Wednesday, January 13, 2021

How The Renaissance Led to The Reformation

This is a thesis I wrote while taking a seminary class on Church History in 2005. We were given a wide range of topics to cover for our class thesis. I chose to write about the events which led up to the Protestant Reformation. I present various historical aspects, which I believe worked together to create the atmosphere needed for the Reformation to take place. I believe the six areas I have settled upon, cover most of what is needed to make my point.

What you see is an edited version I have changed a few times since I turned it in for my class thesis. My overall thought process hasn't changed since I originally wrote it, but I added details while rearranging some of the sentences around. I shared this many years ago but I did so in a six part series. After all, at almost 4800 words, it's a very long read.

by Chuck Ness
Part I
An Introduction Overview
of the Renaissance

Never in history has one man’s thesis so rattled the powers that be, than did Martin Luther’s ninety-five grievances he nailed to the Church door at Wittenberg. It was an act of defiance that would eventually topple a church state organization that held sway over kings and paupers alike for a thousand years.

Every history class that covers the reformation will tell you that it was Johann Tetzel’s selling of indulgences that pushed Luther into action that day, Tetzel’s action was only the final straw, not the cause of the revolution. At the time the Reformation began, there were many factors that enabled and emboldened the common man into action but none was more profound in it’s influence then was the Renaissance.

Encyclopedias and history books all seem to point out that the word Renaissance is French for “rebirth”. However, the Italian painter Giorgio Vasari was probably the first person to describe this era as the “Renaissance” when he used the word rinascit. In 1568 he authored a book called, “Le vita de’ pi eccellenti architetti, pittori, ed scultori italiani” (“The Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters, and Sculptors“) the title more commonly used is, “Lives of the Artists”. Vasari applied this concept specifically to a “revival”, or “rebirth”. In the chapter titled “Andrea di Cione, Spinello, Dello, and Paolo Uccello” where he wrote;

“In the year 1350 was formed the Company and Fraternity of the Painters in Florence, for the masters were there in great numbers, and they considered that the arts of design had been born again in Tuscany, and indeed in Florence itself.”

The Renaissance started in southern Europe, or the Italian city-states, while the Reformation in Northern Europe, began in Germany. There is a debate as to whether the Renaissance ended when the Reformation started, or continued up to the Age of Enlightenment. To make things even more interesting the Renaissance started at different times in various parts of Europe. There are also numerous dates given as to when the Renaissance took place, and depending on your source it started anywhere from 1300 to 1450.

I am of the opinion the Renaissance originally began around 1350 in the Italian city-states of Florence, Genoa, Milan, Venice, Verona, and Siena. It would eventually spread into other parts of Europe, France, Germany, England, Spain, but through different means and often times with ulterior motives.

After many centuries of what they considered intellectual and cultural decline, during what is popularly known as the Dark Ages, Europeans thought they had rediscovered the superiority of Greek and Roman culture. Thus they came to the conclusion that their own cultural achievements rivaled those of antiquity. This thinking was influenced by the concept of humanism, which emphasizes the worth of the individual. The Renaissance humanists believed it was possible to improve human society through classical education that relied on teachings from ancient texts derived from Greek and Roman philosophers, and so they emphasized a range of disciplines including poetry, history, and moral philosophy.

This period of history is also marked by great achievements in the arts, literature, inventions, explorations, and an increase of trade from Eastern Mediterranean lands. These new trade routes led to a rebirth of knowledge and understanding of foreign lands and cultures. While the Renaissance man’s hunger for understanding his world led some to engage in self satisfaction that set him free from the churches morals, others searched for a deeper understanding of the scriptures to get closer to what the gospels taught. All this took place during a time of social and political upheaval that would lead to the end of the state bowing to the pressure of the church.

Part II
Political and Social Conditions

The Western European feudal system that was begun by the first Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne would eventually morph into a system that was quite different from other feudal systems around the world. Throughout most of the dark ages, the powers of the Church and state co-existed with constant tension between the two. This pluralistic system of control would shift power back and forth from the Church to the Monarchs, depending upon the alliances each could muster at any given time.

The one thing that never changed however, was the way the common people of Europe were just pawns used by these two powers. Due to their need for protection and sustenance, the majority of the populations were kept entrenched in and around medieval fortresses and monasteries. These monasteries were quite often populated by the unwanted sons of the monarchs and nobleman who found these monasteries to be an expedient way to eliminate any competition for their thrones and inheritances. Many of these sons would be given the position of a Bishop and end up controlling of the lands and finances of the monasteries. It was not uncommon for these Bishops to be very wealthy with their own castles from which they conducted their business. Some would become more concerned about the affairs of their estates, and less concerned about fulfilling their religious responsibilities.

Never was this more evident than when the plagues of the middle ages were wrecking havoc on Europe. The failure of the clergy to help the suffering during the plagues, combined with the wealth and the incompetence of its priests, caused resentment among the people. Critics grew vocal as the seeds of the Reformation were beginning sprout.

The worse of these plagues was the Bubonic Plague of 1348-49, or better known as the Black Death. It is my opinion that the decline of this feudal system was probably ushered in more by the Black Death then any other event of the Middle Ages. It is estimated that the Black Death killed over 25,000,000 people in Europe. In England alone the population was reduced by almost half with most of them being the serfs and peasant working class. Whole villages vanished overnight as many wealthy landowners found themselves with no surviving peasants, and thus no labor force. For the first time, feudal landlords found they had to bargain with the serfs. To keep their estates running and to keep the serfs from being stolen by other landlords, they offered them freedom and paid them wages to keep them happy and loyal.

With this increased flow of money to the lowest classes of people, ownership of property became less important for prosperity than it had been in the past. Within a couple of generations, the peasants became renters who paid in money while selling the labor of their hands to the highest bidder. In time many peasants were able to form communities with charters given to them by the larger landowners. These charters allowed communities to pay dues to the lord collectively, rather than individually, and the communities in time grew in population. Along with this growth the economic strength and influence of the merchants and bankers would increase.

Newly opened trade routes to the East and the discovery of lands to the West meant the merchants had an abundance of goods for sale. All this triggered a capitalist-based society that allowed a person to actually improve his lot in life and soon a new class of citizens was born. The Middle Class. The citizens of this new class could now afford the tuition needed so that their sons could attend the institutions of higher learning. Martin Luther’s father, who became a very wealthy member of this new middle class, is an excellent example.

Prior to this, unless you were born to nobility the only way to attend a university of higher learning was to join a monastery that was usually populated by the illegitimate and unwanted children of monarchs and nobles. In time this revolving door of royalty becoming clergy and the clergy becoming royalty would make it difficult to know the difference between the two. However things would change as this new Middle Class, began to produce more wealthy merchants. The more prosperous merchants would open up banks, and soon the glass ceiling that kept the lower class from gaining prominence started to shatter.

Probably the most famous of the merchant bankers, was the Medici family, who’s descendants would rise from mere merchants to dominating Florentine politics for two and a half centuries. The Medici’s would preside over cultural achievements that rivaled those of ancient Athens. The Medici’s power and influence grew so great that eventually their descendants would sit on thrones throughout Europe while two would even become Popes.

This ability to move from one class to another would change the way the wealthy landowners and clergy held sway over society. Wealthy merchants and bankers would replace the feudal lords as the leaders in society ushering in the age of the Renaissance man. It must be pointed out that, while the Medici’s can be credited with nurturing the appetite of the Renaissance man, they would also be largely responsible for Luther posting his 95 grievances which ultimately set off the Reformation.

In the years proceeding the Reformation the southern Renaissance men of the Italian city states would be focused more on self-gratification and personal achievement while strongly desiring the approval of the public and political powers. This would eventually lead to the end of the Church’s influence upon who would be appointed as officials and leaders. Gradually that authority would come to rest in the hands of the person or groups willing to take charge. This attitude, that Machiavelli would later describe in his book, The Prince, was very prevalent at the turn of the century and just before the Reformation.

Add in the mix the destabilizing effect of a half century of wars fought by Spain, France, Austria, and even Pope Julius II, over control of the Italian Peninsula the confusing multi City-State system would eventually crumble. Italy would not know self-rule until 1871 and to this day 99% of Italy’s population remains Roman Catholic. The Renaissance may have started in the Italian cities, but in my opinion their desire to revive the worst of the ancient Greek and Roman cultures was inevitably their downfall.

The Northern Renaissance man was more ethical and religious minded then his Southern counterpart. These men put more emphasis upon understanding man as a human being, and their relationship with God. As a rule these men did not bother with the politics of the state. Instead, they were much more interested in their Judeo-Christian heritage and what the ancient scriptures could tell them.

The way humanism influenced the Northern Renaissance man was to make him scrutinize the activities of the clergy more. They got tired of the constant demand from the Church for more money and saw fewer and fewer of the services one would expect from a religious institution. The more this newly educated Middle Class learned, the more disconnected they felt from the Church. It was this attitude that would help diminish the Monarch’s need for the old alliances, they one used to keep the Church satisfied.

The sociopolitical changes had a lot of influence in changing the geographical boundaries due to the many wars. These geographical changes would eventually culminate in a realignment of territories. The joining of citizens along common cultures, languages, and historical traditions, would eventually give rise to nationalism.

By the end of the 15th century these changes added to the widespread moral decay of the Church and caused the new Middle Class to begin resenting the church’s constant demand for indulgences. This constant demand for more money, along with the inability of the Church to satisfactorily answer the centuries old question of why the plagues took so many loved ones, began to create a situation the monarchs were ready to exploit.

The Church had long struggled with maintaining it’s influence upon the nobility and now it was losing it’s grip upon the people. Like the sun setting on the 4th of July, the climax was building, all the revolution needed was someone to light the fuse to the fireworks.

Part III

Any discussion about literature of the Renaissance Age must include the Council of Ferrara. In 1439 a large delegation from the Eastern Church held discussions with the Western Church over the doctrinal differences of Christendom. While every agreement made at this council was eventually disregarded, the effect that it had on literature was profound because the proceedings were in Latin and Greek.

This created a renewed appetite for Greek studies, which led to classical writings by many of the newly educated Middle Class citizens still upset over the Church squelching their creative minds. The original manuscripts of the articles from this council are preserved to this day at the Laurentian library in Florence. At the conclusion of this council, many of the more than 700 men from the Eastern delegation stayed in the West giving lectures and teaching Greek to students at the universities.

One of these Eastern theologians was Georgios Gemistos, better known as Plethon. (1355-1450) Plethon remained in the West giving lectures on Plato and other Greek philosophers while helping the Catholic theologians better understand the ancient Greek manuscripts. Led by Plethon’s lectures on Plato, the politically powerful banker Cosimo de’ Medici was moved to fund the Platonic Academy in Florence, which was very influential in advancing the philosophy of humanism.

By the turn of the century the antiquities bug was so prevalent that the Church, monarchs, lords, bankers, and wealthy merchants would all compete to be the first to find any antiquities connected to the Apostles. These antiquities ranged from letters they wrote to even the possible skulls of the Lord's Disciples.

The funds to pay for the antiquities, scholars, and artists of the Renaissance period, would eventually drain the church coffers, and nearly bankrupt the Medici family. To replace the money spent, the church prayed on the citizens by selling indulgences that they claimed would release dead relatives from purgatory. A believe the Greek Philosophers introduced into Church doctrine.

In Italy, this revival in the study of the Greek classics was aided by the influx of manuscripts brought by those fleeing the Muslims. After Constantinople fell in 1453, many Greek scholars brought along valuable manuscripts so the invading Turks could not destroy them. The Italians were not driven by a desire to understand the original text of the New Testament as much as they were by their passion to become acquainted with Homer, Plato and other classic Greek authors. This would result in a literary awakening that eventually spread from Italy beyond the Alps.

North of the Alps the attention was chiefly centered on examining the Old and New Testaments. Greek and Hebrew was studied, not with the purpose of ministering to a cult of antiquity, but to more perfectly reach the fountains of the Christian system. Thus, humanism entered into the service of religious progress.

Being less brilliant and elegant, the German scholars produced no poets or artists of the first rank. Instead, such authors as Reuchlin and Erasmus were more serious in their purpose and more exact in the writings they contributed to the Reformation. This new awakening of interest in classical learning coincided with the Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1450 which was probably the most important agent in the history of intellectual culture since the invention of the alphabet. With the development of vernacular languages, and the weakening influence of the Catholic Church, the Renaissance writers and scholars received new avenues for expressing their views.

In the period between 1450 and 1500, more than 6000 separate works were printed, with some of the most celebrated of these works still in existence to this day. In Italy, they were printing such works as the newly revived Greek and Roman classics, along with the scientific works of various Renaissance scholars.

While the Italians were printing chiefly secular works, up North in Germany they were printing religious books such as Bibles, Psalters, and critical theological works. Access to these writings gave the Northern Renaissance man freedom from dependence on the clergy. Just as the Bereans’ compared what Paul was preaching to what the scriptures said, they too started examining the Scriptures.

“Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” Acts 17:11

Along with God’s Word, they also read differing commentaries that were espoused, giving them a sense of freedom from the need of the clergy. This literature awakening helped lay the foundation for the constructive work of the Protestant Reformation.

Part IV

It has been said that if a work of art dwells upon beauty, it will inspire the viewer to make that beauty a part of his life and their outlook on the world. In this sense, the art of the Renaissance Age gave men a reason to reflect upon their place in the World more then their relationship with God. This new style allowed some men, known as the secular humanists, to see themselves as being separate and autonomous from God. Francis Schaeffer, in his book ”Escape from Reason”, describes this as man dwelling more and more on the nature of his reality and less on the spirituality of his soul.

Then there was the religious humanists, who would be influenced by seeing the true beauty of what God created. Michelangelo, said “I'm only the tool God uses to release the beauty he has encased in the marble.” These religious humanists felt like they were part of God’s world not just a spectator that was in the way of the Churches ambitions.

Contributions to the arts were closely related to the broad transformations that were taking place in society. With funding supplied by wealthy men such as the Medici family, artists were able to experiment with innovative new ideas. These artists learned how to use linear perspectives in their paintings, while representing objects in relative sizes so that smaller objects appeared to be farther away than larger objects. Art began resembling the philosophy that the created was more important then the creator. They used the light and shadows that God created to make objects on the canvass look full and real. Schaffer described this as nature eating up grace, that’s why human figures were depicted so realistically.

Nicholas V (reigned 1447-55) was the first pope to be influenced by the style of the Renaissance. Nicholas would begin the transformation of Rome from a city of ruins and desertion to a capital adorned with works of art and architectural construction. All this transformation would cost money, and the sudden wealth of the bankers, merchants, and other members of the new influential middle class made for a prime source.

While the Renaissance man appreciated the finer aspects of the arts, he would eventually get fed up with the papal’s constant demand for the indulgences needed to finance these enterprises. Painting a picture of doom and gloom, John Tetzel traveled around Germany fleecing the citizens out of more money to pay for this expensive taste. In a scene reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable of “The Emperors New Clothes“, a monk would open the people’s eyes to the churches nakedness, and the truth would set them free.

Part V
Inventions and Explorations

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and I believe that the Plague is indirectly responsible for the sudden boom of inventions and technological advancements. With the shortfall of workers and the resulting financial loss of many aristocrats, men were finding new ways to accomplish tasks, while pulling themselves up by the bootstraps at the same time.

As a result, the Renaissance Age saw a radical change in the rate of inventions throughout Western Europe. This led to innovative ways of managing production that helped spur new economic growth. In less than a century there were more inventions developed and applied usefully than in the previous thousand years of human history. Along with major technological advances, there were many new inventions including the printing press, the quadrant, spectacles, and improved clocks. One of those innovations came in the way ships were designed and built, paving the way for the Age of Exploration.

While most geographical discoveries were made after the Reformation was well underway, it is worth pointing out the two events would change Europe’s outlook on trade and exploration. Both of these events were indirectly influenced by wars. One was during the second (1294-99) of the four Genoese-Venetian Wars, and the other was the Crusades.

In the 1298 battle between the city-states , Venice and Genoa, a man named Marco Polo was captured by the Genoese and imprisoned. While in prison, Polo dictated the story of his travels along the Silk Road to Mongolia and China to a writer who was also a prisoner of the war. After his release from prison, the book, “The Travels of Marco Polo” would excite the imaginations of many about trade with China and the Far East.

The other was probably the only positive thing that came out of the Crusades. It was the opening up of trade with the Middle Eastern Cultures. This trade would make some Italian cities very wealthy while sparking a desire by wealthy Kings and even the Pope himself to share in this new found wealth.

Trade with the Middle East, along with Polo’s accounts of China and the Far East, led to the search for new routes of exploration to the East. While men like Columbus, Vasco da Gama and others would eventually defy the odds and set out in search for a quicker rout to China and India, they would not accomplish their task until knowledge for ocean sailing came into existence at the height of the Renaissance. That knowledge would be discovered by the third child of King John I of Portugal, Dom Henrique, also known as Henry the Navigator.

Prince Henry never sailed on an ocean voyage but he helped make it possible to circumnavigate the continent of Africa so a new water route to India could be found. Henry was a visionary who owned a globe at s time when many still believed the Greek philosophers that the world was flat.

Henry would one day establish a school for navigators at his court in Sagres, a town in South Western Portugal. Portuguese pilots were instructed by skilled sailors and trained to navigate by mapmakers, while ships were constructed using new technologies preparing them for long ocean trips. It was these Portuguese trained navigators who laid the course which Vasco da Gama would use to circumnavigate Africa in 1497-98 on his way to India. Eventually, Portuguese ships would sail all the way to Japan setting up Jesuit missions in almost every trading post along the way to proselytize the inhabitants with Catholicism.

By 1431 Portuguese sailors would lay claim to the Azores for Portugal. It would be just west of the Azores that where Pope Alexander VI would draw the ”Line of Demarcation” from the North Pole to the South Pole in 1493-1494. This act would give everything West of the line to Spain and everything East to Portugal. With the Americas being discovered in 1492 by Spain, the two most ardent Roman Catholic kingdoms would be sharing the doctrine of the Roman Church throughout the New World. While the Reformation would soon be in full revolution form in Europe, this ruling by the Pope and the advancements in exploration by Spain and Portugal, allowed Roman Catholicism to enjoy its most rapid expansion ever.

Part VI

The definition of the word Renaissance is “rebirth” and while it is true that the era was highlighted by man’s awakening from a spell of stagnation known as the Dark Ages, the Renaissance helped give men the will that was needed to stand up to the church. It seems quite interesting that, prior to the rebirth, we had so much death. This death came about from the great plague of 1348-49, along with the smaller more isolated ones to follow. These devastating plagues effected every aspect of society throughout Western Europe.

So was all this devastation just a mere coincidence? Maybe, but throughout history great achievements have always followed a time of strife, destruction, and mass loss of life. One just has to look at the positive affect the destruction of Israel’s Northern Kingdom, and the eventual dispersion, had on the fullness of time as the best example. The plagues that struck Europe throughout the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries left men with a sense of their own mortality, and a feeling of destiny.

This feeling gave them the will to stand up to the feudal lords when they were forced into working harder with no benefit or reward. Just as there were guild revolts in the cities in the late 1300s, so we find rebellions in the countryside. The Jacquerie in 1358, the Peasants’ Revolt in England in 1381, the Catalonian Rebellion in 1395, and many revolts in Germany, all added to the feudal lords loosing there grip on the peasant class.

Eventually the Feudal lords capitulated to the demands of the peasants. This new freedom of movement and choice of employment allowed the most industrious and hardest working peasants to advance from the lower class to the new Middle Class. Many would join the ranks of what would be known at the time as ” The Universal Man”.

The universal man of the Renaissance was a mixture of noblemen, wealthy merchants, bankers, shippers, country gentlemen, and even members of the clergy. Along with their new opportunity to get an education without joining a monastery, these men began to understand the philosophical arguments of what we call humanist philosophy.

The Southern Renaissance man used this education to advance his own personal wealth and prestige. Except for a brief superficial conversion under Savonarola in Florence, the Italians decided to live and die in the wilderness of the Roman Catholic Church. In the North, the Renaissance man was more interested in understanding his responsibility to God through the revelation of Scriptures. These religious humanists that dominated the North had a desire to get back to the way of life that they believed the Scriptures taught.

Thanks to Gutenberg, the Renaissance men of both the North and South had readily available literature to read what was written by scholars who could understand and translate ancient Greek manuscripts. In time, they would even be able to read the Bible in their own language. This enabled them to discover discrepancies between what the Scriptures said and what the clergy said. Especially in the North, the idea that one might not need the church to attain salvation was beginning to take hold. These educated men had strong opinions about the church, and vigorously debated them amongst each other.

By the time Martin Luther opened the door to spiritual freedom, the Renaissance man was ready and willing to enter the classroom and take his seat. In John Fox’s “Book of Martyrs” he has a quote from John Huss as he was about to be burned at the stake in 1514. “You are now going to burn a goose, (The word Huss signifies goose in the Bohemian language:) but in a century you will have a swan which you can neither roast nor boil.” A hundred years later, that “Swan” was about to fulfill Huss’s prophecy. The time had come for the Renaissance man to accept his destiny and to put up or shut up.

Knowing what I learned in my investigations for these articles, had I not begun this series under the title of “How the Renaissance Led to the Reformation”, I may very well have titled my thesis, “How God used the Black Death to Reform His Church”, or “How Capitalism Helped Reform the Church”. It is my firm belief that the Black Death led to the rebirth of capitalism, which unleashed an unprecedented growth of wealth creating a new middle class. This growing middle class helped support the engine of the Renaissance. In the fullness of time this new Middle Class would become the reformers God used to fix the errors men created in His church, so that His Saints could enter the next stage of history.

Twice the fullness of times has resulted in God’s message getting distributed to the world. With Patience I await the last fullness of times, when everything will be put in place for our Lord to return and bring all His children home.

(Editors Note) It has been 16 years since I wrote this thesis. I have posted some portions of it in the past, but this is the first time I'm posting it as one full post.  I originally write it in 2005. Today, we are living in a time which many consider to be the last fullness of times. An era when events for the last 100 years have shaped the World so that the last pieces of God's plan for mankind are almost completed for the return of His Son, Jesus Christ.


Unknown said...

And then led to The Enlightenment.

George C. Hartwell said...

So death and devastation lead to the liberation of serfs, of scholarship, of inventions and of the freed thinking needed to break free from control of power and man's minds by the institutional church. Would another period of devastation possibly lead to anything so beautiful for the Kingdom of God? Dare we hope?

Chuck Ness said...

Yes, we can pray for it, and if history teaches us anything, it is that God uses tragedy to bring blessings. So often, the evil needs to be utterly devastation before the rebuilding of the souls of men can begin. The Scriptures are loaded with times God destroyed the old to bring gun a new eras. Eventually, He will finally do so with the World, and then we will be free of such evil for eternity.

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