On a bleak December day in 1510, while the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling still stood half finished above a deserted scaffolding, awaiting the stamp of approval of a peripatetic pope before the work could continue, two road-weary monks washed up at the Porta del Popolo, one of the principal gates into the heart of Rome. They had come all the way from their monastery in the German town of Erfurt — a journey of 850 miles (1350 kilometers), entirely on foot, as the rules of their order demanded. One of the monks was well into middle-age, with a diffident administrative air about him. The other, however, was just 27 years old, with eyes that still burned with a youthful religious fervor. As he passed beyond the gate, he prostrated himself on the dusty road, shouting, “Blessed be thou, holy Rome!”
He was not an important man in any sort of way. He had been dispatched from the monastery strictly to serve as a companion and as a pair of strong shoulders for his older, frailer brother monk, in whom was entrusted the real purpose of the visit to Rome: to file a brief with the Church’s leaders there, involving a dispute that had erupted within the monks’ Augustine order, over how strict the rules regarding personal property and contact with the outside world should be for its members. Somewhat ironically in light of what the younger monk would become famous for later in his life, his Erfurt monastery at this time was advocating for a slightly more lenient standard than some of the others.
The Church in Rome was legendary for its bureaucracy among other things. And so, after discharging the purpose of their visit in the space of a morning, the older monk and his younger helpmate were obliged to wait around for some weeks to see if they would be needed to bear any further witness. Far from being put out by the delay, the younger especially resolved to make the most of every single day he was blessed to spend in the Eternal City. He bought a copy of the Mirabilia urbis romae, the sixteenth century’s version of a Lonely Planet travel guide to Rome, and commenced checking off the religious sites that were listed therein. He toured a score of churches, including the partially demolished Saint Peter’s Basilica (the Sistine Chapel, alas, was not open to such a lowly figure as him); he went down into the catacombs beneath the city to see the bones of 46 popes and 80,000 martyrs; he climbed on his knees in a state of rapture the 28 steps of the Scala Santa, the “Holy Stairs” that had been transported to Rome from Jerusalem, the same ones that Jesus Christ was believed to have trod just before his trial and crucifixion.
But as the days wore on, the young monk’s excitement about being in Rome gradually turned into disgust. This wasn’t down to the fact that much of the city was still in a ruinous state, being not yet touched by Pope Julius II’s programs of urban renewal, for the monk was oblivious anyway to most of the art and architecture that turned more worldly people’s heads. It was rather down to the lack of respect he saw being shown to his cherished religion by the very people who were most responsible of all for the care and keeping of Jesus’s message. He saw how tanners hung their hides out to dry on the walls of holy shrines; saw how swarms of prostitutes passed into and out of the homes and palaces of the Church’s highest representatives, who didn’t even bother attempting to conceal this commerce in flesh; learned that syphilis was the scourge of the Roman clergy, that even the pope himself was rumored to be suffering from the disease; saw how the cardinals of the Church lived like kings while ordinary monks like himself, who took seriously their vows of poverty and chastity, were expected to beg for their sustenance on the street. When he attended Mass, he was appalled at the casual ineptitude of the priests who administered it, who rushed through it in less than ten minutes like they had someplace more important to get to. “Bread thou art and bread thou wilt remain, and wine thou art and wine thou wilt remain,” drawled one bored shepherd of Christ’s flock who couldn’t even be bothered to memorize the rote Latin sentences properly. “I was a serious and pious young monk who was pained by such words,” the visitor would later remember. “Like a fool, I carried onions to Rome and brought back garlic.”
After six weeks, it had become clear that the Church bureaucracy had no further need of the two monks from the hinterlands. And so they made the long journey back to Erfurt. The younger monk would never return to Rome, nor, indeed, ever leave the German-speaking parts of Europe again. But he would carry the sour fruit of the experience — an overwhelming sense of disillusionment with the Church as it currently existed — with him forevermore as he set out to reform Christianity, to make it again what it had been before Emperor Constantine had elevated it to his halls of power, thereby soiling its purity with temporal concerns. The young monk’s name was Martin Luther.
Luther would become the prime mover behind the most sweeping changes in the life of Christianity since Saint Paul, that original “planter of churches” from the first few decades after Jesus’s death. Some would come to revile him as the blackest heretic in all of history, even as others came to all but worship him as the holiest man of God since the ones whose deeds were described in the Bible. And yet upon sober examination the man fails to live up to either the depths or the heights of his reputation. Luther was a man of profound bravery and conviction, to be sure, but he is unique in history only in the sense that his own efforts to bring about a purer, simpler form of Christianity — what he and many others considered a better version of the faith — succeeded in the long run, over a large portion at least of the map of Europe and eventually the world. With all due respect to the man himself, they did not do so because of any of his intrinsic qualities. They rather did so because Luther lived amidst a combination of circumstances that earlier would-be reformers had not; thanks to a considerable extent to these very predecessors, he inherited a cultural pump that was already primed for Protestantism. So, before we take up in earnest the subject of Martin Luther and the changes he wrought, we should have a look back at those who came before him, who through their failures and partial successes created the conditions for his more sweeping transformations.
We might begin in the German town of Worms — a place we have met before in these pages, being one that played an important role in the history of Christianity at several junctures. If you walk through the center of Worms today, you’ll find an elaborately ornate monument there, erected in 1868 in honor of the Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther initiated. Below the towering statue of Luther himself are seated four other men who are credited as his forerunners. We are quite well acquainted with one of these men already: Girolamo Savonarola, the firebrand of Florence, whom Luther admired enormously. Let us look more briefly now at the monument’s other three “proto-Protestants.”
We don’t know as much about Peter Waldo as we could wish, but we do know that he was a merchant from Lyon who lived from around 1140 until 1205. At the age of 35 or so, he experienced a spiritual awakening, after which he renounced all of his worldly possessions, placed his wife and daughter in a convent, and began to preach a message of poverty and absolute adherence to the letter of the words of Jesus in the New Testament. The Waldesian sect he founded was soon declared heretical, but hid from the Inquisition in the more remote regions of France and Italy. Centuries later, it would be formally incorporated into the ranks of Protestantism; a Union of Methodist and Waldesian Churches still exists in Italy to this day.
A better documented figure is the Englishman John Wycliffe, a professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford who lived from 1328 until 1384. In the mid-1370s, this heretofore mild-mannered professor commenced out of nowhere to attack the very foundations of the Church as currently constituted. He pointed out, rightly, that the Church’s claim of an unbroken line of popes wielding supreme power from the apostle Peter on had no real basis in fact, that Christianity during the hallowed early centuries of the ancient martyrs had been an organic, bottom-up movement rather than the bureaucratic, top-down institution the Church had since become. Instead of trusting to a fallible pope and his lieutenants in the Church to be God’s interpreters and mediators, Wycliffe thought that people should read the Bible for themselves, thereby to foster a personal relationship with God built on study, meditation, and prayer. To this end, he embarked on a project that was truly radical in its day: the first ever translation of the Bible into everyday English, which he and his followers largely managed to complete prior to his death. Remarkably in light of the explosive message he preached, said death came from natural causes rather than at the hands of the Inquisition; Wycliffe was in fact sheltered by noble patrons who found him useful in the constant jockeying that went on between the nobility and the priesthood in most parts of Europe. The Inquisition had to content itself with digging up his bones and burning them well after his death.
But the followers Wycliffe left behind, who became popularly known as the “Lollards” — a derisive slang word meaning an incoherent mumbler, especially of prayers — did fall victim to shifting political winds, which brought the English crown closer to Rome in the decades after his death. “With just one permanent political backer,” notes the historian of Christianity Diarmand MacCulloch, “the Lollard story might have been very different, and more like that of the movement started a century later by Martin Luther.” As it was, some of his followers were less lucky than he had been, being burned at the stake by the Inquisition as late as the 1520s. Likewise, his English Bible was officially banned in 1407, having never been all that widely disseminated anyway, thanks to the lack of a technology that would be essential to the rapid spread of Luther’s Protestantism: the printing press.
The proto-Protestant who arguably came closest of all to becoming Martin Luther before Martin Luther lived on the other side of Western Christendom from Wycliffe, but was nevertheless deeply influenced by his ideas. Jan Hus was a 29-year-old professor at the University of Prague when he first encountered Wycliffe’s writings in 1398. He started to preach the same gospel of a personal relationship with Christ to anyone who would listen. As time went on, he became ever more strident in his attacks on the theology and practices of the extant Church, going so far as to call its priests “dumb dogs” for whom only “death and eternal damnation are prepared.” In truth, the “Hussite” movement he spawned had almost as much to do with ethnic tensions as it did with religion; it was taken up enthusiastically by the Czech-speaking majority of Bohemia, who had long been under the thumb of the German-speaking elite that ran the Church and government there. Although he might personally have wished for a different outcome, Jan Hus gave his movement a potent weapon which John Wycliffe had not: in 1415, he was burned at the stake by the Inquisition.
As Joan of Arc was soon to similarly demonstrate on the other side of Europe, a single martyr could be more dangerous to a foreign oppressor than a thousand cannons. Hus’s execution ignited a veritable civil war between the Czech peasantry and the allied forces of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Inquisition. Its cost in lives and money proved so enormous that, for the first time, the Church accepted an accommodation with dissent in lieu of a merciless rooting out of same. In 1434, it agreed that the Hussites could practice their version of the faith more or less unmolested, as long as they laid off of the more incendiary rhetoric directed toward Rome and paid a minimal lip service to the ongoing authority of the pope; at the same time, the Holy Roman Emperor announced that the Czech majority in Bohemia would be more or less allowed to govern themselves, as long as they pledged a pro-forma political allegiance to him. In a sense, then, a Protestant church and country had already existed in Europe for almost a century when Martin Luther went to Rome, albeit one that had chosen a modicum of compromise over an inflexible commitment to religious principle above all else.
The rebellions against the Catholic Church whose founders enjoy pride of place on the monument in Worms were, whatever their theological and philosophical underpinnings, essentially populist in character, drawing their energy from the intuitive sensibilities of the masses. But there was another sort of challenge that the Church was encountering more and more as the Middle Ages gave way to Modernity. These were objections of a more purely intellectual character, drawn from the evidence, or rather lack thereof, for the Church’s just authority that was to be found in some of Christianity’s most important texts. The ideas which these skeptics promulgated and the ways in which they came to them were not quite the same as those which would drive Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation among the people, but they were another reason why staunch Church traditionalists like Pope Julius II felt themselves and the institution they represented increasingly beleaguered, so much so that they responded by lashing out belligerently with condemnations, pogroms, even armies. For the fact was that by 1500 the history of the Church that claimed God-given jurisdiction over all of Christendom was being examined and debated as it had never been before, often with decidedly awkard results for those most vested in a millennium-old status quo.
Like so much else, this new scrutiny stemmed to a large extent from the invention of the printing press at the mid-point of the fifteenth century, from the way it made foundational texts more readily accessible than they had ever been before. A new discipline which would become known as philology arose during this era. The philologist is, one might say, the ultimate expert in reading between the lines, someone who scrutinizes every detail of a text to learn more about who wrote it, when it was written, what other texts it might have as antecedents, and what messages it conveys beyond the surface meaning of its words. The plot can get juicy when the dutiful philologist, following the clues where they lead, discovers that a text is not really what it purports or is purported to be at all. Such was the case now with the Donation of Constantine, that document, allegedly written by Emperor Constantine, which had been used since the tenure of Pope Paul I during the eighth century as one of the bulwarks of the pope’s spiritual and temporal authority over all of Christendom. It turned out that the document had almost certainly been written during the very same eighth century in which it had first caused such a stir — i.e., more than 400 years after the death of the emperor who had supposedly issued it.
The debunker of the Donation of Constantine was ironically himself a Roman who worked on and off for the Church, a man named Lorenzo Valla who also has a credible claim to being named the father of philology. Born in 1407, he lived just a little bit too early to feel the full impact of the Gutenberg revolution, but he paved the way for all the dissectors of printed documents who would follow him. Like many of them, Valla was curmudgeonly if not downright obnoxious at times, the sort of person who, being completely convinced of his own intellectual superiority, delights in upending the conventional wisdom and throwing eggs at conventional thinkers. His habit of doing so kept him in constant danger, his fate balanced on a knife’s edge between liberal protectors, some of them to be found within the Church itself, and his conservative enemies within and without the same institution. Doubtless partly for this reason, he wandered the width and breadth of Italy during his life, staying just long enough in each successive town to wear out his welcome with the establishment there. But wherever he went, his facility with languages — he was one of the few Italians of his age who was thoroughly fluent in ancient Greek as well as Latin — combined with his incisively logical mind to make him a force to be reckoned with.
He produced his philological masterstroke in 1440. The essay entitled simply “On the Donation of Constantine” was so cogently and eloquently argued that, after reading it, one had to wonder how one hadn’t seen the incontrovertible truth of its position before, how anyone had ever been able to take the document that was its subject seriously. In his essay, Valla subjected his victim to a scrutiny that almost left one pitying it before it was all over. He showed that its grammar and vocabulary were those of a later era of Latin, not those of Constantine’s day. He pointed out, for example, its use of the word “satrap,” a term for a Roman official that must have come into being well after the empire had fallen, given that it was not to be found in any other Latin document from prior to the middle of the eighth century.
Valla understood that words and phrases go in and out of fashion in much the same way as clothing styles, dating a document for the astute reader as surely as the photographs in a glossy fashion magazine do the same job for you and me. He noted, for instance, that the purported Constantine in the document referred to its purported recipient, Pope Sylvester I, as the “illuminator.” That particular epithet was not to be seen in any other document from Constantine’s time, but it was used in a letter from Pope Paul I to King Pepin of the Franks during the eighth century in reference to… yes, said pope’s august predecessor Sylvester I. (This raises the possibility that Pope Paul himself may have been responsible for or at least directly complicit in the forgery, but even Valla dared not drive that point home too vigorously.)
Individual data points like these are dismissable as coincidences when taken on their own, but Valla just kept coming and coming with them, until the evidence became overwhelming in the aggregate. Although the Church’s leadership did their best to suppress his essay, they never attempted to seriously argue with the evidence it presented. One of the most frequently recurring justifications of the Church’s claim to political authority was instead quietly retired. Those most vested in that claim could only hope that more dominoes weren’t about to fall.
While his debunking of the Donation of Constantine became his most famous — or infamous — work, Valla ceaselessly questioned, questioned, questioned seemingly every piece of aged writing that crossed his desk, making an awful lot of people awfully uncomfortable in the process. He found irreconcilable contradictions in the ancient scholar Livy’s History of Rome, which had been considered prior to him an unimpeachable source on the life of Rome before the coming of Jesus Christ. He deconstructed the sacrosanct works of Aristotle, writing that his ten categories of things, a bedrock of Renaissance as well as ancient philosophy that can also be called the forerunner of the Modern discipline of semiotics, was little more than a random grab bag of arbitrary designations. He said that the Apostles’ Creed, a basic statement of faith which is not found in the Bible but which the Church claimed to stem from the original followers of Jesus Christ if not the son of God himself, had almost certainly been invented centuries after the crucifixion. And then, moving into still more perilous territory, he ventured to question the veracity of the Vulgate Bible.
The latter was still the only version of the Bible sanctioned by the Catholic Church during the Renaissance, being the one which had been translated from Hebrew and Greek into Latin by Saint Jerome more than a millennium before. Over the course of that immense span of time, the Church had half forgotten that it had ever been translated at all and half convinced itself that its saintly translator had been channeling God so completely that the result of his labors must be above all mortal reproach. In truth, however, the Vulgate Bible, although a remarkable feat of translation for one man to have accomplished at all, was deeply flawed. Jerome had been in a race against encroaching ill health and failing eyesight, with little time to spare for revision or reconsideration. He translated many Hebrew and Greek words into three or more different words in Latin, as the mood struck him. In some cases, his mistakes had little bearing on the deeper message of the text. (Does it really matter in the end whether God shielded his prophet Jonah from the sun with a gourd that he caused to rise up out of the earth, as the Hebrew original states, or with an ivy, as the Vulgate Bible states?) In other cases, though, his mistakes were fairly momentous. The Hebrew original of the Book of Isaiah, for example, says that God will cause a “young woman” to conceive a son. Jerome, however, translated this to “virgin,” thus at a stroke of his pen turning Isaiah into one of those Old Testament prophets who would soon be immortalized by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for predicting the coming of Jesus Christ. All too much of Jerome’s work was anachronistically colored by his own beliefs in just this way. Another example is Saint Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians in the New Testament. Paul speaks there of “repentance,” in the sense of sorrow or remorse. But Jerome translated it as “penance,” referring to a Church ritual of contrition, confession, and satisfaction that did not yet exist during Paul’s time but did during his own.
Being able to read Greek if not Hebrew and having access to older Greek editions of the Bible, Lorenzo Valla was the first person to fully appreciate how imperfect the Vulgate New Testament really was. Although he never penned a single comprehensive take-down of it in the style of his deconstruction of the Donation of Constantine, he did fill the margins of his edition with typically caustic notes, and didn’t hesitate to share his findings with other scholars. It can thus only be called a stroke of luck for him that he, like John Wycliffe but unlike Jan Hus, managed to die in a bed rather than tied to a stake in 1457. He was buried with honor at the time, but Pope Gregory VIII had his remains dug up and scattered to the winds in 1576 for the damage his rigorous empirical mind had done to the Church’s standing.
Valla’s most obvious successor as an empirical philologist was also an eminent philosopher, theologian, essayist, and satirist, the first of a new breed of public intellectuals that was made possible by the printing press. But despite a shared interest in Biblical philology, the man known in his time and our own as simply Erasmus was possessed of none of Valla’s misanthropy. His preferred God was one who had not always been much in evidence during the Middle Ages: a God of forgiving love rather than vengeful retribution.
Born in or near Rotterdam in 1466, Erasmus spent his life wandering much like Valla, but over a far larger territory, from England to the eastern edges of the Holy Roman Empire, passing much time also in France and Italy. An ordained priest, he became the leading representative of a humanist, liberal wing of the Church who insisted that printing and literacy were things to be embraced rather than feared, that the future of the Christian religion need not depend on anything so trivial as the inerrancy of the Vulgate Bible.
Erasmus embarked on an ambitious project around 1505: a scholarly edition of the New Testament, with the Greek original and a new Latin translation standing side by side on facing pages. It was the logical fruition of the new attitude toward Christianity’s holy book among Erasmus and his fellow travelers, who treated it as quite possibly divinely inspired, but not the precise, infallible words of God. Such an attitude is Modern to the core. With the exception only of our fundamentalist scholars — a phrase that is arguably oxymoronic — we still study the Bible today in essentially the same way as Erasmus; we are just fortunate enough to have more editions and tools and information at our disposal than he did.
But even more earthshaking than his set of scholarly approaches was Erasmus’s grand socio-religious vision: that of a Bible that was translated into every language and made available to all and sundry, a vision made conceivable only by the printing press and the rapidly increasing levels of European literacy that it helped to engender. For even as he acknowledged its flaws, Erasmus loved the Bible to the depths of his unusually empathetic soul.
I would have the weakest woman read the Gospels and the Epistles of Saint Paul. I would have those words translated into all languages, so that not only Scots and Irishmen, but Turks and Saracens might read them. I long for the plow boy to sing them to himself as he follows the plow, the weaver to hum them to the tune of his shuttle, the traveler to beguile with them the dullness of his journey. Other studies we may regret having undertaken, but happy is the man upon whom death comes when he is engaged in these. These sacred words give you the very image of Christ, speaking, healing, dying, rising again, and make him so present that were he before your very eyes you would not more truly see him.
Cheap printed editions of the Bible in vernacular languages would foster a Christianity that truly belonged to the people rather than to their priesthood who could read Latin. Erasmus pushed for, as he put it, a transference of Christian loyalty from the Church to the Christ. Everything else in life and theology, he said, ought to pale into insignificance before Jesus’s overarching message of peace, love, hope, faith, charity, and mercy. He waved away as foolish distractions points of religious dogma over which wars had been fought, mass executions carried out, and entire regions of the world divided against one another: God and Jesus as water and wine versus water and oil, an eternal Son of God versus one created by God in time, unleavened versus leavened bread, etc.
Truly the yoke of Christ would be sweet, and his burden light, if petty human institutions added nothing to what he himself imposed. He commanded us nothing save love for one another, and there is nothing so bitter that affection does not soften and sweeten it. Everything according to nature is easily borne, and nothing accords better with the nature of man than the philosophy of Christ, of which the sole end is to give back to fallen nature its innocence and integrity. The Church added to it many things, of which some can be omitted without prejudice to the faith, as, for example, all those philosophic doctrines on the nature of — and the distinction of persons in — the Deity. What rules, what superstitions, we have about vestments! How many fasts are instituted! What shall we say about vows, about the authority of the pope, the abuse of absolutions and dispensations? Would that men were content to let Christ rule by the laws of the Gospel, and that they would no longer seek to strengthen their obscurant tyranny by human decrees!
Foreshadowing the Protestantism that was to come even more uncannily, Erasmus argued that priests should be allowed to marry once again, saying that lifelong chastity was too heavy a burden for even most sincerely dedicated men of God to carry, that the Church’s prohibitions only wound up leading these priests into illicit sexual liaisons instead of the kind sanctioned by God, unnecessarily imperiling their own souls alongside those of the members of their flock whom they seduced or coerced.
There are priests now in vast numbers, enormous herds of them, seculars and regulars, and it is notorious that very few of them are chaste. The great proportion fall into lust and incest and open profligacy. It would surely be better if those who cannot be continent should be allowed lawful wives of their own, and so escape this foul and miserable pollution. In this class we include those who by fraud or intimidation have been thrust into that life of celibacy where they were allowed to fornicate but not to marry; so that if they openly keep a concubine they are Christian priests, but if they take a wife they are burned. In my opinion parents who intend their children for celibate priesthood would be much kinder to castrate them in infancy, rather than to expose them whole against their will to this temptation to lust.
As the above makes clear, Erasmus could see all too well the arrogance, hypocrisy, and corruption that marred the Church at so many places and levels, not least in Rome itself. A gentle man by disposition, who went so far as to say that even the most unjust peace was categorically preferable to the justest war, he could be roused to a lacerating anger by the outrages he witnessed. In 1509 — just one year before Martin Luther made his disillusioning visit to Rome — Erasmus wrote an essay called In Praise of Folly, a work of high satire worthy of Jonathan Swift, a sarcastic paean to the Church’s many leaches, layabouts, rent-seekers, self-dealers, and general hangers-on. He went after the tediously pedantic theologians who “will tell you to a tittle all the successive proceedings of Omnipotence in the creation of the universe; they will explain the precise manner of original sin being derived from our first parents; they will satisfy you as to how our Savior was conceived in the Virgin’s womb, and will demonstrate, in the consecrated wafer, how accidents may subsist without a subject, how one body can be in several places at the same time, and how Christ’s body in Heaven differs from his body on the cross or in the sacrament.” He went after the lazy monks who set “an apostolic example for us by their filthiness, their ignorance, their bawdiness, and their insolence.” He went after the Church’s “great many copyists, notaries, lobbyists, promoters, secretaries, muleteers, grooms, bankers, and pimps,” whom, if he had his druthers, “would be done away with and would have to, as a result, resort to begging as a means of making a living.” And he railed most of all against the Church’s habit of selling God’s grace to those of its parishioners with thin ethics but plump purses.
What shall I say of such as cry up and maintain the cheat of pardons and indulgences, that by these compute the time of each soul’s residence in Purgatory, and assign them a longer or shorter continuance according as they purchase more or fewer of these paltry pardons and salable exemptions? What can be said bad enough of others who pretend that by the force of such magic charms, or by the fumbling over their beads in the rehearsal of such and such petitions (which some religious imposters invented, either for diversion, or, what is more likely, for advantage), they shall procure riches, honors, pleasure, long life, and lusty old age, nay, after death, a seat at the right hand of the savior?
It took Erasmus two years to get In Praise of Folly published; it wasn’t easy to find a printer willing to brave the prospect of a knock in the night from the Inquisition. After he finally did so, however, the slim volume became the Renaissance equivalent of a bestseller. It was translated from its original Latin into French, German, Italian, English, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, and even Russian, selling tens of thousands of copies all told.
A few years later, Erasmus penned another work of satire that became just as popular. Julius Excluded from Heaven was a dialog, a sort of comedy skit involving the dearly departed Pope Julius II. It was so biting that even Erasmus didn’t dare to sign his name to it, choosing to publish it anonymously instead.
In its pages, the newly deceased Julius charges up to the gates of Heaven in typically imperious fashion. Finding them locked, he pounds away until Saint Peter himself comes out to see who is making such a racket. Julius demands that he open up, on pain of excommunication.
“Excommunicate me?” cries an astounded Peter. “By what right, I would know?”
“The best of rights,” snorts Julius. “You are only a priest.”
It goes on from there, with Julius bragging about how much money he brought into the Church’s coffers and the (illegitimate) children he left behind to continue his legacy. When Peter still remains unmoved, he threatens at last to storm the gates of Heaven with his army.
“Oh, wretched man! Oh, miserable Church,” Peter laments. “I am not surprised that so few apply here for admission, when the Church has such rulers.”
The popularity of Erasmus’s satires testifies to a discontent with the Church and its ways that had by now spread far beyond obvious hot spots like Bohemia. The Church itself seemed not to know how to respond to such subversive mockery, discovering to its dismay that humor with more than a grain of truth behind it was as insidious a foe as martyrdom. As surely as the proto-Protestants that are to be seen today on that monument in Worms had done before him, Erasmus was setting the table for Martin Luther. He would live to regret the storm he had unleashed.
Did you enjoy this chapter? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)