Revolutionary moments do not spring forth from thin air, they are born out of generations of discontent, and though they have spokesman anointed by history as their leaders, they could not have succeeded without popular support as well. Seismic cultural shifts require massive support from the ground level and from the powerful, whose vested interest in maintaining the status quo has changed, so while Martin Luther nailing his treatise to a church door is traditionally marked as the end of the medieval era, he would have been just another heretic for the flames had Europe not been ready to hear what he had to say.
Since the fall of the Western half of the Roman empire, the Church had been the nerve center of Western Europe. Upon the collapse of the state of Rome, all of Italy, Germany, France, Portugal, and England had collapsed as functioning states and were reduced to warring kingdoms and tribes. There was no national identity, every baron fought for himself or whatever king his allegiance was owed to. Empires were non-existent and peace and stability so transitory as to not exist. The only thing all these places and barons had in common was allegiance to the Church. They were all Catholic, all believed in the doctrines and tenets of the Catholic Church, and were all theoretically subject to the Pope.
The Church exercised and wielded its power to capitalize where it could. It also saved ancient manuscripts, was the only institution where people were taught to read, operated hospitals, orphanages, and charities. The Pope was a spiritual leader, but he was also a secular ruler who dealt with kings. His interest (ostensibly) was the salvation of mankind, but as the office’s power grew so to did the temptation to abuse it, and by the 1500′s The Catholic Church had ground its reputation into the dirt with a string of Popes whose behavior would have gotten them kicked out of Motley Crue. The Papacy had degenerated into a political post with obscene powers, obscene privileges, and could and was purchased by the highest bidder.
One Pope, Cesare Borgia had a well documented celebration inside the Vatican:
On the evening of the last day of October, 1501, Cesare Borgia arranged a banquet in his chambers in the Vatican with “fifty honest prostitutes”, called courtesans, who danced after dinner with the attendants and others who were present, at first in their garments, then naked. After dinner the candelabra with the burning candles were taken from the tables and placed on the floor, and chestnuts were strewn around, which the naked courtesans picked up, creeping on hands and knees between the chandeliers, while the Pope, Cesare, and his sister Lucretia looked on. Finally, prizes were announced for those who could perform the act most often with the courtesans, such as tunics of silk, shoes, barrets, and other things.
After this little game the Pope, vicar of Christ, anointed by God himself, and the supreme moral leader of all of Christendom held a contest among the bishops and priests as to who could bust the biggest nut.
Let that little scene sink in, and then try to imagine the Papacy retaining its authority as the voice of God and Jesus Christ on Earth, adjudicating marriages and weighing in on Earthly affairs. The average peasant in Europe may have been uneducated and filthy, but he was not blind. It was common knowledge that many priests were con artists, who would abuse their privileges by hearing confessions and offering absolution in exchange for money or sexual favors. In cities it was well known that many nunneries were high class whore houses, and that cruel barons who robbed the peasants of their crops had the blessings of the clergy. When class rage reached a boiling point, churches were always ransacked, priests always lynched. As word of lavish ejaculation parties reached the lower rungs of society, questions had to be raised as to why exactly they subordinated themselves to this organization.
Paying for these lavish orgies was not cheap, money had to be raised to pay the Pope’s prostitutes, and this was done by selling indulgences. Sin was a big fucking deal back then, and 99% of Europe knew-not believed knew – that in the afterlife the Church and Jesus would decide whether or not they went to heaven or hell. The Church had absolute control over this, and if the Church sold you a ticket forgiving you for a sin it was as if God himself had pardoned you for whatever you had done.
This little venture was so overwhelmingly successful that the Church subcontracted out, selling absolution tickets to vendors who then travelled across Europe selling forgiveness to whoever needed it. These indulgences made the church fabulously wealthy, but the problem with running a faith based venture was that some people were going to take the faith seriously. Too the many priests who took the teachings of Christ at face value these indulgences were a disgrace, and becoming exceedingly difficult to justify to their parish and to their consciences. It was as true back then as it is now, in organizations where power is the reward for unscrupulous behavior the scrupulous never advance. The medieval era was a dark and unpleasant time, and the Church for its many flaws provided education, health care, and spiritual nourishment to the vast majority of the people. As the hierarchy of the Church began to behave more and more like the deviant pagan emperors of old Rome, the faith and respect of the people who kept the institution afloat began to disintegrate.
This was a big deal because back then, if you were a humanist, scientist, or learned man, you took the teachings of Jesus more seriously than any Red State Republican. The Church had a virtual monopoly on education, but that was beginning to change as Universities began to spring up across the continent. The Bible was in Latin or Greek, and was as incomprehensible to the average layman as an untranslated Koran is to anyone reading this blog post. It was prohibited (by death) to translate the Bible into native languages so only the clergy and educated could read what was in the gospels. As Universities began to teach children of the elite, more and more began to read the texts of the Good Book and realize how completely at odds it was with the institution that represented it.
The Church’s behavior also went noticed by many heads of state, particularly in Germany. The Catholic Church owned about 20% of the land in any given country at the time, and made its money primarily off these holdings which were not taxable. The Church had also become quite bossy. Instead of tending to spiritual doctrine or acting as diplomats between warring Christian states, the Pope in Rome had begun actively supporting or antagonizing countries based on what was best for Papal financial interest. This naked politicking and vested interest in Earthly affairs made secular statesman begin to see these lands as something less than sacred property and something that, should the Church lose prestige, could be claimed.
All this is important, because if Martin Luther had posted his denunciation of the Church 200 years earlier, he would have happily been fed to the flames without becoming so much as a historical footnote, but instead he changed the world. The German peasants, intellectuals, and political players were fed up with the Church and supported Luther, so Church pressure to silence the monk went unheeded. Emboldened, Luther spoke out more and more against the church and the Pope himself, openly writing and posting and publishing his denunciations in German instead of Latin, which were translated and transmitted across the continent. To the amazement of all, the once supremely powerful church found themselves powerless to stop a renegade priest as German secular authorities decided to protect, rather than persecute the man.
Rome eventually pressured the new leader of the German empire (confusingly named The Holy Roman Empire) to put pressure on Martin Luther but it was too late. Across Europe sects of Catholics began to break away and start their own churches. The questioning of the Church and the Church’s inability to stop it cracked the foundation of the unassailable institution and a revolution was underway. The Bible began to be translated into the native tongues-this cost several dozen men their lives-and students began questioning the churches denunciation of the works of Plato, Cicero, Aristotle and Virgil. The classics were revived and interest in Pre- Catholic Rome spread to universities across the continent. New ideas about humanity were burning down ancient foundations of established order and this led to revolutions and counter revolutions across the continent, as a once invincible institution was powerless to stop silence a single individual.
Luther hobbled the Church and ten years later the death blow came. A military conflict between The Holy Roman Empire and France, Milan, Venice, and The Papacy came to a head as German troops won a battle in Italy and marched on Rome. T.H.R.E defeated French armies in northern Italy, but the forces were mercenary and the Germans could not afford to pay them. Sacking was the only way to get their gold and so the men mutinied and demanded their general, Charles III Duke Of Bourbon lead them to Rome.
Charles was Catholic and did not want to fight the Pope. He received a payment of 60,000 ducats from the Eternal City to be distributed among his troops to leave the Papacy alone but it was not enough to appease his men. The mercenaries believed they had been betrayed and marched to the gates of Rome. Charles- a calming force – hoped merely to get more money to go away but was killed by an arrow upon reaching the city, and the ransack began.
The mercenaries entered the city and went from house to house looking for plunder and gold. Any house that did not have anything valuable, they burned. Anyone who happened to be in their way, they killed. Unless they were women, priests, or altar boys, they were raped before being murdered. The Catholic hierarchy retreated to Castel Angelo where they were safe, but the rest of the population suffered.
Nuns were forced into bordellos, women and children raped in the street, civilians were massacred indiscriminately. Over 2000 bodies were counted floating in the Tiber, 10,000 others choked the streets where they were torn to pieces by starving rats and dogs.
The army ripped through the city, ransoming homes and captured wealthy citizens, raising over four million ducats from ransoms alone. Those who they kidnapped and couldn’t pay were tortured to death for the mercenaries amusement. Rome was stripped of priceless treasures, jewels, artwork. Cathedrals were broken into and heirlooms and relics plundered.
The Vatican itself was turned into a stable for the men’s donkeys and horses. Drunken soldiers found sacred clothing and wore it, shitfaced, through the city. The killing and slaughter and desecration continued for eight months until the plague began to appear from all the corpses and the food ran out. Finally bored of fucking shit up the mercenary army left the city. The population of Rome before the sack was 55,000. After the army left 10,000 people remained.
Like the sack of Rome over a thousand years earlier, some vestiges of power remained, but the shift in power was permanent. A few years later England left the Catholic Church altogether with King Henry VIII ignoring his excommunication. A weakening of the Church strengthened a rising nationalist movement across the continent as empires and kingdoms began to see themselves as separate countries and cultures, not subject to the Papacy. Ancient writings on ethics, law, science, history and philosophy began circulating without fear and slowly but inexorably the Renaissance came to an end and the Age of Enlightenment began.