Reformation500: An Introduction

It’s Reformation500 this month. That’s right. Five hundred years since the Protestant Reformation officially began in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five statements to the door of the Catholic Church, forever changing religious and world history.

Since it’s the anniversary of such a historic moment, Gazette665’s historical theme of the month is Reformation: Changed Hearts, Changed World. In the next couple weeks, we’ll take a historical perspective to discuss the events and people leading to influencing the Reformation movement.

Today’s post introduces the reformation, the historical setting, and some men who called for religious reformer prior to 1517. We’ll also reveal a technological advancement which literally changed the world one word at a time.

Introduction To The Reformation

What was the Protestant Reformation? Here’s a quick “textbook” definition found in an article by History Channel: “The Protestant Reformation was the 16th-century religious, political, intellectual and cultural upheaval that splintered Catholic Europe, setting in place the structures and beliefs that would define the continent in the modern era.”

Historians usually date the Protestant Reformation’s beginning in 1517 and associate it with Martin Luther.

The Historical Setting

What was the historical setting of the Reformation? What was the religious “atmosphere” in Europe prior to the storm? Good question.

For several centuries the Roman Catholic Church had built its power and authority, exerting influence over the lives of members in all levels of society. Religious knowledge for the common people was kept (or tried to be kept) limited to only what the church taught and shared. And – with Bibles and mass in Latin – even that knowledge was limited.

Throughout the Middle Ages, there were leaders and groups of people who insisted on studying scripture and found that its teachings disagreed with the views adopted by the Catholic Church. (See examples below). If open or outspoken in their discussions, these dissenters were heavily persecuted.

By the 1500’s, the church in Rome was openly in the business of accumulating wealth and playing the political arena, rather than focusing on spiritual needs. This situation – along with doctrinal disagreements – led Martin Luther and other Reformers to break away from the Catholic Church. (More on that in the coming weeks.)

John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe

Born around 1325, John Wycliffe was recognized as one of the finest scholars of his era. He taught at Balliol College in the University of Oxford (England) and began reading the illumined pages of the Bible in Latin. Convinced that this religious knowledge needed to be available to any English man or woman who could read, Wycliffe began translating the Bible into English.

“The sacred Scriptures are the property of the people, and one which no one should be allowed to wrest from them. …Christ and His apostles converted the world by making known the Scriptures to men in a form familiar to them, …and I pray with all my heart, that, through doing the things contained in this book, we may all together come to the everlasting life.”

Along with advocating for the Bible in the common language, Wycliffe preached and wrote against various practices of the Catholic church, including purchased pardons and pilgrimages. Wycliffe and his teachings gained a powerful following among all classes of English society and influenced the beliefs of others throughout Europe. (See Huss’s biography as an example). In England, Wycliffe’s followers and advocates for the Scripture in the English language were called Lollards.

In May 1378, Wycliffe was tried by a church council which condemned his teachings and excommunicated him. Due to his popularity among the common people, he wasn’t executed. Wycliffe quietly continued his work until his paralysis and death in 1384. Wycliffe’s beliefs opened the doors for questioning and religious examination, influencing his contemporaries and future reformers and renaissance men.

An illustration from a manuscript (c. 1490) of John Huss preaching

John Huss

Born around 1369 in the village of Hussenitz in Bohemia, John Huss was a peasant. However, his parents thought he was brilliant and arranged for him to study with the best teachers in the region; eventually, he went to the University of Prague. Several years after his graduation, he became the pastor of Bethlehem chapel in Prague where sermons were preached in the native language of the area (not in Latin).

Using his learning skills, Huss studied the Bible and preached what he discovered. He also studied the writings of John Wycliffe and began preaching against some of the Catholic Church doctrines. Soon, students and citizens of Prague were openly discussing religious views contrary to the Roman church and archbishop got concerned. The pope ordered Huss to go to Rome and stand charges for heresy; Huss stayed with powerful friends in Bohemia and wrote a tract, inquiring why the pope had authority to say what people could and couldn’t read.

The Council of Constance was convened and Huss ordered to appear, giving a safeguard order. As he traveled to the meeting, this early reformer was surprised by how many people throughout the German countryside were interested in his beliefs and arguments for freedom to study the Bible and form religious beliefs outside of the church. Arriving at the council, Huss discovered that the church authorities had lied; he was thrown in a dungeon and charged with heresy. They gave him two choices: recant his beliefs or die. Huss refused to recant, was stripped of his priestly garments and title, and sentenced to be burned.

In July 1415, John Huss was burned at stake. Before his execution, the Duke of Bavaria begged him to recant; Huss answered, “I have never preached any false doctrine; and that which I have taught with my lips, I will now seal with my blood.” Huss was an early reformer whose writings would influence Luther and the complete Protestant Reformation about a hundred years after his death.

Printers

Printing Presses & Movable Type

There was one particular invention that would allow reformer ideas to spread rapidly throughout Europe. That was the printing press. Invented in 1439 by Johannes Gutenberg, the printing press made handwritten manuscripts obsolete. A pamphlet or book could be “mass produced.”

Gutenberg’s next invention – movable type – created a versatile way to build and rebuild the text of a page. Before movable type, the text of each page had to be created and the block for each page could only be used for that page. Movable type allowed a printer to typeset the text for one page then “unsnap” the letters and create a new page.

Printing presses and movable type made it possible to print – not hand write – the pamphlets and books by the reformers. Thousands of pages could be produced quickly, making it much easier to print the Bible in the native languages. Latin, illumined Bibles were suddenly obsolete as common people could afford to purchase the scripture in their own language.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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One Response to Reformation500: An Introduction

  1. Pingback: Reformation500: A Primary Source | Gazette665

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