Lecture 1: Background of the Reformation (Part 1)
Course: Church History II
It’s nice to see about half the people here who were here the other day. It’s a good sign isn’t it? Let’s pray shall we, and we can begin.
Our Father thank you for the many things which you give us, and we pray now as we work and study together, help us in all we do to draw nearer to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for whose precious name sake we pray.
Right, ok. I said last time that I was going to concentrate in this course on the Reformation in particular, but of course you can’t understand the Reformation unless you begin by looking at the kind of world and the kind of church that existed when Martin Luther came on the scene.
We need to remember for example, that Luther spent a good deal of his life, his younger days as a monk, and he went into the monastery following a near miss he had - he was knocked off his horse in the storm, nearly killed, and it was the shock of that which determined he would devote his life to God, he went into a monastery and from there of course, he studied the Bible and so on, and came to this great crisis of faith from which he launched the Reformation eventually. That’s a very abbreviated version of course, of what happened, but my point at the moment is that a similar career today is unlikely.
That isn’t to say that it’s totally impossible; it is possible if you pull yourself out of a wreck on the interstate, it probably does happen fairly often, you know that you could go and spend years in a monastery and so on. But it probably wouldn’t be the first option that most people would think of. And of course the reason is that the church has changed, things have changed over the centuries, and we need to think back to the kind of mentality that was general, that was normal in the early 16th century if we’re going to appreciate just exactly what happened at that time.
To begin then, I think we want to look at the broad picture, and the broad picture is this: for the first five or six centuries of the church’s existence, it was based really, in and around the Mediterranean. That’s what those of you who were with me last semester studied, we looked at that. It was a Mediterranean type of church. It extended really as far as the Roman empire extended, and not all that much further.
By the time we get to the Reformation however, this Mediterranean-based kind of church had long since ceased to exist. What had taken its place was a European church. A church whose boundaries stretched form the Mediterranean on the south to the North Pole I suppose, the Arctic circle anyway on the north.
And this shift, this general shift northward, of the main sort of Christian area came about for various reasons. First of all, of course, the Arab invasions. Terribly important. The Arabs who for most of ancient history basically didn’t exist. You hear that they were there, but you only come across them occasionally, and in odd ways. The Queen of Sheba, for example, you know came from south Arabia. This sort of thing. But it’s not very often and it’s not very important. But all of that changed, and changed overnight, when Mohammed began to have visions and so on, and founded the new religion of Islam, which after his death in the year 632 spread out of Arabia and conquered as much of the known world as it could.
Going east, the Arabs managed to overwhelm the Persian empire and conquered right into central Asia and the borders of India. Going west they conquered the whole of Palestine, it’s off the map here but Palestine, north Africa, all this area, and virtually the whole of Spain. They entered Spain, and they were not stopped until a hundred years after the death of Mohammed, in the year 732, at the great Battle of Potieres, which is here, right in the middle of France. They got as far as that before they were finally stopped and pushed back over the Pyrenees into Spain. Nevertheless, getting them out of Spain took nearly 800 years. So you’re talking about something which took a very, very long time and when Martin Luther was born, there was still an Arab kingdom in Spain, in the south of Spain. So you have to remember that, you see, for him the expulsion of the Arabs from Spain was something which occurred in his own lifetime. And so that’s an important point to remember.
But Spain apart, and of course Asia Minor which remained Christian at this point but was later taken over by the Turks and so on - that’s another story - apart from those two places, north Africa generally has remained Arab-speaking and Muslim to the present time. And such Christians as remained in those countries were either driven out, discriminated against, persecuted, or generally they had a rough time. With the result that in north Africa there is now no indigenous Christian church. Any Christians that you meet there are either foreigners or people who have been converted recently, in the last hundred years or so.
In Egypt there is still an indigenous Christian church which is quite large in some ways. But in terms of percentage of the population you’re talking about maybe 10%, something like that.
In other places like Lebanon there are large Christian communities but there are constant pressures of attack from Islam. They have a really rough time and it’s not an easy thing to be an Arab Christian.
So generally speaking you can say that in this part of the world, the Christian church fell first of all into captivity, and gradually by a process of attrition over centuries was reduced to minority status, and today if it hasn’t disappeared is very small and relatively unimportant in those countries, so that has to be remembered.
The Arabs took with them, of course, the great centers of early Christianity. Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, all of these places fell, you see, to Islam, very suddenly, very quickly, very preminently.
So that has to be remembered as well. And indeed the Christian church might have suffered more than it did, had there not been a simultaneous movement of evangelization towards the north. Now this evangelization took many centuries, of course. And it began in Britain when a young British man was enslaved by some Irish raiders, taken to Ireland and was - I think he was a slave for seven or eight years, something like that, anyway long enough to learn the language. He then escaped, went back to Britain, got together a mission band, and went back to Ireland as the evnagelist of Ireland.
This is Patrick of course, the famous saint Patrick. We don’t know a great deal about Patrick’s life, or where he went, mainly because subsequent legend has covered it over with all kinds of stories. So it’s not that we have lack of information, it’s that we’ve got too much information, and sorting out what is true is extremely difficult. Nevertheless there can be no doubt that there was a person called Patrick, that he did go to Ireland, and that he did his best to Christianise that country.
He lived in the middle of the 5th century. So the traditional date is something like 432 to
to 461, something like that were the dates of his mission. Hard to be certain. But sometime around then must’ve been when he did this.
Now Patrick’s mission was extremely important, because it was the first time that Christians had attempted to evangelize outside what had been the Roman empire.
And although this - you may think, what’s the importance of that? The importance of that is they were going to a country which did not have a Mediterranean type of civilisation. In other words, there were no cities, there were only tribes.
And Christianity had lived really, in the cities of the empire. If you read the New Testament, you know, the apostle Paul goes from city to city, preaching the gospel. And preaching to country bumpkins was not really his forte. I mean it’s not something he considered, and occasionally when it happened, it gets recorded in the Acts of the Apostles kind of as an embarrassment, you know like those people in Lystra or somewhere who couldn’t understand what he was doing and they came out with oxen that they were going to slaughter because they thought that Paul and Silas were gods, remember that incident.
Well this kind of thing gets recounted, but you can just imagine Luke, and everyone who read him, thinking ‘oh no, the hillbillies have come to town’, this sort of thing. I mean it wasn’t their normal sort of circuit.
Ireland however consisted of little else. I was going to say then, as now, but I won’t say that. I mean, it was a very rural and, by Roman standards, a backward, tribal country.
So what Patrick did was, he established monasteries as the evangelistic centers. And for the first time, we find that the monastic movements, which was then still new and untested in many ways, taking over the work of evangelism. And the great saints of Ireland, the great evangelists were all of them monks, who would use the monastery as a kind of mission station in order to reach out the tribes around them.
And of course gradually as the country responded to the Christian message, so these monasteries would become the centers of new urban settlements. Urban settlements which previously had not existed.
Well from Ireland, of course, the Irish monks went to Scotland, the island of Iona, off here somewhere. There it is. Tiny little island there. The main advantage of Iona being that it’s almost impossible to get to, even now, very hard to get there. This was ideal from their point of view, because it meant they were relatively protected from raiders and this kind of thing.
Anyhow, from Iona the monks went all over Scotland and then down into what had been the Roman province of Britain, but by the time the Irish monks got there, had been taken over by the Anglo-Saxons, who had not accepted Christianity. They had pushed the people to the west, and gradually into what we now call Wales, and so on. And the main part of what is now England was effectively de-Christianised as a result.
I mean, this is a very controversial subject, but on the whole, I think it’s possible to say that Christianity was pushed out because the people were pushed out or subdued or whatever.
And so it was no longer very wide spread in the country that we now call England. But the missions came down from the north, and as I said, gradually began to evangelize among the Anglo-Saxon tribes.
This was getting going just at the very moment when the Roman church also got the missionary bug and sent - Gregory the Great, Pope Gregory the Great, sent his own emissary Augustine, known as Augustine of Canterbury, who is not to be confused with the famous of Augustine of Hippo, they are not the same person.
Augustine who came from Rome up this way, into the south-eastern corner of England to evangelize that part of the world. Now Augustine did not just turn up, you know, to see what would happen.
His arrival was in fact planned for many years, because about 10 years before he went, he went in the year 597. But ten years or so before then, the king of Kent - England was sub-divided into lots of kingdoms, and the king of Kent had married a Frankish princess from the continent here, who was already a Christian. And part of the marriage contract was that she should be allowed to take her chaplain and allowed to carry on Christian worship at Canterbury, which was the center, the capital of the Kentish kingdom.
And so the king of Kent agreed to this, this kind of marriage alliance which was a political alliance as well, but this wife, which he got, of course, she - the whole purpose in sending her, from the Frankish point of view, was that this was a foot in the door towards the conversion of the country, and they had this in mind already.
Well King Ethelbert as he was, of Kent, was a remarkable person because he resisted his wife’s nagging for ten whole years. I won’t ask for a show of hands but I’ll bet there aren’t many of you who could do that. Give him his credit, give him his due, he wasn’t just a push-over. But in the end, she got to him, and he agreed to receive a Roman mission. Augustine arrived in May of 597 and on Christmas day, which was only seven months later, the King and 10 000 of his warriors were baptized together in the river Medway, which is - an open sewer really now, but it’s a river sort of down here, just near London, in this area. And this was the beginning of the church of England, officially, as they say.
Well, inevitably the Irish coming from the north, and the Romans coming from the south, came into conflict with each other. They met and the meeting was not all that happy. But after some sort of argument and so on about which church was the better church, the Roman party won, and the Irish submitted. And so the whole of the British Isles was brought together under the Roman church. Now that took place - it was a gradual process.
It began with the famous Synod of Whitby, in 664, and continued until Wales finally submitted in 768. It was over a hundred years that it took, but still the movement was very much in that direction.
However, although the Irish church was taken over in this way, its spirit, very much, continued to animate English Christianity as well, British and Irish Christianity together, over the centuries, in particular, the spirit of missionary monasticism. This was the main thing. And all over England, for example, you will find traces of this. Because wherever there was a monastery, the English corruption of the word monastery is ‘minster’. And so wherever you find ‘minster’, that is a sign of where there was originally a monastic church, which was in the early days an evangelistic center.
So you can go up and down and you can find Westminster for example, and Yorkminster, lots of places have ‘minster’ in them, and this is an example of the legacy of this time.
However, these people with their missionary zeal, went across the sea to what is now Holland, Germany, Scandinavia, Denmark, Norway and so on, and they were the chief agents of the evangelization of northern Europe, really, I mean they went in waves across here, and over a period of about 300 years, I mean it didn’t happen overnight, they gradually preached the gospel and Christianized, at least to some degree, most of the countries of northern Europe, in that way, bringing them all under Rome, under the one control of the Roman church.
As this was happening, so Christians from the East, from Constantinople, here, which is now Istanbul, and the Greek-speaking world, who had never submitted to Rome, I mean they were never part of the western church. They also were evangelising and they went to the Slavic peoples of eastern Europe and, at more or less the same kind of time. So what happened was, a line can be drawn across Europe, west and east. And this line starts down here, it goes through the middle of Bosnia, not accidentally, I mean that’s why there’s trouble in Bosnia, one of the reasons why there’s trouble there. And then it goes between Hungary and Romania here, and then it goes up here between Poland and the Ukraine, and then it goes up here to keep the Baltic states - Lithuania in the western part, between here and Russia and up across here so that Finland is in the west, and Russia is in the east.
This line, this cultural divide, is still there to this day. And you know it when you cross it.
I mean you don’t have to be told. You can see from the architecture, and the general way of life that you are moving into a different cultural area. So eastern Europe, with its Eastern Orthodox churches and Western Europe, which was subject in varying degrees, to Rome, to the Roman church.
This was the formation of what we call medieval Christianity. The medieval church as we know it, is characterized by a cultural and spiritual unity of western Europe, focussed on the city and bishopric of Rome. That’s the key thing.
Now what kept this entity together? First of all, the role of the papacy, that is to say, the bishopric of Rome. The word ‘pope’, incidentally, has no meaning other than that of father, it’s just a corruption of ‘papa’. Back in Latin our word ‘pope’ is ‘papa’. It just means father, the Holy Father. But, for sake of convenience so I don’t have to keep saying the Bishop of Rome etc, I shall call him the Pope, but just realize that the word the ‘pope’ you know, in a way, of later origin but also more general, I mean any sort of priest could be called the pope originally, you see, and it’s only by usage that it has got restricted to the Bishop of Rome.
Alright, well anyhow, the supremacy of Rome ecclesiastically was very important and I’ll be looking at that a bit later on in the lecture so I’ll come back to that in a minute.
But in addition to that, there was of course a network, right across Europe, of churches in villages, all of which were interconnected, and which belonged to a hierarchy which was graded along ancient Roman lines.
The Christian church took over the administrative apparatus of the Roman empire. So that whereas previously, you had a Roman governor in a province, the Christian church put a Christian bishop also in a province or a diocese, the word ‘diocese’, which is the territory ruled over by the bishop, is actually taken over from Roman civil administration, in the Roman empire it just meant a province really.
And so the church adopted, more or less completely, the Roman administrative network.
And this was a very important thing, in keeping western Europe, but also the church, together, because it provided a structure, a framework, a chain of command, which could keep people in touch with one another, particularly at a time when other social institutions had more or less collapsed. You see that’s a very important thing to bear in mind.
And if you were in the church, if you were a member of the church hierarchy, you could travel anywhere in western Europe and you would be welcomed, you would be accepted, you would be honored, you would be treated as if you were just in a different part of your own country.
You see there was a continent-wide structure and civilization, so that it didn’t really matter what nation you belonged to, where you originally hailed from, nobody really cared about that. You could come from anywhere, you could be of any nationality whatsoever, but once you were in the church that transcended all local national pecularities and so on.
This was very important. Because it meant that the middle ages was an extremely international time. Moreso even than today. Well perhaps today we are recovering this, let’s say. But certainly, moreso than any period up until the present.
And traces of this you can still see in the sixteenth century at the time of the Reformation. Because the Reformers, who after all lived in this medieval culture, also quite happily travelled here there and everywhere. I mean people like Erasmus for example, Erasmus came from Rotterdam, but nobody thinks that he was Dutch. You know, it’s hard to sort of say what nationality he was. Because, you know, one minute he would be in Cambridge, the next minute he was in Paris, then he was in Basil, then he went down to Spain for a while, then he was in Germany for a time. He just wandered all over the place, without any consciousness of having a national origin or background as such, you see.
And the medieval church structure permitted this. It allowed this kind of international chasing around the place to occur.
Well of course, you have to communicate with people when you do this, and the medieval church managed this by imposing Latin as the language of worship and of study. Now in the Roman empire of course, or at least in the western part of the Roman empire, Latin was in fact the spoken language of the people. Or perhaps it would be better to say, a variety of Latin was the spoken language of the people. There’s a lot of controversy about this. But there’s no doubt, that this is generally speaking true, because even today, if you go across the countries which were once part of the western Roman empire, although theoretically they speak different languages, like Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, anybody who speaks one of those languages can understand people speaking another one without a lot of difficulty. Every once in a while you come across something that’s a little odd, but then that’s - you don’t have to speak another language, you know, to fail to understand some things that people say.
But basically, you can walk from Sicily, you know, all up round here and all round here, down to Portugal, and if you go on foot from village to village, the local dialect just changes very gradually and you’d hardly notice. You know you’d go from one to the other and it would be fine. Even today you can do that, more or less. Except that now we travel too quickly, we seem to be able to absorb the changes that rapidly.
But anyhow, Latin was, as they say, a spoken tongue. This must never be forgotten. And even when its classical form, the form in which the churches worshipped and Bible and so on were written.
Even when this form became harder and harder to understand, it still was not impossible to understand, and it had a kind of special religious holy flavor. I mean all you have to do is
the King James Bible today. That is not the language we speak everyday, but it’s not so far away, it’s not so distant from modern English that we find it impossible to understand, and of course it has a certain religious flavor about it.
So Latin was something similar to that, at least in the countries where the spoken tongue was of Latin origin. That’s the key.
But of course, when you move north, into the germanic countries, you come across something quite different. Because there, in England, Ireland, Germany, and so on, Latin was not the spoken language of the people.
And so for the Englishman or for the German, to learn Latin was a much more difficult task than it was for an Italian, or a Spaniard, or a Portuguese or whatever. The result was, that although not many Germans or Englishmen learned Latin, I mean you couldn’t say that everybody did it; those who did, did it better than the French, than the Italians, etc. Why? Well for the very simple reason that the Latin peoples, the Spaniards and what have you, didn’t really bother learning it. It was so close to their own spoken language anyhow that they could follow 90% of what was being said without having to learn it, and so the finer points tended to escape them. Whereas if you had to learn it as a foreign language to begin with, you pay attention, you know. It’s always much better to read the Bible, incidentally, in a foreign language, because you read every word. You know, if you read it in English, you skip over things, it’s amazing because you speed read.
But if you read it in Greek, you have to look at every accent, every comma, every everything, and you see things in the Bible that you never saw before, because you were reading it too fast.
Anyhow. It’s true, it really is! Because you know, you take time over it. People as I say, actually did it better, on the whole, than the natives. And this had a tremendous long-term effect, because, on the whole for most of the milennia, this is a general statement, but on the whole it’s true to say that people in northern Europe took their religion more seriously than people in southern Europe did.
Now there are plenty of exceptions to that I know. It’s a great generalization. But it’s a generalization that has a grain of truth in it. Because the more effort you have to put into something, the more likely you are to stick to it once you’ve put the effort in, you see, it’s a psychological thing.
And it’s no accident that when the Reformation came, it made its greatest impact in the north, not in the south. You see, this is partly because of this underlying greater dedication. I mean there are other factors at work as well but this is one of the things that you have to bear in mind.
It was also, of course, one of the reasons why in the northern countries, there was a much greater receptivity to the translation of the Bible. I mean Martin Luther translating the Bible into German, William Tyndale translating the Bible into English, these things were greeted much more readily and much more favorably than anybody trying to translate the Bible into Italian. A lot of people said, ‘Well, why bother? We can read the Latin, it’s not necessary.’ And so there’s that feeling as well that has to be borne in mind. It’s hard to pin down, but there’s a definite feeling of that kind at work.
So these things, these building blocks, are the glue of the medieval church as a whole.
But now we have to look in detail at some of the key factors. First of all, the position of Rome. In the medieval church, Rome was the only place where Christians could feel that they were in touch with the New Testament. Because Rome was the only city of western Europe which is mentioned in the New Testament. The only place where the apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church in the west. Everywhere else where the apostle Paul traveled and places he wrote, was out of sight. I mean it was either in the eastern empire under Arab control or somewhere that you couldn’t easily get to. Whereas Rome gained in prestige enormously from this. It had a living link with the New Testament. That’s one very important point.
Rome had also of course, been the capital of the empire, and it was still felt, in some sense, to be the capital of western Europe. The Roman church in the early centuries of Christianity, had enjoyed a great deal of prestige because Rome was the capital.
But after the collapse of the empire in the west, Rome - the city of Rome and the church of Rome, by inheriting the mantle of the empire, acquired even greater prestige in the eyes of people who had nothing else to look to. There was no country that they belonged to, no state organization or anything like that. There was just the church to remind them of their fundamental, underlying cultural and religious unity. So of course the Roman church became as the legatee if you like, of the ancient world, that much more important.
But there were other factors at work too. The Roman empire fell in the west during the course of the fifth century. I mean the usual date given is the year 476 when the last Roman emperor in Rome abdicated.
But in the East, around (Inaudible - recording skips) on the eastern part of the Mediterranean, the Roman empire continued to exist. The Eastern empire did not collapse. And the Emperor of the east, the Emperor Constantinople, claimed to be the ruler of the west as well. But of course, he didn’t have the resources or what have you to conquer the west physically.
And so instead of that, he worked out a policy - they worked out a policy, whereby the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, would be the Emperor’s representative in the west, and in return the Pope would say - alright, the barbarian kingdoms of western Europe, which were growing up on the ruins of the Roman empire - as they became Christianized, their leaders, their rulers would accept that the Emperor in Constantinople was somehow their overlord, they would accept the overlordship of Constantinople, but this would be administered by the Pope and by the Roman church.
And so what would happen is the kingdom - the various kingdoms of western Europe, if they wanted to be recognized as legitimate, they would apply for recognition to the Pope in Rome. And the Pope was in the habit of sending out crowns you know, to different kings of western Europe, giving them legitimacy, establishing them as genuine rulers because they have the Pope’s permission.
So of course this gave the Pope an awful lot of power. Because if the Pope didn’t like you, you might not get your crown in this way, you see. And although the Pope couldn’t then come and invade your country and overthrow you, he could persuade someone else to do it. And therefore keeping on the Pope’s good side was generally regarded as politically and diplomatically desirable. And the various states of western Europe as a result, came to owe their legitimacy to Rome, to papal approval. And of course the papacy regarded itself as having the right to withdraw that approval if it felt so inclined. Now I’m saying all this of course because when the Reformation comes along, this is going to be a major factor in the Reformation. As to whether a country accepts or doesn’t accept the Reformation, what the Pope does about it and so on, this is something which we will see coming back at that time.
Anyhow, the popes very soon realized that it was not in their interest to allow one big state to grow up in western Europe. It did happen from time to time. There was of course the empire of Charlemagne which was put together over a couple of generations, but Charlemagne himself, who was ruler of most of western Europe, most of this area here, from the year 768 to the year 814, which was a very long time when you think about it, nearly fifty years. He united western Europe or most of it, and as a result forced the Pope to crown him as Emperor, emperor of the West. Well the Pope did it, because he didn’t have much choice. But of course this reminded the papacy that having such a person was not necessarily a very good idea. That it would be better, from the Pope’s point of view, to have a lot of different rulers in western Europe, none of whom was powerful enough to control the papacy. And this could be achieved because of the inheritance laws, which were still enforced at that time. Charlemagne’s empire fell apart after his death, not because of weakness or defeat or anything like that, but because he had too many children, and therefore had to divide it up, you see, and it had to be divided among different children. And so after a couple of generations what had been one united empire gradually fell apart into a number of different states, theoretically allied to one another, but in actual practice fighting with one another most of the time.
And so western Europe, gradually in this way, fell apart. And for much of the middle ages it wasn’t very clear, in most European countries, who was in control. Who the king actually was in any particular place. For a long time, for example, the kings of England ruled half of France, a large part of France, and it wasn’t very clear why they were doing this, what exactly they were controlling, and who was in charge, and what the king of France was supposed to be doing about this. You know, there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing about all this business, and a lot of uncertainty for people actually living on the spot.
And the church organization benefited from this, because if people were not sure who their secular ruler was, or who had the right to rule them and all this kind of thing, there was no such ambiguity about the church. See the church was clear about who was in control.
With the result that the Church gradually took over a lot of the administrative tasks, which we would today would normally think of as belonging to the state,. For example, everything to do with matrimony. Marriage became a religious ceremony. In the New Testament it is not - you never see the apostle Paul advising brides on what color dress to wear walking down the aisle and all this business. You don’t find that at all. So one of the major functions of the modern church is just not there in the New Testament in any way shape or form.
It was only in the middle ages, when the civil administration broke down, and somebody had to organize this kind of thing, that the church took it over by default.
And of course, the church imposed on matrimony, its own rules and regulations. There was matrimony in the civil court which disappeared after the Roman empire collapsed and then there was holy matrimony in the church, which was a different thing altogether. Because in holy matrimony, in the church’s ceremony, there was no divorce.
Now this was quite different from the Roman situation.
In Rome, in ancient Rome, divorce was easy. Because marriage was basically a property arrangement and so on, and if things didn’t work out, like you didn’t have children or whatever, you could undo it relatively very easily. And so for the Romans divorce was neither here nor there. It was a bit like modern America, you know, we’re sort of married for five years and people say, ‘You’ve been married for five years! What’s wrong with you?’ You know how it is, maybe not quite as bad as that. But certainly divorce was acceptable in Roman society in a way that it was not in Christian society. So the Christian church abolished divorce, in effect, by taking over matrimony as a ceremony and turning it into a sacrament of the church. Divorce became illegal. It just ceased to exist. There was no such thing.
Well you say they couldn’t live without divorce of some kind. Well no they couldn’t. So what they did, they devised a completely different system, and that is the system of annulment, which if you’re familiar with the Catholic church, still carries on to this day.
Now annulment is not divorce. It’s a very important point.
The difference is that if you have a divorce, you recognize that there was a real marriage and it has now come to an end. You are breaking the marriage vow in divorce. In annulment you are saying that there never was a marriage to begin with. Either because the parties marrying were not entitled to marry, you know they were too young or something or other, some reason why they were not supposed to get married in the first place.
And so the church undid something which legally and spiritually was never there in the first place. See that’s annulment, that’s a completely different matter - at least in their eyes.
Now see to us you say, annulment is just a trick. It’s just a way of hiding divorce. Well of course in modern American Catholicism this is true. It’s a joke. Well it’s not a joke, it’s a pretty sick joke. But it is, more or less not a serious thing, in terms of - it’s just divorce for Catholics. But in the middle ages - no really, it is - in the Middle Ages, this was not so. And the key thing, the key point that struck the medieval mind, was this business of the vow, because to take a vow was to commit yourselves spiritually before God, forever. And medieval society operated on the belief that a man is as good as his word. And so to take a vow, to swear an oath of some kind, was an extremely serious thing in medieval society.
Now again you have to understand this, because it comes into the Reformation, it comes into the life of Martin Luther. Vows were not taken only for matrimony, but also of course, for celibacy. And as the church gradually strengthened its control over medieval society, it imposed celibacy on its clergy. Now this took a long, long time. It was not until the year 1123 that a church council finally imposed compulsory celibacy on all priests in the church. So that, you know, didn’t happen overnight.
But of course celibacy was also a vow, and it was a vow not to be broken. When Martin Luther left the monastery and married a nun, it was that, as much as anything that he preached, which shocked people, because he had broken his vow.
Even if he believed that priests should be allowed to marry, well that’s one thing, but to break a vow in order to do it, was regarded in medieval society as a very, very terrible thing.
We have lost this sense today to some degree, but that is because, partly because it has been replaced by other things. If you put your money in the bank, and the bank manager runs off with it, you can go to court to get your money back. In the middle ages you couldn’t do that. In the middle ages if you deposited your money with somebody, you had to make them swear that they would look after it and if they didn’t look after it, well there wasn’t much you could do except go and kill them.
So for this reason, I mean, for this reason, the vow, the vow was vitally important, because society could not have functioned otherwise. It all hangs together you see in a different -
In 1123 it was made compulsory. But they had been moving this way, the monks had been pushing for it for generations.
Why? Several reasons. One because they felt the New Testament taught it as a higher form of Christian life. You know, when the apostle Paul said that he would prefer - everyone should be like him.
Another reason was for convenience. You know if you’re going to move people around and make them evangelists and all this kind of thing, it was a lot easier to do, particularly in a day and age when if you left your home village, well that was it, you weren’t going to go back, there wasn’t this network of aeroplanes and what-have-you that we have nowadays.
So to get people to leave home was a very difficult thing to do, and to have mobility in the church, this is one of the few ways that you could do that.
Another thing of course is that it gave freedom to women that they didn’t otherwise have. Because a woman - well basically all she could do was marry a man and hope for the best. Well you know what that’s like. (laughs) So, you know you can forget that one. So creating convents and nunneries and so on, actually gave women a freedom which they would not otherwise have had in society. You see that has to be remembered too. It wasn’t just for men, but also vows for women taken.
But perhaps the most important reason, and the one which carried the day in the long term, was that in medieval society your position depended on your inheritance.Who your father was determined who you were, and your job and everything you had, you would inherit from your father. Normally. That was the way it went, father to son. Now, this created several problems. First of all, if you had several children, what were you going to do with them?
The medieval people bred like rabbits because - well, they did! Because the death rate was so high. So you might have twenty children but only three would grow to adulthood. But every once in a while you were unlucky and all twenty would grow to adulthood and then what would you do.
You see, you have to think of this, you mustn’t think in terms of things like love, romance, affection, that’s got nothing to do with it. It’s more to do with property, and what you’re going to do with the family farm, how are you going to subdivide it and all this kind of thing. It could be a disaster to have a huge family. You couldn’t subdivide the farm to the point where everybody just had a vegetable patch and that was it, you see what I mean?
So solving the problems of younger sons - daughters you could marry off, that wasn’t a snag. But sons - what do you do with them? Younger sons of course, would be pushed into the church, very often, that was a very standard thing to do. And so the church was a kind of safety valve for getting rid of unwanted people. Excess population. Well no - this is true! And there were many cases of where the elder son would die before inheriting and then they would have to go through a process of getting the next son-in-line who might’ve been sent off to the monastery, getting him out of the monastery, back onto the family farm so he could carry on. There were lots of cases of that, how - without officially breaking the vow, because that was always the problem, you know how you could sort of fiddle this, so that he could get back out onto the farm. There were endless cases of this, you see, how to carry on the family inheritance in that way.
So that was one thing. But also from the church’s point of view, it gave the church independence in the society. And it meant that it was possible for the son of a peasant to become pope. In other words, there was upward mobility in the church in a way that there was not in the wider society.
Now today we don’t notice this because today you can be born in a log cabin...