The papacy and religious movements before the Reformation

Even though many historians would now hesitate to speak of a general deterioration of medieval religion, most would still agree that the papacy had declined, been corrupted and become politicized. It has been regarded as little more than an aggressive Italian Renaissance state, competing for territory with other powers in the peninsula. A common interpretation of papal history from the thirteenth century goes something like this. By the mid-thirteenth century, the papacy had again lost the moral high ground, which Innocent III had briefly recaptured by backing the Franciscans and winning over heretical groups. A long-drawn-out conflict with the imperial Hohenstaufen dynasty involved the papacy deeply in high politics, thus weakening it as a religious institution. In any case, victory over the Hohenstaufen was followed less than half a century later (1303) by the humiliation of Pope Boniface VIII at the hands of forces of the French king Philip IV and the Colonna clan. Not long afterwards the papacy, which could not control its own lands in Italy, moved to Avignon (not in but close to the French king's domain), which remained the papal base for many decades while periodic and expensive efforts were made to regain control of Rome and the papal state. Though much weaker in the arena of high politics than in the thirteenth century, the hold of the papal power over the clergy of Christendom and their incomes was consolidated; but nevertheless contact had been lost with the forces of true religious feeling. Then, in 1378, two years after the final return to Rome, a disputed papal election produced a schism which lasted until 1417, when it was finally resolved at the Council of Constance. During the 'Great Schism' the rival lines of popes were very dependent on their respective adherents among the rulers of Europe, and desperate for money, with consequences for the way in which indulgences were administered. Attempts to resolve the Schism encouraged the construction, with the help of materials available in earlier writings by canon lawyers, of theories which distinguished the authority of the Pope from that of a general council of the Church, and invested supreme authority (even over a Pope) in the latter. This body of theory survived the end of the Schism, and became the animating ideology of the Council of Basle (1431-49), which broke with and took on the papacy.

Success of reunion negotiations with the Greek Church (at the papally directed Council of Florence, 1438-45) helped tip the balance of opinion away from the Council of Basle and towards the then Pope Eugenius IV (even though the Byzantine empire would be overwhelmed not long after, in 1453). Although it survived the Schism and the challenge of the 'Conciliar' movement, however, the papacy was only a shadow of its high medieval self: just another Italian principality struggling for survival and jostling for quite local territorial gains. The moral atmosphere at the papal court deteriorated, and the patronage of humanists and artists, which gives the fifteenth-century papacy an honourable place in the history of Renaissance culture, could not compensate for the institution's alienation from the religious forces of the age. Consequence: the Reformation.

Not much of this picture is actually false. The Schism, in particular, was a ruinous episode. Nevertheless the omissions from the preceding sketch are such that it lacks all proportion. The papacy was not in fact 'out of touch with the religious feeling of the age'. Much of the religious feeling of the age, for instance, was channelled into the system of indulgences. Simply to classify this with post-Reformation hindsight, under 'superstition', is hard to justify, unless the word can be used for any religious practice found unsympathetic. If one defines superstition as a fragmentary belief unsupported by the structure of a system, then indulgences need another label, for belief in indulgences was intimately related to some of the fundamental ideas of medieval Christianity: penance, vicarious atonement, purgatory, sanctity, and the mystical body of Christ. No doubt a lot of people did not understand these connections and simply thought they could pay to reduce time in purgatory, but it would be unduly cynical to assume that misunderstanding was the norm.

There are curious forgeries which would seem to indicate, in the minds of the people at whom they were aimed, a connection between indulgences, the papacy and spirituality. This we find in MS. British Library Add. 37,787 an indulgence supposedly granted by Pope John XXII for a set of 'Hours' which he had allegedly composed. It is interesting that someone thought he would tap a market by inventing a link between this tough Pope and that favourite form of devotion.

The charismatic female mystics who are prominent in late fourteenth-century Church History, above all Catherine of Siena, do not seem to have had a mass popular following, but were rather docilely accepted by the papacy even when they were attacking abuses. Catherine afterwards received the ultimate compliment of canonization (1461), as did Bridget of Sweden (1391).

The 'Modern Devotion' movement, of which The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis is the best-known product, was handled by the papacy in a manner reminiscent of Innocent III's treatment of the Franciscans. The Windesheim Congregation, which came out of the Modern Devotion, received approval from Boniface IX in 1395 and in 1425 from Martin V. As with the Franciscans, the papal attitude tended to 'domesticate' an originally unconventional movement.

In the later fifteenth century when the papacy had supposedly been reduced to the status of a Renaissance principality, papal religious prestige may in one way at least have been higher than ever before. Books of model sermons to help popular preachers must have been reaching a wider audience after the invention of printing, and these popularized for a mass public the ideology of papal authority. No-one has yet succeeded in finding a similar degree of emphasis on papal authority in sermons for the laity available in the period when papal authority is supposed to have been at its height.

Thus a simple picture of rise and decline is not really appropriate for the history of the medieval papacy, any more than for Christendom as a whole. Nor should such a picture be necessary to explain the Reformation. As already suggested above, religious vitality worked to the advantage of both conventional Catholic belief and its opponents. In the fifteenth century this was already evident, for Lollardy in England and Hussitism in Bohemia in many ways anticipate sixteenth-century Protestantism. John Wycliffe (whose ideas were grasped by the Lollards much more accurately than used to be thought) foreshadows sixteenth-century Reformers, especially in his rejection of transubstantiation and in his emphasis on predestination, and on the authority of the Bible alone. Jan Hus was influenced by Wycliffe, but did not depart so far from the orthodox line. The movement he inspired broke up into competing factions, some very radical indeed. The Lollards were suppressed by force; the Hussites, after a long and at times remarkably successful struggle, were defeated but not crushed. It was only in the sixteenth century that a religious dissident was protected by a prince from forcible repression for long enough for his movement to become an established church. Luther's new church was soon followed by many others.

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  • Cornelia Bracegirdle
    Why reformation before liberation?
    8 years ago

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