In 1517, Martin Luther published his highly controversial Ninety-Five Thesis, which severely challenged the authority of the Church, and would result in the establishment of the Lutheran Church half a decade later. Consequently, 1517 has often been regarded as the starting point of the collapse of Christian unity in Western Europe. In order to understand whether the fragmentation of the Catholic Church was indeed inevitable, it is essential to understand the factors which led to, or at least created favorable circumstances for Luther, as well as the global context in which his actions occurred. Hence, the focus of this essay is not so much Luther himself, but rather the status of Christianity in Europe in his time. Essentially, theories about the inevitability of the Catholic Church’s collapse are concerned with the social, political and economic circumstances of the early 16th century and before, and attempt to assess the view that religious schism was a natural outcome of the global context of the time.
Needless to say, to answer questions regarding the inevitability of any event by definition requires the use of counter-factual history. However, it should be made explicit that any speculation made in essay will be grounded in logic, and result from the consideration of factual evidence. It is also important to emphasize that within such a short essay, drawing generalizations about the condition of the different countries affected by the Reformation is problematic, as much of the arguments put forward may only apply to limited geographical areas, such as the German states. This, of course, is of crucial significance when assessing whether the events of 1517 may have been evitable elsewhere. This essay will therefore look at the context surrounding Luther’s success, and aim to establish whether the collapse of Christian unity could have been prevented.
Perhaps a suitable starting point would be to review the political strength of the Catholic Church by 1517. Indeed, as demonstrated by Macgrath, the Great Schism of 1378 had arguably already shown that the Church as an institution was divided from within long before 1517. Such divide, far from being a mere symbol of Church instability in the late Middle Ages, also led people to gradually turn to university theological faculties and intellectuals for guidance. This raised the question as to whose authority was legitimate in validating debates and opinions, and resulted in a growing plurality of theological opinions. Therefore and despite the relative distance between the two periods, the long term impact of the Schism suggests that theological disputes had become more common, and consequently more tolerated by the time Luther started his writing. Furthermore, in the century before the outbreak of the Reformation, the Church experienced somewhat of a political crisis, characterized by the loss of authority to several European monarchs, for instance in France following the 1438 Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges and the 1516 Concordat of Bologna, or indeed in England through the Statutes of Provisors and Praemunire (1351-93). Therefore, it can be argued that by the beginning of the 16th century, papal authority faced increasing political conflict and competition to solve religious matters at national level, even when dealing with heresy.
Consequently, the impact of emerging theories was made greater by the Church’s inability to suppress those new ideas, and hence it can be argued that the Church also faced a theological crisis. This was perhaps best illustrated by the emergence of Humanism. Although most of its followers were strong Catholics indeed, the Humanist movement defied the Church on doctrinal grounds in several ways, for instance by rejecting the idea of transubstantiation . In addition, Valla’s questioning of the Donation of Constantine which openly questioned the legitimacy of the Pope, and the promotion of Greek as an academic language (instead of old Latin textbooks like Doctrinale) further contributed to ideological schism.
Hence, it has been suggested that the Church had been gradually weakened in the years previous to 1517, and that Reformation was a logical and far from surprising outcome. However the main issue raised by such approach is that although it suggests the inevitability of the collapse of Christian unity, it fails to explain why heresy up to 1517 had had such little impact and success. It would be incorrect to claim that heresy did not exist until 1517, and it is unlikely that medieval heresies had died out by the beginning of the 16th century as some historians have suggested, due to its continuity from within the family unit. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the main heresies of the pre-1517 period were left weakened by the Church’s handling of Hus and Wycliffe, whilst Lollardy gave “not much impression of intellectual energy by the early sixteen century” and “had become a movement with no base in the universities and no capacity to produce literature”. So although the Church appeared unstable at the time, it does not seem that medieval heresy gained influence in the meantime. This can suggest several conclusions: firstly, that the collapse of unity was far from inevitable as the Church lacked strong, consistent opposition. Secondly that despite conflicts from within and against secular rulers, Christianity remained popular among peoples. Finally, it might be that the reasons behind divisions within Christianity lie elsewhere, and that Luther may have benefited from particular circumstances in order to succeed.
Having considered the political issues the Catholic institution was undergoing, and bearing in mind the growing anticlericalism of the time due to corruption and clergy incompetence which added to the negative image of the Church , it is importance to understand just how much religious teachings and practices remained a major part of people’s lives in the early 16th century. Though according to Moeller, late German Christianity was characterized by “churchliness”, much evidence suggests that the Catholics of Germany blamed the emerging criticism of the Church on localities rather than the institution as a whole, rejecting the need for global reform . Similarly, in his book The Stripping of the Altars, Duffy follows a similar line of argument, claiming that public and private Mass remained of great importance in England at the time, whilst the new interest for pilgrimage can also be regarded as evidence for the status of Christianity .Therefore, it may be that the very real popularity of Catholicism has been undermined by historians due to the tensions which the Church suffered in politics and international relations, especially since despite the growing level of literacy, writing remained mostly an elitist skill in early modern Europe. This is an important point, since it may indicate that the influence of the Church was still prevailing by 1517, and that the collapse of Christian unity could have been avoided.
However, since the reality is that Luther’s ideas did meet sympathy and were indeed successful, it may be worth considering the differences between Luther himself and previous heresies. Firstly, at the time when he published the Ninety-Five Thesis, Luther largely benefited from the misunderstanding of many intellectual circles who first regarded him as a humanist. This, needless to say, helped him gain sympathy from a “loose international fraternity of reform-minded scholars who contributed so significantly to the international climate of the age” , most famously perhaps that of Erasmus, which brought upon his work a sort of status and attention previous heresies had not enjoyed. Coupled with the boom in university establishment between the second half of the 15th century up to 1517 (9 universities created in Germany between the years 1450-1517 ), this meant Luther’s intellectal support was far from limited to outside of Germany.
Furthermore, Luther’s smart use of the printing press was maximized by the fact that by 1500, over sixty German cities owned presses , making Germany by far the European leader in the matter. This enabled him to sell over 30000 of his thirty publications between 1517 and 1520 alone. The impact of printing was significant because it meant that it was no longer sufficient for Church authorities to roast Luther or his supporters alive in order to prevent the spread of his ideas, which made his propaganda far more effective than that of other heretics. It may also be worth mentioning that the impact of the printing press was amplified because Germany was “a land of towns” , which typified it even from other advanced Western European nations at the time, and further accelerated the spread of his ideas.
In addition, the economico-political climate of Germany at the time also certainly had a positive impact on Luter’s movement and success, as the support of princely states again differentiated him from other heretics and boosted the call for Reform. Furthermore, at the time when the Church began the sale of indulgences, the German economy was weakened by the maritime economic emergence of Spain and the Netherland . This was worsened by the fact that whilst the Church donated generous compensation to the kings of France and England, Germany only received 3000 florins . Perhaps the best way to illustrate how Luther benefited from this conflict of interest is the case of Elector Frederick of Saxony. Though he was also selling indulgences in Wittenberg, Frederick nevertheless became one of Luther’s most powerful allies and went as far as faking an attack on the monk to then hide him at Wartburg Castle, because he feared for his life after the Diet of Worms. There is also a case that the plurality of principalities in Germany made it easier for Luther to obtain allies, and that gaining the favours of individual princes was easier than it would have been for him to gain the approval of a national monarch, such as the king in France.
To conclude, whilst it is problematic to talk of a collapse of Christian unity as early as 1517, it is fair to say that divisions within Christianity had become almost certainly inevitable. There are nevertheless a number of very questionable assumptions as to why this occurred. Firstly, it is misleading to assume that the events of 1517 were a result of the long term decline of Christianity among the peoples of Europe, and of Germany in particular. Indeed, this essay has shown that despite political turmoil, religion remained a very central part of everyday life. Secondly, it would be reductionist to attribute the Reformation to a decline of the Church as an institution, since it would not explain why other heresies had not achieved what Luther did. Ultimately, the reasons why divisions were inevitable must lie primarily with the very context of Germany in Luther’s time. Interestingly, whilst it is unlikely that the events of 1517 would have had the same impact had they begun elsewhere in Europe where the papacy had more authority, disunity became most likely inevitable outside Germany too, as the advances of the printing press in Germany printing would ensure the spread of Luther’s word all across Europe.
Claus-Peter Clasen, Medieval Heresy in the Reformation (Oxford, 1963)
A.G. Dickens, Reformation and Society in Sixteenth-Century Europe (London, 1966)
James L. Halverson, Contesting Christendom: readings in medieval religion and culture (Maryland, 2008)
Alister E. Macgrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (Oxford, 2004)
Charles G. Nauert, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 29, No. 2 (1998)
Andrew Pettegree, The Early Reformation in Europe (Cambridge, 1992)
G.R Elton, Reformation Europe 1517-1559 (Oxford, 1963)
Robert Varickayil, Social Origins of Protestant Reformation, Social Scientist, Vol 8, No. 11(1980)
James Clark, Introduction to Early Modern History: lecture 2: The Origins of the Reformation (Bristol, 01/02/11)