A man living, say, in the year AD 500, who travelled in H.G. Wells’ Time Machine one thousand years to the future of the High Middle Age of AD 1500. would have found that few things had changed much. Life in villages and towns was running in ways that would seem familiar to him – agriculture had not changed much, neither had transportation or war (except for the longbow). He would notice castles and cathedrals – the expressions of feudal and clerical power. Yet in the next one hundred years, he would observe how a monk and a tinkerer laid the foundation of a new age to come …

We are now closing in on the crucial years between AD 1450 and 1520, in which the mechanical invention of a Saxon tinkerer and the religious theories of a Thuringian monk at length caused the liquidation of the medieval age, together with the use of Latin as the language of church and court and the whole medieval class system. Yet even these pivotal events might have been relegated to minor importance had not the rise of the town as political unit completely upended the economical roundabout of the Middle Ages.

Every former peasant, who left the fields he did not own anyway, and on which generations of his forefathers had toiled in sweat for little gain, and spent a year and a day in the nearest officially recognized Imperial city was freed of his obligations to the liege-lord and absolved from lifelong servitude; he became, in principle, a free man. The sharecroppers flocked to the towns in great numbers and took part in the revolution of the medieval economy: towns, and with them their new and recent citizens, could and did get rich by trade, which a nobleman was prevented to do by ancient Roman law. Before long, the burghers broke the Church‘s monopoly on education; the ancient sciences were taken up by a new generation of students and experienced a rebirth, a Renaissance; a first wave of enlightenment purged the continent of many strictures of the Catholic Church.

Print Shop in the Middle Age
Print Shop in the Middle Age

The rise of towns established the bourgeoisie as a political class;6 differing from the simple hierarchy of Middle Age society, towns harboured a complex multitude of peoples that defied easy categorization: cobblers and masons, artisans and merchants, doctors and lawyers,7 their helpers and assistants, and soon, philosophers and historians of both the abstract and the natural schools;8 professions the Holy Catholic Church had practically outlawed in her eternal wisdom since Justinian’s closing of the schools of Athens and Alexandria in AD 529.

This is the appropriate place to introduce the originators of the metamorphoses. They were two men from a land not yet called Germany; with a little help from their friends, their pursuits were to elevate the faculties of man to unknown heights of good and evil.

Scribes had sought a mechanical way to duplicate their efforts since the invention of writing. Around the year AD 1050, a Chinese writer named Bi Sheng came up with the first model of what we today call the movable type: he created a clay type for every character he wanted to print. But since the Chinese language requires one type for every symbol of its writing, Bi Sheng quickly faced the problem that he required so many different characters respectively symbols that his printing method proved too clumsy; not user-friendly enough, we would call it today. Eventually, the Chinese replaced the clay types with woodblocks, which worked fine but had a durability problem. They were still far ahead of Europe.

In the Occident, books were still laboriously copied by hand, usually by monks. Copying books was one of the few pastimes granted to the average monk, and a good part of the income of an abbey or cloister depended on the dexterity and dedication of its copyists. The variety and multitude of these copies, however, were humbled by a circulus vitiosus: since all books were copied by hand, they were very expensive, thus only important books were copied at all; important books, by the standards of the Church, were, of course, only such books which supported the teachings of Christianity: hence only such books were copied.

Meanwhile, in a small town of not-yet-Germany, a prospective print-shop owner named Johannes Gensfleisch combined several recent ideas of his into a device which, after protracted tinkering, introduced to a perplexed world the first viable and sturdy printing press. He had formed, much as Bi Sheng had done, separate types for each letter of the alphabet, but of cast metal, not clay, which improved their durability.

He had, of course, the advantage to require only thirty-five or so letters and numbers. He then assembled rows of these types, forming lines, then paragraphs, and soon whole pages which were fixed in a frame against which ink was applied and paper pressed. As far as the inner mechanics of the press were concerned, rumour had it that Gensfleisch had profited from the study of the wine presses he used for the preparation of his libations.

At any rate, a skilled worker could produce three hundred pages a day with Gensfleisch’s machine, a hundred times the daily output of a monk. It was a miracle. Of a sudden, books could be produced at a fraction of their former cost and in unlimited quantities, for instead of expensive parchment simple paper could be used, which was soon produced in bulk. Books became so cheap and ubiquitous that they were, for the first time, written in or translated into the vernacular of the common people, into Teutsch. Naturally, the first bestseller was the Christian Bible. Herr Gensfleisch meanwhile, suitably proud of his achievement, adopted the nom de plume under which he is known to posterity, Johannes Gutenberg.

Before Gutenberg, only members of the clergy or the families of the nobility could afford to possess their own, personal, copies of the Holy Writ: the average man could not afford one, and even if he could buy one, he could not read it for it was written in (a sort of) Latin. This now changed swiftly, and everybody could either buy or at least borrow a Bible written in German and check the contents independently.9

The Church was not truly ecstatic over the sudden development of amateur competition in Biblical exegesis, and for decades defiled printing as a satanic art; but the levee had been broken, and it was too late to turn back the clock. It was bad enough that the Bible was now accessible to the laity; that it was printed in the vernacular was worse, for every literate person could now read, for example, that Jesus had advocated poverty as the natural state of affairs for Christians, and this mandate, one would surmise, would be equally appropriate for the clergy. Yet when concerned Christians learned from the Bible that Jesus had declared not to own any earthly possessions and exhorted his apostles as well as his lesser disciples to follow his example, they dispatched embassies with dire warnings to the princes of the Catholic Church. The deputations explained that material wealth was in fact a handicap, instead of a benefit, in the acquisition of salvation, and recommended that the Church renounce its secular possessions and concentrate on the salvation of their parishioners’ souls instead of amassing worldly treasures. The Church was not amused and summarily declined the spiritually advantageous offer.

Yet the more mere mortals read the holy writings, the more the former spiritual and intellectual monopoly of Catholicism was forced to retreat. It was not only that scripture and reality were at odds: both the spiritual decay and the wealth of the Church, or rather the ways in which this wealth was accomplished, the abuses of simony and the atrocious selling of indulgences, would no longer be accepted by a new, more critical generation of Christians. Sixty years or so after Gutenberg’s invention, the crisis of the Roman Church became acute. A young monk, professor for Biblical Theology at the University of Wittenberg, set out to change the faith of Christendom forever.

Within the confines of the present volume, the complex history of Martin Luther and the Reformation can be presented only briefly. Luther composed ninety-five theses, which summed up his criticism of the orthodox, Catholic exegesis of the Bible and the conclusions he had drawn from his findings [Text, from Wikisource). These theses he had sent to the office of his superior, Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, the Imperial Arch Chancellor, where they might have caused damage or not. But he nailed a copy of them onto the door of his home church in Wittenberg, for public discussion [November 1517]. Perhaps not the primary but certainly the most aggravating cause for Luther’s public admonition was the flagrant indulgence trade. In AD 1515, Pope Leo X approved the sale of indulgences in the archbishop’s domain around Mainz, to finance various clerical projects, one of which, and self-evidently the most sacred and distinguished, was to raise funds for the enlargement of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Bishop Albrecht did not sell the documents personally; he had an agent, a man named Johann Tetzel, who sold them on a commission basis. Herr Tetzel, a devout believer, explained to his prospective customers that his documents could alleviate the duration or intensity of the purgatorial punishments their sins had purchased, or, for a few dollars more, could accomplish the immediate release of their souls from the sulphurous wells of the devil’s domain. Luther directed his reformatory ire in particular upon such fraudulent practices and composed a stream of theses condemning these theological outrages, and a few other little sins the Catholic Church had allowed herself in one-and-a-half millennia of orthodox rule. Yet soon Luther found himself mired in much more treacherous terrain. James Kugel explains [How to Read the Bible, Free Press 2007, ISBN  978-0-7432-3538-0]:

Well before the early 1500’s, individual Christians had been expressing dissatisfaction with the ways of the church, and their dissatisfaction focused on a broad variety of issues. One of the things that bothered them was what they saw as corruption within its ranks – priests’ sale of indulgences to their parishioners, for example, or the role of money in obtaining high office within the church hierarchy (called “simony”).

Along with these, some Christians objected to the church’s vast holdings of land and its evident concern for furthering its own wealth and political power (accompanied by a lack of concern for the poor): to many, the bishops and cardinals seemed more the servants of Mammon than of God.

In addition to these dissatisfactions, however, were others of a more theoretical and intellectual nature. The very idea of papal authority seemed illogical to some; how could a reasonable person accept a priori that the rulings of the altogether human leader of the church would always be correct?

And why should a human institution like the church, even if its existence was divinely authorized, play such a crucial role as intermediary between God and the individual Christian? Lastly – but probably not last in importance – what about the Bible?

Should the church have the unchallenged authority to say what the Bible means, especially when that meaning seemed to be derived not from the Bible’s own words as much as from old doctrines and questionable methods of interpretation?

Luther’s answer was a resounding “no”. The sole justification of faith, he argued, is the belief in the Divine Promise that Jesus died for the salvation of the sinner; and neither church nor pope are necessary paraphernalia in the achievement of this faith. Sinners, that is, every man who believes in the Biblical message, will be represented at God’s judgement by Jesus Christ and will be absolved, as Jesus is absolved. No purchase necessary.

That was the rub, as far as the Catholic Church was concerned. Orthodox dogma had held for thirteen centuries that the faithful qualify for eternal benefits by the charitable works they donate to the community or the financial endowments they dedicate to the apostolic coffers for the relief of the poor. In other words, good deeds, or equitable pecuniary considerations, open the door to preferred treatment on Judgement Day. Yet if Luther’s findings were correct, such deeds had no relevance whatsoever to redemption or salvation, and the Church’s eagerness in collecting these contributions was nothing but the sign of a parasitic organism’s avarice. Just as useless would be the strange rituals of symbolic cannibalism, performed by men only, who dressed in garish costumes and walked in clouds of frankincense.  If one could indeed find redemption without these follies, independent of such ceremonial ministrations, the Church might be out of business soon.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18

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