This is the 6th episode in our series The Long Road to Reform.
Much of the reform energy in the European Church of the Late Middle Ages was among the poor, and being poor meant being illiterate. The poor and illiterate don’t, as a rule, write books about their hopes & 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 among scholars at Oxford or the few nobles who initial endorsed them, as among the poverty-committed Lollards who went from village to village, carrying his reforms like torches that continually set new places ablaze with reforming zeal. The Lollards preached a simple Gospel that contradicted a great deal of what commoners heard from their 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 mostly of the poor & illiterate.
Another movement took place in the late Middle Ages & into the Renaissance that doesn’t get much coverage. à 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 ion both the Franciscans and Dominicans. But in the late Middle Ages, the number of women seeking to join these orders swelled dramatically. So many applied, the orders had to limit the intake of new sisters. Those rejected didn’t just shrug their shoulders and go home & back to the default plan of being a wife & mother. Many of them decided that if the established orders wouldn’t take them, they’d form their own communities. Though not officially sanctioned by the Church, they devoted themselves to corporate lives of prayer, devotion, and poverty. Called beguines, [beg-geenz] their communities were usually just large houses they converted into beguinages. Just what the word ‘beguine’ means is unclear, but it was most likely a less than complimentary label assigned these women by their critics. Because they lived outside the official sanction of the church, 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 their 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 Beguines, which was something they could step out of at any time. In a practical sense, the Beguines were really all about an attempt to re-connect with the simplicity of the Gospel as it altered someone’s relationship with God, & others. So Beguines focused on personal devotion to God and the care of one’s fellow man. Their charitable works were well-known all across Northern Europe.
Even though the Church in many places passed rules banning these unofficial monastic communities, their popularity grew and men formed their own version. Such men where called “beg-hards.”
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 the flagellants took many forms, the primary method and the one that gave them 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 & 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 & again, withdraw in an ordered procession. Besides these 2 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.
Church officials saw little danger in the movement at first. 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.
In several countries Flagellants were persecuted & 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] & the village of Nicklashausen, in Wurzburg, Germany.
During the Lenten Season of 1476, a young shepherd & street entertainer named Hans Böhm in Nicklashausen claimed to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary who called 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 & 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 the 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 itme were living of the labor of the good, honest folk of Wurzburg.
He urged his some 50,000 followers to act in advance of that great day by refusing to pay taxes & 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 & dispersed his followers. Böhm was tried & convicted of being a heretic & 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 & no headquarters, Böhm’s movement dissolved. Many scholars believe they probably 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 of a Church that had grown to 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.
You may remember that 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 & reason. William of Occam, turned that divide in a great divorce and introduced a bifurcation between theology & philosophy that exists in the minds of many moderns to this day.
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 & intrinsically good, or is it good because God does it?
Now – while these questions may cause us to pause & 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 it seemed the clergy was concerned with angels & pin heads; the peasantry began to think the pin-heads were the clergy! They began to wonder if 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 Ocaam shade. 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 books 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 & erudite teachers have written & said on this. And I suspect that not a few of our CS subscribers know a whole lot MORE about his subject than I.
So let me just sum it all 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 some kind of 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 up, 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 & 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 & 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 anyone who’s been to Florence or Rome knows.
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 the development of the Renaissance, but it took a while – for a reason not often spoken of.
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! And 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 & lots 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.