In looking over our Reformation stream I note that, chronologically speaking, I left us burying the dead in the Great Plague (1347-1353) with the aftermath of a more affective, apocalyptic, and fear-driven popular spirituality. I commented last Thursday that the high middle ages were a time of significant Eucharistic piety, but the late middle ages saw the development of a division in Christian life that Kevin Madigan describes so well in his Medieval Christianity (2015). In my review of this work I concluded with this observation:
Madigan brings his overview of the age to a climax of sorts by highlighting the increasing intensity and volatility of the spirituality of the fifteenth century. In many respects I found this the most impressive sequence of the entire work. Contrary to popular belief, the Church was not moribund on the eve of the Reformation. Religious orders on the whole were energetically revitalizing themselves. If anything, the fifteenth century spiritual life of the Catholic Church might best be described as bipolar. On the one hand were those who worked day and night, to the point of mania, to assure themselves escape from hell fire. It is little surprise that the concept and practice of gaining indulgences would take hold among sellers and buyers alike.
On the other hand were those who regarded the efforts to save one's self by “doing” (what Madigan calls the "Facere" Doctrine) with fatalism, particularly in Germany. Just how many indulgences, rosaries, Masses, confessions and the like were necessary to be saved? In truth, no one could say, and anxious souls like Martin Luther would despair of salvation altogether until a new collective mood of passivity and absolute trust in God, "justification by faith, not works," would effectively end the age of the Medieval Synthesis.
Three years later I stand with that assessment, but the fifteenth century is complex on so many levels that one might do better to call it the age of the Renaissance. Madigan’s history follows the Church closely, and he integrates matters of church and culture fairly well. I spent a good part of yesterday reading the opening of The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople (2013) by Sara Wise Bauer. Bauer covers a period of roughly 1100-1450 A.D. She does not take the reader all the way to the Declaration of Luther in 1517, but in her analysis of European life it becomes clear that much of what we call the Renaissance (or cultural rebirth) emerged much earlier than the dates we found in our school day history texts and was responsible for the religious upheavals of Luther’s day.
A Renaissance historian is more likely to look at the Reformation as a product of all the factors of the time, not strictly the religious ones. A good example of this is a pair of events in the 1400’s in the arena of secular history that would both impact Catholic life. The first was the work of the famous Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator. His mapmaking and other studies enabled Portuguese sailors to work their way down the west coast of Africa for purposes of trade and exploration. His seminal work led to the discovery of new Western European trade routes in all directions, including eventually the Americas, while bypassing the Moslem military strength of the Middle East. [The proliferation of the Portuguese African slave trade by 1500 created a moral dilemma for the Church.]
Sea-faring oceanic trade exploration—coupled with the invention of printing around 1455—led to a change in the daily life of Europeans that equals the twentieth century’s atomic and computer-driven technological breakthroughs. Consider the impact of the printing press on the Church alone. Volumes of the Bible were now attainable for regular reading of the laity, who prior to Gutenberg’s invention had limited exposure to Biblical content aside from sermons, morality plays, and observances of feasts. Even with the Inquisition investigating the writings of late medieval mystics, their written proliferated, along with reform-minded followers of men like Jan Hus and John Wycliffe. What resulted was a “democratization” of religious practice and thought that the Church was finding harder to police.
A second major marker of the fifteenth century was the conquest of Constantinople by the Moslem Turks of the Ottoman Empire in 1453. [Sir Steven Runciman’s work on the catastrophe remains a classic.] It is my understanding that news of the fall took two weeks to reach Rome, and the impact of the great city now in the hands of infidels is hard to describe today. For one thing, people of the time—certainly in Rome--still thought of Constantinople as the enduring legacy of the original Roman Empire. Constantine had moved the headquarters of the empire in the fourth century to Byzantium and renamed it after himself. [Today it is Istanbul, Turkey.]
In 1493 Constantinople was a shadow of its earlier glory, but Western Christendom throughout the middle ages had seen Constantinople as a bulwark against invaders of the East, even though Rome had excommunicated Constantinople and vice-versa in the 1000’s. The defeat in 1453 insured that Eastern Europe and Western Asia would become permanent members of the Ottoman Empire until World War I (1914-1918). Western Christians viewed this event apocalyptically, as the end of the world then perceived.
Indeed, one world was ending, but another was beginning, for the great minds of Eastern Christendom had been immigrating west for many years before the final fall of Constantinople. They brought with them texts that the West was barely aware of, in all disciplines, and they found employment and eager audiences in the approximately 200 universities across Western Europe. It is no accident that the Renaissance is remembered today for its renewed interests in the ancient writings of Greece and Rome.
These two events--the development of Portuguese navigation/trade and the fall of Constantinople--were not directly related to matters religious. But their impacts would profoundly change the pre-Luther landscape of religious ideas and thoughts. With the discovery of the Americas and the first contacts with the Asian East, the Church would need to revisit a definition of its essential worship rites, particularly in India and in China. And with centuries of Roman and Greek writers and themes now available, late medieval and Renaissance Christians were now able to push the envelope of thought further than the prescribed certainties of Aquinas and the high medieval scholasticism.
Obviously, there is much more to say about the last years before the Reformation, but I am winding down to just four more pre-Luther posts: the European mystics, the Council of Constance (1414-1417), Conciliarism [i.e., the collective power of bishops], and the state of religious orders when Luther entered the monastery.