A.D. 1350-1530

The two hundred years from the middle of the fourteenth century to the middle of the sixteenth are a period in which changes of a startling nature came over the face of the Christian church. Those born at the close of it were living under fundamentally different spiritual and social conditions from those born at its beginning. The great changes are confined to the second of the two centuries which it covers and the most important of them to the last forty years. It is a fascinating study to see the sovereign power of God at work during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The most delicately blended combination of circumstances was required in order to bring about the great revival known as the Reformation and to ensure its permanent success. As we look back, we can see all these factors, political, social, spiritual, moral, including in their range even the practical and mechanical, emerging one by one and being brought into that exact mutual relationship which was necessary. The skill and wisdom of the supreme Disposer of the hearts of men fill us with wonder as well as with encouragement, for if God has brought the Reformation out of the conditions that preceded it, there is no revival that He may not bring about. Conditions can never be darker in the world than they were in 1514, nor could any revival be conceived bringing greater spiritual blessing or wider in scope than that which broke out in 1517. "This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes." God has His own times, but when the clock strikes, nothing can prevent His working and producing perfectly the results He has in mind.

Deadness of the Church

There is only one word that adequately describes the condition of Christendom during the fifteenth century, the word death. The church had reached a state of corruption enough to make angels weep. Spiritually and morally, it is no exaggeration to say that it had reached a position worse than the heathenism which it had supplanted a thousand years before. Even the witness of the remnant that kept itself true to the Scriptures almost died out before the end. The intellect of Europe was increasingly active, but it was preoccupied with barren philosophical speculation cast in a theological mould. A corruption and a darkness, which deprived the ordinary man of all that gives life dignity and purpose, covered Europe. Outside, in the far eastern regions cut off by the Turk, the hand of death had settled down on the Nestorian churches. A few of them lingered in south India and Ceylon, but Christian witness had disappeared in China and central Asia, vast tracts that had been abandoned to heathenism, Buddhism or Islam. The Coptic church in Egypt and the church in Ethiopia both continued as oases in a desert of Mohammedanism, but the refreshment to be found in them was not the fruit of the tree of life. Tradition and ignorance reigned among the clergy and laity of these churches, the Scriptures were unknown and unread, and worship was corrupt. In the whole of the African continent there was not a gleam of Gospel light.

In Europe whatever promise of spiritual life might have been contained in the Franciscan movement in the thirteenth century remained incomplete, and bore no fruit until it received the overwhelming answer of the Reformation. For three hundred years it carried on an unequal struggle against wickedness in high places. The work of Dante was inspired by a revolt from the worldliness and moral evils of the day. In England in the fourteenth century we have poems of protest against the same things, such as Piers Plowman and the Latin and English works of Richard Rolle. The Imitatio Christi was a work of sincere piety, breathing the Franciscan spirit of tragic search after moral purity. We have seen that the strictness and sincerity of the early Franciscans did not last longer than two generations. By the end of the thirteenth century they had become involved in the general worldliness of the monastic orders. In strange contrast to the early asceticism out of which the monastic orders had arisen the monasteries were now among the wealthiest institutions in Europe. The abbots resembled feudal barons. The communities owned enormous tracts of land over which they exercised the rights of the feudal lord. The largest monasteries had magnificent buildings, fine libraries, and numerous servants. Rich fare was the rule. The fasts of the church and the rules of the various orders could be evaded by dispensation, which was freely granted. The ownership of so much land brought in a large amount of fines and dues, while rights of trial, imprisonment, and even of life and death were exercised. The monasteries provided free guest-houses and lavish hospitality and fed the poor and beggars. They combined something of the functions of the Victorian squire and the modern workhouse. But they often came into collision with the civil authorities, there being a clash of rights which aroused much rancour, while their luxury and worldliness brought them the criticism and contempt of the commercial and artisan classes. If this had been all, we can easily realise that not a single drop of Christian scriptural spirituality remained attached to such a mode of life. But, as may be well imagined, there was more. In spite of half-hearted attempts on the part of the visiting authorities to repress them, illicit connections took the place of the family life that was denied, and the religious houses earned a wide spread reputation for immorality.

Worldliness of the Popes

Similar abuses were in the palaces of the rich bishops, and above all at the papal court at Rome. The fourteenth century witnessed the great schism when rival popes set up at Rome and Avignon, the one supported by half the countries of Europe, the other by the rest. The pope was a king, or rather more than a king, with a luxurious court and all the etiquette of magnificence. He was spoken of by such titles as "Our Lord God the pope," and it is said that, at least on one occasion, ambassadors were instructed to exclaim as they prostrated themselves in his presence "Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world." The successful pope was essentially a statesman. His mind was occupied with diplomacy, with the ordering of the affairs of the various governments. His interest in religion was usually confined to the extirpation of "heretics." Ambitious popes such as Gregory VII (Hildebrand) raised the status of the papacy by their remarkable diplomatic successes. Hildebrand occupied the papal throne towards the close of the eleventh century and is noteworthy for the humiliation he inflicted upon Henry IV, Emperor of Germany, whom he obliged under threat of excommunication to travel over the Alps in winter and to stand for a day or two with bare feet in the snow awaiting permission to enter the papal residence. The papacy reached its zenith in Innocent III (1198-1216), a man of untiring energy and ambition, whose activities against the Bogomils and the Albigenses we have already mentioned. It was during his pontificate that the Inquisition was established. To ourselves his reign is noteworthy because it was during it that King John did homage to the pope for the kingdom of England, and agreed to pay an annual tribute. No other English sovereign has ever stooped so low. Even so, the tribute soon fell into arrears and before long ceased to be paid. About the same time, however, the King of Aragon handed over his kingdom to the pope and received it back as a fief in exchange for papal protection.

The pontificate of Innocent III marked the highest point of actual papal power, though by no means of papal pretensions. Contemporaries may not have noticed any appreciable decline through the thirteenth century, and yet as we look back we realise that the tide had turned, while the papacy was further weakened by the schism in the fourteenth century. The pope himself was often the last to take seriously, at any rate in private, the doctrines and practice of the religion of which he was the head. His example was followed by many of the clergy, both parochial and regular. Mass was conducted with irreverence and haste, in order that the celebrant might hurry off to the banqueting-table. Thus, the practice of a religion which was treated seriously enough when its threatenings were needed to terrify the ignorant into submission became a farce on the part of its highest officials, many of whom openly showed their contempt for it. After the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, an event whose far reaching consequences we shall later examine, what was preserved of classical literature became familiar to the west. The papal court became almost openly heathen, and in the case of some individuals, almost rationalistic. Its wealth was beyond computation, and in the last half of the fifteenth century it spent it upon amassing art treasures of all kinds. The glories of the Vatican museums still take one's breath away, even though a goodly portion of the costly objects were stolen by the Emperor Napoleon and are now to be found in the Louvre.

Immorality of Papal Court

The diplomatic business of the Roman pontiffs was interspersed with activities of another sort. The private lives of the popes, as of many of the higher ecclesiastics, will not bear examination. Of all examples the greatest set by Rome was the example of vice. There are, of course, outstanding cases. Pope John XXIII was so flagrant that the Council of Constance took the matter up. In the end he was accused of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy and incest (see Gibbon's Decline and Fall, Vol. VII, p. 300 in Bury's edition). Other charges were dropped. The city and the court were the haunt of loose women. The popes kept mistresses as a matter of course, and took them with them when they travelled. Most of the popes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had illegitimate children, on whom they bestowed rich positions. When Martin Luther visited Rome, he saw the host being carried through the streets among a crowd of prostitutes. These statements leave untouched large fields of abhorrent vice habitually practised at the papal court and referred to by a recent Italian historian as "the regrettable tendency of the period." Few know anything of the history of the popes without having heard the name of Borgia, which has become almost a byword for abominable wickedness. This was a Spanish family, two or three of whose members became pope. The most notorious was Rodrigo Borgia, whose official name was Alexander VI (1492-1503). This pope's daughter, Lucrezia, was the mother of a child whose father there seems evidence to suppose was the pope himself, her own parent. As an example of what went on at court we will transcribe in Latin the account of what is known as "the chestnut supper," held in the pope's apartment on the 31st of October 1501. The quotation is from the diary of Johan Burckard, Master of Ceremonies at the papal court at the time (Liber Notarum II, p. 303, ed. Muratori, Rerum Italicarum Scriptores XXXII. I):

"In sero fecerunt cenam cum duce Valentinense in camera sua, in palatio apostolico, quinquaginta meretrices honeste, cortegiane nohcupate, que post cenam coreaveruntcum servitoribus et allis ibidem existentibus, primo in vestibus suis, deinde nude. Post cenam posita fuerunt candelabra communic mense in candelis ardentibus per terram, et projecta ante candelabra per terram custanee, quas meretrices ipse super manibus et pedibus, nude, candelabra pertranseuntes, colligebant, papa, duce et domina Lucretia sorore sua presentibus et aspicientibus. Tandem exposita dona ultima, diploides de sorico, paria caligarum, bireta et alia pro aliis qui pluries dicta meretrices carnaliter agnoscerent; que fueruint ibidem in aula publica carnaliter tractate arbitrio presentium, dona distributa victoribus."

We need dwell no further on these unsavoury things than is absolutely necessary as a picture of the background against which the events of the Reformation took place. We may remind ourselves that we are not describing the court of a heathen oriental potentate, but that of one whose title was "Vicar of Christ." On one occasion at least, an arch was erected under which Alexander VI passed in triumphal procession, bearing the words, "Caesar was a man, Alexander is God." We shall seek far in the history of any nation to find monarchs at whose court vice was more prevalent than it was in fifteenth-century Rome. We shall find no instance where a title of such pretensions, itself blasphemous if joined to high moral virtue, was attached to such scandalous debauchery.

Activities of Inquisition

Before we pass on to describe the bright beams of truth that illuminated this darkness during the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, or the blaze that broke out in the sixteenth, we must give some account of an institution which for all time brands the mediaeval church as one of the most fearful of the forces that have enslaved mankind. We have once or twice mentioned the Holy Inquisition. We have seen its inauguration as an experiment for the extermination of the Albigenses of Provence, and that nineteen years later, in the year 1229, it was permanently established. The Inquisition was an organization whose activities were directed by Dominican friars with headquarters in a luxurious house at Rome. It became notorious during the thirteenth century when it was centred at Carcasonne in Provence. It rose almost immediately to a position of power which set it above the laws of every country into which it penetrated. Local bishops and even the pope himself came to be powerless against its agents. Once or twice a pope protested against the greatest of the atrocious excesses at Carcasonne, but the protests were ignored. They were not in any case very resolute. The Inquisition owned property in all countries in which it was set up. Its proceedings were above all civil and all other ecclesiastical law. It was extended from one country to another in order ruthlessly to exterminate all freedom of religious opinion. It was the last phase in the degrading sequence of methods of activity on the part of the visible church. We have seen the scriptural preaching of the Gospel give place to educative missions, these again to force of arms in the crusades. The official representatives of Christ now turned to the propagation of the faith by means of oppression and torture that manifested an utter disregard for fundamental human rights.

The agents of the Inquisition formed a network throughout Europe. No one could escape them. A stranger who arrived in any town or district was noted and his antecedents enquired into. If he had succeeded in the difficult feat of escaping from the clutches of the Inquisition, he was tracked and recaptured. Civil and ecclesiastical authorities were obliged to assist the authorities of the Inquisition. None dared resist their demands. The Inquisition dealt not only with Christians, but also with Jews, and from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries was used against so-called witches, in the persecution of whom it was joined to their shame by many Protestant authorities, until the advancing light kindled at the Reformation put an end to the morbid fear of witchcraft. Arrests were made without evidence on the flimsiest suspicion, which, as the records go to show, was often unfounded, and often with interested motives. Those arrested were herded in the prisons of the Inquisition. The female prisoners had, of course, separate quarters of their own, but there were no women officers or attendants of any kind. The women prisoners were entirely at the mercy of their male guards and of the inquisitors and their agents who had access to the prisons. The result may be imagined, and indeed outrages committed upon helpless female prisoners became so numerous, that orders were given for the women prisoners to be kept together and not in separate cells, in order that they might afford each other some mutual protection. In Spain, where the Inquisition was re-established by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella towards the close of the fifteenth century, and where its activities continued unabated until the eighteenth century, it was seen at its worst. In that country the arrest of pregnant women took place so often that it almost became habitual. These unfortunates were looked after in special accommodation until the time of their delivery, but many cases occurred in which they were not permitted the care of a midwife or of any female attendant, and as a result their sufferings were extreme and many lost their lives. The arrest of so many women in this condition was in line with the policy of the inquisitors by which, with astounding technique, they played upon and harrowed the most sacred emotions and affections of their victims.

One of the most important factors of the administration of this outrageous institution may not be generally realized. The property of every suspected, that is to say arrested, "heretic" was forfeited to the Inquisition. Legal safeguards providing for the maintenance of his dependants, like other regulations of the kind, were commonly disregarded. The wealthy were therefore specially the objects of the inquisitors' attention. The property of no wealthy Jew in Spain was safe, or his person either. In some districts those who enjoyed incomes above a certain figure went in constant fear. Thus the victim of the Inquisition was not only subjected personally to its horrors and indignities, but knew that his wife and family, possibly brought up in great comfort, would henceforth, if they did not perish with him, be destitute without help or mercy of any kind.

Those who had been arrested by the agents of the Inquisition and lodged in its prisons were subjected to an examination before the inquisitors, the object of which was to force from the prisoner the admission of what constituted in the eyes of the Inquisition guilt. Just as the crimes of the victims were at most the holding of religious opinions, and sometimes no more than the possession of wealth, so there was not even a figment of justice in the method and manner of their so-called trial. Every prisoner was assumed to be guilty. Christian men and women on many occasions declared their opinions and confessed their Lord. The majority of the prisoners were uneducated, and in consequence found themselves tricked in every word they spoke by the astute casuistry of their judges, who were versed in the theological and philosophical subtleties of the thirteenth-century Schoolmen. The prisoner quickly found himself out of his depth. Terrified or malicious witnesses gave evidence against him, which he was given no opportunity of rebutting.

We must now follow the prisoner to the depth of degradation and horror to which he was subjected. The use of torture was the regular method of forcing from a prisoner admission of guilt and the inculpation of his friends or family. Nothing, of course, could have been more stupid or useless if it had been justice that was being sought. The supposed admissions of the agonised and terrified sufferers were valueless. If the prisoner had admitted his heresy, he was tortured in order to force him to involve others. If he had proclaimed his innocence, he was tortured in order to enforce an admission of guilt.

The use of torture was forbidden by the canon law. In the year 1252 Pope Innocent IV sanctioned its use in defiance of this rule and also granted dispensation for the inquisitors to be present during its application. During the pagan persecutions of a thousand years before, torture had sometimes been used as ruthless punishment at the order of the heathen magistrates. It was normally applied by the Inquisition to persons whose "trial" was in progress, and who might, and occasionally were, subsequently found to be perfectly innocent of the charge brought against them. Although in Spain the inquisitors did not normally employ forms of torture that were not used by the civil authorities, in Germany and the Low Countries after the Reformation every form that ingenuity could invent was brought into play. The most notorious was the iron virgin. This was a life-sized figure of the Virgin Mary, which opened on pressure of a spring, and embraced the sufferer, slowly crushing him tighter. the interior of the image being studded with sharp javelins six inches long, which pierced his eyes and his whole body at different levels. In a single chamber of the Inquisition there have been found instruments for gouging out the eyes, cutting off the ears, pressing sharp metal beneath the finger-nails, tearing the flesh with hooks and pricking the more sensitive parts of the body.

Use of Torture

Mental as well as physical torture was a potent weapon in the hands of the inquisitors. Prisoners might be suddenly confronted by their relatives and friends begging them to recant or retract. Delays were frequent. Sometimes trials were not completed until several years after the prisoner's arrest. During this time they were kept in prison, sometimes in chains, sometimes on a diet of bread and water, sometimes with a barbarous iron instrument that forced the chin up, ignorant of their fate and of that of their families, and in an agony of apprehension. Torture was not allowed to be repeated more than once, but this rule was evaded by ordering its "continuance" with an interval sometimes as long as a month between its applications. In Spain the recognised torture was of two kinds. In the first the arms were bound tightly behind the back and the victim was lifted from the ground by a pulley with ropes attached to his arms and heavy weights bound to his feet, and suddenly jerked down. The ropes were bound so tightly as to cut through the flesh, sometimes to the bone. In the second the sufferer was strapped tightly by the arms, waist, thighs and calves to a trestle which had sharp rungs like the rungs of a ladder. The ropes were again bound so tightly that the flesh was lacerated. The trestle sloped so that the head was rather lower than the feet. The head sank into a declivity in the wood, and a piece of iron was placed across the forehead or throat in order to prevent it rising. The mouth was held wide open by an iron gag, and a linen cloth that conducted water was at intervals pushed down the throat. The sufferer lost his breath and nearly choked, and frequently also vomited. We must also realise that both men and women were stripped naked in order to undergo these atrocities.

The surviving records describe these scenes in detail, calmly recording the piercing screams and heartrending cries and supplications that resounded through the torture-chamber. We have, for instance, the account of the wife of a wealthy Spanish citizen arrested during pregnancy. Her child was born in the prison of the Inquisition, and after some three or four weeks removed from her, never to be seen again. Soon after she was brought to the torture chamber and submitted to the first of the two ordeals we have described, At the second application her body was broken, the blood pouring from her mouth, nose and eyes. She was removed to her cell, and died some days afterwards. When fatalities of this sort occurred, they were attributed to "accident." Then there was the English merchant illegally caught and arrested by the Inquisition in Portugal. He maintained his fortitude during the operation of the pulleys, and was also stretched on the rack till his limbs were almost pulled from their sockets. During the whole time a priest stood by his side urging him in soft purring tones to confess and recant, and reminding him that if by reason of obstinacy he lost his life during torture, the church regarded such an event as suicide which rendered the sufferer liable to the pains of hell. We can imagine the effect of such exhortations upon the minds of the ignorant and unconverted. The Englishman in question had his shoulder dislocated by the pulleys, and a surgeon was sent to his cell to put it right for him, an operation that was as painful as the dislocation. A woman of over sixty who was submitted to the trestle-and-water torture had her toe wrenched off and her arm broken. Both these facts were observed by the inquisitors present, but the torture was continued notwithstanding. In H.C. Lea's great history of the Inquisition is the heartrending account of a poor woman submitted to the same thing, her crime being that she had refused pork when invited to eat some on a Saturday. This laid her open to suspicion of being attached to the Jewish religion, though the real reason, as she seems to have repeatedly stated, was that the pork was too strong for her digestion. The long detailed account of the anguish, alarm and helplessness of this poor woman, begging between her screams, gasping and vomiting to be told what it was that she was required to say makes the reader ill. Present-day Roman Catholic propaganda is faced with the difficult task of minimising and explaining away these atrocities. The task is rendered less difficult than it naturally would be by the prevailing ignorance of the facts on the part of the present generation, but for those who care to know and take the trouble to find out, the answer is overwhelming. The records of the Inquisition remain today, and betray no sense of guilt or wrong-doing. No attempt seems to have been made to conceal what was done. In fact, while a few inquisitors were deliberately cruel and enjoyed the monstrous work, many were quite convinced that they were doing God a service and benefiting humanity at large. The horrors of the Inquisition stand as a permanent warning of the importance of what a man, a people, or a church believes. It was not the characters of the inquisitors that in the first place were at fault, but their creed. It was a logical creed, built up into a framework that seemed intellectually proof against attack. It was the culmination of the way taken by the church in the fourth century a way to the brink of which she had led herself even before. To this pass came a church that disobeyed (almost without realising it) the Word of God, and accommodated itself to the world around in order to make it easy for the heathen to profess the Gospel.

The Inquisition

For those who escaped the vicissitudes of their "trial," sentence was at last pronounced. Perhaps those sentenced to imprisonment for life with or without chains were fortunate. It must be understood that scarcely ever was there an acquittal. The severity and continued application of torture prevented that, for to avoid it sufferers usually made false confessions. Those who recanted were sometimes granted their lives, albeit they were not to know another moment's happiness. Sometimes, however, they were only allowed the privilege of being strangled before being burnt. Those who did not recant, and here the majority were converted men and women, were burnt alive. Thousands of the saints of God in Spain alone bore their testimony in this way. The occasion of each of these massacres was known as an auto-da-fe, that is to say, an act of faith! These were religious festivals, at which the central spectacle was the parading of the martyrs and their fellow-sufferers through the streets in a special uniform intended to degrade them, the piling up of faggots around them when they had been bound to the stake, and the setting of the whole alight. It is not always realized that the Inquisition continued in Spain till it was broken up by the Emperor Napoleon, and in the nineteenth century was actually temporarily revived. King Alphonso of Spain, after an official visit to the Vatican, declared his intention of reintroducing the Inquisition into Spain when a suitable moment arrived. It was stated during the Spanish civil war that the present Spanish government, should they succeed in obtaining the upper hand, would attempt to set it up again. Of all the countries of western Europe in the fifteenth century, England and Scotland alone did not experience the introduction of this barbarous and unjust institution.

Work of Wyclif

We now turn from the dark background which we have been attempting to describe to a brave witness for God's Truth which threw a flood of light upon the blackness of the scene. As Englishmen we may be thankful that it was in our own country that the light broke out, though we must not forget the faithful Waldensians holding up the banner in the Alpine valleys. The leader of the great movement of protest against spiritual and doctrinal corruption was John Wyclif, a man of great intellectual attainments and spiritual clear-sightedness. No direct connection between Wyclif and the Waldensians appears to have been traced. Wyclif was a lecturer in the University of Oxford and held the living of Lutterworth, Leicestershire. He was a member of influential ecclesiastical circles, and at least on one occasion was sent with others on an embassy to treat with representatives of the pope. Before the year 1361 he had apparently become Master of Balliol. He was in the first place a philosopher, lecturing and writing upon the work of the thirteenth-century Schoolmen and their successors. He then came out in protest against the exactions of the pope and the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and their claims to override civil law. Finally he took up theology, passing on from his exposure of the worldliness of the church to its doctrinal corruption. He denounced transubstantiation and practically every mediaeval doctrine. His great positive contribution to the progress of the Gospel was his teaching that the supreme authority lay in the Scriptures and the Scriptures alone. He wrote a large number of tracts and sermons explaining his views, but his greatest work was the translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into English. His translation was revised shortly after his death by his friend and follower Purvey.

Wyclif's Bible was the first translation that the English people had had since Anglo-Saxon times. Back in the early eighth century Bede had laboured at Jarrow to give the people parts of the Bible in their own language. From the time of Alfred the Great the early English had been more or less familiar with the Gospels and Psalms, but when the Norman conquest came, darkness settled down. The church fell into the hands of continental priests and became more directly subject to Rome than had previously been the case. In the twelfth century the language underwent a change, which would have rendered the old English translations hardly intelligible. Until Wyclif's time only the Psalms had been translated into Middle English, and very few of the population could read them for themselves. On the continent there were occasional translations of the Bible into the various vernaculars. In France especially there were certain summaries and expositions which were quite popular. All copies were, of course, written by hand, and were owned exclusively by the religious houses, the ecclesiastical authorities and the wealthy. We have already noticed that the decree which set up the Inquisition in 1229 at the same time forbade the circulation of the Scriptures among the laity. In the University Library, Cambridge, is a beautiful Italian Bible, written and illuminated in the year 1397, which belonged to a rich Florentine. It contains a note signed by the local agent of the Inquisition granting the permission of that institution to the owner to own and read the book. Hundreds of copies of Wyclif's Bible were made, mostly at Oxford, and circulated among the people by the preachers whom he organised and sent round the country. Here is the twenty-third psalm in the later edition:

"The Lord governeth me, and no thing schal faile to me; in the place of pasture there he hath set me. He nurschide me on the watir of refreischyng; he convertide my soule. He ledde me forth on the pathis of riztfulnesse; for his name. For whi thouz Y schal go in the myddis of schadewe of death; Y schal not drede yvels, for thou art with me. Thi zerde and thi staf, tho han coumfortid me. Thou hast maad redi a board in my sizt; azens hem that troblen me. Thou hast maad fat myn heed with oyle; and my cuppe, fillinge greetli, is ful cleer. And thi merci schal sue me; in alle the daies of my lijf. And that Y dwelle in the hows of the Lord; in to the lengthe of daie's."

Wyclif and his doctrines were popular throughout the country. Twice an attempt was made to bring him to trial for heresy, but though his works were condemned, the seizure of his person was frustrated by powerful political influence. On the second occasion an earthquake shook the country just as the tribunal had met, and the event had a serious effect on the minds of its members. The University authorities at Oxford refused to comply when they were ordered to expel Wyclif and condemn his writings. His preachers reached all parts of the country, and a strong following sprang up, those who adhered to him being known as Lollards, a name that in its origin was probably a term of opprobrium. Wyclif died in 1384, and his followers enjoyed immunity and even to some extent the royal favour for the next fifteen years. When King Richard was succeeded in 1399 by Henry IV a change took place. The new King, who was not the direct heir, had obtained his position by the assistance of the clergy, and was obliged to obey their behests. In the year 1401 ecclesiastical influence forced upon the statute book of England the law de comburendo heretico, and a persecution of the Lollards began. They were driven underground, but many were brought to trial and burnt. The faith had been embraced by several wealthy families as well as by the uneducated, and a noted Lollard hero was Sir John Oldcastle, who was hung up in chains and roasted alive. But Lollardry never died out in England. The people had acquired a taste for the Bible, and the assistance which Wyclif gave to the cause of the Reformation in this country is greater than has sometimes been supposed.

The influence of John Wyclif was not confined to his own country, but had notable repercussions on the continent, especially in Bohemia. In 1382 King Richard II married a Bohemian princess: free intercourse between the two countries took place and Bohemian students came to Oxford. These carried Wyclif's writings back to their own country where they had a powerful effect upon John Huss, Rector of the University of Prague. The reforming movement within the church dating from the days of Joachim had been active in Bohemia, and the new teaching fell on prepared soil. A great scriptural movement sprang up in that country. Huss was condemned by the Council of Constance for heresy in 1415 and burnt alive, but he was regarded in the University as a martyr, and his movement gathered strength. It split into two sections, moderate and extreme, the latter being known as Taborites, building a city for themselves which they called Tabor and regarded in the light of a New Jerusalem. They twice defeated in battle the forces of the King and papal authorities sent to suppress them. The particular protest of the Bohemian Christians was against the denial of the cup to the laity in the Holy Communion, and so strong did their movement become that they were invited to attend the Council of Basle (1431-49), where certain concessions were made to them. The Bohemian Christians were weakened by division and persecution, and suffered, as seems always to have been the case with Christian churches, from the fact that they took up arms to defend the faith. In the year 1500 it is estimated that there were about a hundred thousand of them, and this remnant passed over in the sixteenth century into the churches of the Reformation.

Hussites and Waldensians

The Bohemian Christians were in close touch with the Waldensians. These faithful people first came under the notice of the Roman authorities in the year 1380, when the Inquisition was set to work in their valleys. In 1400 the persecution was intensified and in 1486 a papal bull was issued for their extirpation. They suffered fearful persecutions intermittently until the seventeenth century, when the threats of Oliver Cromwell stopped a war of extermination that the Duke of Savoy had begun against them. There are some valuable documents in the University Library, Cambridge, brought to this country by Samuel Morland, Oliver Cromwell's ambassador to them, in which some of their fearful sufferings are described. Again and again they were hunted from their valley homes by the soldiers of their oppressors, delicate women being driven along in the snow till they died from exhaustion. It was a frequent sight to see infants spiked on the soldiers' lances and carried along on them. There was also a practice of tying up the men with ropes and leaving them suspended in a manner which cannot be described in print, calculated to inflict the greatest injury and anguish. The wanton barbarities of the Spanish Inquisition were directed against Jews and free-thinkers as well as Christians. In the case of the Waldensian persecutions every sufferer was a saint of God, or at least a member of a Christian family. They have passed now beyond the need of the prayers of those who read of their sufferings, but can we doubt that the joy of the Father's home will be intensified by the welcome we shall be privileged to share in giving to these martyrs, and the satisfaction that will arise when we see exercised the triumphant privilege, which God has reserved to Himself, of wiping away the tears from all faces?

One beautiful story, recently circulated by those nowadays in touch with the still faithful Waldensian church, is well worth recording. One dark winter's night the Waldensian pastor in a remote valley heard a knock at his door. On opening it he was surprised to see the Roman priest from the parish below. Regarding him suspiciously, he asked him his business in tones that could scarcely be said to convey a welcome. The priest begged to be allowed for a moment in the house, and the pastor reluctantly admitted him. When he was safely inside and assured that no one was in hearing, the priest informed the pastor that a band of soldiers was at the moment coming up the valley to destroy the pastor and his flock. The pastor shook him warmly by the hand, and they had only time for a word of prayer together, when the priest escaped back again in the darkness. Meanwhile the pastor had time to warn the Christians, who fled with what belongings they could gather, and thus saved their lives. This priest is not the only Roman Catholic who has risen above his dreadful creed.

In the case of the Bogomils in Bosnia the Inquisition quite failed of its purpose of directly rooting them out. Its interference produced in the end, however, an unforeseen effect. Though it was established in Bosnia in 1291, we find King Tvrtko towards the close of the fourteenth century favourable to the Bogomils. The attacks of the King of Hungary at the instigation of the papacy continued. In 1415 the Bosnians appealed for aid to the Turks. For fifty years the struggle continued, persecution invariably breaking out whenever the papal party was in the ascendancy. At last the Bosnians could not endure the Inquisition any longer. They preferred Mohammedanism, and in 1463 they made over their country to the Turks, in whose power it remained until the beginning of the present century. The papal persecutions were therefore directly responsible for the handing over of a considerable distract in south eastern Europe to Islam.

Fall of Constantinople

The Turks at this period exercised a far wider influence upon the situation than was brought about by their absorption of Bosnia. For almost four hundred years they had been battering at the defences of the Byzantine empire. The fact that this empire, which was more degenerate than virile, had resisted them during this long period is surprising. It is strong evidence of the hand of God directing and restraining in order to bring His purposes to pass at the right moment. In 1453 the Turks captured Constantinople, and the Byzantine empire came to an end. The special significance of this fact was that this empire formed the last vestige of that ancient world of Greece and Rome, with which it was in touch by direct historical continuity.

We have already noticed the effect upon the west of the revival of ancient literature occasioned by the escape to Italy of many Byzantine scholars and litterateurs. As well as the paganisation of Italy in the sense which we have noted, the chief result was a general stimulus to thought. Not only an interest in the heathen classical literature of the past was stirred up, but the minds of scholars were directed to Christian origins and to the Greek text of the New Testament.

Contact with the thought and the art of the ancient world created an unrest in western Europe, a dissatisfaction with the ignorance and superstition of the times, which, in the long run, reinforced the protest against ecclesiastical worldliness that had existed since the twelfth century. This widening of outlook was intensified by the discovery of America towards the close of the fifteenth century. The intellectual effect of this discovery was not lessened by the fact that the New World immensely increased the wealth and influence of Spain, and thus indirectly of the papal authorities at Rome. The new intellectual movement, known as humanism, produced the great Dutch scholar Erasmus and his friend John Colet, Dean of St. Paul's. In lectures, sermons and writings men such as these passed on what intellectual enlightenment they dared, without coming into open conflict with the traditions of the church or the ecclesiastical authorities.

This movement of thought was assisted by the invention of an art without which it might never have come to maturity. This was printing. The actual inventor is unknown, and therefore the lines of approach which led him to his discovery. For commercial reasons the early printers guarded their secret, and produced books to look as much like manuscripts as possible. However that may be, the outstanding fact of importance is that within three years after the capture of Constantinople the first book to be printed in Europe, the Latin Bible, came from the press of Gutenberg at Maintz in Germany. When the Reformation broke out, the printing presses were available to carry its message far and wide in comparative haste and at small cost. No moment in the history of Europe was more opportune for the invention of printing than the middle of the fifteenth century, just as today one cannot but believe that the invention of speedy means of transport indicates an intention on God's part to have the Gospel carried to the remote parts of the world possibly by a single generation.

An Expectant World

Thus, at the opening of the sixteenth century, we see a Europe restless, loosed from the moorings of generations, expectant of it knew not what. God's hour was soon to strike that would bring life from the dead. We see Him moving in divine majesty over the scene. He had waited long for the repentance and reformation from within that never came. "The iniquity of the Amorites," if we may so put it, was at last full. The inhumanities of the Inquisition used in the Name of Christ in defence of a regime of vice and crime had reduced morality, religion and Christianity to a mockery, and let loose hell in the world. And so at the right moment the Byzantine empire fell; the Mohammedans occupied south-eastern Europe, where they were unconsciously to play an important part in the ensuring of the success of the Reformation; the mind of Europe awoke; and the means necessary for the propagation of the Gospel were brought into being. In our generation there are certain similarities to this situation. For what is God preparing today?

Spiritually things had gone from bad to worse. The Inquisition seemed to be succeeding in the work for which it was founded. By the year 1500 Lollardism in England had outwardly disappeared. It remained only in secret holes and corners. The Waldensian church was reduced to impotence, and its extermination seemed only a matter of time. The Turks had occupied the Balkans, and the Bosnian Protestants had been engulfed by them. In Bohemia a remnant of Hussites remained, but their influence was gone, and they were not expanding. The powerful protest made sixty years previously at the Council of Basle had vanished. Everywhere "heresy" seemed to be dying out. This fact was noted with triumphant congratulation by the Fifth Lateran Council, which met at Rome between 1512 and 1517. On the 5th of May 1514 all dissidents were cited to appear and plead before the Council, and an inqvitation was sent to the Bohemian Christians to do so. There was no reply. The orator of the Council was able to exclaim, "Now nobody contradicts, no one opposes." The same day an edict was passed for the perpetual elimination of heretics from the church, to all the horrible barbarities then in use against Christians being added the penalty of leaving their bodies unburied. In March 1517 the Council was dissolved, and, as a historian has expressed it, "the assembled prelates and princes separated with complacency and confidence, and with mutual congratulations on the peace, unity and purity of the apostolic Church."

The failure to respond to the challenge of the Lateran Council issued in May 1514 seemed to indicate that the papacy was triumphant and that all Christian witness was dead. We pass forward three and a half years to the day that has been rightly called the most momentous as yet in the history of Europe, the 31st of October 1517. On that date a young doctor in the University of Wittenberg nailed upon the church door in the town a copy of the great Evangelical theses which formed the basis of Reformation doctrine. Their author was Martin Luther. The complacent authorities at Rome were blind to many signs of the times. But for ten years there had been going on something which they could not have been aware of, had they wished. This was the fierce spiritual struggle in Martin Luther's heart. God not only brought political and social factors to a crisis. When the time was ripe, He had His man ready. In the year 1503 young Luther found a Latin Bible in the University Library at Erfurt and began to study it. It brought him under deep conviction of sin. Year after year his struggle for peace went on. The very meaning of the Scriptures had been distorted by human tradition. Thus Luther had been taught to believe that the expression "the righteousness of God" in the Epistle to the Romans referred to God's righteous judgment against sin. Gradually the Holy Spirit brought him light, and he came to realise that this was God's own righteousness available for him in Christ. He was helped by Staupitz, the Augustinian Vicar-General, and occasionally by other human friends in the monastery to which he had retired in a vain attempt to find peace of soul. Light dawned, but final assurance came when he was on a visit to Rome, and was struggling on his knees up the Pilate staircase. All that he had read in the Scriptures was now summed up, as it were, and brought to his remembrance by the Holy Spirit in the phrase which seemed to resound in his ears, "The just shall live by faith." The struggles, trials, fears and despair of so many years bore fruit in the peace and assurance that came to Luther's own heart, and all that anguish we can now look back upon as God's forging in an individual heart, by the fierceness of bitter testing, an instrument that would be the means of bringing salvation to countless millions. Humanly speaking, our own spiritual history and that of all those in every part of the world today who rejoice in the Gospel of salvation passed through the bottle-neck of the spiritual struggle in Martin Luther's heart.

Luther's Spiritual Struggle

The immediate cause of the publication of Luther's theses was the sale of indulgences throughout Germany by Tetzel, the pope's agent. These indulgences increased in scope according to the price paid for them. Some of Luther's parishioners at Wittenberg had purchased indulgences, and proclaimed their intention of continuing sinful practices on the strength of them. This greatly shocked Luther, who had found the forgiveness of sins in Christ, and opened his eyes to the unspirituality and immorality of the practice of selling indulgences. He still believed that the Roman authorities would condemn Tetzel, and it came as a surprise to him to find that the pope identified himself with what was going on. Within six weeks the Gospel was known all over Germany, and Luther by continual preaching and writing for the press proclaimed the Gospel and his growing conviction that the pope was antichrist. In the autumn of 1520 the pope excommunicated Luther and condemned his writings as heretical, but Luther's reply with the support of the University and citizens of Wittenberg was publicly to burn the Bull and to publish his treatise, "The Babylonish Captivity of the Church." In 1521 Luther was summoned under a safe conduct to Worms before the Emperor Charles V to answer for his teaching. He stood firm by Scripture and refused to retract a syllable unless it was proved to him from Scripture that he was wrong. On his way back he was carried off by his protector, the Elector of Saxony, who feared his life was in danger, to the fortress of Wartburg, where he spent the following months in translating the Bible into German.

The Gospel increased greatly in Germany and spread quickly to every country in western Europe. The Protestants were suppressed in Germany by an Imperial Decree, and in the Low Countries, which formed part of the Spanish dominions, the Inquisition was immediately put into operation against them. In 1532 however, the Turks advanced from the south-east and threatened Vienna. If that city had fallen, European civilization would have been in immediate danger. The Emperor realized this and rescinded the decrees against Protestants in an attempt to unite all Christendom against the common enemy. In 1534, 1542, and 1555 agreements were made which had the effect of establishing Protestants and Protestantism on an equal footing with Romanism in the German empire. Germany was henceforth divided into states where the Protestant faith was established and those which adhered to Romanism. Meanwhile the Gospel spread to other countries and everywhere created a ferment. In our sixth section we shall deal with its expansion and some of its results.

Reformation in England

We cannot close the present brief account of the beginnings of the great revival of four hundred years ago without noticing a fact that is of particular importance to ourselves as Englishmen and of special interest to members of the Inter-varsity Fellowship. We have said that the spiritual history of millions hung upon the conflict that went on in the heart of Martin Luther. His experience was by God's grace the source of that great Gospel river that has flowed on with increasing volume from that day to this. Yet, as the ice began to melt high up on the frozen mountains, there was at least one other trickle which merged itself in the stream that took its rise in Germany. This little trickle of the water of life actually appeared first.

In the year 1516 Erasmus published at Basle his edition of the Greek New Testament, the first occasion on which the original text was available to any but a negligibly small minority in western Europe. Naturally Cambridge, with which Erasmus was so closely connected, was one of the first places to receive and study it. It was read by Thomas Bilney, a member of Trinity Hall, and brought about his conversion in the year 1516. Bilney gathered round him a company that resembled the Holy Club in Oxford over two hundred years later. These men discussed and studied the New Testament in the original, and as soon as the Reformation broke out in Germany got in touch with the Reformers. Among them were Thomas Cranmer, a student of Jesus College and Nicholas Ridley, afterwards to become heroes of the faith in England. These men owed their conversion to Thomas Bilney and the Greek New Testament. Bilney was martyred under Henry VIII in 1533. He was a small man of a timid disposition, made strong and enterprising by his new faith.

Thus, while the waters of life burst out over western Europe in a great united stream, we may yet say that the truth in England may be traced to a source of its own, and that even if Martin Luther had never existed, reformation might possibly have taken place in our own country. This goes to show that though Luther, spiritual and intellectual giant as he was, was God's man for the moment, the real enlightening power did not lie in any human instrument at all, but in the Scriptures now made available and free to all who would come to them to drink the water of life. The study, dissemination and publication of the Scriptures brought to Europe in the sixteenth century life from the dead.


Cambridge mediaeval History.
Coulton (G. G.): as before.
Lea (H. C.): A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages.
Lea (H. C.): A History of the Inquisition of Spain.
Hague (D.): The Life and Work of John Wycliffe.
Lutzow, Count: The Life and Times of Master John Hus.
Article Waldenses in Encyclopedia Britannica.