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The Reformation in a Nutshell


from Jacques Barzun’s Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life:

In his Judgments on History, Burckhardt summarizes the Reformation as an escape from discipline. Emancipation is indeed the immediate appeal of all revolutions. They inflame the feeling that life in society is perpetual constraint, the eternal cause of Freud’s “discontents.” This feeling goes with another, that the ancestral scheme of things is a heavy routine, not sufficiently relieved by the free play of Erasmian “folly.” Again, boredom and fatigue.

      Burckhardt’s verdict reminds us that the thick crust of custom that broke in the early 16C did not consist solely of abuses; nor did the revolution benefit in a material way only the princes. It threw off Everyman’s shoulders a set of duties that had become intolerable burdens. The “works” denounced by the Evangelicals took a daily expenditure of cash, time, and trouble. The service of the Mass had been free, but celebrating the other milestones of life—a child’s christening and first communion, a couple’s marriage, and the final rites at bedside and gravesite—cost money. Penance after confession of sin might entail a pilgrimage to a shrine or some other tangible sacrifice and, latterly, the purchase of an indulgence.

      The good Christian must give alms regularly and pay for votive candles or special masses for the sick or the dead. Then would come the “Gatherer of Peter’s Pence,” to help the pope rebuild St. Peter’s in Rome; and next, the begging friar knocking at the door. To carry a body across town to the cemetery the fee was one noble (about six shillings), the price of 20 prayers for the departed. In certain predicaments a dispensation was required, an expensive necessity. It was galling, too, to see one’s tithes (the 10 percent church tax on land) going not to the poor parish priest but to the prosperous monks nearby, who did little or nothing toward saving the souls of the taxpayers.

      The demands on time and effort included confession, fast days, and taking part in processions on the many holidays. Some of the pious rich might feel obliged to establish a chantry, an endowment for singing masses in perpetuity for the dead. Others, at death’s door, would bequeath their goods and land to the church, thus depriving their heirs and shrinking the supply on the market.  

      These good deeds created the clerical interest—and the anti-clerical opposition. Princes saw their territories nibbled away when large estates were handed over to bishops already heads of provinces. Merchants and artisans in the free cities lost gainful working days as more and more saints’ days were declared feast days. And since bishops had to pay their first year’s revenue to the pope, while the people’s pence took the same route, secular rulers felt alarm at the drainage of coin Romewards.

      How much more anxiety than solace resulted from the incessant formal devotion cannot of course be gauged. A pilgrimage to far-off St. James of Compostella in the extreme west of Spain, or a trip to worship relics in the large town nearby, might gladden some sinners as a welcome break in routine, and so could the feasts and processions. Taking ritual trouble regularly was like our precautions for keeping up bodily fitness; prayer, confession, and fish on Friday were akin to jogging and counting calories; the distant shrine was the Mayo clinic. These analogies hold only for those who lacked fervor—always the greater number; but all knew that to fail in care about one’s soul meant perdition. Regular exercises buttressed faith in sound psychological fashion until the system was denounced as a crude scheme of debits (sins) and credits (works) to be totted up on Judgment Day. When this banking operation collapsed, Luther could exclaim, “We have found the Savior again!”

      To invoke the Savior in the place of works was to change reality; that is, to reshape culture and individual behavior. Worshipping the saints had been a kind of polytheism: they were the powers to entreat. Every living person, every activity and institution, every town and village was dedicated to a patron saint, and aware of living under his or her protection. Many Catholics in Europe still celebrate not one’s birthday, but the day of the saint after whom one is named. Travelers would rely on St. Christopher, sailors on St. Elmo, old maids on St. Catherine. One prayed to St. Germain for sick children, to St. Sythe for lost keys, and to St. Wilgefortis for getting rid of detested husbands. Those in hopeless trouble beseeched St. Jude.

      This distributed worship had come into being when the early church converted the pagan populations of the West. To make the new creed intelligible and congenial, Christian rites and holidays were adapted to existing customs. Saints took the place of local deities; Christmas, Easter, Rogations (the springtime blessing of the fields) re-enacted the original pagan festivals. Hence the Puritan hostility to Christmas, forbidden by law for 22 years in 17C Massachusetts and, in our day, by the Truth Tabernacle in South Carolina (125 members), who hanged a Santa Claus in 1982 to make the point clear.

      Luther was induced by overwhelming tradition to condone the worship of the Virgin Mary. The late Middle Ages, thinking of mercy as peculiarly maternal had made her, not Christ, the intercessor in forgiveness. Luther recalled that in his youth to mention Christ in a sermon was considered “effeminate.” But Luther did not allow prayers to the Virgin’s mother, St. Anne, or to the rest of the blessed troop.

      These details of the new life after Luther point to something easily overlooked: the revolution was strictly speaking not religious but theological. Christianity was not replaced by another religion. The Occident continued to believe in the same revelation of the divine events described in the old Scriptures. Everybody still moved about not only in fields and streets but in an unseen world full of dangers, though ruled by a Power righteous and eternal, who governed every event and took note of every motion of the spirit within the individual soul.

      The overturn, then, was in the slowly built-up system of ideas surrounding the faith, which is to say ideology. The more modern term makes it easier to understand the fury unleashed among the multiplying sects, each differently revisionist. It also explains the moral paradox of “wars of religion” in the name of a Christ who preached the brotherhood of man. On that injunction there seemed to be a meeting of minds; it meant: “Be my brother or I will kill you.”

…The revolution also changed other parts of cultural reality. The Protestant church, the building itself, was no longer the town hall for public business, the banquet hall on feast days, and the theater for moral dramas. Nor were any burlesques put on there, no Feast of Fools, run by a “lord of misrule” for the annual saturnalia that afforded a relaxation of discipline. If newly built, the Protestant “meeting house” could not serve like the cathedrals as a refuge for women and children in wartime, and certainly not as a sanctuary for criminals; its central and civic role was gone.

      With each new sectarian reform, the houses of worship became more and more bare of ornament. Luther did not object to flowers, nor did he, like some zealots, want to break the stained glass of the ancient churches or vandalize the sculptures. But pictures and altar cloths, candles and relics, and the crucifix must go, incense too, and the priests’ vestments, of which the Roman church had a profusion. Color and cloth, shape of hat or stole, gold or silver ornament or piping went with rank or occasion and made up an impressive show. It was, said the English Puritans and Presbyterians, “idolatry dressed up.” Significantly, for those on whom the pull of religion is partly sensuous, Catholicism has remained their church; it has recaptured them in each generation. For the rest, the age-old association of the church with art was broken forever.

      In the new church the minister, probably a married man with children, officiated in ordinary clothes. The parson was none other than the person appointed to serve the rest, though he was still expected to have some learning and to be more or less formally ordained. The congregation acting as an independent body had chosen him; and as dissident sects multiplied, the congregations more and more assumed the support of their leader and their activities. The Lutherans still employed bishops, sometimes elected, and paid by the state. The Anglicans retained the hierarchy; other churches used laymen as deacons or elders. The thoroughgoing souls at last took Luther literally—“everyone a priest”—the Pietists and the Quakers “minister” to themselves.

      Protestants of all types became self-sufficient also during the musical part of the service. No choir, no clerics sang on the congregation’s behalf the praise of the Lord. All the faithful gathered together sing, inexpertly but sincerely, simple words and tunes. The hymns, composed perhaps by Luther, are based on a psalm or a gospel idea versified, uttering threat or promise: ‘Whatever, Lord, we lend to Thee, Repaid a thousandfold will be.” No one kneels or confesses. Everybody partakes of communion “in both kinds,” meaning that each receives bread and wine—and it is real bread, a bit stale, not a consecrated wafer. Formerly, only the priest drank the wine, lest a layman should accidentally spill the blood of Christ. Clerics who did had their thumbs cut off.

– Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 21-23, 26