A few days later I was in the chancery for something when a priest officer stopped me and said he had caught the interview on NPR. I asked what he thought about it, and he replied very quickly, “You sounded like a kid who wanted to keep his Halloween candy.” Whatever the truth of his observation, and there was at least a little bit, I soon forgot it as I’m sure the 17 listeners did, too. Then, in 2015, I read one of the finest histories I have come across, Medieval Christianity: A New History (2015) by Kevin Madigan of Harvard Divinity School. For our purposes Madigan’s description of the late Middle Ages and the emergence of Luther brings to light a rarely discussed aspect of the time: the immense fear of death and dying that dominated religious practice and devotion.
The fifteenth century is often thought of as the gateway to the Renaissance and ultimately to the Enlightenment. This is the century of Christopher Columbus, the printing press, rediscovery of the ancient classics, and the collapse of Constantinople at the hands of Islam. The Church had ended the Great Schism (a separate entry coming soon) in the Council of Constance, and most religious orders enjoyed a renewal or resurgence.
What has been overlooked in Medieval history is the actual mood of believers in the decades prior to Luther’s appearance in 1517. While it is true that several thinkers had come to question the entire enterprise of organized religion, notably Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) and earlier Marsilius of Padua (1275-1342), the latter’s writing having gained notoriety after his death through the printing press, the thinking of such men did not generally penetrate to the general populace of those committed to Christianity in some way, shape, or form.
In his final chapter, “Late Medieval Piety and Its Problems,” (pp. 418-435) Madigan reminds us that Western Europe had never quite shaken the trauma of the Black Death (1348-1349) and other traumas. Death was never far from the mind, and Madigan writes that “it has sometimes been suggested that the medieval church was treasured above all as an intercessor for the dead.” (p. 418) Records still exist for the large number of Mass stipends requested and paid for between 1350 and 1500. Given the struggles at the highest levels of the Church, the quest for personal religious experience turned from cathedral to mysticism, or as Madigan puts it, “efforts to achieve unmediated experience of the presence of the divine.”
The impact of mysticism upon the Church and the Reformation can hardly be exaggerated. Religious experience was becoming “democratized” as more Christians turned inward to find their ultimate experience of God. Some of them began to write in their own parlance, not Latin, and the printing press provided greater access to religious works for the laity. Many famous mystics were women, and most are not commonly known, nor their influence explored in Catholic catechetics today. Among the most famous are Hildegarde of Bingen (named a Doctor of the Church in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI), Meister Eckhart, Elizabeth of Schonau, Mechtild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete. Marguerite is a good example of the perplexity facing the Church with this grassroots development of independent pray-ers and thinkers. Poor Marguerite was burned with her book The Mirror of Simple Souls in 1310 by the Inquisition but her religious order privately preserved her texts through the age of the printing press and in 1927 the Catholic Church granted an imprimatur to The Mirror of Simple Souls.
The primary preoccupation of most Catholics was the avoidance of hell and the diminishment of time in Purgatory, where the punishments were reputed to be equal but temporary. Purgatory had fascinated thinkers as early as St. Benedict’s Rule in the Dark Ages, and there was considerable speculation about the time and intensity of its punishments. Over time the Church came to teach that one could work off the residual punishments of sin before death by a combination of prayer and good works. Crusaders, for example, were granted a plenary indulgence (full remission) freeing them of the residual reparations due to God.
Madigan suggests that the religious enthusiasm of the pre-Reformation era was driven by an effort to make reparation by the intensity and number of good works, such as Mass stipends and the various prayers and good works prescribed for partial or full indulgences. Taken to extremes—as it often was—many Christians believed that by their own works they could achieve salvation; this attitude, known as from Augustine’s day as Pelagianism, had been condemned by St. Augustine but made a strong comeback in later Medieval times. The issue of indulgences took on a commercial impetus which meshed conveniently with the desperate desires to the faithful to save their own souls or those of loved ones. The early sixteenth century project to build St. Peter’s Church in Rome was financed by the direct sale of indulgences; remember “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs.”
The campaign to build St. Peter’s was a serious abuse, later reformed, though not in time to defuse Luther’s bitter attacks on the practice. Moreover, the frantic efforts to avoid fiery afterlife, according to Madigan, would give way to depression: no one really knew how many Masses, pilgrimages, indulgences, prayers, etc. were necessary to assure salvation, and even Luther himself, a scrupulously observant monk, came to doubt if any of his monastic exercises were truly efficacious. The breakthrough for Luther—one with strong roots in the democratization of mysticism—was an intense metaphysical belief in God’s power and desire to save. “By faith, not works” became a theological summary statement of the internal transition taking place among those who had grown attuned to an unmediated experience of God.