Monday, 22 December 2008

William Tyndale: pioneer of the information age

The last issue of the Economist for 2008 has this article in praise of William Tyndale.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

John Calvin (1509-64)

This post owes a great deal to Diarmid MacCulloch's Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700 (Allen Lane 2003) a work as witty (in parts) as it is magisterial (always).

Calvin was born in Noyen in Picardy, the son of a lawyer. He taught theology at the Sorbonne and Roman law at Orléans and Bourges. Through his studies he came into contact with French humanism and had contacts with two influential Erasmian groups: that around the king’s sister Marguerite d’Angoulême (1492-1549) and the similar group at the court of Guillaume Briçonnet, bishop of Meaux and the theologian Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples.

In October 1534 posters (placards) appeared at Paris street corners attacking the Mass, leading to considerable disorder as outraged Parisians rioted against the ‘foreigners’ who were said to have perpetrated the outrage. François called a halt to reform and Calvin and Lefèvre fled France. During 1535 and 1536 Calvin was in Basel, devoting his time to writing. In August 1536 he arrived at Geneva by accident when, because of the wars between the king and the emperor, he failed to reach the Protestant stronghold of Strassburg. There he found the fiery Guillaume Farel, another French exile, attempting to reform the city. At his insistence, Calvin became ‘Reader in Holy Scripture’ in the city. This opened an important new phase in the history of Protestantism.

Geneva was situated on the crossroads of routes between northern and southern Europe and had a large immigrant population. It was in the hands of a small governing elite that never wholly supported Calvin. He was expelled in 1538 and spent three years in Strassburg (where he married the widow of an Anabaptist), but following a change in the composition of the city council he was invited back in 1541, and it was after this period that Geneva assumed its distinctive identity.

Calvin’s theology
In March 1536 during his exile in Basel Calvin published (anonymously) the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion and dedicated it to François I. The final edition was published in 1559. The Institutes was a systematic exposition of the Reformed faith – something Luther could never have written. His exposition was based – of course – on the Bible, but also on St Augustine. Calvin’s fundamental doctrine was that of the sovereignty of God and it is from this concept that he derived his doctrine of ‘double predestination’ which he developed in his re-workings of the text.
As Scripture then clearly shows we say that God once established by his eternal and unchangeable plan those who he long before determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom on the other hand, he would devote to destruction. We assert that with respect to the elect, this plan was founded upon his freely given mercy, without regard to human worth; but by his just and irreprehensible but incomprehensible judgement, he has barred the door of life to those whom he has given over to damnation.
This went much further than Lutheranism as developed by the moderate Melanchthon.

Calvin’s predestination was not an invitation to religious passivity but to striving. The saved need constantly to demonstrate that they are saved, both to themselves and to the world, and this means a life of continual struggle against sin. It also means a quest to set up a better society. This leads to an ambivalence in Calvin: if God’s kingdom can be set up on earth, what is the Christian’s relationship to the secular ruler. Should he obey him, as Paul had insisted, or were there occasions when it was right to resist?

In common with other magisterial reformers, Calvin rejected Anabaptism. He saw the Church as the community of the elect, but also a visible body containing a mixture of saints and sinners just like Israel.

Calvin’s Geneva
Calvin’s Geneva was ‘the reformed answer to Mûnster’. MacCulloch, 237. Its government was laid out in the Ordinances of 1541. Following the Strassburg model, there was a fourfold structure of church government: pastors were to preach the word, doctors to teach at all levels, elders to be elected by the council and to hold general disciplinary responsibilities deacons to look after charitable giving, either practical or administrative. Together the pastors and the senior doctors (including Calvin himself) formed a Company of Pastors. Pastors and elders combined in a committee known as the Consistory, which policed the morals of the citizens. There was to be compulsory testing and examination of faith. Certain Christian names (such as Claude, the name of the former patron saint of Geneva) were banned on the grounds that they were ‘absurd’ and ‘stupid’. There were vigorous laws against swearing, and scripts of plays were submitted to Calvin for his approval.

The governmental structure of Geneva was dualistic: at the head of the civil government was a small elite of the native-born Genevan patriciate; at the head of the Church’s government was a small exiled elite of mainly Frenchmen. This was copied over Europe.

Geneva became an international centre. There were more than thirty printing houses in the city, run by Germans, French, Italians and other Swiss. Religious refugees poured into the city from England and France. The Scotsman John Knox described Geneva as
the maist perfyt schoole of Chryst that ever was in the earth since the dayis of the Apostillis.
'To the modern eye, it would appear that by the late 1550s, the Calvinist International was preparing for the Revolution of the saints.’ Richard Mackenney, Sixteenth Century Eruope: Expansion and Conflict (Macmillan, 1993) 165.

Calvin challenged
Calvin’s autocratic theology was challenged by some radical Protestants. The Savoyard Sébastien Châteillon (now more usually called Sebastian Castellio) quarrelled with him on the canonicity of the Song of Solomon, which forced Calvin into a rather inconsistent defence of Church tradition. Castellio was forced to retreat to Basel
where the city and Church authorities were rapidly developing the principle that no one who hated Calvin could be all bad. MacCulloch, 242.
Calvin’s greatest challenge came from a maverick physician from Navarre, Miguel Serveto (Michael Servetus). In 1553 he published his anti-Trinitarian Christianismi Restitutio in Lyon. When he was condemned by the Inquisition in Lyon, he fled to Geneva where he was arrested and ordered by the civic authorities to be burned. Calvin wanted a more merciful execution but he did not oppose the burning, which took place on 27 October. Most of his fellow Protestant leaders approved the sentence. It established Calvin as a serious defender of the Reformation. In 1559 the Council appointed him to head a new institution of higher education, the Academy, which soon recruited students from all over Europe.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The English evangelicals

Note: The term 'Protestant' is not appropriate for the early stage of the Reformation in England and historians prefer to use the contemporary term 'evangelicals', usually written with a lower-case 'e' to distinguish the from the Evangelicals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

One of those present at Worms was the Englishman, Cuthbert, Tunstall, bishop of London. He wrote warning that the Babylonian Captivity must be kept out of England at all costs. Yet he was too late. In 1518 Luther was sent two letters telling him that his books were being exported to England. At the end of 1519 Erasmus informed him that certain people in England were admirers of his writings. Further evidence comes from the ledger of the Oxford bookseller, John Dorne, who sold a dozen books by Luther between January and December 1520.

On 12 May 1521 in a spectacular ceremony in London, the papal anathema was pronounced against Luther and the bull was posted on the door of St Paul’s. But on the same night a mocking rhyme was scribbled on the bull. In July 1521 the Assertio Septem Sacramentorum was published. Henry told Luther that it was his, though he later denied it. He commissioned Thomas More and John Fisher to write against Luther.

Luther’s works reached England through contacts between the English and German merchant communities, especially in London. Lutheran works were not translated into English until later, but they were read in Latin by the educated. Bishop Longland feared ‘the corruption of youth’ at Cardinal College.

At Cambridge, reformers met at the White Horse Tavern. The group was so Lutheran in outlook that it was nicknamed ‘Little Germany’. The usual chairman was Robert Barnes, then prior of the Augustinians. Another associate was Thomas Bilney, who was won over by reading St Paul in Erasmus’s translation. The Master of Queen’s College, Cambridge, Dr Forman, masterminded a contraband book trade between London and Oxford. Soon these early English reformers were questioning transubstantiation. Among the first enthusiasts for the new teaching were the Lollards, and the movement spread among the old Lollard communities in East Anglia and the South-East.

On 26 and 17 January 1526 Wolsey, acting as papal legate, and accompanied by Sir Thomas More, made a raid on the German community in London and seized five Germans. On 11 February he presided over a ceremony at St Paul’s, the bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, preached a sermon, and five Germans and the English ‘evangelical’, Robert Barnes, abjured their heresy, carrying their faggots which they then threw on a fire, followed by heretical books. In the following month, Tyndale’s New Testament began arriving clandestinely into England.

William Tyndale (c. 1490-1536)
Tyndale was the most noted of the university evangelicals and England’s earliest Reformation publicist. Like Wolsey he was an MA of Magdalen College, Oxford. He became a tutor in the West Country, where he came to despise the ignorance of the local clergy. In 1523 he attempted to get a place in Tunstall’s household. When he refused, he went to work in the house of a rich London cloth merchant named Humphrey Monmouth and became associated with the ‘brethren’.

In 1524 he left England for Germany. In 1525 he began printing his New Testament in Cologne, using Erasmus’s and Luther’s New Testaments. He was forced to flee by a local magistrate, and completed the translation at Worms. 90% of the New Testament in the Authorized Version is derived from it and Tyndale’s phrases have seeped into the language: ‘eat, drink and be merry’; ‘the salt of the earth’; ‘the powers that be’ ‘death, where is thy sting’. Tyndale’s translation was tendentious, and he used it to undermine church doctrines and ceremonies.

From March 1526 it was secretly sold in England. From 1527 until1534 (when Tyndale issued a revised edition) it was printed five times in Antwerp in pirate editions for sale in England.
In 1530 he translated the Pentateuch and engaged in his controversy with More, who railed against the heretics in his Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1529) and Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer (1532-3).

One of Tyndale’s most important books was the Obedience of a Christian Man in which he developed the theory of the godly king who could rescue the church from corruption. However in his Practice of Prelates (1530) he denounced the king’s divorce.

Tyndale was kidnapped in Antwerp in 1535 and executed in Brussels 1536.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Man bites dog: Boris isn't Tory enough

I thought you might be interested in this post from the Guardian criticising Boris Johnson's fascinating programme After Rome: Holy War and Conquest, for anti-Christian bias and (by implication) political correctness.


Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The German Reformation

The Reformation has typically been seen in two great contexts, the corruption and chronic institutional weakness of the late medieval church and the challenges presented by humanism. The dominating early figure has been Martin Luther, who, it has been claimed, sparked off the Reformation when he posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

The Reformation has also been placed in the context of earlier reforming movements, those of the Englishman John Wyclif (d. 1384) and the Czech Jan Hus (c.1369-1415). Wyclif had formulated a theology of predestination, rejected transubstantiation and advocate clerical marriage. His followers, known as Lollards, went underground but survived into the early sixteenth century. Hus advocated ‘utraquism’, the laity receiving the sacrament in both kinds, which was a fundamental attack on the privileges of the clergy. He was burned at the Council of Constance in 1415 but the Hussite church remained secure in its national setting of Bohemia and Moravia.

This traditional view fails to tackle adequately a number of fundamental problems. If the Church was so bad, why did it endure for so long? And if humanists contributed to the break-up of Christendom, why did some of the most influential, like Erasmus and More, devote their energies to preserving its unity? Why did Luther break with Rome when Erasmus did not? And how important is Luther in the story?

Can we be sure that the Church was more corrupt in the sixteenth century than in previous centuries when there are examples of scandalous popes and lax clergy throughout the Middle Ages? Historians like Eamon Duffy have used documents like churchwardens’ accounts to argue that the English Church in the fifteenth century enjoyed mass popular support. The orders of friars, in particular the Franciscans showed a remarkable capacity for reform; Cardinal Ximenes, who promoted his own order, the Observant Franciscans in the Spanish kingdoms, is just one example. Movements such as the devotio moderna in the Low Countries and the Oratory of Divine Love in Rome were growing in popularity. In France the humanist scholar Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples produced a commentary on the psalms in 1509 and on Romans in 1512. His Erasmian piety gained the support of the king’s sister Marguerite d’Angloulême. It was possible to criticize the Church and want it to improve without thinking of to leaving it. And even at its worst, the Church was far from moribund. In the sixteenth century, faced with the challenge of Protestantism, it showed a formidable capacity to adapt and survive.

This is not to say that all was well with the Church. There were many vested interests working against change. For example, Lefèvre d’Etaples’ patron, Guillaume Briçonnet, bishop of Meaux, fell foul of the Franciscans who accused him of heresy. There was also some serious corruption. When Leo X renewed the sale of indulgences in 1517 for his great project of St Peter’s, he showed formidable marketing skills that would not have been out of place in the modern world, but also a deep cynicism. The transaction by which Albrecht of Brandenburg (left) would promote the sale in alliance with the Fuggers in order to gain the archbishopric of Mainz and a cardinal’s was extremely sleazy!

However there had been plenty of sleaze in earlier centuries and plenty of hostility to reform. The Protestant Reformation succeeded (partly) because of a variety of new circumstances. These include the printing press, implications of humanist biblical scholarship, the ambitions of rulers, the politics of the cities of Germany and Switzerland and also a search for religious safeguards in an age that was especially preoccupied with the afterlife.

Luther (1483-1546)
The popular story that the Reformation began when Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517 may not be true. The theses did exist and were published, but it is not certain that they were posted on the church door. Modern scholarship places less emphasis than previously on the role of Luther and instead tries to assess how far the Reformations were popular movements and how far the mass of the people were affected by them. It seems certain that there was a popular movement - though princes, cities and peasants wanted different things from Protestantism. However no amount of revisionism can hide Luther’s importance.

Luther was the son of a Thurningian miner, who became the lessee of a mine and thus a small capitalist. He went to school in Eisenach. In 1501 he went to the university of Erfurt. In 1505 he entered the Order of the Augustinian Eremites, and in 1507 he took priestly orders. In 1510-1511 he was sent to Rome on business for the Saxon Augustinian monasteries, but there is no evidence that he was especially appalled by what he saw there.

On his return to Germany in 1511 he was sent by the Vicar-General of his Order, Johann von Staupitz, to teach at the new university, founded by Friedrich ‘the Wise’, Elector of Saxony, who was determined to make his university one of the centres of humanist study in Germany.

In 1514-15 Luther lectured on the psalms. In 1515 he moved on to Romans where he read in the Vulgate text of Romans 1:17: ‘Justus autem ex fide vivit’. He read this at a time when, according to his later accounts, he was troubled by intense spiritual anxieties. These arouse out of his Augustinian concept of a righteous God justly angry at his sins and his consequent fear of damnation. His reading of Romans led him to believe that salvation was not something that could be attained by striving, but was a free gift of God, apprehended through faith. The Pauline term for this is ‘justification by faith’, sola fide.

The chronology of his spiritual experiences is contradictory and contested. Long afterwards, in 1545 he spoke of a ‘tower experience’, a spiritual breakthrough that brought him to peace of mind. Though he never gave the date of this experience, it is likely to have been after 1517. When he made his famous protest, he had not fully worked out his ‘evangelical’ theology or fought through his spiritual difficulties. It was while he was in the middle of his struggles that the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel came to Wittenberg selling indulgences, accompanied by an accountant from the Fugger banking house.

The fairly recent doctrine of indulgences had been promulgated in a papal bull of 1343 that allowed to faithful to make a financial contribution to draw upon the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints. Later in the fifteenth century it had been argued that indulgences were available to help the souls in Purgatory as well as the living. In an age of acute religious anxiety the doctrine of indulgences held a powerful appeal. But it could also be seen as a cynical exploitation of people’s fears and Luther was not the only person to protest about the system.

Luther’s aim had been the fairly narrow one of opening up a debate about indulgences. The ninety-five theses were not intended as a call to revolution. But the challenge was a public one, contained in a letter to his local archbishop – Albrecht of Brandenburg. Albrecht forwarded the theses to Rome and within a fortnight they were available in German. In March 1518 Erasmus sent a copy to Thomas More.

In the ensuing pamphlet debate among German theologians, Luther moved from his protest against indulgences to a wider consideration of the doctrine of God’s grace.

At the end of 1518 he met the great Italian scholar, Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg. But there was no meeting of minds and any opportunity for compromise was lost. It is probably about this time that Luther had his ‘tower experience’. In the wake of his disillusionment with Cajetan, he began to call for a General Council to hear his case – a direct attack on papal authority.

In 1519 Luther engaged in a public disputation with Dr Johann Eck at Leipzig (the rival university to Wittenberg). Eck, a brilliant debater, forced him into the open - Luther said that the Roman supremacy was of recent date and that much that Hus had taught had been correct. This immediately defined Luther as an enemy of the Catholic Church. The controversy spurned a huge pamphlet literature between 1518 and 1523. Pro-Luther pamphlets outnumbered the anti by 20 to 1.

1520 Luther issued three pamphlets:
(a) Appeal to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. This was addressed in German and called for a programme of social and ecclesiastical reform. The pope was described as Antichrist and the German nobility had a God-given duty to overthrow him.
(b) The Babylonian Captivity of the Church was written in Latin for the clergy. Luther reduced the seven sacraments to the three he believed were explicitly mentioned in scripture (baptism, penance and the Eucharist). He attacked transubstantiation though he maintained a doctrine of real presence.
(c) The Freedom of a Christian Man was a plea for inward religion based on a right relationship with God. ‘A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all’. Good works come naturally to those who are saved.
In December 1520, following his excommunication, Luther burned the papal bull Exurge Domine which condemned his writings at the gates of Wittenberg.

The Diet of Worms: In the summer of 1519 Charles V had been elected emperor. Though Luther was under the Ban of the Empire, Charles gave him a safe-conduct by Charles V to attend the Diet in April 1521. In a long speech he defended his refusal to repudiate his writings.
‘Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.’
Not long after his death, the first editor of his collected works added to his speech: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’. Charles honoured the safe-conduct he had given Luther, but he also issued an edict condemning him as a heretic.

Once Luther was back in Saxony, Frederick arranged for him to be kidnapped and ‘imprisoned’ in the Wartburg. During this time he completed his translation of the New Testament based on Erasmus’s text. He also wrote hymns most notably Ein feste burg ist unser Gott’.

The Swiss Reformation
Luther’s protest was not isolated. In 1519 Huldrych Zwingli’s sermons in the Great Minster at Zurich initiated the Swiss Reformation, which was to affect England much more. It is disputed among historians how much Zwingli owed to Luther and how much he arrived at his theological position independently.
Zwingli showed his radicalism by marrying (in secret in 1522) and by ordering the destruction of images. He also set out a revolutionary doctrine of the Eucharist: it was purely a symbol and a declaration of faith; there was no ‘real presence’ of Christ in the Eucharist.

The development of Lutheranism
In 1521 Luther’s brilliant young disciple Philipp Melanchthon published the Loci Communes that was to become the central text of Lutheranism.

As Lutheranism developed, the early radicalism of Luther’s pamphlets vanished. Luther believed he was confronted by two serious challenges from the ‘left’. In 1522 he returned to Wittenberg to find the scholar and nobleman Andreas von Karlstadt declaring publicly that all sacred images should be destroyed. He condemned this in a pamphlet Against the Heavenly Prophets.

In 1525 he reacted viciously to the Peasants’ Revolt and urged the nobility to ‘smite, slay and stab’. His language was that of a frightened man. He believed that he was partly responsible for the revolt.

Luther’s religious conservatism is shown at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529 where he and Zwingli clashed on the Eucharist. Luther insisted on a ‘real presence’ while Zwingli argued for a purely symbolic interpretation of Christ’s works. Their failure to agree marked a permanent division between Swiss and German Protestantism.

But Luther’s conservatism should not be exaggerated. His marriage in 1524 to the ex-nun, Katherine von Bora (left), was a revolutionary step.

In 1529 the Emperor convened the Diet of Speyer with a view to withdrawing all concessions to Lutheranism. A group of German princes who supported religious reform drew up a protest - a ‘Protestatio’. This is the origin of the term Protestant. Following this, Lutheran theology was codified in Melanchthon's Augsburg Confession (1530).

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Erasmus of Rotterdam

Early life and career
Erasmus, who was probably born in 1467, was the second illegitimate son of Roger Gerard, a priest, and Margaret, a physician's daughter. After both parents died, the guardians of the two boys sent them to a school in 'sHertogenbosch conducted by the Brethren of the Common Life, a lay religious movement that fostered monastic vocations. Erasmus would remember this school only for a severe discipline intended, he said, to teach humility by breaking a boy's spirit. Having little other choice because of their illegitimacy,, both brothers entered monasteries. Erasmus chose the Augustinian canons regular at Steyn, near Gouda, where he seems to have remained about seven years (1485-92). After his ordination to the priesthood (April 1492), he was happy to escape the monastery by accepting a post as Latin secretary to the influential Henry of Bergen, bishop of Cambrai.

Erasmus was not suited to a courtier's life, nor did things improve much when the bishop was induced to send him to the University of Paris to study theology (1495). He disliked the quasi-monastic regimen of the Collège de Montaigu, where he lodged initially. To support his classical studies, he began taking in pupils; from this period (1497-1500) date the earliest versions of those aids to elegant Latin, including the Colloquia and the Adagia, that before long would be in use in humanist schools throughout Europe.

The wandering scholar
In 1499 a pupil, William Blount, Lord Mountjoy, invited Erasmus to England. There he met Thomas More, who became a friend for life. During a stay at Oxford,he was inspired by John Colet's lectures on St Paul to take up biblical study. This would mean learning Greek. He returned to the Continent with a Latin copy of St. Paul's Epistles and the conviction that ‘ancient theology’ required mastery of Greek.

By 1502 Erasmus had settled in the university town of Louvain (Brabant) and was reading Origen and St. Paul in Greek. The fruit of his labours was Enchiridion militis Christiani (1503/04; Handbook of a Christian Knight). In this work Erasmus urged readers to 'inject into the vitals' the teachings of Christ by studying and meditating on the Scriptures, using the spiritual interpretation favoured by the ‘ancients’ to make the text pertinent to moral concerns. The Enchiridion was a manifesto of lay piety in its assertion that ‘monasticism is not piety.’ Erasmus' vocation was further developed through his discovery at Parc Abbey, near Louvain, of a manuscript of Valla's Adnotationes on the Greek New Testament, which he published in 1505 with a dedication to Colet.

Erasmus sailed again for England in 1505, hoping to find support for his studies. Instead he found an opportunity to travel to Italy, the land of promise for northern humanists, as tutor to the sons of the future Henry VIII's physician. The party arrived at Bologna in time to witness the triumphal entry (1506) of the warrior pope Julius II at the head of a conquering army, a scene that figures later in Erasmus' anonymously published satiric dialogue, Julius Exclusus e Coelis (written 1513-14). In Venice Erasmus was welcomed at the celebrated printing house of Aldus Manutius, where Byzantine émigrés enriched the intellectual life of a numerous scholarly company. For the Aldine press Erasmus expanded his Adagia, or annotated collection of Greek and Latin adages, into a monument of erudition with over 3,000 entries; this was the book that first made him famous.

De pueris instituendis, written in Italy though not published until 1529, is the clearest statement of Erasmus' enormous faith in the power of education to train to virtue: the ‘humane letters’ of classical and Christian antiquity would have a beneficent effect on the mind, in contrast to the disputatious temper induced by scholastic logic-chopping or the vengeful amour propre bred into young aristocrats by chivalric literature, ‘the stupid and tyrannical fables of King Arthur.’

The celebrated Moriae Encomium, or Praise of Folly, conceived as Erasmus crossed the Alps on his way back to England and written at Thomas More's house, expresses a very different mood. For the first time the earnest scholar saw his own efforts along with everyone else's as bathed in a universal irony, in which foolish passion carried the day: ‘Even the wise man must play the fool if he wishes to beget a child.’

Little is known of Erasmus’ long stay in England (1509-14), except that he lectured at Cambridge and worked on scholarly projects, including the Greek text of the New Testament. His later willingness to speak out as he did may have owed something to the courage of Colet, who risked royal disfavour by preaching a sermon against war at the court just as Henry VIII was planning to invade France. Having returned to the Continent, Erasmus made connections with the printing firm of Johann Froben and travelled to Basel to prepare a new edition of the Adagia (1515). In this he showed a new boldness in commenting on the ills of a Christian society corrupted by militarism. To reform society he looked to education. In particular, the training of preachers should be based on ‘the philosophy of Christ’ rather than on scholastic methods.

Erasmus’s New Testament
Erasmus tried to show the way with his annotated text of the Greek New Testament published by the Froben press in 1516. He provided not only the Greek original but in the 1519 edition a parallel new Latin translation tacitly designed to supersede the Vulgate. This made his translation much more influential than the more scholarly work of Ximemes. He notoriously translated Gospel passages in a way that went counter to the interpretations of the Church: ‘repent’ for ‘do penance’, ‘gracious’ rather than ‘full of grace’ (in the 1519 edition).

These were the months in which Erasmus thought he saw ‘the world growing young again,’ and the full measure of his optimism is expressed in one of the prefatory writings to the New Testament:
‘If the Gospel were truly preached, the Christian people would be spared many wars.’
Erasmus' home base was now in Brabant, where he had influential friends at the Habsburg court of the Netherlands in Brussels, notably the grand chancellor, Jean Sauvage. Through Sauvage he was named honorary councillor to the 16-year-old archduke Charles, the future Charles V, and was commissioned to write Institutio principis Christiani (1516; The Education of a Christian Prince) and Querela pacis (1517; The Complaint of Peace). It was at this time too that he began his Paraphrases of the books of the New Testament, each one dedicated to a monarch or a prince of the church. He was accepted as a member of the theology faculty at nearby Louvain, and he also took keen interest in a newly founded Trilingual College, with endowed chairs in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.

Revision of his Greek New Testament, especially of the copious annotations, began almost as soon as the first edition appeared. Though Erasmus certainly made mistakes as a textual critic, in the history of scholarship he is a towering figure, intuiting philological principles that in some cases would not be formulated explicitly until 150 years after his death. But conservative theologians at Louvain and elsewhere, mostly ignorant of Greek, were not willing to abandon their interpretation of Scripture and the atmosphere did not improve when the second edition of Erasmus' New Testament (1519) replaced the Vulgate with his own Latin translation.

The Protestant challenge
From the very beginning of the momentous events sparked by Martin Luther's challenge to papal authority, Erasmus' clerical foes blamed him for inspiring Luther, just as some of Luther's admirers in Germany found that he merely proclaimed boldly what Erasmus had been hinting. In fact, Luther's first letter to Erasmus (1516) showed an important disagreement over the interpretation of St. Paul, and in 1518 Erasmus privately instructed his printer, Froben, to stop printing works by Luther, lest the two causes be confused. As he read Luther's writings, at least those prior to The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), Erasmus found much to admire, and he could even describe Luther, in a letter to Pope Leo X, as 'a mighty trumpet of Gospel truth'. But in the end Erasmus's belief in the unity of the Church proved fundamental and he and Luther came to quarrel over free will.

Final years
In 1529, when Protestant Basel banned Catholic worship altogether, Erasmus and some of his humanist friends moved to the Catholic university town of Freiburg im Breisgau. He refused an invitation to the Diet of Augsburg, where Philipp Melanchthon's Augsburg Confession was to initiate the first meaningful discussions between Lutheran and Catholic theologians. He died in Basel in 1536. His last words were in Dutch: "Lieve God" ("dear God").

Influence and achievement
Erasmus lived to see Europe divided and to know that he was traduced by many on both sides of the divide. His friend Thomas More had been executed the year before. But his ideals lived on and by the nineteenth century his moderation was seen as a virtue. As a Dutchman, a humanist and a reforming Catholic, he helped to build the liberal tradition of European culture.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

The print culture

[Above is the library of the Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp.]

Though knowledge of reading and writing was considered desirable in medieval Europe it was a means to an end. The invention of printing revolutionized literacy. Francis Bacon described it as one of the three great inventions (the others were gunpowder and the compass) that had changed the appearance and state of the whole world.

The Invention of Printing
The printing press evolved as a practical solution to a practical problem. Before 1450 all books were hand produced - copied out by scribes in monastic scriptoria. Monks wrote standing at their desks. The illustrations were often lavish and the books were therefore very expensive. They were written on parchment or vellum made from animal skins in a cursive minuscule script dating from the Carolingian Renaissance of the ninth century. But even before the invention of printing there was increasing demand caused by the revived interest in the ancient Greeks (studied mainly in Latin translations), and secular scriptoria supplied the university stationers.

From the thirteenth century Europeans had increasingly used the Chinese process of manufacturing paper from rags, which was much more easily and cheaply manufactured than reed-based papyrus or animal skins (vellum or parchment). The Muslims had a paper mill in operation in Baghdad as early as 794, but by the end of the fourteenth century Christian Europe had far outstripped the Muslim world in production.

There was no single invention, but the printing press is usually attributed to the former goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg (d. 1468) at Mainz in the 1450s. Presses were already known from wine and cheese-making, but the printing press was a more precise instrument. It was free of all lateral movement and applied even pressure over the whole surface of the page. Thus, the printing press was virtually a new machine.

But the great innovation was moveable type, another Chinese invention,. Prior to Gutenberg, each piece of metal type for printing presses had to be individually carved by hand. Gutenberg developed moulds that allowed for the mass production of individual pieces of metal type. Each character was a separate block, in mirror image, and these blocks were assembled into a frame to form text. Because of his moulds, an entire upper case and lower case alphabet set could be made much more quickly than if they were individually hand carved. (Upper case pieces of type were stored on the top shelf and lower case pieces of type were stored on the bottom shelf.)

Printing from moveable type was taken up by the Europeans in response to the increased demand for printed books. It was immediately clear that printing like this was much more flexible and useful as a technology of reproducing information than the existing use of carved woodblocks. It could be partly dismantled and revisions and corrections made; it could be separated and reused for later sections of a long work, or for a quite different task. It enabled the printing of long books with modest amounts of type.

It also involved new materials and new processes. Paper was used almost exclusively since neither parchment nor vellum was suitable for use with the printing press. This led to heavy demands on the paper mills. The new forms of ink were oil based, rather than water based. They were thicker than existing inks and capable of imparting a sharp image that did not run.
New skills were needed: those of punch-cutter, typecaster and compositor. Artists designed the type-faces and laid out the pages. Typecasters needed some knowledge of metallurgy. Knowledge of chemistry was required to make printers’ ink. Bookbinders were much in demand.

1455 saw the appearance of the Gutenberg Bible in Mainz. It was too accurate and well laid out to have been the first book to come from the adjustable type mould. The assumption is that there must have been much trial and error before this high standard could have been achieved.

The Book Trade
In the early experimental period printers had set up all kinds of tiny centres, but towards 1500 printeries were concentrated in those places where venture capital could be found, patrons sought and contracts negotiated. There were specialist book fairs at Lyons and Frankfurt.
Because these were commercial ventures, the bulk of the early printed books were those for which there was a guaranteed market. This meant bibles, mass-books, breviaries, manuals for clergy and confessors. Three quarters of all books published before 1520 (and many afterwards) were religious. There were also educational works: dictionaries, schoolbooks. The average print run was 500-600 copies, but there were also best-sellers with much larger runs. Luther's German Bible had a print run of 4,000 and Erasmus's Praise of Folly, published at Basel had 1800.

Gradually printers published ‘Renaissance’ texts. As early as 1468 Cicero’s Orator was printed. Between 1470 and 1475 the French printer Nicolas Jenson produced editions of Eusebius, Cicero and Virgil in Venice. Between 1495 and 1498 the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius (1450-1515) issued five volumes of Aristotle, and the comedies of Aristophanes, later followed by other Greek classics. All these works were printed in the increasingly popular Roman rather than the conventional Gothic type. By 1501 had achieved the technically difficult feat of converting the cancellaresca, the italic, into printing-type. This very economical type made printing in a small format possible and compressed the size of books.

The Englishman William Caxton (c.1421-91) learned the printing trade in Cologne. In Bruges in 1474 he published the first books ever to be printed in English, the Recuyell of the Histories of Troy and The Game of Chess. They were dedicated to Duchess Margaret of Burgundy and her brother George duke of Clarence. In 1476 he moved back to England where he rented a shop in the precincts of Westminster Abbey. He published an indulgence issued by Sixtus IV in aid of the war against the Turks. However, on the whole he published uncontroversial secular courtly works. In July 1485 he published Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur.

A Communications Revolution?
The fact that books could not be published more cheaply meant that collecting a library became feasible (if still expensive). Only a small proportion of the population was literate - but there was a substantial book buying and book reading public. The miller Menocchio owned or had access to a surprising number of books, at least one of which was bought in Venice.

By 1500 over 200 towns and cities had presses and it has been estimatd that there were between eight and twenty million incunabula (books published within 50 years of the invention of the printing press.) This vastly exceeds the number of books produced in all of western history up to that point. By 1600 about 200,000 different books or editions had been printed in press runs that averaged about 1,000 copies each. The book was thus the first modern mass-produced commodity.

Books became talking points and cultural reference pointers. The novel was quickly translated into all the western European languages and the second volume talks about its reception. (This would not have been possible before the advent of printing.) Don Quixote and Pancho Sanza talk about themselves as characters in a book!

By the end of the 16th century there was a thriving industry in broadsheets, ballads and chapbooks.

The communications revolution meant:
1) It was now possible to produce identical copies of books. It was even more important to be accurate, since a single mistake could be reproduced many times. When mistakes were made, it was possible to issue errata slips. The craft of the proof-reader developed.
2) Printed books had distinctive type-faces, printer's device on the title page, the inclusion of the year and place of publication. All this gave printed books a greater air of authority and reliability.
3) Vernacular languages were standardised, and in print dialects lost out to the standard version of the vernacular.
4) Greater diversity of texts, possible to compare books, contradictions could be spotted. Transmission of received knowledge became more complicated. For example, the conflicting traditions and opinions of Arab and western medicine could be compared. The authority of ancient texts was gradually undermined.
5) Knowledge was now better organised: reference books, numbering of pages, catalogues in alphabetical order.
A Slow Revolution?
There are important caveats to the narrative of an unstoppable revolution.

The print culture did not develop overnight, it was not uniform throughout Europe and even in the same region there could be startling discrepancies. In late 16th century Venice, which was an important publishing centre, books were still fairly rare and the notaries who drew up inventories do not appear to have been acquainted with them . We now know that medieval libraries and book-owners had owned popular texts in large numbers of copies; they had shrunk books into small format for convenience. The sumptuous manuscripts were not the only books published in the Middle Ages and cheaper works existed in respectable numbers (only most have not survived). (Query: what type of book were Dante's Francesca and Paolo reading?)
1. Standardization can be greatly exaggerated. Printers were as much subject to human error as scribes. Compositors constantly complained about the difficulty of deciphering bad handwriting, and printing-house practice resulted in unpredictable and incalculable variations between copes of books. For example in Shakespeare’s First Folio there are two alternative readings: ‘Although our last and least’ or ‘Although our last not least’. This is partly because Shakespeare had a remarkably casual attitude to the printed editions of his plays, but there are also two possible definitive texts of Dr Faustus and there are many discrepancies in the editions of Don Quixote.
2. The division between print and manuscripts is often made too stark. For a long time manuscript had a greater prestige than print and for this reason the first printed edition of Homer was issued in a type that resembled contemporary Greek handwriting. The world of the manuscript book did not come to an end in 1500; both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I owned manuscript books. In France the tradition of luxury illustrated manuscripts continued until 1520. For Hebrew, Greek, music, the type was not always available, so manuscript insertions had to be made; in many cases the manuscript tradition continued until the nineteenth century.
3. The change from a predominantly oral to a predominantly literate culture was slow and by no means completed by 1700.
The state and ecclesiastical powers were involved in printing from the start. In 1479 Sixtus IV granted authority to the University of Cologne to censor books. In 1515 papal decree ordered censorship to be applied to all translations from Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and Chaldaic into Latin. In 1520-21 both the pope and Charles V banned his writings. In 1559 the Index I.ibrorum Prohibitorum was published. Elizabeth I gave the stationers' Company an absolute monopoly of printing outside the universities.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Humanism and the Renaissance

What is humanism?
‘Humanism’ is a nineteenth-century term coined from words which had been in use in the late fifteenth century, when it became common to talk about the liberal/non-theological arts subjects in a university curriculum as humanae litterae (literature which was human rather than divine in focus) and a scholar who had a particular enthusiasm for these subjects was called a humanista. In the Renaissance period it did not have its modern meaning of someone who rejects the claims of revealed religion. The vast majority of humanists were sincere Christians who wished to apply their enthusiasm to the exploration proclamation of their faith.

The Renaissance
The term usually associated with humanism is `Renaissance' (rinascita), a term coined by Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) in his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550). This term came to define the broad cultural changes of a whole era not merely its art. It is a useful term because it shows that while something new was happening in Europe between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, it was seen as a rediscovery of something very old. The Italian humanist poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-74) [left] so admired the poetic achievements of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) that he proclaimed that they represented a rebirth of poetry as good as anything which had been written in ancient Rome.

The Renaissance began in the Italian cities, which had the advantage of a physical legacy of art and architecture that had survived from the Roman Empire. But by the sixteenth century it had spread to northern Europe where the universities began to adopt the humanist curricula.

The old and the new
Far from being `New Learning, humanism represented a refocusing of old learning. It brought a new concentration on and a new respect for sections of traditional scholarship that medieval universities had considered of secondary importance: the non-theological parts of their arts curriculum, especially poetry, oratory and rhetoric (the arts of political persuasion by speaking and writing). Humanists were lovers and connoisseurs of words, which they saw as sources of power that could change human society for the better. The words that inspired such excitement were found in ancient texts from Greece and Rome. This meant a quest to obtain the best possible version of the texts that were the main records of how those societies had thought and operated.

This intellectual excitement was not new – it had been seen in the Carolingian and twelfth-century Renaissances, the latter centred in Paris and Toledo, which was captured from the Muslims by Alfonso VI of Castile in 1085. Gerard of Cremona (c. 1114-87) was one of a group of scholars who translated Greek and Arab texts in astronomy, medicine and other sciences into Latin. He translated Ptolomy’s Almagest (from the Arabic for ‘Great Book’ ), Euclid’s Elements of Geometry and many of the works of Aristotle.

But in the fifteenth century the technology of printing on paper opened up far more rapid possibilities of distributing copies of the texts, and gave much greater incentives for the spread of literacy associated with these innovations; this in turn produced a far more intense search for ancient manuscripts often lying neglected in cathedral or monastery libraries since earlier bursts of enthusiasm for the past. Moreover, many more Greek manuscripts re-emerged from this latest treasure-hunt.

Medieval western Europe had access to remarkably little Greek literature; for example, Dante could not access Homer and his account of Odysseus (Ulysses) was taken from Virgil. (Homer’s Odyssey was not published in Europe until 1488.) If scholars knew a learned language other than Latin, it was likely to be Hebrew, for rabbis were more accessible than Greeks. Petrarch tried to learn Greek but gave up, though Boccaccio succeeded and in 1360 had a chair of Greek founded in Florence.

Petrarch had been a diligent hunter of manuscripts. On his death the Chancellor of Florence, Coluccio Salutati (1331-1405) acquired many of his books. Because of his official position he was unable to leave Florence to search for manuscripts as Petrarch had done, but he acted through friends and agents to build up a library of well over six hundred books.

His most important contribution was to invite the Byzantine teacher Manuel Chrysoloras (1350-1415) to teach Greek in Florence. For teaching materials he brought over Plutarch’s Lives, Plato’s Dialogues, Aristotle’s Politics and Ptolomey’s illustrated Geography. This led to a passion for book-collecting, with the purchase money being provided by rich merchants or their sons. In 1404 Guarino Guarini went back to Greece with Chrysoloras and returned six years later with more than fifty Greek manuscripts. In 1423 the Sicilian Giovanni Aurispa (1374-1459) brought back 238 books from Greece; these included Homer, Pindar, Aristophanes, Demosthenes, and the whole of Plato.

The Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453 brought other Greek-speaking scholars to the west. Florentine intellectuals such as Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) became increasingly interested in the ideas of Plato. Under the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464), Ficino began to lecture to an informal group of Florence’s cultural elite which became known as the Platonic Academy. Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494) a tutor in the household of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-92) translated Homer into Latin.

Platonism: The most important contribution of the Academy lay in its promulgation of the doctrine of neo-Platonism, which scholars like Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-94) attempted to reconcile with Christianity. Pico's Oration on the Dignity of Man (c. 1480) has been seen as one of the key Renaissance texts though its Cabalistic, Platonic mysticism is hardly 'modern' in the usual sense of the word.

This reappearance of Plato was especially significant, because twelfth- and thirteenth-century western scholasticism had been shaped by rediscovering his very different pupil Aristotle. Plato’s mystical sense that a greater reality lay beyond the physical world was to have a profound effect on Renaissance thought.

Scholars found Platonic ideas not only in the Bible but also in the Cabala, metaphysical and astrological works attributed to an imaginary Egyptian philosopher, Hermes Trismegistus. This was an elitist philosophy centring around esoteric texts that could only be understood by the initiated.

The humanists also gained a new perspective on Latin culture, as more manuscripts were discovered in the libraries of western Europe. They developed a particular enthusiasm for Cicero (106-43BC). (But not all their searches were fruitful. In his enthusiasm to discover books Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) visited England in 1420 but found only cookery books!)

The Influence of the Classics
Platonism was an obvious influence but two others were of great importance.

Civic Humanism:
Cicero’s republican politics had a transforming effect on European thought. He was the inspiration for ‘civic humanism’ – the belief that the good life was the vita active rather than the vita contemplative. Petrarch had deplored Cicero’s political career: the Renaissance humanists celebrated it. Using his Letters, Salutati re-evaluated Julius Caesar as the man who destroyed Rome’s liberty and established the tyranny of monarchy.

Eloquence: In 1421 Cicero’s treatise on oratory was discovered in the cathedral library at Lodi; after this he became the model for powerful and persuasive prose down to the nineteenth century. In a famous letter to Guarino Guarini, Poggio Bracciolini described his discovery of the works of another great Roman orator, Quintilian in the monastic library of St Gall in Switzerland. One of the key works praising eloquence was Lorenzo Valla’s (c. 1406-1457) De Elegantiis Latinae Linguae (1444). This was the basis of the movement to reform Latin prose to a more classical and Ciceronian Latin.

The search for authenticity
This reverence for the classics led to a stress on the authenticity of texts. The humanists insisted on going back ad fontes. In earlier centuries, monks cheerfully forged documents on a huge scale for the greater glory of God, particularly charters proving their monastery’s claim to lands and privileges. They lived in a world where there were too few documents, and so they needed to manufacture the authority to things which they knew in their hearts to be true. That attitude would no longer do.

A particularly notorious example of a revered text demolished by scholarship was the Donation of Constantine, an eighth-century forgery claiming to be by the fourth-century convert Emperor Constantine I, giving the Pope sweeping powers throughout the Christian world. It is significant that three different scholars working independently - the future German Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa in 1432-3, the Italian Lorenzo Valla in 1440, and the English bishop Reginald Pecock in 1450 - all came to the conclusion that the style was radically wrong for the fourth century. The Spanish humanist Juan Lius de Vives, Mary Tudor’s tutor, mocked the Golden Legend. (However, this did not stop the book inspiring Renaissance artists.)
Eventually the Bible would come under the same scrutiny.

Secular and Christian humanism
To over-simplify, secular humanism is usually associated with Italy and Christian humanism with northern Europe. Machiavelli can be seen as the most extreme embodiment of secular humanism. Ficino’s Platonism was a form of Christian humanism. The most distinguished Christian humanist of his day was Erasmus of Rotterdam (1467?-1536). His friends included many leading scholars including Thomas More (1478-1535).

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Machiavelli and the state

Machiavelli and the state
See here for a really comprehensive site.

Machiavelli was so shocking to contemporaries because he was not interested in questions of political legitimacy or even morality. He made no distinction between authority and power and asserted that whoever has the power has the right to command. The Prince arose out of his direct experience of Florentine government and was intended as a manual for the ruler who wished to maintain his power and the safety of the state.

As the legitimacy of law rests entirely upon the threat of coercive force. Machiavelli concluded that it is better for the ruler to be feared than loved.

One can say this in general of men: they are ungrateful, disloyal, insincere and deceitful, timid of danger and avid of profit…. Love is a bond of obligation which these miserable creatures break whenever it suits them to do so; but fear holds them fast by a dread of punishment that never passes.
Machiavelli argues that ruler who lives by his rights alone will never succeed, because in the amoral world of politics those who prefer power to authority are more likely to succeed. In order to achieve obedience, the successful ruler needs to be trained in the art of politics.
One of his key worlds is virtù, which is not the same as the English ‘virtue’. Virtù means the qualities necessary to be a successful ruler. That ruler is best suited for office, on Machiavelli's account, who is capable of varying his conduct from good to evil and back again ‘as fortune and circumstances dictate’. The ruler of virtù is bound to be competent in the application of power.

Another key term is Fortuna. To Machiavelli, Fortuna is a malevolent goddess, responsible for the ills of the world. This makes him a determinist, because a man can only resist her if he is sufficiently prepared by virtù and wisdom. She is a woman who needs to be kept in order. (You will have gathered that Machiavelli was not a politically correct writer.)

Did Machiavelli have a coherent theory of the state? Certainly, the term lo stato appears widely in his writings, but it is seen simply as a princely possession. Machiavelli ehad no concept of a stable constitutional regime or of the principles of representative government.

A famously shocked reaction to Machiavelli's amorality came from the Englishman, Reginald Pole (1500-58):
I found this type of book to be written by an enemy of the human race. It explains every means whereby religion, justice and any inclination toward virtue could be destroyed.
By the end of the sixteenth century he had become a stage villain - 'Old Nick' - appearing, for example in Marlowe's Jew of Malta. Yet there are those who see him as the greatest political thinker between Plato and Marx.

New biography of Machiavelli

You may enjoy reading this review in the Telegraph of a new biography of Machiavelli.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Charles V and universal monarchy

The sixteenth century is usually seen as the age of the break-up of the unity of medieval Christendom and the rise of the ‘new monarchies’. Yet this development is extremely complex. The great obstacles were universalism and localism. The Church and the Holy Roman Empires were forces for universalism, while the majority of people lived their lives in local communities and had little concept of an abstraction such as the state.

The modern concept of the nation state should not be confused with contemporary notions of the natio or patria. In 1520 Luther appealed to the ‘German nation’. This did not mean that he had a 19th century concept of German nationalism, but it does imply an assumption of a common German identity.

The concept of universal sovereignty was the legacy of the Roman Empire, appropriated by the papacy in the Middle Ages. From the late 14th century the papacy was gravely weakened by the Great Schism (1378-1417). However, the concept of universal sovereignty was taken up by the Emperor Charles V. When his tutor Adrian of Utrecht became Pope Hadrian VI in 1522 it looked as if the medieval vision of universal sovereignty was being revived. (For more on this theme see Frances Yates' classic, Astraea: the Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (Routledge, 1975).

Charles V
The Florentine historian Guicciardini observed that:
the foundations of the greatness of Charles were such and so mighty that adding that dignity imperial, there was great hope that he might reduce into one monarch all Italy and a great part of Christendom.
In 1524 the conquistador Hernán Cortez wrote to Charles about his plans on the Pacific coast which would make the emperor ruler over more kingdoms and dominions than were known hitherto and
that if I do this, there would be nothing more left for your Excellency to do in order to become ruler of the world.
Charles V combined the titles of Holy Roman Emperor (1519-56), king of Spain as Carlos I (1516-56) and archduke of Austria as Karl I (1519-21). He was born in 1500 in Ghent. From his father Philip the Handsome he inherited the duchy of Burgundy (1506); from his mother Joanna the Mad and grandfather Ferdinand II the thrones of Castile and Aragon (1516) with the accompanying possessions in America and Italy. Mexico and Peru were added during his reign. (However, he knew little of Spain when he became king and he initially ruled it as a Burgundian foreigner rather than a Spaniard.) At the death of his other grandfather Maximilian I in 1519 he was elected Holy Roman Emperor, defeating the French king Francis I. He owed his election in part to money: his agents, with the help of loans from the Fuggers, paid the costs of the election campaign.

Such an accumulation of crowns in one individual was unprecedented. It was realized that this emperor inherited titles in Europe that linked together the area of what had once been the Roman Empire and territories beyond the seas in lands unknown to the Romans. In 1519 Charles was told by his grand chancellor and first tutor, the Piedmontese lawyer, Mercurio Gattinara,
God has set you on the path to world monarchy.
Gattinara was a student of Dante’s De Monarchia, which had set forward the ideal of universal monarchy. Charles believed that this monarchy was a fulfilment of God’s purposes. So did many contemporary commentators. Titian’s portrait of Charles was modelled on the statue of Marcus Aurelius. Though in the manner of his Burgundian ancestors, he is also wearing the Order of the Golden Fleece.

At the court of Ferrara Ariosto published his chivalric poem Orlando Furioso in 1516 (three years before Charles became Emperor). The poem includes a glorification of the new Charlemagne, Charles V. In the fifteenth canto a prophetess foretells that the world will be put under a universal monarchy by one who will succeed to the diadem of Augustus, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius and Severus. This ruler will spring from the union of the houses of Austria and Aragon; and by him Astraea, or Justice will be brought back to earth, together with all banished virtues. All this is a deliberate echo of Dante’s Ghibellinism.

Ariosto repeats the widely held belief that the new world discoveries were themselves the portent of a new world monarchy. According to the prophetess, it has pleased God to keep the ways to these undiscovered lands- unknown until the time when the World Ruler will appear in the person of Charles V. These passages fill out the meaning of Charles device of the two columns with its motto Plus Oultre. This motto had a range of meanings:

1. This was an empire that extended further than that of the Romans, which had been bounded by the columns of Hercules.
2. The prophetic implication is that the discovery of the new worlds was providentially timed to coincide with Charles's coming.
The device became known throughout Europe and it raised the medieval phantom of a universal empire in a modernized form.

Charles accepted this mission in a characteristically conscientious fashion. He believed he had been called to be the saviour of Christendom: to spread Christianity in the New World, to defend Europe from the Turks and Catholicism from the Lutheran heresy. In this he would be following the example of his grandparents, the Catholic Kings, who had conquered Granada from the Moors.

France presented a different model – that of an assertive nation state that challenged the universal claims of Charles V. With a population of 16 million in 1500 (the largest in Europe) it competed with Spain for the role of European super-power.

The sixteenth century was dominated by Habsburg-Valois rivalry. The French invasion of Italy in 1494, in pursuit of a claim to the duchy of Milan, sparked off decades of warfare. In 1514 Cardinal Wolsey brokered the Treaty of London but in the following year Louis XII died and his successor was François d’Angoulême, Francis I, who claimed the title of Duke of Milan. He was the most glamorous monarch of his day, for a while idolized by his subjects, and determined to gain military glory. In 1515 he crossed the Alps with 30,000 men and smashed the papacy’s Swiss troops at Marignano, at a cost of 12,000 dead. This enabled him to exact from Leo X the Concordat of Bologna, which granted the kings of France considerable powers over the French Church. In 1519 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the position of Holy Roman Emperor. The Italian historian Guicciardini wrote:
It was not to be doubted that between these two princes of equal youth and ambition, and having various reasons and occasions of jealousy and contention would not in the end rise a great and dangerous war.
In the ensuing war, the advantage swung back and forth. Charles secured the election of his candidates Hadrian VI and Clement VII to the papacy. But in 1524 the French retook Milan. This so impressed Clement that he abandoned the imperial alliance and sided with France – a huge mistake. Plague struck Milan and the French were unable to enter so they moved instead to attack the imperial army at Pavia. When Charles’s troops came to relieve the city, the French were defeated and Francis was captured. It was a defeat comparable to Agincourt, as the French cavalry was destroyed by the gunfire of the Spanish arquebusiers, and it ensured Spanish supremacy in Italy.

By the Treaty of Madrid (1525) Francis had to abandon his Italian claims and to recognize imperial possessions in Flanders. But the following year, Charles faced his own problems in the aftermath of the Turkish victory at Mohács. In the League of Cognac (1526) France, Venice and the papacy joined forces against the empire. In 1527 Charles Landsknechts ran amok in Rome and sacked the city. By the terms of the Treaty of Cambrai (1529) Francis again repudiated any claims to Milan and Naples, and Charles renounced his claim to Burgundy . (The treaty is called the ‘Paix des Dames’ because it was negotiated by Louise of Savoy, the mother of Francis I and his regent during his absence at the time, and Charles’s aunt Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands.) The pope made his peace with Charles and crowned him emperor in Bologna in 1530. (It was to be the last time that a Holy Roman Emperor was crowned by the pope.)

Charles V: success or failure?
Charles faced revolts in his territories. In his native Ghent there was a guild uprising in 1539, and there was a similar revolt in Castile in 1521.

At the Diet of Worms Charles declared himself an orthodox Catholic and declared war on Protestantism. But he was unable to prevent several German princes from breaking away from the Catholic Church. His great achievement was to persuade the pope to convene the Council of Trent in 1545.

He failed to secure a decisive victory against the Turks. He left the fighting in Austria and Hungary to his brother Ferdinand and instead took a fleet to North Africa to repulse the corsair (and Turkish general) Barbarossa (Khayr ad-Din). But in spite of his capture of Tunis he was unable to dislodge the corsairs. Budapest fell to the Turks in 1541 and was not recaptured until 1686.

The treaty of Cambrai did not end the wars with France. In 1536 Charles challenged Francis I to personal combat (which Francis declined). Both kings were still claiming Milan. When Charles enfoeffed his son Philip with the duchy, Francis declared war on him in 1542.

For most of his reign the gold from the Indies did not add up to a sizeable sum and the silver mines of Potosi were not exploited systematically until the 1550s. The Spanish crown was heavily in debt at a time when Charles was fighting wars on many fronts.

Towards the end of his reign, Charles was vulnerable to an alliance between the new French king, Henry II and the German princes. He was nearly captured by Maurice, the elector of Saxony and the empire lost Metz, Toul and Verdun to France.

In order to gain lost ground, Charles arranged for the marriage of his son Philip to Mary I of England in 1554, but as Mary remained childless, his plans were thwarted.

After an abortive last campaign against France, he prepared for abdication. In 1555 and 1556 he renounced his claims to the Netherlands and Spain in favour of Philip and to the imperial crown in favour of Ferdinand. He arrived in Spain in 1556 and moved to the monastery of Yuste where he died in 1558.

Charles’s abdication was an admission that one man could not rule such a vast empire in such troubled times. The concept of a single monarchy with a universal head could not be realized. However Charles’s successor Philip II kept alive the vision of a universal Catholicism that did not finally die until the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648.

It is an over-simplification to see the sixteenth century as witnessing the birth of the modern state. Certainly England and France had the characteristics of coherent nation states with assertive monarchs and growing bureaucracies. But it was also the period of multi-national empires and both Italy and Germany were conglomerations of small states rather than single nations. And the vision of a universal Christendom did not go away.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

The ritual year

Above is Pieter Bruegel's 'Battle between Carnival and Lent'. Click to enlarge.

This post is especially indebted to Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England (Oxford University Press, 1996), Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge University Press, 1991), and Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400-c.1500 (Yale, 1992).

In a largely unlettered world dependent on natural forces people took out insurance against what they could not foresee or control. Religion was a major protective and where official religion seemed inadequate, other rites were used. The Christian church obliged the realities of the agricultural year by turning at least one third of the days into obligatory festivals. A division may be made between rituals of joy, which welcomed in the seasons of the year, and rituals of protection. All coincided with the liturgical cycle of the Christian churches.

The annual calendar began at Christmas. In England the first sign of the new season would have been the decorating of buildings with holly and ivy just before Christmas Eve. There is no evidence that they were chosen for arcane or magical properties but simply because they were green. (Mistletoe does not seem to have had any significance.) When people left the church they could enjoy, if they wished, their first really ample meal for over four weeks, following the very frugal Advent diet.

Candlemas fell on 2 February and marked the formal end of winter, followed by St Valentine’s Day, where men and women sent each other tokens of affection. In southern Europe in particular, Carnival was the big February celebration (see below). Palm Sunday was ‘one of the longest passages of ceremony in the whole ecclesiastical year’ (Hutton). May was a time of celebrating life and fertility; work resumed in the fields. There were two great festivals in June: Corpus Christi (see below) and the midsummer fire rituals of St John’s Eve when in London there were bonfires in the streets and in Chalon-sur-Sâone the canons repaired to a place called L’Etoile-à-Forêt, where they cut down branches, especially willow branches, and took them back to the cathedral. In July the harvest was gathered in, with further celebrations.

The derivation of the word is uncertain, though it can possibly be traced back to medieval Latin carnem levare meaning to take away or remove meat. This is because it was the final feast before the austere forty days of Lent. The historical origin is also obscure, though in southern Europe, it is plausibly linked to the beginning of spring and the rebirth of nature and in other cultures it can be linked to the Roman Saturnalia. However the first day of carnival varied with both national and local traditions.

Carnival was a privileged time - what was often thought could be expressed with relative impunity. It was a release not only from work, but also from society’s norms. It was a favourite time for the performance of plays. It was not merely a popular festival but was integral to the whole culture. As a young man, Philip II habitually took part in the festivities. Carnival was strongest in the Mediterranean area, weakest in Britain and Scandinavia.

Carnival was normally celebrated in the last few days before the coming of Lent. But in the Catalan lands it began the day after Christmas and ended over six weeks later on Ash Wednesday. In Munich the carnival of Fasching began on the feast of Epiphany (6 January) while in Cologne and the Rhineland it began on 11 November.

The place of Carnival was the open air in the city centre: eg in Nuremberg, the market place, in Venice the Piazza San Marco. Carnival may be seen as a huge play in which the main streets and squares became stages, and the city became a theatre, and the inhabitants the actors and spectators. There was no sharp distinction between actors and spectators - the ladies on the balconies might throw eggs at the crowd and the maskers were often licensed to break into private houses.

The action of this gigantic play was a set of more or less formally structured event: massive eating of meat, pancakes and (in the Netherlands) waffles, reaching a climax on Shrove Tuesday; heavy drinking; singing and dancing in the streets; masks, long noses, cross-dressing; violence against animals. In the last days of Carnival there would be processions in which there would probably be floats bearing people dressed as giants, goddesses, devils etc. In some French carnivals husbands who had been beaten by their wives or had recently got married were carried in procession by the officials of `the great prince Mardi Gras' or led through the town mounted backwards on an ass. A second recurring element was some kind of competition.

Corpus Christi
(For a summary of Miri Rubin's book mentioned above, see , ‘Corpus Christi: Inventing a Feast’, History Today, 40 (July, 1990), 15-21).

In 1216 the Fourth Lateran Council sanctioned the word ‘transubstantiation’ as a correct expression of Eucharistic doctrine to describe what happens during the central Catholic ritual of the mass and how the words ‘Hoc est corpus meum’ were to be interpreted. Using Aristotle’s categories the Council moved that while the accidents (outward appearance) of bread and wine remained after the words of consecration, the substance has changed to the body and blood of Christ. (This doctrine was to be elaborated by subsequent theologians and to become extremely controversial in the 16th century.)

The Council also recommended annual communion after due confession and penance. For all the other Sundays in the year, people did not go to mass to communicate but to observe the key moment of consecration. From the end of the twelfth century this was accompanied by the gesture of elevation. At the elevation, bells pealed, incense was burned and candles were lit. English parish inventories of the fifteenth century record the expenditure on bells and their maintenance. The Council of Exeter of 1287 ordered that at least one of the candles should be of (expensive) beeswax.

One consequence of this enhancement of the mass was that it became more clearly the preserve of the clergy. From the twelfth century the chalice was increasingly withdrawn from the laity. In 1415 the Council of Constance decreed that only the clergy could communicate in both kinds.

From the thirteenth century the Franciscan and Dominican friars taught eucharistic doctrine through sermons and stories, many of them focusing on the miraculous. One popular story was that of St Basil and the Jew: a child appeared in Basil’s hand at mass, bits of it were distributed to communicants, and the Jew was converted.

The doctrine was received with particular enthusiasm in the diocese of Liège among the beguine community. Beguines were women who came to live lives of poverty and chastity and to follow a penitential life of prayer, supporting themselves by their own labour. These communities were guided in their religious practices by monks and priests and depended on priests for confession and the reception of communion. They were particularly numerous in the Low countries and the archdiocese of Cologne.

The beguines developed a particular spirituality which focused on Christ’s Passion and by association with the Eucharist, with the consecrated host becoming an object of desire. Some women wished to eat nothing but the host, others saw miracles and experienced visions. One of these beguines the prioress Juliana (c.1193-58), who served at a leper-hospital in Cornillon near Liège, experienced a repeated Eucharistic vision, the meaning of which was only revealed to her after twenty years. Her dream of the moon with a little break in part of its sphere stood for the absence of one feast in the Church that Christ wished to be celebrated. Her vision was conveyed by her confessor to the new bishop Robert de Turotte in 1240. In 1246 Robert ordered the festival of Corpus Christi to be celebrated in his diocese and the first celebration took place in that year. He died shortly afterwards, and Juliana died in 1258, but by this time the Dominicans had taken up the initiative with enthusiasm, seeing it as a useful weapon against the Cathar heretics.

In 1261 Jacques Pantaleon, formerly archdeacon of Liège, became pope as Urban IV and he brought with him to the papacy the wish to complete the project begun fifteen years earlier. In 1264 he ordered the whole church to observe the feast.

This was the first time that a universal feast was founded by a pope, which obviously makes it an event of considerable significance. A later attempt was made to link the foundation of the feast with the alleged miracle of Bolsena, but this is a tradition dating only from the fourteenth century and is therefore in Miri Rubin's opinion (p. 176) misplaced.

Because Urban died soon after the institution of the feast, it did not become secured immediately. There was not yet a well-developed papal bureaucracy to ensure that the pope’s orders were carried out. Only a handful of copies of the papal letter were issued. The Corpus Christi liturgy was composed by Thomas Aquinas, but the feast was not universally observed.

But Urban's order was confirmed by the Avignon Pope Clement V at the Council of Vienne in 1311-12 and in 1317 Clement’s his successor John XXII promulgated a bull introducing the new feast to every province of Christendom. By 1318 the new feast was celebrated at St Peter’s monastery in Gloucester. By the15th century it became, in effect, the principal feast of the church, observed on the Thursday (or, in some countries, the Sunday) after Trinity Sunday (the first Sunday after Pentecost). This meant that it could be held at any time between 21 May and 24 June - a time of year when the weather was likely to be warm even in northern Europe.

The Procession
Though the papal bull made no mention of a procession, the procession became (and still is) the feast's most prominent feature and was a pageant in which sovereigns and princes took part, as well as magistrates and members of guilds. The Council of Sens in 1320 decreed:
Around the solemn procession which takes place on the Thursday after Pentecost octave, clergy and laity should attend the carrying of the said sacrament which was instituted by divine inspiration, and we hereby enjoin that nothing in the devotion of clergy and laity should be left out.
Because it was a new feast, requiring help and encouragement, fifteenth-century popes granted indulgences attached to the procession.

In the processions, the host was carried in a costly and ornate vessel, carried by the clergy and often covered by a canopy of rich material held up by staves which were handled by prominent laymen. By the late fourteenth century most urban processions were controlled by the secular civic authorities. The eucharist could not be handled by a lay person, so its receptacle was always carried by priests, but the canopy and flags were carried by lay people, making the procession a symbol of power in the community.

The Mystery Plays
As the procession gradually moved from a predominantly religious sphere to the public and secular space, it acquired a variety of arrangements ordering political groupsround the symbolic power centre. In most English towns the unit for organization became the craft guilds and the regulating body the town council. By 1453 the Norwich Corpus Christi procession was ordered by craft: the smiths, tillers, masons and lumberman under a banner; carpenters, joiners and wheelwrights; woollen-weavers, linen-weavers, fullers and shearmen; fishmongers and freshwater fishermen; and finally haberddashers, cappers, hatters, pinners and pointmakers . After the processions more informal ceremonies followed as parishes, fraternities and religious houses withdrew from the public scene to have their dinners.

All this demonstrated hierarchy rather than civic harmony as most working people, women, children, servants and visitors were excluded.

In York in the 15th century the procession was customarily followed by the performance by guild members of miracle plays and mystery plays. The 48 York plays date from the 14th century (the first possible mention dates from 1376) and are of unknown authorship. Some of them are almost identical with corresponding plays in the Wakefield cycle, and it has been suggested that there was an original (now lost) from which both cycles descended. It is more likely, however, that the York cycle was transferred bodily to Wakefield some time during the later 14th century and there established as a Corpus Christi cycle. There was also a Chester cycle of between fifteen and twenty-five plays and there are fragments of cyclical plays from Coventry, Norwich and Newcastle.

The plays were given in York on one day, in chronological order, on pageant wagons proceeding from one selected place to another. The cycle covers the story of man's fall and redemption, from the creation of the angels to the Last Judgment; six plays are peculiar to York (the play of Herod's son, of the Transfiguration, of Pilate's wife, of Pilate's majordomo, of the high priests' purchase of the field of blood, and of the appearance of the Virgin to the Apostle Thomas).

In the last revision of the York plays, about 14 plays (mainly those concerning Christ's Passion) were redacted into powerful alliterative verse, the work of a dramatic genius, often referred to as the York Realist. The York plays have been preserved in the Ashburnham Manuscript, in the British Library.


As Catholic eucharistic teaching came under attack from Lollards and later from evangelicals, much criticism came to focus on Corpus Christi. Martin Luther: ‘
There is no feast which I detest so much as Corpus Christi’.
Other feasts
Corpus Christi was merely the best example of a wider phenomenon - the growing number of feasts in late-medieval Christendon. There were many other feasts that also had their special days. From 1383 the cult of St Anne was observed on 26 July. Feasts already observed, such as the Nativity of the Virgin (8 September) were raised in solemnity by having a new vigil, involving fasting, attached. In England in the 1480s and 1490s other new feasts were established: the Holy Name of Jesus (various dates in late December and early January), the Visitation of the Virgin (2 July), the Transfiguration (6 August).

One of the most popular saints was the (fictional) Catherine of Alexandria, whose feast day was 25 November.