Post-classical history


Two views can be taken of the fifteenth century, each with merit as historical approaches. In the first place, it can be looked at only with one eye, while the other eye is on the future, to the sixteenth century and to the religious changes that dramatically altered the course of history. The emphasis is on roots, origins, even causes, related to the Protestant Reformation, and no historian of that phenomenon can avoid seeking its historical sources. But, for the medieval historian, this approach poses the real danger of turning the last century of the Middle Ages into a mere prelude to what was to come and of not seeing it in its own right. This second view examines this period not entirely unaware of the great changes around the corner but with the emphasis clearly on the here-and-now of fifteenth-century Europe. It is this second approach which is adopted here: the fifteenth century deserves to be studied for itself, not in an entirely blinkered way, but with emphasis unmistakably on what happened then rather than on what was to happen. What happened then was not decay and decline, as has often been said. It was, rather, a period of unusual richness, a richness in which the church shared and to which it contributed. Recovery from the catastrophic Black Death was fairly rapid. The self-inflicted wounds of the Great Schism and the consequent Conciliar Movement left scars, yet the church as the community of Christian believers emerged as healthy then as the church of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, perhaps even with a more widely shared sense of the essentially spiritual aspects of religion.

Popes and councils

From the attack on Boniface VIII (1303) through the long, 70 year exile in Avignon followed by the devastating schism and the humiliation of the councils at Pisa (1409) and Constance (1414–18), the papacy was scarred, deeply troubled, even reeling. Yet 50 years later the papacy had recovered its constitutional position as the supreme authority over the church. Popes would reign who would be among the most splendid in an age of splendour and near splendour.

When Martin V left Constance in 1417, he had much to concern him, particularly the nature of the body that had elected him and its claims and mandates. A pope elected by an assembly claiming to be his superior could scarcely feel comfortable, particularly since that assembly had ordered the frequent meeting of like bodies in the proximate future. Yet Martin V, of that many-pope family the Colonna, had the self-confidence and the subtle diplomatic skill to yield in some things in order not to lose all. And so, in keeping with the requirement of Constance for a council within five years (another within seven from then and others at ten-year intervals), Martin V summoned a council to meet at Pavia in 1423. Few representatives arrived in Pavia for the scheduled opening on 23 April. When plague fell on Pavia in June, the council moved to Siena, where it was officially opened only in November. Little was accomplished because of papal reluctance and also because of poor attendance – only 25 ‘mitres’ (bishops and abbots) at the postponed opening – which was understandable, since the prelates who had attended Constance had been away from their sees for over three years. Practical-minded bishops could see that a system of frequent councils could amount to an almost continuous parliament, requiring bishops to neglect their own pastoral obligations. Some who did attend, like the abbot of Paisley, who had come from Scotland, complained when the council disintegrated in early 1424. Before they went home, the fathers agreed (in accordance with Constance) that another council would be held in seven years’ time (1431) at Basel, now in modern Switzerland, then an independent city within the empire.

Basel proved the definitive turning point in the Conciliar Movement, being both its pinnacle and its nadir. The conciliarists reigned, perhaps even supreme, for a while, but by the council’s end they had become what they would remain, academics debating among themselves, far from the real world of power and influence. Many were the agents causing the demise of conciliarism, perhaps chief among them the Greeks.

Before the council met, Martin V had died (20 February 1431) and 11 days later the cardinals elected Eugenius IV, about whose competence as pope historians continue to differ. At his first public consistory, the floor gave way under the weight of the crowd, killing a bishop: an ill omen for a troubled pontificate. On the day of the scheduled opening at Basel only the abbé of Vézelay was present. Others began to straggle in: by April a bishop had come and an abbot as well as representatives of the University of Paris. Small attendance was to trouble the council throughout its sitting. The pope’s officials formally opened the council on 23 July 1431, and in late September the papal legate, Cardinal Cesarini, arrived to take personal control. He came straight from a major military defeat in a ‘crusade’ against the Hussites. He found a mere handful of mitres at Basel. While Cesarini was obsessed with resolving the Hussite problem, Eugenius IV was negotiating with the Greeks in an effort to convince them to attend an ecumenical council with the Latin church to discuss reunion of the churches. More will be said about the Greek factor, but, for now, the Greeks, in preliminary negotiations, preferred to meet in Italy rather than north of the Alps at some place like Basel. In any case, Eugenius held little sympathy for what was happening at Basel and, on 18 December 1431, issued a bull dissolving the council and called for a new council at Bologna. He underestimated the determination of the fathers at Basel as well as the single-mindedness of his legate, who was determined to use the council to resolve the Hussite crisis by peaceful negotiation. The council continued, refusing to obey the papal order, and reaffirmed Haec sancta of the Council of Constance, declaring the superiority of council over pope: Eugenius lacked the authority to dissolve a council unless the council approved. It took another year and a half (till 1 August 1433) before the pope withdrew his bull of dissolution but not to the council’s satisfaction. He made further concessions and, on 15 December 1433, abjectly submitted:

We decree and declare that the said council from its very beginning was and is a legitimate council and that it should continue … as if no dissolution was made. We declare that dissolution invalid and null.

Pope Eugenius IV had surrendered. The victorious council triumphantly repeated the decree Haec sancta. The council and, with it, constitutional conciliarism were now in charge, but it was not to last.

Meanwhile, the council fathers – bishops always in a minority – proceeded with the Hussite issue. The fate of John Hus and Jerome of Prague, who, safe-conducts notwithstanding, were burned to death at the Council of Constance, made the Hus-sites very wary of accepting the invitation to go to Basel. Skilful negotiations by Cardinal Cesarini won their confidence, and, having received iron-clad assurances of their safe-conduct, 300 Hussites arrived at Basel in January 1433 to put their case to the council. They remained there for three months and returned, unmolested, to Prague with no agreement in hand. But the way was open for further discussions, the council – and not the pope – taking the lead. In November 1433 both sides accepted articles of agreement (theCompacta of Prague). The articles addressed the issue of communion under two kinds (i.e., under the species of both bread and wine), which the Hussites had insisted upon: they could administer communion in this way but could not require it, and priests must explain that Jesus is present in the Eucharist – body, blood, soul and divinity – under each species. Free preaching with some controls was allowed, and priests could own property under some circumstances. Further refinements were made to this agreement, and the council ratified it on 15 January 1437. It brought an end to the Hussite Wars and relieved the church of the formidable pressures from the Hussites, although unpacified dissidents remained and would be heard from again. This was the council’s greatest achievement.

With the pope effectively sidelined, the council attempted to do two things simultaneously: administer the church and effect reforms. The council sought to replace the papal curia and manage, almost micro-manage, the practical affairs of the church. This consumed more time than was anticipated and siphoned off much of the energy which could have been directed towards meaningful reform. The council did pass reforming decrees, but these had largely to do with the pope and his curia. Theirs was a reform not of ‘head and members’ but only of ‘head’: the larger needs of the church were mostly ignored. An opportunity was missed. Although the pope had capitulated and although the council succeeded with the Hussites, the heights had been reached and a steady decline of its fortunes was to end the effective life of the Council of Basel. If the council rose with the Hussites, it fell with the Greeks.

Pope Eugenius may have been seen to capitulate in 1433, but his was a tactical retreat, a holding action, a delay to await a more favourable day. It came. While the fathers at Basel fell into bickering over smaller and smaller matters, the pope continued his pursuit of union with the Greek churches. Understandably, the Greeks wanted any ecumenical council to be held in a convenient place. For a while, Constantinople was seriously considered, then Italy. In the meantime, the council sent emissaries to treat with the Greeks. Many at Basel wanted the assembly north of the Alps at Savoy, Avignon or even Basel itself. The council took a crucial vote on 7 May 1437, and in a babble of voices the majority read its decree, summoning the council to Avignon, while the minority read its decree, summoning the council to an Italian city to be named. Each side then sang the Te Deum, as if victorious. It should be said that the system of voting extended voting privileges to academics and members of the lower clergy and that the majority of the mitres were among the minority at Basel Cathedral who favoured a move to Italy. Eugenius summoned a council to meet at Ferrara in January 1438. Many, including the best and the brightest, left Basel. The rump at Basel soon declared Eugenius deposed and elected the lay duke of Savoy, Felix V. His name could scarcely have been less appropriate. With Basel becoming little more than a debating forum for university doctors, led by the Parisians, Felix, a truly devout man, withdrew in 1442. Seven years later he was reconciled with the pope, who treated him generously by making him a cardinal. The Baselites had become irrelevant, and there perished with them any effective conciliarism. It had its greatest support at Constance as the only perceived way of ending the scandalous schism. The radical conciliarists, those firmly committed to government of the church by council, became increasingly fewer in numbers. Practical churchmen with pastoral responsibilities could not justify by ideology the long absences from their dioceses required by frequent councils. Their support for the council and conciliarism faded. Debate continued, but, as a practical matter, the Conciliar Movement was no longer a movement.

The reunion of the Greek and Latin churches, long desired at least in theory, came to fruition at the Council of Florence (transferring from Ferrara early in 1439). That the reunion failed to hold might lead us to underestimate its achievement. What is often said is that the Greeks, with the Turks a force in Anatolia and even in parts of the Balkans and with their posing a threat to Constantinople, turned to the West for assistance and were willing to pay the price of reunion. Such would be an inexact statement of the facts. That there were political considerations and that they played an important part in the quest for reunion cannot be doubted, but the considerations also involved the shared needs of East and West. Not only was Constantinople in peril but so too the Balkans and much of central Europe. Early contacts were made while the popes were at Avignon. The Orthodox monk Barlaam held discussions with Benedict XII in 1339, a century before Florence, and, presciently, the Greek monk argued that only an ecumenical council could achieve reunion. Embassies from the East came to Avignon in the 1350s and 1360s, and at this latter visit preparations were begun for a council. It came to naught, and in the early years of the fifteenth century the initiative came not from the East but from the West. Pope Martin V was on the verge of sending a representative to such an ecumenical council to be held at Constantinople when he realized that he was expected to pay for the council, a burden his empty coffers could not support. Martin and later Eugenius conducted negotiations with the emperor directly or indirectly through the Orthodox church leaders. In the dynamics of the time Eugenius and Basel competed actively to meet with the Greeks to such an extent that it was not known for sure whose invitation the Greeks would accept, even after they landed in Venice in February 1438. That they accepted the papal invitation and went to Ferrara enormously enhanced papal prestige at a great, even lethal, cost to the rump council.

A Greek delegation, 700 strong, was led by Emperor John VIII Paleologus. The patriarch of Constantinople attended as did representatives of the other patriarchs (Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem), whose cities were under Muslim control. After a fascinating debate over the seating arrangements, Greeks and Latins processed into Ferrara Cathedral and recognized themselves as forming an ecumenical council. The tensions that appeared almost at once concerned not doctrinal differences per se but procedure and order of discussion. The Greeks, prodded by the emperor, who wanted prompt military support from the West, would have preferred a quick bandaging up of old wounds in an ambiguity that would satisfy both sides. Eugenius demanded more. Four issues of difference were finally discussed as representatives of each side presented their views, the Western theologians in an elegant Latinity that captivated their hearers. The centuries-old dispute over the ‘procession’ of the persons of the Trinity consumed over three weeks in March 1439. In a much earlier time the West had added the word filioque to the traditional creed, insisting that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father ‘and the Son’ (filioque), whereas in the East the Holy Spirit was said to proceed from the Father through the Son. In the final decree, both sides agreed that their formulas expressed the beliefs of their saints and that their saints, since they are saints, must be teaching the same doctrine. Thus, when the Eastern saints say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son and when the Western saints say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, they must mean the same thing. On the subject of purgatory the Eastern theologians in discussing a place where the souls of the good but not perfect go after death did not speak with one voice, but they seemed to hold that such an intermediate state was not a state of fire and that the final disposition of souls was fixed only at the Last Judgement at the end of the world. They yielded to the Latin view of the geography of the afterlife: after death the good and the wicked are immediately sent to heaven and hell and the good but not perfect remain in another place to purge themselves of the remaining stains of sin, where they can be assisted by the prayers and suffrages of the faithful on earth. The issue of the Eucharist centred on the essential words of consecration, and the dominical words (‘This is my body … this is my blood’) were accepted, leaving room for customary liturgical usages of East and West as well as for the use of leavened or unleavened bread. A fourth issue remained, and that concerned the authority of the bishop of Rome.

While the theological matters just described were dealt with only after much debate, it could be reliably expected that the question of ultimate authority in the reunited church would have provoked the greatest friction. Such was not the case. An agreement happened quite quickly after formulas went from one camp to the other. The agreed statement reads,

We define that the apostolic see and the Roman Pontiff hold primacy in the whole world and that the same Roman Pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter, prince of the apostles, and is the true vicar of Christ, head of the whole church and father and teacher of all Christians.

The patience of Eugenius, little shown at the beginning of his pontificate but shown at Florence repeatedly as he yielded to the Greeks in minor point after minor point, won the day.

The sixth of July 1439 was proclaimed a civic holiday in Florence. The duomo and the large square in front of it were filled with people as the great men of East and West processed into the cathedral. The Byzantine emperor, resplendent as only an Eastern emperor could be, sat in a prominent place. The pope entered in a magnificent procession, Mass was said, and the bull of union read. It begins with the words from Psalm 95 (96), Laetentur coeli et exsultet terra (‘Let the heavens rejoice and the earth exult’). The reunion of the churches, long desired and often despaired of, was achieved.

Other churches followed the Greeks. The Armenian patriarch sent two representatives to Florence; they greeted Eugenius as ‘the vicar of Christ in the see of the apostles … our head … our shepherd … the foundation of the church’. On 22 November 1439 a document of union with the Armenians was promulgated, at the news of which King Henry VI of England ordered prayers of thanksgiving throughout his kingdom. The Coptic church sent representatives from Egypt, who, on 4 February 1442, agreed to a bull of union. To the Copts of Ethiopia Eugenius sent a letter addressed to Prester John, believed to be the Christian king. (A hundred years later the king of Ethiopia wrote to the then pope, saying that he had a letter and a book from Eugenius, quite likely the letter and copy of the bull of union.) Efforts were made with some success with the Nestorians, the Syrians and the orthodox churches in Cyprus. It all might have worked, but circumstances – not merely the fall of Constantinople in 1453 – conspired against it.

Two deaths provided obstacles. King Albert, successor as German king to Sigismund, died unexpectedly in October 1439, and there followed a dynastic struggle, which precluded a swift response to the pope’s plea for military aid for the East. The Greeks, returning from Florence, did not reach Constantinople until 1 February 1440, when Emperor John VIII learned that his wife had died. He entered into profound and prolonged grief. The slow return – six months after Laetentur coeli – and the emperor’s inactivity gave anti-union forces in Constantinople an unopposed field. If the emperor had immediately and with the full force of his authority promulgated the decree of union, the nay-sayers might well have had little success in encouraging opposition. The Western forces, when finally gathered, did not reach Constantinople until September 1444 and experienced a devastating defeat at Varna on the Black Sea in modern Bulgaria. Never again would a Christian army of the necessary strength be raised to stem the Turkish forces. Much of the Balkans were already in their hands. Adrianople (Edirne), 100 kilometres west of Constantinople, had been Turkish since 1362. Under these circumstances one may wonder what the assembled throng in Santa Sophia felt on 12 December 1452 when, at last, the union was solemnly proclaimed. Within four months the walls of the city were ringed with Turkish forces. The two-month siege ended when the defending force of Italians and Greeks, outnumbered 20 to 1, finally gave way to the Turks. And the city of Constantine, founded as a second Rome in 330, was no longer a Christian city, its great basilica about to become a mosque, and no longer an outpost protecting Europe from incursions from the East. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453 ended the quest to reunite the two parts of the Christian church. And so it stands.

While the churches sought reunion at Ferrara and Florence, the nation states were confronted with the decision to support Eugenius’s council at Florence or to continue supporting Basel. King Charles VII called his clergy together at Bourges in 1438 to determine French policy. What issued was the Pragmatic Sanction, which, while applying some of the reforms of Basel tailored to French needs and being courteous to the pope, maintained neutrality between pope and council. Meanwhile, the German diet that met at Mainz in March of the same year also bided its time by a neutral policy. Poland stopped sending funds to both pope and council. England continued its staunch support of Eugenius. As Basel deteriorated, it became increasingly difficult for supporters to accord it any serious regard. Basel essentially dissolved. Only a shell was left when Felix V became reconciled. Among the able churchmen to abandon Basel was the humanist Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini. In November 1442 he put his talents to the service of Eugenius and Florence. This remarkable man, later himself to become pope (Pius II), went to Germany, where he persuaded Frederick, newly king, to forgo neutrality in favour of Eugenius. By the mid 1440s France, while not formally rescinding the Pragmatic Sanction (not until 1516), had come to terms with Eugenius. The pope died on 23 February 1447, his opponents either reconciled or marginalized and his council successfully completed. Piccolomini concluded his funeral oration by saying of Eugenius,

There was no greater fault in him than that he was without measure and he tried to do not what he could do but what he wanted.

The pope’s biographer, Joseph Gill, suggests that it would be a more accurate judgement if ‘what he wanted’ were to read ‘what he ought to do’ or ‘what he believed he ought to do’. The new pope, Nicholas V, quickly solidified the papal position, even receiving the homage of the French king. In a moment of comic theatre the remnant of the remnant of Basel (now at Lausanne) ‘elected’ Nicholas. The crisis was over, but some may see in these circumstances of national churches acting independently for or against a pope or, indeed, a council a precedent for what became a principle in the next century at the Peace of Augsburg (1555): cuius regio, eius religio (‘in the prince’s country, the prince’s religion’). Whether the Augsburg formula derived from events of the 1430s and 1440s, no one can say apodictically, for other sources suggest themselves and intervening events created a wider dynamic. Nonetheless, the parallels, at least, show the power of the state in matters of religion. But more was happening to the papacy than its relations with council and princes.

Humanist popes ascended the throne of Peter. Eugenius IV would not fit that profile, yet he was exposed to the new ways while he was at Florence and brought back Fra Angelico to Rome with him. It was his successor, Nicholas V (1447–55), who can be called the first Renaissance pope. A theologian by training at Bologna, he became tutor to an aristocratic family at Florence, and, for him, it was a perfect marriage of time and place. He soon became intoxicated with the world of art and learning, which saw the beauty of nature as not inimical to religion but seamlessly joined with it to fulfil the human spirit. He admired the works of antiquity in letters and stones and, as a young priest, became a bibliophile, according to one story, actually raising money for his obsession by bell-ringing. Once pope, Nicholas set about to begin the restoration of the Eternal City, long neglected by the absence of popes and, later, by their concern with other matters. With peace having been achieved in Italy between the rival states, Rome was ripe for renewal. Nicholas restored and enlarged the Vatican Palace, hereafter the principal residence of the popes, employing the genius of Fra Angelico in the decorations. The pope turned his attention to the repair of churches, bridges, castles and walls. Plans to repair and extend the 1,000 year old St Peter’s Basilica were drawn up, although, in time, a new basilica was to be decided upon. Not all was accomplished in his day, but it is not too much to say that Nicholas V presided over the creation of Renaissance Rome. His greatest achievement, however, may be seen in what he did for learning. As a result of the union of the churches, Greek scholars came to the West and found a generous patron in the humanist pope as did Western scholars. Nicholas presided over translations of the canon of ancient Greek writers: the historians Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon, the works of Aristotle (known previously chiefly by translations from Arabic), Strabo and many others. The translation of Homer into hexameter Latin verse was incomplete at Nicholas’s death. Translators under his patronage rendered into Latin not only Greek secular works but also provided fresh translations of the writings of the great Christian theologians of the East such as Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom. Nicholas’s youthful enthusiasm for books became fulfilled: he actively pursued the collection of manuscripts of ancient Latin and Greek works by sending scholars even to remote parts of Europe in search of books. Gutenberg’s press was yet to print its first book, and all books were manuscript books. Nicholas acquired over 1,000 manuscript books (807 in Latin and 353 in Greek), which were to form the basis for the Vatican Library. His Spanish successor, Calixtus III (1455–58), was said (by his enemies) to have gestured at his predecessor’s manuscripts, calling them a waste of the church’s treasury.

Pius II (1458–64) we have already met as the brilliant Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini. One of the brightest lights of his age, he not only read the works of ancient authors, but he himself wrote histories, romances, poems, addresses and even an erotic comedy. HisCommentaria have been translated as The Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope. Skilled in diplomacy, he supported Basel and then defected to Eugenius and served effectively on diplomatic missions. He had refused to take priest’s orders, for, in his words, ‘I fear continence’ (timeo continentiam). He sired several illegitimate children. Piccolomini travelled widely, reaching even Norway and Scotland, where he suffered frostbite of his feet. In 1445 serious illness led to a personal conversion, and he was ordained the next year. When elected pope, Aeneas Piccolomini took the name ‘Pius’ because Virgil routinely referred to his hero as ‘pius Aeneas’. His years as pope saw him concerned about mounting a campaign in the East, and, unlike his predecessor Nicholas V, Pius did not become the patron of scholars and artists, although, as pope, he produced numerous works, including his already-mentioned autobiography.

A crucial moment may have been reached in the attitude of the church towards secular learning. The Middle Ages witnessed an ongoing controversy about the place of secular learning in the life of a Christian. What need do Christians have of such learning, since they have all that is needed in sacred scripture and holy books, it was frequently argued. But humanists at the court of Charlemagne in the ninth century and at Paris in the twelfth century found aesthetic pleasure and intellectual satisfaction in purely secular learning. And in the middle of the fifteenth century two humanists, to be followed by others, became supreme pontiffs of the Christian church. One cannot speak for historical persons, but one can imagine Augustine, Cassiodorus, Alcuin, Abelard, Dante and others like them taking satisfaction and even pleasure at this turn of events. Yet for forces that touched the souls of men and women one must look beyond the courts of Roman pontiffs, who had become successful Italian princes.

Christian piety

The defining form of Christian spirituality from at least the late eleventh century was the monastic life. Christians wishing to strive for spiritual perfection, would be told to leave the world and enter a religious community. The terminology is instructive: they became religious, a term which, without further modification, meant those who took religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and who lived in a community with others like them. Theirs was the true life of the spirit. A layperson who desired to live a life of Christian perfection yet was unable or unwilling to take vows and become cloistered could try to live like a religious in the world, in a less than perfect way, distracted by family and other practical concerns of everyday life, at best, a second-rate, inferior spiritual life. The establishing of the life of a religious as the normative form of spirituality defined the medieval ideal of Christian perfection. Attempts at a peculiarly lay spirituality at the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth century led either to charges of heresy, as with the Cathars and others, or to the absorption of these aspirations into new religious orders, as with the friars. The fifteenth century offered to the laity an alternative model of spirituality, one not second best to monastic piety, but its equal. To seek perfection it was no longer necessary to leave the world and take vows. The new spiritual teaching held that perfection can be sought in the world by laymen and laywomen going about their quotidian pursuits. There were writers and preachers who taught this new way, and individuals committed themselves to following the new way singly or in informal groups. In parish churches they found religious meaning in the rituals of the calendar and in the ceremonies marking the rhythms of life from birth to death and beyond. Lorenzo Valla, writing about 1441, spoke for many when he objected to the use of the word ‘religious’ to apply only to those who took vows, since it implies that those people have a higher form of the Christian life than other Christians, which, he believed, they clearly did not. This resistance to the traditional religious culture, while not everywhere successful or, indeed, accepted, added a dimension, hitherto mute, to the discourse about religious experience.

Valla was not the first to resent the self-asserted monopoly of religious to that name. In the late fourteenth century Gerard Groote (d. 1384) of Deventer in Holland and his disciples argued not only against the traditional usage but, particularly, against the underlying assumption that religious are more religious. Groote stands as the founder of a new movement, the Devotio Moderna (New Devotion), which swept across much of northern Europe in the fifteenth century. Gerard Groote will never be numbered among the great theologians of his time, yet, far from being a scarcely lettered person, he had spent ten years at the University of Paris. In minor orders, he returned from Paris to Deventer, where, supported by benefices which required no care of souls, he turned his attention to worldly affairs. In 1374 he experienced a conversion of soul and turned over his house and worldly possessions to a group of women, who, in time, became known as the Sisters of the Common Life, i.e., unmarried laywomen living in common. Groote went to a Carthusian monastery near Arnhem, where he remained for three years. When he left, he took deacon’s orders so that he could preach. Groote soon became an effective and popular preacher against the evils of the day. His preaching made many of the higher clergy uncomfortable, and, at one point, the bishop of Utrecht forbade preaching by all deacons in order to silence him. Groote became a magnet for laymen and laywomen and members of the secular clergy who desired a more spiritual life. The women living in his house took no vows and carried on their lives as pious women living, without obligation, in a voluntary community. Groote died of the plague in 1384 and soon groups of laymen and secular priests who were committed to his ideals began to appear, first at Deventer, then soon nearby at Zwolle and Kampen. Another branch of followers of Groote established religious communities based on the rule of the Augustinian canons with the Windesheim congregation at its centre. From one of these houses of canons emerged the most influential spiritual writer of the fifteenth century, Thomas à Kempis, about whom more soon.

The Brethren of the Common Life were determinedly not religious, since they took no vows and were free to leave whenever they wished, nor did they form an order, since the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) prohibited the founding of new orders. The Brethren were a mixture of laymen and clerics, and there frequently lived in their houses schoolboys, like Erasmus in 1484–87. Only occasionally did the brothers actually teach the boys – they tended to go to local schools – providing, instead, spiritual direction and some communal spiritual exercises. The brothers themselves spent considerable effort in copying manuscripts of devotional works. An early text describes the Deventer house:

Our house was established and supported by meagre funds from rents and the sale of goods so that, following the example of the early church, devout priests and clerics and poor laymen can live in this house in common from the manual labour of copying books and from the income from some property. Our purpose is to worship devoutly at church, to obey the bishops, to wear only simple clothing, to keep the canons and decrees of the holy ones, to practice spiritual exercises and to live not only lives beyond reproach but lives of perfection so that we may serve God and perhaps persuade others to do likewise.

Other communities of the Brethren of the Common Life sprang up elsewhere. In the Netherlands there were houses at Delft (1403), Albergen (1406), Hatten (1407), Groningen (c.1433), Gouda (1445) and Utrecht (1474), to mention the more prominent ones. They also spread into Flanders, where communities were established at Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels and Leuven. In Germany the Brethren had houses at Münster (1400), Cologne (1417) and at many other places.

Although they shared some common aims with the Hussites and their less important English cousins, the Lollards, the followers of the ‘new devotion’ were decidedly within the church. Three components can be said to form the Devotio Moderna: the Brethren, the Sisters and the Canons Regular. The devotion was clearly urban, bourgeois and literate. The classical exposition of its spirituality is in Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, four different booklets brought together in 1418 as a single book under the Latin title De imitatione Christi. A manuscript of 1441 in the author’s hand is now at the Royal Library in Brussels. Although he was a canon of Mount St Agnes (Agnietenberg, near Zwolle), his book was intended not just for canons but also for pious souls living in the world, and it was with them – laity and secular clergy alike – that it found its enormous audience.

It is an accessible book, not based on theological arguments but on almost aphoristic phrases, which, if not disdaining theology, show its limitations:

What good is it if you argue with profound learning about the Trinity, yet, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? It is not learned discourse but a life of virtue that brings you close to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it.

One can almost hear such phrases, easily memorized, being repeated by readers hungry for easily understood rules of life. Again,

How foolish to seek riches that only perish and to trust in them. How foolish to be ambitious for earthly honours and strive for worldly advancement. How foolish to indulge the urgings of the flesh and enjoy that for which you will one day be punished. How foolish to want a long life and not care how it is lived. Foolish, too, to think only of the present instead of preparing for the life to come.

A few more examples from the first book, its most widely admired part, can underline further its attraction to ordinary Christians desiring to live a more perfect life:

Take no credit for yourself for your accomplishments. Think of others with kindness and admiration … Do not think of yourself as better than others, however obviously wicked they may seem, for you know not how long you will persevere.

Lest it be thought that the Imitation and by extension the Devotio Moderna were totally anti-intellectual, which John Van Engen warns against, Thomas à Kempis reassures the scholar:

There is no reason to argue with learning, for it is all good in itself and in God’s ordering of things. But what must be put first and foremost is a good conscience and a holy life.

Few scholars would argue with that priority of goodness over learning, but, when Thomas tells his readers why they should read the Bible, he tilts away from the scholarly approach:

We read Holy Scripture not for its literary qualities but for its truth and its relevance to our lives … You will read it with the greatest profit, if you approach it in humility, simplicity and faith.

For him the highest motive for all human actions is love for God:

Frequently when we think we are motivated by love, we are mistaken, for we act for some other reason such as natural inclination, self-will, desire for regard or, even, our own gain. True love is not about self-seeking but is directed solely to the glory of God.

And he reminds his readers to remember that death excludes no one – memento mori – and one should keep in mind one’s death:

When you wake in the morning, think that this may be your last day, and, when you retire at night, do not promise yourself another morning.

For à Kempis the Christian is but a pilgrim on earth, life being lived here as a prelude to a fuller life hereafter. This perspective imbues all his writings.

Its simplicity and directness led to the great popularity of the Imitation among laity and clergy alike. Translations were quickly made into Dutch (1420) and German (1434) and, in the course of time, into more than 50 languages, including Hawaiian, Eskimo and Swahili. We shall never know how many manuscript copies were made, but about 900 survive in whole or in part. Thousands of copies were printed in the first few decades of printing. Without doubt, no other book of the fifteenth century has had such a profound influence on the spirituality of ordinary people.

In Italian cities of this period religious confraternities, each of them with scores and even hundreds of members, had it as their principal purpose to relieve human suffering. At Florence in 1419, when the confraternities there were reordered, the della Misericordiacommitted its members to visiting the sick and burying the dead, while the Bigallo looked after foundlings and orphans. The confraternity of Santa Maria della Pietà had a membership which strove to avoid frivolous pursuits, which met for prayer fortnightly, which confessed once a month and which received communion twice a year, yet, for all these pious practices, their principal work was the distribution of food to the indigent. The Ospedale degli Innocenti was founded in 1419, its building started then by Filippo Brunelleschi, later the architect of the great dome crowning Florence’s duomo; this foundling hospital established a model of its kind. Virtually all Florentines above the poverty level belonged to one or more of the city’s charitable bodies. In 1427, it has been estimated, annual contributions for alms and other charitable purposes in Florence alone was about 108,000 florins, which was about one-sixth of the total income of all citizens.

Similar works of charity were being done elsewhere. In Pistoia, a town of less than 5,000, there was a hospital with 70 beds (with 25 permanent patients) and a staff of two physicians, eight nurses as well as other personnel. There were also other, smaller hospitals, but, in all, there was a capacity of over 200 beds at Pistoia, a bed-to-population ratio which modern cities can only wish for. In addition to the sick, these hospitals cared for foundlings, orphans, the insane, the homeless, the poor and life’s unfortunates, all for free.

These works of charity and others like them were possible because of the increased donation to these confraternities. In Florence such civic charity increased almost twofold between 1427 and 1498. A merchant of Prado, who was encouraged to donate his wealth to a monastery, chose instead to present it to a hospital. Although Tuscany might have led the way, similar pious foundations appeared elsewhere in Italy (e.g. at Venice, Milan, Bergamo, Brescia). Some had a decidedly penitential flavour, but always the purpose was charity to life’s less fortunate. Civic charity was clearly emerging, too soon to call it a ‘social gospel’, but it was a distinct form of Christian piety, seeking religious expression by relieving human suffering.

Plate 24 Foundlings, façade of Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence. Glazed terracotta figures by Andrea della Robbia (1463–66). Reproduced by permission of the Courtauld Institute of Art.

Central Italy witnessed the spread of the Laudesi, groups of laypeople who gathered each evening to pray at their own chapel or oratory. It was a brief meeting of prayers, always including the Ave Maria and ending with a confession of faults. On the first Sunday of every month the members would gather for a solemn Mass and then process through the church, leaving their candles at the high altar. Such monthly gatherings took place at Florence, Pisa, Perugia, Bologna and elsewhere. Their activities began to include public pageants as well as services for the dead. Other, similar lay associations also appeared and helped to shape the increasingly lay devotional piety of the time.

Evidence of devotional piety can be found not only in Netherlandish towns and Italian cities but also in the parishes of urban and rural England, and not merely in the graceful new churches rising amidst the sheep-runs of East Anglia. It can be seen in the cycle of yearly celebrations which touched every parish, even the most remote, and these were celebrations not of a pious few but celebrations of whole communities. On 2 February, when winter was at its greyest and gloomiest and Christmas a fading memory, a feast of the Virgin became a feast of candles: the Purification of the Virgin became Candlemas. It was a day on which the whole parish came to church. The priest blessed the candles and then each parishioner, carrying a lighted candle, joined in a procession which went around the church. At the offertory of the Mass, when the bread and wine were brought to the altar, each person brought a candle to the altar. Margery Kemp, the pious woman of Bishop’s (now King’s) Lynn, wrote what this ritual meant to her:

On the feast of the Purification – also called Candlemas – when this creature [Margery] saw parishioners in church with candles in their hands, she could think only of Our Lady offering her holy son, saviour to us all, to Simeon, the priest, in the temple, as if she [Margery] were actually present, making the offering with Our Lady … So moved, she could scarcely carry up her own candle to the priest.

(Book of Margery Kemp, ch. 82)

Not all enjoyed Margery Kemp’s raptures, but all carried candles home with them to light in times of danger. In some bigger towns, such as Beverley, a local guild organized a re-enactment in costume of the presentation of Jesus in the temple with members playing the parts of Mary (carrying a doll), Joseph, Simeon and two angels with large candles.

Similar rituals accompanied the ceremonies of Holy Week, which began with the procession of palms on Palm Sunday and ended with the empty tomb and Alleluias on Easter Sunday. It was the week when parishioners made their annual confession in preparation for Easter communion, which, for most, was the only reception of communion each year. Before Mass on Palm Sunday palms – or the English equivalent – were distributed to the parishioners, who then gathered by a bare cross outside the church as the gospel story of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem was read. The priest, carrying the sacrament, approached and sang, ‘Behold, Sion, your king cometh’. The procession of palms, with the priest and sacrament at its end, circled the church as flower petals were scattered before the sacrament. They entered the church through its main, western door. When all had entered, three clerics sang Matthew’s Passion, each taking a part. After Mass, the palms were taken home, as had the candles weeks before, as a protection for places where they were displayed. On Holy (or Maundy) Thursday, when the priest had completed Mass, the altars were stripped of their linen and left bare, as if to prepare Jesus’s body for death the following day. Good Friday was the day of the cross. Three times the priest, before a veiled cross, sang ‘Ecce lignum crucis’ (‘Behold the wood of the cross’), and, after each time, part of the veil was removed from the cross. Then, barefoot, each person approached the bare cross, and kneeling, kissed it. (Henry VIII scandalized many when he did the same thing in a chapel in Westminster abbey in 1539.) A host, previously consecrated, was solemnly ‘buried’ in a temporary sepulchre, where it remained, with parishioners keeping watch, till Easter morning. Then the sacrament was removed from the sepulchre, and at Easter Mass the congregation, before the empty tomb, sang ‘Resurrexit sicut dixit’ (‘He has risen as he said’). These were the ceremonies held in every parish church, large or small, across the land, and in some places there were local embellishments. The more recent feast of Corpus Christi (Body of Christ), observed in late May or June, enjoyed a more public expression than those just described, as Corpus Christi guilds in the major towns organized public processions of the sacrament attended with banners, bell-ringing, costumes and even some clearly secular features.

At York a remarkable play was performed on the feast of Corpus Christi. Often called ‘mystery plays’, it was, however, a single play with 50 ‘pageants’ – we might say ‘scenes’ – which recounted the Fall and Redemption of the human race. Each ‘pageant’ was mounted on a cart by a local guild. A procession of these carts went through the streets of York, stopping at 12 ‘stations’ to enact their parts of the story. The play began with the fall of Lucifer and the bad angels, followed by creation, the fall of Adam and Eve, the murder of Abel, the flood, the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham and Moses before the Pharaoh, to mention only some of the scenes from the Old Testament part of the cycle. Then came carts which performed scenes from the life of Christ, including his birth, the flight into Egypt and the slaughter of the Innocents, Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist, his trial before Pilate, his betrayal by Judas and his denial by Peter, followed by his crucifixion and resurrection. The final scene showed the Last Judgement with the welcoming of the good by God and the casting of screaming souls into the eternal fires of hell. The didactic import of this cycle should not be minimized. York’s Corpus Christi cycle was an event of major importance in the civic and devotional life of the city. And there were similar plays elsewhere.

Emphasis on these great procession days could make us overlook simpler observances which engaged the participation of a whole parish. On the Rogation Days, observed on three consecutive days – Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – four times a year, the parishioners behind the cross processed through their fields which the priest blessed, in the hope of driving away the devil and all wicked things, like blight and famine. After the singing of the litanies of the saints, food and drink were provided by the wealthier members of the parish. And, on the Wednesday, a ritual devil-dragon lost his tail.

It was not merely – or, indeed, mostly – on such days of communal celebration that one looks for external sign of inner piety. It is in the day-to-day, week-to-week living of life. On Sundays virtually whole villages attended Mass. Although the priest said Mass in Latin, often quietly, the laity had their own devotions of prayers – Paters and Aves – or meditative reflections for different parts of the Mass. Yet at the consecration – the sacring – when they believed that the priest’s words transformed the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and at the elevation, when, as a bell rang, the consecrated elements were raised for all to see and worship, they raised their arms and silently said a prayer. The fifteenth-century pastoral writer, John Mirk, suggested a prayer such as,

Jesus Lord, welcome thou be,
In form of bread as I thee see.
Jesus, for thy holy name
Shield me today from sin and shame.
Shriving and housel, Lord, thou grant me both,
’Ere I shall hence go,
And very contrition of my sin,
That I, Lord, never die therein.
And as thou were of a maiden born,
Suffer me never to be forlorn,
But when I shall hence wend,
Grant me the bliss without end.

Other elevation prayers were simpler – ‘My Lord and my God’ – but, whatever the words, to ‘see Jesus’ at the elevation was considered by the laity the sublime moment, the essence of the Mass.

No one knows what motivated individual people in the fifteenth century – or, for that matter, in any century. Whether those attending Mass were moved by lofty spiritual reasons or mere social pressure or by a combination of motives or whether motivations varied from time to time we shall never know. That pious woman Margery Kemp recounts that, as she was entering church, a handsome man of her acquaintance made a sexual proposition to her, which she said she seriously considered. Whatever the motivating reason, it seems safe to say that, for all or virtually all, the sacring and showing of the host were considered the moments when they were closest to God.

But how did they learn their Paters and Aves and elevation prayers? The simple answer is by instruction. Before the godparents took the newly baptized infant from the font, the priest told them ‘to see it be learned the Pater Noster, Ave Maria and Credo’. These three prayers – Our Father, Hail Mary and I Believe (Apostles’ Creed) – formed the basis for instruction. The first is the prayer Jesus gave to his listeners at the Sermon on the Mount, when he was asked, ‘How should we pray, Lord?’, the second is the essential prayer to the Virgin and the third a summary of Christian beliefs.

The syllabus of Christian instruction had been set out in the late thirteenth century by John Pecham, archbishop of Canterbury (see p. 187). Priests were directed to use the vernacular and teach their people the elements of Christian faith: the fourteen articles of the creed, the ten commandments, the two commandments of love of God and neighbour and the groups of seven – the seven works of mercy, the seven deadly sins, the seven virtues and the seven sacraments. It is safe to presume that these were widely known and, easily memorizable as they were, they could be recited with ease by most people. The Lay Folk’s Catechism, summarizing these teachings in rhyming English verse, was widely circulated, and one bishop gave copies of it to all his clergy at a nominal price. Similar books circulated among the parish clergy, among them John Mirk’s Instructions for Parish Priests, also in verse to assist them in carrying out their pastoral mission. Parish priests, Mirk wrote, should urge their people to say their private prayers in English, ‘for, when you speak in English, you then know and understand what you are saying’. And there was an emphasis on prayer that went beyond the recitation of the Pater and Ave.

Hundreds of manuscripts of primers (often called books of hours) which circulated in the first three-quarters of the fifteenth century still survive. In the decades that followed the establishing of printing presses, tens of thousands of primers were produced for an eager market. They usually contained the little office of the Virgin, the litany of the saints, prayers for the dead, psalms of the Passion, a calendar of the liturgical year and private prayers, such as morning prayers. The primers were prayer books for the laity, and their popularity throughout society – and not just among the upper classes – cannot be in doubt.

The distinct impression that one gets from the extant evidence is that the fifteenth century was a period of vibrant devotional life, which included the laity to an extent hitherto unknown. To be sure, there were saints and sinners, and the vast majority somewhere in between, penitents and recidivists, moving with the tides of everyday life. It is only by externals that one can judge the religious feeling of any age, and by all these signs the fifteenth century was not a century of decay and decline. Far from it.

Further reading

On the general history of councils of this period an excellent starting point is Hubert Jedin, A History of the Council of Trent, vol. 1 (tr. E. Graf; Edinburgh, 1949). More specifically, on Basel, one may consult Antony Black, Council and Commune: The Conciliar Movement and the Council of Basle (London, 1979) and, on Florence, Joseph Gill, The Council of Florence (originally published, Cambridge, 1959, but with corrigenda, New York, 1982). In addition, the same author has written an accessible biography of Eugenius IV: Pope of Union (London, 1961) and has analysed attendance at the councils in ‘The Representation of the Universitas Fidelium in the Councils of the Conciliar Period’, Councils and Assemblies (Studies in Church History, ed. G.J. Cumming, vol. 7, 1971), pp. 177–95. M. Philippides and W.K. Hanak have written a monumental study of The Siege and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453: Historiography, Topography and Military Studies (Farnham, Surrey, and Burlington, VT, 2011). Francis Oakley traces conciliarism from the fourteenth century to modern times in The Conciliarist Tradition: Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church, 1300–1870 (Oxford, 2003). The source of much that is written on popes of the period is the learned and indispensable work by Ludwig von Pastor,The History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages (Eng. tr.; 40 vols; London, 1891–1953). As a papal autobiography, none surpasses Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope: The Commentaries of Pius II: An Abridgment (tr. F.A. Gragg; ed. L.C. Gabel; New York, 1959). Of great assistance in the study of the Hussites is the English-language translation of relevant texts in Thomas A. Fudge, tr., The Crusade Against Heretics in Bohemia, 1418–1437: Sources and Documents for the Hussite Crusades (Aldershot, Hants., 2002).

John Van Engen has written what will become the classic treatment of the Devotio Moderna: Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life: The Devotio Moderna and the World of the Later Middle Ages (Philadelphia, 2008). An older work still of much value is R.R. Post, The Modern Devotion: Confrontations with Reformation and Humanism (Studies in Medieval and Reformation Thought, vol. 3; Leiden, 1968). A specific study is Wybren Scheepsma, Medieval Religious Women in the Low Countries: The ‘Modern Devotion’, the Canonesses of Windesheim and Their Writings (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2004). There are many translations of The Imitation of Christ; some may prefer that by Ronald Knox and Michael Oakley (London, 1959).

There is an abundance of excellent studies on civic charity in Italian cities. Among those for Florence the reader will learn much from the seminal essay by Marvin B. Becker, ‘Aspects of Lay Piety in Early Renaissance Florence’, in C. Trinkaus and H. Oberman, eds, The Pursuit of Holiness in Late Medieval and Renaissance Religion (Leiden, 1974), pp. 177–99; John Henderson, Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence (Oxford, 1994); and Nicholas Terpstra, Lay Confraternities and Civic Religion in Renaissance Florence (Cambridge, 1995). Also, a specific locus of charity is studied in Philip Gavitt, Charity and Children in Renaissance Florence: The Ospedale degli Innocenti, 1410–1536 (Ann Arbor, MI, 1990). For other parts of Italy one can consult the classic work of Brian Pullen, Rich and Poor in Renaissance Venice: The Social Institutions of a Catholic State, to 1620 (Oxford, 1971), as well as David Herlihy’s informative study, Medieval and Renaissance Pistoia: The Social History of an Italian Town, 1200–1430 (New Haven and London, 1967). More specifically, David M. D’Andrea has written Civic Christianity in Renaissance Italy: The Hospital of Treviso, 1400–1530 (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2007). An example of popular piety is the subject of Daniel E. Bornstein, The Bianchi of 1399: Popular Devotion in Late Medieval Italy (Ithaca, NY, 1993).

For England one cannot exaggerate the importance of Eamon Duffy’s study of religious practice in this period, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580 (New Haven and London, 1992), which has made necessary a reappraisal of long-held views. Also, one will find stimulating Christopher Harper-Bill, The Pre-Reformation Church in England, 1400–1530 (rev. edn; London, 1996). A valuable summary is Robert N. Swanson, Religion and Devotion in Europe, c.1215–c.1515 (Cambridge, 1995). Three specific works can be consulted: Terence Bailey, The Processions of Sarum and the Western Church (Toronto, 1971); Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi (Cambridge, 1991); and David J.F. Crouch, Piety, Fraternity and Power: Religious Guilds in Late Medieval Yorkshire, 1389–1547 (York, 2000). There is a Penguin Classic version in modern English of The Book of Margery Kemp (tr. Barry Windeatt; London, 1983; with revised bibliography, 1994). For the religious dramas see Richard Beale and Pamela M. King, eds, York Mystery Plays: A Selection in Modern Spelling (Oxford, 1995) and Dr King’s The York Cycle and the Worship of the City (Cambridge, 2006). Richard Rex has provided a fresh view in The Lollards (New York, 2002).

For Germany, in many ways paralleling Duffy’s work, is the important book by R.W. Scribner: Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Germany (London, 1987).

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