What actually was the condition of the German Church in the youth of Luther? One indication appeared in the readiness of high ecclesiastics to accept the criticism and critics of the Church. There were some scattered atheists whose names are lost in the censorship of time; and Erasmus mentions “men amongst us who think, like Epicurus, that the soul dies with the body.” 88 There were skeptics among the humanists. There were mystics who denied the necessity of Church or priest as intermediaries between man and God, and emphasized inward religious experience as against ceremonies and sacraments. Here and there were little pockets of Waldensians who denied the distinction between priests and laymen; and in eastern Germany were some Hussites who called the pope Antichrist. In Eger two brothers, John and Lewin of Augsburg, denounced indulgences as a hoax (1466).89 Johan von Wesel, an Erfurt professor, preached predestination and election by divine grace, rejected indulgences, sacraments, and prayers to the saints, and declared: “I despise the pope, the Church, and the councils, and I worship only Christ”; he was condemned by the Inquisition, recanted, and died in prison (1481).90 Wessel Gansfort, wrongly known as Johann Wessel, questioned confession, absolution, indulgences, and purgatory, made the Bible the sole rule of faith, and made faith the sole source of salvation; here was Luther in a sentence. “If I had read his works before,” said Luther in 1522, “my enemies might have thought that Luther had borrowed everything from Wessel, so great is the agreement between our spirits.” 91
Nevertheless, by and large, religion was flourishing in Germany, and the overwhelming majority of the people were orthodox and—between their sins and their cups—pious. The German family was almost a church in itself, where the mother served as catechist and the father as priest; prayer was frequent, and books of family devotions were in every home. For those who could not read there were picture books, Biblia pauperum, illustrating the stories of Christ, Mary, and the saints. Pictures of the Virgin were as numerous as those of Jesus; the rosary was recited with hopeful frequency; Jakob Sprenger, the inquisitor, founded a fraternity for its repetition; and one German prayer was addressed to the only really popular Trinity: “Glory be to the Virgin, the Father, and the Son.”92
Some of the clergy were as religious as the people. There must have been—though their names were rarely heard above the din made by wickedness faithful ministers of the faith to produce or sustain such widespread piety among the people. The parish priest, as like as not, had a concubine or a common-law wife; 93 but the lion-loined Germans seem to have condoned this as an improvement upon promiscuity; and had not the popes themselves, in this lusty period, rebelled against celibacy? As for the “regular” clergy—those subject to a monastic regula or rule—many of their orders were now engaged in earnest self-reform. The Benedictines had settled into a halfconventual, half-worldly ease, and the Teutonic Knights continued their loose morals, martial cruelties, and territorial greed; but the Dominican, Franciscan, and Augustinian friars returned to the observance of their rules, and performed many works of practical benevolence.94 Most zealous in this reform were the Augustinian Eremites, originally anchorites or hermit monks, but later gathered into communities. They kept with apparent fidelity their monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and were learned enough to fill many chairs in German universities. It was this order that Luther chose when he decided to become a monk.
The complaints against the German clergy were chiefly against the prelates, and on the score of their wealth and worldliness. Some bishops and abbots had to organize the economy and administration of great areas that had come into the possession of the Church; they were mitered or tonsured feudal seigneurs, and not always the most lenient.95 These ecclesiastics behaved like men of the world rather than men of God; and it was alleged that several of them rode to provincial or federal diets with their concubines in their trains.96 A learned Catholic prelate and historian, Johannes Janssen, has summed up perhaps too severely the abuses of the German Church on the eve of the Reformation:
The contrast of pious love and worldly greed, of godly renunciation and godless self-seeking, made itself apparent in the ranks of the clergy as well as in other classes of society. By too many among the ministers of God and religion preaching and the care of souls were altogether neglected. Avarice, the besetting sin of the age, showed itself among the clergy of all orders and degrees, in their anxiety to increase to the utmost extent all clerical rents and incomes, taxes and perquisites. The German Church was the richest in Christendom. It was reckoned that nearly a third of the whole landed property of the country was in the hands of the Church—which made it all the more reprehensible in the ecclesiastical authorities to be always seeking to augment their possessions. In many towns the church buildings and institutions covered the greater part of the ground.
Within the sacerdotal body itself there were also the most marked contrasts in respect of income. The lower orders of parochial clergy, whose merely nominal stipends were derived from the many precarious tithes, were often compelled by poverty—if not tempted by avarice—to work at some trade which was quite inconsistent with their position, and which exposed them to the contempt of their parishioners. The higher ecclesiastical orders, on the other hand, enjoyed abundant and superfluous wealth, which many of them had no scruples in parading in such an offensive manner as to provoke the indignation of the people, the jealousy of the upper classes, and the scorn of all serious minds.... In many places complaints were loud against the mercenary abuse of sacred things... against the large and frequent sums of money sent to Rome, of annates and hush money. A bitter feeling of hatred against the Italians .... began gradually to gain ground, even amongst men who, like Archbishop Berthold von Henneberg, were true sons of the Holy Church. “The Italians,” he wrote on September 9, 1496, “ought to reward the Germans for their services, and not drain the sacerdotal body with frequent extortions of gold.97
Germany might have forgiven the worldliness of its bishops if it could have been spared the pretensions and exactions of the popes. The rising spirit of nationalism resented the claims of the papacy to hold no emperor legitimate till papally confirmed, and to depose emperors and kings at will. Conflicts between secular and ecclesiastical authorities persisted in appointments to benefices, in the overlapping jurisdiction of civil and episcopal courts, in the immunity of the clergy from nearly all civil legislation. German nobles looked with fretting concupiscence upon the rich possessions of the Church, and businessmen grieved that monasteries claiming exemption from taxation were competing with them in manufacturing and trade.98 The quarrel at this stage was over material concerns rather than over theological differences. Says another Catholic historian:
It was the general opinion in Germany that in the matter of taxation the Roman Curia put on the pressure to an unbearable degree.... . Again and again was the complaint made that chancery dues, annates... and consecration fees were unduly raised or unlawfully extended; that numerous new indulgences were published without the consent of the bishops of the country, and tithe after tithe raised for a crusade and diverted to another object. 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.99
In 1457 Martin Meyer, Chancellor to Archbishop Dietrich of Mainz, addressed to Cardinal Piccolomini an angry recapitulation of the wrongs that Germany suffered from the Roman Curia:
The election of prelates is frequently postponed without cause, and benefices and dignities of all kinds are reserved for the cardinals and papa) secretaries; Cardinal Piccolomini himself has been granted a general reservation in an unusual and unheard-of form in three German provinces. Expectancies* without number are conferred, annates and other taxes are collected harshly, and no delay is granted, and it is also known that more has been exacted than the sums due. Bishoprics have been bestowed not on the most worthy but on the highest bidder. For the sake of amassing money, new indulgences have daily been published, 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.100
When Cardinal Piccolomini became Pius II (1458) he defied this challenge; from Diether von Isenburg he demanded 20,500 guilders before confirming him as the next archbishop of Mainz (1459). Diether refused to pay, charging that the sum exceeded every precedent; Pius excommunicated him; Diether ignored the ban, and several German princes supported him. Diether engaged a Nuremberg jurist, Gregor Heimburg, to arouse public sentiment for giving councils supremacy over the popes; Heimburg went to France to arrange concerted action against the papacy; for a time it seemed that the northern nations would throw off allegiance to Rome. But papal agents detached from the movement one after another of Diether’s allies, and Pius appointed Adolf of Nassau to replace him. The armies of the two archbishops fought a bloody war; Diether was defeated; he addressed to the German leaders a warning that unless they stood together they would be repeatedly oppressed; and this manifesto was one of the first documents printed by Gutenberg.101
German discontent was not quieted by this victory of the popes. After a large sum of money had gone from Germany to Rome in the jubilee of 1500, a diet at Augsburg demanded that part of the money should be returned to Germany.102 The Emperor Maximilian grumbled that the pope drew a hundred times more revenue from Germany than he himself could collect. In 1510, being at war with Pope Julius II, he directed the humanist Wimpheling to draw up a list of Germany’s grievances against the papacy; for a time he thought of proposing the separation of the German Church from Rome, but Wimpheling dissuaded him on the ground that he could not expect persistent support from the princes. Nevertheless all the economic developments of this age prepared for Luther. A basic diversity of material interests finally opposed the German Reformation—demanding an end to the flow of German money into Italy—to an Italian Renaissance that financed poetry and art with transalpine gold.
Among the people anticlericalism went hand in hand with piety. “A revolutionary spirit of hatred for the Church and the clergy,” writes the honest Pastor, “had taken hold of the masses in various parts of Germany.... The cry of ‘Death to the priests!’ which had long been whispered in secret, was now the watchword of the day.”103 So keen was this popular hostility that the Inquisition, then rising in Spain, hardly dared condemn anyone in Germany, Violent pamphlets rained assaults not so much upon the German Church as upon the Roman See. Some monks and priests joined in the attack, and stirred up their congregations against the luxury of the higher clergy. Pilgrims returning from the jubilee of 1500 brought to Germany lurid—often exaggerated—stories of immoral popes, papal poisonings, cardinals’ roisterings, and of a general paganism and venality. Many Germans vowed that as their ancestors had broken the power of Rome in 476, they or their children would crush that tyranny again; others recalled the humiliation of the Emperor Henry IV by Pope Gregory VII at Canossa, and thought the time had come for revenge. In 1521 the papal nuncio Aleander, warning Leo X of an imminent uprising against the Church, said that five years earlier he had heard from many Germans that they were only waiting for “some fool” to open his mouth against Rome.104
A thousand factors and influences—ecclesiastical, intellectual, emotional, economic, political, moral—were coming together, after centuries of obstruction and suppression, in a whirlwind that would throw Europe into the greatest upheaval since the barbarian conquest of Rome. The weakening of the papacy by the Avignon exile and the Papal Schism; the breakdown of monastic discipline and clerical celibacy; the luxury of prelates, the corruption of the Curia, the worldly activities of the popes; the morals of Alexander VI, the wars of Julius II, the careless gaiety of Leo X; the relicmongering and peddling of indulgences; the triumph of Islam over Christendom in the Crusades and the Turkish wars; the spreading acquaintance with non-Christian faiths; the influx of Arabic science and philosophy; the collapse of Scholasticism in the irrationalism of Scotus and the skepticism of Ockham; the failure of the conciliar movement to effect reform; the discovery of pagan antiquity and of America; the invention of printing; the extension of literacy and education; the translation and reading of the Bible; the newly realized contrast between the poverty and simplicity of the Apostles and the ceremonious opulence of the Church; the rising wealth and economic independence of Germany and England; the growth of a middle class resentful of ecclesiastical restrictions and claims; the protests against the flow of money to Rome; the secularization of law and government; the intensification of nationalism and the strengthening of monarchies; the nationalistic influence of vernacular languages and literatures; the fermenting legacies of the Waldenses, Wyclif, and Huss; the mystic demand for a less ritualistic, more personal and inward and direct religion: all these were now uniting in a torrent of forces that would crack the crust of medieval custom, loosen all standards and bonds, shatter Europe into nations and sects, sweep away more and more of the supports and comforts of traditional beliefs, and perhaps mark the beginning of the end for the dominance of Christianity in the mental life of European man.