State of Europe Before the Reformation
Excerpt adapted from History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century by J. H. Merle D’Aubigne, Swiss Protestant minister, translated by H. White (Oliver & Boyd: Edinburgh: 1846).
Church Corruption Prior to Reformation
The Proliferation of Darkness in Catholic Religion
Let us now see what was the state of the Church previous to the Reformation.
The nations of Christendom no longer looked to a holy and living God for the free gift of eternal life. To obtain it, they were obliged to have recourse to all the means that a superstitious, fearful, and alarmed imagination could devise. Heaven was filled with saints and mediators, whose duty it was to solicit this mercy. Earth was filled with pious works, sacrifices, observances, and ceremonies, by which it was to be obtained. Here is a picture of the religion of this period transmitted to us by one who was long a monk, and afterwards a fellow laborer of Luther’s, by Myconius:
“The sufferings and merits of Christ were looked upon as an idle tale, or as the fictions of Homer. There was no thought of faith by which we become partakers of the Savior’s righteousness and of the heritage of eternal life. Christ was looked upon as a severe judge, prepared to condemn all who should not have recourse to the intercession of the saints, or to the papal indulgences. Other intercessors appeared in his place: first the Virgin Mary, like the Diana of paganism, and then the saints, whose numbers were continually augmented by the popes. These mediators granted their intercession only to such applicants as had deserved well of the orders founded by them. For this it was necessary to do, not what God had commanded in his Word, but to perform a number of works invented by monks and priests, and which brought money to the treasury. These works were Ave Marias, the prayers of Saint Ursula and of Saint Bridget: they must chant and cry night and day. There were as many resorts for pilgrims as there were mountains, forests, and valleys. But these penances might be compounded for with money. The people, therefore, brought to the convents and to the priests money and everything that had any value: fowls, ducks, geese, eggs, wax, straw, butter, and cheese. Then the hymns resounded, the bells rang, incense filled the sanctuary, sacrifices were offered up, the larders overflowed, the glasses went round, and masses terminated and concealed these pious orgies. The bishops no longer preached, but they consecrated priests, bells, monks, churches, chapels, images, books, and cemeteries; and all this brought in a large revenue. Bones, arms, and feet were preserved in gold and silver boxes; they were given out during mass for the faithful to kiss, and this too was a source of great profit.”
All these people maintained that the pope, ‘sitting as God in the temple of God,’ could not err, and they would not suffer any contradiction. In the church of All Saints at Wittenberg was shown a fragment of Noah’s ark, some soot from the furnace of the Three Children, a Piece of wood from the cradle of Jesus Christ, some hair from the beard of St. Christopher, and nineteen thousand other relics of greater or less value. At Schaffhausen was exhibited the breath of St. Joseph that Nicodemus had received in his glove. In Wurtemberg you might meet a seller of indulgences, vending his merchandise, his head adorned with a large feather plucked from the wing of St. Michael. But it was not necessary to travel far in search of these precious treasures. Men who farmed the relics traversed the whole country, hawking them about the rural districts (as has since been the case with the Holy Scriptures), and carrying them to the houses of the faithful, to spare them the trouble and expense of a pilgrimage. They were exhibited with pomp in the churches. These wandering hawkers paid a stipulated sum to the owners of the relics, a percentage on their profits. The kingdom of heaven had disappeared, and in its place a market of abominations had been opened upon earth.
Thus a spirit of profanity had invaded religion; and the holiest recollections of the Church, the seasons which more particularly summoned the faithful to holy meditation and love, were disgraced by buffoonery and heathenish profanation. The “Revels of Easter” held a distinguished place in the records of the Church. As the festival of the resurrection of Christ ought to be celebrated with joy, the preachers studied in their sermons everything that might raise a laugh among their hearers. One imitated the note of the cuckoo; another hissed like a goose. One dragged to the altar a layman robed in a monk’s frock; a second related the most indecent stories; and a third recounted the tricks of St. Peter, and among others, how in a tavern he had cheated his host by not paying his reckoning. The lower clergy took advantage of this opportunity to ridicule their superiors. The churches were converted into a mere stage for mountebanks, and the priests into buffoons.
Collapse of Morals under Catholicism
If such was the state of religion, what must have been the state of morals? Undoubtedly the corruption was not at that time universal. Justice requires that this should not be forgotten. The Reformation elicited numerous examples of piety, righteousness, and strength of mind. The spontaneous action of God’s power was the cause; but how can we deny that he had beforehand deposited the seeds of this new life in the bosom of the Church? If in our days we should bring together all the immoralities, all the turpitudes committed in a single country, the mass of corruption would doubtless shock us still. Nevertheless, the evil at this period wore a character and universality that it has not borne subsequently. And, above all, the mystery of iniquity desolated the holy places, as it has not been permitted to do since the days of the Reformation.
Morality had declined with the decline of faith. The tidings of the gift of eternal life is the power of God to regenerate man. Take away the salvation which God has given, and you take away sanctification and good works. And this result followed.
The doctrine and the sale of indulgences were powerful incentives to evil among an ignorant people. True, according to the Church, indulgences could benefit those only who promised to amend their lives, and who kept their word. But what could be expected from a tenet invented solely with a view to the profit that might be derived from it? The venders of indulgences were naturally tempted, for the better sale of their merchandise, to present their wares to the people in the most attractive and seducing aspect. The learned themselves did not fully understand the doctrine. All that the multitude saw in them was, that they permitted men to sin; and the merchants were not over eager to dissipate an error so favorable to their sale.
What disorders and crimes were committed in these dark ages, when impunity was to be purchased by money! What had man to fear, when a small contribution towards building a church secured him from the fear of punishment in the world to come? What hope could there be of revival when all communication between God and man was cut off, and man, an alien from God, who is the spirit and the life, moved only in a round of paltry ceremonies and sensual observances, in an atmosphere of death!
Disorders of the Catholic Priesthood
The priests were the first who yielded to this corrupting influence. By desiring to exalt themselves they became abased. They had aimed at robbing God of a ray of his glory and placing it in their own bosoms; but their attempt had proved vain, and they had only hidden there a leaven of corruption stolen from the power of evil. The history of the age swarms with scandals.
In many places, the people were delighted at seeing a priest keep a mistress, that the married women might be safe from his seductions. What humiliating scenes did the house of a pastor in those days present! The wretched man supported the woman and the children she had borne him with the tithes and offerings. His conscience was troubled: he blushed in the presence of the people, before his domestics, and before God. The mother, fearing to come to want if the priest should die, made provision against it beforehand, and robbed her own house. Her honor was lost. Her children were ever a living accusation against her. Despised by all, they plunged into quarrels and debauchery. Such was the family of the priest!
These were frightful scenes, by which the people knew how to profit. The rural districts were the scene of numerous disorders. The abodes of the clergy were often dens of corruption. Corneille Adrian at Bruges, the abbot Trinkler at Cappel, imitated the manners of the East, and had their harems. Priests, consorting with dissolute characters, frequented the taverns, played at dice, and crowned their orgies with quarrels and blasphemy. The council of Schaffhausen forbade the priests to dance in public, except at marriages, and to carry more than one kind of arms: they decreed also that all who were found in houses of ill fame should be unfrocked. In the archbishopric of Mentz, they scaled the walls by night, and created all kinds of disorder and confusion in the inns and taverns and broke the doors and locks. In many places the priest paid the bishop a regular tax for the woman with whom he lived, and for each child he had by her. A German bishop said publicly one day, at a great entertainment, that in one year eleven thousand priests had presented themselves before him for that purpose. It is Erasmus who relates this.
Corruption of the Catholic Hierarchy
If we go higher in the hierarchical order, we find the corruption not less great. The dignitaries of the Church preferred the tumult of camps to the hymns of the altar. To be able, lance in hand, to reduce his neighbors to obedience was one of the chief qualifications of a bishop. Baldwin, archbishop of Treves, was continually at war with his neighbors and his vassals: he demolished their castles, built strongholds, and thought of nothing but the extension of his territory.
A certain bishop of Eichstadt, when administering justice, wore a coat of mail under his robes, and held a large sword in his hand. He used to say he was not afraid of five Bavarians, provided they did but attack him in fair fight. Everywhere the bishops were continually at war with their towns. The citizens demanded liberty, the bishops required implicit obedience. If the latter gained the victory, they punished the revolters by sacrificing numerous victims to their vengeance; but the flame of insurrection burst out again, at the very moment when it was thought to be extinguished.
Macchiavelli Was Right about Caesar Borgia
And what a spectacle was presented by the pontifical throne in the times immediately preceding the Reformation! Rome, it must be acknowledged, had seldom witnessed so much infamy.
Rodrigo Borgia, after having lived with a Roman lady, had continued the same illicit connection with one of her daughters, named Rosa Vanozza, by whom he had five children. He was a cardinal and archbishop, living at Rome with Vanozza and other women, visiting the churches and the hospitals, when the death of Innocent VIII created a vacancy in the pontifical chair. He succeeded in obtaining it by bribing each cardinal at a stipulated price. Four mules laden with silver publicly entered the palace of Sforza, one of the most influential of the cardinals. Borgia became pope under the name of Alexander VI and rejoiced in thus attaining the summit of earthly felicity.
On the day of his coronation, his son Caesar, a youth of ferocious and dissolute manners, was created archbishop of Valencia and bishop of Pampeluna. He next celebrated in the Vatican the marriage of his daughter Lucretia, by festivities at which his mistress, Julia Bella, was present, and which were enlivened by licentious plays and songs. “All the clergy,” says an historian, “kept mistresses, and all the convents of the capital were houses of ill fame.” Caesar Borgia espoused the cause of the Guelfs; and when by their assistance he had destroyed the Ghibellines, he turned upon the Guelfs and crushed them in their turn.
But he desired to share alone in all these spoils. In 1497, Alexander gave the duchy of Benevento to his eldest son. The duke suddenly disappeared. A faggot dealer, on the banks of the Tiber, one George Schiavoni, had seen a dead body thrown into the stream during the night; but he said nothing of it, as being a common occurrence. The body of the duke was found. His brother Caesar had been the instigator of his death. This was not enough. His brother in law stood in his way: one day Caesar caused him to be stabbed on the very stairs of the pontifical palace. He was carried bleeding to his own apartments. His wife and sister did not leave him; and fearful that Caesar would employ poison, they prepared his meals with their own hands. Alexander set a guard on the doors; but Caesar ridiculed these precautions, and remarked, as the pope was about to pay a visit to his son in law, “What is not done at dinner will be done at supper.”
Accordingly, one day he gained admittance to the chamber of the convalescent, turned out the wife and sister, and calling in his executioner Michilotto, the only man in whom he placed any confidence, ordered his brother in law to be strangled before his eyes. Alexander had a favorite, Perotto, whose influence also offended the young duke. He rushed upon him: Perotto took refuge under the pontifical mantle and clasped the pope in his arms. Caesar stabbed him, and the blood of his victim spirted in the face of the pontiff. “The pope,” adds a contemporary and eye witness of these scenes, “loves the duke his son, and lives in great fear of him.”
Caesar was the handsomest and strongest man of his age. Six wild bulls fell easily beneath his blows in single combat. Every morning some new victim was found, who had been assassinated during the night in the Roman streets. Poison carried off those whom the dagger could not reach. No one dared move or breathe in Rome, for fear that his turn should come next. Caesar Borgia was the hero of crime. That spot of earth in which iniquity had attained such a height was the throne of the pontiffs. When man gives himself up to the powers of evil, the higher he claims to be exalted before God, the lower he sinks into the abyss of hell. The dissolute entertainments given by the pope, his son Caesar, and his daughter Lucretia, in the pontifical palace, cannot be described or even thought of without shuddering. The impure groves of antiquity saw nothing like them. Historians have accused Alexander and Lucretia of incest; but this charge does not appear sufficiently established.
The pope had prepared poison in a box of sweetmeats that was to be served up after a sumptuous repast: the cardinal for whom it was intended being forewarned, gained over the attendant, and the poisoned box was set before Alexander. He ate of it and died. “The whole city ran together and could not satiate their eyes with gazing on this dead viper.”
Such was the man who filled the papal chair at the beginning of the century in which the Reformation burst forth.
Thus had the clergy brought not only themselves but religion into disrepute. Well might a powerful voice exclaim: “The ecclesiastical order is opposed to God and to his glory. The people know it well; and this is but too plainly shown by the many songs, proverbs, and jokes against the priests, that are current among the commonalty, and all those caricatures of monks and priests on every wall, and even on the playing cards. Everyone feels a loathing on seeing or hearing a priest in the distance.” It is Luther who speaks thus.
The evil had spread through all ranks: “a strong delusion” had been sent among men; the corruption of manners corresponded with the corruption of faith. A mystery of iniquity oppressed the enslaved Church of Christ.
The Gospel of Christ Disdained
Another consequence necessarily flowed from the neglect into which the fundamental doctrine of the gospel had fallen. Ignorance of the understanding accompanied the corruption of the heart. The priests having taken into their hands the distribution of the salvation that belongs only to God, had secured a sufficient title to the respect of the people.
What need had they to study sacred learning? It was no longer a question of explaining the Scriptures, but of granting letters of indulgence; and for this ministry it was not necessary to have acquired much learning.
In country places, they chose for preachers, says Wimpheling, “miserable wretches whom they had previously raised from beggary, and who had been cooks, musicians, huntsmen, stable boys, and even worse.”
The superior clergy themselves were often sunk in great ignorance. A bishop of Dunfeld congratulated himself on having never learnt either Greek or Hebrew. The monks asserted that all heresies arose from those two languages, and particularly from the Greek. “The New Testament,” said one of them, “is a book full of serpents and thorns. Greek,” continued he, “is a new and recently invented language, and we must be upon our guard against it. As for Hebrew, my dear brethren, it is certain that all who learn it, immediately become Jews.” Heresbach, a friend of Erasmus, and a respectable author, reports these expressions.
Thomas Linacer, a learned and celebrated ecclesiastic, had never read the New Testament. In his latter days (in 1524), he called for a copy, but quickly threw it away from him with an oath, because on opening it his eyes had glanced upon these words: “But I say unto you, Swear not at all.” Now he was a great swearer. “Either this is not the Gospel,” said he, “or else we are not Christians.” Even the faculty of theology at Paris scrupled not to declare to the parliament: “Religion is ruined, if you permit the study of Greek and Hebrew.”
If any learning was found here and there among the clergy, it was not in sacred literature. The Ciceronians of Italy affected a great contempt for the Bible on account of its style. Pretended priests of the Church of Christ translated the writings of holy men, inspired by the Spirit of God, in the style of Virgil and of Horace, to accommodate their language to the ears of good society. Cardinal Bembo, instead of the Holy Ghost, used to write the breath of the heavenly zephyr; for the expression to forgive sins, to bend the mancs and the sovereign gods; and for Christ, the Son of God, Minerva sprung from the head of Jupiter.
Finding one day the worthy Sadolet engaged in translating the Epistle to the Romans, he said to him: “Leave these childish matters: such fooleries do not become a sensible man.”
These were some of the consequences of the system that then oppressed Christendom. This picture undoubtedly demonstrates the corruption of the Church, and the necessity for a reformation. Such was our design in writing this sketch. The vital doctrines of Christianity had almost entirely disappeared, and with them the life and light that constitute the essence of the religion of God. The material strength of the Church was gone. It lay an exhausted, enfeebled, and almost lifeless body, extended over that part of the world which the Roman empire had occupied.