Before the Reformation

Many factors brought about the Reformation. It was realised in the Church that the clergy, from the bishops downwards, were failing in their duty. Educated people disliked the superstitions connected with pilgrimages, indulgences and other practices; and the restrictions on Bible-reading were resented. Huss foreshadowed the ideas of the Reformation, and Savonarola its moral austerity. The Popes acted as rich princes rather than as meek spiritual leaders. The invention of printing and the revival of learning during the Renaissance stimulated critics of the Church, the most notable of whom was Erasmus.

A preacher in Strasbourg Cathedral at the end of the fifteenth century foresaw the catastrophe threatening the Medieval Church: ‘O Lord my God, how falsely now do even those live who seem most spiritual—Parsons and Monks, Béguines and Penitents! Their study is not to work God’s works but to conceal the Devil’s works. Among these all is outward show, and there is no truth, nought else but dung be-snowed or buried under snow; without is the glistering whiteness of righteousness and honesty, but within a conscience reeking with vermin and with the stench of sin. The day shall come when the Sun of Righteousness shall melt the snow, and then shall the secrets of your hearts be revealed. And would that the filth of our sins were at least covered with the appearance of snow, that our sin, like Sodom, were not published abroad without shame! (1).

Many people were beginning to feel that all was not well with the Church. One problem involved confirmation. Since medieval bishops had no settled times or places for confirming, it was often complained that many people died unconfirmed. It was usual for people to try to catch them on their way through a district as they did with St Anselm in France in the eleventh century: ‘Anseim, therefore, set out from Wissant early on the morrow, and came after certain days to St Omer, where he was received with joy by clergy and monks, and detained for five days; during which time, at the prayer of the canons, he consecrated an altar. After which there came to him certain honourable men of those parts, kneeling at his feet and beseeching him to confirm their children by the laying on of hands and anointing with sacred oil. To whom he made answer forthwith: “Not only will I gladly receive those for whom ye pray in this matter, but others also who present themselves shall not be rejected “They, marvelling at the great man’s benignity in so easy a condescension, were rejoiced above measure and gave him thanks; and, when their children had been confirmed, they forth­with filled the whole city with the words which they had received from his lips. Then might ye see men and women, great and small, pouring forth from their houses and outrunning each other in their haste to reach our lodging and share in so great a sacrament; for it was now many years since any bishop had suffered himself to be employed in any such office among them (2).

A distinguished German monk wrote a book in 1493 in which he complained of the neglect of worship and learning among his decline fellow-monks: ‘All is confusion, profanity, presumption. If we look to divine service, they perform this so confused and disorderly and dissolutely that there is no sound of sense in their words nor of due melody in their chants; for they lack all erudition in the liberal arts, so that they understand no whit of all that they sing; wherefore they not so much recite, as confound their canonical services, without either affection or devotion or savour of inward sweetness. Never are the Holy Scriptures seen in their hands, never do they do their duty in edifying discourse, never do they take account of training in morals (3).

The neglect of the monks was matched by the superstition of the people. A French monk in the eleventh century described how popular superstition might lead to the creation of a saint and pilgrimages to his tomb: ‘I have indeed seen, and blush to relate, how a common boy, nearly related to a certain most renowned abbot, and squire (it was said) to some knight, died in a village hard by Beauvais on Good Friday, two days before Easter. Then, for the sake of that sacred day whereon he had died, men began to impute a gratuitous sanctity to the dead boy. When this had been rumoured among the country-folk, all agape for something new, then forthwith oblations and waxen tapers were brought to his tomb by villagers of all that country round. What need of more words? A monument was built over him, the spot was hedged in with a stone building, and from the very confines of Brittany there came great companies of country-folk, though without admixture of the higher sort (4).

Sir Thomas More told how a priest might stage fraudulent miracles to attract pilgrims and their offerings to his church : ‘Some priest, to bring up a pilgrimage in his parish, may devise some false fellow feigning himself to come seek a saint in his church, and there suddenly say, that he hath gotten his sight. Then shall he have the bells rung for a miracle, and the fond folk of the country soon made fools, then women coming thither with their candles. And the person buying of some lame beggar, three or four pairs of their old crutches with twelve pence spent in men and women of wax thrust through divers places some with arrows, and some with rusty knives, will make his offerings for one seven years worth twice his tithes (5).

Once the pilgrims had arrived, the priests frequently offered them indulgences or pardons for their sins. This was one of the many indulgences to be obtained at the Brigittine monastery of Syon at Isleworth in Middlesex: ‘Item In the Feast of St Bridget whosoever will come to the said monastery, devoutly there visiting the Holy Virgin St Bridget, and giving some alms to the sustentation of the same monastery, shall have pardon and clean remission in all cases, reserved and unreserved, and this pardon endureth from the beginning of the first evensong till the last evensong be done (6).

Yet, although indulgences and pardons were freely offered to the faithful, the Church insisted that the Bible be only available in Latin—a dead language that few ordinary people could read. Sir Thomas More, though a liberal and enlightened man, did not think that everyone should be allowed to read the Bible freely:

‘Though the bishop might unto some layman betake and commit with good advice and instruction the whole Bible to read, yet might he to some man well and with reason restrain the reading of some part, and from some busybody the meddling with any part at all, more than he shall hear in sermons set out and declared unto him, and in like wise to take the Bible away from such folk again, as be proved by their blind presumption to abuse the occasion of their profit unto their own hurt and harm. And thus may the bishop order the scripture in our hands, with as good reason as the father doth by his discretion appoint which of his children may for his sadness keep a knife to cut his meat, and which shall for his wantonness have his knife taken from him for cutting of his fingers (7).

John Huss of Bohemia was burned for his beliefs in 1415. Like many people, he felt that Christianity ought to be a religion of the people. Here are some of his statements, as recorded in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. ‘False it is that they say the Pope and his cardinals to be the true and manifest successors of Peter and of the apostles, neither that any other successors of Peter and of the apostles can be found upon the earth besides them: whereas all bishops and priests be successors of Peter and of the apostles.

‘Not the Pope, but Christ only, is the head; and not the cardinals, but all Christ’s faithful people, be the body of the Catholic Church.

‘If the Pope be a reprobate, it is plain that he is no head, no nor member even, of the Holy Church of God, but of the devil and of his synagogue.

‘Neither is it true, that we ought to stand in all things to the deter­mination of the Pope and of the cardinals, but so far forth as they do agree with the holy Scripture of the Old and New Testament.

‘The Church of Rome is not that place where the Lord did appoint the principal see of His whole Church: for Christ. Who was the head priest of all, did first sit in Jerusalem, and Peter did sit first in Antioch, and afterward in Rome. Also other Popes did sit, some at Bologna, some at Perugia, some at Avignon (8).

From 1494 to 1498 an Italian friar, Savonarola, directed a revival in Florence which foreshadowed much of the later results of the Reformation. He believed in good works by ordinary people: ‘He achieved a holy and admirable work in his reforms of morals. There was never so much religion and virtue in Florence as in his day, and after his death the fall of piety and virtue was kept within limits. The taverns were closed, women dressed modestly, and children lived a life of holiness. Conducted by Fra Buonvincini they went in bands to church, wore their hair short and pelted with stones and insults gamblers, drunkards and women of immodest dress (9).

The Renaissance Popes of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were corrupt and secular in outlook. Here is a shocking account of the election of Pope Alexander VI in 1492: ‘To Innocent [VIII] succeeded Rodrigo Borgia of Valenza, a royal city in Spain. He was an ancient cardinal and made the best figure in Rome. His election was owing partly to the disputes that arose between the two cardinals, heads of factions, Ascanio Sforza and Giuliano of S. Pietro in Vincula, but chiefly to a simony unheard of in those days. For Borgia openly corrupted many of the cardinals, some with money, others with promises of profitable places and benefices, of which he had many at that time in his power; and they, without any regard to the precepts of the Gospel, were not ashamed of making a traffic of the sacred treasures, under the name of Divine Authority, and that in the most high and eminent seat of the Christian religion (10).’

Pope Julius II in 1511 actually commanded a Papal Army, in the siege of an Italian town held by the French. This military behaviour greatly upset many people. ‘It was certainly a remarkable case, and a sight very uncommon in the eye of the world . . . to behold the High Priest, the Vicar of Christ on earth, old and infirm, and educated in ease and pleasures, now employed in person in managing a war excited by himself against Christians; and at the siege of a paltry town exposing himself to all the fatigues and dangers of a commander of armies, and retaining nothing of the Pontiff but the name and the habit (11).

A satirical attack on other ecclesiastical abuses was made in an extract from In Praise of Folly written in 1509 by the Dutch scholar, Erasmus: ‘What shall I say of such as cry up and maintain the cheat of pardons and indulgences? that by these compute the time of each soul’s residence in purgatory, and assign them a longer or shorter continuance, according as they purchase more or fewer of these paltry pardons and saleable exemptions? Or what can be said bad enough of others, who pretend that by force of such magical charms, or by the fumbling over their beads in the rehearsal of such and such petitions (which some religious imposters invented, either for diversion, or what is more likely for advantage), they shall procure riches, honour, pleasure, health, long life, a lusty old age, nay, after death a sitting at the right hand of our Saviour in His kingdom; though as to this last part of their happiness, they care not how long it be deferred, having scarce any appetite toward a-tasting the joys of heaven, till they are surfeited, glutted with, and can no longer relish their enjoyments on earth (12).