothing. The pretensions of the Church were evidently becoming unendurable to the advancing intelligence of the age; it was forfeiting human respect and there was a dangerous tendency abroad to treat it as a secular institution devoid of all special claim to reverence.
This was not the only manner in which the papacy interfered with secular justice, for, towards the end of the fifteenth century, the papal jurisdiction spread its aegis over the crimes of the laity as well as of the clergy. Since the early thirteenth century the papal Penitentiary had been accustomed to administer absolution, in the forum of conscience, to all applicants. In the fourteenth this came to be a source of profit to the Curia by reason of the graduated scale of fees demanded and the imposition of so-called pecuniary penance by which the sinner purchased pardon of his sins. When the Castilian Inquisition began its operation in 1481, the New Christians, as the Jewish converts were called, hurried in crowds to Rome where they had no difficulty in obtaining from the Penitentiary absolution for whatever heretical crimes they might have committed; and they then claimed that this exempted them from subsequent inquisitorial prosecution. Even those who had been condemned were able to procure for a consideration letters setting aside the sentence and rehabilitating them. It was no part of the policy of Ferdinand and Isabel to allow impunity to be thus easily gained by the apostates or to forego the abundant confiscations flowing into the royal treasury, and therefore they refused to admit that such papal briefs were valid without the royal approval. Sixtus, on his part, was not content to lose the lucrative business arising from Spanish intolerance, and, in 1484, by the constitution Quoniam nonnulli he refuted the assertion that his briefs were valid only in the forum consdentiae and not in the forum contentiosum and ordered them to be received as absolute authority in all Courts, secular as well as ecclesiastical. This was asserting an appellate jurisdiction over all the criminal tribunals of Christendom, and, through the notorious venality of the Curia, where these letters of absolution could always be had for a price, it was a serious blow to the administration of justice everywhere. Not content with this, the power was delegated to the peripatetic vendors of indulgences, who thus carried impunity for crime to every man’s door. The St Peter’s indulgences, sold by Tetzel and his colleagues, were of this character and not only released the purchasers from all spiritual penalties but forbade all secular or criminal prosecution. These monstrous pretensions were reiterated by Paul III in 1549 and by Julius III in 1550. It was impossible for secular rulers tamely to submit to this sale of impunity for crime. In Spain the struggle against it continued with equal obstinacy on each side, and it was fortunate that the Reformation came to prevent the Holy See from rendering all justice, human and divine, a commodity to be sold in open market.
There was another of the so-called liberties of the Church which brought it into collision with temporal princes—the exemption from taxation of all ecclesiastical property, so vigorously proclaimed by Boniface VIII in the bull Clericis laicos. Although, under pressure from Philip the Fair, this declaration was annulled by the Council of Vienne, the principle remained unaffected. The piety of successive generations had brought so large a portion of the wealth of Europe—estimated at fully one-third—into the hands of the Church, that the secular power was becoming more and more disinclined to exempt it from the burdens of the State. Under Paul II (1464-71) the endeavours of Venice and of Florence to subject such property to taxation were the cause of serious and prolonged difficulties with Rome. In fact, the relations between the papacy and the sovereigns of Europe were becoming more and more strained in every way, as the transformation took place from the feudal institutions of the Middle Ages to the monarchical absolutism of the modern era. The nationalities were becoming organised, save in Germany, with a consciousness of unity that they had never before possessed and with new aims and aspirations necessitating settled lines of policy. Less and less they felt themselves mere portions of the great Christian commonwealth under the supreme guidance of the Vicar of Christ, and less and less were they inclined to submit to his commands or to permit his interference with their affairs. In 1464 Louis XI forbade the publication of papal bulls until they should be submitted to him and receive the royal exequatur. Spain followed his example and this became the settled policy of all sovereigns able to assert their independence.
The incompatibility between the papal pretensions and the royal prerogative was intensified not only by the development of the monarchies but by the increasing secularisation of the Holy See. It had long been weighted down by its territorial possessions which led it to subordinate its spiritual duties to its acquisitive ambition. When, about 1280, Nicholas III offered the cardinalate to the Blessed John of Parma, he refused it, saying that he could give good counsel if there was any one to listen to him; but that in Rome salvation of souls was of small account in comparison with wars and intrigues. So it had been and so it continued to be. The fatal necessity of defending the Patrimony of St Peter against the assaults of unscrupulous neighbours and the even more fatal eagerness to extend its boundaries governed the papal policy to the virtual exclusion of loftier aims. Even the transfer to Avignon did not serve to release the Holy See from these chains which bound it to the earth, as was seen in the atrocious war waged by Clement V to gain Ferrara, in the long contest of John XXII with the Visconti, and in the bloody subjugation of revolted communities by Cardinal Albornoz as legate of Urban V. The earlier half of the fifteenth century was occupied with the Great Schism and the struggle between the papacy and the General Councils; but, on the final and triumphant assertion of papal absolutism, the Popes became to all intents and purposes mere secular princes, to whom religion was purely an instrument for supplementing territorial weakness in the attainment of worldly ends. Religion was, in fact, a source of no little strength, increasing the value of the papacy as an ally and its power as an enemy. Among the transalpine nations, at least, there was still enough reverence felt for the Vicar of Christ to render open rupture undesirable. Then there remained the sentence of excommunication and interdict, a force in reserve always to be borne in mind by hostile States. There was also the supreme authority to bind and to loose, whereby a Pope could always release himself from inconvenient agreements and was absolved from observing any compacts, while, if the conscience of an ally chanced to be tender, it could be relieved in the same manner. Still more important was the inexhaustible source of revenue derived from the headship of the Church and the power of the keys—the levying of annates and tithes and the sale of dispensations, absolutions and indulgences. These were exploited in every way that ingenuity could suggest, draining Europe of its substance for the maintenance of papal armies and fleets and of a Court unrivalled in its sumptuous magnificence, until the Holy See was everywhere regarded with detestation. It was this temporal sovereignty which rendered possible the existence of such a succession of pontiffs as disgraced the end of the fifteenth and commencement of the sixteenth century—such careers as those of Alexander VI and Cesare Borgia, such a catastrophe as the sack of Rome in 1527. Even before these evils had grown to such appalling magnitude, Dante had expressed the opinion of all thoughtful men in deploring the results which had followed the so-called Donation of Constantine. By the middle of the fifteenth century Lorenzo Valla, in his demonstration of the fraud, assumed that the corruption of the Church and the wars which desolated Italy were its direct consequence, and few more eloquent and powerful indictments of the papacy are to be found than the bold utterances in which he warned the Holy See that princes and peoples could not much longer endure its tyranny and wickedness. Remonstrances and warnings were in vain; the papacy became more and more secularised, and, as the pressure grew more inexorable, men asked themselves why, if the headship of St Peter were founded on Christ’s injunction to feed His sheep, St Peter’s successor employed that headship rather to shear and slaughter.
Papal history, in fact, as soon as the Holy See had vindicated its supremacy over general councils, becomes purely a political history of diplomatic intrigues, of alliances made and broken, of military enterprises. In following it no one would conclude, from internal evidence, that the papacy represented interests higher than those of any other petty Italian prince, or that it claimed to be the incarnation of a faith divinely revealed to ensure peace on earth and goodwill to man—save when, occasionally in a papal letter, an unctuous expression is employed to shroud some peculiarly objectionable design. The result of this, even in the hands of a man like Pius II, not wholly without loftier impulses, is seen in his complaint, March 12, 1462, to the Milanese envoy. All the States of Italy, he said, were hostile, save Naples and Milan, in both of which the existing governments were precarious; his own subjects were always on the brink of revolt, and many of his Cardinals were on the side of France, which was threatening him with a Council and was ready to provoke a schism unless he would abandon Ferdinand of Naples for René of Anjou. France, moreover, dragged Spain and Burgundy with her, while Germany was equally unfriendly. The powerful Archbishop of Mainz was hostile and was supported by most of the princes, who were offended at the papal relations with the powerless Frederick III, and he, again, was at war with the King of Hungary, while the King of Bohemia was half a heretic. The position was no better under his successor, Paul II, who, at his death in 1471, left the Holy See without a friend in Italy; everywhere it was regarded with hatred and distrust. Under Sixtus IV there was no improvement; and, in 1490, Innocent VIII threatened to leave Italy and find a refuge elsewhere. He had not a friend or an ally; the treasury was exhausted; the barons of the Patrimony were rebellious; and Ferdinand of Naples openly talked of entering Rome, lance in rest, to teach the Pope to do justice. The Church had conquered heresy, it had overcome schism, there was no question of faith to distract men’s minds, yet this was the antagonistic position which the Head of Christendom had forced upon the nations whose allegiance it claimed.
During the half-century preceding the Reformation there was constant shifting of scene; enemies were converted into allies and allies into enemies, but the spirit of the papacy remained the same, and, whatever might be the political combination of the moment, the Christian nations at large regarded it as a possible enemy, whose friendship was not to be trusted, for it was always fighting for its own hand—or rather, as the increasing nepotism of successive pontiffs ruled its policy, for the aggrandisement of worthless scions of the papal stock, such as Girolamo Riario or Franceschetto Cibò or Cesare Borgia. Julius II, it is true, was less addicted to nepotism, and made and broke treaties and waged war for the enlargement of the papal territories, producing on the awakening intelligence of Europe the impression which Erasmus condenses in such a way as to show how threatening was the spirit evoked by the secularisation of the Holy See. In the Encomium Moriae, written in 1510, he describes the spiritual and material weapons employed by the Popes, against those who, at the instigation of the devil, seek to nibble at the Patrimony of St Peter, fighting not only with bulls of excommunication but with fire and sword, to the shedding of much Christian blood, and believing themselves to be defending the Church against her enemies,—as if she could have any worse enemies than impious pontiffs. Leo X followed with a pale imitation of the policy of Alexander VI, his object being the advancement of the Medici family and the preservation of the papal dominions in the fierce strife between France and Spain. To him the papacy was a personal possession out of which the possessor was expected to make the most, religion being an entirely subordinate affair. His conception of his duties is condensed in the burst of exultation attributed to him on his election,—Let us enjoy the papacy since God has given it to us!
Under the circumstances the Holy See could inspire neither respect nor confidence. Universal distrust was the rule between the States, and the papacy was merely a State whose pretensions to care for the general welfare of Christendom were recognised as diplomatic hypocrisy. When, in 1462, Pius II took the desperate step of resolving to lead in person the proposed crusade, he explained that this was the only way to convince Europe of his sincerity. When he levied a tithe, he said, for the war with the infidel, appeal was made to a future Council; when he issued indulgences he was accused of greed; whatever was done was attributed to the desire to raise money, and no one trusted the papal word; like a bankrupt trader, he was without credit. This distrust of the papacy with regard to its financial devices for the prosecution of the war with the Turk was universally entertained, and it lent a sharper edge to the dissatisfaction of those called upon to contribute. At the Diet of Frankfort in 1454 and at the Congress of Mantua in 1459, the overwhelming danger to Europe from the Turkish advance failed to stimulate the princes to action; for they asserted that the papal purpose was to get their money, and not to fight the infidel. In this some injustice was done to Calixtus III and Pius II who at heart were earnest in the crusading spirit, but it was justified in the case of their successors. Men saw large sums raised ostensibly for that object by tithes on ecclesiastical revenues, and by the innumerable crusading indulgences which were preached wherever the secular authorities would permit, while no effective measures were adopted to oppose the Turk. It is true that in 1480 the capture of Otranto caused a panic throughout Italy which forced the Italian States to unite for its recovery; but scarce was this accomplished, in 1481, when Sixtus IV, in alliance with Venice, plunged into a war with Naples, and, after he had been forced to make peace, turned his arms against his ally and gave 50,000 ducats to equip a fleet against the Republic—ducats probably supplied by the crusading indulgence which he had just published.
Such had in fact been the papal practice, since in the thirteenth century Gregory IX had proclaimed that the home interests of the Holy See were more important than the defence of the Holy Land and that crusading money could be more advantageously expended in Italy than in Palestine. There was no scruple about applying to the needs of the moment money derived from any source whatever and, in spite of the large amounts raised under the pretext of crusades which never started, the extravagance of the papal Court and its military enterprises left it almost always poor. Popes and Cardinals rivalled each other in the sumptuousness of their buildings. Never were religious solemnities and public functions performed with such profuse magnificence, nor was greater liberality exercised in the encouragement of art and literature. Paul II had a sedia gestatoria built for the Christmas ceremonies of 1466 which was an artistic wonder, costing, according to popular report, more than a palace. Yet this Pope so managed his finances that on his death, in 1471, he left behind him an enormous treasure in money and jewels and costly works of antique art; we hear of pearls inventoried at 300,000 ducats, the gold and jewels of two tiaras appraised at 300,000 more, and other precious stones and ornaments at 1,000,000. All this was wasted by Sixtus IV on his worthless kindred and on the wars in which he was involved for their benefit; and he left the treasury deeply in debt. His successor, Innocent VIII, was equally reckless and was always in straits for money, though his son, Franceschetto Cibò, could coolly lose in a single night 14,000 ducats to Cardinal Riario, and in another 8000 to Cardinal Balue. The pontificate of Alexander VI was notorious for the splendour of its banquets and public solemnities, as well as for the enormous sums consumed in the ambitious enterprises of Cesare Borgia. Julius II lavished money without stint on his wars as well as on architecture and art; yet he left 200,000 ducats in the treasury besides jewels and regalia to a large amount. The careless magnificence of Leo X, his schemes for the aggrandisement of his family, and his patronage of art and letters, soon exhausted this reserve as well as all available sources of revenue; he was always in need of money and employed ruinous expedients to raise it; when he died he left nothing but debts, through which his nearest friends were ruined, and a treasury so empty that at his funeral the candles used were those which had already seen service at the obsequies of Cardinal Riario. When we consider that this lavish and unceasing expenditure, incurred to gratify the ambition and vanity of successive Vicars of Christ, was ultimately drawn from the toil of the peasantry of Europe, and that probably the larger part of the sums thus exacted disappeared in the handling before the residue reached Rome, we can understand the incessant complaints of the oppressed populations, and the hatred which was silently stored up to await the time of explosion. Thus, we may reasonably conclude that in its essence the Reformation was due more largely to financial than to religious considerations. The terrible indictment of the papacy which Ulrich von Hutten addressed to Leo X, December 1, 1517, contains not a word about faith or doctrine; the whole gravamen consists in the abuse of power—the spoliations, the exactions, the oppression, the sale of dispensations and pardons, the fraudulent devices whereby the wealth of Germany was cunningly transferred to Rome, and the stirring up of strife among Christians in order to defend or to extend the Patrimony of St Peter.
In every way the revenues thus enjoyed and squandered by the Curia were scandalous and oppressive. To begin with, the cost of their collection was enormous. The accounts of the papal agent for first-fruits in Hungary, for the year 1320, show that of 1913 florins collected only 732 reached the papal treasury. With a more thorough organisation in later periods the returns were better; but when the device was adopted of employing bankers to collect the proceeds of annates and indulgences, the share allotted to those who conducted the business and made advances, was ruinously large. In the contract for the fateful St Peter’s indulgence with the Fuggers of Augsburg, their portion of the receipts was to be fifty per cent. Even worse was it when these revenues were farmed out, for the banker who depended for his profits on the extent of his sales or collections was not likely to be overnice in his methods, nor to exercise much restraint over his agents. Europe was overrun with pardon-sellers who had purchased letters empowering them to sell indulgences, whether of a general character or for some church or hospital; and for centuries their lies, their frauds, their exactions, and their filthy living were the cause of the bitterest and most indignant complaints.
Even more demoralising were the revenues derived from the sale of countless dispensations for marriage within the prohibited degrees, for the holding of pluralities, for the numerous kinds of “irregularities” and other breaches of the canon law; so that its prescriptions might almost seem to have been framed for the purpose of enabling the Holy See to profit by their violation. Not less destructive to morals were the absolutions, which amounted to a sale of pardons for sin of every description, as though the Decalogue had been enacted for this very purpose. There was also a thriving business done in the composition for unjust gains, whereby fraudulent traders, usurers, robbers, and other malefactors, on paying to the Church a portion of their illegal acquisitions, were released from the obligation of making restitution. In every way the power of the keys and the treasure of the merits of Christ were exploited, without any regard for moral consequences.
Deplorable as was this effacement of the standards of right and wrong, all these were at least voluntary payments which perhaps rather predisposed the thoughtless in favour of the Church who so benignantly exercised her powers to relieve the weakness of human nature. It was otherwise however with the traffic in benefices and expectatives which filled the parishes and chapters with unworthy incumbents, not only neglectful of their sacred duties but seeking to recoup themselves for their expenditure by exactions from their subjects. A standing grievance was the exaction of the annates, which, since their regulation by Boniface IX and the fruitless effort of the Council of Basel to abolish them, continued to be the source of bitter complaint. They consisted of a portion, usually computed at one-half, of the estimated revenue of a benefice, worth twenty-five florins or more, collected on every change of incumbents. Thus the archbishopric of Rouen was taxed at 12,000 florins and the little see of Grenoble at 300; the great abbacy of Saint Denis at 6000 and the little Saint Cyprien of Poitiers at 33, while all parish cures in France were rated uniformly at 24 ducats, equivalent to about 30 florins. As though these burdens were not enough, pensions on benefices and religious houses were lavishly granted to the favourites of Popes and Cardinals; for the Pope was master of all Church property and was limited in its distribution by nothing but his own discretion. Thus the people on whom these burdens ultimately fell were taught to hate the clergy as the clergy hated the Holy See. Of all its oppressions, however, that which excited the fiercest clerical antagonism was the power which it exercised of demanding a tithe of all ecclesiastical revenues whenever money was needed, under the pretext, generally, of carrying on the war with the infidel. As early as 1240, Gregory IX called for a twentieth to aid him in his struggle with Frederick II, and his legate at the Council of Senlis forced the French Bishops to give their assent; but St Louis interposed and forbade it. Nevertheless, Franciscan emissaries were sent to collect it under threats of excommunication, causing, as St Louis declared, so great a hatred of the Holy See that only the strenuous exercise of the royal power kept the Gallican Church in the Roman obedience. He subsequently took measures to protect it from these exactions without the royal assent, but Germany was defenceless and the papal demands were here the source of bitter exasperation and resistance. When in 1354 his Italian wars caused Innocent VI to impose a tithe on the German clergy, the whole Church of the Empire rose in indignation, and was ready to resort to any extremity of opposition. Frederick, Bishop of Ratisbon, seized the papal collector, and confined him in a castle, while the papal Nuncio, the Bishop of Cavaillon, with his assistant, narrowly escaped an ambush set for his life. A similar storm was aroused when, in 1372, Gregory XI repeated the levy; the clergy of Mainz bound themselves by a solemn mutual agreement not to pay it, while Frederick, Archbishop of Cologne, pledged his assistance to his clergy in their refusal to submit. Despite this resistance, the papacy prevailed, but, with the decline of respect for the Holy See in the second half of the fifteenth century, it was not always able to enforce its demands. When at the Congress of Mantua, in 1459, Pius II levied a tithe for his crusade, the German princes refused to allow it to be collected and he prudently shrank from the issue. In 1487, Innocent VIII repeated the attempt, but the German clergy protested so energetically that he was forced to abandon his intention. When, in 1500, Alexander VI adopted the same expedient, Henry VII permitted the collection in England; but the French clergy refused to pay. They were consequently excommunicated; whereupon they asked the University of Paris whether the excommunication was valid and, on receiving a negative answer, quietly continued to perform their sacred functions. The University, in fact, had long paid little respect to papal utterances. When Eugenius IV and Nicholas V ordered the prosecution as heretics of those who taught the doctrines of John of Poilly respecting the validity of confessions to Mendicant Friars, the University denounced the bulls as surreptitious and not to be obeyed; and this position it held persistently until the Holy See was obliged to give way. There evidently were ample causes of dissension in the Church between its head and its members and the tension continued to increase.
An even more potent, because more constant, source of antagonism was the venality of the Curia and its pitiless exactions from the multitudes who were obliged to have recourse to it. This had always been the case since the Holy See had succeeded in concentrating in itself the supreme jurisdiction, original and appellate, so that all questions concerning the spirituality could be brought before it. At the Council of St Baseul, in 992, Arnoul of Orleans unhesitatingly denounced Rome as a place where justice was put up to auction for the highest bidder; and similar complaints continue through the Middle Ages with ever-increasing vehemence, as its sphere of operations widened and its system became more intricate and more perfect. As Dietrich of Nieheim says, it was a gulf which swallowed everything, a sea into which all rivers poured without its overflowing, and happy was he who could escape its clutches without being stripped. Even Aeneas Sylvius, before he attained the papacy, had no scruple in asserting that everything was for sale in Rome and that nothing was to be had there without money. The enormous business concentrated in the holy city from every corner of Christendom required a vast army of officials who were supported by fees and whose numbers were multiplied oppressively, especially after Boniface IX had introduced the sale of offices as a financial expedient. Thus, in 1487, when Sixtus IV desired to redeem his tiara and jewels, pledged for a loan of 100,000 ducats, he increased his secretaries from six to twenty-four and required each to pay 2600 florins for the office. In 1503, to raise funds for Cesare Borgia, Alexander VI created eighty new offices and sold them for 760 ducats apiece. Julius II formed a “college” of a hundred and one scriveners of papal briefs, in return for which they paid him 74,000 ducats. Leo X appointed sixty chamberlains and a hundred and forty squires, with certain perquisites for which the former paid him 90,000 ducats and the latter 112,000. Places thus paid for were personal property, transferable by sale; and Leo X levied a commission of five per cent, on such transactions, and then made over the proceeds to Cardinal Tarlato, a retainer of the Medici family. Burchard tells us that in 1483 he bought the mastership of ceremonies from his predecessor Patrizzi for 450 ducats, which covered all expenses, and that in 1505 he vainly offered Julius II 2000 for a vacant scrivenership; but soon afterwards he bought the succession to an abbreviatorship for 2040. As Burchard was still master of ceremonies and Bishop of Orta it is evident that this was simply an investment for the fees of an office which carried with it no duties.
The whole machinery was thus manifestly devised for the purpose of levying as large a tax as possible on the multitudes whose necessities brought them to the Curia, and its rapacity was proverbial. The hands through which every document passed were multiplied to an incredible degree and each one levied his share upon it. Besides, there were heavy charges which do not appear in the rules of the Chancery and which doubtless enured to the benefit of the papal Camera, so that the official tax-tables bear but a slender proportion to the actual cost of briefs to suitors. Thus certain briefs obtained for the city of Cologne, in 1393, of which the charge, according to the tables, was eleven and a half florins, cost when delivered 266, and, in 1423, some similar privileges for the abbey of St Albans were paid for at forty times the amount provided in the tables. Thus the army of officials constituting the Curia not only cost nothing to the Holy See, but brought in revenue; and its exactions rendered it an object of execration throughout Christendom.
The administration of justice was provocative of even greater detestation. The business flowing in from every part of Europe was necessarily enormous, and the effort seems to have been not to expedite, but to prolong it, and to render it as costly as possible to the pleader. We hear incidentally of a suit between the Teutonic Order and the clergy of Riga, concerning the somewhat trivial question whether the latter were privileged to wear the vestments of the Order, in the course of which, in 1430, the agent of the Order writes from Rome that he had already expended on it 14,000 ducats, and that 6000 more would be required to bring it to a conclusion. The sale of benefices and expectatives was in itself a most lucrative source of profit to the Roman Courts; for, in the magnitude and complexity of the business, mistakes, accidental or otherwise, were frequent, leading to conflicting claims which could be adjudicated only in Rome. The Gallican Church, assembled at the Council of Bourges, in 1438, declared that this was the cause of innumerable suits and contentions between the servants of God; that quarrels and hatreds were excited, the greed of pluralities was stimulated, the money of the kingdom was exhausted; pleaders, forced to have recourse to the Roman Courts, were reduced to poverty, and rightful claims were set aside in favour of those whose greater cunning or larger means enabled them to profit through the frauds rendered possible by the complexities of the papal graces. France protected herself by the Pragmatic Sanction, until its final abrogation, in 1516, by the Concordat between Francis I and Leo X excited intense dissatisfaction and was one of the causes which favoured the rapid spread of the Lutheran heresy there. Germany had not been so fortunate, and among the grievances presented, in 1510, to the Emperor Maximilian was enumerated the granting of expectatives without number, and often the same to several persons, as giving rise to daily law-suits; so that the money laid out in the purchase and that expended in the suit were alike lost, and it became a proverb that whoever obtained an expectative from Rome ought to lay aside with it one or two hundred gold pieces to be expended in rendering it effective. Another of the grievances was that cases, which ought to have been decided at home where there were good and upright judges, were carried without distinction to Rome. There was, in fact, no confidence felt in the notoriously venal Roman Courts, and their very name was an abomination in Germany.
The pressing necessities of the papacy had found another source of relief which did not bear so directly on the nations but was an expedient fatally degrading to the dignity and character of the Holy See. This was the sale of the highest office in the Church next to the papacy itself—the red hat of the cardinalate. The reputation of the Sacred College was already rapidly deteriorating through the nepotism of the Pontiffs, who thrust their kinsmen into it irrespective of fitness, or yielded to the pressure of monarchs and appointed their unworthy favourites in order to secure some temporary political advantage. Thus its decadence and secularisation were rapid through the second half of the fifteenth century; but a lower depth was reached when, in 1500, Alexander VI created twelve Cardinals from whose appointment Cesare Borgia secured the sum of 120,000 ducats, and whose character may readily be surmised. In 1503, with the same object, nine more were appointed and again Cesare obtained between 120,000 and 130,000 ducats. Even Julius II, in his creation of Cardinals in April, 1511, did not scruple to make some of them pay heavily for the promotion and in this he was imitated by Leo X in 1517, on the notorious occasion of the swamping of the Sacred College. It was only a step from this to the purchase of the papacy itself, and both Alexander VI and Julius II obtained the pontificate by bribery. So commonly known, indeed, was the venality of the Sacred College that, at the death of Innocent VIII, in 1492, Charles VIII was currently reported to have deposited 200,000 ducats and Genoa 100,000 in a Roman bank in order to secure the election of Giuliano della Rovere; but Rodrigo Borgia carried off the prize. Under a similar conviction, when, in 1511, Julius II was thought to be on his death-bed, and the Emperor Maximilian conceived the idea of securing his own election to the expected vacancy, his first step was to try to obtain a loan of 200,000 or 300,000 ducats from the Fuggers’ bank on the security of his jewels and insignia. That Maximilian should have entertained such a project is a significant illustration of the complete secularisation of the Holy See.
Under such influences it is no wonder that Rome had become a centre of corruption whence infection was radiated throughout Christendom. In the middle of the fourteenth century Petrarch exhausts his rhetoric in describing the abominations of the papal city of Avignon, where everything was vile; and the return of the Curia to Rome transferred to that city the supremacy in wickedness. In 1499 the Venetian ambassador describes it as the sewer of the world, and Machiavelli asserts that through its example all devotion and all religion had perished in Italy. In 1490 it numbered 6000 public women—an enormous proportion for a population not exceeding 100,000. The story is well known, how Cardinal Borgia who, as Vice-chancellor, openly sold pardons for crime, when reproved for this, replied, that God desires not the death of sinners but that they should pay and live. If the Diary of Infessura is suspect on account of his partizanship, that of Burchard is unimpeachable, and his placid recital of the events passing under his eyes presents to us a society too depraved to take shame at its own wickedness. The public marriage, he says, of the daughters of Innocent VIII and Alexander VI set the fashion for the clergy to have children, and they diligently followed it; for all, from the highest to the lowest, kept concubines, while the monasteries were brothels. The official conscience was illustrated in the Hospital of San Giovanni in Laterano where the confessor, when he found that a patient had money, would notify the physician, who thereupon would administer a deadly dose and the two would seize and divide the spoils. Had the physician contented himself with this industry, he might have escaped detection; but he varied it by going into the streets every morning and shooting with a cross-bow people whose pockets he then emptied, for which he was duly hanged (May 27, 1500). The foulness of the debaucheries in which Alexander VI emulated the worst excesses of the pagan empire was possible only in a social condition of utter corruption; and, as a knowledge of the facts filtered through the consciousness of Europe, contempt was added to the detestation so generally entertained for the Holy See. This was ominously expressed, in 1501, in a letter to Alexander VI from a knight and two men-at-arms who had despoiled the convent of Weissenburg and had disregarded the consequent excommunication. Under the canon law this rendered them suspect of heresy, for which they were summoned to Rome to answer for their faith. They replied in a tone of unconcealed irony; the journey, they say, is too long, so they send a profession of faith, including a promise of obedience to a Pope honestly elected who has not sullied the Holy See with immoralities and scandals.
In fact, one of the most urgent symptoms of the necessity of a new order of things was the complete divorce between religion and morality. There was abundant zeal in debating minute points of faith, but little in evoking from it an exemplary standard of life—as Pius II said of the Conventual Franciscans: they were generally excellent theologians but gave themselves little trouble about virtue. The sacerdotal system, developed by the dialectics of the Schoolmen, had constructed a routine of external observances through which salvation was to be gained not so much by abstinence from sin as by its pardon through the intervention of the priest, whose supernatural powers were in no way impaired by the scandals of his daily life. Except within the pale of the pagan Renaissance, never was there a livelier dread of future punishment, but this punishment was to be escaped, not by amendment but by confession, absolution, and indulgences. This frame of mind is exemplified by the condottiere Vitelozzo Vitelli who, when after a life steeped in crime, he was suddenly strangled by Cesare Borgia, in 1502, felt no more poignant regret than that he could not obtain absolution from the Pope—and that Pope was Alexander VI. Society was thoroughly corrupt—perhaps less so in the lower than in the higher classes—but no one can read the Lenten sermons of the preachers of the time, even with full allowance for rhetorical exaggeration, without recognising that the world has rarely seen a more debased standard of morality than that which prevailed in Italy in the closing years of the Middle Ages. Yet at the same time never were there greater outward manifestations of devotional zeal. A man like San Giovanni Capistrano could scarce walk the streets of a city without an armed guard to preserve his life from the surging crowds eager to secure a rag of his garments as a relic or to carry away some odour of his holiness by touching him with a stick. Venice, which cared little for an interdict, offered in vain ten thousand ducats, in 1455, for a seamless coat of Christ. Siena and Perugia went to war over the wedding-ring of the Virgin. At no period was there greater faith in the thaumaturgic virtue of images and saintly relics; never were religious solemnities so gorgeously celebrated; never were processions so magnificent or so numerously attended; never were fashionable shrines so largely thronged by pilgrims. In his Encheiridion Militis Christiani, written in 1502 and approved by Adrian VI, then head of the University of Louvain, Erasmus had the boldness to protest against this new kind of Judaism which placed its reliance on observances, like magic rites, which drew men away from Christ; and again, in 1519, in a letter to Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz, he declared that religion was degenerating into a more than Judaic formalism of ceremonies, and that there must be a change.
A priesthood trained in this formalism, which had practically replaced the ethical values of Christianity, secure that its supernatural attributes were unaffected by the most flagitious life, and selected by such methods as were practised by the Curia and imitated by the prelates, could not be expected to rise above the standards of the community. Rather, indeed, were the influences, to which the clergy were exposed, adapted to depress them below the average. They were clothed with virtually irresponsible power over their subjects, they were free from the restraints of secular law, and they were condemned to celibacy in times when no man was expected to be continent. For three hundred years it had been the constant complaint that the people were contaminated by their pastors and the complaint continued. After the death of Calixtus III, in 1458, the Cardinals about to enter the Conclave were told in the address made to them by Domenico de Domenichi, Bishop of Torcello, “The morals of the clergy are corrupt, they have become an offence to the laity, all discipline is lost. From day to day the respect for the Church diminishes; the power of her censures is almost gone.” In 1519, Briçonnet, Bishop of Meaux, in his diocesan synod, did not shrink from describing the Church as a stronghold of vice, a city of refuge from transgression, where one could live in safety, free from all fear of punishment. The antagonism towards the priesthood, thus aroused among the people, was indicated in the career of Hans Böheim, a wandering musician, who settled in Niklashausen, where he announced revelations from the Virgin. She instructed him to proclaim to her people that she could no longer endure the pride, the avarice, and the lust of the priesthood and that the world would be destroyed because of their wickedness unless they should speedily amend their ways. Tithes and tribute should be purely voluntary; tolls and customs dues and game-preserving should be abolished; Rome had no claim to the primacy of the Church; purgatory was a figment and he had power to rescue souls from hell. The fame of the inspired preacher spread far and wide between the Rhineland and Meissen; crowds from all quarters flocked to hear him and he frequently addressed assemblages rated at twenty or thirty thousand souls who brought him rich offerings. In 1476 Rudolf Bishop of Würzburg put an end to this dangerous propaganda by seizing and burning the prophet, but belief in him continued until Diether of Mainz placed an interdict on the church of Niklashausen in order to check the concourse of pilgrims who persisted in visiting it.
Perhaps the most complete and instructive presentation which we have of the opinions and aspirations of the medieval populations is embodied in the ample series of the Spanish Cortes published by the Real Academía de la Historía. In the petitions or cahiers of these representative bodies we find an uninterrupted expression of hostility towards the Church, unrelieved by any recognition of services, whether as the guardian of religious truth or as the mediator between God and man. To the Castilian of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it was simply an engine of oppression, an instrument through which rapacious men could satisfy their greed and inflict misery on the people by its exactions and its constantly encroaching jurisdiction, enforced through unrestricted power of excommunication. Bitter were the reiterated complaints of the immunity which it afforded to criminals, and there was constant irritation at clerical exemption from public duties and burdens. In short, it seems to have been regarded as a public enemy, and the slight respect in which it was held is amply evidenced in the repeated complaints of the spoliation of churches which were robbed of their sacred vessels, apparently without compunction.
The popular literature of the period similarly reflects this mingled contempt and hatred for the priesthood. The Franciscan Thomas Murner, who subsequently was one of the most savage opponents of Luther, in the curious rhymed sermons which, in 1512, he preached in Frankfort-on-the-Main, and which, under the names of the Schelmenzunft and the Narrenbeschweerung, had a wide popularity, is never tired of dwelling on the scandals of all classes of the clergy, from bishops to monks and nuns. All are worldly, rapacious, and sensual. When the lay lord has shorn the sheep, the priest comes and fairly disembowels it, the begging friar follows and gets what he can and then the pardoner. If a bishop is in want of money he sends around his fiscal among the parish priests to extort payment for the privilege of keeping their concubines. In the nunneries the sister who has the most children is made the abbess. If Christ were on earth to-day He would be betrayed, and Judas would be reckoned an honest man. The devil is really the ruler of the Church, whose prelates perform his works; they are too ignorant to discharge their duties and require coadjutors—it would be well for them could they likewise have substitutes in hell. The wolf preached and sang mass so as to gather the geese around him, and then seized and ate them; so it is with prelate and priest who promise all things and pretend to care for souls until they get their benefices, when they devour their flocks. The immense applause with which these attacks on the abuses of the Church were everywhere received, and others of a similar character in Eulenspiegel, Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff, Johann Faber’s Tractatus de Ruine Ecclesie Planctu, and the Encomium Moriae of Erasmus, their translation into many languages and wide circulation throughout Europe, show how thoroughly they responded to the popular feeling, how dangerously the Church had forfeited the respect of the masses, and how deeply rooted was the aversion which it had inspired. The priests hated Rome for her ceaseless exactions and the people hated the priests with perhaps even better reason. So bitter was this dislike that, in 1502, Erasmus tells us that among laymen to call a man a cleric or a priest or a monk was an unpardonable insult.
This antagonism was fostered by the pulpit, which, until the invention of printing and the diffusion of education, was the only channel of access to the masses. Neglected by the bishops, involved in worldly cares and indulgence, and by the parish priests, too ignorant and too indolent to employ it, the duty of preaching fell, for the most part, to volunteers who, like Thomas Murner, were usually Mendicant Friars and consequently hostile to the secular clergy. Their influence on public opinion was great. With coarse and vigorous eloquence they attacked abuses of all kinds, whether in Church or State, and with an almost incredible hardihood they aroused the people to a sense of their wrongs. A favourite topic was the contrast between the misery of the lower classes and the luxury of the prelates—their hawks and hounds, their splendid retinues and the lavish adornment of their female companions. The licentiousness of the clergy was not spared—according to one of them the wealth of the Church only serves as a pair of bellows to kindle the fires of lust. The earliest of these bold demagogues of whom we have authentic details was Foulques de Neuilly, who, in the closing years of the twelfth century, traversed France, calling the people to repentance and listened to by immense crowds. He was especially severe on the vices of the clergy, and it is related of him that at Lisieux, to silence him, they threw him into prison and loaded him with chains; but his saintliness had won for him thaumaturgic power, and he walked forth unharmed. Thomas Connecte, a Carmelite of Britanny, was another wandering preacher who produced an immense impression wherever he went, and we are told that his invectives against the priesthood won him especial applause; but when, in 1432, he went to Rome to lash the vices of the Curia he was speedily found to be a heretic and he perished at the stake. Although St Bonaventura deprecated, on account of the scandals and quarrels which it provoked, the Mendicant preachers’ habit of attacking the corruption of the priesthood, it was ever a favourite topic; and the preaching of such men as Olivier Maillard, Geiler von Kaisersberg, Guillaume Pepin, Jean Clérée, Michel Menot, and a host of others, unquestionably contributed largely to stimulate the irresistible impulse which finally insisted on reform. With the invention of printing their eloquence reached larger audiences; for their sermons were collected and printed and received a wide circulation.
That a reform of the Church in its head and its members was necessary had long been generally conceded. For more than a century Europe had been clamouring for it. For this it had gathered its learning and piety at Constance, 1414-18; the Curia had skilfully eluded the demand and the assembly delegated the task to future Councils which, by the decree Frequens, it decreed should be convoked at regular intervals of seven years. In obedience to this decree a Council met at Pavia and Siena in 1423-4, where the effort was again made and again frustrated. When the term came around in 1431 and the Church, assembled at Basel, determined not to be balked again, the resolute energy of the reformers speedily caused a rupture with the papacy, and the Basilian canons, aimed at some of the more crying abuses, were stedfastly ignored. The responsibility thus devolved upon the papacy, which had rendered abortive the efforts of the Councils and, after its bitter experience at Basel, had successfully resisted the constantly recurring demands for the enforcement of the decree Frequens. To meet this responsibility successive Popes, from Martin V to Leo X, issued reformatory decrees, the promulgation and non-observance of which only served as an acknowledgment of the evil and of the impossibility of its correction.
At length, in 1511, the schismatic Council of Pisa, held by the disaffected Cardinals under the auspices of Louis XII, forced the hand of Julius II, and to checkmate it he issued a summons for a General Council to assemble in Rome, April 19, 1512, to resist the schism, to reform the morals of laity and clergy, to bring about peace between Christian princes and to prosecute the war with the Turk. Not much was to be hoped of a Council held in Rome under papal presidency; but Europe took the project seriously. The instructions of the Spanish delegates ordered them to labour especially for the reformation of the Curia; for the chief objection of the infidels to Christianity arose from the public and execrable wickedness of Rome, for which the Pope was accountable. It was apparently to forestall action that, in March, 1512, Julius appointed a commission of eight Cardinals to reform the Curia and its officials and, on March 30, he issued a bull reducing the heavy burden of fees and other exactions. The Fifth Council of the Lateran assembled a little later than the time appointed, and its earlier sessions were devoted to obliterating the traces of the schism and attacking the Pragmatic Sanction of France. Julius died, February 21, 1513, and to his successor, Leo X, was transferred the management of the Council. To him Gianfrancesco Pico addressed a memorial recapitulating the evils to be redressed. The worship of God, he said, was neglected; the churches were held by pimps and catamites; the nunneries were dens of prostitution; justice was a matter of hatred or favour; piety was lost in superstition; the priesthood was bought and sold; the revenues of the Church ministered only to the vilest excesses, and the people were repelled from religion by the example of their pastors. The Council made at least a show of attacking these evils. On May 3, 1514, it approved a papal decree which, if enforced, would have cured a small portion of the abuses; but all subsequent efforts were blocked by quarrels between the different classes to be reformed. The Council sat until March, 1517, and the disappointment arising from its dissolution, without accomplishing anything of the long-desired reform, may well have contributed to the eagerness with which the Lutheran revolt was soon afterwards hailed; for thoughtful men everywhere must have been convinced that nothing short of revolution could put an end to corruption so inexpugnably established. It was the emphatic testimony of interested observers that the Roman Curia, in its immovable adherence to its evil ways, was the real cause of the uprising. The papal nuncio Aleander, writing from the Diet of Worms in 1521, says that the priests are foremost in the revolt, not for Luther’s sake but because through him they can gratify their long-cherished hatred of Rome; nine Germans out of ten are for Luther, and the tenth man longs for the destruction of the Roman Curia. Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz, about the same time, wrote to Pope Leo that it was rare to find a man who favoured the clergy, while a large portion of the priests were for Luther, and the majority were afraid to stand forth in support of the Roman Church,—so deep was the hatred felt for the Curia and the papal decrees. When Dr Eck found that his disputatious zeal was a failure, he told Paul III that the heresy had arisen from the abuses of the Curia, that it had spread in consequence of the immorality of the clergy, and that it could only be checked by reform. Adrian VI, in his instructions to his legate at the Diet of Nürnberg in 1522, admitted the abominations habitual to the Holy See and promised their removal, but added that it would be a work of time; for the evil was too complex and too deeply rooted for a speedy cure. Meanwhile he demanded the execution of the papal sentence against Luther without awaiting the promised reform; but the German princes replied that this would simply cause rebellion, for the people would then despair of amendment.
While thus the primary cause of the Reformation is to be sought in the all-pervading corruption of the Church and its oppressive exercise of its supernatural prerogatives, there were other factors conducing to the explosion. Sufficient provocation had long existed, and since the failure at Basel no reasonable man could continue to anticipate relief from conciliar action. The shackles which for centuries had bound the human intellect had to be loosened, before there could be a popular movement of volume sufficient to break with the traditions of the past and boldly tempt the dangers of a new and untried career for humanity. The old reverence for authority had to be weakened, the sense of intellectual independence had to be awakened and the spirit of enquiry and of more or less scientific investigation had to be created, before pious and devout men could reach the root of the abuses which caused so much indignation, and could deny the authenticity of the apostolical deposit on which had been erected the venerable and imposing structure of scholastic theology and papal autocracy.
It was the New Learning and the humanistic movement which supplied the impulse necessary for this, and they found conditions singularly favourable for their work. The Church had triumphed so completely over her enemies that the engines of repression had been neglected and had grown rusty, while the Popes were so engrossed in their secular schemes and ambition that they had little thought to waste on the possible tendencies of the fashionable learning which they patronised. Thus there came an atmosphere of free thought, strangely at variance with the rigid dogmatism of the theologians, and even in theology there was a certain latitude of discussion permissible, for the Tridentine decrees had not yet formulated into articles of faith the results of the debates of the Schoolmen since the twelfth century. It is a remarkable proof of the prevailing laxity that Nicholas V commissioned Gianozzo Manetti to make a new translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek, thus showing that the Vulgate was regarded as insufficient and that it enjoyed no such authority as that attributed to it at Trent. In view of this laxity it is not surprising that in Italy the New Learning assumed various fantastic shapes of belief—the cult of the Genius of Rome by Pomponio Leto and his Academy, the Platonism of Marsiglio Ficino, the practical denial of immortality by Pomponazzi, and the modified Averrhoism of Agostino Nifo. So long as the profits of the Curia or the authority of the Pope remained undisputed there was little disposition to trouble the dreamers and speculators. Savonarola declares, with some rhetorical exaggeration, that culture had supplanted religion in the minds of those to whom the destinies of Christianity were confided, until they lost belief in God, celebrated feasts of the devil, and made a jest of the sacred mysteries. In the polite Court circles of Leo X, we are told, a man was scarce accounted as cultured and well-bred unless he cherished a certain amount of heretical opinion; and after Luther’s doctrines had become rigidly defined Melanchthon is said to have looked back with a sigh to the days before the Reformation as to a time when there was freedom of thought. It is true that there was occasional spasmodic repression. Pico della Mirandola, because of thirteen heretical propositions among the nine hundred which he offered to defend in 1487, was obliged to fly to Spain and to make his peace by submission; but, as a rule, the humanists were allowed to air their fancies in peace. When the disputations of the schools on the question of the future life became overbold and created scandal, the Lateran Council, in 1513, forbade the teaching of Averrhoism and of the mortality of the soul; but it did so in terms which placed little restraint on philosophers who shielded themselves behind a perfunctory declaration of submission to the judgment of the Church.
In the intellectual ferment at work throughout Europe, it was, however, impossible that many devout Christians should not be led to question details in the theology on which the Schoolmen had erected the structure of sacerdotal supremacy. Gregor Heimburg was a layman who devoted his life to asserting the superiority of the secular power to the ecclesiastical, lending the aid of his learning and eloquence to the anti-papal side of all the controversies which raged from the time of the Council of Basel until he died in 1472, absolved at last from the excommunication which he had richly earned. In 1479 the errors of Pedro de Osma, a professor of Salamanca, were condemned by the Council of Alcalà; they consisted in denying the efficacy of indulgences, the divine origin and necessity of confession, and the infallibility and irresponsible autocracy of the papacy. The same year witnessed the trial at Mainz, by the Cologne inquisitor, of Johann Rucherath of Wesel, a professor in the University of Erfurt and one of the most distinguished theologians of Germany. Erfurt was noted for its humanism and for its adherence to the doctrine of the superiority of Councils over Popes, and Johann Rucherath had been uttering his heretical opinions for many years without opposition. He would probably have been allowed to continue in peace until the end but for the mortal quarrel between the Realists and the Nominalists and the desire of the Dominican Thomists to silence a Nominalist leader. He rejected the authority of tradition and of the Fathers; he carried predestination to a point which stripped the Church of its power over salvation and he even struck the word Filioque from the Creed. He was of course condemned and forced to recant; but the contemporary reporter of the trial apparently considers that his only serious error was the one concerning the procession of the Holy Ghost, and he cites various men of learning who held that most of the condemned articles could be maintained. More fortunate was Johann Wessel of Groningen, a prominent theological teacher who entertained heretical notions as to confession, absolution, and purgatory, and denied that the Pope could grant indulgences, for God deals directly with man—doctrines as revolutionary as those of Luther—yet he was allowed to die peacefully in 1489, held in great honour by the community. Still more significant of the spiritual unrest of the period was a Sorbonnique, or thesis for the doctorate, presented to the University of Paris, in 1485, by a priest named Jean Laillier, whose audacity reduced the hierarchy, including the Pope, to simple priesthood and rejected confession, absolution, indulgences, fasting, the obligation of celibacy, and the authority of tradition. The extreme difficulty encountered in procuring the condemnation of these dangerous heresies, which finally required the intervention of Innocent VIII, is a noteworthy symptom of the time, and equally so is the fact that the Bishop of Meaux, selected by Innocent as one of the judges in the case, was at that moment under censure by the University for reviving the condemned doctrine of the insufficiency of the sacraments in polluted hands. In 1498, an Observantine Friar named Jean Vitrier, in sermons at Tournay, went even further and taught that it was a mortal sin to listen to the mass of a concubinary priest. He also rejected the intercession of saints, and asserted that pardons and indulgences were the offspring of hell and the money paid for them was employed in the maintenance of brothels. The Tournay authorities were apparently powerless, and referred these utterances to the University of Paris, which extracted from them sixteen heretical propositions; but it does not appear that the audacious preacher was punished. It was still more ominous of the future when men were found ready to endure martyrdom in denial of the highest mysteries of the faith, as when, in 1491, Jean Langlois, priest of St Crispin in Paris, while celebrating mass, cast the consecrated elements on the floor and trampled on them, giving as a reason that the body and blood of Christ were not in them and persisting in his error to the stake. Similar was the obstinacy of Aymon Picard in 1503, who at the feast of St Louis in the Sainte Chapelle snatched the host from the celebrant and dashed it on the floor, for he, too, refused to recant and was burnt.
To what extent humanism was responsible for these heresies it would not be easy now to determine, save in so far as it had stimulated the spirit of enquiry and destroyed the reverence for authority. These influences are plainly observable in the career of Jacques Lefevre d’Étaples, the precursor of the Reformation in France, who commenced as a student of philosophy and, in 1492, visited Italy to sit at the feet of Marsiglio Ficino, Hermolao Barbaro, Pico della Mirandola, and Angelo Poliziano, but who, when he turned to the study of Scripture, expressed the pious wish that the profane classical writings should be burnt rather than be placed in the hands of youth. His Commentary on the Pauline Epistles, printed in 1512, was the first example of casting aside the scholastic exegesis for a treatment in which tradition was rejected and the freedom of individual judgment was exercised as a matter of right. This led him to a number of conclusions which Luther only reached gradually in the disputations forced upon him in defence of his first step; but this protest against the established sacerdotalism brought no persecution on Lefèvre until the progress of the Reformation in Germany aroused the authorities to the danger lurking in such utterances, when the Sorbonne, in 1521, had no difficulty in defining twenty-five heretical propositions in the Commentaries. Proceedings were commenced against him, but he was saved by the favour of Francis I and Marguerite of Navarre.
There were other humanists, less spiritual than Lefevre, who exercised enormous influence in breaking down reverence for tradition and authority and asserting the right of private judgment, without giving in their adhesion to the Reformation. They had a narrow and a perilous path to tread. Wilibald Pirckheimer was no Lutheran, but his name stood first on the list of those selected for excommunication by Eck when he returned from Rome as the bearer of the portentous bull Exsurge Domine. More fortunate was the foremost humanist, Erasmus, whose unrivalled intellect rendered him a power to be courted by Popes and princes, though he was secretly held responsible as the primary cause of the revolt. In 1522 Adrian VI adjured him to come to the rescue of the bark of the Church, struggling in the tempest sent by God in consequence mainly of the sins of the clergy, and assured him that this was a province reserved to him by God. Yet, in 1527, Edward Lee, then English ambassador to Spain and subsequently Archbishop of York, drew up a list of twenty-one heresies extracted from the writings of Erasmus, ranging from Arianism to the repudiation of indulgences, the veneration of saints, pilgrimages, and relics. At this very moment, however, Erasmus, frightened at the violence of the reformers, was writing to Pirckheimer that he held the authority of the Church so high that at her bidding he would accept Arianism and Pelagianism, for the words of Christ were not of themselves sufficient for him.
Luther himself had in some sort a humanistic pedigree. The Franciscan Paul Scriptoris, professor at Tübingen, learned in Greek and mathematics, used confidentially to predict that a reformation was at hand in which the Church would be forced to reject the scholastic theology and return to the simplicity of primitive belief, but when he permitted these views to find expression in his sermons the chapter of his Order took steps to discipline him, and he fled, in 1502, to Italy where he died. He was the teacher of Johann von Staupitz, Conrad Pellican, and others subsequently prominent in the movement; Staupitz became the Vicar of Luther’s Augustinian Order and was warmly esteemed by the Elector Frederick of Saxony; so that he was enabled to afford to Luther efficient protection during the earlier years of the revolt. He was a humanist, strongly imbued with the views of the German mystics of the fourteenth century, and all mysticism is, in its essence, incompatible with sacerdotalism. In his Nachfolgung des Sterbens Jesu Christi, printed in 1515, he denied, like Erasmus, the efficacy of external observances, condemning the doctrine as a kind of Judaism. In 1516, at Nürnberg, he preached a series of sermons warning against reliance on confession, for justification comes alone from the grace of God. These were greeted with immense applause; they were printed in both Latin and German and a Sodalitas Staupitiana was organised, embracing many of the leading citizens, among whom Albrecht Dürer was numbered. The next year at Munich he inculcated the same doctrines with equal success and he embodied his views in the work Von der Liebe Gottes, dedicated to the Duchess Kunigunda of Bavaria, of which four editions were speedily exhausted, showing the receptivity of the popular mind for anti-sacerdotal teachings. It was some time before Luther advanced as far as Staupitz had already done, and then it was largely through the study of the fourteenth century mystics and Staupitz’s work On the love of God.
There was no product of humanistic literature, however, which so aided in paving the way for the Reformation as the Narrenschiff, or Ship of Fools, the work of a layman, Sebastian Brant, chancellor (city clerk) of Strassburg. Countless editions and numerous translations of this work, first printed at Basel in 1494, showed how exactly it responded to the popular tendencies, and how wide and lasting was its influence. One of the foremost preachers of the day, Geiler von Kaisersberg, used its several chapters or sections as texts for a series of sermons at Strassburg, in 1498, and the opinions of the poet lost none of their significance in the expositions of the preacher. The work forms a singularly instructive document for the intellectual and moral history of the period. Brant satirises all the follies and weaknesses of man; those of the clergy are of course included and, though no special attention is devoted to them, the manner in which they are handled shows how completely the priesthood had forfeited popular respect. But the important feature of the work is the deep moral earnestness which pervades its jest and satire; man is exhorted never to lose sight of his salvation and the future life is represented as the goal to which his efforts are to be directed. With all this, the Church is never referred to as the means through which the pardon of sin and the grace of God are to be attained; confession is alluded to in passing once or twice, but not the intercession of the Virgin and saints and there is no intimation that the offices of the Church are essential. The lesson is taught that man deals directly with God and is responsible to Him alone. Most significant is the remark that many a mass is celebrated which had better have been left unsung for God does not accept a sacrifice sinfully offered in sin. Wisdom is the one thing for which man should strive,—wisdom being obedience to God and a virtuous life, while the examples cited are almost exclusively drawn from classic paganism—Hercules, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Penelope, Virgil—though the references to Scripture show adequate acquaintance with Holy Writ. As the embodiment of humanistic teaching through which Germany, unlike Italy, aspired to moral elevation as well as to classical training, the Narrenschiff holds the highest place alike for comprehensiveness and effectiveness.
It is not to be supposed that these influences were allowed to develop without protest or opposition. The battle between humanism and obscurantism had been fought out in Italy, in the middle of the fifteenth century, in the strife between Lorenzo Valla and the Mendicant Friars backed by the Inquisition. In Germany the struggle took place, in the second decade of the sixteenth century, over Reuchlin, on the occasion of his protesting against Pfefferkorn’s measures for the destruction of objectionable Hebrew books. It arrayed the opposing forces in internecine conflict, and all the culture of Europe was ranged on the side of the scholar who was threatened with prosecution by the Inquisition. The New Learning recognised the danger to which it was exposed and its disciples found themselves unconsciously organising for self-defence and for attack. Religious dogma was not really involved; but the authority of the Schools was at stake, and the power to silence by persecution an adversary who could not be overcome in argument. The bitterness on both sides was intense and victory seemed to perch alternately on the opposing banners; but the quarrel virtually sank out of sight in the larger issues raised by the opening years of the Reformation. Technically the obscurantists triumphed, but it was a Pyrrhic victory; for the discussion had done its work and incidentally it had given occasion for blighting ridicule of the trivialities of the Schools and the stupid ignorance of the Schoolmen in the Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum, 1514, a production that largely contributed to the popular contempt in which the ancient system was beginning to be held.
The whole of this movement had been rendered possible by the invention of printing, which facilitated so enormously the diffusion of intelligence, which enabled public opinion to form and express itself and which, by bringing into communication minds of similar ways of thinking, afforded opportunity for combined action. When we are told that bibliographers enumerate thirteen German versions of the Bible anterior to Luther’s and that repeated editions of these were called for, we can measure not only the religious earnestness of the people but the degree in which it was stimulated by the process which brought the Scriptures within reach of the multitude. Cochlaeus complains that when Luther’s translation of the New Testament appeared, in 1522, every one sought it without distinction of age or station, and they speedily acquired such familiarity with it that they audaciously disputed with doctors of theology and regarded it as the fountain of all truth. Tradition and scholastic dogma had under such circumstances small chance of reverence. When therefore, on October 31, 1517, Luther’s fateful theses were hung on the church-door at Wittenberg, they were, as he tells us, known in a fortnight throughout Germany; and in a month they had reached Rome and were being read in every school and convent in Europe—a result manifestly impossible without the aid of the printing-press. The reformers took full advantage of the opportunities which it afforded, and, for the most part, they had the sympathies of the printers themselves. The assertion of the Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum—
|Sed in domo Frobenii|
|Sunt multi pravi haeretici—|
is doubtless true of all the great printing offices. It was a standing grievance with the papalists that the printers eagerly printed and circulated everything on the Lutheran side, while the Catholics had difficulty in bringing their works before the public, and had to defray the cost themselves; but this is doubtless rather attributable to the fact that there was a steady demand for the one and not for the other.
It had not taken the Church long to recognise the potential dangers of the printing-press. In 1479, Sixtus IV empowered the University of Cologne to proceed with censures against the printers, purchasers, and readers of heretical books. In 1486, Berthold, Archbishop of Mainz, endeavoured to establish a crude censorship over translations into the vernacular. Alexander VI, in 1501, took a more comprehensive step, reciting that many books and tracts were printed containing various errors and perverted doctrines, wherefore in future no book was to be printed without preliminary examination and license, while all existing books were to be inspected and those not approved were to be surrendered. The fifth Lateran Council adopted, with but one dissenting voice, a decree laid before it by Leo X constituting the Bishop and Inquisitor of each diocese a board of censors of all books: printers disregarding their commands were visited with excommunication, suspension from business and a fine of a hundred ducats applicable to the fabric of St Peter’s. In obedience to this, Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz, in 1517, appointed his vicar, Paul, Bishop of Ascalon, and Dr Jodocus Trutvetter as inquisitors and censors of the Press. These measures, which were the precursors of the Index, were in vain. When, in 1521, Charles V, in the Edict of Worms, ordered all Luther’s books to be surrendered and burnt, Cochlaeus tells us that they were only the more eagerly sought for and brought better prices.
The dissemination of the Scriptures and the propagation of the anti-sacerdotal views of the humanists naturally led to questioning the conclusions of scholastic theology and to increased impatience of the papal autocracy, these being regarded as the source of the evils so generally and so grievously felt. The new teachings found a wide and receptive audience, fully prepared to carry them to their ultimate conclusions, in the numberless associations, partly literary and artistic, partly religious, which existed throughout the Teutonic lands. In the Netherlands there were everywhere to be found “Chambers of Rhetoric,” exercising a powerful influence on public opinion, and these had long been hostile to the clergy whose vices were a favourite subject of their ballads and rondels, their moralities and farces. Less popular, but still dangerously influential, were the so-called Academies which sprang up all over Germany with the Revival of Learning, and which cherished tendencies adverse to the dogmas of the Church and to her practical use of those dogmas. In 1520, Aleander includes among the worst enemies of the papacy the grumbling race of grammarians and poets which swarmed everywhere throughout the land. There were also numerous more or less secret societies and associations, entertaining various opinions, but all heretical to a greater or less degree. These were partly the representatives of mysticism which, since the days of Master Eckart and Tauler, had never ceased to flourish in Germany; partly they were the survivors of Waldensianism, so pitilessly persecuted yet never suppressed. Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Bucer, and other leaders of the reform had received their early impressions in these associations, and the sudden outburst of Anabaptism shows how numerous were the dissidents from Rome who were not prepared to accept the limitations of the Lutheran creed. The Anabaptists, moreover, were but a portion of these Evangelicals, as they styled themselves; for adult baptism was not a feature of their original tenets, and when it was adopted as a doctrine it led to a division in their ranks. The influence of art as well as of literature in stimulating opposition to Rome is seen in the number of artists belonging to the Evangelical bodies. When, in 1524, the Lutherans, under the lead of Osiander, obtained control in Nürnberg, the heretics whom they arrested included Georg Pencz, Barthel and Sebald Behem, Ludwig Krug, and others. By Luther as well as by Rome Albrecht Dürer was accounted a heretic.
The combination of all these factors rendered an explosion inevitable, and Germany was predestined to be its scene. The ground was better prepared for it there than elsewhere, by the deeper moral and religious earnestness of the people and by the tendencies of the academies and associations with which society was honeycombed. In obedience to these influences the humanistic movement had not been pagan and aesthetic as in Italy, but had addressed itself to the higher emotions and had sought to train the conscience of the individual to recognise his direct responsibility to God and to his fellows. But more potent than all this were the forces arising from the political system of Germany and its relations with the Holy See. The Teutonic spirit of independence had early found expression in the Sachsenspiegel and Sächsische Weichbild—the laws and customs of Northern Germany— which were resolutely maintained in spite of repeated papal condemnation. Thus not only did the Church inspire there less awe than elsewhere in Europe, but throughout the Middle Ages there had been special causes of antagonism actively at work.
If Italy had suffered bitterly from the Tedeschi, Germany had no less reason to hate the papacy. The fatal curse of the so-called Holy Roman Empire hung over both lands. It gave the Emperor a valid right to the suzerainty of the peninsula; it gave the papacy a traditional claim to confirm at its discretion the election of an Emperor. Conflicting and incompatible pretensions rendered impossible a permanent truce between the representatives of Charlemagne and St Peter. Since the age of Gregory VII the consistent policy of Rome had been to cripple the Empire by fomenting internal dissension and rendering impossible the evolution of a strong and centralised government, such as elsewhere in Europe was gradually overcoming the centrifugal forces of feudalism. This policy had been successful and Germany had become a mere geographical expression—a congeries of sovereign princes, petty and great, owning allegiance to an Emperor whose dignity was scarce more than a primacy of honour and whose actual power was to be measured by that of his ancestral territories. The result of this was that Germany lay exposed defenceless to the rapacity and oppression of the Roman Curia. Its multitudinous sovereigns had vindicated their independence at the cost of depriving themselves of the strength to be derived from centralised union. Germany was the ordinary resource of a Pope in financial straits, through the exaction of a tithe, the raising of the annates, or the issue in unstinted volume of the treasure of the merits of Christ in the form of an unremitting stream of indulgences which sucked up as with a sponge the savings of the people. Nor could any steady opposition be offered to the absorption of the ecclesiastical patronage by the Curia, through which benefices were sold or bestowed on the cardinals or their creatures, and no limits could be set on appeals to the Holy See which enlarged its jurisdiction and impoverished pleaders by involving them in interminable and ruinous litigation in the venal Roman Courts.
It was in vain that in 1438 the Roman King Albert II endeavoured to emulate Charles VII of France by proclaiming a Pragmatic Sanction defining the limits of papal authority. He died the next year and was followed by the feeble Frederick III, during whose long reign of fifty-three years the imperial authority was reduced to a shadow. It was probably to procure a promise of papal coronation that, in 1448, he agreed to a Concordat under which the reservation of benefices to the Pope, as made by John XXII and Benedict XII, was assured; the election of bishops was subjected to papal confirmation with the privilege of substituting a better candidate by advice of the Sacred College; canonries and other benefices falling vacant during the six uneven months were conceded to the Pope and a promise was made that the annates should be moderate and be payable in instalments during two years. This was a triumph of Italian diplomacy, for the leaven of Basel was still working in Germany, and the Basilian anti-Pope, Felix V, was endeavouring to secure recognition. But Aeneas Sylvius notified Nicholas V that this was only a truce, not a permanent peace, and that the utmost skill would be required to avert a rupture, for there were dangerous times ahead and currents under the surface that would call for careful piloting.
Advantageous as the Concordat was to Rome, the Curia could not be restrained to its observance and, in 1455, the three Spiritual Electors of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne, united in complaint of its violation. With other bishops and princes of the Empire they bound themselves to resist a tithe demanded by Calixtus III and to send his pardoners back across the Alps with empty purses; they agitated for the enforcement of the canons of Constance and Basel and urged Frederick III to proclaim a Pragmatic Sanction. Various assemblies were held during the next two years to promote these objects and, in 1457, Dr Martin Meyer, chancellor of the Archbishop of Mainz, in a letter to Aeneas Sylvius, bitterly complained of the papal exactions, whereby Germany was drained of its gold and that nation which, by its valour, had won the Roman Empire and had been the mistress of the world was reduced to want and servitude, to grief and squalor. Calixtus met the German complaints with a serene consciousness of the weakness of his adversaries. To the prelates he wrote threatening them with punishment, spiritual and temporal. To Frederick he admitted that mistakes might have been made in the pressure of business but there had been no intentional violation of the Concordat. It was true that the Holy See was supreme and was not to be fettered by the terms of any agreement; but still, out of liberality and love of peace and affection for the person of the Emperor, the compact should be observed. No one must dare to oppose the Roman Church; if Germany thought it had reason to complain it could appeal to him. The result corresponded to the expectations of Calixtus; the confederates suspected their leader, Archbishop Dietrich of Mainz, of desiring to sell them; and after some further agitation in 1458 the movement fell to pieces.
It was promptly followed by another of even more dangerous aspect. Dietrich of Mainz died, May 6, 1459, and was succeeded by Diether von Isenburg. Pius II, then Aeneas Sylvius, had negotiated the Concordat of 1448 which stipulated that annates should be moderate and be payable by instalments, yet he refused to confirm Diether except on condition that he would satisfy the demands of the Camera for his annates. Diether’s envoys agreed, and the cost of the confirmation was fixed at 20,550 gulden, to be advanced on the spot by Roman bankers. These accordingly paid the shares of the Pope, the Cardinals, and the lower officials, taking from them receipts which bore that they would refund the money in case Diether failed to meet the obligations given by his agents. He claimed that the amount was largely in excess of all precedent, repudiated the agreement, and disregarded the consequent excommunication. The result of this scandalous transaction was a series of disturbances which kept Germany in turmoil for three years. Leagues were formed to replace Frederick III by George Podiebrad, and to adopt as the laws of the land the Basilian canons, one of which abrogated the annates. Gregor Heimburg was sent to France to arrange for common action against the Holy See, and there seemed to be a prospect that Germany at last might assert its independence of the Curia. But the papal agents with profuse promises detached one member of the alliance after another, and finally Diether was left alone. He offered submission, but Pius secretly sent to Adolf of Nassau, one of the canons of Mainz, a brief appointing him Archbishop and removing Diether. This led to a bloody war between the rivals until, in October, 1463, they reached a compromise, Adolf retaining the title and conceding to Diether a portion of the territory. Thus the papacy triumphed through its habitual policy of dividing and conquering. There could be no successful resistance to oppression by alliances in which every member felt that he might at any moment be abandoned by his allies. Yet this fruitless contest has special interest in the fact that Diether issued, May 30, 1462, a manifesto calling upon all German princes to take to heart the example of injustice and oppression of which they might be the next victims, and this manifesto, we are told, was printed by Gutenberg—an omen of the aid which the new art was to render in the struggle with Rome.
Even more bitter was the conflict, lasting from 1457 to 1464, between Sigismund Duke of Tyrol and Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, as Bishop of Brixen, arising from his praiseworthy attempt to reform his clergy. In this struggle Sigismund had the support of both clergy and people and was able to disregard the interdicts freely launched upon the land, as well as to resist the Swiss whom Pius II induced to take up arms against him. He held out bravely, and the matter was finally settled by an agreement in which he asked for pardon and absolution, thus saving the honour of the Holy See.
If this was a drawn battle between the secular power and the Church, it did not lessen the effect of the triumphs which the Curia had won in the contests with the great Archbishops of Mainz. Unsuccessful resistance leads to fresh aggression and it is not to be supposed that Rome failed to make the most of her victories over the German Church. At the great assembly of the clergy at Coblenz, in 1479, there were countless complaints of the Holy See, chiefly directed against its violations of the Concordat, its unlawful taxation, the privileges granted to the Mendicant Orders, and the numerous exemptions. It was doubtless this demonstration that led, in 1480, to the negotiation of an agreement between Sixtus IV and the Emperor Frederick, in which the latter was pledged to keep Germany obedient to the Pope, while the Pope was to sustain the Emperor with the free use of censures. This meant encouragement to fresh aggressions; and the indignation of the clergy found expression in the grievances presented, in 1510, to the Emperor-Elect Maximilian. They asserted with scant ceremony that the papacy could be restrained by no agreements or conventions, seeing that it granted, for the benefit of the vilest persons, dispensations, suspensions, revocations, and other devices for nullifying its promises and evading its wholesome regulations; the elections of prelates were set aside; the right of choosing provosts, which many Chapters had purchased with heavy payments, was disregarded; the greater benefices and dignities were bestowed on the Cardinals and Prothonotaries of the Curia; expectatives were granted without number, giving rise to ruinous litigation; annates were exacted promptly and mercilessly and sometimes more was extorted than was due; the cure of souls was committed by Rome to those fitted rather to take charge of mules than of men; in order to raise money, new indulgences were issued, with suspension of the old, the laity being thus made to murmur against the clergy; tithes were exacted under the pretext of war against the Turks, yet no expeditions were sent forth; and cases which should be tried at home were carried without distinction to Rome. Maximilian was seriously considering a plan for releasing Germany from the yoke of the Curia, and for preventing the transfer to Rome of the large sums which Julius II was employing to his special detriment; he thought of the withdrawal of the annates and of the appointment of a permanent legate, who should be a German and exercise a general jurisdiction. But Jacob Wimpheling, who was consulted by the Emperor-Elect, while expressing himself vigorously as to the suffering of Germany from the Curia, thought it wiser to endure in the hope of amendment than to risk a schism. Amendment, however, in obedience to any internal impulse, was out of the question. The Lateran Council met, deliberated, and dissolved without offering to the most sanguine the slightest rational expectation of relief. The only resource lay in revolution, and Germany was ready for the signal. In 1521 the Nuncio Aleander writes that, five years before he had mentioned to Pope Leo his dread of a German uprising, he had heard from many Germans that they were only waiting for some fool to open his mouth against Rome.
If Germany was thus the predestined scene of the outbreak, it was also the land in which the chances of success were the greatest. The very political condition which baffled all attempts at self-protection likewise barred the way to the suppression of the movement. A single prince, like the Elector Frederick of Saxony, could protect it in its infancy. As the revolt made progress other princes could join it, whether moved by religious considerations, or by way of maintaining the allegiance of their subjects, or in order to seize the temporalities and pious foundations, or, like Albrecht of Brandenburg, to found a principality and a dynasty. We need not here enquire too closely into the motives of which the League of Schmalkalden was the outcome, and may content ourselves with pointing to the fact that even Charles V was, in spite of the victory of Mühlberg, powerless to restore the imperial supremacy or to impose his will on the Protestant States.
The progress of the Reformation, and still more so that of the Counter-Reformation, lie outside the limits of the present chapter; but it may be concluded by a few words suggesting why the abuses which, in the sixteenth century, could only be cured by rending the Church in twain, have to so large an extent disappeared since the Reformation, leading many enthusiasts to feel regret that the venerable ecclesiastical structure was not purified from within—that reform was not adopted in place of schism.
The abuses under which Christendom groaned were too inveterate, too firmly entrenched, and too profitable to be removed by any but the sternest and sharpest remedies. The task was too great even for papal omnipotence. The attempt of Adrian VI had broken down. In 1555, the future Cardinal Seripando, in announcing to the Bishop of Fiesole the death of Marcellus II, who, in his short pontificate of twenty-two days, had manifested a resolute determination to correct abuses, says that perhaps God, in thus bringing reform so near and then destroying all hope of it, has wished to show that it is not to be the work of human hands and is not to come in the way expected by us, but in some way that we have not been able to conjecture. In truth the slow operation was required of causes for the most part external. So long as the Roman Church held the monopoly of salvation it inevitably followed the practice of all monopolies in exacting all that the market would yield—in obtaining the maximum of power and wealth. When northern Europe had definitely seceded, and a large proportion of the rest of the Continent was trembling in the balance,—when what was lost could not be regained and a strenuous effort was required to save the remainder,—the Church at length recognised that she stood face to face with a permanent competitor, whose rivalry could only be met by her casting off the burdens that impeded her in the struggle. To this the Council of Trent contributed something, and the stern purpose of Pius V, followed at intervals by other pontiffs, still more. The permanent supremacy of Spain in Italy checked the aspirations of the Holy See towards enlarging its temporal dominions. The chief source of cause of advance, however, is the action of the secular princes who sustained the cause of the Church during a century of religious wars. The Reformation had emancipated their power as well as the spirit of Protestantism. If the Church required their support she must yield to their exigencies; she could no longer claim to decide peremptorily and without appeal as to the boundary-line between the spiritual and the temporal authority in the dominions of each of them; and she could no longer shield her criminals from their justice. Together with the progress of the Reformation, a phase of absolute monarchy had developed itself through which the European nations passed, and the enforcement of the regalia put an end to a large part of the grievances which had caused the Church of the fifteenth century to be so fiercely hated. Whether or not the populations were benefited by the change of masters, the Church was no longer responsible; and for the loss of her temporal authority and the final secularisation of her temporalities she has found recompense tenfold in the renewed vigour of her spiritual vitality.