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THE PROGRESS OF THE HUMAN RACE IS BEST COMPARED TO A GIGANTIC PENDULUM WHICH FOREVER SWINGS FORWARD AND BACKWARD. THE RELIGIOUS INDIFFERENCE AND THE ARTISTIC AND LITERARY ENTHUSIASM OF THE RENAISSANCE WERE FOLLOWED BY THE ARTISTIC AND LITERARY INDIFFERENCE AND THE RELIGIOUS ENTHUSIASM OF THE REFORMATION
 OF course you have heard of the Reformation. You think
of a small but courageous group of pilgrims who crossed the
ocean to have "freedom of religious worship." Vaguely in the
course of time (and more especially in our Protestant countries)
the Reformation has come to stand for the idea of
"liberty of thought." Martin Luther is represented as the
leader of the vanguard of progress. But when history is
something more than a series of flattering speeches addressed
to our own glorious ancestors, when to use the words of the
German historian Ranke, we try to discover what "actually
happened," then much of the past is seen in a very different
Few things in human life are either entirely good or entirely
bad. Few things are either black or white. It is the duty of
 the honest chronicler to give a true account of all the good and
bad sides of every historical event. It is very difficult to do
this because we all have our personal likes and dislikes. But
we ought to try and be as fair as we can be, and must not allow
our prejudices to influence us too much.
Take my own case as an example. I grew up in the very
Protestant centre of a very Protestant country. I never saw
any Catholics until I was about twelve years old. Then I felt
very uncomfortable when I met them. I was a little bit afraid.
I knew the story of the many thousand people who had been
burned and hanged and quartered by the Spanish Inquisition
when the Duke of Alba tried to cure the Dutch people of their
Lutheran and Calvinistic heresies. All that was very real
to me. It seemed to have happened only the day before. It
might occur again. There might be another Saint Bartholomew's
night, and poor little me would be slaughtered in my
nightie and my body would be thrown out of the window, as
had happened to the noble Admiral de Coligny.
Much later I went to live for a number of years in a Catholic
country. I found the people much pleasanter and much
more tolerant and quite as intelligent as my former countrymen.
To my great surprise, I began to discover that there
was a Catholic side to the Reformation, quite as much as a
Of course the good people of the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries, who actually lived through the Reformation, did
not see things that way. They were always right and their
enemy was always wrong. It was a question of hang or be
hanged, and both sides preferred to do the hanging. Which
was no more than human and for which they deserve no blame.
When we look at the world as it appeared in the year 1500,
an easy date to remember, and the year in which the Emperor
Charles V was born, this is what we see. The feudal disorder
of the Middle Ages has given way before the order of a number
of highly centralised kingdoms. The most powerful of
all sovereigns is the great Charles, then a baby in a cradle.
He is the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella and of
Maxi-  milian of Habsburg, the last of the mediaeval knights, and of
his wife Mary, the daughter of Charles the Bold, the ambitious
Burgundian duke who had made successful war upon France
but had been killed by the independent Swiss peasants. The
child Charles, therefore, has fallen heir to the greater part of
the map, to all the lands of his parents, grandparents, uncles,
cousins and aunts in Germany, in Austria, in Holland, in
Belgium, in Italy, and in Spain, together with all their colonies
in Asia, Africa and America. By a strange irony of fate, he
has been born in Ghent, in that same castle of the counts of
Flanders, which the Germans used as a prison during their
recent occupation of Belgium, and although a Spanish king
and a German emperor, he receives the training of a Fleming.
As his father is dead (poisoned, so people say, but this is
never proved), and his mother has lost her mind (she is travelling
through her domains with the coffin containing the body
of her departed husband), the child is left to the strict
discipline of his Aunt Margaret. Forced to rule Germans and
Italians and Spaniards and a hundred strange races, Charles
grows up a Fleming, a faithful son of the Catholic Church,
but quite averse to religious intolerance. He is rather lazy,
both as a boy and as a man. But fate condemns him to rule
the world when the world is in a turmoil of religious fervour.
Forever he is speeding from Madrid to Innsbrück and from
Bruges to Vienna. He loves peace and quiet and he is always
at war. At the age of fifty-five, we see him turn his back upon
the human race in utter disgust at so much hate and so much
stupidity. Three years later he dies, a very tired and disappointed
So much for Charles the Emperor. How about the Church,
the second great power in the world? The Church has changed
greatly since the early days of the Middle Ages, when it started
out to conquer the heathen and show them the advantages of
a pious and righteous life. In the first place, the Church has
grown too rich. The Pope is no longer the shepherd of a flock
of humble Christians. He lives in a vast palace and surrounds
himself with artists and musicians and famous literary men.
 His churches and chapels are covered with new pictures in
which the saints look more like Greek Gods than is strictly
necessary. He divides his time unevenly between affairs of
state and art. The affairs of state take ten percent of his time.
The other ninety percent goes to an active interest in Roman
statues, recently discovered Greek vases, plans for a new summer
home, the rehearsal of a new play. The Archbishops and
the Cardinals follow the example of their Pope. The Bishops
try to imitate the Archbishops. The village priests, however,
have remained faithful to their duties. They keep themselves
aloof from the wicked world and the heathenish love of beauty
and pleasure. They stay away from the monasteries where
the monks seem to have forgotten their ancient vows of simplicity
and poverty and live as happily as they dare without
causing too much of a public scandal.
Finally, there are the common people. They are much
better off than they have ever been before. They are more
prosperous, they live in better houses, their children go to better
schools, their cities are more beautiful than before, their
firearms have made them the equal of their old enemies, the
robber-barons, who for centuries have levied such heavy taxes
upon their trade. So much for the chief actors in the
Now let us see what the Renaissance has done to Europe,
and then you will understand how the revival of learning and
art was bound to be followed by a revival of religious interests.
The Renaissance began in Italy. From there it spread
to France. It was not quite successful in Spain, where
five hundred years of warfare with the Moors had made the
people very narrow minded and very fanatical in all religious
matters. The circle had grown wider and wider, but once the
Alps had been crossed, the Renaissance had suffered a change.
The people of northern Europe, living in a very different
climate, had an outlook upon life which contrasted strangely
with that of their southern neighbours. The Italians lived out
in the open, under a sunny sky. It was easy for them to laugh
and to sing and to be happy. The Germans, the Dutch, the
 English, the Swedes, spent most of their time indoors, listening
to the rain beating on the closed windows of their comfortable
little houses. They did not laugh quite so much. They
took everything more seriously. They were forever conscious
of their immortal souls and they did not like to be funny about
matters which they considered holy and sacred. The "humanistic"
part of the Renaissance, the books, the studies of ancient
authors, the grammar and the text-books, interested them
greatly. But the general return to the old pagan civilisation
of Greece and Rome, which was one of the chief results of the
Renaissance in Italy, filled their hearts with horror.
But the Papacy and the College of Cardinals was almost
entirely composed of Italians and they had turned the Church
into a pleasant club where people discussed art and music and
the theatre, but rarely mentioned religion. Hence the split
between the serious north and the more civilised but easy-going
and indifferent south was growing wider and wider all the
time and nobody seemed to be aware of the danger that threatened
There were a few minor reasons which will explain why the
Reformation took place in Germany rather than in Sweden
or England. The Germans bore an ancient grudge against
Rome. The endless quarrels between Emperor and Pope had
caused much mutual bitterness. In the other European countries
where the government rested in the hands of a strong
king, the ruler had often been able to protect his subjects
against the greed of the priests. In Germany, where a shadowy
emperor ruled a turbulent crowd of little princelings, the good
burghers were more directly at the mercy of their bishops and
prelates. These dignitaries were trying to collect large sums
of money for the benefit of those enormous churches which
were a hobby of the Popes of the Renaissance. The Germans
felt that they were being mulcted and quite naturally they did
not like it.
And then there is the rarely mentioned fact that Germany
was the home of the printing press. In northern Europe books
were cheap and the Bible was no longer a mysterious
manu-  script owned and explained by the priest. It was a household
book of many families where Latin was understood by the
father and by the children. Whole families began to read it,
which was against the law of the Church. They discovered that
the priests were telling them many things which, according to
the original text of the Holy Scriptures, were somewhat different.
This caused doubt. People began to ask questions. And
questions, when they cannot be answered, often cause a great
deal of trouble.
The attack began when the humanists of the North opened
fire upon the monks. In their heart of hearts they still had
too much respect and reverence for the Pope to direct their
sallies against his Most Holy Person. But the lazy, ignorant
monks, living behind the sheltering walls of their rich monasteries,
offered rare sport.
The leader in this warfare, curiously enough, was a very
faithful son of the church Gerard Gerardzoon, or Desiderius
Erasmus, as he is usually called, was a poor boy, born in
Rotterdam in Holland, and educated at the same Latin school
of Deventer from which Thomas à Kempis had graduated.
He had become a priest and for a time he had lived in a monastery.
He had travelled a great deal and knew whereof he wrote,
When he began his career as a public pamphleteer (he would
have been called an editorial writer in our day) the world was
greatly amused at an anonymous series of letters which had
just appeared under the title of "Letters of Obscure Men."
In these letters, the general stupidity and arrogance of the
monks of the late Middle Ages was exposed in a strange
German-Latin doggerel which reminds one of our modern
limericks. Erasmus himself was a very learned and serious
scholar, who knew both Latin and Greek and gave us the first
reliable version of the New Testament, which he translated
into Latin together with a corrected edition of the original
Greek text. But he believed with Horace, the Roman poet,
that nothing prevents us from "stating the truth with a smile
upon our lips."
In the year 1500, while visiting Sir Thomas More in
Eng-  land, he took a few weeks off and wrote a funny little book,
called the "Praise of Folly," in which he attacked the monks
and their credulous followers with that most dangerous of all
weapons, humor. The booklet was the best seller of the sixteenth
century. It was translated into almost every language
and it made people pay attention to those other books of
Erasmus in which he advocated reform of the many abuses of
the church and appealed to his fellow humanists to help him
in his task of bringing about a great rebirth of the Christian
But nothing came of these excellent plans. Erasmus was
too reasonable and too tolerant to please most of the enemies
of the church. They were waiting for a leader of a more
He came, and his name was Martin Luther.
Luther was a North-German peasant with a first-class
brain and possessed of great personal courage. He was a
university man, a master of arts of the University of Erfurt;
afterwards he joined a Dominican monastery. Then he became
a college professor at the theological school of Wittenberg
and began to explain the scriptures to the indifferent ploughboys
of his Saxon home. He had a lot of spare time and this he used
to study the original texts of the Old and New Testaments.
Soon he began to see the great difference which existed between
the words of Christ and those that were preached by the Popes and the Bishops.
In the year 1511, he visited Rome on official business.
Alexander VI, of the family of Borgia, who had enriched himself
for the benefit of his son and daughter, was dead. But his
 successor, Julius II, a man of irreproachable personal character,
was spending most of his time fighting and building and
did not impress this serious minded German theologian with
his piety. Luther returned to Wittenberg a much disappointed
man. But worse was to follow.
LUTHER TRANSLATES THE BIBLE
The gigantic church of St. Peter which Pope Julius had
wished upon his innocent successors, although only half begun,
was already in need of repair. Alexander VI had spent every
penny of the Papal treasury. Leo X, who succeeded Julius
in the year 1513, was on the verge of bankruptcy. He reverted
to an old method of raising ready cash. He began to sell
"indulgences." An indulgence was a piece of parchment which
in return for a certain sum of money, promised a sinner a decrease
of the time which he would have to spend in purgatory.
It was a perfectly correct thing according to the creed of the
late Middle Ages. Since the church had the power to forgive
the sins of those who truly repented before they died, the
church also had the right to shorten, through its intercession
with the Saints, the time during which the soul must be purified
in the shadowy realms of Purgatory.
It was unfortunate that these Indulgences must be sold for
money. But they offered an easy form of revenue and besides,
those who were too poor to pay, received theirs for nothing.
Now it happened in the year 1517 that the exclusive territory
for the sale of indulgences in Saxony was given to a
Dominican monk by the name of Johan Tetzel. Brother
Johan was a hustling salesman. To tell the truth he was a
little too eager. His business methods outraged the pious
people of the little duchy. And Luther, who was an honest
fellow, got so angry that he did a rash thing. On the 31st of
October of the year 1517, he went to the court church and upon
the doors thereof he posted a sheet of paper with ninety-five
statements (or theses), attacking the sale of indulgences.
These statements had been written in Latin. Luther had no
intention of starting a riot. He was not a revolutionist. He
objected to the institution of the Indulgences and he wanted his
fellow professors to know what he thought about them. But
 this was still a private affair of the clerical and professorial
world and there was no appeal to the prejudices of the community
Unfortunately, at that moment when the whole world had
begun to take an interest in the religious affairs of the day
it was utterly impossible to discuss anything, without at once
creating a serious mental disturbance. In less than two
months, all Europe was discussing the ninety-five theses of
the Saxon monk. Every one must take sides. Every obscure
little theologian must print his own opinion. The papal
authorities began to be alarmed. They ordered the Wittenberg
professor to proceed to Rome and give an account of his action.
Luther wisely remembered what had happened to Huss. He
stayed in Germany and he was punished with excommunication.
Luther burned the papal bull in the presence of an
admiring multitude and from that moment, peace between himself
and the Pope was no longer possible.
Without any desire on his part, Luther had become the
leader of a vast army of discontented Christians. German
patriots like Ulrich von Hutten, rushed to his defence. The
students of Wittenberg and Erfurt and Leipzig offered to
defend him should the authorities try to imprison him. The
Elector of Saxony reassured the eager young men. No harm
would befall Luther as long as he stayed on Saxon ground.
All this happened in the year 1520. Charles V was twenty
years old and as the ruler of half the world, was forced to
remain on pleasant terms with the Pope. He sent out calls
for a Diet or general assembly in the good city of Worms on
the Rhine and commanded Luther to be present and give an
account of his extraordinary behaviour. Luther, who now
was the national hero of the Germans, went. He refused to
take back a single word of what he had ever written or said.
His conscience was controlled only by the word of God. He
would live and die for his conscience
The Diet of Worms, after due deliberation, declared
Luther an outlaw before God and man, and forbade all Germans
to give him shelter or food or drink, or to read a single
 word of the books which the dastardly heretic had written.
But the great reformer was in no danger. By the majority
of the Germans of the north the edict was denounced as a most
unjust and outrageous document. For greater safety, Luther
was hidden in the Wartburg, a castle belonging to the Elector
of Saxony, and there he defied all papal authority by translating
the entire Bible into the German language, that all the
people might read and know the word of God for themselves.
By this time, the Reformation was no longer a spiritual
and religious affair. Those who hated the beauty of the modern
church building used this period of unrest to attack and
destroy what they did not like because they did not understand
it. Impoverished knights tried to make up for past losses by
grabbing the territory which belonged to the monasteries.
Discontented princes made use of the absence of the Emperor
to increase their own power. The starving peasants, following
the leadership of half-crazy agitators, made the best of
the opportunity and attacked the castles of their masters and
plundered and murdered and burned with the zeal of the old
A veritable reign of disorder broke loose throughout the
Empire. Some princes became Protestants (as the "protesting"
adherents of Luther were called) and persecuted their
Catholic subjects. Others remained Catholic and hanged their
Protestant subjects. The Diet of Speyer of the year 1526
tried to settle this difficult question of allegiance by ordering
that "the subjects should all be of the same religious denomination
as their princes." This turned Germany into a checkerboard
of a thousand hostile little duchies and principalities and
created a situation which prevented the normal political
growth for hundreds of years.
In February of the year 1546 Luther died and was put
to rest in the same church where twenty-nine years before he
had proclaimed his famous objections to the sale of Indulgences.
In less than thirty years, the indifferent, joking and
laughing world of the Renaissance had been transformed into
the arguing, quarrelling, back-biting, debating-society of the
 Reformation. The universal spiritual empire of the Popes
came to a sudden end and the whole of western Europe was
turned into a battle-field, where Protestants and Catholics
killed each other for the greater glory of certain theological
doctrines which are as incomprehensible to the present generation
as the mysterious inscriptions of the ancient Etruscans.