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A Concise History of his Life & Works
By John Schofield
The History PressCopyright © 2011 John Schofield
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The Late Medieval World
It may be useful to begin with an overview of the Western medieval Church in which Martin Luther was born and raised, because before he became its most famous reformer, he had been one of its most loyal and obedient sons.
The Church was the body of Christ on earth, the custodian of divine truth and the means of salvation, commissioned to guide the faithful on the way to heaven. The Church existed to teach the flock of Christ to foster devotion to the saints, the Sacraments, fasting, good works and all pious activities. The faith of the Church was drawn from Scripture, the early Christian Creeds, church councils and traditions, though from place to place variations existed in practice, devoutness and even, though on a limited scale, in doctrine.
Salvation was ministered through the Seven Sacraments: Baptism, the Mass, Penance, Marriage, Confirmation, Ordination and Extreme Unction. Through Baptism the newborn child was spiritually reborn to enter the kingdom of heaven, the family of God. When the child became a young adult and reached the age of understanding, he would be 'confirmed' in full membership of the Church. Marriage needs little explanation. By Ordination men were admitted to the sacred priesthood. Such men had to forego marriage and be celibate; or rather, they had to take a vow of celibacy, but how many actually kept that vow remains an unanswerable question. Penance and the Mass will get a more detailed description below. Extreme Unction, the anointing with oil taken from James 5:14, was applied to those about to depart this life and enter eternity.
The medieval Mass was the Church's re-enactment of the Last Supper and Calvary. The priest recited the Words of Institution used by Jesus at the Last Supper: 'This is my Body ... This is my Blood.' After this, the consecration of the bread and wine, these elements were transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ through the miracle known as transubstantiation. The priest then lifted the sacred Host – the Body of Christ – above his head for the adoration of the faithful. He then 'offered' the sacrifice of the Mass for the salvation of souls, the living and also the departed. The priest spoke the sacred words of the service in Latin; and only he could speak them, because those who offered this holy sacrifice had to be specially consecrated, through the Sacrament of Ordination.
Communion was required annually, usually at Easter, though many, particularly the better off, communed more frequently. Normally the laity received the bread only – this was called communion in 'one kind' as distinct from communion in 'both kinds', where communicants received the wine as well. The reasons why 'one kind' had become normal in late medieval times were more practical than theological, motivated mainly by fears of the consequences of spilling the wine, the blood of the Lord. As well as imagery and artwork on the church walls and the ceilings, Mass services were accompanied by candles, ceremony and sacred music. At Corpus Christi Day the consecrated bread was carried through the streets among adoring crowds.
Forgiveness of sins was ministered by the Church through the Sacrament of Penance. The one who sinned had to confess, receive absolution from the priest and usually perform a 'satisfaction' – this would be a good work, like giving alms or fasting. Confession was a compulsory annual requirement. Sometimes a satisfaction involved making a pilgrimage to a holy site, perhaps a site with a sacred relic, offering the penitent a sort of encounter with the sacred, enabling them to share in the spiritual and contemplative life of monks and nuns in the monasteries. The penitential system consisted of confession, priestly absolution, works of satisfaction, then restoration to a state of grace. Invariably, some penalties remained outstanding at the moment of death, and these had to be atoned for in the fires of Purgatory before the soul could enter heaven.
Purgatory was the unseen place to which most of those who died in the faith of the Church went. Only special saints could avoid it by going straight to heaven. It was a place of temporary but quite severe suffering, of painful purification, necessary to fully cleanse the soul before it could be admitted to enjoy heavenly bliss and rest. Belief in Purgatory was widespread, even though proving its existence from Scripture had long since been a thorny problem for the Church. The New Testament appears to offer a stark option between heaven and hell for those who depart this earthly life; but this was too stark for many churchmen, and consequently the belief in a third place – a sort of waiting chamber – had gradually developed. Masses and prayers for the dead, as well as good works in this life, could shorten the time that had to be spent in Purgatory, so wills of the dying requested Masses and prayers aplenty.
The medieval child growing up would be taught the faith of the Church through family prayers, chants, the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary, the Creeds and the Ten Commandments. Children also learned about the many saints whose good works were told and retold to inspire the faithful to greater godliness and piety. Thanks to the growth in literacy and the printing press, in the late fifteenth century much of this could be read in catechisms, handbooks and primers. But medieval religion was also a distinctively visual religion, of altars, images, paintings, candles and pilgrimages, as well as the Sacraments and good works. Paintings and images of Christ, Mary and the saints adorned parish churches up and down the lands. Religious plays designed to teach and arouse devotion, mocking vice and praising virtue, and giving instruction in the Creeds were staged frequently, usually with the active support and involvement of the laity. Lay believers participated willingly in the rich liturgical cycle of the Church, with its processions, services and ritual, from Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and all the year round, with numerous saints' days and festival days in between.
Mementos of the saints existed everywhere. The Cult of the Saints was not something imposed by dictatorial authorities; it inspired a free and genuine popular devotion among medieval people who loved images and engravings of saints, making pilgrimages to shrines in honour of them, and mentioning them in wills and donations. In parish churches saints stood under the Cross, meditating on Christ's Passion, willing to intercede for the faithful now and until the end of time. Saints were friends and helpers, benefactors and protectors, and manual labour ceased on feast days held to commemorate them. They were also appealed to for help and cure in sickness. Relics – bones and parts of the body that would be raised on the Last Day – were believed to possess healing power. Like the hem of Christ's garment, even the clothes of a saint could benefit. The main functions of the saints, however, were spiritual: to honour God; to help the children of God in their weakness in this life and at the onset of death; and to serve as an example for pious living and salvation. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was the most adored of all the saints, and she possessed exceptional intercessory powers. The doctrine of the 'Immaculate Conception' – the belief that Mary was born untainted by original sin – was growing in late medieval times (though not formally defined until the nineteenth century).
What was known as the 'treasury of merits' comprised the merits of Christ and the saints in heaven. The effect of this was that a penitent wanting to do good works to prove his contrition could 'draw' on this treasury, and maybe shorten his spell in Purgatory as well. This subject is closely linked to that of indulgences, which, because of its significance on Luther and the birth of the Reformation, will be discussed in more detail in the next chapter.
Overseeing the Western Church was the pope in Rome, the Holy Father and Vicar of Christ on earth. The pope was the successor of the apostle St Peter, and he claimed his spiritual authority from Christ's words to Peter in Matthew 16:18–19: 'And I say unto you, that you are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my church.' The church liturgy included prayers for the pope, who in theory had no superior, though in practice his power was constrained by the need to win and retain the consent of bishops, church councils and also princes. Rome was a sacred city and a centre for pilgrimages; it was universally believed that St Peter and St Paul were martyred there around the mid AD 60s.
The papacy also had judicial power, though this was less clearly defined, and relations between the pope and Europe's kings were not always predictable. The papacy had largely recovered from the damaging schism of nearly 100 years before (1378–1417), when Western Christendom watched askance as rival popes jostled for power, threatening each other with anathemas and excommunication. During the fifteenth century, however, Europe's kings slowly began asserting themselves, particularly over matters such as papal taxes and ecclesiastical appointments. Meanwhile, Italy was being organised into five main states – Venice, Milan, Florence, Naples and the Papal States of central Italy – with the result that the papacy became one state among the others, and like them it had to protect its independence, compete and advance its influence. More and more St Peter's successors were acting like other intriguing and often warring princes.
Another check on papal power was conciliarism – the idea that the authority of the whole Church, represented by a General Council comprising representatives of the whole of Christendom, was superior to that of the papacy. Naturally the popes did not approve, and ever since the Council of Constance in 1417, Rome had been seeking to reassert her authority. Pius II tried to establish papal primacy in 1460 with the bullExecrabilis, forbidding appeals from the pope to a council, but this produced no final papal victory, and discussions and disagreements persisted. French kings could be particularly troublesome for the papacy, habitually threatening to convene an independent council in their tussles with Rome. Conciliarism was strong in France, where some linked it directly with French liberties. Yet even in France the papacy had its supporters. In Europe as a whole in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, despite all the popes' efforts, neither conciliarists nor papalists gained unchallenged dominion over the other. In practice, however, the papalists had the edge, and for reasons as much practical as moral: France's conciliarism, for example, meant that her enemies were likely to support the pope against her. Morally unsavoury it may have been, but the popes had little alternative to making deals with the princes, whose powers continued to grow, notably over church appointments. Though all English bishops were appointed by the papacy, they were often nominated first by the king in return for a favour from Rome. Consequently, the national church was a recognisable entity by the end of the fifteenth century, though all such churches were part of the common Western Christian communion, and none entertained serious intentions of breaking away from Rome.
How much the laity knew of the Renaissance papacy is not clear. Maybe it was not very much, and in the case of some of the popes this is probably just as well. By general consent they were notoriously corrupt. Innocent VIII (1484–92) and Alexander VI (1492–1503) shamelessly used bribery and extortion to advance their personal careers before and during their papal reigns. Alexander was also an infamous womaniser, fathering at least nine illegitimate children despite insisting on vows of celibacy from his priests.
The German emperor was probably the only ruler who could have rivalled the pope in power and prestige. Charlemagne, King of the Franks from 768–814, had been crowned Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in Rome itself. From the twelfth century his successors were known as the Holy Roman Emperors. Initially seeing themselves as the Christian heirs of the Caesars, the emperors had gradually lost interest in Italian affairs, especially when their involvement proved costly and negative. They concentrated instead on establishing their control in Central and Eastern Europe. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, the power of the German princes, subjects of the emperor, was growing as well. As early as the diet of Rense in 1338 it was claimed that the emperor owed his authority more to the princes who elected him (the German Electors) than to the pope. The significance of this development in the Reformation will be seen clearly at the end of Chapter 3.
The Western Church did not exist without dangers. From the east the Turkish Islamic power threatened Christendom, especially Hungary and the eastern Mediterranean. More immediate and internal threats were posed by heresy and heretics. A heresy was a belief contrary to an established doctrine of the Church. A heretic was someone who not only believed a false doctrine, but who persisted in it even after being apprehended and offered mercy. Implicitly, therefore, he was once orthodox and had been received into the Church through the Sacrament of Baptism. Heretics who refused to repent were handed over to the secular power, often to suffer death by fire; most medieval believers, at some time in their lives, would have seen an obstinate heretic burned at the stake.
One of the most famous heretics in late medieval Europe was the Bohemian John Huss (c. 1372–1415). Huss believed in the supremacy of the Bible, and he called on the clergy to show more Christ-like simplicity in their manner of life; he approved of communion in both kinds, but did not deny transubstantiation. Huss was excommunicated after opposing indulgence sales in his native Bohemia. He was summoned to the Council of Constance in 1414 with a promise of safe conduct, but this promise was not kept, and he was condemned and burned. His execution provoked rebellion and civil war in his native land. The Waldenses were another group that displeased the Church authorities, but more for disobedience than fundamental doctrinal heresies.
The beginnings of the acceptable faith of the Church were the Scriptures and the ancient Creeds, but theology had not stood still since those times. During the fifteenth century there were three main 'schools' or 'ways' of theology: that of Thomas Aquinas (d.1274), Duns Scotus (d.1308) and William of Occam (d.1349). Some rivalry existed between disciples of the different schools, but at many universities adherents of all three coexisted peaceably enough. There was some overlap as well, and it was not always obvious which theologian belonged to which school. The areas of agreement easily eclipsed the differences: all agreed, for example, on the Seven Sacraments, and that salvation was impossible without divine grace. The consensus was that some human involvement and co-operation was required as well, though room was available for discussion about how much. Most theologians rejected the teaching of the fifth-century British monk Pelagius, that natural virtues alone might merit salvation. More typical was the saying of the Occamists that 'God does not deny grace to those who do what is in them'; in other words, we should do the best we can, aided by the grace of God, to love and please Him. Best efforts alone were not enough to obtain salvation, but they were an important step towards it, and received a sort of qualified value known as 'congruent merit'. Full salvation was not to be looked for outside the sacramental ministry of the Church; hence the need for the Sacraments to ensure forgiveness in this world and the next.
Two huge, ancient and somewhat conflicting shadows hung over medieval churchmen and thinkers. The first was the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC), a pupil of Plato. In the twelfth century Aristotle's works had been discovered by Western scholars, though in a somewhat elongated manner – they made Latin translations of Arabic translations of the original Greek. Aristotle was a prolific writer, whose works encompassed the sciences, medicine, philosophy, ethics and more. Being a pre-Christian pagan he had written from a rationalist perspective, and his beliefs included the eternity of the world, the mortality of the soul and that man becomes righteous by doing righteous things. Ideas such as these sat uneasily with Christian doctrines of the Creation, eternal life and salvation, and in some places his works were banned. But theologians are inventive beings, and before long some of them were using Aristotle selectively, skilfully adapting him for their own ends. Thomas Aquinas employed Aristotelian theories to prove the existence of God through reasoned arguments, not just as an act of faith. Aquinas also excused, though he did not accept, Aristotle's idea of the eternity of the world, on the grounds that neither reason nor philosophy could prove it true or false, and that the Creation was an article of faith. The dogma of transubstantiation was also based, to a considerable degree, on Aristotelian theories of substance and accidents.
Excerpted from Martin Luther by John Schofield. Copyright © 2011 John Schofield. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
1. The Late Medieval World,
2. Brother Martin,
3. The Reformation Discovery: Here I Stand,
4. The Handmaiden of Theology,
5. Church and State, Princes and Peasants,
6. Controversies: Anabaptists, Erasmus, Zwingli and the Anfechtung,
7. The Bible, Catechisms and the Augsburg Confession,
8. The Bible Teacher: The New Testament,
9. The Bible Teacher: The Patriarchs,
10. The Bible Teacher: Psalms and the Prophets,
11. Dinner with the Luthers,
12. Progress and Setbacks of the Reformation,
13. Controversial Last Years,
14. Gone is the Charioteer of Israel,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Heavy going but interesting if you are into religion.