HIS NAME RICOCHETS down the canyons of nearly five centuries—ricochets, because the trajectory of his zigzagging life, never direct, dodged this way and that, ever elusive and often devious. We cannot even be certain what to call him. In Portuguese documents his name appears alternately as Fernão de Magalhães and Fernão de Magalhais. Born the son of a fourth-grade nobleman, in middle age he renounced his native land and, as an immigrant in Seville, took the nom de guerre Fernando de Magallanes. Sometimes he spelled it that way, sometimes as Maghellanes. In Sanlúcar de Barrameda, before embarking for immortality on September 20, 1519, he signed his last will and testament as Hernando de Magallanes. Cartographers Latinized this to Magellanus —a German pamphleteer printed it as “Wagellanus”—and we have anglicized it to Magellan. But what was his real nationality? On his historic voyage he sailed under the colors of Castile and Aragon. Today Lisbon proudly acclaims him: “Êle é nosso!”—“He is ours!”—but that is chutzpah. In his lifetime his countrymen treated him as a renegade, calling him traidor and transfuga—turncoat.

One would expect the mightiest explorer in history to have been sensitive and proud, easily stung by such slurs. In fact he was unoffended. By our lights, his character was knotted and intricate. It was more comprehensible to his contemporaries, however, because the capitán-general of 1519–1521 was, to an exceptional degree, a creature of his time. His modesty arose from his faith. In the early sixteenth century, pride in achievement was reserved for sovereigns, who were believed to be sheathed in divine glory. Being a lesser mortal, and a pious one, Magellan assumed that the Madonna was responsible for his accomplishments.

At the time he may have underrated them. That is more understandable. He was an explorer, a man whose destiny it was to venture into the unknown; what he found, therefore, was new. He had some idea of its worth but lacked accurate standards by which to measure it. Indeed, he couldn’t even be certain of what he was looking for until he had found it, and the fact that he had no clear view of his target makes the fact that he hit it squarely all the more remarkable.

His Spanish sponsors did not share his sense of mission. They sought profit, not adventure. His way around that obstacle seems to have been to ignore it and mislead them. Sailing around the world was unmentioned during his royal audience with Carlos I, sovereign of Spain, who, as the elected Holy Roman emperor Charles V, was to play a key (if largely unwitting) role in the great religious revolution which split Christendom and signaled the end of the medieval world. Carlos’s commission to Magellan was to journey westward, there to claim Spanish possession of an archipelago then in the hands of his Iberian rival, Manuel I of Portugal. These were the Spice Islands—the Moluccas, lying between Celebes and New Guinea. Now an obscure part of Indonesia, they are unshown on most maps, but then the isles were considered priceless. Officially, the capitán-general’s incentive lay in the king’s pledge to him. Two of the islands would become Magellan’s personal fief and he would receive 5 percent of all profits from the archipelago, thus making his fortune.

But as Timothy Joyner points out in his life of Magellan, this Moluccan plan was a disaster. Indeed, as the leader of the expedition, Magellan was killed before he could even reach there. He had, however, landed in the Philippines. This was of momentous importance, for eastbound Portuguese had reconnoitered the Spice Islands nine years earlier. Therefore, in overlapping them, he had closed the nexus between the 123rd and 124th degrees of east longitude and thus completed the encirclement of the earth.

Yet his achievements were slighted. Death is always a misfortune, at least to the man who has to do the dying. In Magellan’s case it was exceptionally so, however, for as a dead discoverer he was unhonored in his own time. Even Magellan’s discovery of the strait which bears his name was belittled. Only a superb mariner, which he was, could have negotiated the foggy, treacherous, 350-mile-long Estrecho de Magallanes. In the years after his death, expedition after expedition tried to follow his lead. They failed; all but one ended in shipwreck or turned homeward, and the exception met disaster in the Pacific. Frustrated and defeated, skippers decided that Magellan’s exploit was impossible and declared it a myth. Nearly sixty years passed before another great sailor, Sir Francis Drake, successfully guided The Golden Hind through the tortuous passage and survived to tell the tale.

Had fortune and a viceregal role in the Moluccas been Magellan’s real inducement, he would have been a failure by his own lights. But his original motives remain obscure. Desperately searching for sponsorship of his voyage, he may have feigned interest in the Spice Islands. There is no proof of that, but it would have been in character. And were that the case, he would have confided in no one; he was always the most secretive of men. Moreover, the true drives of men are often hidden from them. Magellan’s vision may or may not have been cloudy, but clearly his real inspiration was nobler than profits. And in the end he proved that the world was round.

In so doing, he did much more. He provided a linchpin for the men of the Renaissance. Philosophers, scholars, and even learned men in the Church had begun to challenge stolid medieval assumptions, among them pontifical dogma on the shape of the earth, its size, and its position and movement in the universe. Magellan gave men a realistic perception of the globe’s dimensions, of its enormous seas, of how its landmasses were distributed. Others had raised questions. He provided answers, which now, inevitably, would lead to further questions—to challenges which continue on the eve of the twenty-first century.

The Spanish court was less than ecstatic. It had wanted Magellan to hoist its flag over the Moluccas, thereby breaking Portugal’s monopoly of the Oriental spice trade: cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper. Spices made valuable preservatives, but trafficking in them had other, sinister implications. They were also used, and used more often, to disguise the odors and the ugly taste of spoiled meat. The regimes that encouraged and supported the spice trade were, in effect, accomplices in the poisoning of their own people. Moreover, medieval Europeans were extremely vulnerable to disease. This was the down side of exploration. The discoverers and their crews had carried European germs to distant lands, infecting native populations. Then, when they returned, they bore exotic diseases which could spread across the continent unchecked.

Sometimes the source of an epidemic could be quickly traced. Typhus, never before known in Europe, swept Aragon immediately after Spanish troops returned from their Cyprian triumph over the Moors. More often the origin was never identified. No one knows why Europe’s first outbreak of syphilis ravaged Naples in 1495, or why the “sweating sickness” devastated England later the same year—“Scarce one among a hundred that sickened did escape with life,” wrote the sixteenth-century chronicler Raphael Holinshed—or the specific origins of the pandemic Black Death, which had been revisiting Europe at least once a generation since October 1347, when a Genoese fleet returning from the Orient staggered into Messina harbor, all members of its crews dead or dying from a combination of bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic plague strains. All that can be said with certainty is that the late 1400s and early 1500s were haunted by dark reigns of pestilence, that life became very cheap, and that this wretched situation can scarcely have discouraged explorers eager to investigate what lay over the horizon.

The mounting toll of disease—each night gravediggers’ carts creaked down streets as drivers cried, “Bring out your dead!” and in Germany entire towns, a chronicler of the time wrote, had become like cemeteries “in ihrer betru benden Einsamkeit” (“in their sad desertion”)—was far from the only sign that society seemed to have lost its way. In some ways the period seems to have been the worst of times—an age of treachery, abduction, fratricide, depravity, barbarism, and sadism. In England, by royal decree, the Star Chamber sent innocent men to the gallows ignorant of both their accusers and the charges against them. In Florence, the fief of Lorenzo de’ Medici, local merchants were licensed to organize the African slave trade, after which the first “blackbirders” arrived in Italian ports with their wretched human cargoes. Tomás de Torquemada, a Dominican monk, presided over the Spanish Inquisition—actually conceived by Isabella of Castile—which tortured accused heretics until they confessed.

Torquemada’s methods reveal much about one of the age’s most unpleasant characteristics: man’s inhumanity to man. Sharp iron frames prevented victims from sleeping, lying, or even sitting. Braziers scorched the soles of their feet, racks stretched their limbs, suspects were crushed to death beneath chests filled with stones, and in Germany the very mention of die verfüchte Jungfer—the dreaded old iron maid—inspired terror. The Jungfer embraced the condemned with metal arms, crushed him in a spiked hug, and then opened, letting him fall, a mass of gore, bleeding from a hundred stab wounds, all bones broken, to die slowly in an underground hole of revolving knives and sharp spears.

Jewry was luckier—slightly luckier—than blacks. If the pogroms of the time are less infamous than the Holocaust, it is only because anti-Semites then lacked twentieth-century technology. Certainly they possessed the evil will. In 1492, the year of Columbus, Spain’s Jews were given three months to accept Christian baptism or be banished from the country. Even those who had been baptized were distrusted; Isabella had fixed her dark eye on converted Jews suspected of recidivism—Marranos, she called them; “pigs”—and marked them for resettlement as early as 1478. Eventually between thirty thousand and sixty thousand were expelled. Meantime the king of Portugal, finding merit in the Spanish decree, ordered the expulsion of all Portuguese Jews. His soldiers were instructed to massacre those who were slow to leave. During a single night in 1506 nearly four thousand Lisbon Jews were put to the sword. Three years later the systematic persecution of the German Jews began.

Blacks and Jews suffered most, but any minority was considered fair game for tyrants. In Moscovy, Ivan III Vasilyevich, the grand duke of Moscow, proclaimed himself the first czar of Russia and then drove all Germans from Novgorod and enslaved Lithuania. Fevered Turks swung their long curved swords in Egypt, leaving the gutters of Cairo awash in Arab blood, and then pillaged Mecca. At the turn of the sixteenth century, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros—who would become Spain’s new inquisitor general —provided Europe with an extraordinary example of medieval genocide. He ordered all Grenadine Moors to accept baptism. Cisneros wasn’t really seeking converts. He hoped to goad them to revolt, and when they did rise he annihilated them. Any nonconformity, any weakness, was despised; the handicapped were given not compassion, but terror and pain, as prescribed in Malleus maleficarum (The Witches’ Hammer), a handbook by the inquisitors Johann Sprenger and Heinrich Kraemer, which justified the shackling and burning of, among others, the mentally ill.

These victims were helpless and oppressed, but no one was really safe. In 1500 the eminent Alfonso of Aragon, son-in-law of a pope, was slain by his wife’s brother; seven years later Alfonso’s killer, who had become brother-in-law of the king of Navarre, was himself murdered by assassins in the employ of the Count of Lerin. Intrigue thickened in every princely court, liquidation of enemies was tolerated among all social classes, and because the technology of homicide was in its infancy — August Kotter, the German gunsmith, did not invent the rifle until 1520—their deaths were often macabre. Perhaps the most celebrated crime of the Middle Ages had been committed in the Tower of London: the disappearance and, it was thought, the murder of two young heirs to the English throne in 1483. This outrage was widely believed to be the work of the Duke of Gloucester, who became King Richard III. But there were other, equally bizarre royal homicides. The reign of King James III of Scotland ended in his thirty-seventh year when an assassin, disguised as a priest, heard his confession and then eviscerated him. And in his first sovereign act, the new Ottoman sultan Bayezid ordered his brother, whom he regarded as a threat to his power, publicly strangled.

Despots, confronted by violence, struck back with equal fury; for every eye lost, they gouged out as many eyes as they could reach. In gentler times, reformers and protesters are given at least the semblance of a fair hearing. There was none of that then. In 1510 two former speakers of the House of Commons found themselves in vehement disagreement with Parliament over taxation. The issues are obscure, but Parliament’s solution of them was not; on the hottest day of that August both men were beheaded. Six years later, on May Day, London’s street people staged a public demonstration to express exasperation over their plight. On orders from Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, sixty of them were hanged.


AT ANY GIVEN MOMENT the most dangerous enemy in Europe was the reigning pope. It seems odd to think of Holy Fathers in that light, but the five Vicars of Christ who ruled the Holy See during Magellan’s lifetime were the least Christian of men: the least devout, least scrupulous, least compassionate, and among the least chaste—lechers, almost without exception. Ruthless in their pursuit of political power and personal gain, they were medieval despots who used their holy office for blackmail and extortion. Under Innocent VIII (r. 1484–1492) simony was institutionalized; a board was set up for the marketing of favors, absolution, forged papal bulls—even the office of Vatican librarian, previously reserved for the eminent—with 150 ducats (about $3,750) * from each transaction going to the pontiff. Selling pardons for murderers raised some eyebrows, but a powerful cardinal explained that “the Lord desireth not the death of a sinner but rather that he live and pay.” The fact is that everything in the Holy See was up for auction, including the papacy itself. Innocent’s successor, the Spanish cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, became Alexander VI (r.1492–1503), the second Borgia pope—Callixtus III had been the first—by buying off the other leading candidates. He sent his closest rival, Ascanio Cardinal Sforza, four mules laden with ingots of gold.

The Vatican’s permissive attitude toward men convicted of homicide was not entirely illogical. The papal palace itself was often home to killers and their accomplices. Popes and cardinals hired assassins, sanctioned torture, and frequently enjoyed the sight of blood. In his official history, Storia d’Italia (1561–1564), Francesco Guicciardini noted the remarkable spectacle of “the High Priest, the Vicar of Christ on earth”—in this instance Julius II—“excited” by a scene in which Christians slaughtered one another, “retaining nothing of the pontiff but the name and the robes.” The Alsatian Johann Burchard was papal magister ceremoniarum, or master of ceremonies, from 1483 to 1506. Burchard was one of those rare men historians bless: a diarist. In his Diarium, a day-by-day chronicle of pontifical life, he tells how, at one Vatican banquet, another Holy Father “watched with loud laughter and much pleasure” from a balcony while his bastard son slew unarmed criminals, one by one, as they were driven into a small courtyard below.

That was recreational homicide. The strangling of Alfonso Cardinal Petrucci with a red silk noose—the executioner was a Moor; Vatican etiquette enjoined Christians from killing a prince of the Church—was a graver matter. In 1517 Petrucci, who considered himself ill used by Pope Leo X, had led a conspiracy of several cardinals to dispatch the Holy Father by injecting poison into his buttock on the pretext of lancing a boil. A servant betrayed them. Petrucci’s accomplices were pardoned after paying huge fines. The highest, 150,000 ducats, was exacted from Raffaele Cardinal Riario, a great-nephew of a previous pope.

Such grisly tales of pontifical mayhem are found in contemporary diaries, but the details of massacres among the lower Roman classes are lost to us, though we know they occurred; diplomats stationed there attest to that. An envoy from Lombardy wrote of “murders innumerable. … One hears nothing but moaning and weeping. In all the memory of man the Church has never been in such an evil plight.” That plight grew wickeder; a few years later the Venetian ambassador reported that “every night four or five murdered men are discovered, bishops, prelates, and others.” If such slaughters were remarkable, so was the alacrity with which the Eternal City forgot them. When the blood on killers’ knives had clotted and dried, when the graves had been filled in and cadavers removed from the Tiber, the mood tended to be hedonistic. “God has given us the papacy,” Leo X wrote his brother. “Let us enjoy it.” The prelates of that age had large appetites for pleasure. Pietro Cardinal Riario held “a saturnalian banquet,” according to one account, “featuring a whole roasted bear holding a staff in its jaws, stags reconstructed in their skins, herons and peacocks in their feathers, and”—there would be more of this later—“orgiastic behavior by the guests appropriate to the ancient Roman model.”

In previous centuries, when the cause of Christianity had met with some striking success, their predecessors had opened St. Peter’s for Te Deums of thanksgiving. Now prayer had become unfashionable. Alexander VI caught the spirit of the new age in the first year of his reign. Told that Castilian Catholics had defeated the Moors of Granada, this Spanish pontiff scheduled a bullfight in the Piazza of St. Peter’s and cheered as five bulls were slain. The menu for Riario’s feast and the Borgia pope’s celebration reveal a Church hopelessly at odds with the preachings of Jesus, whose existence was the sole reason for its existence. But sitting in the Piazza of St. Peter’s was more comfortable than kneeling at the altar within, and other diversions were more entertaining than holy communion. Among them were compulsive spending on entertainment, gambling (and cheating) at cards, writing dreadful poems and reciting them in public, hiring orchestras to play while the prelates wallowed in gluttony, applauding elaborate theatrical performances. During the digestive process, the churchmen emptied great flagons of strong wine, whereupon intoxication inspired their eminences and even His Holiness to improvise bawdy exhibitions with female guests selected from the city’s brothels—which kept the papal master of ceremonies scribbling in his diary—until dawn brightened the papal palace and hangovers gave its inhabitants some idea of how merciless God’s vengeance could be.

It was Alexander, the Borgia pope, who first suppressed books critical of the papacy. He was either unaware of Burchard’s diary or indifferent to it, though there is another possibility: he may have been incapable of appreciating it. Men accept the values of their time and reject criticisms of them as irrelevant. Moreover, iniquitous regimes do not perpetuate themselves in disciplined societies, nor does a strong, pure, holy institution, supported by centuries of selflessness and integrity, abruptly find itself wallowing in corruption. Vice, no less than virtue, arises from precedents. Over the thirteen centuries since Christianity’s rise to power the Church had lost its way because the wrong criteria had insinuated themselves into its sanctuaries, turning piety into blasphemy, supplanting worship with scandal, and substituting the pursuit of secular power for eternal grace.


IRONICALLY, the purity of Christ’s vision had been contaminated by its very popularity. As Christianity expanded through mass conversions, its evangelists had tempered their exhortations, accommodating their message to those whose souls they sought to save. Philanthropy, one of the Church’s most admirable virtues, had become another source of vitiation. Donations poured in from the faithful, and the unspent wealth was passed up to the ecclesiastical hierarchy, where it accumulated and led to dissipation, debauchery, and—because spendthrifts are always running out of funds—demands for still more money. Here a dangerous solution presented itself, one which, when it was adopted, almost guaranteed future abuse. Ancient German custom offered convicted criminals a choice; they could be punished or, if they were wealthy, pay fines (Wehrgeld). Buying salvation was new to the Church. It was also sacrilegious. Early Christians had atoned for their sins by confession, absolution, and penance. Now it became possible to erase transgressions by buying indulgences. The papacy, searching for a scriptural precedent, settled on Matthew 16:19, in which Jesus tells Peter: “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

On this shakiest of foundations the Holy See built a bureaucracy in which Peter’s power, appropriated by pontiffs, was delegated to bishops, who passed it on to priests, who sent out friars in pursuit of sinners, empowered to judge the price to be paid for the sin, from which he deducted his commission. In Rome the contributions were welcomed and, in the beginning, used to finance hospitals, cathedrals, and crusades. Then other, less admirable causes appeared. Holy Fathers permitted those who had violated God’s commandments to buy release from purgatory, thus encroaching on the sacrament of penance.

At the same time, the lawlessness and disorders of the Dark Ages—particularly after the papacy had fallen under the dominance of feudal aristocrats in the ninth century—had led churchmen first to collaborate with secular rulers, and then to seek their subjugation. Pontiffs began by regulating the behavior of despots. Then they erected awesome cathedrals as symbols of their secular power, became enmeshed in political manipulations, and, finally, made war on their enemies.


IN THE VERY BEGINNING the first Vicars of Christ had withdrawn from the world and its temptations. Now they became indistinguishable from the nobility. Once they had held the blessings of austerity to be inviolate, even renouncing marriage and cohabitation. Now celibacy yielded to widespread clerical concubinage and, in the convents, to promiscuity and homes for fatherless children born to women who had pledged their virtue as brides of Christ.

The precept that men of God should sleep alone, established by the Lateran Councils of 1123 and 1139 after nine hundred years of hemming and hawing, had begun to fray well before the dawn of the sixteenth century. Now it was a thing of shreds and patches. The last pontiff to take it seriously had died in 1471, and even he, during his youthful days as a bishop of Trieste, had slept with a succession of mistresses. A generation later the occupants of Saint Peter’s chair were openly acknowledging their bantlings, endowing their sons with titles and their daughters with dowries.

In the Vatican nepotism ran amok. Sixtus IV (r. 1471–1484), upon donning the miter, appointed two of his nephews—both dissolute youths—to the sacred College of Cardinals. Later he put red hats on three more nephews and a grandnephew. He also named an eight-year-old boy archbishop of Lisbon and an eleven-year-old archbishop of Milan, though, quite apart from the fact that both were children, neither had received any religious instruction. Innocent VIII, who succeeded Sixtus in 1484, doted on Franceschetto Cibò, his son by a nameless courtesan. Innocent couldn’t make a cardinal of Franceschetto. Standards had not deteriorated that far—yet—and the youth didn’t seem interested. What excited him was roaming city streets each night with a pack of Roman hoodlums, gang-raping young women, some of them nuns; sodomizing them and then leaving them unconscious, bloody, bruised, often with serious injuries, in the streets. The pope’s son was not only a guttersnipe; he was also one of history’s great spendthrifts. To support his lifestyle Innocent raised simony to new levels. By the time he found a suitable bride for Frances-chetto, a Medici, he had to mortgage the papal tiara and treasury to pay for the wedding. Then he appointed his son’s new brother-in-law to the sacred college. The new cardinal and future pope—Leo X—was fourteen years old.

Even Leo X (r. 1513–1521), who fathered no children, shared the passion to honor papal relatives. He began in 1513 with his first cousin, Giulio de’ Medici, whose mother, all Rome knew, had been a casual partner at a drunken Holy Week frolic. By now there were precedents for conferring red hats on illegitimate sons; Alexander VI had put one on his own teenaged bastard, Cesare Borgia. Leo had big plans for Giulio, so he perjured himself, swearing out an affidavit that the youth’s parents had been secretly married. He then appointed five more members of his family, three nephews and two first cousins, to the cardinal’s college. Meantime his hopes for Giulio, like Giulio himself, were maturing. The boy cardinal became a man, served his benefactor as chief minister, and, in 1523, became pope himself. However, it is just as well that Leo did not live to see his dream realized. As Clement VII, Giulio was to become the ultimate pontifical disaster.


UNDISCIPLINED BY PIETY, most of these popes are nonetheless remembered for their consummate skills in the brutal politics of the era. Only men with strong power bases of their own, notably leaders of great Italian families—the Sforzas, Medicis, Pazzis, Aragons—dared challenge them. At the turn of the century the most popular critic of Alexander VI, the Borgia pope, was a Florentine, Girolamo Savonarola of San Marco, a charismatic, idealistic Dominican friar with an enormous following in Florence, where he had introduced a democratic government free of corruption. Savonarola (1452–1498) was among those offended by Vatican orgies and Alexander’s celebrated collection of pornography. The friar’s protests took the form of annual “bonfires of the vanities”—carnivals in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, where he tossed lewd pictures, pornography, personal ornaments, cards, and gaming tables on the flames. To his multitudes he would roar: “Popes and prelates speak against pride and ambition and they are plunged into it up to their ears.” The papal palace, he said, had literally become a house of prostitution where harlots “sit upon the throne of Solomon and signal to the passersby. Whoever can pay enters and does what he wishes.”

Savonarola also charged the Vicar of Christ with simony and demanded that he be removed. Alexander at first responded warily, merely ordering the friar gagged. But Savonarola continued to defy him. The pontiff, he declared “is no longer a Christian. He is an infidel, a heretic, and as such has ceased to be pope.” The


Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498)

Holy Father tried to buy him off with a cardinal’s hat. Savonarola indignantly rejected it—“A red hat?” he cried; “I want a hat of blood!”—and that was the end of him. Alexander excommunicated him; then, when Savonarola again defied him by continuing to celebrate Mass and give communion, the pope condemned him as a heretic, sentenced him to torture, and finally had him hanged and burned in the Piazza della Signoria.

The pontiffs of that time cannot be said to have been fastidious. They even executed their enemies in churches, where victims’ bodyguards were likeliest to be caught off guard. Allying himself with the Pazzi family, who were challenging the Florentine power of Lorenzo de’ Medici—Lorenzo the Magnificent—Pope Sixtus IV conspired with them to murder Lorenzo and his handsome brother Giuliano. He chose their most defenseless moment, when they were observing High Mass in the Florentine cathedral. The signal for the killers was the bell marking the elevation of the host. Giuliano fell at the altar, mortally wounded, but Lorenzo was not called magnificent for nothing. Drawing his long sword, he escaped into the sacristy and barricaded himself there until help arrived.

If the pope’s attack says much about the era, so does Lorenzo’s vengeance. On his instructions some of the Pazzi gang were hanged from balconies of the Palace of the Signoria while the rest were emasculated, dragged through the streets, hacked to death, and flung into the Arno. By medieval standards Lorenzo’s revenge had not been excessive, though that cannot be said of Denmark’s King Christian II, who invaded Sweden early in 1520. In January, Sten Sture, Sweden’s leader, was killed in action. Heavy fighting continued throughout the year, however, and it was autumn before Sture’s widow, Dame Christina Gyllenstjerna, surrendered. Christian had promised her a general amnesty, but a king’s word wasn’t worth much then. He immediately broke his, and in spectacular fashion. First two Swedish bishops were beheaded in Stockholm’s public square at midnight, November 8, while eighty of their parishioners, who had been summoned to witness the execution, were butchered where they stood. The Danish king then disinterred Sten Sture’s remains. After ten months in the grave they were scarcely recognizable. Rotting, crawling with maggots, emitting a nauseous stench, the corpse was nevertheless burned. Next Sture’s small son was flung — alive—into the flames. Then Dame Christina, who had been forced to watch all this, was sentenced to live out her days as a common prostitute.


WHAT WAS the world like—and to them it was the only world, round which the sun orbited each day—when ruled by such men? Imagination alone can reconstruct it. If a modern European could be transported back five centuries through a kind of time warp, and suspended high above earth in one of those balloons which fascinated Jules Verne, he would scarcely recognize his own continent. Where, he would wonder, looking down, are all the people? Westward from Russia to the Atlantic, Europe was covered by the same trackless forest primeval the Romans had confronted fifteen hundred years earlier, when, according to Tacitus’s De Germania, Julius Caesar interviewed men who had spent two months walking from Poland to Gaul without once glimpsing sunlight. One reason the lands east of the Rhine and north of the Danube had proved unconquerable to legions commanded by Caesar and over seventy other Roman consuls was that, unlike the other territories he subdued, they lacked roads.

But there were people there in A.D. 1500. Beneath the deciduous canopy, most of them toiling from sunup to sundown, dwelt nearly 73 million people, and although that was less than a tenth of the continent’s modern population, there were enough Europeans to establish patterns and precedents still viable today. Twenty million of them lived in what was known as the Holy Roman Empire—which, in the hoary classroom witticism, was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. It was in fact central Europe: Germany and her bordering territories. * There were 15 million souls in France, Europe’s most populous country. Thirteen million lived in Italy, where the population was densest, 8 million in Spain, and a mere 4.5 million—the number of Philadelphians in 1990—in England and Wales.









A voyager into the past would search in vain for the sprawling urban complexes which have dominated the continent since the Industrial Revolution transformed it some two hundred years ago. In 1500 the three largest cities in Europe were Paris, Naples, and Venice, with about 150,000 each. The only other communities with more than 100,000 inhabitants were situated by the sea, rivers, or trading centers: Seville, Genoa, and Milan, each of them about the size of Reno, Nevada; Eugene, Oregon; or Beaumont, Texas. Even among the celebrated Reichsstädte of the empire, only Cologne housed over 40,000 people. Other cities were about the same: Pisa had 40,000 citizens; Montpellier, the largest municipality in southern France, 40,000; Florence 70,000; Barcelona 50,000; Valencia 30,000; Augsburg 20,000; Nuremberg 15,000; Antwerp and Brussels 20,000. London was by far England’s largest town, with 50,000 Londoners; only 10,000 Englishmen lived in Bristol, the second-largest.

Twentieth-century urban areas are approached by superhighways, with skylines looming in the background. Municipalities were far humbler then. Emerging from the forest and following a dirt path, a stranger would confront the grim walls and turrets of a town’s defenses. Visible beyond them would be the gabled roofs of the well-to-do, the huge square tower of the donjon, the spires of parish churches, and, dwarfing them all, the soaring mass of the local cathedral.

If the bishop’s seat was the spiritual heart of the community, the donjon, overshadowing the public square, was its secular nucleus. On its roofs, twenty-four hours a day, stood watchmen, ready to strike the alarm bells at the first sign of attack or fire. Below them lay the council chamber, where elders gathered to confer and vote; beneath that, the city archives; and, in the cellar, the dungeon and the living quarters of the hangman, who was kept far busier than any executioner today. Sixteenth-century men did not believe that criminal characters could be reformed or corrected, and so there were no reformatories or correctional institutions. Indeed, prisons as we know them did not exist. Maiming and the lash were common punishments; for convicted felons the rope was commoner still.

The donjon was the last line of defense, but it was the wall, the first line of defense, which determined the propinquity inside it. The smaller its circumference, the safer (and cheaper) the wall was. Therefore the land within was invaluable, and not an inch of it could be wasted. The twisting streets were as narrow as the breadth of a man’s shoulders, and pedestrians bore bruises from collisions with one another. There was no paving; shops opened directly on the streets, which were filthy; excrement, urine, and offal were simply flung out windows.

And it was easy to get lost. Sunlight rarely reached ground level, because the second story of each building always jutted out over the first, the third over the second, and the fourth and fifth stories over those lower. At the top, at a height approaching that of the great wall, burghers could actually shake hands with neighbors across the way. Rain rarely fell on pedestrians, for which they were grateful, and little air or light, for which they weren’t. At night the town was scary. Watchmen patrolled it—once clocks arrived, they would call, “One o’clock and all’s well!”—and heavy chains were stretched across street entrances to foil the flight of thieves. Nevertheless rogues lurked in dark corners.

One neighborhood of winding little alleys offered signs, for those who could read them, that the feudal past was receding. Here were found the butcher’s lane, the papermaker’s street, tanners’ row, cobblers’ shops, saddlemakers, and even a small bookshop. Their significance lay in their commerce. Europe had developed a new class: the merchants. The hubs of medieval business had been Venice, Naples, and Milan—among only a handful of cities with over 100,000 inhabitants. Then the Medicis of Florence had entered banking. Finally, Germany’s century-old Hanseatic League stirred itself and, overtaking the others, for a time dominated trade.

The Hansa, a league of some seventy medieval towns centering around Bremen, Hamburg, and Lübeck, was originally formed in the thirteenth century to combat piracy and overcome foreign trade restrictions. It reached its apogee when a new generation of rich traders and bankers came to power. Foremost among them was the Fugger family. Having started as peasant weavers in Augsburg, not a Hanseatic town, the Fuggers expanded into the mining of silver, copper, and mercury. As moneylenders, they became immensely wealthy, controlling Spanish customs and extending their power throughout Spain’s overseas empire. Their influence stretched from Rome to Budapest, from Lisbon to Danzig, from


A sixteenth-century town wall

Moscow to Chile. In their banking role, they loaned millions of ducats to kings, cardinals, and the Holy Roman emperor, financing wars, propping up popes, and underwriting new adventures—putting up the money, for example, that King Carlos of Spain gave Magellan in commissioning his voyage around the world. In the early sixteenth century the family patriarch was Jakob Fugger II, who first emerged as a powerful figure in 1505, when he secretly bought the crown jewels of Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy. Jakob first became a count in Kirchberg and Weisser-horn; then, in 1514 the emperor Maximilian I—der gross Max—acknowledged the Fuggers’ role as his chief financial supporter for thirty years by making him a hereditary knight of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1516, by negotiating complex loans, Jakob made Henry VIII of England a Fugger ally. It was a tribute to the family’s influence, and to the growth of trade everywhere, that a year later the Church’s Fifth Lateran Council lifted its age-old prohibition of usury.

Each European town of any size had its miniature Fugger, a merchant whose home in the marketplace typically rose five stories and was built with beams filled in with stucco, mortar, and laths. Storerooms were piled high with expensive Oriental rugs and containers of powdered spices; clerks at high desks pored over accounts; the owner and his wife, though of peasant birth, wore gold lace and even ignored laws forbidding anyone not nobly born to wear furs. In the manner of a grand seigneur the merchant would chat with patrician customers as though he were their equal. Impoverished knights, resenting this, ambushed merchants in the forest and cut off their right hands. It was a cruel and futile gesture; commerce had arrived to stay, and the knights were just leaving. Besides, the adversaries were mismatched. The true rivals of the mercantile class were the clerics. Subtly but inexorably the bourgeois would replace the clergy in the continental power structure.


THE TOWN, HOWEVER, was not typical of Europe. In the early 1500s one could hike through the woods for days without encountering a settlement of any size. Between 80 and 90 percent of the population (the peasantry; serfdom had been abolished everywhere except in remote pockets of Germany) lived in villages of fewer than a hundred people, fifteen or twenty miles apart, surrounded by endless woodlands. They slept in their small, cramped hamlets, which afforded little privacy, but they worked—entire families, including expectant mothers and toddlers—in the fields and pastures between their huts and the great forest. It was brutish toil, but absolutely necessary to keep the wolf from the door. Wheat had to be beaten out by flails, and not everyone owned a plowshare. Those who didn’t borrowed or rented when possible; when it was impossible, they broke the earth awkwardly with mattocks.

Knights, of course, experienced none of this. In their castles—or, now that the cannon had rendered castle defenses obsolete, their new manor houses—they played backgammon, chess, or checkers (which was called cronometrista in Italy, dames in France, and draughts in England). Hunting, hawking, and falconry were their outdoor passions. A visitor from the twentieth century would find their homes uncomfortable: damp, cold, and reeking from primitive sanitation, for plumbing was unknown. But in other ways they were attractive and spacious. Ceilings were timbered,


A medieval fair: customers, cloth merchants, a beggar, a draper’s shop, a money-weigher, mountebanks

floors tiled (carpets were just beginning to come into fashion); tapestries covered walls, windows were glass. The great central hall of the crumbling castles had been replaced by a vestibule at the entrance, which led to a living room dominated by its massive hearth, and, beyond that, a “drawto chamber,” or “(with)drawing room” for private talks and a “parler” for general conversations and meals.

Gluttony wallowed in its nauseous excesses at tables spread in the halls of the mighty. The everyday dinner of a man of rank ran from fifteen to twenty dishes; England’s earl of Warwick, who fed as many as five hundred guests at a sitting, used six oxen a day at the evening meal. The oxen were not as succulent as they sound; by tradition, the meat was kept salted in vats against the possibility of a siege, and boiled in a great copper vat. Even so, enormous quantities of it were ingested and digested. On special occasions a whole stag might be roasted in the great fireplace, crisped and larded, then cut up in quarters, doused in a steaming pepper sauce, and served on outsized plates.

The hearth excepted, the home of a prosperous peasant lacked these amenities. Lying at the end of a narrow, muddy lane, his


Home of a medieval nobleman

rambling edifice of thatch, wattles, mud, and dirty brown wood was almost obscured by a towering dung heap in what, without it, would have been the front yard. The building was large, for it was more than a dwelling. Beneath its sagging roof were a pigpen, a henhouse, cattle sheds, corncribs, straw and hay, and, last and least, the family’s apartment, actually a single room whose walls and timbers were coated with soot. According to Erasmus, who examined such huts, “almost all the floors are of clay and rushes from the marshes, so carelessly renewed that the foundation sometimes remains for twenty years, harboring, there below, spittle and vomit and wine of dogs and men, beer … remnants of fishes, and other filth unnameable. Hence, with the change of weather, a vapor exhales which in my judgment is far from wholesome.”

The centerpiece of the room was a gigantic bedstead, piled high with straw pallets, all seething with vermin. Everyone slept there, regardless of age or gender—grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, and hens and pigs—and if a couple chose to enjoy intimacy, the others were aware of every movement. In summer they could even watch. If a stranger was staying the night, hospitality required that he be invited to make “one more” on the familial mattress. This was true even if the head of the household was away, on, say, a pilgrimage. If this led to goings-on, and the husband returned to discover his wife with child, her readiest reply was that during the night, while she was sleeping, she had been penetrated by an incubus. Theologians had confirmed that such monsters existed and that it was their demonic mission to impregnate lonely women lost in slumber. (Priests offered the same explanation for boys’ wet dreams.) Even if the infant bore a striking similarity to someone other than the head of the household, and tongues wagged as a result, direct accusations were rare. Cuckolds were figures of fun; a man was reluctant to identify himself as one. Of course, when unmarried girls found themselves with child and told the same tale, they met with more skepticism.

If this familial situation seems primitive, it should be borne in mind that these were prosperous peasants. Not all their neighbors were so lucky. Some lived in tiny cabins of crossed laths stuffed with grass or straw, inadequately shielded from rain, snow, and wind. They lacked even a chimney; smoke from the cabin’s fire left through a small hole in the thatched roof—where, unsurprisingly, fires frequently broke out. These homes were without glass windows or shutters; in a storm, or in frigid weather, openings in the walls could only be stuffed with straw, rags—whatever was handy. Such families envied those enjoying greater comfort, and most of all they coveted their beds. They themselves slept on thin straw pallets covered by ragged blankets. Some were without blankets. Some didn’t even have pallets.

Typically, three years of harvests could be expected for one year of famine. The years of hunger were terrible. The peasants might be forced to sell all they owned, including their pitifully inadequate clothing, and be reduced to nudity in all seasons. In the hardest times they devoured bark, roots, grass; even white clay. Cannibalism was not unknown. Strangers and travelers were waylaid and killed to be eaten, and there are tales of gallows being torn down—as many as twenty bodies would hang from a single scaffold—by men frantic to eat the warm flesh raw.

However, in the good years, when they ate, they ate. To avoid dining in the dark, there were only two meals a day—“dinner” at 10 A.M. and “supper” at 5 P.M.—but bountiful harvests meant tables which groaned. Although meat was rare on the Continent, there were often huge pork sausages, and always enormous rolls of black bread (white bread was the prerogative of the patriciate) and endless courses of soup: cabbage, watercress, and cheese soups; “dried peas and bacon water,” “poor man’s soup” from odds and ends, and during Lent, of course, fish soup. Every meal was washed down by flagons of wine in Italy and France, and, in Germany or England, ale or beer. “Small beer” was the traditional drink, though since the crusaders’ return from the East many preferred “spiced beer,” seasoned with cinnamon, resin, gentian, and juniper. Under Henry VII and Henry VIII the per capita allowance was a gallon of beer a day—even for nuns and eight-year-old children. Sir John Fortescue observed that the English “drink no water, unless at certain times upon religious score, or by way of doing penance.”


THIS MUST HAVE LED to an exceptional degree of intoxication, for people then were small. The average man stood a few inches over five feet and weighed about 135 pounds. His wife was shorter and lighter. Anyone standing several inches over six feet was considered a giant and inspired legends—Jack the Giant Killer, for example, and Jack and the Beanstalk. Folklore was rich in such violent tales, for death was their constant companion. Life expectancy was brief; half the people in Europe died, usually from disease, before reaching their thirtieth birthday. It was still true, as Richard Rolle had written earlier, that “few men now reach the age of forty, and fewer still the age of fifty.” If a man passed that milestone, his chances of reaching his late forties or his early fifties were good, though he looked much older; at forty-five his hair was as white, back as bent, and face as knurled as an octogenarian’s today. The same was true of his wife—“Old Gretel,” a woman in her thirties might be called. In longevity she was less fortunate than her husband. The toll at childbirth was appalling. A young girl’s life expectancy was twenty-four. On her wedding day, traditionally, her mother gave her a piece of fine cloth which could be made into a frock. Six or seven years later it would become her shroud.

Clothing served as a kind of uniform, designating status. Some raiment was stigmatic. Lepers were required to wear gray coats and red hats, the skirts of prostitutes had to be scarlet, public penitents wore white robes, released heretics carried crosses sewn on both sides of their chests—you were expected to pray as you passed them—and the breast of every Jew, as stipulated by law, bore a huge yellow circle. The rest of society belonged to one of the three great classes: the nobility, the clergy, and the commons. Establishing one’s social identity was important. Each man knew his place, believed it had been foreordained in heaven, and was aware that what he wore must reflect it.

To be sure, certain fashions were shared by all. Styles had changed since Greece and Rome shimmered in their glory; then garments had been wrapped on; now all classes put them on and fastened them. Most clothing—except the leather gauntlets and leggings of hunters, and the crude animal skins worn by the very poor—was now woven of wool. (Since few Europeans possessed a change of clothes, the same raiment was worn daily; as a consequence, skin diseases were astonishingly prevalent.) But there was no mistaking the distinctions between the parson in his vestments; the toiler in his dirty cloth tunic, loose trousers, and heavy boots; and the aristocrat with his jewelry, his hairdress, and his extravagant finery. Every knight wore a signet ring, and wearing fur was as much a sign of knighthood as wearing a sword or carrying a falcon. Indeed, in some European states it was illegal for anyone not nobly born to adorn himself with fur. “Many a petty noble,” wrote historian W. S. Davis, “will cling to his frayed tippet of black lambskin, even in the hottest weather, merely to prove that he is not a villein.”

Furred (and feathered) hats were favored by patricians; so were flowered robes and fancy jackets bulging at the sleeves. It was considered appropriate for the nobly born to flaunt the distinguishing marks of their sex. This had not changed since the death of Chaucer a century earlier. Chaucer himself—who as a page had worn a flaming costume with one hose red and one black—nevertheless deplored, in The Canterbury Tales, the custom of wearing trousers with codpieces over the genitalia. This flaunting of “shameful privee membres,” he wrote, by men with “horrible swollen membres that they shewe thugh disgisynge [disguise],” also made “the buttokes … as it were, the hyndre part of a sheape in the fulle of the moone.”

He was even more offended by “the outrageous array of wommen, God wot that the visages of somme of them seem ful chaste and debonaire, yet notifie they” by “the horrible disordinate scantinesse” of their dress their “likerousnesse [lecherousness] and pride.” Both sexes were advertising, not flirting, and they were certainly not bluffing; when challenged, by all accounts, they responded eagerly.


IT WAS A TIME when the social lubricants of civility, and the small but essential trivia of civilized life, were just beginning to re-emerge, phoenixlike, from the medieval ashes. Learning, like etiquette, was being rediscovered. For example, the arithmetic symbols + and − did not come back into general use until the late 1400s. Spectacles for the shortsighted were unavailable until around 1520. Lead pencils had appeared at the turn of the century, together with the first postal service (between Vienna and Brussels). However, Peter Henlein’s “Nuremberg Egg,” the first watch, said to have been invented in 1502, is now regarded as a myth. Small table clocks and watches, telling time to the hour, would not begin to appear in Italy and Germany until the last quarter of the century. Bartolomew Newsam is said to have built the first English standing clock in 1585.

In all classes, table manners were atrocious. Men behaved like boors at meals. They customarily ate with their hats on and frequently beat their wives at table, while chewing a sausage or gnawing at a bone. Their clothes and their bodies were filthy. The story was often told of the peasant in the city who, passing a lane of perfume shops, fainted at the unfamiliar sent and was revived by holding a shovel of excrement under his nose. Pocket handkerchiefs did not appear until the early 1500s, and it was midcentury before they came into general use. Event sovereigns wiped their noses on their sleeves, or, more often, on their footmen’s sleeves. Napkins were also unknown; guests were warned not to clean their teeth on the tablecloth. Guests in homes were also reminded that they should blow their noses with the hand that held the knife, not the one holding the food.

There is some dispute about when cutlery was introduced. Apparently knives were first provided by guests, who carried them in sheaths attached to their belts. According to Erasmus, decorum dictated that food be brought to the mouth with one’s fingers. The fork is mentioned in the fifteenth century, but was used then only to serve dishes. As tableware it was not laid out in the French court until 1589, though it had appeared at a Venetian ducal banquet in 1520; writing in his diary afterward, Jacques LeSaige, a French silk merchant who had been among the guests, noted with wonder: “These seigneurs, when they want to take the meat up, use a silver fork.”

There was such a thing as bad form, but it had nothing to do with manners. Any breach of rules established by the Church was a grave offense. Except for the Jews, of whom there were perhaps a million in Europe, every European was expected to venerate, above all others, the Virgin Mary—Queen of the Holy City, Lady of Heaven, la Beata Vergine, die heilige Jungfrau, la Virgen María, la Dame débonnaire—followed by her vassals, the Catholic saints, who did her liege homage. Parishioners were required to hear Mass at least once a week (for knights it was daily); to hate the Saracens and, of course, the Jews; to honor holy places and sacred objects; and to keep the major fasts.

Fasts were the greatest challenge faced by the faithful, and not all were equal to it. In one Breton village the devout affirmed their Lenten piety by joining a procession led by a priest. Afterward one marching woman, who had worn a particularly saintly expression during the parade, retired to her kitchen and elatedly broke Lent by heating, and eating, mutton and ham. The aroma drifted out the window. It was identified by passersby. Seized, she was brought before the local bishop, who sentenced her to walk the village streets until Easter, a month away, with the ham slung around her neck and the quarter of mutton, on its spit, over her shoulder. Ineluctably—and another sign of the age—a jeering mob followed her every step.


THAT WAS a relatively minor infraction. Greater crimes provoked awesome rites. A drunken, irreverent baron found himself in deep trouble after stealing the chalice of a parish church. He had been seen galloping away with it. The local bishop ordered the church bell tolled in the mournful cadence usually reserved for major funerals. The church itself was draped in black. The congregation gathered in the nave. Amid a frightful hush the prelate, surrounded by his clergymen, each carrying a lighted candle, appeared in the chancel and pronounced the name of the thief, shouting: “Let him be cursed in the city and cursed in the field; cursed in his granary, his harvest, and his children; as Dathan and Abiram were swallowed up by the gaming earth, so may hell swallow him. And even as today we quench these torches in our hands, so may the light of his life be quenched for all eternity, unless he do repent!”

As the priests flung their candles down and stamped them out, the parishioners trembled for the knight’s soul, which, they knew, had very little chance of surviving so awful an imprecation. The wayward baron was now an outlaw; every man’s hand was against him; neither lepers nor Jews were so completely isolated. This social exile was a formidable weapon, and it brought the sinner to his knees, for eventually he bought back his salvation—at a formidable price. First he donated his entire fortune to the bishop. Then he appeared at the chancel barefoot, wearing a pilgrim’s robe. For twenty-four hours he lay prostrate before the high altar, praying and fasting; then he knelt while sixty monks and priests clubbed him. As each blow fell he yelled, “Just are thy judgments, O Lord!” At last, when he lay bleeding, bones broken and senses impaired, the bishop absolved him and gave him the kiss of peace.

The punishment seems excessive. Such a chalice, not fashioned from precious metal, had little monetary value; its theft had merely been an act of petty larceny. But the medieval Church was strong on law and order, and had this felony gone unpunished, the aftermath could have led to laxity, backsliding, even mutiny. Besides, there were greater sinners than the scourged baron, and crueler penances. For them the road to atonement was literally a series of roads, to be covered, over six, ten, or even twelve years in that greatest of penances, the pilgrimage.

In instances in which pilgrims had offended God and man, their journeys were actually a substitute for prison terms. European castles had dungeons—so did the Vatican—but they couldn’t begin to hold the miscreant population. The chief legal penalty was execution. There were alternatives in lay courts—ears were cut off, tongues ripped out, eyes gouged from their sockets; the genitalia of wives who had betrayed their husbands were cauterized with white-hot tongs—but these, although extremely unpleasant, offered no hope for salvation. The violator still faced a writhing afterlife in Hades, and obviously everyone who had violated the law did not deserve that. Therefore the Church, which had its own legal system, paralleling secular courts, took over.

Offenders were ordered to shave their heads, abandon their families, fast constantly (meat only once a day), and set out barefoot for a far destination. Journey’s end varied from offender to offender. Rome was a popular choice. Some were sent all the way to Jerusalem. The general rule was the longer the distance, the greater the atonement. If of noble birth, the penitent had to wear chains on his neck and wrists forged from his own armor, a sign of how far he had fallen. Frequently the felon carried a passport, signed by a bishop, specifying his crimes in the grimmest possible detail and then asking good Christians to offer him food and lodging. From the felon’s point of view this approach may have seemed flawed, but his opinion was unsolicited. And ecclesiastical verdicts could seldom be appealed.

Some men, in their search for absolution, suffered almost unendurable ordeals. The notorious Count Fulk the Black of Anjou, whose crimes were legendary, finally realized that his immortal soul was in peril and, while miserable in the throes of his conscience, begged for divine mercy. Count Fulk had sinned for twenty years. Among other things he had murdered his wife, though this charge had been dropped on the strength of his unsupported word that he had found her rutting behind a barn with a goatherd. The court felt helpless here. Decapitation on the spot was the fate of an adulteress caught in the act; adulterers usually went free, to be dealt with by the husbands they had wronged. In this case there had been no witnesses, and the goatherd had vanished, but counts, even wicked counts, did not lie. However, quite apart from that, Fulk the Black’s catalog of crimes was a long one. He expected a heavy sentence, and that is what he got. He is said to have fainted when it was passed. Shackled, he was condemned to a triple Jerusalem pilgrimage: across most of France and Savoy, over the Alps, through the Papal States, Carinthia, Hungary, Bosnia, mountainous Serbia, Bulgaria, Constantinople, and the length of mountainous Anatolia, then down through modern Syria and Jordan to the holy city. In irons, his fleet bleeding, he made this round trip three times—15,300 miles—and the last time he was dragged through the streets on a hurdle while two well-muscled men lashed his naked back with bullwhips.


THE COUNT could have asked, though he didn’t, what all this misery had to do with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact it had nothing to do with them. The distinction between devotion and superstition has always been unclear, but there was little blurring here. Although they called themselves Christians, medieval Europeans were ignorant of the Gospels. The Bible existed only in a language they could not read. The mumbled incantations at Mass were meaningless to them. They believed in sorcery, witchcraft, hobgoblins, werewolves, amulets, and black magic, and were thus indistinguishable from pagans. If a lady died, the instant her breath stopped servants ran through the manor house, emptying every container of water to prevent her soul from drowning, and before her funeral the corpse was carefully watched to prevent any dog or cat from running across the coffin, thus changing her remains into a vampire. Meantime her lord, praying for her salvation, was lying prostrate, his head turned eastward and his arms stretched out, forming a cross. Nothing in the New Testament supported such delusions and rituals; nevertheless the precautions were taken—with the blessings of the clergy. In monastic manuscripts one repeatedly finds such entries as: “Common report has it that Antichrist has been born at Babylon and that the Day of Judgment is nigh.” The alarm was spread so often that the peasants ignored it; on the Sabbath, after an early Mass, they would gossip, dance, sing, wrestle, race, and compete in archery contests until evening shadows deepened. There was hell enough on earth for them; they were too drained to ponder the risks of another world.

Nevertheless in pensive moments they worried. Should the left eye of a corpse not close properly, they knew, the departed would soon have company in purgatory. If a man donned a clean white shirt on a Friday, or saw a shooting star, or a will-o’-the-wisp in the marshes, or a vulture hovering over his home, his death was very near. Similarly, a woman stupid enough to wash clothes during Holy Week would soon be in her grave. Should thirteen people be so thoughtless as to sup at one table, one of those present would not be there for tomorrow morning’s meal; if a wolf howled through the night, one who heard him would disappear before dawn. Comets and eclipses were sinister. Everyone knew that an enormous comet had been sighted in July 1198 and Richard the Lion-Hearted had died “very soon after.” (In fact he did not die until April 6, 1199.)

Everyone also knew—and every child was taught—that the air all around them was infested with invisible, soulless spirits, some benign but most of them evil, dangerous, long-lived, and hard to kill; that among them were the souls of unbaptized infants, ghouls who snuffled out cadavers in graveyards and chewed their bones, water nymphs skilled at luring knights to death by drowning, dracs who carried little children off to their caves beneath the earth, wolfmen—the undead turned into ravenous beasts—and vampires who rose from their tombs at dusk to suck the blood of men, women, or children who had strayed from home. At any moment, under any circumstances, a person could be removed from the world of the senses to a realm of magic creatures and occult powers. Every natural object possessed supernatural qualities. Books interpreting dreams were highly popular.

The stars were known to be guided by angels, and physicians were constantly consulting astrologers and theologians. Doctors diagnosing illnesses were influenced by the constellation under which the patient had been born or taken sick; thus the eminent surgeon Guy de Chauliac wrote: “If anyone is wounded in the neck when the moon is at Taurus, the affliction will be dangerous.” Thousands of pitiful people disfigured by swollen lymph nodes in their necks mobbed the kings of England and France, believing that their scrofula could be cured by the touch of a royal hand. One document from the period is a calendar, published at Mainz, which designates the best astrological times for bloodletting. Epidemics were attributed to unfortunate configurations of the stars. Now and then a quack was unmasked; in London one Roger Clerk, who had pretended to cure ailments with spurious charms, was sentenced to ride through the city with urinals hanging from his neck. But others, equally bogus, lived out their lives unchallenged.

Scholars as eminent as Erasmus and Sir Thomas More accepted the existence of witchcraft. Conspicuous fakes excepted, the Church encouraged superstitions, recommended trust in faith healers, and spread tales of satyrs, incubi, sirens, cyclops, tritons, and giants, explaining that all were manifestations of Satan. The Prince of Darkness, it taught, was as real as the Holy Trinity. Certainly belief in him was useful; prelates agreed that when it came to keeping the masses on the straight and narrow, fear of the devil was a stronger force than the love of God. Great shows were made of exorcisms. The story spread across the continent of how the fiend entered a man’s body and croaked blasphemy through his mouth until a priest, following a magic rite, recited an incantation. The devil, foiled, screamed horribly and fled.

The ecclesiastical hierarchy, through its priests and monks, repeatedly affirmed the legitimacy of specific miracles. Unshriven sinners were not the only pilgrims on Europe’s roads. In fact, they were a minority. The majority were simple people, identifiable by their brown wool robes, heavy staffs, and sacks slung from their belts. Their motivation was simple devotion, often concern for a recently departed relative now in purgatory. Although filthy and untidy, they were rarely abused; few wanted to lose the scriptural blessing reserved for those who, having shown kindness to a stranger, had “entertained angels unawares.”

Pilgrims headed for over a thousand shrines whose miracles had been recognized by Rome. There was Our Lady of Chartres, Our Lady of the Rose at Lucca, Our Guardian Lady in Genoa, and other Our Ladies at Le Puy, Auray, Grenoble, Valenciennes, Liesse, Rocamadour, Ossier. … It went on and on. One popular destination was the tomb of Pierre de Luxembourg, a cardinal who had died, aged eighteen, of anorexia; within fifteen months of his death 1,964 miracles were credited to the magic he had left in his bones. Some saints were regarded as medical specialists; victims of cholera headed for a chapel of Saint Vitus, who was believed to be particularly efficacious for that disease.

But nothing could compete with the two star attractions: scenes actually visited by the savior himself and spectacular phenomena confirmed by the Vatican. At Santa Maria Maggiore, people were told, they could see the actual manger where Christ was born, or, at St. John Lateran, the holy steps Jesus ascended while wearing his crown of thorns, or, at St. Peter in Montorio, the place where Peter was martyred by Nero. Englishmen believed that the venerable abbot of St. Germer need only bless a fountain and lo! its waters would heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, and make the dumb speak. Once, according to pilgrims, the abbot had visited a village parched for lack of water. He led the peasants into the church, and, as they watched, smote a stone with his staff. Behold! Water gushed forth, not only to slake thirsts but also possessing miraculous powers to cure all pain and illness.


TRAVEL WAS slow, expensive, uncomfortable—and perilous. It was slowest for those who rode in coaches, faster for walkers, and fastest for horsemen, who were few because of the need to change and stable steeds. The expenses chiefly arose from the countless tolls, the discomfort from a score of irritants. Bridges spanning rivers were shaky (priests recommended that before crossing them travelers commend themselves to God); other streams had to be forded; the roads were deplorable—mostly trails and muddy ruts, impassable, except in summer, by two-wheeled carts—and nights en route had to be spent in Europe’s wretched inns. These were unsanitary places, the beds wedged against one another, blankets crawling with roaches, rats, and fleas; whores plied their trade and then slipped away with a man’s money, and innkeepers seized guests’ baggage on the pretext that they had not paid.

The peril came from highwaymen, whose mythic joys and miseries were celebrated by the Parisian François Villon. In reality there was nothing attractive about these criminals in the woods. They were pitiless thieves, kidnappers, and killers, and they flourished because they were so seldom pursued. Between towns the traveler was on his own. Except in a few places like Castile, where roads were patrolled by the archers of the Santa Hermandad, no policemen were stationed in the open country. Outlaws had always lurked in the woods, but their menace had increased as their ranks were thickened by impoverished knights returning from the illstarred crusades, demobilized veterans of various foreign campaigns, and, in England, renegades from the recent War of the Roses. Sometimes these brigands traveled in roving gangs, waiting to ambush strangers; sometimes they stood by the road disguised as beggars or pilgrims, knives at the ready. Even gallant seigneurs declined responsibility for travelers passing through their lands at night, and many a less-principled sire was either a bandit himself or an accomplice of outlaws, overlooking their outrages provided they hold important personages harmless and present him with lavish gifts at Christmas.

Therefore honest travelers carried well-honed daggers, knowing they might have to kill and hoping they would have the stomach for it. Wayfarers from different lands usually banded together, seeking collective security, though they often excluded Englishmen, who in that age were distrusted, suspected of petty thefts, regarded by seamen as pirates, and notorious for the false weights and shoddy goods of their merchants. Even Britons like Chaucer, who denounced greed, were themselves greedy. Their women were unwelcome for another reason. They were so foul-mouthed that Joan of Arc always referred to them as “the Goddams.” And the English of both sexes were known, even then, for their insolence. In 1500 the Venetian ambassador to London reported to his government that his hosts were “great lovers of themselves, and of everything belonging to them; they think there are no other men than themselves, and no other country but England; and whenever they see a handsome foreigner they say that ‘he looks like an Englishman,’ and that it is a great pity that he is not one.”

Doubtless the same thing could be said, mutatis mutandis, of other people, but Englishmen, aware of their reputation, always went abroad heavily armed—unless they were rich. Surrounded by bands of knights in full armor, wealthy Europeans traveled in painted, gilded, carved, and curtained horse-drawn coaches. They knew they were marks for thieves, and never left their fiefs to visit cities, or attend the great August fairs, unless heavily guarded.


A YORKSHIRE gravestone bears this inscription:

Hear underneath dis laihl stean

las Robert earl of Huntingtun

neer arcir yer az hie sa geud

And pipl kauld in Robin Heud

sick utlawz as he an iz men

il england nivr si agen

Obiit 24 kal Decembris 1247

Robin Hood lived; this marker confirms it, just as the Easter tables attest to the existence of the great Arthur. But that is all the tombstone does. Everything we know about that period suggests that Robin was merely another wellborn cutthroat who hid in shrubbery by roadsides, waiting to rob helpless wayfarers. The possibility that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor is, like the tale of that other cold-blooded rogue, Jesse James, highly unlikely. Even unlikelier is the conceit that Robin Hood, aka Heud, was accompanied by a bedmate called Maid Marian, a giant known as Little John, and a lapsed Catholic named Friar Tuck. Almost certainly they were creatures of an ingenious folk imagination, and their contemporary, the sheriff of Nottingham, is probably the most libeled law enforcement officer in this millennium.

The more we study those remote centuries, the unlikelier such legends become. Later mythmakers invested the Middle Ages with a bogus aura of romance. The Pied Piper of Hamelin is an example. He was a real man, but there was nothing enchanting about him. Quite the opposite; he was horrible, a pyschopath and pederast who, on June 20, 1484, spirited away 130 children in the Saxon village of Hammel and used them in unspeakable ways. Accounts of the aftermath vary. According to some, his victims were never seen again; others told of dismembered little bodies found scattered in the forest underbrush or festooning the branches of trees.

The most imaginative cluster of fables appeared in print the year after the Piper’s mass murders, when William Caxton published Sir Thomas Malory’s Le morte d’Arthur. Later, bowdlerized versions of this great work have obscured the fact that Malory, contemplating medieval morality, seldom wore blinders. He had no illusions about his heroine when he wrote: “There syr Launcelot toke the Fayrest Ladie by the hand, and she was naked as a nedel.” Some of his characters may actually have existed. For over a thousand years villagers in remote parts of Wales have called an adulteress “a regular Guinevere.” But Launcelot du Lac is entirely fictitious, and given the colossal time sprawl of the Middle Ages, it is highly unlikely that Guinevere, if indeed she lived, even shared the same century with Arthur.


WE KNOW LITTLE of the circumstances under which Magellan and his Beatriz were married in 1517, but if they were united by transcendental love, they were an odd couple. It is true that a young archduke in Vienna’s imperial court had introduced the diamond ring as a sign of engagement forty years earlier, but its vogue had been confined to the patriciate, and even there it had found little favor. Typically, news of an imminent marriage spread when the pregnancy of the bride-elect began to show. If she had been particularly user-friendly, raising genuine doubts about the child’s paternity, those who had enjoyed her favors drew straws. “Virginity,” one historian of the period writes, “had to be protected by every device of custom, morals, law, religion, paternal authority, pedagogy, and ‘point of honor’; yet somehow it managed to get lost.”

No one was actually scandalized; the normal, eternal reproductive instincts were merely asserting themselves. But such random matrimony disappointed parents; a girl’s wedding was the pivotal event in her life, and its economic implications—the ceremony was among other things a merging of belongings—concerned both families. The tradition of arranged marriages, sensibly conceived, was obviously crumbling. Commentators of the time, believing that the old way was best, were troubled. In his Colloquia familiaria(Colloquies) Erasmus recommended that youths let fathers choose their brides and trust that love would grow as acquaintance ripened. Even Rabelais agreed in Le cinquiesme et dernier livre. Couples who kicked over the traces were reproached in The Schole-master by Roger Ascham, tutor to England’s royal family. Ascham bitterly regretted that “our time is so far gone from the old discipline and obedience as now not only young gentlemen but even very young girls dare … marry themselves in spite of father, mother, God, good order, and all.” At the University of Wittenberg, Martin Luther, dismayed that the son of a faculty colleague had plighted his troth without consulting his father—and that a young judge had found the vow legal—thought the reputation of the institution was being tarnished. He wrote: “Many parents have ordered their sons home … saying that we hang wives around their necks. … The next Sunday I preached a strong sermon, telling men to follow the common road and manner which had been since the beginning of the world … namely, that parents should give their children to each other with prudence and good will, without their own preliminary arrangement.”

Females could marry—legally, with or without parental consent—when they reached their twelfth birthday. The age for males was fourteen. Even before she had reached her teens, a girl knew that unless she married before she was twenty-one, society would consider her useless, fit only for the nunnery, or, in England, the spinning wheel (a “spinster”). Hence the yearning of female adolescents for the altar. Getting pregnant was one way to reach it. On Sundays, under watchful parental eyes, girls would dress modestly and be demure in church, but on weekdays they opened their blouses, hiked their skirts, and romped through the fields in pursuit of phalli.

Another five centuries would pass before young women would be so open in their pursuit of sex. In Wittenberg Luther complained that “the race of girls is getting bold, and run after the fellows into their rooms and chambers and wherever they can and offer them their free love.” Later he fumed that young women had become “immodest, shameless. … The young people of today are utterly dissolute and disorderly. … The women and girls of Wittenberg have begun to go bare before and behind, and there is no one to punish or correct them.” If the lover of a soon-to-be unwed mother decided he was not ready for marriage, her cause was not necessarily lost; often an attractive girl with a fatherless child and a long record of indiscretions could find a respectable peasant willing to take her to the altar.

In this lusty age the most a parent could extract from a daughter was her promise not to yield until the banns had been read. Once a couple was engaged, they slept together with society’s approval. If a peasant girl was not pregnant, there were only two practical deterrents to her acceptance of a marriage proposal. It was her desire either to enter a convent or, at the far end of the spectrum, to join the world’s oldest profession. Harlotry not only paid well; it was frequently prestigious. Because prostitutes had to expose their entire bodies, they were the cleanest people in Europe. The competition was fierce, but it always had been, and once established, these women became what were now being called courtesans (from the Italian courtigiane), or female courtiers. Moves to suppress them were rare and unpopular; Luther lost many followers when, though affirming the normality of sexual desire, he proclaimed that the sale of sex was wrong and persuaded several German cities to outlaw it.


GREAT RENAISSANCE ARTISTS flourished while lesser talents actually starved in garrets; but the highly profitable production of erotica, including salacious illustrations, kept many men well fed. Their work was available at every fair and in all large cities, sold by postmen, strolling musicians, and street hawkers. The dissolute Pietro Aretino’s Sonetti lussuriosi (Lewd Sonnets) was as popular in Augsburg and Paris—and, when Clement VII became pope, in the Vatican—as in the poet’s own Venice. After Aretino’s expulsion from Rome he was thought to have explored the outer limits of propriety. Then François Rabelais, a priest, published his Gargantua epic, using gutter language which shocked Aretino but outsold the Sonetti. As happens from time to time, permissiveness was eclipsing faith. Some pornographic books were used as howto sex manuals. And sometimes a community would treat the most wanton behavior as normal. Witch-hunting being a popular sport of the age, from time to time suspicious nocturnal gatherings would be reported to the authorities. In each case, chronicles of the time attest—with obvious relief—those assembled had been engaging in an even more popular pastime. Their meetings, according to a historian of the period, were “excuses for promiscuous sexual relations, and for initiating young people in the arts of debauchery.”

Sex among the nobility was complicated by more intricate property transactions. Looking to future generations and plotting bluer bloodlines, patricians usually arranged betrothals for their sons and daughters shortly after their seventh birthdays. There were instances in which this was done when they were as young as three. These alliances could later be annulled, provided they had not been consummated, but unless strong steps were taken, consummation naturally began shortly after the parties reached puberty, opportunity and temptation being, as always, the prime requisites for coitus. Because these couples had not married for love, triangular entanglements came later. Since divorce was forbidden by the Church, adultery was an obvious solution, usually with the consent of both spouses.

Bohemian artists scorned monogamy, and the aristocracy agreed with them. To the ladies in the Nérac court of Marguerite of Angoulême, queen of the independent medieval kingdom of Navarre and the sister of France’s King Francis I, extramarital sex was considered almost obligatory. Those wives in the noblesse d’épée who remained faithful to their husbands were mocked by the others. To abstain from the pleasures of adultery was almost a breach of etiquette, like failing to curtsy before royalty. Some of Marguerite’s remarks at the baths of Cauterets have survived. At a time when “love” was a synonym for casual sex, one young madame la vicomtesse asked her, “You mean to say, then, that all is lawful to those who love, provided no one knows?” The reply was, “Yes, in truth, it is only fools who are found out.” Marguerite never mentioned any intrigue of her own. As a patron of humanists and an author in her own right, she was one of the outstanding figures of the French Renaissance, and was far too shrewd to risk weakening her influence. Besides, women who dropped names were not invited back to Nérac; they had compromised their lovers, thereby eliminating them as candidates for future dalliance. However, according to Seigneur de Brantôme’s Les vies des dames galantes, Marguerite did advise the young comtesses and marquesas around her to take their marriage vows lightly: “Unhappy the lady who does not preserve the treasure which does her so much honor when well kept, and so much dishonor when she continues to keep it.” Rabelais, enchanted, set aside his misogyny and dedicated Gargantua to her.

By the time they had mastered the sophisticated techniques of seduction, mature lords and ladies were unafflicted by pangs of conscience. However, their youthful married children did not lightly break a solemn, unambiguous commandment, even though many a petit seigneur must have been aware of his parents’ intrigues. The first lapses of the youthful, once one of them had been attracted to a third party, were made easier by the elaborate embroidery of romantic love, now popular. Aware that infidelity was sinful, young men and women who were married, but not to one another, forswore sex. Sublimated courtship followed. The infatuated couple exchanged gifts, lays, madrigals, sonnets, odes, billets-doux, meaningful glances, and met, their hearts pounding, in secluded trysts. Their platonic fiction was encouraged by Baldassare Castiglione’s Il cortegiano, the arbiter of aristocratic manners during the Renaissance. Castiglione assured them that although they aroused one another’s passions, they could remain just friends, scrupulously chaste. Of course, they couldn’t. Il cortegiano was a fraudulent work, its author a civilized pied piper. The period was not one of restraint; boys were sexually aggressive, and girls liked them so. Both wrote poetry, but their object was mutual possession; in the end he always settled in between her thighs.


LUBRICITY FLOURISHED in all its various forms. “Sodomy was frequent,” a chronicler observes; “prostitution was general, and adultery was almost universal.” Contemporary records suggest that extramarital sex was most flagrant in France. Although wives were committing a capital offense, “illicit love affairs,” a historian writes, “were part of the normal life of French women of good standing.” Yet it appears to have been no different in England, where, historian James Froude later wrote, “private life was infected with impurity to which the licentiousness of the Catholic clergy appeared like innocence”—which, as we shall see, was saying a great deal. “There reigned abundantly,” Raphael Holinshed noted in his chronicle, “the filthie sin of lechery and fornication, with abominable adulteries, speciallie in the king.”

Holinshed probably had Edward VI in mind, but a number of other monarchs could have fallen under the same indictment. One of Edward’s predecessors took Jane Shore, a commoner, as his favorite mistress, and in that role she served as a friend at court for many good Englishmen in need of royal favors. Across the Channel Francis I (r. 1515–1547), le roi grand nez—a long nose was thought to signify virility, and he had both—seemed bent on outperforming Don Juan. Francis’s most memorable royal concubines were Françoise de Foix, comtesse de Chateaubriant, and Anne de Pisselieu, whom he created duchesse d’Étampes. But he always had other irons, so to speak, in the fire. According to one legend, he invested Milan, not to take the city, but to pursue a pair of lovely eyes he had once glimpsed there. In France his exercise of his droit du seigneur was not as popular as he assumed it to be. The husband of la belle Ferroniere, a lawyer’s wife who had been chosen to share the royal bed, deliberately infected himself with syphilis and gave it to her so that she might pass it along to the king. Still another mistress-in-waiting disfigured herself in the hope that Francis would find her too repulsive to mount. It didn’t work. She had been under the impression that the king was interested in her face.

These two, however, were exceptional. Most young Frenchwomen are said to have been delighted when conscripted to receive the king in all his manly glory, and in their appearances at court they competed for his attention. Opening their bodices, they displayed swelling bosoms down to, and sometimes below, their nipples (unless the bosoms were inadequate, in which case padding had been inserted under the stays). Their backs had been cut down to the last vertebra, sleeves billowed, gowns were pinched at the waist and tightened under the breasts, hidden wires spread out the skirt, and high heels gave each hopeful candidate a prancing, sexy


King Francis I of France (1494–1547)

walk. In his last years Francis moved to Fontainebleau and surrounded himself with what he called his petite bande of lovely maidens, whom he deflowered while watched by those waiting their turn. On his deathbed, where he finally slept alone, he summoned his sole heir and warned him not to be dominated by a woman. But the youth, who ascended to the throne as Henry II, had already established the format of his domestic life. France would be ruled by a ménage à trois: the king himself; his queen, Catherine de’ Medici, whose parents had died of syphilis three weeks after her birth; and the king’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers.

Various reasons have been advanced to explain why, as medieval shadows receded, European morals declined. This much seems certain: behavior had become so abandoned that family ties were loosened; impudicity threatened to overflow the channels within which the institution of marriage sought to confine it, if only for the sake of the social order. To be sure, there were laws against lascivious behavior, but governments lacked both the manpower and the will. In such times they generally do. Divorce, which might have brought the problem under control, was rejected by all authorities. The pope, Luther, Henry VIII, and Erasmus agreed that bigamy was preferable to divorce. After the great split in Christendom, Protestant theologians moved hesitantly toward the acceptance of divorce, but only in the case of adultery. “Probably the basic cause in the moral loosening in Western Europe,” a modern historian argues, “was the growth of wealth.” Nevertheless, the religious revolution played a role. There were no theological villains here. Martin Luther agreed that depravity increased in his Protestant congregations after the Reformation, but lechery and sexual license had also run amok in Catholic Spain and Catholic Italy, and Francis, whatever his private sympathies, ruled a Catholic France. Yet the shocking attacks on Rome and by Rome clearly led to a decline of respect for all vows and inhibitions. “Nobody cares about either heaven or hell,” wrote Andreas Musculus, a Lutheran preacher, sadly; “nobody gives a thought to either God or the Devil.” That was true, however, only during the transition from one Church to many churches. Then conservatives on all sides restored moral discipline, and patricians were persuaded to set an example. Indeed, in the case of some sects—Calvinism, for example—reforms became so excessive that ardent spirits of both sexes looked back with secret envy to the exuberant, orgasmic laxity of the past.


BUT THAT CAME later. During the early sixteenth century lust, and particularly noble lust, seethed throughout Europe. In France this was the age of Rabelais, and across the Channel the lords and ladies of Tudor England were establishing a tradition of aristocratic promiscuity which would continue in the centuries ahead. Yet Rome, the capital of Christendom, was the capital of sin, and the sinners included most of the Roman patriciate. Among the holy city’s great families, each of which was represented in the sacred College of Cardinals, were the nouveau riche Delia Roveres, whose cupidity matched their enthusiasm for illicit public coupling in all its permutations. They occupied the epicenter of Roman society. Two Delia Roveres became popes (Sixtus IV and his nephew Julius II), their names were on every guest list, and if an invitation to their satyrical parties was ever refused, the fact is unrecorded.

They had not, however, been pacesetters. That questionable distinction belongs to the notorious Borgias. So many bizarre stories have been handed down about this hot-blooded Spanish family that it is impossible, after five centuries, to know where the line of credibility should be drawn. Much of what we have is simply what was accepted as fact at the time. However, a substantial part of the legend was documented—enough to set it down here with confidence that, however extraordinary it may seem now, what was believed then was, in the main, undoubtedly true. The tale is a long one. The Borgias had been acting scandalously at least two generations before Giuliano Cardinal della Rovere, taking the name Pope Julius II, assumed the chair of Saint Peter in October 1503. He was lucky to have lived that long. Ten years earlier, when the papal tiara had been placed on the brow of his great rival, Alexander VI, the Borgia pope, Alexander had plotted Cardinal della Rovere’s assassination. At the last moment Giuliano had eluded the cutthroats by fleeing to France. Then he—himself a future Vicar of Christ—had taken up arms against the papacy.

The Borgia name had become notorious a half-century earlier, when the reigning pontiff was Pius II. Pius was hardly a prig —as Bishop Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini he had fathered several children by various mistresses—but when elected pontiff he had put all that behind him, telling his court, “Forget Aeneas; look at Pius.” In 1460 he himself had been watching twenty-nine-year-old Cardinal Borgia—the future Alexander—in Siena. Troubled by what he saw there, he sent Borgia a sharply worded letter, rebuking him for a wild party the prelate had thrown. During the festivities, Pius dryly observed, “none of the allurements of love was lacking.” He further noted that the guest list had been odd.


Pope Julius II (1443–1513)

Siena’s most beautiful young women had been invited, but their “husbands, fathers, and brothers” had been excluded.

In the context of that place and time, this was ominous. It could only have been done, as Pius II wrote, “in order that lust be unrestrained.” Women were accustomed to doing what men told them to do. Lacking the protection of any males in her family, and intimidated by a formidable cardinal, a girl was unlikely to survive an evening with her maidenhood intact. The mature woman guest would feel free to ignore the proprieties, particularly when that course was being urged upon her by a prince of the Church.

Pius warned that “disgrace” and “contempt” would be the lot of any Christ’s vicar who “seems to tolerate these actions.” So, eventually, it was, but Pius was in his grave four years after the Siena orgy, and a century would pass before another pontiff agreed with him. All the Holy Fathers of Magellan’s time were uninhibited, but the Borgia pope and his remarkable children symbolize a time, a mood, and an obsession which, after five centuries, is still fascinating. The reaction against it contributed to one of those seismic jolts which history rarely notes more than once every thousand years.


RODRIGO LANZOL Y BORGIA, to give him his full name—it was Borja y Doms in Spain—had been elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope Calixtus III, his uncle. That was in 1456. No sooner had he donned his red hat than he had removed it, together with the rest of his raiment, for a marathon romp with a succession of women whose identity is unknown to us and may well have been unknown to him.

This performance produced a son and two daughters, who were later joined, when he was in his forties, by another daughter and three more sons. We know the putative mother of this second family. She was Rosa Vannozza dei Catanei, the precocious child of one of his favorite mistresses. Roman lore has it that he was coupling with the older woman when he was distracted by the sight of her adolescent daughter lying beside them, naked, thighs yawning wide, matching her mother thrust for pelvic thrust, but with a rhythmic rotation of the hips which so intrigued the cardinal that he switched partners in midstroke.

Borgia’s enjoyment of the flesh was enhanced when the woman beneath him was married, particularly if he had presided at her wedding. Breaking any commandment excited him, but he was partial to the seventh. As priest he married Rosa to two men. She may actually have slept with her husbands from time to time—since Borgia always kept a stable of women, she was allowed an occasional night off to indulge her own sexual preferences—but her duties lay in his eminence’s bed. Then, at the age of fifty-nine, he yearned for a more nubile partner. His parting with Rosa was affectionate. Later he even gave her a little gift—he made her brother a cardinal. Meantime he had chosen her successor, the


Alexander VI, the Borgia pope (1431–1503)

breathtakingly lovely, nineteen-year-old Giulia Farnese, who in the words of one contemporary was “una bella cosa a vedere”—“a beautiful thing to see.” Again, as priest, he arranged a wedding in the chapel of one of his family palaces. After he had pronounced Giulia and a youthful member of the Orsini family man and wife, Signor Orsini was told his presence was required elsewhere. Then Signora Orsini, wearing her bridal gown, was led to the sparkling gilt-and-sky-blue bedchamber of the cardinal, her senior by forty years. A maid removed the gown and, for some obscure reason, carefully put it away. She cannot have thought that Giulia would want to keep it for sentimental reasons, for thenceforth Borgia’s


Giulia Farnese (d. 1524)

new bedmate was known throughout Italy as sposa di Cristo, the bride of Christ.

Once he became Pope Alexander VI, Vatican parties, already wild, grew wilder. They were costly, but he could afford the lifestyle of a Renaissance prince; as vice chancellor of the Roman Church, he had amassed enormous wealth. As guests approached the papal palace, they were excited by the spectacle of living statues: naked, gilded young men and women in erotic poses. Flags bore the Borgia arms, which, appropriately, portrayed a red bull rampant on a field of gold. Every fete had a theme. One, known to Romans as the Ballet of the Chestnuts, was held on October 30, 1501. The indefatigable Burchard describes it in his Diarium. After the banquet dishes had been cleared away, the city’s fifty most beautiful whores danced with guests, “first clothed, then naked.” The dancing over, the “ballet” began, with the pope and two of his children in the best seats.

Candelabra were set up on the floor; scattered among them were chestnuts, “which,” Burchard writes, “the courtesans had to pick up, crawling between the candles.” Then the serious sex started. Guests stripped and ran out on the floor, where they mounted, or were mounted by, the prostitutes. “The coupling took place,” according to Burchard, “in front of everyone present.” Servants kept score of each man’s orgasms, for the pope greatly admired virility and measured a man’s machismo by his ejaculative capacity. After everyone was exhausted, His Holiness distributed prizes—cloaks, boots, caps, and fine silken tunics. The winners, the diarist wrote, were those “who made love with those courtesans the greatest number of times.”

Despite the unquestioned depravity of Alexander, the most intriguing figure in the carnal history of the time was one of the pope’s four children by Vannozza dei Catanei. Born in 1480, the Lucrezia Borgia who has come down to us is an admixture of myth, fable, and incontestable fact. It is quite possible that she was, to some degree, a victim of misogynic slander. The medieval Church saw woman as Eva rediviva, the temptress responsible for Adam’s fall, and the illegitimate daughter of a pope may have been an irresistible target for gossip, particularly when she was physically attractive. To this day her reputation is controversial. According to the Cambridge Modern History, “Nothing could be less like the real Lucrezia than the Lucrezia of the dramatists and romancers.” Historians disagree, however, over what the real Lucrezia was like. There is certainly evidence that in at least some respects she was what she was thought to have been, but only a few documents are extant. Although these are shocking, we are largely dependent upon what her contemporaries thought of her. It was not flattering. Even Rachel Erlanger, one of her more sympathetic biographers, agrees that she had “a sinister reputation” for “incredible moral laxity.”

Yet it was obvious that there was more to Madonna Lucrezia, as the Vatican court called her, than her celebrated sexuality. Fluent in Tuscan, French, and Spanish, she read classical Greek and Latin, had been educated in manners and style, could engage in lengthy learned discussions, and was an accomplished poet. It seems equally clear that she was vulnerable; beginning in her childhood she had been enveloped in her father’s love, and she suffered from an almost fatal compulsion to please. By all accounts she was exceptionally comely. A contemporary described her as “a woman of great loveliness.” That was women’s impression of her. Men thought her ravishing.

Under the supervision of Giulia Farnese, her father’s mistress, she devoted herself to what Jakob Burckhardt, the nineteenth-century Swiss historian, called Italy’s “national pastime for external display.” In her youth she was called dolce ciera (sweet face) because of her innocent expression. Bernadino di Betto di Biago (Pinturicchio) captured that artlessness in his portrait of her, painted in her early teens, and the debauchery and lewd excesses which followed do not seem to have altered it. Her most spectacular feature was her long golden hair, which reached to her feet. To enhance its beauty, she washed it using a formula set out in Esperimenti, a book compiled by Caterina Sforza. This was a diluted solution of honey, black sulfur, and alum. It was reported to guarantee a shade called filo d’oro.

Lucrezia was said to have inherited her father’s lustiness at an early age, and her tales of her orgasmic exploits had made her a Roman legend long before she became, at the age of twenty-one, the duchess of Ferrara. By her seventeenth birthday, she was wise beyond her years. This was perhaps inevitable. Her holy and biological father used her beauty and her sexual appetite as pawns. Papal politics made strange bedfellows for Alexander’s daughter. He had wed her to her first husband, Giovanni Sforza, lord of Pesaro and a member of a powerful Milanese family, when she was thirteen and he was negotiating against the Aragonese dynasty of Naples. Then, using his powers of annulment, he moved her from one marriage to another, depending upon which alliance he was forming.

Left to her own devices in the palazzo of Santa Maria in Portico, built near the Vatican by Battista Cardinal Zeno, she is reported


Lucrezia Borgia (1480–1519)

to have spent her time between marriages making an obsessive study of dalliance, seeking to expand the outer limits of lewd pleasure. All the situations, positions, and groupings of participants found in pornographic books and films have been attributed to Lucrezia’s lustful imagination. But there must have been more to it than that. The men around her were dissolute. Knowing that they regarded her as a sex object, and wanting to be what they wanted her to be, she may have cultivated debasement. To the degree to which that is true, the consequences for the men in her immediate family—her father and two brothers — were to be both profound and sensational.


ONLY CESARE BORGIA (1475–1507) could have been fit, or unfit, to be Lucrezia’s most notorious brother—Cesare, the handsome cardinal who became a multiple murderer while wearing the robes of a prince of the Church. His homicidal career began in his youth and continued to the day he himself was slain in a skirmish outside Viana. Yet—and here he was very much a figure of his time—Cesare was no brute. Dapper, eloquent, and even more erudite than his sister, he was a master of the cruel, perfidious politics of his time—was, in fact, the model for Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il principe. Machiavelli could not approve of Cesare, but he found him fascinating. And so he was, though the qualities that made him so were hardly endearing.

The circumstances surrounding the death of his elder brother, Juan, duke of Gandía, are the murkiest in the annals of his sinister family, and impossible to confirm. If what was believed then is true, they are also the most sordid. The crime began with Alexander himself. In 1497, the pope, manipulating his daughter in his remarkable fashion, decided to divorce her from Sforza. Knowing his father-in-law, Lucrezia’s first husand fled Rome, fearing for his life. In Milan, however, he seethed. The pope had publicly called him impotent. That being a grave insult in Italy, Sforza—who later fathered children—shouted out what all Rome suspected but none had dared whisper: that the Borgia pope’s real motive was incestuous, that he wanted his captivating daughter, not remarried, but active in his own bed.

Even for those times, this was scandalous. The rejected husband’s family was powerful enough to protect him, which made the pontiff’s position extremely awkward. If he kept Lucrezia near the Vatican and discouraged suitors, no one in Rome would doubt that he was spending his nights in her bed; that was consistent with both his reputation and hers. Intimations of lecherous desire on his part were accurate. His daughter had just turned seventeen and was at the height of her beauty. We now know that he was, in fact, her lover. Whether or not that was known in Milan is another question. In any event, he didn’t brave it out, which would have been in character; instead he hastily prepared to find a new, politically suitable husband for her.


Cesare Borgia (1475–1507)

Here, however, the tale darkens. Romans had scarcely absorbed the news that the father lusted for his daughter when they heard even more shocking gossip. Lucrezia was said to be unavailable to her father because she was already deeply involved in another incestuous relationship, or relationships—a triangular entanglement with both her handsome brothers. The difficulty, it was whispered, was that although she enjoyed coupling with both of them, each, jealous of the other, wanted his sister for himself.

On the morning of June 15, 1497, Juan’s corpse was found floating in the Tiber mutilated by nine savage dagger wounds. Cesare’s guilt was immediately assumed—he was a killer, and known to be jealous of his brother for other reasons—and the longer the mystery remained unsolved, the more certain his guilt seemed. History may take another view; Juan, like all Borgias, had other enemies. But myth has a significance all its own. At the time, the only Borgia to emerge unscathed was Lucrezia, whose reputation, by then, was beyond redemption.

It touched bottom with the birth of her illegitimate son Giovanni, the so-called Infans Romanus, when she was eighteen. She had conceived the child between marriages, during intercourse with either her father or her surviving brother. We know she had caught the seed of one of them because the pope, deciding to legitimatize his daughter’s child, issued two extraordinary bulls September 1, 1501. The first, which was made public, identified the three-year-old boy as the offspring of Cesare and an unmarried woman (“coniugato genitus et soluta”). Using Cesare’s name permitted Alexander to evade canonical law, which would have prevented him from recognizing a bastard child fathered by him during his pontificate. The second, secret bull acknowledged Giovanni to be the son of the pope and the same woman (“… non de praefato duce, sed de nobis et de dicta muliere”).

Alexander had named the boy a duke and awarded him the duchy of Nepi and Camerino. It is possible that he had accepted paternity to prevent Cesare from getting his hands on the duchy lands, though historian Giuseppe Portigliotti has suggested another reason for the two bulls—that Lucrezia herself, engaging in double incest, may not have known which of her two lovers was the child’s father. Rome assumed that the Holy Father was. Actually, the Borgias would have preferred that the public be unaware of Giovanni’s existence, and while he was still a fetus plans had been made along those lines. Before Lucrezia had begun to show, she had entered the Convent of San Sisto on the Via Appia, expecting to wait out her pregnancy as a nun. It was impossible. Instead of her finding anonymity in the nunnery, the nunnery, with her present, became notorious. She had brought another of her lovers, a young Spanish chamberlain, with her. The other nuns, an Italian historian wrote, showed themselves “deplorably susceptible” to the example set by their eminent colleague. Indeed, they went so far in “abandoning the old austerity of their regime” that after her departure “sweeping reforms were necessary to bring them back to the sublime joys of self-mortification and to exorcize the atmosphere … which had grown up inside those pious walls.”

However, it was her father’s ambitions which had exposed Lucrezia’s pregnancy to the world. He was arranging a politically advantageous new marriage for her. Later it would end tragically when Cesare murdered the groom, but then it seemed worth pursuing. To that end, she had had to appear at the Lateran Palace on December 22, 1497, for a ceremonial annulment of her ties to Sforza, to be justified on the ground their union had never been consummated. The pope had decided that once the infant was born, Lucrezia could pass him off as her baby brother—as indeed she did for the rest of her life. Her third husband, heir to the dukedom of Ferrara, knew better, but didn’t care; his family was accustomed to the mingling of its legitimate and illegitimate children. However, in 1497 that lay in the future. As the Lateran ceremony approached, Vatican servants spread stories of Lucrezia’s coital bouts with her father and brothers. A curious crowd flocked to the palace, and there they saw that the pontiff’s daughter, despite her loose, full skirt, was six months with child. When the canonical judges delivered their judgment, solemnly declaring her intacta—a virgin—laughter echoed throughout the old halls. Jacopo Sannazaro, the Neapolitan humanist, wrote an epigram in the form of a Latin epitaph:

Hoc tumulo dormit Lucretia nomine, sed re

Thais, Alexandri filia, sponsa, nurus. *

Here lies Lucrezia, who was really a tart,

The daughter, wife, and daughter-in-law of Alexander.


MEANTIME, as tumult and intrigue marked papacy after papacy, Italian arts flourished. It is a paradox that painters and sculptors frequently thrive amid chaos. The deplorable circumstances—the ferment, the vigor generated by controversy, the lack of moral restraint or inhibitions of any kind—all seemed to incite creativity. Yet it should be added that the greatest of the artists were shielded from the excesses of the time. To be sure, some of the era’s most gifted men, like everyone else, lived precariously, even dangerously. The great Albrecht Dürer was reduced at various times to illustrating tarot cards and designing fortifications for cities. Lorenzo Lotto, near starvation, was forced to paint numbers on hospital beds. Carlo Crivelli was imprisoned on the charge (which was quaint, considering the period) of seducing a married woman. Luca Signorelli, when not painting in the Sistine Chapel, was moving from city to city, one jump ahead of the police, and Benvenuto Cellini was in and out of jails, or plotting an escape from one, for most of his life.

These illustrations are deceptive, however. Dürer prospered through most of his career; Lotto was approaching the end of his life and had lost his talent; Crivelli’s real crime was that he had bedded the wrong wife, a Venetian noblewoman; Signorelli, as a political subversive, was asking for trouble; and Cellini was one of history’s great rogues—a thief, a brawler, a forger, an embezzler, and the murderer of a rival goldsmith; the sort of character who in any century, whatever the outrage, is wanted by the police to help them with their enquiries.

More to the point, and more revealing of the time, is the fact that after Crivelli had paid his debt to a hypocritical society in which a nobildonna might betray her nobiluomo nightly, he was knighted by Ferdinand II of Naples; and that despite Cellini’s criminal record, he enjoyed the patronage of Alessandro de’ Medici, Cosimo de’ Medici, Cardinal Gonzaga, the bishop of Salamanca, King Francis I of France, Cardinal d’Este of Ferrara, Bindo Atoviti, Sigmondo Chigi, and Pope Clement VII, whose other dependents included Raphael and Michelangelo.

That was typical of the age. The most powerful men knew artistic genius when they saw it, and their unstinting support of it, despite their deplorable private lives and abuse of authority, is unparalleled. All the wretched popes—beginning with Sixtus, who in 1480 commissioned Botticelli, Ghirlandajo, Perugino, and Signorelli to paint the first frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, and including Julius II, under whom Michelangelo completed the chapel’s ceiling thirty-two years later—were committed to that greatness. Of course, their motives were not selfless. Immortal artistic achievements, they believed, would dignify the papacy and tighten its grip on Christendom. Nevertheless they were responsible for countless glories, including the paintings in the large papal apartment Stanza della Segnatura (Raphael), the frescoes for the Cathedral Library in Siena (Pinturicchio), and the soaring architecture of the new St. Peter’s (Bramante and Michelangelo). Nor was all Renaissance art supported by pontiffs. Their fellow patrons and patronesses included the Borgia siblings, and Isabella d’Este of Mantua, whose generous funding of the brilliant, handsome Giorgione Barbarelli is unmitigated by the fact that she was sleeping with him, since most of her friends were, too.

In an ideal world, genius should not require the largess of wicked pontiffs, venal cardinals, and wanton contessas. But these men of genius did not live in such a world, and neither has anyone else. In art the end has to justify the means, because artists, like beggars, have no choice. Other ages have provided different sources of support, though with dubious results. Five centuries after Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, and Titian, nothing matching their masterpieces can be found in contemporary galleries. No pandering to popular tastelessness, adolescent fads, or philistine taboos guided the brushes and chisels of the men who found immortality in the Renaissance. Political statements did not concern them. Instead they devoted their lives to artistic statements, leaving time to judge their wisdom.

It is incontestable that the Continent’s most powerful rulers in the early sixteenth century were responsible for great crimes. It is equally true that had this outraged the painters and sculptors of their time we would have lost a heritage beyond price. Botticelli pocketed thousands of tainted ducats from Lorenzo de’ Medici and gave the world The Birth of Venus. In both temperament and accomplishments Pope Julius II was closer to Genghis Khan than Saint Peter, but because that troubled neither Raphael nor Michelangelo, they endowed us with the Transfiguration, David, the Pietà, andThe Last Judgment. They took their money, ran to their studios, and gave to the world masterpieces which have enriched civilization for five hundred years.


THE VIGOR of the new age was not found everywhere. Music, still lost in the blurry mists of the Dark Ages, was a Renaissance laggard; the motets, psalms, and Masses heard each Sabbath—many of them by Josquin des Prés of Flanders, the most celebrated composer of his day—fall dissonantly on the ears of those familiar with the soaring orchestral works which would captivate Europe in the centuries ahead, a reminder that in some respects one age will forever remain inscrutable to others.

Yet almost everywhere else there was an awareness of both endings and beginnings. Enormous cathedrals, monuments to the great faith which had held the Continent in its spell since the collapse of imperial Rome, now stood complete, awesome and matchless: Chartres, with its exquisite stained-glass windows and its vast Gothic north tower; Canterbury, the work of over four centuries; Munich’s Frauenkirche; and, in Rome itself, St. Peter’s, begun nearly twelve hundred years earlier and still, it seemed, unfinished, for Pope Julius II laid the first stone of a new basilica in 1506, proclaiming indulgences which required all sovereigns in Christendom to pay for its renewed splendor, thereby demonstrating their royal fealty to a Church still undivided.

But these achievements were culminations of dreams dreamed in other times, familiar and therefore comfortable to those loyal to the fading Middle Ages. Their day was ending; for every house of God now there were thousands of new words and thoughts challenging the bedrock assumptions of the past. Among the masses, for example, it continued to be an article of faith that the world was an immovable disk around which the sun revolved, and that the rest of the cosmos comprised heaven, which lay dreamily above the skies, inhabited by cherubs, and hell, flaming deep beneath the European soil. Everyone believed, indeed knew, that.

Everyone, that is, except Mikolaj Kopernik, a Polish physician and astronomer, whose name had been Latinized, as was the custom, to Nicolaus Copernicus. After years of observing the skies with a primitive telescope and consulting mathematical tables which he had copied at the University of Kraków, Copernicus had reached the conclusion—which at first seemed absurd, even to him —that the earth was actually moving. In 1514 he showed friends a short manuscript, De hypothesibus motuum coelestium a se constitutis commentariolus (Little Commentary), challenging the ancient Ptolemaic assumptions, and this was followed by the fuller De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs), in which he concluded that the earth, far from being the center of the universe, merely rotated on its own axis and orbited around a stationary sun once a year.

In the sixth volume of his Story of Civilization, Will Durant notes that Pope Leo X, who succeeded Julius, made no summary judgment of Copernicus. Being a humanist, the pontiff sent Copernicus an encouraging note, and liberal members of the Curia approved. But the astronomer’s work was not widely circulated until after his death, and his peers then were divided into those who laughed at him and those who denounced him. The offended included some of the brightest and most independent men on the Continent. Martin Luther wrote: “People give ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. … This fool wishes to reverse the entire scheme of astrology; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.” John Calvin quoted the Ninety-third Psalm, “The world also is stabilized, that it cannot be moved,” and asked: “Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?”

When Copernicus’s chief protégé tried to get his mentor’s paper printed in Nuremberg, Luther used his influence to suppress it. According to Durant, even Andreas Osiander of Nuremberg, who finally agreed to assist with its publication, insisted on an introduction explaining that the concept of a solar system was being presented solely as a hypothesis, useful for the computation of the movements of heavenly bodies. As long as it was so represented, Rome remained mute, but when the philosopher Giordano Bruno


Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543)

published his Italian dialogues, declaring a rotating, orbiting earth to be an unassailable fact—carrying his astronomical speculations far beyond those of Copernicus—the Roman Inquisition brought him to trial. He was convicted of being the worst kind of heretic, a pantheist who held that God was immanent in creation, rather than the external creator. Then they burned him at the stake. Catholics were forbidden to read Copernicus’s De revolutionibus until the deletion of nine sentences, which had asserted it to be more than a theory. The ban was not lifted until 1828.


LEONARDO DA VINCI (1452–1519), the most versatile creative figure of that age—perhaps of any age—confronted traditional authority with a more awkward problem. His artistic genius guaranteed his immunity from blacklisting heresimachs; for seventeen years Milan’s duke, Ludovico Sforza, shielded him by appointing him ictor et ingeniarius ducalis, and after Ludovico’s fall Leonardo found other sponsors, even serving Cesare Borgia briefly as his military architect. If Cesare’s many crimes deserve to be remembered, as they do, so should this generous gesture. Like the patron himself, however, it was short-lived. Miraculously, the Borgia cardinal manqué had survived to the age of thirty, but now killers with long knives were closing in. Cesare had celebrated his last birthday. His great protégé found new sanctuaries in the courts of the powerful, though, they, too, were to prove temporary, because of all the great Renaissance artists, Da Vinci alone was destined to fall from papal grace.

His disgrace was significant. Leonardo’s transgressions were graver than Botticelli’s or Cellini’s. Indeed, in a larger sense he was a graver menace to medieval society than any Borgia. Cesare merely killed men. Da Vinci, like Copernicus, threatened the certitude that knowledge had been forever fixed by God, the rigid mind-set which left no role for curiosity or innovation. Leonardo’s cosmology, based on what he called saper vedere (knowing how to see) was, in effect, a blunt instrument assaulting the fatuity which had, among other things, permitted a mafia of profane popes to desecrate Christianity.

In the Age of Faith, as Will Durant called the medieval era, one secret of the papacy’s hold on the masses was its capacity to inspire absolute terror, a derivative of the universal belief that whoever wore the tiara could, at his pleasure, determine how each individual would spend his afterlife—cosseted in eternal bliss or shrieking in writhing flames below. His decision might be whimsical, his blessings were often sold openly, his motives might be evil, but that was his prerogative. Earthly life being “nasty, brutish, and short,” in Thomas Hobbes’s memorable phrase, only the deranged would invite the disfavor and retribution of the Holy See.

This accounts for the last extraordinary moments of Girolamo Savonarola’s life. For seven years his Florentine followers had


Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), a self-portrait

turned out to cheer his indictments of Pope Alexander VI’s depravity. Now, on the day of his last public appearance, which was also his execution, they flocked into the Piazza della Signoria to taunt and jeer his final agony. He had given Florence the best government the city had ever had. His only local enemies were the Arrabbiati, a political party resentful of his reforms. None of the witnesses to his agony could doubt that every charge he had laid at the door of the Borgia pontiff’s Vatican apartments was true. The explanation for their switch, otherwise inexplicable, is that the pope had threatened to excommunicate the city’s entire population if Florentines refused to turn on him. None had paused to wonder why God should be party to so monstrous an injustice. As children they had been taught that a pope possessed that terrible power, and they had never thought to question it.

Leonardo, sui generis, questioned everything. Rather than accept the world God had created, as Christians had always done, he probed endlessly into what human ingenuity could achieve by struggling against it. So mighty was his intellect and so broad the spectrum of his gifts—he was, among other things, a master of engineering, biology, sculpture, linguistics, botany, music, philosophy, architecture, and science—that presenting an adequate summary of his feats is impossible. However, it is worth noting that at a time when Europe was mired in ignorance, shackled by superstition, and lacking solid precedents in every scholarly discipline, this uneducated, illegitimate son of an Anchiano country girl anticipated Galileo, Newton, and the Wright brothers.

He did it by flouting absolute taboos. Dissecting cadavers, he set down intricate drawings of the human body—God’s sacred image—and wrote his Anatomy in 1510. Meantime he was diverting rivers to prevent flooding; establishing the principle of the turbine by building a horizontal waterwheel; laying the groundwork for modern cartography; discovering screw threads, transmission gears, hydraulic jacks, and swiveling devices; creating detailed, practical plans for breech-loading cannons, guided missiles, and armored tanks; building the world’s first revolving stage; developing a canal system whose locks are still in use; and, after exhaustive research into water currents and the flight of birds, designing a submarine, then a flying machine, and then—four centuries before Kitty Hawk—a parachute. Along the way he left an artistic heritage which includes The Adoration of the Magi, the Mona Lisa, and the Last Supper.

Medieval minds retained the orbs and maces of authority, yet they could not cope with men like Copernicus and Leonardo. Of course, that did not prevent them from trying. Leonardo was lefthanded; his notes, seven thousand pages of which have been preserved, were written in mirror script. Though quite legible, they can be read only by holding them up to a looking glass. In the sixteenth century that was enough to envelop him in suspicion. The existence of Satan and his extraordinary powers was believed to be irrefutable. Leonardo was capable of marvels, men whispered, but—and here they would nod knowingly — his inspiration was anything but divine. They knew where and how he would spend his afterlife; it had been memorably described two centuries earlier in theDivine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, which had included hell’s terrible warning to immigrants: “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.”

Among the attentive listeners to this rubbish—predicting that upon his death the most gifted man in the pope’s realm would be told to abandon all hope before entering what lay beyond—was the new pontiff. In secret audiences Pope Leo X received the whisperers, nodded thoughtfully, and sent them away with expressions of gratitude. These smears came late in 1513, the worst possible time for Da Vinci. He was sixty-one years old and in straits. Encouraged by the Vatican’s patronage of Michelangelo and Raphael, and told that he could expect support from Giuliano de’ Medici—a brother of Leo—he appeared in Rome to ask the Holy See for support. He didn’t get it. The Holy Father not only denied him alms but decreed that his future research —particularly his sacrilegious mutilations of the divine image—would be either restricted or proscribed. Luckily, the French crown, not for the first time, came to the rescue of Italian genius. Francis I invited the great pariah to Paris as “first painter and engineer to the king.” He left his native land immediately and forever, spending his last years in a little castle near Amboise, working to the end on architectural blueprints and canal designs.


BEFORE THE DENSE, overarching, suffocating medieval night could be broken, the darkness had to be pierced by the bright shaft of learning —by literature, and people who could read and understand it. Here Durant is informative. Until late in the fifteenth century most books and nearly all education had been controlled by the Church. Volumes had been expensive, and unprofitable for writers, who, unprotected by copyright, lived on pensions or papal grants, in monastic orders, or by teaching. Few reached wide audiences. Scarcely any libraries possessed more than 300 books. The chief exceptions were those of Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, with 600; of the king of France, with 910, and of Christ Church priory, Canterbury, with some 2,000. So valuable were they that each volume was chained to a desk or lectern.

The typographical revolution did not come all at once. The Chinese had designed wooden typography before 1066 and used it to print paper money; block printing in Tabriz dated from 1294, and the Dutch may have experimented with it in 1430. Practical use of it awaited other discoveries—oily ink, for example, and paper. The ink was quickly found. Paper took longer. Muslims had introduced its manufacture to Spain in the 900s, to Sicily in the 1100s, to Italy in the 1200s, and to France in the 1300s. During that same century linen began to replace wool in the wardrobes of the upper classes; discarded linen rags became a cheap source of paper, and its price declined. The stage was set for the main event.

Its star, of course, was Johannes Gutenberg Gensfleisch, who preferred to be known by his mother’s maiden name (his father’s name, Gensfleisch, being German for “gooseflesh”). In 1448 he had moved from Strasbourg to Mainz, where, with the help of Peter Schöffer, his typesetter, he developed engraved steel signatures for each number, letter, and punctuation mark. Metal matrixes were formed to hold the figures, and a metal mold to keep them in line. Gutenberg then borrowed money to buy a press and, in 1457–1458, published his superb Bible of 1,282 outsized, double-columned pages. It was one of the great moments in the history of Western civilization. He had introduced movable type.

The invention of printing was denounced by, among others, politicians and ecclesiastics who feared it as an instrument which could spread subversive ideas. But they were a minority. Copies of the first type-printed book were studied all over Europe; Gutenberg had built a bonfire in Mainz, and printers throughout Christendom flocked to kindle their torches from it. Presses duplicating his—but at no profit to him, since patents, like copyrights, did not exist—appeared in Rome (1464), Venice (1469), Paris (1470), the Netherlands (1471), Switzerland (1472), Hungary (1473), Spain (1474), England (1476), Denmark (1482), Sweden (1483), and Constantinople (1490).

Who were the first readers, and how many were there? Historians have reasoned that businessmen needed books for trade and industry, and middle- and upper-class women wanted them for romantic escape. The difficulty here is that by the most positive estimate over half of the Continent’s male population was illiterate, and the rate among women was higher—perhaps 89 percent. (East of Vienna and north of the Baltic both figures were a great deal worse.) Exact calculations are impossible, but we know that reading was taught before writing. An examination of signed depositions, wills, applications for marriage certificates, bonds, and subscribers to declarations and protests permits a rough reckoning of illiteracy by both class and occupation.

Literacy rates varied from place to place and from time to time, but some general figures are available. The percentage of those who could not read at all was o percent in the clergy and professions. Among gentry it was 2 percent, yeomen 35 percent, craftsmen 44 percent, peasants 79 percent, and laborers 85 percent. By trade, 6 percent of the grocers were illiterate, 9 percent of the haberdashers, 12 percent of all merchants, 27 percent of bakers, 36 percent of innkeepers, 41 percent of brewers, 44 percent of tailors, 45 percent of blacksmiths, 48 percent of butchers, 59 percent of sailors, 64 percent of carpenters, 73 percent of gardeners, 76 percent of masons, 88 percent of bricklayers, 90 percent of the shepherds, and 97 percent of all thatchers.

In one important sense these figures, though reasonably accurate, are misleading. They represent comprehension of the vernacular, or colloquial, tongues—Spanish, Portugese, English, French, Dutch, Flemish, Danish, German, and Tuscan (Italian). Some grasp of the vernacular was sought by everyone who wished to raise himself in the world, but in most of Europe Latin was still the language of the elite—the Church, scholars, scientists, governments, and the courts. During 1501, for example, in France eighty volumes were published in Latin and only eight in French; in Aragon, between 1510 and 1540, one hundred and fifteen were printed in Latin and just five in Spanish. Indeed, throughout the sixteenth century Latin dominated works displayed at the annual Frankfurt book fair. Several reasons account for its survival. It was still the language of international communication; if you wanted to address the European public and be universally understood, you had to use it. In countries whose languages were rarely learned by foreigners—Flemish, German, and, yes, English—Latin was the language of choice.

Those who preferred the colloquial were few, and were sometimes resented by their peers; when the great French surgeon Ambroise Paré chose to publish his work on the method of treating gunshot wounds as La méthode de traicter les playes faites par les arquebuses et aultres bastons à feu, he was reproached by colleagues on the Faculty of Medicine at Paris. The Church aggressively opposed vernacular languages. Authors hesitated to use their native tongues because they were at the mercy of printers’ foremen and compositors. Thus, in an English manuscript, “be” could come out as “bee,” “grief” as “greef,” “these” as “thease,” “sword” as “swoord,” “nurse” as “noorse,” and “servant” as “servaunt.” Yet in the long run native languages were destined to triumph. The victory was not altogether glorious. It meant that the dream of a unified Christendom, with a single Latin tongue, was doomed.

That outcome was not evident in the early 1500s. The curricula at monastic schools were unchanged. All teaching there was in Latin; younger monks and country youth were led through primary instruction in the trivium—grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics (the art of reasoning)—and bright students were encouraged to tackle the quadrivium: astronomy, arithmetic, geometry, and music. The monks had made some progress in botany and geology, collecting curious minerals, herbs, and dried bird and animal skins, but a monk reincarnated from the eighth century would have found little that was unfamiliar. Boys from the surrounding countryside who attended classes picked up a kind of pidgin Latin, adequate for the comprehension of political and religious pamphlets. Later that would become important.


MEANTIME, outside monastery walls, the reading public was surging, though not by design. No new literacy programs were introduced, the educational process continued to be chaotic, and those who received any degree of systematic teaching had to be either fortunate or unusually persistent. The number of people who were fortunate remained stable. It was persistence, and the number of schools, which rose. As the presses disgorged new printed matter, the yearning for literacy spread like a fever; millions of Europeans led their children to classrooms and remained to learn themselves. Typically, a class would be leavened with women anxious to learn about literature and philosophy, and middle-class adolescents contemplating a career in trade.

Instruction was available in three forms: popular education, apprenticeship, and the courses of study at traditional schools and universities. Only the first was available to the vast majority, and it is impossible to define because it varied so from place to place. Two generalizations hold: popular education was confined to colloquial tongues, and it was unambitious. The teachers themselves knew no Latin; many were barely literate in their native languages. Some gave their services free, beginning with classes teaching little children their letters; others were poor women eager to make a few pennies. Pupils helped each other. The curriculum was limited to reading, writing, simple arithmetic, and the catechism. “That a relatively large number of people knew how to read, write and count,” conclude the authors of The New Cambridge Modern History, “was due to the casual and ill-organized efforts of thousands of humble individuals. Such were the uncertain foundations not only of the popularity of vernacular literature but also of technical advance and the diffusion of general knowledge.”

Apprentices were fewer. The sons of master journeymen were given special consideration; property qualifications were imposed on outsiders, and the children of peasants and laborers were excluded. In the cruder trades instruction was confined to skills which were mechanically imitated. But the better crafts went beyond that, teaching accounting, mathematics, and the writing of commercial letters. This was especially important to merchants—commerce was still regarded as a trade, though dealers were quickly forming the nucleus of the new middle class—and the sons of merchants led the way in learning foreign languages. They were already among the most attentive pupils. The growth of industry gave education a new urgency. Literacy had been an expensive indulgence in an agrarian culture, but in an urban, mercantile world it was mandatory. Higher education, based on Latin, was another world. Schools concentrated on preparing boys for it, using as fundamental texts Donatus’s grammar for instruction in Latin and Latin translations of Aristotle.

In 1502 the Holy See had ordered the burning of all books questioning papal authority. It was a futile bull—the velocity of new ideas continued to pick up momentum—and the Church decided to adopt stronger measures. In 1516, two years after Copernicus conceived his heretical solution to the riddle of the skies, the Fifth Lateran Council approved De impressione liborum, an uncompromising decree which forbade the printing of any new volume without the Vatican’s imprimatur.

As a response, that was about as fruitful as the twentieth-century encyclicals of Popes Pius XI and Paul VI rejecting birth control. De impressione liborum was, among other things, too late. The literary Renaissance, dating in England from William Caxton’s edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in 1477, had been under way for a full generation. As the old century merged with the new, the movement pushed forward, fueled by a torrent of creative energy, by the growing cultivation of individuality among the learned, and by the development of distinctive literary styles, emerging in force for the first time since the last works of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Marcus Aurelius had appeared in the second century. The authors, poets, and playwrights of the new era never scaled the heights of Renaissance artists, but they were starting from lower ground. With a few lonely exceptions—Petrarch’s De viris illustribus, Boccaccio’s Decameron—medieval Europe’s contributions to world literature had been negligible. Japan had been more productive, and the Stygian murk of the Dark Ages is reflected in the dismal fact that Christendom had then published nothing matching the eloquence of the infidel Muhammad in his seventh-century Koran.

In the years bracketing the dawn of the sixteenth century, that began to change. Indeed, considering the high incidence of illiteracy, a remarkable number of works written or published then have survived as classics. Le morte d’Arthur (1495) and Il principe(1513) are illustrative, though both authors are misunderstood by modern readers. In the popular imagination Sir Thomas Malory has been identified with the fictive chivalry of his tales. Actually he was a most unchivalrous knight who led a spectacular criminal career, which began with attempted murder and moved on to rape, extortion, robbery of churches, theft of deer and cattle, and promiscuous vandalism. He wrote his most persuasive romances behind bars.

Malory has been spared; Niccolò Machiavelli has been slandered. Machiavelli was a principled Florentine and a gifted observer of contemporary Italy; his concise Il principe reveals profound insight into human nature and an acute grasp of political reality in the scene he saw. Nevertheless, because of that very book, he has been the victim of a double injustice. Though he was only analyzing his age, later generations have not only interpreted the work as cynical, unscrupulous, and immoral; they have turned his very name to a pejorative. In fact, he was a passionate, devout Christian who was appalled by the morality of his age. In an introspective self-portrait he wrote:

Io rido, e rider mio non passa dentro;

Io ardo, e I’arsion mia non par di fore.

I laugh, and my laughter is not within me;

I burn, and the burning is not seen outside.

Among the other memorable works of the time were Sebastian Brandt’s Das Narrenschiff; Peter Dorland van Diest’s Elckerlijk; Guicciardini’s Storia d’Italia; Rabelais’s Pantagruel; Castiglione’s Il cortegiano; Sir Thomas More’s Utopia; Philippe de Commines’s Mémoires; William Dunbar’sDance of the Sevin Deidly Sinnes; Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso; Fernando de Rojas’s La Celestina; Machiavelli’s Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, his penetrating Dell’arte della guerra, and his superb comedy, La Mandragola; the plays of John Skelton; the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey; and all the works of Desiderius Erasmus, who left his native Holland to roam Europe’s centers of learning and turn out a stream of books, including Enchiridion militis Christiani, and Adagia, his collection of proverbs.

Scholars—most of whom were theologians—continued to be fluent in classical tongues, but in the new intellectual climate that was inadequate. Publishers could no longer assume that their customers would be fluent in Latin. In past centuries, when each country had been a closed society, an author who preferred to write in the vernacular was unknown to those unfamiliar with it. No more; provincialism had been succeeded by an awareness of


Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527)

Europe as a comity of nations, and readers were curious about the work of foreign writers—so much so that translations became profitable. In England, for example, Brandt’s book appeared as The Ship of Fools, Van Diest’s as Everyman, Castiglione’s as The Courtier, and Machiavelli’s comedy as The Mandrake. In 1503 Thomas à Kempis’s De imitatione Christi came off London presses as The Imitation of Christ. Erasmus’s Institutio principis Christiani became available as The Education of a Christian Prince, and Hartmann Schedel’s illustrated world history was published simultaneously in Latin and German.

Learned men became linguists. Ambrogio Calepino brought out Cornucopiae, the first polyglot dictionary, and the Collegium Trilingue was founded in Louvain. This was followed by publication, at the University of Alcalá, of a Bible in four tongues: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic. To be sure, none of them was widely understood in western Europe, but at least the Scriptures could, fifteen centuries after the crucifixion, be read in the language of Christ himself.


THE DAYS WHEN the Church’s critics could be silenced by intimidating naive peasants, or by putting the torch to defiant apostates, were ending. There were too many of them; they were too resourceful, intelligent, well organized, and powerfully connected, and they were far more strongly entrenched than, say, the infidel host the crusaders had attacked. Their strongholds were Europe’s crowded, quarrelsome, thriving, and above all independent new universities.

Before the Renaissance, Christendom’s higher education had been in hopeless disarray. Some famous institutions had been established, though their forms and curricula would be almost unrecognizable to members of twentieth-century faculties. Oxford’s earliest colleges dated from the 1200s; Cambridge had begun to emerge a century later; and for as long as Parisians could remember, groups of students had been gathering, at one time or another, in this or that quartier, on the left bank of the Seine. But they had represented no formidable force in society.

Various chronicles enigmatically note “the beginnings” of universities in scattered medieval communities, among them Bologna, Salamanca, Montpellier, Kraków, Leipzig, Pisa, Prague, Cologne, and Heidelberg. Precisely what this meant varied from one to another. We know from Copernicus that there was learning in Kraków. He was fortunate. In most cities, academic activity had been confined to the issuance of a charter, the drawing up of rough plans, and, where students and professors met at irregular intervals, heavy emphasis on animism and Scholasticism. Animists believed that every material form of reality possessed a soul—not only plants and stones, but even such natural phenomena as earthquakes and thunderstorms. Scholastics sought to replace all forms of philosophy with Catholic theology. Both were shadowy disciplines, but there was worse: the divine right of sovereigns, for example; astrology; even alchemy; and, late in the period, Ramism.

Within universities, there were no colleges as the term later came to be understood. Selected students lived in halls, but 90 percent of the undergraduates boarded elsewhere. They were governed by peculiar rules: athletics were forbidden, and since 1350 scofflaws at Oxford had been subject to flogging. In theory, classes began at 6 A.M. and continued until 5 P.M. In practice most students spent their time elsewhere, often in taverns. As a consequence, hostility between town and gown was often high; at Oxford one clash, which became known as the Great Slaughter, ended in the deaths of several undergraduates and townsmen.

In those centuries students who yearned for genuine learning had to become autodidacts. Medieval universities had exalted three traditional disciplines: theology, law, and medicine, which were but distantly related to what they would later become. Courses were offered in the “arts”—grammar, logic, rhetoric, dialectics—but these were considered inferior, and were chiefly meant for youths planning to enter the lower clergy. Except in Italy, the arts teachers were usually Benedictine, Franciscan, and Dominican monks. They paid lip service to the great leaders of Hellenic and Roman culture but were largely ignorant of their works, except for selections or adaptations by scholars with an imperfect grasp of the ancient tongues. Few knew Greek; they were dependent upon Latin translations of it.

The Latin of arts faculty members was so corrupted by scholastic and ecclesiastical overlays that it bore little resemblance to the language of Rome at its peak. They knew Ovid and Virgil, but, typically, had interpreted the Ars amatoria, the Art of Love, as they had the Song of Solomon—not as a tribute to human sensuality, but as a mystic embodiment of divine love. That was fraudulent, and because of its speciosity, the prestige of universities declined. Attendance at Oxford fell from its thirteenth-century peak to as low as a thousand in the fifteenth century. Even academic freedom vanished after the expulsion of John Wyclif, master of Balliol, in 1381. Wyclif had denounced the inordinate arrogance, wealth, and power of the Catholic clergy. Five separate bulls had condemned him, and Oxford lectures since then had been subject to rigorous episcopal control.

The reawakening—the establishing of new ties with the gems of antiquity—was one of the great triumphs of the Renaissance. Its first seeds had been sown early in the fourteenth century, with the rediscovery of Latin classics; then the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 gave impetus to the revival of Greek learning. Confronted with the overwhelming might of the infidels, the religious and political powers of Byzantium appealed to their fellow Christians in the West for help, even if the price was capitulation by the eastern Church to Roman orthodoxy. During the negotiations several Byzantine scholars traveled to Rome, some to participate in the talks, some merely anxious to escape the Ottoman peril. With them they brought genuine Hellenic manuscripts. For over a thousand years Italian professors fluent in Greek had assumed that the original texts of cultural masterpieces had perished. Discovering that they had survived, specialists and emissaries traveled through Croatia, Serbia, and Bulgaria to Constantinople, bearing gifts and gold and passionately searching for old manuscripts, statues, and coins, tokens of the glorious past. Thus began the transfer of priceless documents from East to West, where they joined the great Latin heritage of Italy.

The implications reached far beyond scholarship, leading to the redefinition of knowledge itself. The eventual impact on the Continent’s hidebound educational establishment was to be devastating, discrediting medieval culture and replacing it with ancient, resurrected ideals, paideia andhumanitas. The best minds in the West began a scrupulous reappraisal of Scholasticism, which, for two centuries, had been degenerating into an artificial sort of dialectics. In the ancient texts Renaissance scholars found an unsuspected reverence for humanity which, without actually dismissing the Bible, certainly overshadowed it. And in the wisdom of antiquity they discovered respect for man in the free expansion of his natural impulses, unfreighted by the corrupting burden of original sin. The Italian scholar Leonardo Bruni declared: “I have the feeling that the days of Cicero and Demosthenes are much closer to me than the sixty years just past.” Acclaim for humanity was the theme of De dignitate et excellentia, by Giannozzo Manetti, a Florentine philologist, and the Oratio de hominis dignitate, by brilliant young Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. The Christian faith was not repudiated, but the new concept of the cultivated man was the Renaissance homo universale, the universal man: creator, artist, scholar, and encyclopedic genius in the spirit of the ancient paideia.

In that spirit Scotland and Ireland, despite their poverty, established the universities of St. Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Trinity College, Dublin, institutions destined to pour generation after generation of first-rate men into the intellectual life of the British Isles. Between 1496 and 1516 five new colleges were founded at Oxford and Cambridge. Meantime, across the Channel, the great transition had led to the founding of genuine, post-medieval universities at Genoa (1471), Munich (1472), Uppsala and Tübingen (1477), Copenhagen (1479), Valencia and Santiago (1501), Wittenberg (1502), and Frankfurt an der Oder (1506). Here lay the essence of the emerging intellectualism. Students like young Martin Luther, a member of the third class to enter Wittenberg, and François Rabelais, at the older but restructured Montpellier, were taught that Renaissance meant renewal, a recovery of those disciplines lost in the collapse of Roman civilization. The French refined it to la Renaissance des lettres, and though its leaders embraced more than literature—they sought the re-emergence of all the lost learning of the old world, including the flowering of art, esthetics, mathematics, and the beginnings of modern science—the heaviest emphasis was on reverence for classical letters, the poetical and philosophical Hellenic heritage, scholarly purity, and the meticulous translation of the ancient manuscripts retrieved in Athens and Rome.


THE NEW PROFESSORS, called humanists, declared the humanities to be superior to medicine, law, and theology—especially theology. Der Humanismus, as the movement was known in Germany, its stronghold, coalesced during the last years of the Borgia papacy. In 1497, the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian I served as humanism’s midwife by appointing Conradus Celtis, a Latin lyrical poet, to the most prestigious academic chair in Vienna. Celtis used his new post to establish the Sodalitas Danubia, a center for humanistic studies, thereby winning immortality among intellectual historians as Der Erzhumaniste (the Archhumanist).

Within a year his first manuscripts were at hand. Aldus Manutius, the great Italian printer and inventor of italic type (for an edition of Virgil), had been toiling for twenty years on the Aldine Press to produce a series of Greek classics. His editio princips, a five-volume folio Aristotle edited by Aldus himself, was in proof and ready for scholars by late 1498. During the next fourteen years it was followed by the works of all the Hellenic giants: Theocritis, Aristophanes, Thucydides, Sophocles, Herodotus, Euripides, Homer, and Plato.

All this ferment led to that rarest of cultural phenomena, an intellectual movement which alters the course of both learning and civilization. Pythagoreans had tried it, four hundred years before the birth of Christ, and failed. So, in the third and fourth centuriesA.D., had Manichaeans, Stoics, and Epicureans. But the humanists of the sixteenth century were to succeed spectacularly—so much so that their triumph is unique. They would be followed by other ideologies determined to shape the future—seventeenth-century rationalism, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Marxism in the nineteenth century, and, in the twentieth, by pragmatism, determinism, and empiricism. Each would alter the stream of great events, but none would match the achievements of Renaissance humanists.

By the end of the decade following Manutius’s accomplishment, humanism had begun to replace the old curricula, dominating both the new universities and the refurbished old. Lecture halls were crowded, great libraries kept their well-worn works of humanist scholars in constant circulation, and leaders of Europe’s metropolises—merchants, lawyers, physicians, bankers, ship-owners, and the bright priests who, in the century’s fifth decade, would join the new Jesuit order—studied and discussed the newly published humanist treatises, including the denunciation of Scholasticism by England’s Thomas More, who wrote that exploring the subtleties of Scholastic philosophy was “as profitable as milking a he-goat into a sieve.”

We picture the eminent scholars of the time, each in the short jacket favored by the professional classes then, wearing their distinctive outsized berets, the floppy brims hooding their ears, bowed over desks tilted toward them, pen and ink at hand. Poring over manuscripts and proofs in several languages, reliving the glories of the ancient past, half lost in the life of the mind, they were exalted by the awareness that they were rekindling flames extinguished in the glorious past. They cannot have been unaware of the recognition of their contemporaries. Each was a personage, admired beyond the borders of his own state, a man of substance in whom his compatriots took pride and a friend and confidant—at least in the first fifth of the century—of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The peasant, the tradesman, the ordinary townsman, lacked the feeblest grasp of the source for the scholars’ fame, and wouldn’t have understood it if told, but he doffed his cap or tugged his forelock in the presence of such towering humanists as Pico della Mirandola of Florence, the Neapolitan Alessandro Alessandri, Genoa’s Julius Caesar Scaliger, the French philologist Guillaume Budé, the Spaniard Juan Luis Vives, John Colet and Thomas More in England, and Erasmus of Rotterdam, doyen of the movement.


THEY CONSTITUTED the Western world’s first community of powerful lay intellectuals since Constantine’s Ecumenical Council in the fourth century A.D. Among their strengths was society’s traditional respect for learning. Anti-intellectualism as it later evolved was unknown; even the incomprehensible jabber of the Latin Mass inspired humility as well as reverence. But beyond that, the humanists were honored as though they were nobility. Since the beginning of the Renaissance, their status had risen as rulers of states and principalities singled them out, granting them perquisites reserved for the favored, establishing them as a privileged class. Ulrich von Hutten, for example, held an imperial appointment in Maximilian’s court, enjoyed the patronage of the elector of Mainz, and dined frequently with Mainz’s archbishop. Pico della Mirandola was a protégé of both Lorenzo de’ Medici and the philosopher Marsilio Ficino. Huldrych Zwingli, rector of Zurich, was a formidable political and religious leader, and so great was Budé’s prestige that Francis I founded a college at his suggestion. Girolamo Aleandro, who taught Greek and held the office of rector at the University of Paris, served as Vatican librarian, papal nuncio to France, Germany, and the Netherlands, and, finally, became a cardinal. The Vatican brought Manutius’s son Paulus to Rome as the official Vatican printer; Henry VIII chose Polydore Vergil, an Italian humanist, as his official historiographer and summoned Juan Luis Vives from Spain to tutor his daughter. Erasmus, at Cambridge, and Philipp Melanchthon, at Wittenberg, held their chairs as professors of Greek with royal approval. John Colet’s position as dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral also had royal sanction. And John Skelton, England’s poet laureate, had served as royal tutor to the future King Henry VIII, with the consequence that Henry, when he mounted the throne in 1509, was the product of a thorough humanist education.

No humanist rose higher in public life than Sir Thomas More, who, until his fall from royal grace, was as distinguished a statesman as he was a scholar. During Henry VIII’s early reign More had been appointed undersheriff of London, king’s councillor, and a judge of the courts of requests. In 1520, when the sovereigns of England and France conferred on the Field of the Cloth of Gold outside Calais, he served as Henry’s aide. Knighted, he then rose swiftly through a series of royal appointments — undertreasurer, speaker of the House of Commons, high steward of Oxford and then of Cambridge, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and, finally, when he succeeded Cardinal Wolsey, lord chancellor, the foremost living Englishman, after the king, of his time.

Erasmus, whose close friend he was, asked: “What did Nature ever create milder, sweeter, and happier than the genius of Thomas More?” But that says more about Erasmus’s generosity than More’s character. Unquestionably the Englishman was benevolent for his time, but it was not an age when men of mild and sweet disposition rose to power; a savage streak was almost a prerequisite for achievement. So it was with Sir Thomas More. He had first attracted royal notice—from Henry VII—for his skills as a Star Chamber prosecutor. In argument he was bitter, vituperative, given to streams of invective. And although as a writer he celebrated religious tolerance in his Utopia, in practice he was a rigid Catholic, capable of having a servant in his own home flogged for blasphemy. He believed that heretics, atheists, and disbelievers in a hereafter should be executed, and as chancellor he approved such


Sir Thomas More (1478–1535) as lord chancellor of England

sentences. At the same time, he was a loyal subject to Henry VIII. Presiding over the House of Commons, he cannot have imagined a time when he would be forced to choose between his king in Hampton Court and the pope in Rome. But that time was coming.


IN 1502, WHEN King Henry VII’s reign had seven years to run, his mother, Margaret Beaufort, had used her largess to found professorships of divinity at Oxford and Cambridge. Autocratic, wealthy, cultivated, and still vigorous in her late fifties, Margaret lay at the epicenter of England’s noble hierarchy. As viscountess of Richmond and Derby and a great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, she was the paradigm of what a sovereign’s mother should be. Despite her conservatism, she welcomed change, particularly in the arts. Her country home had become a rendezvous for scholars, statesmen, poets, prelates, philosophers, and artists, and her endowment of the chairs in divinity had been inspired by her respect for the new learning as epitomized in Europe’s rising universities.

At the same time, she remained deeply respectful of tradition. Like More, she was a staunch Catholic; it was said that she had never missed a Mass. Therefore she would have been mortified if she had known that within a generation the theologians holding her professorships would be blessed, not by the Holy See, but by her younger grandson, who as sovereign would establish an Anglican church independent of the Vatican and consecrate himself as head of it, thus becoming Christ’s vicar on the island his grandmother and forty generations of ancestors had cherished as a bastion of the only true faith.

Virtually all humanists in the opening years of the new century shared Margaret’s reflexive loyalty to Rome. There had been a few striking exceptions, but they all had been in Germany. In that age the bewildering quilt of tiny principalities east of the Rhine was as remote to Englishmen as the Germania of Tacitus had been in Caesar’s time. Learned though Margaret Beaufort was, it is doubtful that she had even heard of Conradus Celtis, the Arch-humanist, of whom it was written that “wherever he went, he gathered students about him, and inspired them with his passion for poetry, classical literature, and antiquities.” Yet at about the time the viscountess established her chairs of divinity, this academic giant abandoned his soul by denying its existence and embraced atheism. His new lectures bore such titles as “Will the soul live after death?” and “Is there a God?” His answer to both was No.

Skepticism, and then sacrilege, became stylish among his colleagues. In 1514 Eoban Hesse, a protégé of Celtis, published Heroides Christianae, a volume written in flawless Latin. Actually, as Durant points out, the work was a clever parody of Ovid. Only accomplished Latinists could recognize the style, however. Others, taking it at face value, were appalled. Hesse had forged blasphemous documents profaning the sacred origins of Christianity. Among his apocrypha, which the credulous accepted as genuine, were passionate love letters from Mary Magdalene to Jesus and, even more shocking, from the Virgin Mary (whose virginity was exposed as myth) to God the Father, Domine Deus. Subtly exploiting the plural definition of dominus, which may mean “lover” as well as “father,” Hesse implied that the missives had been sent to a rake who had been cuckolding Joseph of Nazareth, and by whom she had conceived Jesus.

Nowhere was the faith of humanists so fragile as in Celtis’s homeland. Elsewhere, his adversaries, the German defenders of Christianity, would not have been considered Christian at all. One of them, Conradus Mutianus Rufus, gave lip service to the Church, arguing that ceremonies and creeds should be judged on their moral effects, not their literal claims; if they encouraged private virtue and a disciplined society, he said solemnly, they should be accepted unquestioningly. Mutianus wrote: “I shall turn my studies to piety, and will learn nothing from poets, philosophers, or historians, save what can promote a Christian life.” According to Durant, he was attempting to marry “skepticism with religion.” If so, his efforts ended in the divorce courts, and the blame lay with him. His public professions of piety appear to have been mere pap, intended to mollify orthodox congregations resentful of Celtis. He was singing a different song with undergraduates, and it bore no resemblance to a hymn. In Gotha, J. M. Robertson writes, Mutianus taught his students that Masses for the dead were worthless, fasts ineffectual, and confessions both pointless and embarrassing. The Bible, he said, was a book of fables; only a Dummkopf could listen to the trials of Job and Jonah without laughing. The crucifixion was absurd. So was baptism, and if paradise really existed, the Romans and Greeks who had lived decent lives were already there. According to Mandell Creighton, a scholar of the Reformation, Mutianus urged undergraduates to “esteem the decrees of philosophers above those of priests,” but he advised them to hide their agnosticism from the masses. “By faith,” he explained, “we mean not the conformity with fact of what we say, but an opinion about divinity based on credulity and persuasiveness, which leads to profit.” Over his door he hung the motto Beata Tranquillitas, honoring tranquillity. It should have read Beata Simulatio, praising hypocrisy.


BUT GERMANY was unique, Christendom’s greatest headache, presenting difficulties so vexing that there must have been times when pontiffs wished it had been left unconverted. Elsewhere European eruditum—with a few striking exceptions, which would emerge later—was made up of devout men who, like the artists responsible for St. Peter’s new majesty, reflected glory on the Church. The Vatican had been hospitable to the emerging Renaissance from the outset, and saw no reason for regret.

It would. Humanism, the Holy See would bitterly learn, led to the greatest threat the Church had ever faced. Actually it posed two threats. Martin Luther identified the first when he wrote: “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it struggles against the divine word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God. The Virgin birth was unreasonable; so was the Resurrection; so were the Gospels, the sacraments, the pontifical prerogatives, and the promise of life everlasting.” If you were a believer, you never subjected piety to the test of logic. Intellectuals, however, found logic an irresistible attraction, and therein lay their menace.

The second threat was inherent in the medieval Church’s preoccupation with the afterlife. As early as A.D. 166 Lucian had defined Christians as “men who are persuaded that they will survive death and live forever; in consequence, they despise death and are willing to sacrifice their lives to that faith.” Belief in a life everlasting lay at the very center of Christianity. To true Christians, life on earth was almost irrelevant. During it they obeyed the precepts of Catholicism to safeguard their future in paradise, disciplined by the fear that if they didn’t, they might lose it. The thought of living for the sheer sake of living, celebrating mortal existence before God took them unto his own, was subversive of the entire structure. Yet that was precisely the prospect humanism offered. The new scholars took their worldly scripture from the first surviving fragment of Plato’s Protagoran dialogue: “Man is the measure of all things.”

Abandoning the past’s preoccupation with eternity, humanists preached enrichment of life in the here and now. Their message, reversing ten centuries of solemnity, was hearty—an expression of confidence that men would learn to understand, and then master, natural forces, that they could grasp the nature of the universe, even shape their individual destinies. Those steeped in the habitude of the Middle Ages should have recognized this as a dangerous heresy, eclipsing the pitiful defiance of a Savonarola, but they didn’t. The prestige of the scholars, and the eminence of their supporters, obscured the enormity of the challenge. So did confusion over the relationship between the artists of the Renaissance, who were above controversy, and the militant humanists. Those who translate revolutionary concepts into action are never as acceptable, or even as respectable, as those who express themselves indirectly. Humanism, by its very character, implied a revolt against all religious authority. It still does; the evangelists who denounce “secular humanism” five centuries later recognize the true adversary of fundamentalism.

As the apostasy grew, its character would slowly become clear to those who remained blindly loyal to the old Catholicism — to men like England’s Sir John Fortescue, His Majesty’s chief justice, who, after paying fulsome tribute to his country’s laws, an Englishman’s right to trial by jury, and the principle that civilized sovereigns should be law-abiding servants of those over whom they reigned, ended with a baffling non sequitur. All governments, he wrote, must be subject to the pope, “usque ad pedum oscula,”—“even to kissing his feet.”

Men whose dedication to the papacy extended that far would ultimately come to realize that the humanists were moving in a very different direction. They had begun as pure scholars dedicated to the rediscovery of Latin, and then Greek, classics. But their emphasis on wisdom not derived from religious sources had led them to turn away from the supernatural. They did not reject it—not yet, at any rate not outside Germany. Their movement was still transitional; the change was one of emphasis, toward a new faith which held that man’s happiness and welfare in this lifetime should come first, taking precedence over what might or might not follow it, that mankind’s highest ethical objective is not the salvation of his soul but the earthly good of all humanity.


EVEN AFTER it had become obvious that medieval Christianity and the reawakened reason of the ancient world were on a collision course, the clash was not abrupt. Critics of the new intellectualism approached the issue cautiously, beginning, in an early reference to it, with a straightforward (if restrictive)definition: “The Humanist, I meane him that affects the knowledge of State affairs, Histories, [et cetera].” True believers began to draw a distinction—it was to be observed for more than a century—between “secular writers” (humanists) and “divines,” or “devines” (themselves). Then a scholar was singled out for oblique censure: “I might repute him as a good humanist, but not a good devine.”

By then the divines were ready to fight, and the first quarrel they opened—over higher education—was one the humanists, it seemed, could hardly ignore. Proper university instruction, wrote one cleric, should consist in “deliuering a direct order of construction for the releefe of weake Grammacists, not in tempting by curious deuise and disposition to conte [content] courtly Humanists.” But the flung gauntlet was ignored. Another divine described the spectrum of learning as arching from “the strictest Roman Catholicism,” representing perfection, to “the nakedest humanism.” This too provoked no response. An abusive reference to “heathen-minded Humanists” was followed by another, to “their system—usually called Humanism,” which, the writer explained, sought “to level all family distinctions, all differences of rank, all nationality, all positive moral obligations, all positive religion, and to train all mankind to be as … the highest accomplishment.” These were absurd charges, easily refuted, but no learned scholar bothered to do it, and the divines, never an intellectual match for those they sought to draw, were reduced to limning the plight of a man bereft of his soul: “With the accession of humanistic ideas, he had lost all belief in the Christian religion.”

Although the issue was profound, discussion of it remained a monologue. The humanists were hardly inarticulate; they were merely reserving their concern for immediate issues, such as the gross abuse of authority in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Here the divines tried to intervene as amicus curiae. One asked sarcastically: “What a Discovery is it … that Vice raged at Court? Is it but the Hackney Observation of all Humanists?” In a sense it was exactly that; eminent spokesmen for humanism were discovering vice in parishes, dioceses, monastic orders, and, above all, in the Holy See, and if they sounded hackneyed it was because repetition is unavoidable when the same offenses turn up again and again.

Reflective men make uncomfortable prosecutors. By nature and by training, they tend to see the other side and give it equal weight. Clerical misconduct aroused the anger of some humanists, but others, bred to be devout, found the matter disturbing. They searched for compromises, envying painters and sculptors who could overlook the goings-on in Rome. Not all artists did, however. The shrewdest of them, aware that the papacy was spending fortunes on Vatican art even as famine stalked Europe, suspected the Vatican of exploiting them, tightening its grip on the masses by overawing them with beauty. One surprise rebel was Michelangelo, in his role as coarchitect for the new St. Peter’s. Pope Leo ordered exquisite Tuscan marble from the remote Pietrasanta range. The artist balked. Bringing it out, he said, would be too expensive. Unaware of Michelangelo’s mutiny, but thinking along the same lines, Martin Luther objected to the vast sums being raised for reconstruction of the great cathedral’s basilica. Luther was a man of faith, not reason. Nevertheless Leo’s prodigality troubled him. If the pope could see the poverty of the German people, he wrote, “he would rather see St. Peter’s lying in ashes than that it should be built out of the blood and hide of his sheep.”

Michelangelo had a choice. Luther’s conscience denied him one. That was also true of other troubled clerics, scholars, writers, and philosophers. They had to speak out. Change was imperative. Only the informed and the literate could demand it, and in the Europe of that time, they were few. At the outset, their objective was rehabilitation of the system, but this revolution, like Saturn—like all revolutions—was destined to eat its own children.

To them this was tragic. The doctrine that the Church was perfect, that the very idea of change was heretical, deeply disturbed learned Catholics, leaving them torn between faith and reason. In the eyes of Rome, Copernicus had died an apostate who had tried to subvert Ptolemaic theory, endorsed by the Church in the second century, more than two hundred popes earlier. But the solar system would not go away. It was too enormous. Within a century


Michelangelo’s cupola of St. Peter’s, seen from the rear

Galileo Galilei of Florence would confirm the Copernican system. Summoned to Rome, he, too, was found guilty of heresy. When he persisted in publishing his findings, he was called before the Inquisition, where, in 1633, under threat of torture, he disavowed his belief in a revolving earth. As he left the tribunal, however, he was heard to mutter, “Epur si muove” (“And yet it does move”). His recantation therefore was judged inadequate. He died blind and in disgrace. More than two centuries later, Thomas Henry Huxley, eulogizing him, scorned the Church as “the one great spiritual organization which is able to resist, and must, as a matter of life and death, resist, the progress of science and modern civilization.”

But there had been little science and no modern civilization in the Dark Ages, when acceptance of papal supremacy by all Christendom had rescued a continent from chaos. Faith had literally held Europe together then, giving hope to men who had been without it. The most callous despots of the time, fearing God’s wrath, had yielded to papal commands, permitting the Church to intervene when princes had been devouring one another, forcing them to submit to the argument that temporal rulers must yield to the one authority whose sacraments promised eternal salvation. Eminent Catholics knew that. And their piety was central to their personal lives. Now, though torn by inner conflict, they would shred “the seamless robe of Christ.” Jesus, commanding Peter to build his Church, had predicted that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The gates of hell hadn’t; instead the terrible task of destroying the inviolability of the one true faith fell upon the devout, who prayed that they be spared it, and whose prayers were to be unanswered.


ERASMUS, THE SON of a priest, was a fastidious insomniac who spent much of his life in monasteries. Throughout the coming turmoil he remained an orthodox Catholic, never losing his love of Christ, the Gospels, and rites that comforted the masses. In his Colloquia familiaria he wrote: “If anything is in common use with Christians that is not repugnant to the Holy Scriptures, I observe it for this reason, that I may not offend other people.” Public controversy seemed to him an affront; though his doubts about clerical abuses were profound, he kept them to himself until he was well into his forties. “Piety,” he wrote in a private letter, “requires that we should sometimes conceal truth, that we should take care not to show it always, as if it did not matter when, where, or to whom we show it. … Perhaps we must admit with Plato that lies are useful to the people.”

These were reassuring words in the College of Cardinals, where, in 1509, Erasmus, then in his early forties, was a guest. His hosts yearned for serenity; they were weary of the bellicose Pope Julius II, who was forever invading this or that nearby duchy, on one pretext or another, and they had become troubled by the increase in indiscretions of humanists who were more aggressive and more outspoken than Erasmus. Among the first to arouse the Vatican’s displeasure had been Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, whose father, the ruler of a minor Italian principality, had hired tutors to give his precocious son a thorough humanist education.

The mature Pico developed a gift for combining the best elements from other philosophies with his own work, and his scholarship had been widely admired until he argued that the Hebrew Cabalistic doctrine, an esoteric Jewish mysticism, supported Christian theology. Greek and Latin scholarship were fashionable in Rome; but the suggestion of an affinity between Jewish thought and the Gospels was unwelcome. Pico drew up nine hundred theological, ethical, mathematical, and philosophical theses which Christianity had drawn from Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, and Latin sources and, in 1486, proposing to defend his position against any opponent, invited humanists from all over the continent to Rome to debate them. No one arrived. They weren’t allowed to enter the city. The pope had intervened. A papal commission denounced over a dozen of Pico’s theses as heretical, and he was ordered to publish an Apologia regretting his forbidden thoughts. Even after he had complied, he was warned of further trouble. Fleeing to France, he was arrested, briefly imprisoned, and, on his release—another sign of the age—was poisoned by his secretary.

Pico’s ordeal had been followed by the even more awkward Reuchlin affair. Johannes Reuchlin, a Bavarian humanist, had become fluent in Hebrew and taught it to his Tübingen students.

Then, in 1509, Johannes Pfefferkorn, a Dominican monk who was also a converted rabbi, published Judenspiegel (Mirror of the Jews), an anti-Semitic book proposing that all works in Hebrew, including the Talmud, be burned. Reuchlin, dismayed by the possibility of such desecration, formally protested to the emperor. Jewish scholarship should not be suppressed, he argued. Rather, two chairs in Hebrew should be established at every German university. Pfefferkorn, he wrote, was an anti-intellectual “ass.” Furious, the rabbi who had become a monk struck back withHandspiegel (Hand Mirror), accusing Reuchlin of being on the payroll of the Jews. Reuchlin’s riposte, Augenspiegel (Eyeglass), so outraged the Dominicans that the order, supported by the obscurantist clergy throughout Europe, lodged a charge of heresy against him with the tribunal of the Inquisition in Cologne. The controversy raged for six years. Five universities in France and Germany burned Reuchlin’s books, but in the end he was triumphant. Erasmus and Ulrich von Hutten, Maximilian’s new poet laureate, were among those who rallied to his side. An episcopal court acquitted him, Pfefferkorn’s fire was canceled, and the teaching of Hebrew spread, using Reuchlin’s grammar, Rudimentia Hebraica, as the universities’ basic text.

Because Erasmus was in Rome when this dispute broke out, his opinion was solicited. His mild reply—that he believed the issue could be solved by quiet compromise—endeared him to his hosts. They first urged him to prolong his stay, then offered him an ecclesiastical sinecure, suggesting that he settle among them permanently. Because of his eminence he had been courted in every other European capital. This seemed the ultimate opportunity, however, and he was at the point of accepting it when word arrived that the king of England had just died. Erasmus had known the new monarch, Henry VIII, since Henry’s boyhood. Both were ardent Catholics, and while he was debating his future a personal letter from Henry reached him, proposing that “you abandon all thought of settling elsewhere. Come to England, and assure yourself of a hearty welcome. You shall name your own terms; they shall be as liberal and honourable as you please.”

That decided Erasmus; he packed his bags. The offer was irresistible—for private reasons. In Rome, even if he became a cardinal, his manuscripts would be carefully scrutinized for possible heresy, but in England he would be free, protected by a powerful sovereign. This was important because there were certain unorthodox reflections Erasmus wanted to put on paper and then publish. Had his hosts at the Vatican known of them, it is likely that he would never have left the city. Given the morality of the time, it is even possible that his body, like so many thousands before it, would have been washed up by the waters of the Tiber.


IN REASONING that truth must sometimes be concealed in the name of piety, Erasmus had been completely sincere. He had, in fact, done exactly that with the sacred college. Safe in England, he intended to attack the entire Catholic superstructure. But he was no hypocrite. Nor, by his lights, was he guilty of treachery; betrayal as we know it was so common in that age that it carried few moral implications and aroused little resentment, even among sovereigns, prelates, and the learned. Furthermore, he was moved by a higher loyalty. He had always assigned absolute priority to principles and was baffled by those who didn’t. “We must not look to Erasmus for any realistic conception of human nature,” writes an intellectual historian. Brilliant, an accomplished linguist, familiar with all the capitals of Europe, he was nevertheless ignorant of, and indifferent to, the secular world.

He never pondered, for example, the dilemma which was troubling Machiavelli in these years: whether a government can remain in power if it practices the morality it preaches to its people. Nor had he ever coped with the vulgar tensions of everyday life—sexual tension (he was a celibate), for example, or the need to earn a living. Others had always handled money matters for him. It was no different in England. On his arrival there, the bishop of Rochester endowed him with $1,300 a year, a Kentish parish awarded him its annual revenues, and friends and admirers provided him with cash gifts. He was spared any concern about lodgings by Sir Thomas More, who, taking him into his own home, provided him with a servant. Erasmus scarcely noticed. He said: “My home is where I have my library.”

His, in short, was the peculiar naïveté of the isolated intellectual. As an ecclesiastic, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of clerical scandals, including the corruption in Rome. Other humanists had withdrawn from this squalor and found solace in the Scriptures. Not Erasmus; by force of reason, he believed, he could resolve the abuses of Catholicism and keep Christendom intact.

He miscalculated. Because the press as we know it had not even reached an embryonic stage, his knowledge of the world around him, like that of his contemporaries, was confined to what he saw, heard, was told, or read in letters or conversation. And because those around him were all members of the learned elite, he had no grasp of what the masses, the middle class, or most of the nobility knew and thought. His appeal was to his peers. Once he took his stand, they would find him immensely persuasive. But since his message would be incomprehensible to the lower clergy, where it counted, his appeals for reform would be impotent, his triumph literally academic.

Had that been the sum of it, he would have been unheard. But he was a man of many gifts, and one of them altered history. He possessed the extraordinary talent of making men laugh at the outrageous. Medieval men had known laughter—it is hard to see how they could have got through the day without it—but their expression of merriment had been the guffaw, mirth for its own sake; as Rabelais had written in his prologue to Gargantua, that kind of laughter is almost a man’s birthright (“Pour ce que rire est le propre de l’homme”). Erasmus, instead, wrote devastating satire. If the guffaw is a broadsword, satire is a rapier. As such, it always has a point. Erasmus’s points were missed by the common people, lay as well as clerical, but the coming religious revolution was not going to be a mass movement. It would be led by the upper and middle classes, which were gaining in literacy every day, and his brilliant thrusts had the unexpected effect of convulsing them and then arousing them.

In the beginning his intentions were very different. He meant to reach a small, elite audience which would be moved to act behind the scenes, within the existing framework of their faith. Instead his works became best-sellers. The first of them, written during his first year in England, wasEncomium moriae (The Praise of Folly). Its Latinized Greek title was partly a pun on his host’s name, but moros was also Greek for “fool,” and moria for “folly.”

His postulate for the work was that life rewards absurdity at the expense of reason.


COMING FROM A MAN OF GOD, it was an astonishing volume. Some passages might have been written by a radical, atheistic German humanist, and had the author been a man of lesser renown, he would certainly have been condemned by the inquisitors. Being Erasmus, he laughed at them, daring them to “shout ‘heretic’ … the thunderbolt they always keep ready at a moment’s notice to terrify anyone to whom they are not favorably inclined.”

He opened his argument by declaring that the human race owed its very existence to folly, for without it no man would submit


Desiderius Erasmus (1466?–1536)

to lifelong monogamy and no woman to the trials of motherhood. Bravery was foolish; so were men who pursued learning; and so, he added slyly, were theologians, whom he mocked for defending the absurdity of original sin, for spreading the myth that “our Saviour was conceived in the Virgin’s womb,” for presuming, during holy communion, to “demonstrate, in the consecrated wafer … how one body can be in several places at the same time, and how Christ’s body in heaven differs from His body on the cross or in the sacrament.”

Next he went after the clergy, his targets running up the ecclesiastical scale from friars, monks, parish priests, inquisitors, to cardinals and popes. To him, curative shrines, miracles, and “such like bugbears of superstition” were “absurdities” which merely served as “a profitable trade, and [to] procure a comfortable income to such priests and friars as by this craft get their gain.” He mocked “the cheat of pardons and indulgences.” And “what,” he asked, “can be said bad enough of others who pretend that by the force of … magical charms, or by the fumbling over their beads in the rehearsal of such and such petitions (which some religious impostors invented, either for diversion, or, what is more likely, for advantage), they shall procure riches, honors, pleasure, long life, and lusty old age, nay, after death, a seat at the right hand of the Saviour?” As for the pontiffs, they had lost any resemblance to the Apostles in “their riches, honors, jurisdictions, offices, dispensations, licenses … ceremonies and tithes, excommunications and interdicts.” Erasmus, the intellectual, could find only one explanation for their success: the stupidity, ignorance, and gullibility of the faithful.

Encomium moriae was translated into a dozen languages. It enraged the priestly hierarchy. “You should know,” one of them wrote him, “that your Moria has excited a great disturbance even among those who were formerly your most devoted admirers.” But few academic writers, having tasted popular success, can turn away from it, and he was no exception. His faith in the wisdom of his cause was now confirmed. Indeed, his next satire, which appeared three years later, turned out to be even more startling. This time he assailed a specific pontiff, “the warrior pope,” Julius II.

Julius had been a strong pope and is remembered, deservedly, for his patronage of Michelangelo. But like all the pontiffs in that troubled age, he was more sinner than sinned against. He was also a Della Rovere—hot-tempered, flamboyant, and impetuous; Italians spoke of his terribilità(awesomeness). For five years he and his allies fought Venice. This campaign was successful; he recovered Bologna and Perugia, papal cities which the Venetians had seized during the misrule of the Borgia pope. In his second war, an attempt to expel the French from Italy, he was less fortunate, though by all accounts he cut a spectacular figure in combat, taking command at the front, white bearded, wearing helmet and mail, swinging his sword and always on horseback.

In satirizing this formidable pontiff Erasmus neither sought notoriety nor welcomed it; he had tried to deflect personal controversy by presenting his new work anonymously, but that was a doomed hope. He had shown it to too many colleagues. Sir Thomas More stripped his friend’s disguise away in a careless moment, and the responsibility was fixed. Within the Catholic hierarchy, resentment against the author was deepened by what, even today, would be considered questionable taste. The year before the presentation of Erasmus’s work in Paris—it was a dialogue—Julius had died. Thus the Church was actually in mourning for the victim of Iulius exclusus. Yet this did not dampen the hilarity of the Parisian audience, to whom it was first presented as a skit, or the multitude of readers in the months and years to come. In his onslaught on the papacy, Erasmus had struck a nerve; his followers thought the blow long overdue.

Julius is one character in the dialogue; Saint Peter is the other. Both stand at the gates of heaven, where the pope has presented himself for admittance. Peter won’t let him in. Beneath the applicant’s priestly cassock he notes “bloody armor” and a “body scarred with sins all over, breath loaded with wine, health broken by debauchery.” To him the waiting pontiff is “the emperor come back from hell.” What, he asks, has Julius “done for Christianity?”

Heatedly the applicant replies that he has “done more for the Church and Christ than any pope before me.” He cites examples: “I raised the revenue. I invented new offices and sold them. … I set all the princes of Europe by the ears. I tore up treaties, and kept great armies in the field. I covered Rome with palaces, and left five millions in the treasury behind me.”

To be sure, he concedes, “I had my misfortunes.” Some whore had afflicted him with “the French pox.” He had been accused of showing one of his sons favoritism. (“What?” asks Peter, astounded. “Popes with wives and children?” Julius, equally surprised, replies, “No, not wives, but why not children?”) Julius acknowledges that he had also been accused of simony and pederasty, but is evasive when asked if his plea is Not guilty, and after Peter, bearing in, inquires, “Is there no way of removing a wicked pope?” Julius snorts: “Absurd! Who can remove the highest authority of all? … He cannot be deposed for any crime whatsoever.” Peter asks: “Not for murder?” Julius replies: “Not for murder.” Under questioning he adds that a pontiff cannot lose his miter even if guilty of fornication, incest, simony, poisoning, parricide, and sacrilege. Peter concludes that a pope may be “the wickedest of men, yet safe from punishment.” The audience howled, knowing that was precisely Rome’s position.

There is no way Peter is going to let this man into paradise. Julius, apoplectic, tells him that the world has changed since the time “you starved as a pope, with a handful of poor hunted bishops about you.” When that line of reasoning is rejected, he threatens to excommunicate Peter, calling him “only a priest … a beggarly fisherman … a Jew.” Peter, unimpressed, replies, “If Satan needed a vicar he could find none fitter than you. … Fraud, usury, and cunning made you pope. … I brought heathen Rome to acknowledge Christ; you have made it heathen again. … With your treaties and your protocols, your armies and your victories, you had no time to read the Gospels.” Julius asks, “Then you won’t open the gates?” Peter firmly replies, “Sooner to anyone else than to such as you.” When the pontiff threatens to “take your place by storm,” Peter waves him off, astounded that “such a sink of iniquity can be honored merely because he bears the name of pope.”


LIKE ITS PREDECESSOR, Iulius exclusus was a succès fou; an Antwerp humanist wrote the author that it was “for sale everywhere here. Everyone is buying it, everyone is talking of it.” The Curia, alarmed now, urged Erasmus to lay his pen aside and spend the rest of his life in repentant piety. It was too late. That same year, 1514, saw the appearance of Familiarium colloquiorum formulae in the first of its several editions. Eventually the Colloquia familiaria, as it came to be called, became the bulkiest and most loosely organized of his works, and it is the most difficult to characterize. Essentially it was a miscellaneous collection of random thoughts; the full title, Forms of Familiar Conversations, by Erasmus of Rotterdam, Useful Not Only for Polishing a Boy’s Speech But for Building His Character, suggests his lack of a theme. Written in idiomatic, chatty Latin, these colloquies included a peculiar blessing to be bestowed on pregnant women—“Heaven grant that the burden you carry may have as easy an exit as it had an entry”—together with encouragement of circumcision, advice on the proper response when someone sneezed, paeans to piety, discouragement of the burning of heretics, and an endless, tedious colloquy between “The Young Man and the Harlot,” at the end of which the prostitute, perhaps exhausted, agrees to abandon her calling. There were off-color jokes, droll observations on the irrationality of human behavior, an endorsement of the institution of marriage, et cetera, et cetera.

Had that been all, his public, disappointed, would have left the work unread. But Erasmus had not finished savaging the Church and her clergy. An eighteenth-century Protestant translator later wrote that he knew of “no book fitter to read which does, in so delightful and instructing a manner, utterly overthrow almost all the Popish Opinions and Superstitions.” Certainly that seemed the author’s intent. He attacked priestly greed, the abuse of excommunication, miracles, fasting, relic-mongering, and lechery in the monasteries. Women were urged to keep a safe distance from “brawny, swill-bellied monks. … Chastity is more endangered in the cloister than out of it.”

Once more, however, he leveled his heaviest artillery on the Vatican. His contempt for Julius’s wars was venomous—“as if the Church had any enemies as pestilential as impious pontiffs who by their silence allow Christ to be forgotten, enchain [him] by their mercenary rules … and crucify him afresh by their scandalous life!” Depravity and corruption still outraged him: “As to these Supreme Pontiffs, who take the place of Christ,” he wrote, “were wisdom to descend upon them, it would inconvenience them! … It would lose them all that wealth and honor, all those possessions, triumphal progresses, offices, dispensations, tributes and indulgences,” requiring instead vigils, prayer, meditation, “and a thousand troublesome tasks of that sort.” In a private letter he wrote, “The monarchy of Rome, as it is now, is a pestilence to Christendom.”

In the first rush after publication, twenty-four thousand copies of the colloquies vanished from bookshops, and between then and midcentury only the Bible outsold it. There was a continuing demand for all his popular works. In 1520 an Oxford bookseller noted that a third of all the volumes he sold were written by Erasmus. Forty editions of Encomium moriae were published in the author’s lifetime, and as late as 1632 Milton found the book “in everyone’s hand” at Cambridge. It was this popularity, not the barbs themselves, which outraged those ecclesiastics who saw themselves as enforcers of the holy faith. Like every writer who has reached a large audience, he was dismissed for pandering to the masses, telling them what they wanted to hear, motivated solely by the base desire to make money. The impact of his successes on Christendom’s establishment may be judged by an edict from the Holy Roman emperor. Any teacher found using the Colloquia in a classroom, he ordered, was to be executed on the spot. Martin Luther agreed. “On my deathbed I shall forbid my sons to read Erasmus’ ‘Colloquies.’ ” But Luther was then still professor of biblical exegesis at Wittenberg, an eminent member of the Catholic establishment. Within three years he would change his mind and, with it, the history of Western civilization. And Erasmus, though he denied it on his own deathbed, had sounded the claxon of religious revolution.


OF COURSE, “the great apostasy,” as it came to be called in the Vatican, was no more the work of humanist scholars than it was an achievement of those godless descendants of Goths who had amused themselves by forging obscene propositions from the Blessed Virgin. The forces which fractured the unity of Christendom were enormously complex, and humanism, though a prime mover, was merely one current in the mighty wave which had just begun to form far out in the deep. One of its contributions was the revelation that art and learning had flourished before the birth of Jesus, when, it had been thought, such accomplishments were impossible. But men also wondered why God had allowed the triumph of the Muslims and the fall of Constantinople. And explorers returning from Asia and the Western Hemisphere reported thriving cultures which had either rejected Christ or never heard of him, thus discrediting those European Christian leaders who had held that belief in the savior was universal. It was an omen that Marguerite of Angoulême, the lovely Perle des Valois, sister of the king of France and herself queen of Navarre, became a skeptic. Once a woman of ardent faith, she now became a lapsed Catholic. In Le miroir de I’âme pécheresse, she acknowledged that she despised the religious orders, approved of attacks on the pope, thought God cruel, and doubted the Scriptures. Marguerite was accused of heresy before the Sorbonne, and a monk told his flock she should be sewn in a sack and flung into the Seine. As the sister of the French king she was never in peril, however; he adored her, and her championing of sexual freedom had enhanced her popularity in France.

The Vatican, with its population of bastards, was in no position to censure an advocate of infidelity. Marguerite’s only real threat to Catholicism was her subsequent role as an accomplice of its enemies; she later provided sanctuary for fugitives from heresimach posses. One of them was John Calvin. It is instructive to note that Calvin was an ingrate. He rebuked his protectress for including, as guests of her court, Bonaventure Desperiers and Étienne Dolet, skeptics who mocked Catholics and Protestants alike. The dismal truth is that the new Christians would turn out to be at least as bigoted as the old.

However, their clergy were to prove neither corrupt nor depraved, and this, in that age, was refreshing. At a time when homicide, thievery, rape, and assassination reached shocking heights, loyal Catholics were most deeply distressed by the abuses of their own clergymen. Many of the clergy agreed. Abbot Johannes Trithemius of Sponheim condemned his own monks: “The whole day is spent in filthy talk; their whole time is given to play and gluttony. … They neither fear nor love God; they have no thought of the life to come, preferring their fleshly lusts to the needs of the soul. … They scorn the vow of poverty, know not that of chastity, revile that of obedience. … The smoke of their filth ascends all around.” Another monk noted that “many convents … differ little from public brothels.” According to Durant, Guy Jouenneaux, a papal emissary sent to inspect the Benedictine monasteries of France in 1503, described the monks as foulmouthed gamblers and lechers who “live the life of Bacchanals” and “are more worldly than the mere worldling. … Were I minded to relate all those things that have come under my own eyes, I should make too long a tale of it.”

In England Archbishop (later Cardinal) John Morton accused Abbot William of St. Albans of “simony, usury, embezzlement and living publicly and continuously with harlots and mistresses within the precincts of the monastery and without,” and accused the country’s monks of leading “a life of lasciviousness … nay, of defiling the holy places, even the very churches of God, by infamous intercourse with nuns,” making a neighborhood priory “a public brothel.” The bishop of Torcello wrote: “The morals of the clergy are corrupt; they have become an offense to the laity.”

The public perception of the priesthood was in fact appalling. Eustace Chapuys, Charles V’s ambassador in England, wrote the emperor: “Nearly all the people hate the priests.” A Cambridge professor observed that “Englishmen, if called monk, priest, or clerk, felt bitterly insulted.” Everywhere, wrote William Durand, bishop of Mende, the Church “is in ill repute, and all cry and publish it abroad that within her bosom all men, from the greatest even unto the least, have set their hearts upon covetousness. … That the whole Christian folk take from the clergy pernicious examples of gluttony is clear and notorious, since the clergy feast more luxuriously … than princes and kings.” In Vienna the priesthood had once been the objective of ambitious youths. But now, on the eve of the religious revolt, it had attracted no recruits for twenty years.

In his fourteen-volume History of the Popes, Ludwig Pastor concludes that it was virtually impossible to exaggerate the “contempt and hatred of the laity for the degenerate clergy.” Philip Hughes, historian of the Reformation in England, found that in 1514, when the chancellor of the bishop of London was accused of murdering a heretic, the bishop asked Cardinal Wolsey to prevent a trial by jury because Londoners were “so maliciously set in favor of heretical pravity that they will … condemn my clerk, though he were as innocent as Abel.” Even Pope Leo, who, one would have thought, might have felt some responsibility for scandals committed in the name of the Church, observed in 1516, “The lack of rule in the monasteries of France and the immodest life of the monks have come to such a pitch that neither kings, princes, nor the faithful have any respect for them.”

Priests by the thousands found it impossible to live in celibacy. Their solutions varied. In London it was not unknown for women entering the confessional box to be offered absolution in exchange for awkward, cramped intercourse on the spot. In Norfolk, Ripton, and Lambeth, 23 percent of the men indicted for sex crimes against women were clerics, though they constituted less than 2 percent of the population. The most common solution for men unable to bear the strain of continence was to take a mistress. Virtually all German priests kept women. The Roman clergy had a reputation for promiscuity, “but it is a mistake,” writes Pastor, “to assume that the corruption of the clergy was worse in Rome than elsewhere; there is documentary evidence of the immorality of the priests in almost every town in the Italian peninsula. … No wonder, as contemporary writers sadly testify, the influence of the clergy had declined, and in many places hardly any respect was shown for the priesthood.”

There was trouble in the convents, too. The problem seems to have been especially distressing in England. In 1520 eight nunneries there were closed, one because of “the dissolute disposition and incontinence of the religious women of the house, by reason of the vicinity of Cambridge University.” After an examination of twenty-one convents in the diocese of Lincoln, fourteen were blacklisted for “lack of discipline or devotion.” In several, nuns had been found who had been made pregnant by priests. Two reports told of prioresses living in adultery. A diocesan commission filed a separate account of one abbess who had presented a local blacksmith with three sons.

The failure of pontiffs to set a good example was heavily blamed. Egidio of Viterbo, general of the Augustinians, summed up Pope Alexander’s Rome in nine words: “No law, no divinity; Gold, force and Venus rule.” Guicciardini wrote: “Reverence for the Papacy has been utterly lost in the hearts of men.” In 1513 Machiavelli charged that there could be no greater proof of papal “decadence than the fact that the nearer people are to the Roman Church, the head of their religion, the less religious they are. And whoever examines the principles on which that religion is founded, and sees how widely different from those principles its present practice and application are, will judge that her ruin or chastisement is near at hand.”


IT WAS PRECISELY four years away, and the spark which ignited it was the sale of indulgences—specifically, the conduct of the quaestiarii, or pardoners, commissioned to distribute them, and the avarice of the papacy. Thomas Gascoigne, chancellor of Oxford, noted in 1450 that “sinners say nowadays: “I care not how many evils I do in God’s sight, for I can easily get plenary remission of all guilt and penalty by an absolution and indulgence granted me by the pope, whose written grant I have bought for four or six pence.” The “indulgence-mongers,” as Gascoigne scornfully called the quaestiarii in his account, “wander all over the country, and give a letter of pardon, sometimes for two pence, sometimes for a draught of wine or beer … or even for the hire of a harlot, or for carnal love.”

John Colet, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in the early sixteenth century, concluded that the commercialization of indulgences had transformed the Church into a “money machine.” He quoted Isaiah: “The faithful city is become a harlot”—no one could doubt which city he meant—and then Jeremiah: “She hath committed fornication with many lovers. … She hath conceived many seeds of iniquity, and daily bringeth forth the foulest of offspring.” He said, “Covetousness also … has so taken possession of the hearts of all priests … that nowadays we are blind to everything but that alone which seems able to bring us gain.” In effect, the practice of indulgences was a form of religious taxation, and its weight bore heavily on those who could least afford it. Informed Christians deeply resented the gulf between Europe’s hungry masses and Rome’s greed. In 1502 a procurer-general of the Parlement estimated that the Catholic hierarchy owned 75 percent of all the money in France; twenty years later, when the Diet of Nuremberg drew up itsCentum Gravamina—Hundred Grievances—the Church was credited with owning 50 percent of the wealth in Germany.

Peter and Saul (later Paul) had lived in penury. The popes in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries lived like Roman emperors. They were the wealthiest men in the world, and they and their cardinals further enriched themselves by selling holy offices. An ecclesiastical appointee had to send the Curia half his income during the first year of his appointment, and a tenth of it each year thereafter. Archbishops paid huge lump sums for their pallia, the white bands which served as the insignia of their rank. When Catholic officeholders died, all their personal possessions went to Rome. Judgments and dispensations rendered by the Curia became official when the applicant sent a gift in acknowledgment, with the Curia fixing the size of the gift. And every Christian was subject to papal taxes.

Even before he bought his pontificate, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia’s income had been 70,000 florins a year. But an occupant of Saint Peter’s chair could do much better than that. Pope Julius


The traffic in indulgences

II formed a “college” of 101 secretaries who each paid him 7,400 florins for the honor. Leo X, more ambitious, created 141 squires and 60 chamberlains in his papal household, and, in return, received 202,000 florins.

Archbishops, bishops—even lower orders of the clergy—grew fat and frequently supported concubines on their fees and tithes. The laity had first protested their systematic impoverishment in the fourteenth century. Germans had seized tax collectors from Rome, jailed them, mutilated many, executed some. There, and elsewhere, brave prelates had supported the people. One, Alvaro Pelayo of Spain, declared: “Wolves are in control of the Church and feed on [Christian] blood!” another, Bishop Durand of Mende, demanded that “the Church of Rome” remove “evil examples from herself … by which men are scandalized, and the whole people, as it were, infected.”

The Vatican was unmoved. Over the years it had increased its levies, and that continued. In 1476 Pope Sixtus IV had proclaimed that indulgences applied to souls suffering in purgatory. This celestial confidence trick was an immediate success; David S. Schiff has described how peasants starved their families and themselves to buy relief for departed relatives. Discontent was growing when the wasteful Pope Leo found himself broke—undone by his war against the Duchy of Urbino. Going to the well once too often, on March 15, 1517, the Holy Father announced a “special” sale of indulgences. The purpose of this “jubilee” bargain (feste dies), as he called it, was to rebuild St. Peter’s basilica. As an incentive donors would receive, not only “complete absolution and remission of all sins,” but also “preferential treatment for their future sins.”

There was, understandably, no mention of a secret agreement under which the Curia would split the jubilee’s profits with young Albrecht of Brandenburg, archbishop of Mainz, who was deeply in debt to Germany’s merchant family, the Fuggers. Albrecht had the pontiff’s sympathy, and he was entitled to it. Albrecht had been obliged to borrow 20,000 florins because that was the price the pope had exacted for his confirmation as prelate.

The new archbishop chose as his jubilee’s principal agent and hawker one Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar in his fifties. There were quaestiarii whose traffic in indulgences was scrupulous, but Tetzel was not among them. He was a sort of medieval P. T. Barnum who traveled from village to village with a brass-bound chest, a bag of printed receipts, and an enormous cross draped with the papal banner. Accompanying him were a Fugger accountant and another friar, an assistant carrying a velvet cushion bearing Leo’s bull of indulgence. Their entrance into a town square was heralded by the ringing of church bells. Jugglers performed and local throngs crowded around, waving candles, flags, and relics.

Setting up in the nave of the local church, Tetzel would begin his pitch by opening the bag and calling out, “I have here the passports … to lead the human soul to the celestial joys of Paradise.” The fees were dirt-cheap, he pointed out, if they considered the alternatives. Christians who had committed a mortal sin owed God seven years’ penance. “Who then,” he asked, “would hesitate for a quarter-florin to secure one of these letters of remission?” Anything could be forgiven, he assured them, anything. He gave an example. Suppose a youth had slipped into his mother’s bed


St. Peter’s Square in Rome at the time of the coronation of Pope Sixtus V, in 1585.

and spent his seed inside her. If that boy put the right coins in the pontiff’s bowl, “the Holy Father has the power in heaven and earth to forgive that sin, and if he forgives it, God must do so also.” Warming up, Tetzel even appealed to the survivors of men who had gone to their graves unshriven: “As soon as the coin rings in the bowl, the soul for whom it is paid will fly out of purgatory and straight to heaven.”

In Germany Tetzel exceeded his quota. He always did. This was his profession; he traveled from one diocese to another, raising funds as instructed by the Curia. Indulgences were popular among the peasantry, but less so among those who, in those days, formed the opinions of the laity. And this time he was in hostile territory. Northeastern Germany—Magdeburg, Halberstadt, and Mainz—had been chosen for this extortion because it was weak. France, Spain, and England were strong, and when they had asked that little be expected of them, pleading poverty, the pontiff had agreed. The decision was not without risk. Antipapal feeling was strong and vocal in Germany. The papal nuncio to the Holy Roman Empire was worried. That part of the Reich, he had written the pope, was in an ugly mood. He had therefore urged cancellation of the jubilee.

Leo had ignored him—unwisely, for presently ominous signs appeared. After watching Tetzel perform, a local Franciscan friar wrote: “It is incredible what this ignorant monk said and preached. He gave sealed letters stating that even the sins a man was intending to commit would be forgiven. The pope, he said, had more power than all the Apostles, all the angels and saints, more even than the Virgin Mary herself, for these were all subjects of Christ, but the pope was equal to Christ.” Another eyewitness quoted the moneyraiser as declaring that even if a man had violated the Mother of God the indulgence would wipe away his sin.

Nevertheless, Tetzel was probably acting within the letter of his archiepiscopal instructions, and he would have emerged triumphant once more had he not crossed, or at least approached, a political line. That was the boundary of Saxony, then ruled by Frederick III, also known variously as Frederick the Wise and, because he was among the privileged few entitled to choose a new Holy Roman emperor, as elector of Saxony. Frederick was no less reverent than other rulers of his time, no less superstitious — he had collected nineteen thousand saintly relics in Wittenberg’s Castle Church—and, until now, no critic of quaestiarii. However, accounts of Tetzel’s extravagant claims had troubled him. He wanted to keep Saxon coins in Saxon pockets. Therefore he had declared the friar and his jubilee sale non grata in his territory. That was where the peddler of paradise passports blundered. He knew he wasn’t wanted in Frederick’s domain, but while working the dioceses of Meissen, Magdeburg, and Halberstadt he came so close to the border that some Saxons crossed over and bought his divine wares.

Frederick was indignant. He considered this an affront. Of far greater moment, several of these Saxon customers brought their “papal letters” to a slender, tonsured monk of grave aspect and hard eyes—Martin Luther—asking him, as a professor at Wittenberg, to judge their authenticity. After careful study Luther pronounced them frauds. Word of this reached Tetzel. He made inquiries. The professor, he was told—correctly—had no intention of offending the Church. Luther was an ardent Catholic, though inclined, as an academic, to draw nice distinctions. Such a man, Tetzel decided, would be easy to intimidate. Therefore, in the most momentous decision of his life—and one of the most momentous in the history of Christianity—he formally denounced him.


TETZEL BECAME the most famous man to misjudge Professor Martin Luther, but he was far from the first. Luther had always been difficult. Few were close to him, and none—including, perhaps, Luther himself—understood the tumultuous forces within him. His genius is unquestioned. He had begun as an Augustinian friar. In 1505, at the age of twenty-two, he was lecturing on the ethics of Aristotle, using the original Greek text. Two years later he was consecrated a priest, and the year after that, though he continued to regard himself as a friar or monk, he was appointed by Frederick to the chair of professor of philosophy at Wittenberg, on the Elbe, about sixty miles southwest of Berlin. Later in his career he translated both the Old and New Testaments into New High German, a language he virtually created, and composed forty-one hymns, for which he wrote both the words and music. The most memorable of these, still sung around the world, is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

In his early years Luther’s loyalty to the Vatican was total; when he first glimpsed the Eternal City in 1511, he fell to his knees crying, “Hail to thee, O holy Rome!” He was already admired as a priest of narrow strength who had risen to early eminence as much by force of character as by intellect. Nevertheless, deep within him lurked a dark, irrational, half-mad streak of violence. This flaw, and it was a flaw, may be explained by his origins, which lay in the ignorant, superstition-ridden depths of medieval society. Luther was the product of a terrifying Teutonic childhood which would have broken most men.

He had been born in 1483, the son of a Mohra peasant who became a Mansfield miner, a husky, hardworking, frugal, humorless, choleric anticleric who loathed the Church yet believed in hell—which, in his imagination, existed as a frightening underworld toward which men were driven by cloven-footed demons, elves, goblins, satyrs, ogres, and witches, and from which they could be rescued only by benign spirits. It was Hans Luther’s conviction that these good witches rarely interceded, though occasionally they could be propitiated by men living lives of relentless, joyless virtue.

Since children were born wicked, as Hans believed, it was virtuous to beat them senseless with righteous cudgels. However, Martin, the eldest of seven children, was never a submissive victim. He was not strong enough to overpower his father, but when the thrashings entered the realm of sadism, the two became, as he later recalled, open enemies. He received no sympathy from his mother. Though more timid, less irascible, and less worldly than her husband—she spent hours on her knees, praying to obscure saints—she shared Hans’s convictions, including his belief in the salubrious effect of a vigorously applied lash. On one occasion, according to Luther, she caught him stealing a nut and whipped him to a bloody pulp.

The Church was the last career such parents would have chosen for their eldest son. He knew it, and that decided him. “The severe and harsh life I led with them,” he wrote, “was the reason I afterward took refuge in the cloister and became a monk. ” Despite its inspirational beginning, his visit to the Vatican left a poor impression on him, but at the time he kept that to himself. His colleagues, dazzled by his treatises and his performances in his lecture hall, would have been astounded to learn that he had never shed the pagan superstitions infused in him even before he had reached the age of awareness—that a part of him was still haunted by pagan nightmares of werewolves and griffins crouched beneath writhing treetops under a full moon, of trolls and warlocks feasting on serpents’ hearts, of men transforming themselves into slimy


Martin Luther (1483–1546)

incubi and coupling with their own sisters while in a cave Brunhilde dreamed of the dank smell of bloodstained axes.

Luther was peculiar in other ways. His fellow monks spoke of the devil, warned of the devil, feared the devil. Luther saw the devil—ran into apparitions of him all the time. He was also the most anal of theologians. In part, this derived from the national character of the Reich. A later mot had it that the Englishman’s sense of humor is in the drawing room, the Frenchman’s sense of humor is in the bedroom, and the German’s sense of humor is in the bathroom. For Luther the bathroom was also a place of worship. His holiest moments often came when he was seated on the privy (Abort) in a Wittenberg monastery tower. It was there, while moving his bowels, that he conceived the revolutionary Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. Afterward he wrote: “These words ‘just’ and ‘justice of God’ were a thunderbolt to my conscience. … I soon had the thought [that] God’s justice ought to be the salvation of every believer. … Therefore it is God’s justice which justifies us and saves us. And these words became a sweeter message for me. This knowledge the Holy Spirit gave me on the privy in the tower.”

Well, God is everywhere, as the Vatican conceded four centuries later, backing away from a Jesuit scholar who had gleefully translated explicit excretory passages in Luther’s Sammtiche Schriften. The Jesuit had provoked angry protests from Lutherans who accused him of “vulgar Catholic polemics.” Yet the real vulgarity lies in Luther’s own words, which his followers have shelved. They enjoy telling the story of how the devil threw ink at Luther and Luther threw it back. But in the original version it wasn’t ink; it was Scheiss (shit). That feces was the ammunition Satan and his Wittenberg adversary employed against each other is clear from the rest of Luther’s story, as set down by his Wittenberg faculty colleague Philipp Melanchthon: “Having been worsted … the Demon departed indignant and murmuring to himself after having emitted a crepitation of no small size, which left a foul stench in the chamber for several days afterwards.”

Again and again, in recalling Satan’s attacks on him, Luther uses the crude verb bescheissen, which describes what happens when someone soils you with his Scheiss. In another demonic stratagem, an apparition of the prince of darkness would humiliate the monk by “showing his arse” (Steiss). Fighting back, Luther adopted satanic tactics. He invited the devil to “kiss” or “lick” his Steiss, threatened to “throw him into my anus, where he belongs,” to defecate “in his face” or, better yet, “in his pants” and then “hang them around his neck.”

A man who had battled the foulest of fiends in der Abort and die Latrine was unlikely to be intimidated by the vaudevillian Tetzel. Yet Luther’s reply to the jubilee agent was not as dramatic as legend has made it. He did not “nail” a denunciation of the pope on the door of Frederick’s Castle Church. In Wittenberg, as in many university towns of the time, the church door was customarily used as a bulletin board; an academician with a new religious theory would post it there, thus signifying his readiness to defend it against all challengers.

Luther’s timing was canny, however. He took advantage of another tradition, the elector’s annual display of his relics on All Saints’ Day, November 1. This always brought a crowd. Therefore at noon on October 31, 1517, he affixed his (Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum (Disputation for the Clarification of the Power of Indulgences) alongside the postulates of other theologians. He did something else. He prepared a German translation to be circulated among the worshipers who would gather in the morning. And he sent a copy to Archbishop Albrecht, sponsor and secret beneficiary of Tetzel’s carnival act.

Luther’s theses—he had posted ninety-five of them—were preceded by a conciliatory preamble: “Out of love for the faith and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology.” It did not occur to him that his position was heretical. Nor was it—then. The pontiff, he agreed, retained the right to absolve penitents, “the power of the keys.” He simply argued that peddling pardons like Colosseum souvenirs trivialized sin by debasing the contrition.

However, he then lodged an objection, one Rome could not ignore. The papal keys, he pointed out, could not reach beyond the grave, freeing an unremorseful soul from purgatory or even decreasing its term of penance there. And while he absolved the Holy See from huckstering indulgences, he added a sharp, significant observation, which, in retrospect, may be seen as the first warning flash of the fury he had bottled up within since his hideous childhood. It was, in fact, a direct criticism of the Apostolic See—breathtaking because it could only be interpreted as the premeditated act of a heresiarch, and thus, a capital offense. He wrote: “This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due the pope from … the shrewd questionings of the laity, to wit: ‘Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems a … number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?’ ”


THE SALE of indulgences plunged. Fewer and fewer quarter-florin coins rang in the pontiff’s bowl. The jubilee had virtually collapsed; Tetzel’s spell had been broken. Luther was the new spellbinder—divine or satanic, for opinion was deeply divided—and accounts of his audacity spread across the continent with what was, in the early 1500s, historic speed.

As long as a year would pass before the tidings of great events reached the far corners of Europe. Except for the flatbed presses, which moved at a lentitudinous pace, communications as we know them did not exist. Information was usually carried by travelers, and trips were measured by the calendar. The best surviving timetables start from Venice, then the center of commerce. A passenger departing there could hope to enter Naples nine days later. Lyons was two weeks away; Augsburg, Nuremberg, and Cologne, two or three weeks; Lisbon seven weeks. With luck, a man could reach London in a month, provided the weather over the Channel was cooperative. If a storm broke in midpassage, however, you were trapped. The king of England, leaving Bordeaux under fair skies, did not appear in London until twelve days later.

Yet if news was electrifying, it could pass from village to village and even across the Channel, borne word-of-mouth. That is what happened after Luther affixed his theses to the church door. Before the first week in November had ended, spontaneous demonstrations supporting or condemning him had erupted throughout Germany. Luther had done the unthinkable—he had flouted the ruler of the universe.









Penetrating the essence of the peasants’ faith is difficult. Essentially it was belief in the supernatural. The lower orders of parochial clergy were regarded with contempt but also with affection. Bishops and archbishops, on the other hand, were less popular. In a study of Luther’s homeland on the eve of his rise, Johannes Janssen, himself an eminent Catholic, found the prelates there obsessed with “worldly greed,” while “preaching and the care of souls were altogether neglected.” And, unlike priests faithful to their Konkubinen, they were notoriously promiscuous, sometimes traveling to federal or imperial diets with several mistresses in tow. The peasants’ view of the pope is harder to define. They revered him, but not as the Vicar of Christ. He was more like a great magician. Now his powers had been impeached by a lowly Augustinian theologian. They expected a vengeful response. Its potency would sway their allegiance. If the pontiff’s magic failed, they would begin to turn away from him.

In defying the organized Church, Luther had done something else. He had broken the dam of medieval discipline. By his reasoning, every man could be his own priest, a conclusion he himself would reach in 1520–1521. Moreover, as fragmentary accounts of the Gospels began to circulate, the peasantry learned that the sympathies of Christ and his apostles had lain with the oppressed, not with the princes who had presumed to speak in his name. Because church and state were so entwined in central Europe, Luther’s challenge to ecclesiastical prestige encouraged a proletariat eager to demand a larger share in an increasingly prosperous Germany. Soon a pamphlet titled Karsthans (Pitchfork John) appeared in rural villages, pledging Luther the protection of the peasants. The assumption that he had become their champion was implicit.

The views of the upper classes were very different. Before the succession of disastrous popes their commitment to the Catholic hierarchy and the order of temporal life had been unwavering. Their lives were still guided by the dogmas of the Church, but the corruption in Rome and the flagrant misconduct of the clergy had angered them. It was also their “general opinion,” in the words of Ludwig Pastor, “that in the matter of taxation the Roman Curia put on the pressure to an unbearable degree. … Even men devoted to the Church and the Holy See … often declared that the German grievances against Rome were, from a financial point of view, for the most part only too well founded.” Now they listened attentively to the sermons of Luther’s disciples touring Austria, Bohemia, Saxony, and the Swiss Confederation. The patricians, too, awaited a strong response from Rome.


ON APRIL 24, 1518, the German Augustinians, meeting in Heidelberg, relieved Luther of his duties as district vicar. It was a show of confidence, not a reprimand, and he used his new freedom well, delivering a closely reasoned denunciation of Scholastic doctrine as a pretentious “theory of glory.” Printed copies were circulated across the Continent and discussed in widening circles, including the humanist community. Since the turn of the century humanist leaders had awaited a distinguished theologian with the courage to label Scholasticism as anti-intellectualism parading mindless shibboleths as philosophy. German scholars now published a sheaf of leaflets proclaiming themselves Lutherans.

In England John Colet, who had seen the revolt coming—yet whose loyalty to the papacy would remain unshaken throughout the coming tumult—saw the Curia engrossed not with good works and repentance, but with the size of the fees it could exact. Luther was discovering that he had become the voice of millions who suffered doubly from the Renaissance popes; impoverished by highwaymen like Tetzel, they also grieved for their beloved faith, desecrated by rogues in vestments. From this point forward, his wrath and theirs would join, gathering in volume and strength as together they confronted the most powerful symbol of authority Europe had ever known. Both sides would invoke the name of Christ, but in Germany, where first blood was being drawn, the spectacle invited parallels, not with the New Testament, but with Das Lied vom huren Seyfrid, the pagan fable first heard by Luther as a child, which reaches its climax when Siegfried buries his gory ax in the dragon Fafnir.

The gauntlet had been flung, but Pope Leo merely toyed with it. Archbishop Albrecht, alarmed, sent the theses from Mainz to Rome accompanied by a forceful request that Luther be formally disciplined. Leo misinterpreted the challenge. Dismissing it as another dispute between Augustinians and Dominicans, he turned the matter over to Gabriel della Volta, the vicar general of Luther’s order, instructing him to deal with it through channels, in this case Johann von Staupitz, the Augustinian responsible for Wittenberg. Della Volta’s order may have wound up in some curial pigeonhole or file. Certainly it never reached Staupitz. In effect, the papacy had ignored the defiance in Wittenberg.

Elsewhere, however, the Catholic reaction was vehement. The universities of Louvain, Cologne, and Leipzig, strongholds of theological tradition, condemned the theses in their entirety. And Tetzel, feeling himself libeled, had decided to reply. Because he was an illiterate and ignorant of virtually every principle at stake, the Dominicans had appointed a theologian, Konrad Wimpina, as his collaborator, and in December 1517 One Hundred and Six Anti-Theses had appeared in Frankfurt under Tetzel’s name. Unapologetic, unyielding, the friar defended his distributions of cut-rate salvation in an argument later described in the Catholic Encyclopedia as giving “an uncompromising, even dogmatic, sanction to mere theological opinions that were hardly consonant with the most accurate scholarship.” The following March a hawker offered eight hundred copies of the leaflet in Wittenberg. University students mobbed him, bought the lot, and burned them in the market square.

Luther counterattacked in a tract, Indulgence and Grace. Now the rebelliousness in his tone was unmistakable: “If I am called a heretic by those whose purses will suffer from my truths, I care not much for their brawling; for only those say this whose dark understanding has never known the Bible.” In the Curia wise men, realizing that Tetzel had become an embarrassment, told Leo that he had to go. The pope, agreeing, received Karl von Miltitz, a young Saxon priest of noble lineage now serving in Rome. Once the dust had settled, he told Von Miltitz, he wanted him to travel north and unfrock the discredited friar.


BUT ABANDONING TETZEL now—with orthodox German theologians fiercely defending him—was out of the question. Archbishop Albrecht had privately reprimanded the salesman for his excesses. In public, however, the leadership of the Catholic establishment there closed its ranks and its minds, refusing to discuss compromise. In Rome, a German archbishop called for heresy proceedings against Luther, and the Dominicans demanded his immediate impeachment. Dr. Johann Eck, vice chancellor of Ingolstadt University and perhaps the most eminent theologian in central Europe, attacked the theses in a leaflet, Obelisks, accusing their author of subverting the faith by spreading “poison.” The Curia’s censor of literature, concurring, issued a Dialogue reaffirming “the absolute supremacy of the pope,” and Jakob van Hoogsträten of Cologne demanded Luther be burned at the stake.

Instead he kept scratching away with his pen. In April 1518, the month after Eck’s blast, he published Resolutiones, a curious brochure whose ostensible purpose was to assure the Church of his orthodoxy and submission. In a copy sent to the pontiff he offered “myself prostrate at the feet of your Holiness, with all I am and have. Quicken, slay, call, recall, approve, reprove, as may seem to you good. I will acknowledge your voice as the voice of Christ, residing and speaking in you.” Yet this inscription was wholly inconsistent with the text that followed. Resolutiones implicitly denied the pontiff’s supremacy, suggesting he was answerable to an ecumenical council. The pamphlet went on to slight relics, pilgrimages, extravagant claims for the powers of saints, and the holy city (“Rome … now laughs at good men; in what part of the Christian world do men more freely make a mock of the best bishops than in Rome, the true Babylon?”). He declared the very foundation of the Curia’s indulgences policy—stretching back over three centuries—null and void. The monk of Wittenberg was growing ever more confident, and as his confidence grew, so did his feelings of independence.

Leo was stunned. Abandon indulgences? Just as his pontificate was approaching bankruptcy? He was rebuilding a cathedral, waging wars, funding elaborate dinner parties while trying to keep Raphael, Lotto, Vecchio, Perugino, Titian, Parmigianino, and Michelangelo in wine. The Curia, juggling budgets, was swamped with bills. And now a German monk—a mere friar—had the audacity to condemn a prime source of Vatican revenue. The Holy Father summoned Martin Luther to Rome.

The invitation was declined. Acceptance might mean the stake—there were plenty of precedents for that. At the very least Luther might be assigned to an obscure Italian monastery, where, within a year, he and his cause would be forgotten. Instead he appealed to Frederick the Wise, submitting that German princes should shield their people from extradition. The elector agreed. He liked his controversial Augustinian. (One reason was that Luther’s Wittenberg duties included keeping the university’s books; unlike Leo, he had never resorted to red ink.) And


Pope Leo X (1475–1521)

Maximilian’s advice, which Frederick sought, was decisive. The Habsburg emperor had only five months to live, but he had lost none of the political shrewdness which had forged an intricate dynastic structure, making his family dominant in central Europe. He was keeping a close watch on the interplay of German politics and religion. “Take good care of that monk,” Maximilian wrote the elector. Handing Luther over to the pontiff, he explained, could be a political blunder. In his judgment, anticlerical sentiment was increasing throughout Germany.

Almost immediately an imperial diet, or Reichstag, confirmed him. The emperor, in summoning his German princes to Augsburg, was responding to a request from Rome. Leo had told him he was planning a new crusade against the Turks and wanted a surtax to support it. The diet rejected his appeal. The action was highly unusual, but not unprecedented; Frederick, after collecting a papal levy from his people, had decided to keep it and build the University of Wittenberg. His peers had been heartened. All the Vatican wanted from the princes, it seemed, was money, money, and more money. In their view the confirmation fees, annates, and costs of canonical litigation were already millstones around the empire’s neck. Besides, they had sent the Curia revenues for other crusades, only to learn that the ventures had been canceled, while the funds, unreturned, had been spent on Italian projects. All previous crusades had failed anyway. And the princes weren’t worried about Turks. The real enemy of Christendom, they decided, was what one of them called “the hell-hound in Rome.” In a conciliatory letter to the Vatican, Maximilian assured the pope that he would move sternly against heresy. At the same time, he ventured to suggest that Luther be treated carefully.


AFTER MUCH THOUGHT, Leo agreed. Luther’s summons to Rome was canceled. Instead, in the autumn of 1518 the pontiff ordered him to confer with a papal emissary—Tommaso de Vio, Cardinal Cajetan, general of the Dominicans—in Augsburg. On October 7 Luther arrived there with an imperial safe-conduct in his pocket. By now his life was in jeopardy, though Cajetan was no threat. The cardinal was a man of honor; he possessed a formidable intellectual reputation and had published a tremendous nine-volume commentary on Aquinas’s Summa theologica. Their meeting, however, was barren of results, and since neither principal had been told its purpose, it ended in fiasco. Luther had come prepared to discuss an agenda of reforms, but the cardinal was an enforcer of ecclesiastical discipline. Considering his scholarly background, it seems odd that he ignored Luther’s professorial appointment. Instead he acted in his role as a Dominican general, viewing the Wittenberg monk merely as a member of the lower clergy, who, having pledged obedience to prelates, could not criticize them publicly. The only issue, Cajetan said, was the sentence to be meted out.

He had, in fact, already reached his decision: the offender must immediately issue a public retraction and solemnly swear never again to question papal policy. Luther bluntly refused. His eminence, incensed, dismissed the impenitent priest and ordered him never to reappear in his presence unless he was on his knees, delivering an unconditional recantation. Then, alone, Cajetan scrawled a vehement denunciation of Luther and sent it at once, by special messenger, to Frederick the Wise.

Servants, watching this, reported it to Saxon councillors—in that age spies were ubiquitous; every European monarch maintained espionage rings in every other royal court, and the largest and most skillful were embedded deep in the Vatican. Rumors to the contrary, Cajetan did not actually try to arrest Luther, but concern for the monk’s safety was genuine. After a reliable source reported plans to take him to Italy in chains, he was bundled out a side door, concealed in a farmer’s cart, and hurried out of the city. It had been close; the trap had been about to spring. Cajetan wrote Frederick again, demanding that Luther be sent to Italy at once under armed guard. The elector refused. The monk was safe for the moment, but his situation was that of a fugitive living in a country which has decided, at least for the moment, not to extradite him.

Safely back in Wittenberg, he wrote a lively account of his confrontation with the cardinal and circulated it throughout Germany. To one friend he wrote: “I send you my trifling work that you may see whether or not I am right in supposing that, according to Paul, the real Antichrist holds sway over the Roman court.” Luther and his Lutherans were growing more intemperate in their language, and their private references to the pope were growing more irreverent. The pontiff again invited him to Rome for confession, offering to pay for the trip; Luther again decided that his security would be tighter in Wittenberg. The monk’s peril had grown. The Holy Father and his prelates were omnipotent in the judgement of heresy. Every European sovereign was bound by law to deliver into their hands anyone branded an apostate by the ecclesiastic hierarchy. Lately the pope had become wary of exercising that right. As the prestige of the Holy Roman Empire weakened, it had become obvious that eventually a scofflaw ruler would defy him. But the line was only beginning to blur. No monarch had yet refused to hand over a heresiarch —and thousands of men had perished at the stake for offenses less flagrant than those already committed by Wittenberg’s seditious professor. To challenge papal supremacy was, by definition, heretical and a capital offense. In the memory of living men four Germans had been martyred for apostasy, and the similarity of their offenses and Luther’s was striking. Johan von Wesel of Erfurt, like Luther a professor, had rejected indulgences, telling his students: “I despise the pope, the Church, and the councils, and I worship only Christ.” Despite a later recantation, he had been sent to his death. Condemnation had also awaited the brothers John and Lewin of Augsburg, for pronouncing indulgences a hoax, and Wessel Gansfort, who had rejected indulgences, absolution, and purgatory, calling the Bible the sole source of faith and salvation.

Luther later said of Gansfort, “If I had read his works before, my enemies might have thought that Luther had borrowed everything from [him], so great is the agreement between our spirits.” That was also true of the others, and if they had been guilty of high crimes, so was he; he had defied the Vatican in print, on platforms, and from the pulpit. All that was lacking was a formal confession before an official ecclesiastical body, and on June 27, 1519, eight months after his flight from Augsburg, he unwittingly provided that in the great tapestried hall of Leipzig’s Pleissenburg Castle.

Actually he could, with dignity, have absented himself from the Leipzig debate. The principal figure, in effect representing Luther, was his senior colleague at Wittenberg, Andreas Bodenstein, universally known, from his birthplace, as Professor Karlstadt. Karlstadt had run afoul of the Catholic hierarchy when Obelisks, Johann Eck’s polemical reply to Luther’s theses, had appeared. At the time Luther himself had been packing for the Augustinian meeting in Heidelberg; his own comments had been confined to a few scribbled notes at the bottoms of pages. But Karlstadt, eager to join the struggle, had produced a manuscript listing 379 new theses, to which he had added another 26 before publication. And now, challenged by Eck, he found himself in the middle of the battle.


EVERY SEAT was taken. Most of the audience comprised theologians and nobles, but there was a large delegation of Wittenberg students armed with clubs, prepared to fight for their professors. The youths kept a wary eye on the presiding officer, Duke George of Albertine Saxony. Duke George was a cousin of Frederick the Wise, but, unlike the elector, he was also a fierce conservative and therefore hostile to Luther. The only motive for Luther’s presence in the hall was personal loyalty. He was a fighter and an able debater, and Karlstadt, though intellectually gifted, was neither. The great Eck was expected to destroy him. Luther knew Eck could do it, but meant to see to it that he left the hall bearing a few bruises of his own.

As it turned out, Eck carried the day, scoring a greater victory than anyone had anticipated. Afterward he boasted of a personal triumph. He was right; it was. When Luther intervened, supporting his colleague, Eck skillfully maneuvered him far afield, then to a quagmire, into which he sank. The catastrophe began innocently, with a dispute over obscure issues raised a century earlier at the ecumenical General Council of Constance, called to reform the Church, bring an end to the Great Schism (there were three rival popes at the time), and suppress heresy. Unaware of where they were headed, Luther allowed Eck to lead him into a candid discussion of a tragic victim of the council, the Bohemian martyr Jan Hus.

Hus, the first great Czech patriot, had wanted to see the establishment of a Bohemian national church. After his ordination he had dominated the ancient University of Prague as its rector and dean of the philosophy faculty. Delivering both lectures and sermons in Czech, he rode to a crest on the rising sense of Bohemian national identity. By attempting to end abuses of the clergy, he offended his ecclesiastical superiors. Excommunicated, he nevertheless continued preaching under the protection of Bohemia’s weak King Wenceslas IV (Václav in Czech).

He then alienated powerful men in the Church and grievously offended the king. In 1411, the antipope John XXIII had demanded a large Czech sale of indulgences to finance new wars. Wars, Hus argued, were temporal; using ecclesiastical power to finance them was intolerable. Wenceslas, who had been promised a share in the proceeds of the sale, turned against him. Hus went into hiding and wrote tracts supporting his position, shielded by admiring peasants. Then, in 1414, when the Council of Constance was meeting, he was invited to address it. The reigning Holy Roman emperor, Sigismund, offered him a safe-conduct, and he accepted it, a suicidal error, for Sigismund betrayed him into the hands of the schismatic pope. Sentenced by a panel of judges, all his enemies, Hus went to the stake as a heretic.

Had Luther approved the condemnation of Hus, or even evaded the issue, his movement would have collapsed and he would have been scorned, even by his students, as craven and dishonorable. Being neither, he replied that even ecumenical councils could err. Hus had been right, he said; his doctrines had been sound; those who had broken faith with him, and then damned him, had behaved shamefully and disgraced the Church.

It was a brave reply. It was also calamitous. His differences with Rome had begun with a minor dispute over indulgences. Now he had challenged pontifical authority over Christendom, revealing himself before all Europe as an unshriven, unrepentant apostate. He knew it, and as he left Pleissenburg Castle, surrounded by his vigilant students, he was a badly shaken man.


ON THE DAY FOLLOWING Luther’s humiliation, the seven electors of the Holy Roman Empire met in Frankfurt am Main to choose a new emperor, Maximilian having died six months earlier. The identity of the successor to der gross Max was far more engrossing to Pope Leo than the incipient split in the Catholic Church—a demonstration of how hopelessly the pontiff’s priorities were askew. Historians agree that Luther could have been swiftly crushed had the pope moved decisively in his role as Vicar of Christ, the spiritual head of Christendom. Instead he dallied, vacillated, became engrossed in minor matters, and spent too many late evenings with his books. Leo X was no Borgia. In many ways he was more admirable than Martin Luther. Head of the Medici family, a poet and a man of honor, he was a leading patron of the Renaissance, a connoisseur of art, a scholar steeped in classical literature, and a pontiff tolerant enough to chuckle as he read the satires of Erasmus, appreciative that the humanist had observed the gentlemanly rule under which learned men of that time were free to write as they pleased, provided they confined themselves to Latin, leaving the unlettered masses undisturbed.

Those closest to the pope agreed that he was afflicted by three weaknesses: he was superficial, a spendthrift, and he lacked judgment. His poor judgment was to be his undoing, and it contributed heavily to the undoing of his Church. In the absence of decisive pontifical action, the Wittenberg abscess was spreading steadily. Oblivious to it, Leo waited nearly three years after the posting of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses before issuing an ultimatum to their author. Meantime the situation within Germany had changed radically.

A pope who took his responsibilities more seriously would have stifled the revolt before the end of 1517 by ordering Frederick III to silence the mutinous Augustinian, imprison him, or cremate him. But Leo, for purely secular reasons, was courting Frederick. It had been clear for some time that the reign of the great Max was nearing its end. Any European prince was eligible to succeed him. The three obvious candidates, all mighty kings, were Henry VIII of England, Francis I of France, and young Carlos I of Spain.

Henry could be omitted. He lacked the wealth to compete in the election, and he wasn’t much interested anyhow. Real power, not the illusion of it, attracted the vigorous British monarch, and he knew that despite its lustrous name the glitter of the imperial realm was fading. It was better known now as die Romaisches Reich deutscher Nation, a loose confederation whose leader, limited in his sovereignty, was voted into office by the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne; the count palatine of the Rhine; the king of Bohemia; the margrave of Brandenburg—and the duke of Saxony, then Frederick III, Luther’s patron.

Unlike Henry, the kings of France and Spain coveted the imperial title. Though reduced to a symbol, it was deeply invested with tradition and tied to the papacy in a hundred ways; as Maximilian had demonstrated, a shrewd diplomat could achieve much by manipulating its panoply. But Pope Leo wanted neither Charles nor Francis. The new emperor, if able, would control Germany, and any king who could unite Germany with either France or Spain would destroy the European balance of power that had preserved the shaky autonomy of the Italian states since 1494. Leo preferred a minor prince, and because Frederick of Saxony was the senior member of the electoral college, he settled on him. That explains his deference toward Frederick’s lenient treatment of Luther. No other pontiff would have sent a cardinal to bargain with a monk—Cardinal Cajetan had misunderstood his mission to Augsburg, because it was, by all precedents, inexplicable—and none other would have tolerated the stream of abusive Lutheran pamphlets now issuing from Wittenberg. Committed to Frederick, Leo had even dispatched Von Miltitz to Wittenberg to offer him “the Golden Rose,” an award popes conferred on princes as a sign of their highest favor. Leo hoped that would improve the Saxon elector’s chances at Frankfurt am Main. Frederick, a man of honor, dismissed Miltitz and sent him back to Rome.

It had been a footling gesture. Carlos of Spain was not to be denied. He was prepared to become Emperor Charles V the way Borgia had become pope—by buying the imperial crown. He went deeply into debt to do it, but he had a lot of collateral. He ruled, not only Spain, but also Sicily, Sardinia, Naples, Spain’s possessions abroad, the Habsburg holdings in Austria, the Netherlands, Flanders, and Franche-Comté. Still, the empire, though shopworn, did not come cheap; his Trinkgeld—bribes to electors who put their votes on the market—came to 850,000 ducats, of which he had borrowed 543,000 from the Fuggers.

German strength, which would prove indispensable to Luther, owed much to the new prosperity powered by the formidable Fuggers and their fellow merchants. Unintimidated by rank, they insisted that they be paid what was owed them, and on time; when the new emperor fell in arrears, Jakob Fugger II threatened to expose him: “It is well known that your Majesty without me might not have acquired the imperial honor, as I can attest with the written statements of all the delegates,” he wrote, threatening to do exactly that unless Charles immediately issued an “order that the money which I have paid out, together with the interest on


Emperor Charles V (Carlos I of Spain) (1500–1558)

it, shall be repaid without further delay.” Charles paid—mostly by giving Fugger the right to collect various royal revenues in Spain.


CHARLES HAD BEEN ELECTED, but his coronation was more than a year away. That was long enough to form alliances, declare and win wars, unseat dynasties —or nullify the choice of an emperorelect. Pope Leo, stubbornly refusing to concede defeat, continued to neglect his office, by persevering in his courtship of Frederick the Wise. He seemed prepared to endure the Wittenberg insubordination indefinitely, trusting that this lesser issue, which is how he regarded it, would yield to a peaceful solution. Lutheran ambivalence encouraged him in this. Even before Leipzig, Luther had been suffering through what might be called an identity crisis. He had been trying to define the papacy and his relationship to it. Meeting Von Miltitz in Altenburg in January 1919, he had appeared anxious to preserve the unity of Christendom, offering to remain mute if his critics would also. He was prepared to issue public statements acknowledging the wisdom of praying to saints and the reality of purgatory. He was also willing to urge his followers to make peace with the Church, and would even concede the usefulness of indulgences in remitting canonical penances. To Tetzel, lying on a monastic deathbed, he sent a gentle note, assuring him that the issue between them had been a minor incident in a larger controversy, “that the affair had not been begun on that account, but that the child had quite another father.” In March he even sent the pontiff a letter of submission.

This was young Luther redux—a flashback to the moment when, as a twenty-eight-year-old monk, he had first glimpsed the capital of Catholicism and prostrated himself. Then a devout pilgrim, he had genuflected before saintly relics, worshiped at every Roman altar, and scaled the Scala Santa on his knees. Now he wrote the Holy See in the same exalted mood. The response from the Vatican, prompt and friendly, invited him to Rome for confession. But by then Luther’s inner struggle had resolved itself. Leo’s overture was declined once more. Wittenberg, after all, was still safer for an avowed recreant, and as the dark doppelganger within him reformed, he made his final, irrevocable turn away from Rome. The Luther who would make history was reemerging: willful, selfless, intolerant, pious, brilliant, contemptuous of learning and art, but powerful in conviction and driven by a vision of pure, unexploited Christianity.

In a brief, insightful passage he grasped this side of his temperament: “I have been born to war, and fight with factions and devils; therefore my books are stormy and warlike. I must root out the stumps and stocks, cut away the thorns and hedges, fill up the ditches, and am the rough forester to break a path and make things ready.” Thus, within a month of repledging his allegiance to the Holy Father he wrote Georg Spalatin, chaplain to Frederick: “I am at a loss to know whether the Pope is Antichrist or his apostle.” And in a more moderate but nevertheless revolutionary note, he suggested: “A common reformation should be undertaken of the spiritual and temporal estates.” *

His followers, like him, were angry men; wrath was a red thread binding the Lutherans together. More and more—and especially after Leipzig—they resembled an insurgent army, with Wittenberg as its command post and new hymns which sounded like marches. Some members of his retinue left memorable contributions to polemical literature, but none could match the vehemence of their leader when fully aroused. After reading the Curia’s continuing, uncompromising, absolute claims for the primacy and power of Catholic pontiffs, he published an Epitome which opened by describing Rome as “that empurpled Babylon” and the Curia as “the Synagogue of Satan.” Three years earlier he would have been shocked to read such a diatribe, let alone write it himself. Now it was only an overture.

“The papacy,” he wrote, “is the devil’s church.” And: “The devil founded the papacy.” And: “The pope is Satanissimus.” And: “The papacy is Satan’s highest head and greatest power.” And: “The pope is the devil incarnate.” And: “The devil rules throughout the entire papacy.” And: “The devil is the false God [Abgott] of the pope.” And: “Because of God’s wrath the devil has bedunged us with big and gross arses in Rome.” Either Satan was the pope’s excrement or the papacy was Satan’s excrement, but it had to be one or the other. He wrote that unless “the Romanists” curbed their fury—as though his own tone were temperate—“there will be no remedy left except that” true Christians “girt about with force of arms … settle the matter no longer with words but by the sword. … If we strike thieves with the gallows, robbers with the sword, heretics with fire, why do we not much more attack in arms these masters of perdition, these cardinals, these popes, and all this sink of Roman Sodom which has without end corrupted the Church of God, and wash our hands in their blood?” (emphasis added).

Pope Leo’s tolerance had seemed infinite, but this was too much. Protesting the abuse of indulgences had been heretical only in the eyes of precisians; Eck’s coup, after all, had been based on an antecedent in which the Church could scarcely take pride. Incitement of homicide, however, was beyond tolerance. To propose slaughtering the pontiff and his cardinals would have been a high crime had the offender been an ignorant member of the laity. Here he was an accomplished theologian, and disciplining his apostasy was overdue. Furthermore, that same June the vigilant Eck, now in hot pursuit of heresiarchs, arrived in Rome with a copy of a new, splenetic Luther sermon openly questioning the power of excommunication. Accompanying it were detailed reports of Lutheran converts spreading dissent in central Europe and Switzerland. Reconciled at last to the coming coronation of Charles as the new Holy Roman emperor, the pontiff finally acted. On June 15, 1520, announcing that the papacy was in mortal danger from “a wild boar which has invaded the Lord’s vineyard,” he issued Exsurge Domine, a bull condemning forty-one of Luther’s declarations, ordering the burning of his works, and appealing to him to recant and rejoin the faith. The German monk was given sixty days to appear in Rome and publicly renounce his heresies.

Sixty days passed, he remained in Wittenberg, and the Curia accordingly issued a bull of excommunication. It was not signed by the pope, and at his insistence it stopped short of the ultimate Decet Romanum pontificem, eternally damning the monk. Nevertheless Luther was named and condemned. All Christians were forbidden to listen to him, to speak to him, or even to look at him. In any community contaminated by his presence, religious services were to be suspended. He was declared a fugitive from the Church; kings, princes, and nobles were commanded to banish him from their lands or deliver him to Rome.

He responded with a series of caustic pamphlets. Then, told his books were being burned in Rome, he decided upon a dramatic act of defiance. At his suggestion, his faculty colleagues invited Wittenberg’s “pious and studious” undergraduates to gather outside the city’s Elster gate the next morning, December 10. A bonfire had been prepared. Cheering students emptied the university’s library shelves and ignited the pile. Finally Luther, with his own hands, cast a copy of the papal bull into the flames, murmuring: “Because you have corrupted God’s truth, may God destroy you in this fire.” The blaze continued until nightfall. The following day Luther assembled them again. This time he announced that any man who refused to renounce the authority of the Holy See would be denied salvation. “The monk,” Durant later wrote, “had excommunicated the pope.”


BURNING A PAPAL BULL was, of course, a capital offense, but Luther had broken no law, because this bull was illegal. In the turmoil at the Vatican the Curia had been betrayed from within. The sixty day countdown had begun June 15, the day of the Exsurge Domine, and damned Luther on August 14. But under their own laws, this period of grace did not start to run until he had been handed the bull. And there the saboteurs had been particularly effective.

He should have received it before the end of July. Summer had been dry; even a slow courier could have accomplished the journey from Rome to Wittenberg in less than seven weeks. Yet it did not reach him until Octorber 10. In itself the injustice was slight; Luther was burning bridges as well as decrees. The significance of the delay lies in the identity of the obstructionists. German archbishops, serving in Rome, had held up the bull for nearly four months. In so intervening, they were representing the will of their countrymen. Luther was to be saved, not by the justice of his cause, but because in his fatherland, as all over Europe, the political vacuum being left by the ebbing Holy Roman Empire was being filled by a new phenomenon: the rising nation-states.

The tension between the peoples living on either side of the Alps was greater than the rivalry dividing Spain and Portugal. It was also much older. Piety and hostility toward the papacy had coexisted among central Europeans since the fifth century, when, they remembered with pride, Alaric had led their ancestors in sacking Rome. They also recalled—and this memory was bitter—how Pope Gregory VII had humiliated their leader six centuries later, forcing him to kneel in the snows of Canossa for three days before granting him absolution. Though Teutonic Obrigkeit, authority, remained in the hands of some three hundred independent princes, the Volk shared one language, one culture, and, increasingly, a sense of common identity. Their unanimity in the period may be overstated, but now that they were beginning to feel like Germans, Canossa and other old wounds were opened and nursed.

After the Church’s jubilee of 1500, when Rodrigo Borgia, Alexander VI, was pope, German pilgrims recrossing the Brenner Pass had returned with wild stories of Vatican orgies, the poisoning of pontiffs, homicidal cardinals, pagan rites in the Curia, and nuns practicing prostitution in the streets of Rome. But the roots of Germany’s burgeoning anticlericalism lay deeper than gossip. To a people united by a flickering new national spirit, the imperiousness of the Vatican had become intolerable. Rome had decreed that no sovereign was legitimate until he had been confirmed by the pope. In theory, a pontiff could dismiss any emperor, king, or prince if displeased with him. He wasn’t even obliged to cite a reason. Clergymen, like later diplomats, were immune from civil law. No officer of the law could lay a hand on a priest guilty of rape or murder, and conflicts between civil and episcopal courts could be settled, by pontifical fiat, in favor of the clerics.

Maximilian had nearly broken with the Vatican. In 1508 he had been barred from attending his own coronation in Rome by hostile Venetians. The schismatic Council of Pisa offered him the papacy. He declined then, but a year later he briefly considered separating the German church from Rome. In the end he was persuaded that he couldn’t rely on the support of German princes, but he went so far as to direct Jakob Wimpheling, the humanist, to draw up a list of Germany’s grievances against the papacy.

Heading Wimpheling’s complaints were protests against the Vatican’s systematic looting of German taxpayers, industries, and the vaults of noblemen. Maximilian himself calculated that the papacy reaped a hundred times more in German revenues than he did himself—an exaggeration, of course; nevertheless, businessmen, the most vigorous men in the new German society, did find themselves competing with monastic industries whose profits, Rome had ruled, were exempt from taxation. Long before Luther arrived to lead his disgruntled countrymen, the chancellor to an archbishop of Mainz had angrily written an Italian cardinal that “taxes are collected harshly, and no delay is granted … and war tithes imposed without consulting the German prelates. Lawsuits that ought to have been dealt with at home have been hastily transferred to the apostolic tribunal. The Germans have been treated as if they were rich and stupid barbarians, and drained of their money by a thousand cunning devices. … For many years Germany has lain in the dust, bemoaning her poverty and her sad fate. But now her nobles have awakened as from sleep; now they have resolved to shake off the yoke, and to win back their ancient freedom.”

Among his countrymen, pastors and even prelates agreed. Archbishop Berthold von Henneberg wrote: “The Italians ought to reward the Germans for their services, and not drain the sacerdotal body with frequent extortions of gold.” He was ignored. Relationships between pious churchgoers and the ecclesiastical hierarchy worsened. When Karl von Miltitz had journeyed to Altenburg to meet Luther, he had been astounded to find that half Germany seemed critical of the Vatican. So strong was antipapal feeling in Saxony that Miltitz evaded questions from natives, denied holding the pontiff’s commission, and assumed a false identity.

A Catholic historian notes that “a revolutionary spirit of hatred for the Church and the clergy had taken hold of the masses in various parts of Germany. … The cry ‘Death to the priests!’ which had long been whispered in secret, was now the watchword of the day.” Although the pope had remained ignorant of this festering discontent, the Curia knew of it. Rather than kindle an uprising there, the hierarchy had decided to exempt Germany from the Inquisition, and in 1516, the year before Luther posted his theses on the Castle Church door, one of the ablest men around the pontiff had warned him of imminent revolt in the heart of Europe.


HIS NAME WAS GIROLAMO ALEANDRO, Latinized to Hieronymus Aleander. Then just forty, he was a handsome Venetian whose arched brows, penetrating eyes, and thoughtful, pursed mouth suggested a professorial life. In part this was justified. Aleandro was an ecclesiastic of commanding intellect. A humanist and future cardinal, he was a celebrated member of Europe’s intelligentsia—rector of the University of Paris, a colleague of Erasmus, fluent in all classical tongues, and honored lecturer at Venice and Orleans. He was also a man of action, however, and as such he would become Luther’s first formidable Catholic adversary. Aleandro had anticipated the coming mutiny during an official visit to Austria. There, he told Pope Leo, he had repeatedly overheard men muttering that they yearned for the emergence of a man brave enough to lead them against Rome.

When the papacy issued a bull significant to one part of the Church’s vast realm, it was customary to dispatch eminent nuncios from Rome with bales of copies, which they would post in major population centers. Leo’s Exsurge Domine was such a document, and the dignitaries entrusted to inform all Germany of Luther’s shame were Aleandro and Johann Eck. To be chosen was regarded as an honor, and Eck, remembering his triumph over Luther in Leipzig the year before, set out with zest.

Aleandro, remembering his premonition, was less enthusiastic. Earlier in the week word had reached the Vatican that their reception would be, at best, mixed; Luther had been degraded in Rome, but he was no pariah to the north. Among his supporters were Franz von Sickingen, imperial chamberlain and one of the Holy Roman Empire’s seven electors; Philipp Melanchthon, the theologian; Lazaras Spengler, poet, and Stadtrat (councillor) of Nuremberg; and Willibald Pirkheimer, the translator of Greek classics into Latin. Albrecht Dürer was praying for Luther. Karlstadt, rallying to his cause, had published De canonicis scripturis libellus, a slender volume commending the Bible and derogating pontiffs, the Epistles, traditions, and ecumenical councils. In Mainz even Archbishop Albrecht was flirting with the rebels.

These were prominent, conservative Germans. Ulrich von Hutten was prominent, but no conservative; he was writing with the slashing, polemical pen of the new Lutherans. Calling for Germans to free themselves from Rome, he published an ancient German manuscript and noted pointedly: “While our forefathers”—the Goths and Huns—“thought it unworthy of them to submit to the Romans when Rome was the most martial nation in the world, we not only submit to these effeminate slaves of lust and luxury, but suffer ourselves to be plundered to minister to their sensuality.” Erasmus begged Hutten to mute his trumpet, but the poet laureate’s notes grew harder and harsher; that spring of 1520, demanding independence from Rome in Gespräche, a verse dialogue, he called the Vatican a “gigantic, bloodsucking worm,” adding: “The pope is a bandit chief, and his gang bears the name of the Church. … Rome is a sea of impurity, a mire of filth, a bottomless sink of iniquity. Should we not flock from all quarters to compass the destruction of this common curse of humanity?”

Eck and Aleandro began to move warily. At Döbeln, Turgau, and Leipzig the papal posters, with the distinctive red-letter imprint on each seal, were torn down. Eck was stunned. How could this happen in Leipzig? Debating Luther in this Catholic stronghold only a year earlier, he had scored a great triumph. By all the rules as he knew them, he should have been entitled to deference. But the Wittenberg heresy defied precedents. Humbling Luther in the great tapestried hall of Pleissenburg Castle had actually been a blunder. In Erfurt many professors, and even clergymen, scorned Eck and Aleandro and their pontifical proclamation; then a mob of students arrived and tossed all the remaining copies in the river. Eck panicked and fled. *

Aleandro was calmer—then. But less than six months later he too was appalled, writing the Curia from Hesse: “All Germany is up in arms against Rome. … Papal bulls of excommunication are laughed at. Numbers of people have ceased to receive the sacraments of penance. … Martin is pictured with a halo above his head. The people kiss these pictures. Such a quantity have been sold that I am unable to obtain one. … I cannot go out in the streets but the Germans put their hands to their swords and gnash their teeth at me. I hope the Pope will give me a plenary indulgence and look after my brothers and sisters if anything happens to me.”

In Wittenberg Luther was content. On June 11, 1520—four days before the promulgation of Exsurge Domine in Rome—he had written Spalatin: “I have cast the die. I now despise the rage of the Romans as much as I do their favor. I will not reconcile myself to them for all eternity. … Let them condemn and burn all that belongs to me; in return I will do as much for them. … Now I no longer fear, and I am publishing a book in the German tongue about Christian reform, directed against the pope, in language as violent as if I were addressing Antichrist.”


I AM PUBLISHING a book in the German tongue. … Although Martin Luther was a riddle of quirks and eccentricities, many wildly contradictory and some less than admirable, he was never a fool. At the outset he had been taken for one, but throughout 1520 events moved his way, partly because of the pope’s dawdling but also because Luther possessed intuitive political skills. He not only grasped the powerful Herrenvolk spirit rising throughout the fatherland; he had conceived an ingenious way to exploit it.

As noted, the medieval elect, like imperial Rome, had kept the masses ignorant by a kind of linguistic elitism. Upper-class Romans had embraced Greek forms and grammatical laws, despite the fact that these clashed with the natural rhythms of the Latin language; as a consequence, serious texts had been unreadable to the vast majority of the empire’s inhabitants. Their successors had followed the same pattern, adopting Latin as the tongue of men in power.

As new worlds of common speech struggled to be born, the humanists, with their veneration for antiquity, had actually played the role of obstructionists, fiercely criticizing Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio for writing in vernacular Tuscan, or Italian. The tide was beginning to run against them; sixteenth-century Italian intellectuals like Machiavelli, Ariosto, and Castiglione published in both Tuscan and Latin. In some parts of Europe—France, Castile, Portugal, and to a lesser degree England — public documents were appearing in vernacular.

Elsewhere in Europe, however, those to whom Latin was gibberish—everyone, that is, except the higher clergy, the learned, and affluent noblemen—could not decipher a word of official pronouncements, laws, manifestos issued by their rulers; of the liturgies, hymns, and sacred rites of the Church; or, of course, of either Testament of the Bible. Contemporary books were equally unintelligible to them; so were political pamphlets. There were exceptions: the works of John Gower, Geoffrey Chaucer, and William Langland in England, and, across the Channel, those of François Villon. Villon, however, was virtually unique. Other Frenchmen, believing that serious “literature” could not be written in a common language, overloaded their work with Latinisms and were ridiculed asgrands rhétoriquers.

In Luther’s homeland Sebastian Brandt’s Das Narrenschiff was a lonely masterpiece; even so, Brandt was no humanist and his work no triumph of the Renaissance; it was instead the last embodiment of medieval thought. The Germans had developed a vernacular literature, but the books published by Gutenberg’s successors were light entertainment—folktales, epics of ancient kings, the fantasies of Brunhilde—old wine, of poor vintage, rebottled for a people who could not even fathom the sermons read by their parish priests, let alone the tremendous issues raised in Wittenberg three years earlier and now keeping the new Holy Roman emperor awake nights.

Furthermore, and this was decisive for Luther, most Saxon, Austrian, Hessian, Pomeranian, Bavarian, Silesian, Brandenburg, and Westphalian nobles—the minor princes who would determine his fate during the coming winter—were equally handicapped. Only the wealthy could afford Latin teachers for their heirs. There were rich men in central Europe now, but they were in commerce; and trade, by tradition, was barred to the aristocracy. Von Hutten’s vitriolic leaflets were as meaningless to them as to their peasants. But like the peasantry, they could be reached through the tongue they had learned as children. Latin was precise, balanced, logical; a feast for scholars. But Luther knew he could be more effective, more eloquent, more moving —and would possess a far larger megaphone—if he addressed his people in simple German, einfach Deutsch.


HIS FIRST APPEAL in German, Sermon von den guten Werken, was issued in June 1520, a few days after the pontiff’s Exsurge Domine bull was proclaimed in Rome. It was followed by three defiant tracts, beginning with An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation—in full, An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate—and ending with Von der Freiheit eines Christenmanschen (Of the Freedom of a Christian Man). In sum, they constituted an untempered (and often intemperate) assault on the Roman Catholic Church in all its guises, sacraments, theological interpretations, and conduct of Christian affairs on earth.

Each vehemently assaulted the papacy (“Hearest thou this, O pope, not most holy of men but most sinful? Oh, that God from heaven would soon destroy thy throne, and sink it in the abyss of hell!”), and all constituted naked appeals to German patriotism. Rome’s greatest crime, if we are to judge it by these indictments, was neither scriptural nor theological; it was the exploitation of Germans, and particularly their economy, by Italian imperialists. Each year, Luther estimated, over 300,000 gulden found their way from Germany to Rome. He wrote: “We here come to the heart of the matter.”

Earlier, when he had posted his theses on the Castle Church bulletin board, readers left with the impression that indulgences had been the heart of the matter. Since then he had attacked four of the seven sacraments, defending baptism, communion, and, usually, contrition, but rejecting the others along with the doctrine of transubstantiation. Now his grievances were more comprehensible to Fuggers than theologians. “How comes it that we Germans must put up with such robbery and such extortion of our property at the hands of the pope? … If we justly hang thieves and behead robbers, why should we let Roman avarice go free? For he is the greatest thief and robber that has come or can come into the world, and all in the holy name of Christ and St. Peter! Who can longer endure it or keep silence?”

Not Martin Luther. He wanted papal legatees to be expelled from the land, German clergymen to renounce their loyalty to the Vatican, and a national church established, with the archbishop of Mainz as its leader. His thoughts were now ranging far beyond the pale, into territory never before explored by theologians, or at least theologians outside Rome. On October 6, 1520, while Aleandro and Eck were making their unpleasant tour of Germany, posting bulls damning him and watching them be torn down, he published a manifesto in Latin and German charging that the Church founded by Jesus Christ had suffered a thousand years of imprisonment under the papacy, shackled and corrupted in morals and faith. He denied that marriage was a sacrament and said any wife married to an impotent man should sleep around until she conceived a child, which she could pass off as her husband’s. If he objected, she could divorce him, though Luther thought bigamy more sensible than divorce. At the end he repeated his defiance: “I hear a rumor of new bulls and papal maledictions sent out against me, in which I am urged to recant. … If that is true, I desire this book to be part of that recantation.”

After reading this, Von Miltitz, astonishingly, still believed in the possibility of a reconciliation between the apostate monk in Wittenberg and the pontiff in Rome. On October 11, 1520, the young Saxon priest, now a spokesman for the pope, appeared in Wittenberg with a proposition: he would try to have the bull withdrawn if Luther would write the pope, denying malice in his assaults and presenting a reasonable case for reforms. Luther agreed, and in his letter he did, in fact, ask Leo to take none of his polemics personally (“Thy blameless life [is] too well known and too high to be assailed”). This, however, followed:

But thy See, which is called the Roman Curia, and of which neither thou nor any man can deny that it is more corrupt than any Babylon or Sodom ever was, and which is, as far as I can see, characterized by a totally depraved, hopeless, and notorious wickedness—that See I have truly despised. … The Roman Church has become the most licentious den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the kingdom of sin, death, and hell. … They err who ascribe to thee the right of interpreting Scripture, for under cover of thy name they seek to set up their own wickedness in the Church, and, alas, through them Satan has already made much headway under thy predecessors. In short, believe none who exalt thee, believe those who humble thee.

Luther was now beyond redemption. This was the language of a fanatic, and deep in the bowels of the Curia papal clerks and chamberlains began, in their timeless way, to prepare his Decet Romanum pontificem—his absolute excommunication. Whether saboteurs were still entrenched there is unknown, but the bull was not ready for the pontiff’s signature until late January 1521, and four months later, when Luther and the Holy Church finally parted, no copies of it had reached Germany.

In reality it would be only a technicality; the first bull had branded him an outlaw, banishing him from Christendom, and by both law and custom he should have been a runaway, the quarry of every European ruler. The fact that all were looking the other way—or that Rome wasn’t prodding them—was no excuse in Aleandro’s eyes. Seething over the injustice of it, he decided to corner the chief scofflaw, Frederick III the Wise, elector of Saxony. He found him in Cologne on October 23, 1520. The elector was in a foul mood. He had expected to be in Aachen, where Charles V, only twenty years old, was receiving the sacraments as Holy Roman emperor—the last of the line, as it would develop, with any genuine hope of achieving the medieval dream: a unified empire embracing all Christendom. Frederick shared the dream, had voted for Charles (without being bribed), and had been looking forward to the coronation all year. But he was nearly sixty, a great age then, and had always been an enthusiastic gourmand. Now he was paying the price. Immobilized by gout, he lay sprawled in an inn on the outskirts of the University of Cologne, attended by a professor of medicine, glaring at his swollen foot and groaning.

He received Aleandro ceremoniously; his respect for papal nuncios was great, and after ruling Saxony for thirty-four years he had learned to rally when called upon for decision. But he was not called the Wise for nothing. He knew how to distribute responsibility. After Aleandro had pleaded with him to arrest Luther, the elector said he wanted advice, which, fortunately, was available; Erasmus was lecturing nearby. Frederick sent for him, knowing the great humanist then shared his view of Luther and could express it more eloquently.

Erasmus did. An arrest of Luther was unjustified, he told Aleandro, because everyone knew that monstrous misconduct had shredded the Church’s reputation, and attempts to mend the holy garment should be encouraged, not punished. The elector asked him what he considered Luther’s major blunders. Wryly, Erasmus replied that he had made two: “He attacked the popes in their crowns and the monks in their bellies.” As to Exsurge Domine, he doubted the bull was genuine. The pope was a gentle man; it did not sound at all like him. According to Pastor, the Catholic historian, Erasmus said he suspected a conspiracy in the Curia. Frederick then gave Aleandro his decision. Luther, he said, had appealed the bull; meantime he should remain free.

He added—and this exasperated the nuncio—that if it came to a trial, the court would sit in Germany, not Rome. Hurrying to Aachen, Aleandro appealed this matter to the new emperor, Charles, who, to his consternation, confirmed Frederick. Charles didn’t like it. The powers of his new office were overshadowed by his role as king of Spain, where the situation was unlike that in Germany, and the Church’s challengers were few and weak. Spanish prelates would never put up with a sovereign tolerant of heresiarchs. Furthermore, war between Spain and France was imminent, and he was trying to negotiate an alliance with the Vatican, an arrangement which would include papal funds for his armies. Finally, as a condition of his election in Frankfurt am Main, he had agreed that no German could be convicted without a fair hearing in his own country. The emperor therefore had no choice. Luther, he said, would have to be tried before an imperial diet, which would convene in Worms on January 27, 1521.


SITTING ON THE LEFT BANK of the Rhine, some ten miles northwest of Mannheim, the ancient city of Worms (pronounced Vurmz) was rich in Roman, ecclesiastical, and folk history; its destruction by the Huns had been immortalized in The Nibelungenlied, and only twenty-six years earlier Maximilian had presided over the most recent diet to be held there, proclaiming, as its ultimate achievement, “perpetual public peace” (ewiger Landfriede).

Now the irony of those words lay heavy over the eminent assemblage gathering in response to the imperial decree—the empire’s archbishops, bishops, princes, counts, dukes, margraves, and representatives of free cities, one of which Worms itself had been for nearly four centuries. Their mood now was anything but peaceful. To the dismay of the twenty-year-old emperor, they were obsessed with one topic: the fate of Martin Luther. Charles intended to try the heretical professor here (and meant to see him convicted), but that had not been his purpose in convening the Reichstag. He wanted to mobilize the people for the coming conflict with France and to strengthen the empire’s administration, moral discipline, and ties with the Vatican, whose support he needed to shield Hungary from the infidel Turks.

The prospects for papal appropriations were dimmed even before the first session opened. To the emperor’s horror—and the rage of Aleandro—“the great body of the German nobles,” writes a Catholic historian, “applauded and seconded Luther’s attempts.” Aleandro himself reported that the air was thick with leaflets denouncing Rome. One, written in Von Sickingen’s castle at Ebernburg, a few miles from Worms, was from the irascible Ulrich von Hutten. Hutten demanded that the nuncio and his Roman entourage leave German soil: “Begone, ye unclean swine! Depart from the sanctuary, ye infamous traffickers! Touch not the altars with your desecrated hands! … How dare you spend the money intended for pious uses in luxury, dissipation, and pomp, while honest men are suffering hunger? The cup is full. See ye not that the breath of liberty is stirring?”

Alarmed, the new emperor’s confessor—Jean Glapion, a Franciscan—met privately with Frederick’s chaplain, Spalatin. Glapion believed a confrontation with Luther under these circumstances would be disastrous for the Church. The only solution lay in compromise. In his opinion, he confided, many Lutheran calls for ecclesiastical reform were justified; indeed, he had warned Charles V that he would face divine punishment if Catholicism was not purged from such “overweening abuses.” In five years, he promised, imperial power would be used to sweep them away. But Luther had not been blameless—his Babylonian Captivity had made Glapion feel “scourged and pummeled from head to foot.” Some sort of recantation would be necessary. Spalatin sent the Franciscan’s proposition to Wittenberg by horseman; in three weeks the rider returned with a blunt rejection.

In any event, neither the Franciscan nor his august penitent could speak for the pontiff, and Aleandro, who could, was in no mood to bargain. On March 3, appearing before the diet, the nuncio demanded the immediate condemnation of Luther. He was turned down, however, on the ground that “the Wittenberg monk,” as the accused was now known throughout Germany, was entitled to a hearing. Accordingly, another swift horseman was dispatched to Saxony, this one bearing an imperial invitation to testify. Charles added: “You need fear no violence nor molestation, for you have our safe-conduct.”

This assurance was received skeptically in Wittenberg. Just such a pledge, it was remembered, had been Hus’s undoing. And in fact the emperor’s old tutor Adrian of Utrecht, now a cardinal, was urging an encore—he wanted Charles to break his word, arrest Luther as he approached the diet, and send him to Rome. The emperor refused, but Spalatin, informed of the ruse by spies, rushed a warning to Saxony. Luther ignored it: “Though there were as many devils in Worms as there are tiles on the roofs, I will go there.” On April 2 he left home—a crowd including forty professors cheered him off—and two weeks later a band of German knights clattering alongside in full armor, brandishing sharpened swords, escorted him to the diet. People lining the streets cheered the spectacle. Aleandro was deeply offended. Yet in light of Adrian’s abortive plot, the precaution does not seem to have been excessive.

The diet setting was spectacular: the monk, appearing in his simple plain robe, faced his inquisitor, Johann von der Ecken, a functionary of the archbishop of Trier, and behind him, the court. This body comprised, first, a panoply of prelates in embroidered, flowered vestments and, second, secular rulers and their ambassadors in the most elaborate finery of the time —short furred jackets bulging at the sleeves, silk shirts with padded shoulders, velvet doublets, brightly colored breeches, and beribboned, bejeweledbraquettes, or codpieces. (They were of course padded. It would have been ignoble for a nobleman not to appear to be what the Germans called grosstiftung: grossly well endowed.) Titled laymen wore coronets, tiaras, diadems; young Charles, presiding on a throne as supreme civil judge, wore his imperial crown; prelates wore miters, and burghers furred and feathered hats.

Luther’s head was uncovered and tonsured. Nevertheless he was the commanding figure there, and everyone seemed to realize it. But when Ecken gestured sweepingly toward a table piled with the monk’s published works and ordered him to retract the heresies in them, Luther, for the first time in his public life, hesitated. Nodding slowly, he acknowledged the tracts. As to the retraction … he faltered and asked for time. The emperor granted him a day. That night several members of the diet surreptitiously visited his simple lodging, and Hutten sent a note from Von Sickingen’s nearby castle. All begged him to hold his ground.

And in the morning he did. When Ecken again demanded repudiation, Luther replied that those passages describing clerical abuses were just. At that point the multilingual Charles cried: “Immo!”—“No!” Luther personally reproached him: “Should I recant at this point, I would open the door to more tyranny and impiety, and it would be all the worse if it appeared that I had done so at the insistence of the Holy Roman Empire.” Pausing and setting himself, he agreed to withdraw anything contrary to Scripture.

Ecken, ready for this, replied: “Martin, your plea to be heard from Scripture is the one always made by heretics.” In reality, he added, the right to scriptural interpretations was reserved to ecumenical councils and the Holy See: “You have no right to call into question the most holy orthodox faith” which had been “defined by the Church … and which we are forbidden by the Pope and the Emperor to discuss, lest there be no end to debate.” Once more he asked: “Do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?”

Until now all exchanges had been in Latin. This time, however, Luther replied in German. He rejected the authority of popes and councils, which had contradicted one another so often. He recanted nothing. To do so would violate his conscience; it would not, he added cryptically, even be safe. He ended: “Hier stehe Ich, Ich kann nicht anders.” (“Here I stand. I can do no other.”) Then, turning, he departed alone.

It was, Thomas Carlyle would write, “the greatest moment in the modern history of man.” Certainly it was the most astonishing moment in young Charles’s life. To rebuke a Holy Roman emperor! To defy the glittering array of ecclesiastical authority! The next day he summoned his most powerful princes and read aloud a statement he had written in French, expressing regret that he had not acted against the heretical monk’s “false teaching” with greater alacrity. He told them that although Luther could return home under his sauf-conduit, he would be forbidden to preach or make any disturbance along the way. “I will proceed against him as a notorious heretic,” he said and added, gratuitously, he thought, “I assume you will do the same.”

To his further amazement, only four of his electors agreed; among those declining were Frederick the Wise and Ludwig of the Palatinate. That night placards bearing the image of a peasant’s shoe—the German symbol of revolution—appeared all over Worms, including the door of the Rathaus (town hall). Bishops, frightened for their safety, implored Luther to make peace with the diet, but he refused, and, after a week left on his trip home. Pope Leo had sent his personal guarantee of the imperial safe-conduct, but it would expire on the tenth day of Luther’s journey, and Frederick, taking no chances, disguised a troop of his soldiers as highwaymen and staged a false ambush on May 6. Luther was spirited away to Wartburg Castle, near Eisenach, in the Thuringian Forest, and hidden from the world under the alias Junker Georg.

In Worms his princely allies had already begun to slip away. On the day of his disappearance only a rump diet remained in session. Nevertheless Charles convened it to deliver a vitriolic denunciation of the rebel monk, drafted by the frustrated Aleandro. The diatribe charged, among other things, that Luther had “sullied marriage, disparaged confession, and denied the body and blood of Our Lord.” It continued: “He is a pagan in his denial of free will. The devil in the habit of a monk has brought together ancient errors into one stinking puddle and invented new ones. … His teaching makes for rebellion, division, war, murder, robbery, arson, and the collapse of Christendom. He lives the life of a beast.”

On the emperor’s instructions, pursuit of the monk and his accomplices was to begin immediately. His writings were to be “eradicated from the memory of man.” Aleandro ordered Luther’s books burned. Those members of the diet still in the city ratified the imperial decision, and three weeks later it was formally promulgated. Meantime Pope Leo, who had been closely following the preparations for war in France and Spain, switched his allegiance from Francis to Charles, encouraging a preemptive strike by Spain. That was all the emperor salvaged from the Diet of Worms.

Had Charles remained in Germany to enforce his edict, he would have been unchallenged. His spies could have quickly found their man in Wartburg. After all, several bands of Lutheran admirers did. But lawmen would have been unnecessary anyway. Luther’s temperament wouldn’t permit him to hole up indefinitely, bored in the woods. Within a few months he left his lair to deliver a series of eight sermons in Wittenberg. Yet the emperor was already gone. Preoccupied by his conflict with the French, he absented himself from central Europe for ten years. By the time he returned, it was too late. Europe had changed. Somewhere in the continent a kind of universal joint—one of those suspicious devices whose design could be found among Leonardo’s papers—had shifted. German princes, the king of France—even the pope—were loath to give Charles the powers he needed to suppress Luther. Moreover, the monk and the movement he had launched had grown too powerful to be suppressed. The emperor tried mightily, but it would be his dying effort, and medieval Christendom would die with him.


COAXED BACK into hiding by his frantic protector, Junker Georg reluctantly grew a beard and wore knightly attire as a disguise. He slept poorly, ate too much, grew fat, and suffered familiar hallucinations—he told his bodyguards that an apparition of the devil had appeared, stinking up the place, but he had replied in kind, routing the demon “mit einem Furz” (“with a fart”). To Spalatin he sent a treatise on monastic vows, repudiating celibacy as a trap of Lucifer’s and declaring sexual desire to be irrepressible. (Spalatin, embarrassed, hid the tract.) Finally Luther settled down on a stump, surrounded himself with foolscap, and began compounding his crimes by translating the New Testament into German. But he remained restless. “I had rather burn on live coals,” he wrote, “than rot here. … I want to be in the fray.”

Actually no one was thicker in it. Luther’s movement was sweeping northern Europe: first the free cities, led by Nuremberg; then Saxony, Brandenburg, Prussia, Württemberg, Hesse, Brunswick, and Anhalt; then half Switzerland; then Scandinavia. Italy and Spain never threatened to defect. Nor, after England turned, did Ireland; whatever the English were for, the Irish were against. But for a time Catholicism seemed a lost cause in Bohemia, Transylvania, Austria, and even Poland. Converts could be found in the unlikeliest places. Maximilian’s granddaughter Isabella—sister of Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor—was converted to Lutheranism. And the king of France tolerated Lutheran propaganda, decided purgatory did not exist, and turned against the pope, though he never became a closet Protestant. *

Early Protestant strength sprang from tradesmen; from anticlericals; from the educated middle classes, whose humanistic studies had convinced them that Catholicism was rooted in superstition; and, in Germany, from the nobility, whose first acts, upon renouncing allegiance to Rome, were to appropriate all Church wealth within their domains, including land and monasteries. This was a powerful incentive to break with Rome; overnight a prince’s tax revenues increased enormously, and as he appointed magistrates to fill the void left by ousted papal and episcopal appointees, his prestige among his people rose. They, however, had nothing to say about all this. The decision was completely his. His subjects adopted whatever faith he chose; the various diets and councils which met throughout the century to discuss tolerance—and eventually granted it, accepting the historic schism—were discussing the rights of rulers, not the ruled. Religious freedom for the individual lay centuries away. It did not even exist as an abstraction.

Had men been offered choices, the result would have been chaotic. Protestantism was already confusing enough as it was. All converts agreed on certain principles: renunciation of papal rule; replacing Latin with common tongues; the abandonment of celibacy, pilgrimages, adoration of the Virgin and the saints; and, of course, condemnation of the old clergy. However, because the religious revolution also aroused advocates of panaceas, divisions appeared quickly, and ran deep. Presently Protestants were at each other’s throats.

Perhaps the most popular Protestant dogma—and a striking illustration of how far removed that century was from this—was predestination: the tenet that God, being omniscient and omnipotent, is responsible for every action, virtuous and vile, and man is without choice. Luther, the ultimate determinist, could not grasp the concept of moral freedom. In De servo arbitrio (1525) he wrote: “The human will is like a beast of burden. … God foresees, foreordains, and accomplishes all things by an unchanging, eternal, and efficacious will. By this thunderbolt free will sinks shattered in the dust.”

But, dissenters replied, if no man’s actions can alter his fate—if his salvation or damnation are foreordained—why resist wicked temptations, or toil to improve the human condition, or even go to church? They argued furiously and endlessly, but never reasonably. Thus Protestantism was divided at its birth. There was the Lutheran Church, and there was the Reformed. As other major figures emerged—Huldrych Zwingli of Switzerland, for example; John Calvin, a native of France; and the Scotsman John Knox—new sects formed, each with its own views of worship, each as intolerant of the others as it was of Rome, each as repressive as Catholicism. Anabaptists appeared, and Mennonites, Bohemians, and the forerunners of Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Unitarians.

In the spirit of the time, they celebrated their spiritual rebirths violently. Tirades led to recriminations, then to public executions. Autos-da-fé were more popular than ever. Peasants would walk thirty miles to hoot and jeer as a fellow Christian, enveloped in flames, writhed and screamed his life away. Afterward the most ardent spectators could be identified by their own singed hair and features; in their eagerness to enjoy the gamy scent of burning flesh, they had crowded too close. Ultimately this fascination with


The Reformation Monument, Geneva

death, as ordinary then as it seems extraordinary now, led to massive butchery—to spreading bloodstains of religious wars which crossed national frontiers and carried over into a new age.


NO ONE HAS calculated how many sixteenth-century Christians slaughtered other Christians in the name of Christ, but the gore began to thicken early. Within a year of Worms, Von Sickingen was in the field, fighting an army led by the archbishop of Trier—the prelate turned out to be the better general; the knight fell mortally wounded—and within four years the number of Germans killed or executed approached a quarter-million. Their faith cannot be indicted for their deaths. The homicidal lust had long been latent. Before the revolution, Christendom’s common people, as brutal as their leaders, had enjoyed the sport known to the Germans as Bärenhetze—setting famished dogs loose on a bear chained in a pit and watching them eat him alive. A part of them had wanted to be down in the pit, too. They had been awaiting an excuse for a rampage, and Worms would have provided it, whatever the outcome: the knights of Luther’s volunteer escort had sworn to kill him unless he refused to recant.

Even as word of his successful defiance spread across Germany, the mayhem had begun. Erfurt heard the news in the last days of April; a mob demolished forty houses belonging to the Church, burned rent rolls, razed a library, and, invading the university, killed a humanist scholar. In Wittenberg another mob, brandishing daggers and rocks, invaded a parish service; women kneeling before an image of the Madonna were stoned, and the priest driven out. The following day a band of students destroyed the altars of the city’s Franciscan monastery. Shortly thereafter, a leader of the local Augustinian congregation mounted a stump and called upon all who could hear him to follow their example—to roam the countryside, applying the ax to Catholic images, altars, and sacred paintings, and then feeding them to flames. Luther’s colleague, Professor Karlstadt, led students in assaults on local churches, tearing crucifixes and pictures from the walls and stoning priests who tried to intervene. Wearing civilian clothes, Karlstadt said the Mass in German and invited his congregation to celebrate holy communion by drinking from the chalice and taking the bread in their own hands—sacrilege in the eyes of Rome. He persuaded Wittenberg’s Ratsversammlung, the town’s council, to ban music at all religious services. Both monks and priests, he argued, should be required to wed, and he observed his fortieth birthday by setting an example, marrying a fifteen-year-old girl.

It was these disorders which had flushed Luther out of his sanctuary in the Thuringian Forest. His attitude toward violence had always been ambivalent. No Protestant, not even Hutten, had published prose as incendiary as Adel deutscher Nation, but now, confronted with the consequences, he drew back. It proved to be only the temporary lapse of a revolutionary. Nevertheless it was impressive. He preached: “Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused. Men can go wrong with wine and women; shall we then prohibit wine and ban women? The sun, the moon, the stars, have been worshipped; shall we then pluck them out of the sky?”

Under his direction, both old and new communion rites were made available to Wittenbergers, and worshipers who cherished crucifixes, religious images, and holy music were left alone; as a composer of hymns, he himself approved of such solace. The Ratsversammlung, reversing itself, drove Karlstadt out of town. Unchastised, he took a pulpit in nearby Orlamünde to condemn Luther as a “gluttonous ecclesiastic … the new Wittenberg pope.” His congregation was swayed. Frederick the Wise, fearing an uprising—and it was coming—asked Luther to make the burghers of Orlamünde see reason. He tried, but nothing was sacred anymore, not even the man who, more than any other, had inspired them; the Orlamünders, refusing to listen to him, stoned him and pasted him with mud until he withdrew.

Hearing of the incident, Thomas Müntzer, another former Lutheran turned radical Anabaptist, published a pamphlet calling his former idol “Dr. Liar [Dr. Lügner],” a “shameless monk” who spent his time “whoring and drinking.” Müntzer was openly calling on the serfs to revolt; in a leaflet,Ermahnung zum Frieden (Admonition to Peace), Luther begged them to be patient. They rose anyway, and when their rebellion collapsed—nearly 100,000 peasant deaths later—Karlstadt was threatened with prosecution as an instigator. Ironically, he turned to Luther for refuge. It was quickly granted, and Karlstadt, weary of struggle, hoarse from his polemics, and exhausted by the demands of his teenaged bride, returned to teaching. He died, an obscure professor in Basel, fifteen years later. Müntzer was less fortunate. He led rebellious peasants against seasoned troops in Saxony. The defeat of the rebels was followed by an orgy of medieval brutality; five thousand men were put to the sword. Some three hundred were spared when their women agreed to beat out the brains of two priests suspected of encouraging the uprising. Then Müntzer himself was tortured to the point of death and beheaded.


LUTHER had been among the captivated readers of Erasmus’s Encomium moriae. The eminent humanist was now busy at the University of Louvain’s Collegium Trilingue, with professorships in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and on March 18, 1519, Luther had written him there, humbly soliciting his support. It was a curious appeal, revealing a total misunderstanding of everything Erasmus represented. Replying on May 30, the scholar suggested that it “might be wiser of you to denounce those who misuse the Pope’s authority than to censure the Pope himself. … Old institutions cannot be uprooted in an instant. Quiet argument may do more than wholesale condemnation. Avoid all appearance of sedition. Keep cool. Do not get angry. Do not hate anybody.”

Erasmus continued to defend Luther. In the Axiomata Erasmi, a statement addressed to Frederick of Saxony, he declared that men who loved the gospel were those least resentful of the Wittenberg monk; Christians were demanding evangelical truth, he added, and could not be suppressed. To Lorenzo Cardinal Campeggio he sent a long letter which began with the observation that during his travels “I perceived that the better a man was, the less he was Luther’s enemy. … If we want truth, every man ought to be free to say what he thinks without fear. If the advocates of one side are to be rewarded with miters, and the advocates of the other side with rope or stake, truth will not be heard.” He now knew that the Exsurge Domine had been genuine, but believed that “nothing could have been more invidious or unwise than the Pope’s bull. It was unlike Leo X, and those who were sent to publish it”—Eck and Aleandro—“only made things worse.” He concluded: “You may assure yourself that Erasmus has been, and always will be, a faithful subject of the Roman See. But I think, and many will think with me, that there would be a better chance of settlement if there were less ferocity.”

But thus far the greater ferocity had come from Rome’s critics. If Luther had badly misjudged Erasmus, Erasmus’s misjudgment of Luther was complete. There is no other way to interpret his May 30, 1519, letter to him. It was an offer of reasonable advice to an unreasonable fundamentalist. As such, it was not only wasted but probably incomprehensible to the monk, whose sensible preaching to the Wittenbergers had been out of character; who, most of the time, spoke the language of invective. The monk in Wittenberg was by nature everything the scholar in Louvain asked him not to be: inflammatory, passionate, seditious, hot, furious, and a born hater. That was his magic, and it was also part of his genius. Erasmus had deplored injustice without result; Luther hated it with great results. One man was thoughtful, the other intuitive.

However, intuition, though it fuels action, is volatile and therefore dangerous. And Luther’s sense of justice was selective. Though he was outraged by the peasant revolt, he remained silent on the one early excess of Protestantism which offended learned Europeans most. The Erfurt mob’s murder of a humanist, an innocent bystander, was an omen to his fellow humanists. Intellectuals everywhere were caught entre deux feux—in peril, as, in times of bloodlust, they have always been. By exposing Roman corruption and eroding blind acceptance of medieval superstition, thoughtful men had opened the way for reform, but the reformers, being emotional men, did not acknowledge the debt. On the contrary; the “Martinians,” as Luther’s followers called themselves, accepted what was coming to be known as the Zwickau Dogma, named after the town in which it originated. The dogmatists held that God spoke directly to simple men in simple language, that they instinctively understood him, and that the true Christian spurned literature, even reading and writing. Karlstadt, though learned, had first destroyed his own books and then declared that true believers should confine themselves to tilling the ground or working with their hands. George Mohr, a colleague and protégé, resigned from the faculty to preach the joys of illiteracy, and a number of Wittenberg undergraduates, seeing no point in further study, left their lecture halls to become craftsmen.

Intolerance, contempt for learning, the burning of religious art, the rejection of classical culture as pagan, and the adoption of primitive papal tactics—book burning, excommunication, even death at the stake—alienated humanists who had at first defended Luther: Johannes Cochlaeus, dean at Frankfurt am Main; Johannes Reuchlin, who had stopped the burning of Luther’s books and as a result faced trial as a heretic; Willibald Pirkheimer, the Nuremberg merchant, scholar, and friend of Dürer, whom Erasmus had called “the chief glory of Germany” and who had been excommunicated for his open defense of Luther; Conradus Mutianus Rufus of Gotha; and Erasmus himself.

The Vatican had shielded scholars and sponsored their successful searches for the lost treasures of classical learning, provided, of course, they confined themselves to Latin and Greek. The humanists had approved of reforming the Church, but had not bargained for Protestant ravings about predestination and hell and demons and all the baggage of supernaturalism which, to them, signified a reactionary return to medievalism. Mutianus had called Luther “the morning star of Wittenberg.” Now, according to Durant, he decided that he behaved with “the fury of a maniac.” Cochlaeus, another early admirer of Luther, wrote him: “Christ does not teach such methods as you are carrying out so offensively with ‘Antichrist,’ ‘brothels,’ ‘Devil’s nests,’ ‘cesspools,’ and other unheard-of terms of abuse, not to speak of your threatenings of sword, bloodshed, and murder,” adding: “O Luther, you were never taught this method of working by Christ!” Pirkheimer wrote: “Things have come to a pass that the popish scoundrels are made to appear virtuous by the Evangelical ones. … Luther, with his shameless, ungovernable tongue, must have lapsed into insanity, or been inspired by the Evil Spirit.”

When Erasmus agreed, Luther denounced him as a quixotic dreamer who “thinks that all can be accomplished with civility and benevolence.” Erasmus was offended. He was, and knew himself to be, the most eminent scholar of his time. But other Martinians were harder on him than their leader. Some scorned him as a renegade; others, in the words of a later critic, as “a begging parasite, who had [sense] enough to discover the truth, and not enough to profess it.” Still others denounced him as a Vatican stooge, on the pope’s payroll. That was terribly unjust. It was true that in Louvain Erasmus was as dependent upon Catholic wealth as Michelangelo in Rome; true also that he owed his bread, his books, and his very clothing to pensions from an archbishop, a baron, and the Holy Roman emperor, all loyal to the Holy See. However, he had accepted them only on the condition that he would retain his intellectual independence. And he continued to exercise it. In Cologne, in Frederick III’s inn rooms—where he had saved Luther, who never thanked him, and enraged Aleandro, who never forgave him—he had shown that he was no papal pawn. That was merely an omen; as the interfaith conflict grew, so did his courage.


ERASMUS was not without weakness. He was guilty of all the familar academic sins. He overestimated the power of logic, assumed that intelligent men are rational, and believed that through his friendships with the European elite—the emperor, the pope, King Francis I, King Henry VIII, Italian princes, German barons, the lord chancellor of England, and virtually every learned man on the Continent—he could alter events. Although he privately regarded conventional religion as a stew of superstitions, he could envisage no institution which would replace the Roman faith as an enforcer of social discipline and private morality. In Christendom’s widening civil war, he foresaw only madness, and he believed the Catholic infrastructure could be set aright if he brought his wisdom to bear on its flaws. Hans Holbein’s portrait in oils, now in the Louvre, captures the inner Erasmus: thin-lipped, longnosed, the eyes hooded, the expression forbidding. It may be seen as a study in intellectual arrogance. “I do not admit,” he wrote, “that my doctrine can be judged by anyone, even by the angels.”

But he was wise. No other figure on the European stage saw the religious crisis so clearly; if he was vain to suppose that he could impose his solution on it, the fact remains that no other solution made sense. And despite the judgment of his contemporaries, Protestant and Catholic alike, he was no weakling. In rejecting Luther’s overture he had assured his own isolation, for obscurantist Catholic theologians deeply distrusted him. They not only blamed Erasmus for Luther’s defection; they suspected him of being his amanuensis. “These men,” he had written to Luther, “cannot by any means be disabused of the suspicion that your works are written by my aid, and that I am, as they call it, the standard-bearer [vexillarius] of your party. … I have testified to them that you are entirely unknown to me, that I have not read your books, and neither approve nor disapprove of your writings, but that they should read them before they speak so loudly. … It was no use; they are as mad as ever. … I am myself the chief object of animosity.”

That animosity grew, for although he would not abandon Rome—“I endure the Church till the day I shall see another [better] one,” he wrote—he refused to mute either his suggestions for Catholic reforms or his criticism of those who had dishonored their vows. The Vatican should encourage tolerance, he wrote; its hostility toward all change was senseless. He offered suggestions. The Church was too rich; vast tracts of its arable land should be turned over to those who farmed them. The clergy ought to be allowed to marry. Worshipers might be offered alternate forms of communion. Predestination appalled him, but he thought it should be studied, discussed, and debated by priests with open minds. And something must be done about promiscuous nuns and lecherous, thieving, forging, drunken monks; “in many monasteries the last virtue to be found is chastity,” and “many convents” had become “public brothels.”


HE CONTINUED to correspond with Pope Leo X and, later, his successors, Adrian VI and Clement VII. All instructed the Curia to extend him every courtesy, but they were ignored. The fog of religious strife was, if anything, thicker than those of secular wars; obscurant theologians in Rome and hard-liners in the dioceses abroad saw the widening apostasy as an opportunity to stifle dissent. In Catholic Louvain they were particularly active, even among Erasmus’s colleagues, and their suspicion of him rose on October 8, 1520, when Aleandro arrived there to promulgate Luther’s excommunication. He spread word that the great scholar was the secret mastermind behind Protestant revolts. The faculty, reasoning that the nuncio ought to know, was preparing to expel its most learned colleague when, anticipating his critics, he abruptly left.

Erasmus moved to Cologne, then still loyal to the pontiff. Rumors that he was a closet Lutheran followed him, however; strangers accosted him with the charge that he had laid the egg Luther hatched. “Yes,” he would wryly reply, “but the egg I laid was a hen, whereas Luther has hatched a gamecock.” By late 1521 he was fed up with them; in mid-November he renounced his pensions, moved up the Rhine to Basel, Switzerland, and settled among a nucleus of humanists. Here he enjoyed a respite; elsewhere priests were using his name as a synonym for treachery, but the Swiss, committed to Protestantism in various forms, left him alone.

They did not, however, leave Catholicism alone. Inflamed by evangelist preachers, a Basel mob rioted, broke into every Catholic church in the vicinity, and destroyed all religious images. As it happened, Erasmus himself had recently impeached the veneration of images, writing that “people should be taught that these are no more than signs; it would be better if there were none at all, and prayer were addressed only to Christ.” He had, however, added: “But in all things let there be moderation.” The immoderate, rioting vandals had ruptured the thin membrane of civility which he cherished. Disgusted, he showed Switzerland his heels, moving this time to Freiburg im Breisgau, in Catholic Austria. By now Christendom was so confused that no one thought his source of support odd. Actually his bills were being paid by the Fuggers, staunch Catholics who were, at the same time, quietly supporting Protestants in Catholic Venice.

Nevertheless he found no peace there, either. Austrian opinion about him was divided. Freiburg’s Stadtrat (town council), welcoming Europe’s most illustrious intellectual, moved him into Maximilian’s imperial palace, but the local Augustinians were aware of, and resented, his presence among them. During his Swiss idyll, hereticators had been smearing him all over the Continent. Using techniques which would reemerge in later ages, they identified him as the leader of apostate conspiracies, muttering, in Europe’s many tongues, one of mankind’s oldest and most insidious apothegms: Es gibt keinen Rauch ohne Feuer—Where there’s smoke, there must be fire.

Erasmus was now approaching seventy. Racked with pain from several afflictions—gallstones, ulcers, gout, dysentery, respiratory disease, arthritis, and pancreatitis—he also felt suffocated by suspicion. In his final flight he returned to Basel. There, after years of wandering, pursued by lies, he passed away in the home of Jerome Froben, son of the scholar-publisher Johann, who had first published his Latin translation of the Greek New Testament.

Erasmus died a martyr to everything he had despised in life: fear, malice, excess, ignorance, barbarism. And his martyrdom did not end at the grave. He had known that his life was ebbing, yet asked for neither priest nor confessor. Word that he had refused last rites found its way to Spain, where the rekindled Inquisition, having completed a systematic study of his books, began formal proceedings against the doyen of humanism, thereby setting in motion wheels which, eight years later, would grind out a formal denunciation of Erasmus. He was excommunicated and branded a heretic. Under the violent reactionary Pope Paul IV, who as a cardinal had reorganized the Inquisition, everything Erasmus had ever published was consigned to the Index Expurgatorius, which meant that any Catholic who read the prose which had once delighted a pontiff would be placing his soul in jeopardy. *


ERASMUS WAS the most eminent intellectual victimized by the revolution, but he was far from alone. Indeed, once the lines of battle had been drawn, humanists everywhere were hostages to one side or the other, and sometimes to both. Reason itself had become suspect: tolerance was seen as treachery. Luther, once he had survived Worms, was shielded by Frederick the Wise and the gathering armies of Protestantism. Catholics could find refuge in monasteries, with sympathetic sovereigns or princes, in the papal states, or among the thousandfold sanctuaries of the Holy Roman emperor. The intellectuals were usually without champions, unarmed in a Europe bristling with weapons, and at times it seemed that every man’s hand was against them. Very few were to be untouched during the disorders. Some, like Erasmus, fled from one asylum to another; some were executed; others survived torture but were horribly maimed, their noses torn away, foreheads branded, hands cut off at the wrist, or nipples plucked out by pincers.

At the outbreak of the revolution most of the humanists had been ordained priests, and several, because of their eminence, were picked by their superiors to serve as blacklisters, leading the Church’s counterrevolution. Suspecting Protestant sympathies among his clergy, the bishop of Meaux appointed Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples his vicar general with instructions to weed them out. Lefèvre, then approaching seventy, was professor of philosophy at the University of Paris, the author of works on physics, mathematics, and Aristotelian ethics, and a Latin translation of Saint Paul’s Epistles. His former pupils—the bishop was one of them—revered him without exception.

But although he wore vestments and celebrated Mass, Lefèvre was above all a humanist. To expose medieval myths, he proposed a clearer version of the original New Testament. He was working on a French translation of the Bible, and—like Luther — he believed that the Gospels, not papal decrees, should be the ultimate court of theological appeal. Lefèvre was incautious enough to observe also that he thought it “shameful” that bishops should devote their days to hunting and their nights to drinking, gambling, and mounting putains—a criticism which was ill received in Meaux. Suddenly the hunter of heretics was himself condemned as one, and by the Sorbonne at that. Fleeing Paris, he found sanctuary in Strasbourg, in Blois, and, finally, in Nérac, with Marguerite of Angoulême, queen of Navarre and protectress of the revolution’s humanist refugees. There he resumed his scholarship and died quietly, of natural causes, five years later.

Lefèvre was one of Marguerite’s successes. She also had her failures, notably Bonaventure Desperiers and Étienne Dolet. Both were given her best efforts; nevertheless both died violently in Lyons. Desperiers had been guilty only of bad timing; had he published his Cymbalum mundi before Luther challenged Rome, the Curia would have ignored it. Written in Latin and addressed to fellow humanists, it noted the flagrant contradictions in the Bible, deplored the persecution of heretics, and mocked miracles. There was nothing new here. The satires of Erasmus and the German heretics, making the same points, had been more caustic. But in the new age of intolerance, Cymbalum was denounced by both sides—the Catholic witchhunters in the Sorbonne and the Protestant Calvin. Then it was publicly burned by the official hangman of Paris. Desperiers became too hot even for Marguerite; she was forced to banish him from Nérac. She sent him money, but the pressure was too much for him. On the run, threatened and hounded, he died, reportedly by his own hand. Dolet, on the other hand, courted death. A printer as well as a Ciceronian scholar, he clandestinely published books on the Index Expurgatorius until he was summoned before the Inquisition, found guilty, and, despite Marguerite’s attempts to intervene, burned alive.

Some humanists were victims; some became leaders of the revolt. All, when captured, met hideous deaths. Those who had led became martyrs, but the deaths of leaders and led seem equally senseless. In his Christianismi restitutio (The Restitution of Christianity) the Spanish-born theologian and physician Michael Servetus dismissed predestination as blasphemy; God, he wrote, condemns only those who condemn themselves. Servetus was naive enough to send a copy to a preacher who believed in predestination as the revealed word and who, knowing which church Servetus would attend and when, had him ambushed at prayer. A Protestant council sentenced him to death by slow fire. Now terrified, aware of his blunder, the condemned author begged for mercy—not for his life; he knew better than that; he merely wanted to be beheaded. He was denied it. Instead he was burned alive. It took him half an hour to die.

The Catholics who quartered the body of the Swiss Huldrych Zwingli and burned it on a pyre of dried exrement were equally merciless; so was Martin Luther, who had regarded Zwingli as a rival and called his ghastly death “a triumph for us.” In the darkness enveloping Christendom no one recalled that as a young priest the slain Swiss had taught himself Greek to read the New Testament in the original and possessed a profound knowledge of Tacitus, Pliny, Homer, Plutarch, Livy, Cicero, and Caesar. All they remembered was that he had said he would prefer “the eternal lot of a Socrates or a Seneca than of a pope.”

Perhaps the most poignant figure in the strife—and certainly one of the most tragic—was Ulrich von Hutten. Once he had distinguished himself as a humanist, a Franconian knight, a brilliant satirist, and one of the first scholars in central Europe to cherish the vision of a unified Germany. Like Luther, he had abandoned Latin to help shape the German language as it is spoken today; his Gesprächbüchlein, published the year after Worms, was a greater contribution to linguistics than to theology. But Hutten was one of the committed humanists, and like most Reformation zealots he displayed more enthusiasm than judgment. Unwisely, he had cast his lot with Von Sickingen, whose defeat transformed him into a penniless fugitive robbing farms for food as he fled toward Switzerland. Reaching it, he headed straight for Basel, and Erasmus. He expected his fellow humanist to support him, but that was asking too much. Not only had his vehement rhetoric offended the man who preached moderation and tolerance; Hutten had denounced Erasmus as craven for not supporting Luther. Now, in Basel, the victim of his abuse refused to receive him, wryly explaining that his stove provided too little heat to warm the German’s bones.

Angry, desperate, and ill—his affliction was venereal—Hutten abandoned both dignity and decency by turning to extortion. He wrote a scurrilous pamphlet about Erasmus (Expostulation) and offered to suppress it in exchange for money. Erasmus indignantly refused. Then Hutten began circulating it privately. The local clergy asked Basel’s city fathers to expel the polemicist, and it was done. Hutten moved to Mulhouse and sent his manuscript to the press. A mob drove him out. In the summer of 1523 he stumbled into Zurich, only to find that there, too, the city council was preparing a motion of expulsion. Homeless, broke, banished from society, he retreated to an island in the Lake of Zurich, and there, aged thirty-five, he succumbed to syphilis. His sole possession was his pen. Valuable only a year earlier, it was now worthless.


ALL PROTESTANT regimes were stiffly doctrinal to a degree unknown—until now—in Rome. John Calvin’s Geneva, however, represented the ultimate in repression. The city-state of Genève, which became known as the Protestant Rome, was also, in effect, a police state, ruled by a Consistory of five pastors and twelve lay elders, with the bloodless figure of the dictator looming over all. In physique, temperament, and conviction, Calvin (1509–1564) was the inverted image of the freewheeling, permissive, high-living popes whose excesses had led to Lutheran apostasy. Frail, thin, short, and lightly bearded, with ruthless, penetrating eyes, he was humorless and short-tempered. The slightest criticism enraged him. Those who questioned his theology he called “pigs,” “asses,” “riffraff,” “dogs,” “idiots,” and “stinking beasts.” One morning he found a poster on his pulpit accusing him of “Gross Hypocrisy.” A suspect was arrested. No evidence was produced, but he was tortured day and night for a month till he confessed. Screaming with pain, he was lashed to a wooden stake. Penultimately, his feet were nailed to the wood; ultimately he was decapitated.

Calvin’s justification for this excessive rebuke reveals the mindset of all Reformation inquisitors, Protestant and Catholic alike: “When the papists are so harsh and violent in defense of their superstitions,” he asked, “are not Christ’s magistrates shamed to show themselves less ardent in defense of the sure truth?” Clearly, he would have condemned the Jesus of Matthew (5:39, 44) as a heretic. * In Calvin’s Orwellian theocracy, established in 1542, acts of God—earthquakes, lightning, flooding—were acts of Satan. (Luther, of course, agreed.) Copernicus was branded a fraud, attendance at church and sermons was compulsory, and Calvin himself preached at great length three or four times a week. Refusal to take the Eucharist was a crime. The Consistory, which made no distinction between religion and morality, could summon anyone for questioning, investigate any charge of backsliding, and entered homes periodically to be sure no one was cheating Calvin’s God. Legislation specified the number of dishes to be served at each meal and the color of garments worn. What one was permitted to wear depended upon who one was, for never was a society more class-ridden. Believing that every child of God had been foreordained, Calvin was determined that each know his place; statutes specified the quality of dress and the activities allowed in each class.

But even the elite—the clergy, of course—were allowed few diversions. Calvinists worked hard because there wasn’t much else they were permitted to do. “Feasting” was proscribed; so were dancing, singing, pictures, statues, relics, church bells, organs, altar candles; “indecent or irreligious” songs, staging or attending theatrical plays; wearing rouge, jewelry, lace, or “immodest” dress; speaking disrespectfully of your betters; extravagant entertainment; swearing, gambling, playing cards, hunting, drunkenness; naming children after anyone but figures in the Old Testament; reading “immoral or irreligious” books; and sexual intercourse, except between partners of different genders who were married to one another.

To show that Calvinists were merciful, first offenders were let off with reprimands and two-time losers with fines. After that, those who flouted the law were in real trouble. The Consistory made no allowances for probation, suspended sentences, or rehabilitation programs, and Calvin assumed that everyone enjoyed community service without being sentenced to it. Excommunication and banishment from the community were considered dire, though those living in a more permissive age might find them less appalling. In any event, there were plenty of other penalties, some of them as odd as the offenses they punished. A father who stubbornly insisted upon calling his newborn son Claude spent four days in the canton jail; so did a woman convicted of wearing her hair at an “immoral” height. A child who struck his parents was summarily beheaded. Abortion was not a political issue because any single woman discovered with child was drowned. (So, if he could be identified, was her impregnator.) Violating the seventh commandment was also a capital offense. Calvin’s stepson was found in bed with another woman; his daughter-in-law, behind a haystack with another man. All four miscreants were executed.

Of course, it proved impossible to legislate virtue. Some of Calvin’s devoted followers insisted that it was possible, that the Consistory’s moral straitjacket worked; Bernardino Ochino, an ex-Catholic who had found asylum in the city-state, wrote that “Unchastity, adultery, and impure living, such as prevail in many places where I have lived, are here unknown.” In fact they were widely known there; the proof lies in the council’s records. A remarkable number of unmarried young woman who worshiped with Ochino managed to carry their pregnancies to term unde-


John Calvin (1509–1564)

tected. Some abandoned their issue on church steps or alongside forest trails; some named their male co-conspirator, who then married them at sword’s point; some lived as single parents, for not even Calvinists could orphan an innocent infant.

On other issues they were adamant, however. The ultimate crime, of course, was heresy. It was even blacker than witchcraft, though sorcerers could not be expected to appreciate the distinction; after a devastating outbreak of plague, fourteen Geneva women, found guilty of persuading Satan to afflict the community, were burned alive. But because the soul was more precious than the flesh, the life expectancy of the apostate was even shorter. Anyone whose church attendance became infrequent was destined for the stake. Holding religious beliefs at odds with those of the majority was no excuse in Geneva or, for that matter, in other Protestant theocracies. It was a consummate irony of the Reformation that the movement against Rome, which had begun with an affirmation of individual judgment, now repudiated it entirely. Apostasy was regarded as an offense to God and treason to the state. As such it was punished with swift, agonizing death. One historian wrote, “Catholicism, which had preached this view of heresy, became heresy in its turn.”


THE POPE, AFTER ALL, was a Catholic, if not a very good one, and because his Church hadn’t changed its view of heresy, one might have expected him to have met the Protestant revolt with a terrible swift response. The dimensions of the threat were staggering. But Leo failed to perceive this; he had learned nothing since Worms. To him the great split in his realm was still “a squabble among monks,” and he assumed that all pious men were governed by Augustine Triumphus’s Summa de ecclesiastica potestate (1326), promulgated two centuries earlier by Pope John XXII, which had decreed that as God’s vice-regent on earth, a pontiff must be obeyed, even when he is a great sinner.

Leo wasn’t a great sinner, but religion ranked rather low in his priorities, below learning, living well, serving as head of the Medici family, and making war. He was one of history’s great squanderers; according to Francesco Cardinal Armellini Medici, treasurer of the Holy See, he spent 5 million ducats during his seven years in the Vatican and left debts exceeding 800,000. How much of this went into supporting Charles V’s imperial armies is unknown, but Leo was committed to France’s defeat, not because of Francis I’s secret sympathies for Protestantism—he had no inkling of that—and not even because, like Pope Julius, he was pursuing realistic political goals. Despite Charles’s military successes, which would culminate in his great victory over the French at Bicocca, Leo’s only spoils were two provinces in northern Italy, hardly worth the loss of Germany, Switzerland, and Scandinavia to Protestantism.

Nevertheless an excuse for a celebration was a temptation Leo could not resist. On the last evening in November 1521 he held an all-night banquet at the Vatican, complete with fine wines, champagne, gambling, music, theatricals, acrobats, fireworks, and his many nipoti, including three nephews and two cousins, all wearing the cardinals’ hats he had bestowed upon them. As always, he had a marvelous time, though the price turned out to be extravagant, even by his standards. At dawn, as his guests departed, he withdrew, explaining that he felt ill. He had caught a chill. By noon he was running a fever, which, by nightfall, had killed him.

He was forty-six years old. He was also bankrupt. Armellini found there wasn’t enough money in the pontiff’s vaults to provide candles for Leo’s coffin; he had to use melted-down stubs from the last cardinalate funeral. Had the dead pope been spared, Roman wags said, he would have sold Rome, then Christ, then himself. He had sponsored magnificent painting and sculpture, which should have counted for something, but there were few kind words for him that bleak December. Because he had mishandled the Protestant apostasy, wrote Francesco Vettori, a contemporary historian, Leo had left the papacy in the “lowest possible repute.” In the streets of Rome men hissed the sacred college on its way to choose his successor.

Their contempt was unjustified. For the first time in nearly a century their eminences chose well. They hadn’t meant to; the outcome was unexpected, the consequence of a three-way deadlock. In a move to break it, someone nominated Adrian Cardinal Boeyens of Utrecht, the emperor’s childhood mentor, who wasn’t even present. Rival blocs, trying to outmaneuver one another, wound up outfoxing their own interests; to their horror, they found they had actually elected the unknown prelate, who thereby became Adrian VI, the only Dutch pope in history—“the Barbarian,” as Romans immediately began calling him. * That is precisely what he was not. A former professor of the University of Louvain, Adrian was exactly what Catholicism desperately needed: a reformer.

In his first speech to the cardinals he bluntly told them that corruption in the Church was so rife that “those steeped in sin” could “no longer perceive the stench of their own iniquities.” Under his predecessor, he said, “sacred things have been misused, the commandments have been transgressed and in everything there has been a turn for the worse.” They eyed him stonily. He moved decisively to end the sale of indulgences, outlaw simony, cut the papal budget, and assure that only qualified candidates for the priesthood were ordained, but his orders always miscarried. Unable to bridge the cultural barrier with the Italians around him—only two of his aides were Dutch—he was thwarted at every turn by the entrenched Curia, and after a year in office he died, unmourned, having been, wrote Vettori, “a little and despised pope.”


THE ITALIAN CARDINALS, grateful for the chance to rectify their mistake so soon, now turned to one of their own: Giulio de’ Medici, a cousin of Leo X, who became Pope Clement VII (r. 1523-1534). Weak and vacillating, Clement tried to play Charles V and Francis I off against one another. He entered into secret treaties with each, and was exposed, thereby earning the distrust of both. Italy became a bleak battleground. Two Englishmen crossing Lombardy wrote home of starving children in Pavia, adding that “the most goodly countree for corne and vynes that may be seen is so desolate that in all that ways we sawe [not] oon man or woman in the fylde, nor yet creatour stirring, but in great villages five or six myserable persons.”

It never seems to have occurred to this pope that Rome itself was vulnerable to mayhem—that his fellow Christians might repeat the Visigothic sack of the Eternal City. Yet his alliances with France offended Romans loyal to the Holy Roman emperor, and as a Medici he had inherited enemies, among them Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, a feuder, a hater, and an ambitious prelate who had his eye on the papal tiara. Colonna plotted Clement’s assassination. Rallying imperialists, he led a raid on the Vatican in 1526. Several members of the papal household were killed, but the pope


Pope Clement VII (1478-1534)

himself escaped through a secret passageway built for this express purpose by the Borgia pope, who had been better at this sort of thing than he was.

The pontiff and the ferocious cardinal reached terms and the raiders withdrew, whereupon Clement, after granting himself absolution, hired a band of mercenaries and leveled Colonna’s properties. He felt victorious, and congratulated himself. Yet the sacrilegious behavior of the raiders should have warned him of worse to come. Donning the Holy Father’s robes while he escaped through the hidden passage, they had pranced about the piazza of St. Peter’s, mocking the Vicar of Christ. A papal secretary of state wrote the papal nuncio in England—where the devout King Henry VIII worried about the safety of His Holiness—“We are on the brink of ruin.”

The seeds of ruin lay in the ill-disciplined, famished, unpaid troops of Charles V, who had outfought King Francis’s army, crossed the Alps, and were at large in northern Italy. Led by the Constable de Bourbon, a French renegade, their spearhead was formed ofLandsknechte (mercenaries) from central Europe, and the defenders heard a cry which one day would intimidate all Europe, the roaring “Hoch! Hoch!” of charging German infantry. As Protestants, these Teutons affected to despise the pope as a heretical ally of their enemy, but their chief inspiration was less lofty. It was greed: the prospect of plunder and ransoms in Florence and Rome, promised them by their commanders. Charles himself seems to have been unaware of this. His own reverence for the See of St. Peter led him to grant his foes an eight-month armistice in exchange for 60,000 ducats, to be distributed among his troops. It wasn’t enough. Enraged, believing themselves betrayed, men of the imperial army mutinied and marched on the capital of Christendom, given free passage and even food by Italian princes who had been victims of Medici popes. On May 6, 1527, they burst into Rome. One of the first victims of the assault was the Constable de Bourbon, killed by a sniper on the Roman walls. Any hope of disciplining the mutineers died with him. They pillaged house to house, murdering anyone who protested. Buildings were put to the torch. Then the dying began.

Clement, most of the sacred college, and many Curia officials found sanctuary in the fortress of Sant’ Angelo, though they barely made it—one cardinal was hauled to safety in a basket after the portcullis had been dropped. But the rest of the population was helpless. Women of all ages were raped in the streets, nuns rounded up and herded into bordellos, priests sodomized, civilians massacred. After the first, week-long orgy of destruction, more than 2,000 bodies were floating in the Tiber, some 9,800 others awaited burial, and countless thousands of corpses lay sprawled in the city’s ruins, their bloated, stinking remains eviscerated by rats and hungry dogs.

The soldiers had come for money, and they got it—between 3 million and 4 million ducats in ransoms alone. The rich were scourged, and the lucky, who could pay, freed. Those who produced no ransom were tortured to death. But the plunder did not stop there. No source of loot was overlooked. Tombs were broken open for treasure, relics stripped of their jeweled covers, monasteries, palaces, and churches rifled for their gems and plate.


The fortress Castel Sant’ Angelo, Rome

There was also sacking for the sheer wicked joy of desecration. Archives and libraries went up in flames, with manuscript pages saved only to be used as bedding for horses. The Vatican was turned into a stable. Drunken Landsknechte strutted around in the red hats and vestments of cardinals, parodying holy rites, with one, wearing the pontiff’s vestments, riding an ass. All this continued, off and on, for eight months, until the food ran out and plague appeared. Only then did the mutineers withdraw, having transformed the glory that was Rome into a reeking slaughter-house.

As news of the sack spread across Europe, Protestants interpreted it as an act of divine retribution. And some Catholics agreed. A senior officer in Charles’s army, while deploring “these outrages on the Catholic religion and the Apostolic See,” commented, “In truth everyone is convinced that all this has happened as a judgment of God on the great tyranny and disorders of the papal court.” Cardinal Cajetan, who had met Luther in Augsburg nine years earlier, agreed. “We who should have been the salt of the earth,” he wrote with heavy heart, “have decayed until we are good for nothing beyond outward ceremonials.”


BUT MOST MEMBERS of the Catholic hierarchy saw it differently. Now, they believed, they had seen the faces of the Protestant heresy—the fact that half the looting troops had been Spanish Catholics was ignored—and now they would move with just as much vigor, intolerance, and brutality as those rebelling against their God. Sir Isaac Newton would not discover his Third Law until a generation later, but it was already in effect: henceforth every action by the insurgent Christians would provoke an equal and opposite reaction in Rome. And the Church’s reflexive responses to dissent matched those of the schismatics. The same doom, in the same guise, awaited those who had betrayed Rome: torture, drawing and quartering, the noose, the ax, and, most often, the stake. In that age the world was still lit only by fire. At times it seemed that the true saints of Christianity, Protestant and Catholic alike, had become blackened martyrs enveloped in flames.

In vain enlightened Catholics urged internal disciplinary reforms, curing the blight which had driven good Christians from their ancestors’ faith—the corruption of the clergy, the luxurious lives led by prelates, the absence of bishops from their dioceses, and nepotism in the Holy See. At the very least, they argued, pontiffs should rededicate themselves to devotional lives, good works, and the reaffirmation of beliefs under attack by Protestants: for example, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the divinity of the Madonna, the sanctity of Peter.

Instead the Vatican committed its prestige to reaction, repression, and military and political action against rulers who had left the Church. As always, when scapegoating has become public policy, the Jews were blamed. In Rome they were confined to a ghetto and forced to wear the Star of David. Meantime, Catholic princes were persuaded to make war in the name of the savior, or


Lutheran satire on papal reform

even to send hired assassins into the courts and castles of the Protestant nobility. Every aspect of Protestantism—justification by faith alone, exaltation of the Lord’s Supper, the propriety of clerical marriage—was condemned in a stream of bulls. Nevertheless the rebel faiths continued to prosper. In 1530 Charles V, at the insistence of the Curia, signed a decree directing the Imperial Chamber of Justice (Reichskammergericht) to take legal action against princes who had appropriated ecclesiastical property. They were given six months’ grace to comply. None did.

The Spanish Inquisition is notorious, but the Roman Inquisition, reinstituted in 1542 as a pontifical response to the Reformation, became an even crueler reign of terror. All deviation from the Catholic faith was rigorously suppressed by its governing commission of six cardinals, with intellectuals marked for close scrutiny. As a consequence, the advocates of reform, who had proposed the only measures which might have healed the split in Christendom, fell under the dark shadow of the hereticators’ suspicion. No Catholic was too powerful to elude their judgment. The progressive minister of Naples, disgusted with the venal Neapolitan church court, began trying indicted ecclesiastics in the city’s civil court. For thus violating the privilegium fori, he was summarily excommunicated. The liberal Giovanni Cardinal Morone was imprisoned on trumped-up charges of unorthodoxy. Another cardinal, who had actually reconverted lapsed Catholics, ran afoul of the Vatican by attempting to prevent war between the Habsburgs and France. He was recalled to Rome, accused of heresy, and ruined. The archbishop of Toledo, because he had openly expressed admiration of Erasmus, was sentenced to seventeen years in a dungeon, and after the death of Clement VII another Erasmian—Pietro Carnesecchi, who had been the pope’s secretary—was cremated in a Roman auto-da-fé.

In the opinion of the Apostolic See, most Catholic rulers, including the Holy Roman emperor, were far too tolerant of heresy. Francis I was particularly disappointing, and the Vatican was delighted when, after his death at Fontainebleau in 1547, he was succeeded by the devout and murderous Henry II, at whose side lay the even more homicidal Diane de Poitiers, royal mistress and enthusiastic Inquisiteuse. Together they planned a grand strategy to crush all French apostates. The printing, sale, or even the possession of Protestant literature was a felony; advocacy of heretical ideas was a capital offense; and informers were encouraged by assigning them, after convictions, one-third of the condemneds’ goods. Trials were conducted by a special commission, whose court came to be known as le chambre ardente, the burning room. In less than three years the commission sentenced sixty Frenchmen to the stake. Anne du Bourg, a university rector and a member of the Paris Parlement, suggested that executions be postponed until the Council of Trent defined Catholic orthodoxy. Henry had him arrested. He meant to see him burn, too, but destiny—the Protestants naturally said it was God —intervened. The king was killed in a tournament in 1559. His queen, his mistress, and the Vicar of Christ mourned him. Du Bourg, of course, did not, though he went to his death anyway as a martyr luthérien.


HENRY II OF France had been admired, applauded, and blessed in St. Peter’s, but in the twelve years following the rise of Luther the sovereign most cherished in Rome was Henry VIII of England. Henry seemed, indeed, the answer to a Holy Father’s prayers. The fact that his handsome features, golden beard, and athletic build also made him the answer to maidenly and unmaidenly prayers appeared to be irrelevant; the Apostolic See was in no position to condemn royal lechery. More important, before the death of his elder brother made him heir to his father’s throne, he had been trained to be a priest.

By the time he mounted the throne, in 1509, he could and did quote Scripture to any purpose, and after the monk of Wittenberg had posted his Ninety-five Theses on the Castle Church door, Henry had denounced him in his Assertio septem sacramentorum contra M. Lutherum, a vigorous defense of the Catholic sacraments, probably ghostwritten by Richard Pace, Bishop John Fisher of Rochester, or, possibly, Erasmus. In it he asked, “What serpent so venomous as he who calls the pope’s authority tyrannous?” and declared that no punishment could be too vile for anyone who “will not obey the Chief Priest and Supreme Judge on earth … Christ’s only vicar, the pope of Rome.”

Luther, replying with his typical grace, referred to his critic as that “lubberly ass,” that “frantic madman … that King of Lies, King Heinz, by God’s disgrace King of England,” and continued: “Since with malice aforethought that damnable and rotten worm has lied against my King in heaven, it is right for me to bespatter this English monarch with his own filth.” He then sponsored a Protestant conspiracy in the heart of London, the Association of Christian Brothers. The association circulated anti-Catholic tracts and reached its climax the year before Rome’s sack with the publication of William Tyndale’s famous — infamous in the Vatican—English translation of the New Testament, which made the thirty-four-year-old British clergyman an archenemy, not only of the Apostolic See, but also of his then-Catholic sovereign.

Tyndale was a humanist, and his tale is an example of the deepening hostility between men of God and men of learning. English humanists had rejoiced at Henry’s coronation. Lord Mountjoy had written Erasmus of the “affection [the king] bears to the learned.” Sir Thomas More said of the new monarch that he had “more learning than any English monarch ever possessed before him,” and asked, “What may we not expect from a king who has been nourished by philosophy and the nine muses?” Henry’s invitation to Erasmus, urging him to leave Rome and settle in England, appeared to confirm the enthusiasm of English scholars. It seemed inconceivable that the popular monarch, faced with a choice between faith and reason, should choose faith.

But Erasmus, after accepting the invitation, found that the king had no time for him. And as the religious revolution grew in ferocity, Henry’s commitment to Catholicism deepened. Lord Chancellor More, with royal encouragement, imprisoned the Christian Brothers and other heretics. And the Tyndale affair, which appalled English intellectuals, seemed to align him with the most reactionary heresimachs.

William Tyndale had conceived his translation while reading ancient languages at Oxford and Cambridge, and he had begun work upon it shortly after his ordination as a priest in 1521, the year of Luther’s condemnation at Worms. A Catholic friend reproached him: “It would be better to be without God’s law than the pope’s.” Tyndale replied: “If God spare me, ere many years I will cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than you do.”

Had he valued his own years on earth, he would have heeded his friend. It was one thing for Erasmus to publish parallel texts of the Gospels in Latin and Greek; few, after all, could read them. This was another matter altogether. It was actually dangerous; the Church didn’t want—didn’t permit—wide readership of the New Testament. Studying it was a privilege they had reserved for the hierarchy, which could then interpret passages to support the sophistry, and often the secular politics, of the Holy See.

Tyndale had been warned that finding a printer for his completed manuscript would be difficult. Luckless in England, he crossed the Channel and found a publisher in Catholic Cologne. The text had been set and was on the stone when a local dean heard of it, grasped the implications, and persuaded authorities in Cologne to pi the type. Fleeing with his manuscript, Tyndale found that he was now a police figure; had post offices existed, his picture would have been posted in them. The Frankfurt dean sent word of his criminal attempt to Cardinal Wolsey and King Henry, who declared Tyndale a felon. Sentries were posted at all English ports, under orders to seize him upon his return home.

But the fugitive was less interested in his personal freedom than in seeing his work in print. He therefore journeyed to Protestant Worms, where, in 1525, Peter Schöffer published an octavo edition of his work. Six thousand copies had been shipped to England when Tyndale was again spotted. He was on the run for the next four years. Then, believing himself safe, he settled in Antwerp. However, he had underestimated the gravity of his offense and the persistence of his sovereign. British agents had never ceased stalking him. Now they arrested him. At Henry’s insistence he was imprisoned for sixteen months in the castle of Vilvorde, near Brussels, tried for heresy, and, after his conviction, publicly garrotted. His corpse was burned at the stake, an admonition for any who might have been tempted by his folly.

The royal warning was unheeded. You can’t kill a good book, including the Good Book, and Tyndale’s translation was excellent; later it became the basis for the King James version. Despite a lengthy Dialogue by More, denouncing the translation as flawed, copies of the Worms edition had been smuggled into the country and were being passed from hand to hand. To the bishop of London this was an intolerable, metastasizing heresy. He bought up all that were for sale and publicly burned them at St. Paul’s Cross. But the archbishop of Canterbury was dissatisfied; his spies told him that many remained in private hands. Protestant peers with country houses were loaning them out, like public libraries. Assembling his bishops, the archbishop declared that tracking them down was essential—each was placing souls in jeopardy—and so, on his instructions, dioceses organized posses, searching the homes of known literates, and offered rewards to informers — sending out the alarm to keep Christ’s revealed word from those who worshiped him.

Henry’s blows against Lutheranism and English heresy were appreciated in Rome. The king had expected them to be, and had


King Henry VIII of England (1491–1547)

let Rome know that he would welcome a quid pro quo. Earlier pontiffs had designated the rulers of Spain as “Catholic Sovereigns” and French monarchs as “Most Christian.” Henry wanted something along that line, and Pope Leo gave it to him, bestowing upon him and his successors the titleDefensor Fidei, Defender of the Faith. Henry ordered this struck on all English coins, and because kings rarely return anything once it is in their grasp, the rulers of England have kept the honorific ever since, * though within a dozen years of its conferral the Holy See very much wanted it back.


IN THE POPULAR imagination, Henry VIII and Martin Luther have been yoked as leaders of the Reformation, though each would have deeply resented the coupling, and in fact they do not belong together. Luther was a theological rebel. Henry remained a faithful Catholic in every particular except one. He rejected the supremacy of Rome because the pontiff—for political, not religious reasons —resisted what the king regarded a royal prerogative. There is much to be said in Henry’s behalf and very little in the pope’s, but the motives of both have been muddied, as often happens when romance rears its violin-shaped head.

The immediate issue was Henry’s decision in 1527 to dissolve his eighteen-year-old marriage to Queen Catherine, Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. His motive would not be acceptable to later ages, but it was then. Medieval sovereigns were expected to function as national stallions, providing heirs for their thrones. This was particularly important in Henry’s case. The dreary, thirty-one-year War of the Roses between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians had ended only six years before his birth, and his family’s claim to the monarchy was shaky; if he died without male issue, England would almost certainly be ravaged by civil war again.

Unfortunately Catherine, now forty-two, had proved an incompetent conceiver of healthy boys. Her only child to survive infancy was a girl. Henry knew the problem did not lie with him. In 1519 he had sired a bastard boy by his first royal mistress, Elizabeth Blount, the sister of William Blount—Lord Mountjoy, Erasmus’s patron. Though adulterous, this and Henry’s other affairs were sanctioned by custom; unwritten law held that when royal marriages had been contracted for reasons of state, either party might seek diversion elsewhere. But there was another consideration. Assuming that his queen would bear children of both sexes, the king had betrothed their small daughter, Mary, to the dauphin of France. Should Henry die without leaving a son, Mary would inherit the English throne, and when her husband was crowned king of France, the British island would, in effect, become a province of France.

The annulment he sought required Rome’s consent, but that should have presented no problem. Papal dispensations were not uncommon; the usual procedure was to find some flaw in a marriage which would permit an annulment or a divorce. In Henry’s case the flaw was genuine. Catherine was the widow of his older brother Arthur, and English canon law prohibited such a marriage, taking its precedent from the book of Leviticus (20:21): “If a man shall take his brother’s wife it is an unclean thing … they shall be childless.” The Vatican had provided a dispensation permitting Henry to wed her, but it was doubtful that the pontiff had possessed the power to overrule the scriptural ban, particularly since the queen’s fruitlessness seemed to have fulfilled its prophecy. The king said that the dispensation, and therefore his union with Catherine, had been illegal. Theologians on both sides of the Channel agreed with him.

In Rome, however, the prospect of an English royal divorce bore distasteful political implications. Pope Clement was struggling to recover from the sack of the holy city, where, largely as a result of his own blundering, his situation had become highly complicated. If the pontiff agreed, he could anticipate a highly unpleasant confrontation with a ruler even more powerful than Henry: the Holy Roman emperor, whose domains sprawled across the Continent, and whose armies had now twice defeated the French in disputes over Milan, Burgundy, Naples, and Navarre. The undisputed master of Italy, Charles V literally surrounded the Vatican and therefore was, in proximity alone, bound to intimidate any pontiff, particularly at a time when the papacy was deeply involved in regal intrigues. Clement was a captive pope, and the emperor’s views would be given great weight, especially if they were strongly held.

In this case they were. Charles’s childhood tutor, the future Pope Adrian, had instilled in him a solemn reverence for the Vicar of Christ. Catherine was his aunt, and he was incensed by the argument—unwisely presented to the Vatican by Henry’s legate—that because she had been Arthur’s widow, her marriage was not only invalid but actually incestuous. Should the Vatican accept this reasoning, she would be reduced to the level of a discarded concubine, and her daughter, Mary, England’s heir apparent, Charles’s cousin, would become illegitimate. If Clement denied papal permission, Henry would be blocked—unless, of course, he quit the Church, a possibility which seems to have occurred to no one except him until he had publicly committed himself. It came as a shock to prominent English Catholics, confronting them with an agonizing choice between their faith and their monarch. No one who knew Henry expected royal sympathy for their dilemma, and there was none; when the humanist Juan Luis Vives spoke up for Catherine, he was dismissed as Mary Tudor’s teacher and banished from the court.

None of Henry’s predecessors would have dreamed of breaking with Rome, but he was a man of immense determination, and his resolve was strengthened by his choice of, and infatuation with, Catherine’s successor: Anne Boleyn, a nobly born nineteen-year-old girl remarkable for her flashing eyes, long, flowing hair, and vivacity. Here his judgment was gravely flawed. Superficially, Anne seemed qualified for the throne. The daughter of a viscount and granddaughter of a duke, she had been educated at a Paris finishing school and had served as lady-in-waiting, first to Marguerite of Navarre and then, back in England, to Catherine. She was witty and gay. But she was also flighty, self-centered, and, by all accounts, lascivious.

It was her sexuality which had attracted Henry to her. The Boleyn women were noted for their libidos; both Anne’s mother and her older sister had slipped naked into the king’s bed, to his subsequent delight, but her lovemaking skills eclipsed theirs. To him this wanton girl seemed built to breed. He was convinced that once the Holy See had sanctioned a royal annulment, freeing him to wed her, crown her, and impregnate her with a scion, England would be guaranteed a future sovereign to rule an England at peace. What he did not know—then—was that despite her youth she was as experienced as he was. Before she seduced him, her many lovers had included the poet Thomas Wyatt and Henry Percy, the future Earl of Northumberland. Even in what one historian of Hampton Court describes as “exceedingly corrupt court revels,” she was notoriously available to both single and married courtiers. Indeed, there is evidence that when the king designated her his queen-elect, she and Percy were already secretly married.

Because of this—and much more of the same, which was to follow—the king’s decision to abandon Catherine led to the messiest divorce in history. Yet had Anne Boleyn never existed, Henry would still have found a new queen. He had begun to consider changing wives as early as 1514, when Anne was a child of seven; when he quit Catherine’s bed in 1524, it was to sleep with Mary Boleyn, not her younger sister. Three more years passed before he took Anne as his mistress and made the first, tentative inquiries about a dispensation from Rome.

His hopes were vested in his lord chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey sympathized with the king’s yearning for a son and had his own candidate for the succession, the French princess Renée, daughter of King Louis XII. Privately the cardinal was appalled by Anne. He was familiar with her reputation, and by now the king must have heard at least a whisper of it. But to a monarch with Henry’s pride it would have been inconceivable that any queen of his would be tempted—let alone dare—to contemplate infidelities. Furthermore, by now he was in love with her.

Wolsey badly needed a success. Once considered invincible, the lord high chancellor was now seen as a leader of lost causes. His wars had alienated the Commons and the merchants, his dictatorial manner had offended the clergy, and his foreign policy —rejecting Charles V for a French alliance—had proved disastrous. Had he been wise, he would have been unobtrusive. Yet he could not hide his lack of enthusiasm for what the royal court was calling “the king’s great matter.” Henry, impatient, bypassed the cardinal and sent his own secretary, William Knight, to Rome. Knight, speaking for his sovereign, submitted his case to Pope Clement. The pontiff, he argued, should declare Henry’s present marriage invalid. In any event, he proposed, the matter should be decided in England. His Holiness agreed. Knight then suggested that an eminent prelate serve as judge and make the final ruling. He had Wolsey in mind. The pontiff knew it. He also knew that for seven months of the previous year he and his retinue had been holed up in Sant’ Angelo while Rome was sacked. The troops still surrounded the city, and their commander was the English queen’s


Anne Boleyn (1507–1536)

nephew. If Clement yielded to Knight’s other point, he would be inviting the wrath of Charles V. Yet he could not leave the English cardinal out. Therefore, Clement ruled that two members of the sacred college should preside. Wolsey would be joined by an Italian cardinal, Lorenzo Campeggio. This was a stunning loss of face for Wolsey, and when Anne turned against him he was a ruined man. Henry seized his palace at Whitehall and stripped him of his secular offices. He was allowed to retain the archbishopric of York. After a year the king ordered his arrest. Ill, Wolsey died on the way to London.

In the meantime, Cardinal Campeggio had found the English sovereign immovable. “This passion,” he wrote the pope, “is the most extraordinary thing. He sees nothing, he thinks of nothing but his Anne; he cannot be without her for an hour.” Nevertheless Henry, willful but astute, had been proceeding shrewdly. He had appointed a commission to gather legal opinions from Catholic scholars all over Europe, and confronted the pontiff’s representative with the fact that they backed him, without exception. Campeggio agreed that England deserved a fertile queen. He urged Catherine to retire to a nunnery. She agreed—provided Henry enter a monastery. The cardinal was offended. He knew she could not be serious; the thought of Henry VIII resigning himself to obedience, chastity, and poverty was absurd. What the cardinal did not realize was that Catherine’s intractability, supported by her imperial nephew and his captive pope, meant that from this point forward the likelihood of England’s defection from Catholicism would increase month by month.


HENRY IS OFTEN depicted as short-tempered, a man who was determined to have his way whatever the consequences. The determination was there, but in pursuing his desires he also showed remarkable patience. His reply to Luther—the work of a staunch Catholic sovereign —was written in 1521. In 1522 Anne Boleyn, aged fifteen, became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine, and it was there that she caught the king’s eye. He had already despaired of Catherine’s infertility, but five years passed before he secretly began to seek to annul their marriage. For six years the pope, under pressure from her nephew Charles, ignored Henry’s appeals.

It was in 1533 that he married Anne, now twenty-six, and was excommunicated by the pope. Parliament passed the Act of Succession in 1534; it declared the king’s marriage to Catherine invalid, recognized Anne as the new queen, made questioning her marriage to Henry a capital crime, and required all Henry’s subjects to take an oath of loyalty to him. Nor was the tale told. The king’s disillusionment with Anne, among other consequences, lay ahead.

In the beginning the king had assumed that the pope would swiftly grant his request, dissolving his barren marriage. All precedents were on his side. Even Campeggio, who first came to London in 1528, agreed with him. But the pope, to Henry’s growing frustration, seemed incapable of making up his mind. Campeggio knew how little weight an Italian cardinal carried in London. If he ruled in Catherine’s favor, he would simply be banished. Therefore he appealed for instructions from the Vatican. Clement’s frantic reply reflects his helplessness. He told his cardinal “not to pronounce sentence without express commission hence. … If so great an injury be done to the Emperor, all hope is lost of universal peace, and the Church cannot escape utter ruin, as it is entirely in the power of the Emperor’s servants. … Delay as much as possible.” By this and other byzantine maneuvers the pope bought time—five more years of it.

Eventually there was no time left to buy. Anticipating a dispensation, the king had fitted up splendid apartments for Anne adjacent to his own at Greenwich; courtiers reported to her, as though she had already been crowned; crowds gathered outside her windows, ignoring Catherine. Often Henry would not leave Greenwich until noon. But papal politics made this bedfellowship perilous. The issue became critical when Anne discovered that she was with child. Thomas Cranmer, a Cambridge theologian, had drawn up a new array of arguments; a team of negotiators, now hastily dispatched by the king, presented them in Rome. Still the pontiff hesitated. Anne was beginning to show, and no infant could succeed to the monarchy unless born to a queen.

Henry could wait no longer. He appointed Cranmer archbishop of Canterbury, invested him with extraordinary powers, and urged him to place the broadest possible interpretation on his new office. The new prelate moved swiftly, ruling that the pope was incompetent to grant a dispensation. He declared Catherine a divorcée, secretly married Henry to his mistress, and in May 1533, on Whitsunday of her twenty-seventh year, when she was in the seventh month of her pregnancy, crowned her with great ceremony in Westminster Hall.

Nothing could stop the split in the Church now. The king’s blood was up. He had already summoned a special session of Parliament. Working on the anticlerical feelings of the MPs—and despite the opposition of Sir Thomas More, his new high chancellor — he had rammed through a brutal legislative program limiting the powers of the clergy, increasing taxes on the Church, and cutting the annates paid to Rome to 5 percent. This last act was the sort of insubordination which deeply wounded the Holy See. Clement had dawdled for years over the divorce petition from London, but he had also drafted a bull excommunicating the king. Now the Vatican executed it.

The king’s response was just as vehement. Following his lead, Parliament passed thirty-two religious bills, which, among other things, cut off all revenues to Rome, and confiscated all Church lands—by a conservative Catholic estimate, 20 percent of the land in England. Other measures suppressed monasteries, decreed that spiritual appeals by English Christians must be made to Canterbury or the king, required new clergymen to swear loyalty to the crown before they could be consecrated, and stipulated that only royal nominees could become bishops and archbishops. Then Henry took the ultimate step. In the Act of Supremacy (November 1534) he abandoned Rome completely, founding a new national church, Ecclesia Anglicana, and appointing himself and his successors its supreme head.

Sir Thomas More, Wolsey’s successor as high chancellor, had followed Henry for a time, but he had been in agony, trapped between conflicting loyalties. More was the king’s humble servant. However, he was also a devout Catholic. The less his sovereign saw of him, he reasoned, the better. Therefore he resigned the chancellorship in 1532. It was in vain. He could not hide; he was too eminent; the king was watching him closely. His personal crisis reached a climax in the spring of 1534. When the king demanded that his subjects take an oath to obey the Act of Succession, he was asking more than More could give. It meant swearing fealty to Henry and repudiating the papacy. Most of the English clergy meekly obeyed. More didn’t protest; he simply remained mute. He condemned neither the oath nor those who had taken it, but though remaining loyal to the crown in word and deed, he refused to renounce Rome—a devastating silence, because Henry was taking an enormous risk. Although he was a powerful monarch, his reign was confined to the living. England’s rising national spirit supported him, as Germany’s had supported Luther, but if the pope excommunicated his entire kingdom, condemning every Englishman to eternal flames, the possibility of an uprising would be far from remote. In this exigency the king could not hesitate.

More had already opposed Henry’s marriage to Anne and refused to attend her coronation, a mortal insult. Any tolerance of further lèse majesté by Henry would be interpreted as weakness, especially since the former chancellor, garlanded with royal honors, was the most influential man in English public life. The king could be merciless or he could forfeit his crown, and for this king that was no choice. More was charged with treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

At his trial More finally spoke out. Splitting the Church was a tragic crime, he said; he could not, in all conscience, be an accomplice to it. Nor, he added, could he bring himself to believe that “any temporal man could be the head of the spirituality.” He was one of the most eloquent men of his generation, but he spoke in a hubbub and could scarcely be heard. The hearing was a formality. The verdict had already been decided. His judges included Anne’s father, her uncle, and her brother, Lord Rochford. They condemned him to be “hanged, drawn, and quartered”—the extreme penalty for betrayal of the sovereign. It meant that the chancellor’s shrunken cadaver, cut into four parts, would be left to rot on the London docks.

That was too much for the king. As Anne sulked—Sir Thomas had succeeded Wolsey as the object of her malice—Henry changed the sentence to simple beheading. The scholar who had served him so faithfully went to the ax with his head high. As he mounted the scaffold it trembled and seemed about to collapse. Turning to a king’s officer he said calmly, “I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant, see me safe up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself.” Then, altering the ghastly ritual by blindfolding himself, he asked the hushed crowd to witness his death “in the faith and for the faith of the Catholic Church, being the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” He died. Afterward his head was affixed to London Bridge.

England was shocked. No one in the kingdom believed the former lord chancellor even capable of betraying crown and country. Erasmus mourned his friend, “whose soul was more pure than any snow, whose genius was such that England never had and never again will have its like.” The Vatican proclaimed him a Christian martyr. In time the papacy beatified and then canonized him.

LESS THAN A YEAR later Anne Boleyn followed him to the block. Her thousand-day reign had been a disaster, so calamitous that the prestige of the papacy was enhanced; only divine intervention, men reasoned, could have visited such punishment upon the rebel monarch in London. His conviction that she would present him with an heir had been wrong. Her first baby, like Catherine’s, was female. No one could blame her for that, but the failure of her womb was the least of it. Once on the throne she seemed to change personality. Her gaiety vanished and was replaced by temper tantrums, sharp-tongued imperiousness, and innumerable petty demands which left the king exasperated. Catherine at least had been gentle, and he began to miss that; when she died, he wept, and ordered the court to go into mourning. Anne refused. After she presented him with a second, dead child—a boy, born prematurely and badly deformed—he no longer desired her. He told friends Anne had bewitched him, and cited the baby’s deformities as evidence of her sorcery. To her fury, he began sliding his hand under the skirts of one of her maids, the nobly born Jane Seymour. *

If the evidence later arrayed against her is to be believed, Anne was the last wife in England entitled to protest her husband’s dalliance. According to sworn testimony, she had scarcely recovered from her daughter’s birth when she began taking lovers, and her intrigues continued through her three-year marriage. If a youth aroused her desire, witnesses declared, she would invite him to her bedchamber by dropping a handkerchief at his feet; if he picked it up and wiped his face, her proposition had been accepted, and her personal maid would be alerted to his arrival that evening at midnight.

These charges may have been trumped up—later it was said that several of the men accused of sleeping with the queen were homosexuals—but this was not apparent at the time. Henry, according to the record, learned that he was being cuckolded. Told of the handkerchief signal, he watched it happen, moved in that night with armed yeomen, and struck hard. The new lord chancellor took Anne to the Tower and read out the charges against her. She fell to her knees, sobbing and protesting her innocence.

In the preliminary hearing three knighted gentlemen of the privy chamber and a court musician confessed to “criminal intercourse with the queen.” Then the earl of Northumberland, as he now was, testified that he, too, had been intimate with her. The greatest sensation came at the end, when Lord Rochford, Anne’s brother—who had found Sir Thomas More guilty—was led into the dock and accused of coupling with his own sister, a charge supported, by what is said to have been convincing evidence, by Rochford’s wife. Tried by a jury which included Anne’s father, the musician pleaded guilty and, as a commoner, was merely hanged. The knights then were beheaded.

Three days later, twenty-six peers, chaired by Anne’s uncle, the duke of Norfolk, sat in judgment of her and her brother. Both were found guilty of adultery and incest and condemned to death by their uncle. Violent death being commonplace and a life hereafter assumed, the condemned in that age often accepted their fate with an insouciance which would be astonishing today. After praying that she be forgiven her crimes, Anne, still only twenty-nine, asked that her head be struck off as soon as possible. She remarked wryly that she drew comfort from the thought that “the executioner I have heard to be very good, and I have a little neck,” then laughed. On the scaffold she asked the crowd to pray for the king: “A gentler and more merciful prince there never was, and to me he was ever a good, a gentle, and sovereign lord.” She and Rochford were decapitated within a few minutes of each other, the queen, by precedence of rank, meeting the blade first.

This extraordinary cataract of events, precipitated by a king’s yearning for a male heir, led, ironically, to two royal heiresses, each of whom reigned memorably. Catherine’s daughter, Mary, survived her mother’s humiliation and briefly visited a terrible retribution upon those she held responsible for it. The fears of Charles V were at first realized; after the divorce Mary was declared illegitimate. Later, however, after the birth of a male heir to Henry—the future Edward VI, his son by Jane Seymour—Parliament relented, passing a complex act which, among other things, restored Catherine’s daughter to the royal line of succession and permitted her to occupy the throne for five years, beginning in 1553, as Queen Mary I.

Mary was not a beloved sovereign, nor did she mean to be. Popularity was not among her priorities. Juan Luis Vives had done his work well; she had never renounced her Roman Catholicism, nor—understandably—had she forgiven the zealous new Protestants who had refused to let her visit her mother, even when Catherine had lain on her deathbed. As sovereign she swore to turn back the clock, wiping out the Reformation. It was impossible, but she tried very hard. As her chief adviser she appointed Reginald Cardinal Pole, an English cardinal who had remained loyal to Rome, and whom the pope designated as Mary’s papal legate. Pole shared her bitterness. He had quarreled with Henry over the divorce and predicted, in the king’s presence, that he would be consigned to hell.

That had been lèse majesté with a vengeance, and it had been swiftly punished. The angry sovereign had set a price on Pole’s head; the cardinal had fled for his life, eluding capture but suffering nevertheless, for during his fugitive years both his mother and brother were beheaded. Now, at his urging, Mary made her attempt to restore papal supremacy over England. The penal laws against heresy were revived. On her orders, Archbishop Cranmer was burned at the stake—other famous martyrs were Bishops Ridley and Latimer—and Pole was then consecrated in Canterbury as Cranmer’s successor. Over three hundred Englishmen, whose only crime had been following Mary’s father out of the Roman Church, were also executed. Perhaps her most significant achievement, which she shared with Henry, was her demonstration that England could be just as barbaric as the rest of sixteenth-century Europe. Even today she is remembered as Bloody Mary.


THE IMMORTAL Maid of Orleans still dominated memories of the prior century. But now the sixteenth was more than half gone and it had produced no woman to match her; indeed, no heroines at all. Then, late in its sixth decade, irony intervened to produce a woman who would rank with the greatest sovereigns in English history, giving her name to a new age which would redeem the squalor of the old. She was the daughter of the disgraced Anne Boleyn, who had lain in Anne’s womb, awaiting birth, during the coronation Sir Thomas More had ignored. On the day of her birth, she had been declared illegitimate by the Vatican. In the wake of her mother’s execution the archbishop of Canterbury—after ruling that Anne had, in fact, been married to Percy at the time of her royal wedding and had thus been bigamous as well as adulterous and incestuous—had concurred with Rome, pronouncing the child a bastard.

Anne having been formally declared a common slut—thus placing her far beneath Catherine, whose status as a divorcée was relatively respectable—the royal solicitors concluded that Henry’s second marriage had had no legal status whatever. Since it had never occurred, the three-year-old waif who had been its only issue had no legal existence. Like her half-sister, however, and indeed because of her, Anne’s daughter was to be rescued from oblivion. The restoration of Mary’s legitimacy created a precedent. After Jane Seymour’s death in childbirth, Parliament, bowing to Henry’s will, recognized all three of his children, conceived in various wombs, thus establishing the final order of Tudor succession: first Edward, son of Jane; then Mary, daughter of Catherine; and finally, Elizabeth, daughter of Anne.

Crowned in 1558 at the age of twenty-five, Elizabeth I restored Protestantism, revived her father’s Act of Supremacy, and reigned over England for forty-five glorious years. In light of the tragic consequences of her parents’ sexual excesses, which had typified European nobility in their time—the promiscuity, the proliferation of bastards, the hasty coupling in palace antechambers—she was perhaps wise to live out her long life unaccompanied by a connubial consort, and to be remembered in history as the Virgin Queen.

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