Christianity in the West
A Church undermined by crises and abuse
in 16th century
At the beginning of the 16th century, the Church of Rome had been in a state of moral and political crisis for two centuries, but had not managed to overcome it.
A series of disasters
The priests were poor and badly educated, whereas the high-ranking clergy lived in luxury, due to the income they received for carrying out religious duties.
Many bishops did not live in their sees and depended on their general curates. Some were attracted by politics and entered the King’s service.
There were many monasteries but they were no longer held in much esteem because their morals and discipline had degenerated.
The image of the papacy was badly tarnished by the Great Schism of the West, during which several popes confronted each other between 1378 and 1417, and by the supremacy of the councils over the papacy, proclaimed at the council of Constance.
It had also been shaken by periodical conflicts between the popes and sovereigns in the West.
The West was afflicted by a series of disasters:
- the Hundred Years War, which ended in 1450,
- the Black Death, which wreaked havoc in Europe from 1346 to 1353 (25 million people died) and it reappeared from time to time, notably towards 1478, in Venice,
- the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, an event which marked the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire, abandoned to its fate by the West.
People were deeply concerned about two things, the fear of death and whether or not they would be saved. These themes were illustrated in the churches by macabre dances and plays about the Last Judgement.The faithful turned to the Virgin and the saints, each of whom was supposed to bring special protection.
For example Saint Roch, Saint Gilles and Saint Adrien protected people against the Plague. The belief in purgatory, an intermediary place situated between paradise and hell, led the Church to give people indulgences, in order to make their stay there shorter.
The clergy had fallen into disrepute
The appearance of the Renaissance in Italy from 1453 onwards brought with it a system of patronage which benefited the arts.The popes participated in this : Jules II gave contracts to Michelangelo. But all this was expensive. The Church needed money, notably in order to build the Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome. This was the reason for the sale of indulgences, which scandalised Luther so much.
Reforms were slow in coming
During this long period which lasted for two centuries, many voices could be heard crying out for a reform of the Church, including members of the clergy but there was no response. The Church preferred to blame people in order to preserve its authority. This was the case for the most violent critics : the Waldenses, Wyclif, Jan Hus. There were some attempts to reform the Church, but they failed, mostly because of the rivalry between two main authorities, the pope and the councils. The council of Latran (1512-1517) met with indifference on the part of pope Leon X.
Finally, it was not until the Reform movement started spreading from 1517 onwards, that the Church undertook interior reforms ; this was the aim of the Council of Trent (1545-1563).
- AUBENAS Roger et RICARD Robert, L’Église et la Renaissance (1449-1517), Paris, 1951
- CHAUNU Pierre, Le Temps des Réformes : histoire religieuse et système de civilisation : la crise de la chrétienté, l’éclatement (1250-1550), Le Grand livre du mois, Paris, 1997
- CHRISTIN Olivier, Les Réformes. Luther, Calvin et les protestants, Découvertes Gallimard, Paris, 1995
- CROUZET Denis, La genèse de la Réforme française 1520-1562, SEDES, Paris, 1996, p. 620
- DELUMEAU Jean, La peur en Occident, Fayard, Paris, 1978
- DELUMEAU Jean et WANEGFFELEN Thierry, Naissance et affirmation de la Réforme, PUF, Paris, 1997
- PIETRI Charles, VAUCHEZ André, VENARD Marc et MAYEUR Jean-Marie (dir.), Histoire du christianisme des origines à nos jours, Desclée, Paris, 1990-2001, Tome 14
Pierre Valdo (1140-1217) and the WaldensesPierre Valdo started the Waldenses movement, which spread throughout southern Europe.
John Wyclif (c. 1328-1384) and the LollardsWyclif, a distant precursor of the Reformation, challenged the Church’s authority and hierarchy. His followers, the Lollards, instigated a peasant revolt. They denounced the established Church.
Jan Hus (1369-1415) and the Hussite wars (1419-1436)Hus was a Czech priest, who, a century before Luther, called for a reform of the Chuch and was burnt at the stake. His death set off a religious, political...
The Catholic Reformation or Counter-Reformation in 16th centuryThe council of Trent (1545-1563) was a turning point in the history of Catholicism when dogma and disciplinary reforms were passed.
Jacques Lefèvre d'Etaples (1450-1537)Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples was a theologian who founded the “Cenacle of Meaux” and was the first to translate the Bible into French.
The revolution of printingBlock print technology was now highly developed and had a considerable impact on the dissemination of ideas – it was thanks to printing that the ideas of the Reformation spread...
Factors preceding the ReformationForerunning factors to the Protestant Reformations had been accumulating for many years.
Forerunners of the ReformationThe Forerunners of the Reformation developed many ideas which inspired Luther. Among them Pierre Valdo was the first, in the XIIth century.
Renaissance and Humanism in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuriesAt the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453, Europe was peaceful for a while as there were less disease epidemics and less conflicts. The population grew, cities developed...