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The “great man” theory of history, formerly everywhere prevalent, and even now common among non-historical persons, has long regarded the Reformation as the purely personal work of the Augustine monk who was its central figure. The fallacy of this conception is particularly striking in the case of the Reformation. Not only was it preceded by numerous sporadic outbursts of religious revivalism which sometimes took the shape of opposition to the dominant form of Christianity, though it is true they generally shaded off into mere movements of independent Catholicism within the Church; but there were in addition at least two distinct religious movements which led up to it, while much which, under the reformers of the sixteenth century, appears as a distinct and separate theology, is traceable in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in the mystical movement connected with the names of Meister Eckhart and Tauler. Meister Eckhart, whose free treatment of Christian doctrines, in order to bring them into consonance with his mystical theology, had drawn him into conflict with the Papacy, undoubtedly influenced Luther through his disciple, Tauler, and especially through the book which proceeded from the latter’s school, the Deutsche Theologie. It is, however, in the much more important movement, which originated with Wyclif and extended to Central Europe through Huss, that we must look for the more obvious influences determining the course of religious development in Germany.

The Wyclifite movement in England was less a doctrinal heterodoxy than a revolt against the Papacy and the priestly hierarchy. Mere theoretical speculations were seldom interfered with, but anything which touched their material interests at once aroused the vigilance of the clergy. It is noticeable that the diffusion of Lollardism, that is of the ideas of Wyclif, if not the cause of, was at least followed by the peasant rising under the leadership of John Ball, a connection which is also visible in the Tziska revolt following the Hussite movement, and the Peasants’ War in Germany which came on the heels of the Lutheran Reformation. How much Huss was directly influenced by the teachings of Wyclif is clear. The works of the latter were widely circulated throughout Europe; for one of the advantages of the custom of writing in Latin, which was universal during the Middle Ages, was that books of an important character were immediately current amongst all scholars without having, as now, to wait upon the caprice and ability of translators. Huss read Wyclif’s works as the preparation for his theological degree, and subsequently made them his text-books when teaching at the University of Prague. After his treacherous execution at Constance, and the events which followed thereupon in Bohemia, a number of Hussite fugitives settled in Southern Germany, carrying with them the seeds of the new doctrines. An anonymous contemporary writer states that “to John Huss and his followers are to be traced almost all those false principles concerning the power of the spiritual and temporal authorities and the possession of earthly goods and rights which before in Bohemia, and now with us, have called forth revolt and rebellion, plunder, arson, and murder, and have shaken to its foundations the whole commonwealth. The poison of these false doctrines has been long flowing from Bohemia into Germany, and will produce the same desolating consequences wherever it spreads.”

The condition of the Catholic Church, against which the Reformation movement generally was a protest, needs here to be made clear to the reader. The beginning of clerical disintegration is distinctly visible in the first half of the fourteenth century. The interdicts, as an institution, had ceased to be respected, and the priesthood itself began openly to sink itself in debauchery and to play fast and loose with the rites of the Church. Indulgences for a hundred years were readily granted for a consideration. The manufacture of relics became an organized branch of industry; and festivals of fools and festivals of asses were invented by the jovial priests themselves in travesty of sacred mysteries, as a welcome relaxation from the monotony of prescribed ecclesiastical ceremony. Pilgrimages increased in number and frequency; new saints were created by the dozen; and the disbelief of the clergy in the doctrines they professed was manifest even to the most illiterate, whilst contempt for the ceremonies they practised was openly displayed in the performance of their clerical functions. An illustration of this is the joke of the priests related by Luther, who were wont during the celebration of the Mass, when the worshippers fondly imagined that the sacred formula of transubstantiation was being repeated, to replace the words Panis es et carnem fiebis, “Bread thou art and flesh thou shalt become,” by Panis es et panis manebis, “Bread thou art and bread thou shalt remain.”

The scandals as regards clerical manners, growing, as they had been, for many generations, reached their climax in the early part of the sixteenth century. It was a common thing for priests to drive a roaring trade as moneylenders, landlords of alehouses and gambling dens, and even in some cases, brothel-keepers. Papal ukases had proved ineffective to stem the current of clerical abuses. The regular clergy evoked even more indignation than the secular. “Stinking cowls” was a favourite epithet for the monks. Begging, cheating, shameless ignorance, drunkenness, and debauchery, are alleged as being their noted characteristics. One of the princes of the empire addresses a prior of a convent largely patronized by aristocratic ladies as “Thou, our common brother-in-law!” In some of the convents of Friesland, promiscuous intercourse between the sexes was, it is said, quite openly practised, the offspring being reared as monks and nuns. The different orders competed with each other for the fame and wealth to be obtained out of the public credulity. A fraud attempted by the Dominicans at Bern, in 1506, with the concurrence of the heads of the order throughout Germany, was one of the main causes of that city adopting the Reformation.

In addition to the increasing burdens of investitures, annates, and other Papal dues, the brunt of which the German people had directly or indirectly to bear, special offence was given at the beginning of the sixteenth century by the excessive exploitation of the practice of indulgences by Leo X for the purpose of completing the cathedral of St. Peter’s at Rome. It was this, coming on the top of the exactions already rendered necessary by the increasing luxury and debauchery of the Papal Court and those of the other ecclesiastical dignitaries, that directly led to the dramatic incidents with which the Lutheran Reformation opened.

The remarkable personality with which the religious side of the Reformation is pre-eminently associated was a child of his time, who had passed through a variety of mental struggles, and had already broken through the bonds of the old ecclesiasticism before that turning-point in his career which is usually reckoned the opening of the Reformation, to wit the nailing of the theses on to the door of the Schloss-Kirche in Wittenberg on the 31st of October, 1517. Martin Luther, we must always bear in mind, however, was no Protestant in the English Puritan sense of the word. It was not merely that he retained much of what would be deemed by the old-fashioned English Protestant “Romish error” in his doctrine, but his practical view of life showed a reaction from the ascetic pretensions which he had seen bred nothing but hypocrisy and the worst forms of sensual excess. It is, indeed, doubtful if the man who sang the praises of “Wine, Women, and Song” would have been deemed a fit representative in Parliament or elsewhere by the British Nonconformist conscience of our day; or would be acceptable in any capacity to the grocer-deacon of our provincial towns, who, not content with being allowed to sand his sugar and adulterate his tea unrebuked, would socially ostracise every one whose conduct did not square with his conventional shibboleths. Martin Luther was a child of his time also as a boon companion. The freedom of his living in the years following his rupture with Rome was the subject of severe animadversions on the part of the noble, but in this respect narrow-minded, Thomas Muenzer, who, in his open letter addressed to the “Soft-living flesh of Wittenberg,” scathingly denounces what he deems his debauchery.

It does not enter into our province here to discuss at length the religious aspects of the Reformation; but it is interesting to note in passing the more than modern liberality of Luther’s views with respect to the marriage question and the celibacy of the clergy, contrasted with the strong mediaeval flavour of his belief in witchcraft and sorcery. In his De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae (1519) he expresses the view that if, for any cause, husband or wife are prevented from having sexual intercourse they are justified, the woman equally with the man, in seeking it elsewhere. He was opposed to divorce, though he did not forbid it, and recommended that a man should rather have a plurality of wives than that he should put away any of them. Luther held strenuously the view that marriage was a purely external contract for the purpose of sexual satisfaction, and in no way entered into the spiritual life of the man. On this ground he sees no objection in the so-called mixed marriages, which were, of course, frowned upon by the Catholic Church. In his sermon on “Married Life” he says: “Know therefore that marriage is an outward thing, like any other worldly business. Just as I may eat, drink, sleep, walk, ride, buy, speak, and bargain with a heathen, a Jew, a Turk, or a heretic, so may I also be and remain married to such an one, and I care not one jot for the fool’s laws which forbid it.... A heathen is just as much man or woman, well and shapely made by God, as St. Peter, St. Paul, or St. Lucia.” Nor did he shrink from applying his views to particular cases, as is instanced by his correspondence with Philip von Hessen, whose constitution appears to have required more than one wife. He here lays down explicitly the doctrine that polygamy and concubinage are not forbidden to Christians, though, in his advice to Philip, he adds the caveat that he should keep the matter dark to the end that offence might not be given. “For,” says he, “it matters not, provided one’s conscience is right, what others say.” In one of his sermons on the Pentateuch we find the words: “It is not forbidden that a man have more than one wife. I would not forbid it to-day, albeit I would not advise it.... Yet neither would I condemn it.” Other opinions on the nature of the sexual relation were equally broad; for in one of his writings on monastic celibacy his words plainly indicate his belief that chastity, no more than other fleshly mortifications, was to be considered a divine ordinance for all men or women. In an address to the clergy he says: “A woman not possessed of high and rare grace can no more abstain from a man than from eating, drinking, sleeping, or other natural function. Likewise a man cannot abstain from a woman. The reason is that it is as deeply implanted in our nature to breed children as it is to eat and drink." The worthy Janssen observes in a scandalized tone that Luther, as regards certain matters relating to married life, “gave expression to principles before unheard of in Christian Europe"; and the British Nonconformist of to-day, if he reads these “immoral” opinions of the hero of the Reformation, will be disposed to echo the sentiments of the Ultramontane historian.

The relation of the Reformation to the “New Learning” was in Germany not unlike that which existed in the other northern countries of Europe, and notably in England. Whilst the hostility of the latter to the mediaeval Church was very marked, and it was hence disposed to regard the religious Reformation as an ally, this had not proceeded very far before the tendency of the Renaissance spirit was to side with Catholicism against the new theology and dogma, as merely destructive and hostile to culture. The men of the Humanist movement were for the most part Free-thinkers, and it was with them that free-thought first appeared in modern Europe. They therefore had little sympathy with the narrow bigotry of religious reformers, and preferred to remain in touch with the Church, whose then loose and tolerant Catholicism gave freer play to intellectual speculations, provided they steered clear of overt theological heterodoxy, than the newer systems, which, taking theology au grand serieux, tended to regard profane art and learning as more or less superfluous, and spent their whole time in theological wrangles. Nevertheless, there were not wanting men who, influenced at first by the revival of learning, ended by throwing themselves entirely into the Reformation movement, though in these cases they were usually actuated rather by their hatred of the Catholic hierarchy than by any positive religious sentiment.

Of such men Ulrich von Hutten, the descendant of an ancient and influential knightly family, was a noteworthy example. After having already acquired fame as the author of a series of skits in the new Latin and other works of classical scholarship, being also well known as the ardent supporter of Reuchlin in his dispute with the Church, and as the friend and correspondent of the central Humanist figure of the time, Erasmus, he watched with absorbing interest the movement which Luther had inaugurated. Six months after the nailing of the theses at Wittenberg, he writes enthusiastically to a friend respecting the growing ferment in ecclesiastical matters, evidently regarding the new movement as a Kilkenny-cat fight. “The leaders,” he says, “are bold and hot, full of courage and zeal. Now they shout and cheer, now they lament and bewail, as loud as they can. They have lately set themselves to write; the printers are getting enough to do. Propositions, corollaries, conclusions, and articles are being sold. For this alone I hope they will mutually destroy each other.” “A few days ago a monk was telling me what was going on in Saxony, to which I replied: ’Devour each other in order that ye in turn may be devoured (sic).’ Pray Heaven that our enemies may fight each other to the bitter end, and by their obstinacy extinguish each other.”

Thus it will be seen that Hutten regarded the Reformation in its earlier stages as merely a monkish squabble, and failed to see the tremendous upheaval of all the old landmarks of ecclesiastical domination which was immanent in it. So soon, however, as he perceived its real significance, he threw himself wholly into the movement. It must not be forgotten, moreover, that, although Hutten’s zeal for Humanism made him welcome any attempt to overthrow the power of the clergy and the monks, he had also an eminently political motive for his action in what was, in some respects, the main object of his life, viz. to rescue the “knighthood,” or smaller nobility, from having their independence crushed out by the growing powers of the princes of the empire. Probably more than one-third of the manors were held by ecclesiastical dignitaries, so that anything which threatened their possessions and privileges seemed to strike a blow at the very foundations of the Imperial system. Hutten hoped that the new doctrines would set the princes by the ears all round; and that then, by allying themselves with the reforming party, the knighthood might succeed in retaining the privileges which still remained to them, but were rapidly slipping away, and might even regain some of those which had been already lost. It was not till later, however, that Hutten saw matters in this light. He was, at the time the above letter was written, in the service of the Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, the leading favourer of the New Learning amongst the prince-prelates, and it was mainly from the Humanist standpoint that he regarded the beginnings of the Reformation. After leaving the service of the archbishop he struck up a personal friendship with Luther, instigated thereto by his political chief, Franz von Sickingen, the leader of the knighthood, from whom he probably received the first intimation of the importance of the new movement to their common cause.

When, in 1520, the young Emperor, Charles V, was crowned at Aachen, Luther’s party, as well as the knighthood, expected that considerable changes would result in a sense favourable to their position from the presumed pliability of the new head of the empire. His youth, it was supposed, would make him more sympathetic to the newer spirit which was rapidly developing itself; and it is true that about the time of his election Charles had shown a transient favour to the “recalcitrant monk.” It would appear, however, that this was only for the purpose of frightening the Pope into abandoning his declared intention of abolishing the Inquisition in Spain, then regarded as one of the mainstays of the royal power, and still more to exercise pressure upon him, in order that he should facilitate Charles’s designs on the Milanese territory. Once these objects were attained, he was just as ready to oblige the Pope by suppressing the new anti-Papal movement as he might possibly otherwise have been to have favoured it with a view to humbling the only serious rival to his dominion in the empire.

Immediately after his coronation he proceeded to Cologne, and convoked by Imperial edict a Reichstag at Worms for the following 27th of January, 1521. The proceedings of this famous Reichstag have been unfortunately so identified with the edict against Luther that the other important matters which were there discussed have almost fallen into oblivion. At least two other questions were dealt with, however, which are significant of the changes that were then taking place. The first was the rehabilitation and strengthening of the Imperial Governing Council (Reichsregiment), whose functions under Maximilian had been little more than nominal. There was at first a feeling amongst the States in favour of transferring all authority to it, even during the residence of the Emperor in the empire; and in the end, while having granted to it complete power during his absence, it practically retained very much of this power when he was present. In constitution it was very similar to the French “Parliaments,” and, like them, was principally composed of learned jurists, four being elected by the Emperor and the remainder by the estates. The character and the great powers of this council, extending even to ecclesiastical matters during the ensuing years, undoubtedly did much to hasten on the substitution of the civil law for the older customary or common law, a matter which we shall consider more in detail later on. The financial condition of the empire was also considered; and it here first became evident that the dislocation of economic conditions, which had begun with the century, would render an enormously increased taxation necessary to maintain the Imperial authority, amounting to five times as much as had previously been required.

It was only after these secular affairs of the empire had been disposed of that the deliberations of the Reichstag on ecclesiastical matters were opened by the indictment of Luther in a long speech by Aleander, one of the papal nuncios, in introducing the Pope’s letter. In spite of the efforts of his friends, Luther was not permitted to be present at the beginning of the proceedings; but subsequently he was sent for by the Emperor, in order that he might state his case. His journey to Worms was one long triumph, especially at Erfurt, where he was received with enthusiasm by the Humanists as the enemy of the Papacy. But his presence in the Reichstag was unavailing, and the proceedings resulted in his being placed under the ban of the empire. The safe-conduct of the Emperor was, however, in his case respected; and in spite of the fears of his friends that a like fate might befall him as had befallen Huss after the Council of Constance, he was allowed to depart unmolested.

On his way to Wittenberg Luther was seized, by arrangement with his supporter, the Kurfuerst of Saxony, and conveyed in safety to the Castle of Wartburg, in Thueringen, a report in the meantime being industriously circulated by certain of his adherents, with a view of arousing popular feeling, that he had been arrested by order of the Emperor and was being tortured. In this way he was secured from all danger for the time being, and it was during his subsequent stay that he laid the foundations of the literary language of Germany.

Says a contemporary writer, an eye-witness of what went on at Worms during the sitting of the Reichstag: “All is disorder and confusion. Seldom a night doth pass but that three or four persons be slain. The Emperor hath installed a provost, who hath drowned, hanged, and murdered over a hundred men.” He proceeds: “Stabbing, whoring, flesh-eating (it was in Lent) ... altogether there is an orgie worthy of the Venusberg.” He further states that many gentlemen and other visitors had drunk themselves to death on the strong Rhenish wine. Aleander was in danger of being murdered by the Lutheran populace, instigated thereto by Hutten’s inflammatory letters from the neighbouring Castle of Ebernburg, in which Franz von Sickingen had given him a refuge. The fiery Humanist wrote to Aleander himself, saying that he would leave no stone unturned “till thou who earnest hither full of wrath, madness, crime, and treachery shalt be carried hence a lifeless corpse.” Aleander naturally felt exceedingly uncomfortable, and other supporters of the Papal party were not less disturbed at the threats which seemed in a fair way of being carried out. The Emperor himself was without adequate means of withstanding a popular revolt should it occur. He had never been so low in cash or in men as at that moment. On the other hand, Sickingen, to whom he owed money, and who was the only man who could have saved the situation under the circumstances, had matters come to blows, was almost overtly on the side of the Lutherans; while the whole body of the impoverished knighthood were only awaiting a favourable opportunity to overthrow the power of the magnates, secular and ecclesiastic, with Sickingen as a leader. Such was the state of affairs at the beginning of the year 1521.

The ban placed upon Luther by the Reichstag marks the date of the complete rupture between the Reforming party and the old Church. Henceforward, many Humanist and Humanistically influenced persons who had supported him withdrew from the movement and swelled the ranks of the Conservatives. Foremost amongst these were Pirckheimer, the wealthy merchant and scholar of Nuernberg, and many others, who dreaded lest the attack on ecclesiastical property and authority should, as indeed was the case, issue in a general attack on all property and authority. Thomas Murner, also, who was the type of the “moderate” of the situation, while professing to disapprove of the abuses of the Church, declared that Luther’s manner of agitation could only lead to the destruction of all order, civil no less than ecclesiastical. The two parties were now clearly defined, and the points at issue were plainly irreconcilable with one another or involved irreconcilable details.

The printing-press now for the first time appeared as the vehicle for popular literature; the art of the bard gave place to the art of the typographer, and the art of the preacher saw confronting it a formidable rival in that of the pamphleteer. Similarly in the French Revolution, modern journalism, till then unimportant and sporadic, received its first great development, and began seriously to displace alike the preacher, the pamphlet, and the broadside. The flood of theological disquisitions, satires, dialogues, sermons, which now poured from every press in Germany, overflowed into all classes of society. These writings are so characteristic of the time that it is worth while devoting a few pages to their consideration, the more especially because it will afford us the opportunity for considering other changes in that spirit of the age, partly diseased growths of decaying mediaevalism and partly the beginnings of the modern critical spirit, which also find expression in the literature of the Reformation period.