Monday, October 31, 2016

500: Martin Luther

Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Saxony, part of the Holy Roman Empire. His father operated a mining business but wanted to see his eldest son become a lawyer, so Martin was well-educated. He spent three years attending a school run by the Dutch lay community Fratres Vitae Communis (Brethren of the Common Life). The group lived in common houses, giving up personal possessions, and spent the day in prayer, working, and reading scripture aloud. (Erasmus also studied with them.) In 1501 Luther went to the University of Erfurt. In 1505 he entered then quickly dropped out of law school, taking up theology instead. He became an Augustinian monk.

In the cloistered Augustinian order, Luther spent his days fasting, praying, and going to frequent confession. It’s sad that he suffered from scrupulosity, or pathological guilt and doubt. He struggled to feel forgiven and would go to confession multiple times a day. In 1507 Luther was ordained a priest. The next year he began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg During his course of studies, he began to emphasize the role of faith in salvation. He received his doctorate of theology from the university on October 12, 1512.

On October 31, 1517, Luther wrote a letter to the Bishop of Mainz, arguing against several Church practices. “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” commonly known as the Ninety-five Theses, addressed Luther’s concerns, most notably, the selling of indulgences. Dominican friar Johann Tetzel had arrived in Germany in 1516, selling indulgences for fundraising of the basilica in Rome. He is often credited with the phrase, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” 

In typical debate fashion for universities at the time, Luther posted a copy of the letter in a public forum, the church door at All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg the day before All Saints Day. I think it’s important to emphasize that Luther had no intention to break away from the Church. He was seeking a response to practices he saw as unhealthy. He sought only internal critique and reform. In January, copies of the letter were translated from Latin into German. Within weeks, the letter spread throughout Europe. The Protestant Reformation was underway. 


Friday, October 28, 2016

500: Fifth Lateran Council


In the early 1500s, the papal states were facing political opposition from Italian and French states. Venice was filling episcopal seats without Church approval and subjecting clergy to state tribunals. Pope Julius II sent in armies to get Venice back in line. Meanwhile, King Louis XII of France demanded Florence give allegiance to France, which would almost certainly start a war between the papal states and France. (Florence sent Niccolo Machiavelli to France as their diplomatic representative during this.) Pope Julius II wanted Italian states free from foreign influence. France tried to convene a general council in Pisa, intending to restrict the pope’s poltiical power, but the German princes refused to get involved and Maximillian I, who had at first supported the council, withdrew his support when the Germans refused. Without popular support in Pisa, the council moved to Milan, then Lyon, before disbanding the same year.

In response to the French council, Pope Julius II convened the Fifth Lateran Council in 1512. He deposed four cardinals of their offices and excommunicated participants of the conciliabulum council in Pisa. Ambassadors of Maximillian I and Louis XII announced that their leaders rejected any decisions made in Pisa. The council closed under Pope Leo X in March 1517.

While political in much of its proceedings, the council addressed ecclesiastical business as well. There was a bull to sanction the monti di pieta (Mount of Piety). These financial institutions had been set up about a century earlier as a charitable alternative to money lending. Designed to benefit the borrower, they operated similar to a pawn shop and offered low-interest loans (in theory). Through the council, they were put under stricter ecclesiastical supervision with the aim to aid the poor in favorable terms (not falling into usury, like banks).

Another result of the council was that a local bishop had to give permission before the printing of a new book in his see. Since the movable type press in 1439, literacy and the production and spread of books had boomed. There was also a requirement for documented competence in preaching. Clergy had to complete a regulated course of studies in philosophy. Both these things addressed the Church’s need to keep foreign political and religious ideas from the pamphlet and the pulpit. Finally, the council affirmed “the truth of the enlightened Christian faith.”

Only a few months later, Martin Luther nailed his theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. Several historians believe that the Fifth Lateran Council never had a chance to be properly implemented, because the Church had to focus on the watershed of Protestantism. Some also believe that if Martin Luther had seen the implementation of the council, his criticisms would have been lessened. However, it didn’t work out that way. But I think it’s clear that the Fifth Lateran Council shows that political struggles, rising Protestant thought, and Church efforts for reform were already well-established in Europe before Luther.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Motivation Monday: Canada

(a day early because it's been a long week)

To say 2016 has been a rough year so far is an understatement. This election cycle has been brutal, and the divisiveness and vitriol won't end on Nov. 8. But Canadians started the hashtag #TellAmericaItsGreat to perk up its southern neighbor, and it genuinely made me smile.


Monday, October 17, 2016

500: Holy, Roman, Empire


There are three things about the Holy Roman Empire that every high school student is taught: it was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire. But it tried to be. Since it no longer appears on modern maps, we forgot how much the Holy Roman Empire impacted European politics for centuries. 

On Christmas Day 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as emperor. The idea of an emperor was that Charlemagne’s rule was a continuation of the old Roman Empire in the West, which had been effectively demolished for three centuries. Rome still lived. The title was elective; the emperor was selected from the nobility in Europe. There was no capital city, and the kingdom consisted of hundreds of decentralized domains. Other rulers maintained their own land and had de facto independence, but they owed allegiance to the emperor.  

Like other nobles, the Holy Roman Emperor often appointed his own bishops and had control over who held ecclesiastical positions within his kingdom, up to the papacy. Non-firstborn sons of nobility often were given high positions in the church. As part of his large reform plan, Pope Gregory VII tried to reform the investiture system, placing power back in the church. The College of Cardinals was created in 1059; church officials would determine who was pope, and from there, the Church would curtail secular investiture and simony in Europe. 

The struggle between Church and kingdoms continued. The Concordat of Worms in 1122 allowed kings to invest bishops with secular authorities within their kingdoms, but only the Church could invest sacred authority. This left bishops with split loyalties: one to a king and one to the pope. Kings maintained rights over their kingdoms (including some added tax benefits), and the papacy maintained its place outside the control of the Holy Roman Emperor (and got some added tax benefits). Kings struggled to have control over their individual kingdoms while still maintaining strength in unity, which meant the good graces of the Holy Roman Empire and the Church.

By the Late Middle Ages, the concept of power was becoming more attached to money and land (which could be taxed for money) rather than birthright and titles won in war. The Holy Roman Empire, an empire of scattered landholdings across Europe, struggled to maintain control in an era of land consolidations and the early rise of the nation-state. In the late 1400s, Maximilian I tried to reform the empire, levying new taxes, creating a supreme court, and forming foreign policy legislation with other kings at the Diet of Worms of 1495. But the reforms only kept the empire one of many players on the  European stage. 

By the turn of the sixteenth century, Germany was comprised of several kingdoms. The nobles were seeing increased wealth, and the concept of a nation-state was taking shape. These states didn’t really see the need of a unifying empire, or Church for that matter. They wanted total control within their borders, and they had the strength to fight for it. The power of the Holy Roman Empire was weakened, and nobles were losing interest in pledging loyalty to outside rulers, be they emperor or pope.

Monday, October 10, 2016

500: Black Death


While the Black Death, or bubonic plague, is often well-known, I don’t think we realize the profound effects it had on every level of European life. Imagine if, in less than a decade, the populated halved. The physical toll of empty houses, abandoned utilities, rotting bodies. The psychological toll of not knowing why it is happening or who is next. The social upheaval as power vacuums are created, labor is differently distributed, and cults grow with the promises of solutions. It's difficult to pinpoint when history pivoted toward the Reformation, because history does not have starts and stops. But I think the social shifts created by the plague laid groundwork for the Protestant Reformation.

The Black Death hit Europe from 1346-1353. The bubonic epidemic began when Mongols attacked an Italian trading station in Kaffa, along the Black Sea in autumn of 1346. In the spring, the Italians were able to flee back home, carrying diseased rats on their ships. At this time, the famed Silk Road trade routes between Europe and Asia were closed. The Mongol khan had converted to Islam and stopped the flow of trade with Christians, hence the attack on the Italian traders. Therefore, as the plague spread out from the Volga steppe, it traveled west but not east.

Rat fleas carried the disease on ships and into homes. Because most people caught the disease from a rat flea (as compared to a flea on a human host), most waves of death took place in the warmer months (unlike airborne disease that spread more in colder months). The Late Middle Ages had seen a population boom; there was an increase of urbanization and trade, meaning more epidemics. But this one was worse than previous ones. As people fled infected cities, they carried the disease with them, infecting more and more. People died so quickly that bodies were put in mass, shallow graves. It is now estimated that around 60% of Europe’s population died in the plague, 50 million people in just seven years.  

This had long-lasting effects on society. With such a reduced population, survivors found themselves with less competition for resources. Prices decreased. Land and food was available, and labor was able to demand higher wages. There was increased social mobility that benefited peasants, including women and younger sons. An individual had more worth. The wealthy tried to curtail measures, particularly rising wages, but the peasantry felt its increased worth and would often rebel, demanding better conditions and higher wages. The population would not reach pre-plague levels for almost 150 years. By that time, the old way of feudalism was being replaced by a modern, working class.

Notably, communities without much trade, isolated for geographical or social reasons, mostly avoided the plague. In several areas, Christians watched masses of their neighbors die while nearby Jewish communities, which also had different hygiene practices, survived. Anti-Semitism was already very real, but this only increased the anger and suspicion. Many accused the Jews of starting the plague, or at least dealing with the devil to survive it. Mobs attacks Jews and destroyed communities across Europe. 

Conversely, some communities were more than open, in regular communication with Italy and welcomed the infirm and refugees. As a result, religious communities suffered the plague in greater numbers because people rushed to monasteries for protection, bringing the plague with them. Also, the priests would go out to infected families to tend to the sick and give last rites. This left Europe with a priest shortage, so the training process for new priests was sped up. Some historians believe that the clergy following the plague were mostly inexperienced and poorly trained.

The Church had no set, theological explanation for the plague. With communities obliterated, faith became more personal—practiced more outside of the organized church and developed by each individual’s need to make sense of the world around him. If there was still a battle between God and death, people reckoned, death was winning, and it may be wise to side with the winning team. The danse macabre, which appeared in paintings, plays, and music of the time, showed the living and the dead all together. The line between alive and dead was blurred. Death was no stranger in the Middle Ages, but now it was even closer and crueler.

Beyond the fallow fields and mass graves, people sought spiritual answers. Why would such a horrible plague ravage their known world? There was a surge of religious fervor. People joined different, sometimes heretical, groups that offered perspectives. There were plenty of cults claiming that it was the end of days. Some fell into hedonism; live for the moment because tomorrow might not come. Others saw the plague as God’s wrath and inflected penitential acts such as flagellation and other self-mutations. Nihilists concluded that there was no reason and that God had abandoned the world. 

In conclusion, I think the Black Death had two profound impacts on Europe that led to Protestantism: 1. The reduced population led to labor demanding higher wages and more resources. The individual had more bargaining power and more sense of self-control over one’s life. 2. Religious communities were weakened, and it took many years to build up new, well-trained clergy. The people lost confidence in the institution of the Church both in providing answers and in providing resources. They found localized groups, some within the Church’s teachings and some heretical, that offered answers to unimaginable suffering.