How did the people of Latin Christendom behave? We must not be misled by their religious professions; these were more often expressions of pugnacity than of piety. The same sturdy men who could believe so fiercely could fiercely blaspheme, and the girls who on Sunday bowed demurely before statues of the Virgin rouged their cheeks hopefully during the week, and many of them got themselves seduced, if only as a proposal of marriage. Virginity had to be protected by every device of custom, morals, law, religion, paternal authority, pedagogy, and “point of honor”; yet it managed to get lost. Soldiers returning from campaigns in which sex and liquor had been their chief consolations found it painful to adjust themselves to continence and sobriety. Students majored in venery, and protested that fornication was but a venial sin,25 which enlightened legislators would overlook. Robert Greene declared that at Cambridge he had “consumed the flower of my youth amongst wags as lewd as myself.”26 Female dancers not infrequently performed on the stage and elsewhere “absolutely naked”;27 this, apparently, is one of the oldest novelties in the world. Artists looked down their noses at the rules and regulations of sexual behavior,28 and lords and ladies agreed with the artists. “Among great folk,” wrote Brantôme, “these rules and scruples concerning virginity are made little of.... . How many girls I know, of the Great World, who did not take their virginity to the marriage bed!”29 We have noted the sort of story that sweet Marguerite of Navarre seems to have heard without a blush. The bookstalls were stacked with licentious literature, for which high prices were greedily paid.30 Aretino was as popular in Paris as in Rome. Rabelais, a priest, did not feel that he would reduce the sales of his Gargantuan epic by spattering it with such speech as would have made Aretino run to cover. Artists found a ready market for erotic pictures, even for pictured perversions;31 masterpieces of this kind were sold by street hawkers, letter carriers, strolling players, even at the great fairs.32 All the perversions found place in this period,33 as in the aristocratic pages of Brantôme.34
Prostitution prospered in income and prestige; it was in this age that its practitioners came to be called cortigiane—courtesans—which was the feminine of cortigiani—courtiers. Some generals provided prostitutes for their armies, as a safeguard for the other women of occupied towns.35 But as venereal disease grew almost to the proportions of a plague, government after government legislated against the unhappy filles de joie. Luther, while affirming the naturalness of sexual desire, labored to reduce prostitution, and under his urging many cities in Lutheran Germany made it illegal.36 In 1560 Michel de l’Hôpital, Chancellor of France, renewed the laws of Louis IX against the evil, and apparently his decree was enforced.
Meanwhile the absurd lust of flesh for flesh begot the hunger of soul for soul, and all the delicate embroidery of courtship and romantic love. Stolen glances, billets-doux, odes and sonnets, lays and madrigals, hopeful gifts and secret trysts, poured out of the coursing blood. A few refined spirits, or playful women, welcomed from Italy and Castiglione the pastime of Platonic love, by which a lady and her courtier might be passionate friends but sedulously chaste. Such restraint, however, was not in the mood of the age; men were frankly sensual, and women liked them so. Love poetry abounded, but it was a prelude to possession.
Not to marriage. Parents were still too matter-of-fact to let love choose mates for life; marriage, in their dispensation, was a wedding of estates. Erasmus, sensitive to the charms of woman but not of matrimony, advised youngsters to marry as the oldsters wished, and trust to love to grow with association37 rather than wither with satiation; and Rabelais agreed with him.38 Notwithstanding these authorities, a rising number of young people, like Jeanne d’Albret, rebelled against marriages of realty. Roger Ascham, tutor to Elizabeth, mourned that “our time is so far from that old discipline and obedience as now not only young gentlemen but even very girls dare... marry themselves in spite of father, mother, God, good order, and all.”39 Luther was alarmed to learn that Melanchthon’s son had betrothed himself without consulting his father, and that a young judge in Wittenberg had declared such a betrothal valid; this, the Reformer thought, was bound to give Wittenberg a bad name. In the university, he wrote (January 22,1544),
we have a great horde of young men from all countries, and 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; and I hear that 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 engagement.... . Such engagements are an invention of the abominable pope, suggested to him by the Devil to destroy and tear down the power of parents given and commended to them earnestly by God.40
Marriage contracts could be arranged for boys and girls as young as three years, but these marriages could be annulled later, if not consummated. The legal age for full marriage was generally fourteen for boys, twelve for girls. Sexual relations after betrothal and before the wedding were condoned. Even before betrothal, in Sweden and Wales, as later in some American colonies, “bundling” was allowed: the lovers would lie together in bed, but were admonished to keep a sheet between them.41 In Protestant lands marriage ceased to be a sacrament, and by 1580 civil marriage was competing with marriage by a clergyman. Luther, Henry VIII, Erasmus, and Pope Clement VII thought bigamy permissible under certain conditions, especially as a substitute for divorce. Protestant divines moved slowly toward allowing divorce, but at first only for adultery. This offense was apparently most prevalent in France, despite the custom of killing adulterous wives. Illicit love affairs were part of the normal life of French women of good social standing.42 A triangular ménage like that of Henry II, Catherine de Médicis, and Diane de Poitiers was quite frequent—the legal wife de convenance accepting the situation with wry grace, as sometimes in France today.
Except in the aristocracies, women were goddesses before marriage and servants afterward. Wives took motherhood in their stride, gloried in their numerous children, and managed to manage their managers. They were robust creatures, accustomed to hard work from sunrise to sunset. They made most of the clothing for their families, and sometimes took in work from capitalist entrepreneurs. The loom was an essential part of the home; in England all unmarried women were “spinsters.” The women of the French court were a different species, encouraged by Francis I to prettify themselves in flesh and dress, and sometimes turning national policy by the guided missiles of their charms. A feminist movement was imported into France from Italy, but rapidly faded as women perceived that their power and prominence were independent of politics and laws. Many French women of the upper class were well educated; already, in Paris and elsewhere, the French salon was taking form as rich and cultivated ladies made their homes the rendezvous of statesmen, poets, artists, scholars, prelates, and philosophers. Another group of French women—let Anne of France, Anne of Brittany, Claude, and Renée serve as instances—stood quietly virtuous amid the erotic storm. In general the Reformation, being Teutonic, made for the patriarchal view of woman and the family. It ended her Renaissance enthronement as an exemplar of beauty and a civilizer of man. It condemned the Church’s lenience with sexual diversions, and, after Luther’s death, it prepared the way for the Puritanic chill.
Social morality declined with the rise of commercialism and the temporary disruption of charity. The natural dishonesty of man found fresh forms and opportunities as a money economy displaced the feudal regime. The newly rich. holding securities rather thanland, and seldom seeing the individuals from whose labor they benefited, had no traditions of responsibility and generosity such as had gone with landed wealth.43 Medieval commerce and industry had accepted moral checks in the form of guild, municipal, and ecclesiastical regulations; the new capitalism rejected these restraints, and drew men into a strenuous competition that pushed aside the old codes.44 Commercial frauds replaced pious frauds. The pamphlet literature of the age groaned with denunciations of wholesale adulteration of food and other products. The Diet of Innsbruck (1518) complained that importers “add brick dust to ginger, and mix unhealthy stuff with their pepper.”45 Luther noted that merchants “have learned the trick of placing such spices as pepper, ginger, and saffron in damp vaults to increase their weight. There is not a single article out of which they cannot make profit through false measuring, counting, or weighing, or by producing artificial colors.... . There is no end to their trickery.”46 The Venetian Senate branded a shipment of English woolens as fraudulent in weight, make, and size.47
Charity, in the Latin countries, was still administered with medieval cheerfulness. Noble families spent a considerable part of their incomes in gifts and alms.48 Lyons inherited from the fifteenth century a complex organization of municipal charity, to which the citizens gave “with openhanded generosity.”49 In Germany and England the hands were not so open. Luther did his manful best to re-establish the charities interrupted by the princely confiscation of monastic properties, but he confessed that his efforts failed.50“Under the papacy,” he mourned, “people were charitable and gave gladly, but now, under the dispensation of the Gospel, nobody gives any longer; everybody fleeces everybody else.... . Nobody will give a pfennig.”51 Latimer gave a similar report in 1548: “London was never so ill as now.... In times past, when any rich man died .... they would bequeath .... great sums towards the relief of the poor.... Now charity is waxen cold.”52 Two Italian cities, Cardinal Pole told London, gave more alms than all England.53 “As truth spread,” concluded Froude, “charity and justice languished in England.”54 Probably it was not Protestantism, but commercialism and unbelief, that diminished charity.
Pauperism grew to the proportions of a social crisis. Evicted tenants, jobless journeymen, demobilized soldiers, roamed the highways or littered the slums, begging and robbing to live. In Augsburg the paupers were reckoned at a sixth of the population, in Hamburg a fifth, in London a fourth.55 “O merciful Lord!” cried the reformer Thomas Lever, “what a number of poor, feeble, halt, blind, lame, sickly... lie and creep in the miry streets!”56 Luther, whose heart was as kind as his tongue was harsh, was among the first to perceive that the state must take over from the Church the care and rescue of the destitute. In his address To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520) he proposed that “every town should provide for its own poor.” During his absence in the Wartburg his radical followers organized in Wittenberg a community fund to care for orphans, dower poor girls, give scholarships to needy students, and lend money to impoverished families. In 1523 Luther drew up a Regulation of a Common Chest, which urged that in each district the citizens and clergy should tax themselves to raise a fund from which loans were to be made, without interest, to persons in need and unable to work.57 In 1522 Augsburg appointed six Armenpfleger—Protectors of the Poor—to supervise the distribution of relief. Nuremberg followed suit, then Strasbourg and Breslau (1523), Ratisbon and Magdeburg (1524)
In that year a Spanish humanist, Juan Luis Vives, wrote for the town council of Bruges a tract On the Relief of the Poor. He noted the spread of poverty amid growing wealth, and warned that the extreme inequality of possessions might engender a ruinous rebellion. “As it is disgraceful,” he wrote, “for the father of a family in his comfortable home to permit anyone in it to suffer the disgrace of being unclothed or in rags, it is similarly unfitting that the magistrates of a city should tolerate a condition in which citizens are hard pressed by hunger and distress.”58 Vives agreed that all who were capable of work should be made to work, and that no one should be allowed to beg. But since many were really unable to work, some refuge must be set up for them in almshouses, hospitals, and schools financed by the municipality; food, medical care, and elementary education should be given them gratis, and special provision should be made for the mentally defective. Ypres combined Vives’s ideas with the German precedents and organized (1525) a community chest which united all charitable endowments in one fund, and all charitable distribution under one head. Charles V asked for a copy of the Ypres plan and recommended it to all the cities of the Empire (1531), and Henry VIII sent a similar directive to the parishes of England (1536). In Catholic countries the Church retained the administration of charity.
Political morality remained Machiavellian. Spies were taken for granted; those of Henry VIII in Rome were expected to report the most secret conversations of the Vatican.59 Bribery was traditional, and flowed more lushly after the influx of American gold. Governments competed in violating treaties; Turkish and Christian fleets rivaled each other in piracy. In the decay of chivalry the morals of war relapsed into semi-barbarism; cities that had unsuccessfully resisted siege were sacked or burned, soldiers surrendering were slaughtered or enslaved till ransomed; such international law and comity as had existed in the occasional submission of kings to arbitration by popes disappeared in a chaos of nationalistic expansion and religious enmity. Toward non-Christians, Christians recognized few moral restraints, and the Turks reciprocated. The Portuguese captured and enslaved African Negroes, and the Spanish Conquistadores robbed, enslaved, and killed American natives without abating their high resolve to make the New World Christian. Life was so bitter for the American Indians under Spanish rule that thousands of them committed suicide.60 Even in Christendom there was a startling increase of suicides in this age.61 Some humanists condoned self-destruction, but the Church ruled that it led straight to hell, so that the successful seeker fell out of the frying pan into the fire.
All in all the Reformation, though it ultimately improved the morals of Europe, temporarily damaged lay morality. Pirkheimer and Hans Sachs, both sympathetic with Luther, mourned that a chaos of unregulated conduct had followed the collapse of ecclesiastical authority.62 Luther, as usual, was quite frank about the matter:
The more we go forward, the worse the world becomes.... It is clear enough how much more greedy, cruel, immodest, shameless, wicked the people are now than they were under popery.63.... We Germans are today the laughing stock and disgrace of all peoples; we are regarded as ignominious and obscure swine.... We steal, we lie .... we eat and drink to excess, and we give ourselves to every vice.64... It is the general complaint that the young people of today are utterly dissolute and disorderly, and will not let themselves be taught any more.... The women and girls of Wittenberg have begun to go bare before and behind, and there is no one to punish or correct them, and God’s word is mocked.65
Andreas Musculus, a Lutheran preacher, described his time (1560) as unspeakably immoral compared with the Germans of the fifteenth century,66 and many Protestant leaders agreed with him.67 “The future appalls me,” moaned Calvin; “I dare not think of it; unless the Lord descends from heaven, barbarism will engulf us.”68 We hear similar notes from Scotland69 and England. Froude, ardent defender of Henry VIII, summed up fairly:
The movement commenced by Henry VIII, judged by its present results (1550), had brought the country at last into the hands of mere adventurers. The people had exchanged a superstition which in its grossest abuses prescribed some shadow of respect and obedience, for a superstition which merged obedience in speculative belief; and under that baneful influence not only the highest virtues of self-sacrifice, but the commonest duties of probity and morality, were disappearing. Private life was infected with impurity to which the licentiousness of the Catholic clergy appeared like innocence.... . Among the good who remained uninfected the best were still to be found on the Reforming side.70
We can hardly attribute this moral decline in Germany and England to Luther’s unchaining of sex or his scorn of “good works,” or to Henry’s bad example in sexual indulgence and callous cruelty; for a similar—in some ways a more unrestrained—license ruled in Catholic Italy under the Renaissance popes, and in Catholic France under Francis I. Probably the basic cause of the moral loosening in Western Europe was the growth of wealth. A main supporting cause was the decline of faith not only in Catholic dogmas but in the very fundamentals of the Christian creed. “Nobody cares about either heaven or hell,” mourned Andreas Musculus; “nobody gives a thought to either God or the Devil.”71 In such statements by religious leaders we must allow for the exaggeration of reformers disappointed to find how little their theological emendations had improved the moral life. Men had not been much better before, and would not be much better in later centuries, if we may trust the preachers. We can discover all the sins of the sixteenth century in our own age, and all of ours in theirs, according to their means.
Meanwhile both Catholicism and Protestantism had set up and strengthened two focuses of moral regeneration: the improvement of clerical conduct through marriage or continence, and the emphasis on the home as the final citadel of faith and decency. In the long run the Reformation would really reform, even to excess; and the time would come when men and women would look back with secret envy to that sixteenth century when their ancestors had been so wicked and so free.