This is the 6th episode in our podcast mini-series The Long Road to Reform.
Much of the reform energy in the European Church of the Late Middle Ages was among the poor. Being poor meant being illiterate. The poor and illiterate don’t, as a rule, write books about their hopes and dreams. So it’s often from sources hostile to the reforming movements of this era we learn of them. That hostility colors the picture of them much of history since has regarded them by.
Wycliffe’s ideas lived on, not so much among scholars or nobles who initially endorsed them, as among the poverty-committed Lollards who went from village to village, carrying his reforms like torches, continually setting new places ablaze with reforming zeal. The Lollards preached a simple Gospel that contradicted a great deal of what commoners heard from local priests.
In Bohemia, the ideas of Jan Hus, at first so popular among the gentry, ended up being embodied by an Apocalyptic sect called the Taborites, made up largely of the illiterate poor.
Another movement took place in the late Middle Ages and into the Renaissance that rarely seems mention. We’ve already talked about how some women were drawn to the monastic life and lived in sequestered communities affiliated with a men’s compound. There were orders for women in both the Franciscans and Dominicans. But in the late Middle Ages, the number of women seeking inclusion in these orders swelled dramatically. So many applied, the orders had to limit their intake of new sisters. Those rejected didn’t just shrug their shoulders and go home; back to the default of being a wife and mother. Many of them decided—if the established orders wouldn’t take them, they’d form their own communities. Though not sanctioned by the Church, they devoted themselves to corporate lives of prayer, devotion, and poverty. Called beguines, [beg-geenz] their communities were usually large houses they converted into beguinages. Just what the word ‘beguine’ means is unclear; most likely a less than complimentary label assigned these women by critics. Because they lived outside the church sanction, they were suspected of being aberrant at best and probably downright heretical, if tested.
The Low Countries had many lay-Beguine orders from the 13th thru 16th Cs. While they lived in semi-monastic communities, they didn’t take formal religious vows. They promised not to marry, but only so long as they remained a Beguine, something they could step out of at any time. In a practical sense, the Beguines were an attempt to re-connect with the simplicity of the Gospel as it altered one’s relationship with God and others. So Beguines focused on personal devotion to God and the care of one’s fellow man. Their charitable works were well-known across Northern Europe.
Though the Church in many places passed rules banning these unofficial monastic communities, their popularity grew and soon men formed their own version. Such men where called “beg-hards” a word which eventually morphs into today’s “beggar.”
Another popular movement first appeared in 1260; the flagellants. They got off to a slow start, but by the 14th C, their numbers swelled.
While the personal discipline of flagellants took many forms, the primary method, the one yielding their name, was to whip themselves with the flagellum. Self-flagellation as penance for sin wasn’t new. It was a practice common to many monastic houses. Now it was a popular craze. Thousands of people from all levels of society lashed themselves till bloody, convinced by current events and the fiery preaching of Apocalyptic Announcers the end was near; that God was about to destroy the world for its failure to repent.
But don’t think this was all just a bunch of emotionally-worked up illiterates who’d been stoked into some kind of mass hysteria. No: Flagellants followed a specific rite of self-flagellation and other forms of personal mortification. The movement held to a rigid discipline. While the specific details altered over time and place, typically, those who wished to join the Flagellants did so for 33½ days. During that time they owed total obedience to their spiritual overseers.
Twice a day, Flagellants marched two by two while singing hymns to the local church. After praying to Mary, they went, still singing, to the public square. They formed a circle and knelt in prayer with bared backs. Then, as they prayed or sang, they commenced the lashes until their backs poured blood. Occasionally, one of their leaders would preach to them on the sufferings of Christ. Then they’d rise, cover their bleeding back and again, withdraw in an ordered procession. Besides these two daily public self-flagellations, they were committed to a private third.
As I said, they did this for 33½ days. But for ever after, they were supposed to renew the scourging annually on Good Friday.
At first, Church officials saw little danger in the movement. But flagellants soon began to refer to what they were doing as penance and a “second baptism;” a term the Early Church had used for martyrdom. This talk of self-induced penance concerned church officials because it threatened their hegemony. The Flagellants were accused of seeking to usurp the “power of the keys,” given only to St. Peter and his successors, the officially sanctioned church hierarchy who alone could prescribe proper penance.
In several countries, Flagellants were persecuted and eventually, the practice of public flagellation was abandoned. Despite this, the movement continued for generations. You can still find lingering echoes of the flagellants in the American Southwest.
There were individual instances of attempts at reform that took place all over Europe in the Late Middle Ages. I’ll give just one of those many tales. It centers on a man named Hans Böhm [Boohm] and the village of Nicklashausen, in Wurzburg, Germany.
During the Lenten Season of 1476, Hans, a young shepherd and street entertainer, claimed to have a vision of the Virgin Mary calling him to preach a message of radical reform. He burned the drum that was the means of his entertaining income in one of those Bonfires of the Vanities that had becomes popular across Europe.
Times were bad in the region of Wurzburg. Many crops had failed, yet the bishop oppressed the poor with ever higher taxes.
At first, Böhm preached on the need for repentance and a return to classic, Christian virtue. But being moved by the poverty of so many of the pilgrims that flocked to hear him, his message took on a more strident note. He began calling out the contrast between the commands of the Gospel and the greed and corruption of a corpulent clergy. As his popularity grew, he announced a day was coming when all would be equal, and all would work for a living; including those indolent, rich fat-cats who at that time were living of the labor of the good, honest, hard-working folk of Wurzburg.
He urged his nearly 50,000 followers to act in advance of that great day by refusing to pay taxes and tithes. He set a date when all would march together to claim their rights.
On the eve of the appointed day, the bishop’s soldiers seized him and dispersed his followers. Böhm was tried and convicted of being a heretic and burned.
That didn’t dissuade his followers who continued gathering at Nicklashausen. The bishop put the entire village under an interdict. Still they came. The archbishop of Mainz [Minez] ordered the Nicklashausen Church destroyed. So, now with no leader and no headquarters, Böhm’s movement dissolved. Many scholars believe they fueled the Anabaptist movement of the 16th C.
This was just one of many similar movements in the late Middle Ages where calls for justice merged with the cry for reform in the church. These movements were often put down by force of arms, which only served to further alienate commoners against the nobility and clergy. It was only a matter of time until enough of the clergy would themselves recognize the need to reform a Church grown too cozy with secular power.
Another factor fueling the call for Reform was the intellectual quagmire Scholasticism fell into in the Late Middle Ages. After reaching its zenith in Thomas Aquinas, scholastic theology morphed into the proverbial serpent that eats its own tail.
Scholasticism began as an attempt to provide a reasonable base for the Christian Faith.
John Duns Scotus used the tools developed BY Scholasticism to introduce a divide between faith and reason. William of Occam turned that divide in a great divorce and introduced a bifurcation between theology and philosophy that exists in the minds of many moderns today.
Scholastic theologians began to ponder such complex, and pointless, issues as à
1) Can God make a rock so big even He can’t lift it?
2) How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
3) Does God do good, because it is inherently and intrinsically good, or is it good because God does it?
While these questions may cause us to pause and say, “Huh, interesting,” to the hundreds of thousands of commoners who were concerned with having enough bread for tonight’s dinner, that the Church which was supposed to guardian their souls, pre-occupation with such things seemed a terrible waste of time and resources. While clergy were concerned with angels and pin heads; the peasantry began to think the pin-heads were the clergy! They assumed there was a vast divide between religion and daily life. And THAT – was a totally new idea; one fostered by the excesses of a Scholasticism run-amok.
This is not to say all priests were died-in-the-wool Scholastics of the Scotus or Occam variety. Many of the clergy reacted against the complexities of late-Middle Age Scholasticism by calling for a return to the simplicity of the Gospel. The best-known book voicing this reaction is the classic, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a’Kempis. The book asks, and I paraphrase à What good is it if you’re able to discuss the Trinity with great profundity, but lack humility, and thereby offend the Trinity? For high sounding words do not make one holy and just. Only a life of virtue is acceptable to God. Were you to memorize the entire Bible and all the sayings of the philosophers, what good would this be without the love of God and His grace? Vanity of vanities. All is vanity, except loving God and serving Him.
Now, much could be said at this point, as we trace the Road to Reform, which is the theme of this series within CS, about the Renaissance. And the fact is much HAS BEEN SAID about it. So I’m not going to. I certainly have nothing to add to what far more learned and erudite teachers have written and said on the subject. I suspect that not a few of our CS subscribers know a whole lot MORE about his subject than I.
So let me sum it up by offering this . . .
While we call it the Renaissance, Rebirth; it would be wrong to assume the Middle Ages were left behind, dropped like a cast-off doll. Yes, the people of Renaissance Europe knew their societies were going through a monumental shift and that new ideas were afoot. But the Renaissance was built on a foundation provided by the Middle Ages, it was not a clean break from it.
As the Turks took over the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire folded, many scholars moved West, bringing their manuscript-treasures with them. These manuscripts were in Greek, a language that by the 13th C had been nearly lost in Europe. These Eastern scholars revived it and presided over a reinvestment of study in the ancient classics of the Greco-Roman world. Those works fueled even more study as scholars realized the brilliance of writers like Cicero and Aristotle. This literary awakening began in Italy then spread beyond the Alps.
This interest in antiquity was also seen in art. Sculptors, architects, and painters sought inspiration in pagan sources rather the Christian themes that had dominated their craft for hundreds of years. And though they imbibed, then emulated the styles of the Classical Era, they didn’t wholly abandoned the Gothic. Renaissance art is in many ways a fusion of Gothic and Classical as those who’ve been to Florence and Rome know.
This interest in a return to the Classical Era coincided with Gutenberg’s invention of the movable-type printing press in 1439. Printing had long been done by inked woodcuts pressed on paper. Gutenberg’s invention had a profound impact on the development of the Renaissance, but it took a while – for a reason not often mentioned.
It turns out that most early printing was difficult to read because it was in either Latin or Greek rather than the vernacular. And the typography of the day imitated, get this à handwritten script. So printed books looked LIKE they’d been hand-written rather than printed! Why was that? Because only the wealthy could afford books prior to the printing press. So it was the wealthy who bought books. The printing press was originally conceived of as a way to make expensive books more cheaply for rich people. Only later did printers work out the economics and realize they could make a lot more money by standardizing their type and printing lot of books at cheaper prices.
Gutenberg didn’t even publicize his invention. His original aim was to produce a large numbers of books he could sell as expensive manuscripts. So, rather than simplifying the printed page, he made it as elaborate as any traditional hand-written manuscript. Take a look at a Gutenberg Bible if you get a chance – and you’ll see this laid out before you.
Eventually though, printers realized how their presses could be used to mass produce books, and deep learning was made available for people who never thought it possible. Put in those books dangerous new ideas about reform, and who knows what might happen?
We’ll conclude our series The Road to Reform next episode as we take a look at the Popes of the Renaissance and see why so many in Europe were so, so ready for Reform.