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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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1. The Pre-Reformation Church. The Church at the
beginning of the sixteenth century confronts us with
the variety which we should expect to find when we
look at the manifold life of a whole continent. There
were abuses and disorders—indeed an unusual number
of grave scandals at certain levels—but also in many
places even deep piety and reforming zeal. The
Renaissance itself could bring attempts to enrich the
Christian outlook with the new humanism, projects
for a further alliance between Platonism and religion,
and a fresh interest in the ancient texts—the Scriptures
and the Fathers of the Church. Even in Italy there
were many localities that had their religious revivals,
some of them medieval in character, popular and even
perhaps superstitious, though the one associated with
Savonarola in Florence captured some of the famous
figures of the Renaissance. The monastic system, from
its very nature, was subject to ups-and-downs, espe-
cially as its rules took for granted a certain intensity
of spiritual life. But if in some regions monasteries had
sunk into immorality, there had been a number of
reforming movements, some of them emerging from
within and arising spontaneously. There had been edu-
cational developments—the religious schools under the
Brethren of the Common Life in the Netherlands, for
example, and the founding in fifteenth-century
Germany of universities under the patronage of the
clergy or the pope. Many of these movements were
local in character, arising from below. Even a wicked
pope would normally have no reason for checking
them, or for discouraging piety as such.

On the other hand, the leading officers of the Church
could be too remote from these things and ordinarily
too indifferent in respect to them. It is doubtful
whether the directors of the Catholic system took even
the minimum measures that were required to maintain
their guidance over religious life or ensure the survival
of the system as a whole. In some regions the state
of the priesthood and the work of the pulpit had sunk
so low that a prince who wished to plunder the Church
had only to open the door to the missionaries of
Protestantism, who might bring an awakening or a
revolt without meeting with an adequate reply. Too
much of the burden of the Church had come to be
borne by a lower clergy who seemed sometimes hardly
trained to realize the nature of their own religion, and
had every reason to be discontented with their lot. A
surprising number of them (and particularly of those
who belonged to the minor and mendicant orders) were
to become Protestants, and some of those who had been
unsatisfactory before their conversion were by no
means contemptible after it. It would appear that there
was often too much of what might be called paganism
or superstition still mixed into the popular Christianity
of the period—too great a readiness on the part of the
authorities to exploit the willingness of ignorant people
to rely on wonders that were mechanically operated,
salvation-devices that had lost their connection with
the inner man.

Apart from the more technical controversies at a
higher level the Reformers were to attack in the world
at large the attitude which the lowest classes were
encouraged to take towards images, relics, indulgences,
the invocation of saints, and the like. There were now
too many people who were coming to be too mature
for this; and the Reformation (which could have
achieved nothing without the success of its preaching)
came in one aspect as a religious revival, a call to a
more personal faith, a demand for a more genuine
“Christian society.” The Reformation was to have its
dark sides but it was to secure its successes because
so many people were ready to be earnest, ready (when
called upon) to bring religion home to themselves and
to feel that they had some responsibility in the matter.
In a sense the Reformation occurred because (on a
long-term view) the medieval Church had done its
work so well, producing out of barbarian beginnings
a laity now capable of a certain self-help, a certain
awareness of responsibility. And as the Church of
Rome, once it had been provoked into reexamining
itself, was to recover its hold on people by its own
preaching and its spiritual intensity, the opening cen-
turies of modern times see the reassertion of religion
both in the individual and in society.

The Reformation was to be helped at the same time
by what on the one hand was a colossal envy and
covetousness, and on the other hand a great resent-
ment. The abuses in the ecclesiastical organization
itself were sufficient to provoke a revolt, and if they
offered an opening for zealous reformers they pre-
sented too great a temptation to monarchs and mag-
nates. In the Middle Ages there had been serious oppo-
sition to the development of the power of the papacy
in particular—the capture of the spiritual prerogatives
into a single center and the insertion of papal authority
into every corner of the European system. At a certain
stage in the story the process had been understandable;
the papacy had often stood as the most beneficial
agency on the continent; abuses, disorders, and lapses
into superstition had tended to occur in the regions
which the hand of the pope could not reach.

But the centralization did not prevent benefices,
offices, indulgences, dispensations, etc., being used as
a means of making money, and new offices being cre-
ated in order that they could be sold—the Church, and
particularly Rome, being saddled with dignitaries who


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had to find the means of recouping themselves for the
initial outlay. Early in the sixteenth century the posi-
tion of the papal states was so difficult that the pope,
as the ruler of a principality, had a desperate need
for money; and he used his spiritual prerogatives in
order to procure it—an evil that was liable to show
its consequences throughout the length and breadth of
Western Christendom. A higher clergy who were too
often like the sharers in a colossal spoils system did
too little for the earnest people, though they seemed
to stamp very quickly on any enterprise that might
threaten their own profits. The Church lost much,
therefore, through the nature of its entanglement with
the world; and its vested interests—the mundane pos-
sessions that were supposed to guarantee its position—
became in fact a terrible weakness, an abuse to some
people, and, to others, the primary object of cupidity.