This year, the anniversary of the Reformation is celebrated. The Reformation began 500 years ago and continues, even today, to influence the western world. It is one of those events that have transformed the course of history in crucial ways.
The Reformation has various incredibly exciting facets. Historians writing on the subject are filling entire libraries. But I am fascinated today mainly by the following questions: How did it come about? How could such a powerful institution as the Roman Catholic Church break apart after nearly 1500 years? Why did the people rebel against it? Did such a major historical event occur suddenly and surprisingly or did it slowly begin to emerge? And what are the lessons we can learn from it?
Therefore, this evening I would like to talk about the causes of the Reformation rather than about the consequences. By focusing on the bigger picture and tracing the broad lines, I suggest, we will arrive at exciting insights. Maybe you will then feel as I do: While many things may well seem alien to us, there are also many things that appear strangely familiar and topical to us…
I. How the Reformation came about – The Council of Constance as preliminary
First of all, let us look back not 500 but 600 years. We will then be in a somewhat better position to see the overall picture. At that time, from 1414 to 1418, the Council of Constance was held, where all the important Church leaders as well as many worldly sovereigns met for deliberation. In short, all persons of distinction came together at Lake Constance. As we would say today, the international elites gathered for a summit meeting.
Remarkable are the items on the agenda at Constance: One of the most important issues was the reform of the Church. In fact, that was a century before the Reformation!
The reason for this was Jan Hus, a preacher from Bohemia who in preceding years had attracted many followers and had caused a great deal of attention. As Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and other reformers were to do later, he denounced the increasingly secular nature of the Church. According to him an upper-class had emerged that was no longer concerned with religious belief but with power, money, and with their own careers. In his opinion, the leading circles should pay more attention to the people again rather than to their own well-being.
Jan Hus was invited to Constance to offer his criticisms. The reformation of the church, however, was not even seriously discussed. Instead, Hus was pronounced a heretic and burnt at the stakes along with his writings.
Reforms were therefore not taking place, and all the shortcomings of the Church Hus had criticised remain unchanged, and got even worse with the passage of time. For those who denounced them were vilified as bad Christians and punished accordingly.
Of course, more and more people realised that things could not simply carry on as they were. Nepotism and corruption were steadily on the increase. Ecclesiastical offices were sold to the highest bidder who would then recover the money by levies of taxes and contributions.
Large amounts of money were also flowing to Rome. To the north of the Alps people complained that they had to pay for the prodigality of church dignitaries and for the church bureaucracy in distant Italy. By the way, possible analogies to today’s redistribution in Europe are merely accidental …
Due to a surviving piece of writing we know how the Curia felt about this: Patronisingly, it depicted the discontented population as country hicks. They ought to be happy that they were doing so well; their economic well-being was due to the fertilising influence of Rome. They should display reverence and gratitude rather than criticise the prodigality of the Church (Enea Silvio Piccolomini – (later Pope Pius II) –, De ritu, situ, moribus et conditione Germaniae, 1450s). In other words, the people owed all this only to the blessings of prudent elites. Somehow I have the impression that today I hear similar arguments again …
In the latter half of the fifteenth century, the printing press invented by Gutenberg gained currency. Critical opinions could thus be spread more quickly and easily. To this the Church responded quickly. In 1487, it decreed that without its permission writings could no longer be printed. Allegedly, this was only to prevent the proliferation of “errors” and “pernicious doctrines”. Obviously, “fake news” was already then an issue … Our conclusion: new media make elites nervous, regardless in which century … This is quite understandable, since their power essentially depends on whether they can determine what has to be considered as right or wrong.
The prodigality of the Church gave rise to an increasing need for money. Therefore, the profitable sale of indulgences became more and more important.
And this is how it worked: People were paying money for being remitted their punishment in the hereafter. The deadlier the sins they had committed, the higher was the price. The bargain was then documented by a letter of indulgence.
There were clergymen who specialised in the selling of indulgences and moved from town to town. They were frightening the people, threating them with hell and offering them letters of indulgence against the payment of a fee.
One of them, Johann Tetzel, a former gambler and cheater, was so successful that he became famous and achieved star status, at least with the authorities that profited from the revenues. Tetzel had a sophisticated marketing and a catchy slogan: The so-called Tetzel chest, where people threw in the money, featured the picture of a ghastly devil, tormenting poor souls in the purgatory. Above it, there was an inscription that read: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
This went so far that a robber could buy a letter of indulgence for all his future sins, only to mug the indulgence priest afterwards.
Tetzel, the indulgence priest, at the time was serving on business on behalf of a prince heavily in debt. He was accompanied by employees of the international banking house Fugger, to which the prince was indebted. They were collecting the money that the people payed for their supposed salvation.
When Tetzel came near the town of Wittenberg, a friar named Martin Luther nailed a piece of writing to the church door. In his ninety-five theses he criticised the sale of indulgences. Initially, Luther did not intend a schism, and for a long time he was also quite reluctant to challenge the authority of the Pope. He was a devout friar, who could simply not overlook the prevailing conditions. But the reaction of the powerful and influential fuelled the conflict. Worldly and ecclesiastical princes, clergyman and the learned, branded Luther as a heretic. Eventually, he was excluded from the church by a writ of excommunication.
That was the beginning of the Reformation that was soon to extend to and transform large parts of Europe. By Zwingli in Zurich, Vadian in St. Gallen and Calvin in Geneva the Reformation received a unique character that corresponded to the distinctive character of our country.
I am fascinated by the reaction of the powerful: Rather than trying to remedy the shortcomings they attack the critics. They do not wish to eliminate the grievances, but to stifle the uncomfortable critical voices. Thus, they miss the last opportunity to achieve improvements and sound solutions.
This proves to be a serious misjudgement: They do not realise how widespread the resentment with the current situation now is. The leading circles encourage themselves that, in fact, everything is alright; that everything is as it must be and that they are dealing only with isolated malcontents and incendiaries trying to seduce parts of the supposedly stupid population.
The people at the top do not recognise the concerns that plague the people at the bottom. The elites literally live in a different world and speak a different language.
Clerical and secular Lords often came from the same noble families, connected and related to each other across Europe. In shifting alliances they were banded together and fighting each other. The people existed merely to raise the required taxes and to provide soldiers from time to time. 500 years ago, the Pope was pursuing grand politics and was building the magnificent St. Peter’s Basilica. Charles V, King, and subsequently Emperor, was reigning over Spain and Germany. He was speaking French, but hardly any Spanish or German. Even if he had talked to his subjects, he would not have understood them. The same was true for the Church as well, where the language was Latin.
With the benefit of hindsight it is very clear, that nothing good could come from talking so evidently past the people. But what about today? ”Federal Berne“, too, has its own language. I often think that although linguistically it might be German, there is nevertheless no-one who can understand it … Or if you read through an EU directive you can only shake your head and think of Goethe: ”Here now I stand, poor fool, and see, I’m just as wise as formerly.“
Martin Luther and later Zwingli were preaching in German. The reformers went into print with pieces of writing, addressing the people in German. Both of them published new translations of the Bible, choosing a language that everyone understood. This was revolutionary.
As Luther commented: ”One must not ask the letters in the Latin tongue, how one ought to speak German […]; but one must ask the mother at home, the children in the lanes and alleys, and the common man on the marketplace, concerning this; yea, and look at the moves of their mouths while they are talking, and translate accordingly. They understand you then, and mark that one talks German with them”.1
The reformers gave expression to what the people felt. They gave them a voice. Luther acted as a major linguistic innovator, who has largely fashioned our written language. His words were powerful, but they could also be witty, if necessary:
One of his prominent opponents, for instance, was called Eck and was a doctor in theology. Suggesting that the full stop after Dr. should be omitted in his title, Luther turned “Dr. Eck” into “Dreck” (meaning “dirt” in German) …
If we are looking at the broad lines of the Reformation we can learn a great deal from it. We can see what happens, when the elites ignore the people. The process went through three phases:
1. Selfish interests and power were becoming increasingly important: In the early years, the elites were still committed to a worthy cause and lived up to their responsibilities, i.e., with respect to the church, pastoral work, charity, relief of the poor but also education, art and so forth. But then with the passage of time they were concerned solely with their own selfish interests, and the retention of power was increasingly becoming the focus of their interests.
Realising this, the people respond with criticism. There are warning signs, but there is still time to make the necessary adjustments. The problems could now be solved prudently and peacefully. To remain with the example of the Reformation: The critical sermons delivered by Jan Hus should have been taken as valuable alarm signals that something had gone wrong. The Council of Constance would have been a great opportunity to remedy the situation. But the elites were turning a blind eye to the warning signals.
2. Denunciation of the critics: Rather than reflecting if the objections might be true, criticism was prevented. The critics became heretics. Reforms were not achieved, because otherwise the criticism of the heretics would have to be upheld.
We can offer an example from Reformation Zurich for illustration. Ulrich Zwingli described how he experienced it: “The great and powerful of this world began to proscribe the teachings of Christ, and make them odious under the name of Luther”2 …
And all those who criticised the dominant view, Zwingli continues, were labelled in blanket terms as “Lutheran”.
This is something we know also from our own time: Malcontents are being pushed into a corner and pidgeonholed. At the period of the Reformation they were reviled as “Lutheran”, today they are abused as populist, backward-looking, extremist, xenophobic, and so on.
Critics will thus be silenced, marginalised, and excluded from the community of the orthodox. Meanwhile, business is defiantly continued as usual. Deficiencies are either glossed over or kept secret.
But this, of course, only exacerbates the situation. Since critics are punished immediately, there is hardly anyone who summons the courage to open critique. And in the absence of a culture of criticism errors and grievances abound. Thus, a vicious circle is created.
3. Denial of reality: While the disappointment, discontent and frustration of the people are growing, the elites feel mainly contempt for the allegedly ungrateful and stupid folks. Let us take still another example from the Reformation period. When the Reformation began in Basle, a cleric wrote of the “sedition and tumult”, proceeding from “the mean and useless people; no wealthy and honest citizen took part in it.”3
This disdainful attitude towards ordinary people is revealing. The ruling elites entrenched themselves increasingly in a world of their own, that has nothing to do with the daily lives of the great majority of the people, thereby mutually reinforcing one another in their beliefs.
We can also choose examples from other periods, for instance, from the era of the French Revolution: Marie-Antoinette, wife of the French King, commissioned the building of an artificial farming village in the park of Versailles, where the nobility could simulate an idyllic country life. Rather than going to the real people, they were remaining among themselves, living in self-constructed ideal world, in a desired image.
What happened on the outside world was irrelevant and was completely ignored. When Marie-Antoinette was told that the starving people were demonstrating, because they had no bread, she supposedly said: ”Let them eat cake“. Her husband, King Louis XVI, escaped from reality by hunting on an almost daily basis. When he returned from hunting on the day of the outbreak of the Revolution and the storming of the Bastille he wrote in his diary: ”14 July: Nothing”4.
In sum, this stark denial of reality on the part of the elites is the hallmark of their end-times.
At this stage, the final break between the people and the elites often becomes inevitable. The latter desperately cling to power with all their remaining strength, until discontent has become so pervasive, that the people begin to revolt. At this point in time, however, it may already be too late for a smooth and non-violent reorientation in politics.
In fact, it is precisely one of the main objectives of democracy to prevent such an escalation. As long as democracy works and popular decisions are implemented, it can never come to that point, because political decisions can be corrected in time. The danger arises, if the elites no longer accept the popular will. For one cannot constantly disregard the people, if they desire some change. John F. Kennedy got to the heart of the matter when he said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” For this reason the elites carry an incredibly great responsibility.
We have singled out from the Reformation a process in three phases. It can be found not only at the Reformation; this was simply an illustrative example. One can discover this process throughout history. Sometimes it is a slow one, sometimes it goes very fast. Sometimes it will be interrupted, because the elites are prudent enough to listen to the people and to change course in good time.
You can verify this process on the basis of either small or big events. I can be found both in world history and in local history. Take the French Revolution or the American War of Independence, or take – because we are here in Zurich – the riots that became known as the “Stäfa Affair” (Stäfner Handel” in 1794) or the “Zurich-putsch” (in 1839).
Of course, we can also choose present-day events such as Brexit or the US elections. And – who knows – maybe some of you will also discover parallels to our own country. •
Source: www.efd.admin.ch, from 25 January 2017
1 Durant, Will. “Kulturgeschichte der Menschheit”, Vol. 18, Lausanne/Geneva, no year given., p. 65
2 Zwingli, Huldrych, “Auslegung und Begründung der Schlussreden”, 14. Juli 1523; quoted from Oechsli, Wilhelm. Quellenbuch zur Schweizer Geschichte”, Zurich 1918, p. 308)
3 Stolz, Johann. “Chronik 1520–1540”; quoted from Oechsli, Wilhelm. Quellenbuch zur Schweizer Geschichte, Zurich 1918, p. 330
4 Durant, Will. Kulturgeschichte der Menschheit, Vol. 32, Lausanne/Geneva no year given., S. 467
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