- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
The End of an Era
There are moments in the history of humankind that seem to be pregnant with future possibilities—although not so much by virtue of the clear promise that they offer, as because the old ways have run their course and it is necessary to venture in new directions. Such was the case at the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth. In a way, the epic of Columbus is symbolic of the period, for when the traditional trading routes to the East were closed he set out in search of new pathways, and discovered instead a new land. In similar fashion, the great religious upheavals of the sixteenth century, and the new theological lands discovered through them, resulted from the need to search for new routes as it became increasingly evident that the medieval synthesis was no longer tenable or capable of resurrection.
The factors that contributed to the dissolution of that synthesis are so interrelated that it is impossible to disentangle them from one another. However, for the sake of an orderly exposition, one could say that the most significant of these factors were the birth of the modern European nations, skepticism regarding the hierarchy of the church, the alternative offered by mysticism, the impact of nominalism on scholastic theology, and the humanism of the Renaissance. These we shall now treat in that order.
The Growth of National Sentiment
Perhaps the most significant political phenomenon of the early sixteenth century was the birth of the modern nations. Indeed, that time marks the transition from medieval feudalism to the centralized monarchies of the modern age.
Although later Spanish historians portrayed the period from 711 to 1492 as a constant and glorious struggle against the infidel, the truth is that during that entire period Christian Spain was deeply divided within itself as various rulers sought after their own interests, even if this implied an occasional alliance with the Moor against a Christian neighbor. It was only in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, when Isabella of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragon, that the definite step was taken for the birth of a united Spain. Relatively soon thereafter, this unity seemed to have been achieved, for in 1492 the Moors were expelled from their last stronghold in Granada, and Ferdinand conquered Portugal and Navarre in 1512.
As a result of the wars against the Moors, Spain closely identified her nationhood with her Catholic faith, and the spirit of her efforts to regain the entire peninsula—as well as the spirit of the conquest of the New World—was that of a great and constant crusade against the infidel.
And yet, Spain was Catholic in her own way. She had never been effectually a part of the Holy Roman Empire—which could be seen in the negative reaction of many Spaniards when their king Charles I was elected Holy Roman Emperor. When she now joined—and soon led—the ranks of Catholic Christendom, she did so on her own terms. The ecclesiastical hierarchy was subject to the crown—de facto in Spain itself, and de iure in the New World—through the granting by Alexander VI of the patronato real, which practically made the sovereigns of Spain and Portugal the rulers of the church in their possessions overseas. The Inquisition, a staunch defender of orthodoxy, was effectively controlled by the crown, and its function became both the preservation of the Catholic faith and the purification of Spanish blood and culture—through frequent trials of supposed crypto-Jews and crypto-Moslems. Finally, many popes of the period were effective, although sometimes unwilling, tools of Spanish policy.
France entered the sixteenth century as the most centralized monarchy in Western Europe. In Spain and England, there were a number of limitations on the authority of kings; but most of these limitations did not exist in France. The Hundred Years' War with England played a role in France similar to that played in Spain by the crusade against the Moors: it was the rallying point of French national sentiment. There was a time when France seemed to have become the new center of Christendom, for even the papacy itself had come to reside under her shadow, at Avignon. When the papacy returned to Rome, it could not wrestle from the king of France the control which he had gained over the church in his domains.
England emerged from the fifteenth century as a recently consolidated nation. It was precisely at the turn of the century that Henry VII finally overcame the last significant Yorkist opposition. Thereafter, his conciliatory policy, implemented in his marriage to Elizabeth of York, was generally successful. When he died, in 1509, he was succeeded by his son Henry VIII, heir to the claims of both Lancaster and York. This political unification was preceded and accompanied by a growth of national sentiment. As the Hundred Years' War was the predominant feature in English foreign policy during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and as the papacy in Avignon was closely allied to French interests, the growth of nationalism in England was coupled with the awareness that the interests of the papacy were often contrary to those of England. As a result, laws were enacted to prevent English funds from reaching the coffers of the papacy. Thus, the Acts of Annates, Appeals, and Supremacy, which severed ties with Rome and made the Church of England independent, were the culmination of a long series of attempts to curb the influence of the pope in the affairs of the kingdom.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century—and well after its end—Germany was a motley patchwork of practically sovereign states. Although the Holy Roman Emperor was supposed to rule over them, in fact his powers were greatly limited by the often conflicting interests of powerful nobles. Furthermore, the emperors of the house of Habsburg, being at once hereditary rulers of parts of Germany and elected rulers of the entire nation, quite often placed their hereditary interests above those of the whole and thus hindered the process of national unification. But in spite of its political division, Germany was permeated by nationalism in two ways. The first of these was the growth of nationalistic feeling even beyond and in spite of feudal borders. The second was the founding of independent nations—Switzerland, the Netherlands, Bohemia—which withdrew from what had traditionally been called Germany. In either case, nationalism was a growing feature among a people who had previously thought of themselves as the very heart of the Holy Roman Empire.
In summary, at the beginning of the sixteenth century Western Europe no longer thought of itself as a single empire, where there was a sole emperor wielding the temporal sword, with a religious counterpart in Rome holding the spiritual sword. On the contrary, a host of new nations were claiming to be sovereign states; and these claims often conflicted, not only with those of the emperor, but also with those of the pope. Thus modern nationalism was a significant factor in the dissolution of the medieval synthesis, and opened the way for the religious cleavage that would come about with the Protestant Reformation.
An added factor leading to change was the development of commerce and a monetary economy. This was closely connected with the growth of cities, whose economic and political power was rapidly surpassing that of the landed nobility. Capital became a commodity handled and administered by cities and by large banking houses. The ranks of the poor nobility increased to the point that they became a distinct social class. The poverty of the peasantry was accentuated by the concentration of wealth in the cities and by the fact that such wealth was now derived from commerce rather than agriculture. The sixteenth century also saw an unprecedented rate of inflation, probably accelerated by the influx of precious metals from the New World. Since wages did not keep pace with the price of food and other necessities, the lot of the peasants and of the urban poor became considerably worse. The growth of commerce and the beginnings of agricultural capitalism undercut the old feudal system in most of Western Europe. New methods of warfare made the knights and other lesser nobility, who lived by war, increasingly impoverished and obsolete. Under these new conditions, pope and emperor, prelates and lords, found it difficult to retain the control that they had formerly enjoyed. The entire system of ecclesiastical administration had been developed to serve in a feudal society. The power of the city and of capital was not sufficiently recognized in civil and ecclesiastical structures. The unhappy peasants provided a fertile field for revolution. The disempowered nobles sought new causes to espouse in order to reassert their leadership. In short, Europe was ripe for change; and this was so precisely at a time when the traditional ecclesiastical hierarchy was losing a great deal of its prestige and power.
The Declining Authority of the Hierarchy
Even apart from the growth of nationalism, the ecclesiastical hierarchy had been losing power and prestige. This decline began immediately after the peak of papal power in Innocent III. But the process was greatly accelerated during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when three consecutive events led the papacy from one low point to another. These three events were the move to Avignon, the Great Western Schism, and the capture of the papacy by the spirit of the Italian Renaissance. Each of these stages in the decline of the papacy was accompanied by heavy financial needs. The papal court at Avignon required vast sums of money in order to cover the expenses of its luxurious living. The popes and antipopes of the Great Schism made every possible effort to secure funds with which to strengthen their rival claims to be the legitimate successors of St. Peter. The popes of the Renaissance felt compelled to bring together as much of the monetary resources of Europe as possible, in order to finance their patronage of the arts and their frequent wars and intrigues.
In consequence, while the papacy needed more and more funds, and devised ingenious methods of collecting them, that same papacy was losing the prestige that it had once had throughout Europe. Therefore, ecclesiastical taxation became both more onerous and less easily justifiable; and this in turn strengthened the wave of nationalism that was sweeping Europe.
Very often the interests of taxation conflicted with the best interests of the church, and in such cases abuses became common. For instance, John XXII—noted for his elaborate means of ecclesiastical taxation—began collecting the income of vacant posts throughout Western Europe. As long as a post remained vacant, its income was to be sent to the Holy See; thus, the insatiable papal budget profited from unfilled vacancies. The result was a multiplication of vacant posts and a practical situation very similar to the absenteeism that many of the best popes had so strenuously opposed. The practice of creating new posts and selling them—the very simony that earlier reformers had decried—became common under Alexander VI and Leo X. Finally, the sale of indulgences, which became such a cause célèbre during the early stages of the Lutheran reformation, was given new impetus and carried to greater excesses because funds were needed to complete the magnificent art of St. Peter's in Rome.
As was to be expected, corruption and greed were present also at the lower levels of the hierarchy. Various prelates developed systems of taxation that were similar to that of John XXII, although on a smaller scale. At the local parish level, simony and absenteeism once again became common.
This is not to say that the entire hierarchy of the church was corrupt. On the contrary, there were many able and upright leaders who upheld the high moral standards that their positions were expected to require. One such leader was the Spanish Cardinal Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros, who combined outstanding intellectual achievements with strict asceticism. But in spite of the many efforts of Ximenes and others like him, corruption was widespread.
The net result of this state of affairs in the practical life of the average believer usually was not so much doubt regarding the efficacy of ecclesiastical ministrations—about such a thing there could be no doubt, for the efficacy of the sacraments was ex opere operato— as a tendency to divorce such ministrations from the ethical requirements of daily life. But then, some of the more enlightened, aware of the ethical demands of the gospel, must have asked whether there was not another way of being Christian. That other way which some found was the route of mysticism.
Mysticism as an Alternative
As has been said before, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries witnessed a widespread revival of mystical piety. Usually, this mysticism did not attack the church openly, nor was it characterized by the intense emotional exaltation that is usually called mysticism. On the contrary, most of these mystics of the late Middle Ages were quiet and scholarly persons who devoted themselves to study, meditation, and contemplation, but who did not set out to convert the entire church to their understanding of the Christian life. Nevertheless, their mere existence and their exemplary lives, coupled with the fact that many of them made little of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, made many wonder whether this was not an alternative way of being Christian.
Perhaps the most significant result of the mystical movement—although there were other important mystical schools in Spain, Italy, and England—was the founding of the Brethren of the Common Life. The Brethren led lives of intense devotion; but instead of spending their time in seclusion or occupying ecclesiastical posts, they made learning and teaching their own form of ministry. Instead of following the stern ascetic practices of some of the older orders, the Brethren of the Common Life spent their time in study, meditation, and manual labor. Two of their most significant contributions were the mass production of manuscripts and the creation of schools where the best learning of the time was made available to youth. Erasmus of Rotterdam was educated in one of these schools, and his classical learning, meticulous scholarship, irenic spirit, and profound devotion bore the mark of the Brethren of the Common Life. Through this movement—and others like it—the laity was given greater participation and insight into the nature of Christianity. Therefore, its contribtion to the events of the sixteenth century was by no means small.
The Impact of Nominalism
Perhaps the popularity of so-called nominalism in the late Middle Ages is the best indication of the process of dissolution through which the medieval synthesis was going. The imposing unity of the Middle Ages at their peak was possible only under the premise that there is an ultimate unity of all things, and that this unity is somehow discernible from the human perspective. Universals were real; they were there, with a givenness even greater than one's own personal existence. They could be known with a certainty and permanence far greater than any knowledge of individual beings. Beginning from them, the entire universe was a logical hierarchy of which the ecclesiastical and civil hierarchies were reflections. It was under this premise—more Neoplatonic than Christian in its origin—that the early Middle Ages operated and developed. But by the end of the thirteenth century it was increasingly apparent that this understanding of reality was becoming less and less viable. One could trace the beginning of the process to the reintroduction of Aristotle into the West; and one could say therefore that Thomism, which was the high point of the medieval synthesis, also introduced into that synthesis the seed of its destruction. This is so because the emphasis on the particular, which was reintroduced with Aristotle, was ultimately subversive of the Neoplatonic notions described above. In any case, the dissolution of the synthesis is more easily discernible in John Duns Scotus, and quite apparent by the time of Ockham.
Excerpted from A History of Christian Thought by Justo L. González. Copyright © 1975 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted December 9, 2010
No text was provided for this review.