The Reformation started in 1517, when Martin Luther began his protests against indulgences and then against the Roman Catholic Church. It was a time of immense change within Europe. There were many causes that contributed towards the Reformation, such as, the printing press and the state of the Church and they are all of some significance.
The first factor that contributed towards the Reformation was the development of the printing press. In the middle of the 15th century the printing press was invented and this had many effects. Access to knowledge had now been increased greatly. Books and pamphlets could now be printed and everyone could get their hands on this newly available information. Printing highlighted discrepancies and contradictions between what was really in the Bible and what the Church said was in the Bible. This led to more people coming away from the Church.
There was also a decrease in censorship by the Church. The Church could no longer control knowledge and intellectual thought as they had once done before the development of the printing press, when the monks used to write all the books available, by hand and therefore, controlling what went into them. If it wasn’t for the printing press, the new ideas which led to Reformation might never have got off the ground.
Another contributing factor to the Reformation was the revival of classical texts. Ancient Greek and Roman texts were rediscovered and with them new ways of thinking. For example, the works of the Greek philosopher, Protagoras were recovered and in his works there was the idea that, ‘man is the measure of all things’, i.e. man is unlimited in potential. New ideas such as these led to Humanism- the study of arts, architecture, literature and language, which replaced the previous idea of Scholasticism. These new ideas led to people ideas and beliefs changing and this proved a great challenge to the Church. People were questioning the beliefs of the Church and if they were true or false.
One of the biggest causes of the Reformation was perhaps the state of the Church. The medieval Church had many abuses; there were many ways in which the Church had been diverted from its spiritual mission by its corruption of the world.
There was simony, the raising of cash through the sale of posts in the Church hierarchy which led to pluralism- the holding of several offices and absenteeism- when clergymen acquired offices solely for their income rather than because they were going to undertake any of their duties. Powerful families could add Church offices to their other acquisitions.
The Church was meant to be separate from the world through the rule of celibacy; however some priest went against this rule and wandered. A cardinal or bishop might have his courtesan (a high class prostitute) and an ordinary priest his concubine. Where a bishop got to know about a priest and his concubine, the routine was to exact a fine rather than to split them up.
Criminals could claim ‘benefit of clergy’. Simple literacy was regarded as pretty good evidence, would be tried before a Church court and guaranteed a light penalty, even for so serious a crime as murder. Abuses such as these produced resentment amongst many of the laity, the mass of people without benefit of clergy.
Church taxation provoked laymen more than anything else. The tithe, 10 percent of all produce, had to be paid over to support the Church and there were many other taxes as well, such as Peter’s pence, a tax on hearths paid to the Pope. The German people despised the fact that their money went to Rome and didn’t do anything for them. Convents were shamefully lax and that was because they were useful as dumping grounds for the excess daughters of well-to-do families.
Relics of saints, which pilgrims traveled to see and to touch and to pay for the privilege, were often frauds. The forearm of St Andrew might just be a pig’s bone, sceptical travelers noted enough ‘nails from the Cross’ to make a forest of crosses and enough of the ‘Virgin’s milk’ to launch ships. Indulgences, which were sold by the Church as though they were ‘passports from the torments of purgatory directly into the bliss of Paradise’, had become crude money-raising devices but that was possible because there was so much ready demand for them. This state of the Church led to dissatisfaction within the people and when books with new ideas were printed, people were ready to read and accept them.
Rulers and kings helped the Reformation to come about as they failed to put the movement down. The Reformation would provide opportunities for princes, as they could take over churches in their own country and rule them themselves. There were increasing differences between the rulers and the Pope and they wanted to oppose the Pope and let the Reformation gather pace. If the princes hadn’t have sat back and let the Reformation take place, it might not have taken place as they would have had enough power to prevent the ideas from spreading and gaining support.
The printing press was a major factor towards the Reformation, however it wasn’t the most important, other factors contributed and together they helped bring the Reformation about. The other causes were very significant too. The state of the Church had led to growing resentment towards the Church and it was only a matter of time before this led to a major revolt against the Church. The bringing about of new ideas and humanism, led to new ideas and it would have eventually changed thinking at the time. The printing press helped in the spreading of the new ideas and ways of thinking that came with the Reformation, but these new ideas might have come about without the printing press, just at a later time.
Courtney from Study Moose