In Europe in the 1500s, the result of the polarization of Roman Catholic rulers facing off against the minority of those who had become supporters of Protestant views was to be what we have come to call a series of “religious wars” lasting into the mid-1600s. Imperial Rome had had many civil wars, and now its successor civilization in the West would be engulfed by a massive one centred on whether the spiritual descendant of ancient Rome, the Roman Catholic (Imperial) Church should still hold sway.
In 1517 in Germany, a Dominican monk named Theodor Tetzel provided that catalyst. It would provoke a locally popular but obscure University of Wittenberg professor named Martin Luther to challenge Papal authority on a specific question. This challenge would prove the chink that fell out of the dam and let loose the flood of all the pent-up resentment, frustration, disillusionment and doubt. The rapid acceleration of what at first looked like a “tempest in a tea-pot” into a raging hurricane would take everyone by surprise. Within a generation it would have permanently shattered the illusion of the unity of Christendom and shaken the spiritual Imperium of Rome to its very foundations.
Perhaps the most salient critique of the absurdity of the situation came from Erasmus of Rotterdam, the most reputable Christian humanist of the day. His The Praise of Folly (1509) was a scathing exposé of all the clichés of superficial Medieval spirituality—pilgrimages, relics, physical self-punishment (such as auto-flagellation), fasts, the corruption of so many monasteries and convents, and the flagrant wealth and exploitation of the laity by the church hierarchy. He wrote the book as a satire in order to avoid censure and condemnation as a heretic for his exposition, and he got away with it.
To retain an image of relevance among the new cultural (g)literati, the Popes of those decades adopted the trappings and aspirations of being Renaissance connoisseurs while lip-serving the role of spiritual guides. They hired the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael to embellish their monumental edifices. Some of the Renaissance Popes were so little concerned with spiritual matters that they allowed a corrupt Curia to run affairs like a Mafia while they used the huge Papal wealth to satisfy their appetites for art and less savoury things. They showed up for official functions and gave audiences to the select of the upper crust, but did little else as ‘Holy Fathers’.
nihilism and Nietzschean despair live on. Mockery of the Creator and even the idea of His/Her existence also lives on, declaring, like Sergeant Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes, in the face of the ever-increasing, quietly accumulating scientific (yes, scientific!) evidence to the contrary, “I see nothing; I hear nothing; I know nothing.” Schultz was choosing to see, hear, and know nothing, and so do our ultra-modern-postmodern nihilists. As an old friend used to say, “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts!”
Wycliffe was too outspoken, and for this he was ejected from his teaching post at Oxford and his royal appointment as a chaplain. He was confined to his parish of Lutterworth where it was hoped he would fade into obscurity. But he did not. Many of his students and hearers followed him. He began a great project of re-evangelization of England, knowing his time was limited and he could look forward to ultimate condemnation and probable execution. His enthusiastic disciples agreed to help him to translate the Bible into English, make multiple manuscript copies, and then take it to the humble folk in their villages and towns.
Now, almost eight centuries after these horrific multiple whammies, which historians and other analysts estimate to have wiped out between a quarter and third of Europe’s total population of perhaps sixty million between 1347 and 1351, we have mostly forgotten this even occurred. We imagine the calamity of World War 2 to have been the worst event in human history, but it pales in proportion to this period of woe. The devastating Spanish flu of 1918-19, the last real pandemic in recent history, pales in perspective despite its estimated global death toll of sixty million. The plague did not tear or bomb down structures, but it left whole towns and regions deserted, ghost-like vestiges that the wilderness swallowed in a few decades.
When all of this is married to the growing dissatisfaction with the imperial, established Church system and the increasingly obvious distortion of holiness
into formal sacramentalism and the suppression or cooption of all attempts to return to a spirit of simplicity in seeking God, the makings of a great upheaval
were at hand.
the Renaissance of ancient humanism rooted in pagan Imperial Rome would play a significant
role in fracturing the unity and supremacy of the imperialist Roman Church. The 13th Century saintly giants, Francis
and Thomas, stood as precocious signposts to the roads that would diverge from
the main highway in the 14th and
15th Centuries and generate revolutionary events in the 16th
It was fitting that that most imperial of all Popes, Pope Innocent III, had to deal with that humblest and most unpreposessing of saints, Francesco Bernardone (1182-1226), the greatest radical and most serious challenge to imperial Christianity of the Middle Ages, and perhaps of all time.
Part of Rome’s genius was adoption and adaptation—the ability to absorb and assimilate all comers, repurposing them to serve Rome’s dominant vision as the great civilizer of the world, the great unifier giving everyone equal access to the same gods and guiding principles. The Emperor was the supreme symbol, the creator and maintainer of this unity—the “Saviour of mankind”, the “Son of God” (Jupiter, Zeus, Amon-Ra, Baal, whichever high deity was relevant to the people in question). Every subject and citizen of the Empire owed their final allegiance to the Emperor as the incarnation of Rome’s “genius”, or “Spirit-Guide”.