5.6 The Reformation TEACH

5. The Time of Discoverers and Reformers
The Reformation

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5. The Time of Discoverers and Reformers
The Reformation

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Main Questions

  1. What were the main ideas of humanism?
  2. Why did people start to question the Catholic Church?
  3. What were the excesses of the Catholic Church?
  4. How did the actions of Martin Luther start the Reformation?
  5. How did the Catholic Church react to the Reformation?

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people in this lesson
Martin Luther
Frederik of Saxony
emperor Charles V
John Calvin
Desiderius Erasmus

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What is this lesson about?

New ways of thinking that started in the Renaissance affected all levels of society, even the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church had a large amount of power and wealth in the Middle Ages. But people started thinking about the practices of the Church and doubting them. These doubts would lead to a religious conflict that spread across Europe. 
  • Why did people start to doubt the Catholic Church? 
  • How did these doubts lead to a religious conflict? 
  • And how did this conflict help the creation of the country we live in now?

For hundreds of years, the Catholic Church had been the main religion in Europe. But all of this was about to change at the end of the Middle Ages. More and more people began to wonder if some of the Catholic Church's practices were truly Christian or not. The first men to do this were called humanists

Coronation of Pope Celestine V who lived in the 13th century.
He is surrounded high clerics like cardinals (in red) amd bishops (wearing a miter)

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Ancient Greek humanism 

Humanism is a philosophical point of view that says human beings should have control over their lives. Humanists think that critical thinking and looking at nature and human reason are more important than the views and ideas given by religions. The first humanists can be found in ancient Greece. 

In the sixth century BC, the Greek philosophers Thales of Miletus and Xenophanes tried to look at the world with only human reason, ignoring myths, rituals and religion. They argued that nature should be studied separately from the supernatural. According to them, humans gave meaning to their own life, not gods or other forces. But like many Ancient Greek and Roman ideas, this point of view eventually faded during the Middle Ages.

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Renaissance humanism 

The new ways of thinking of the Renaissance changed this. Starting in the fourteenth century, the Renaissance revived ancient Greek and Roman ideas, as you have learned in 
Lesson 5.1. 
A humanist was a person who believed in education and especially classical learning. Like many people in the Renaissance, they were inspired by the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans. They started looking at the earliest Bible texts they could find (from the 1st century AD) and re-translated these as accurately as they could. When they compared these original texts with the Medieval bibles, they noticed many translation mistakes and a lot of rules that the church had just made up itself.

Renaissance humanists studying the Classics

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Erasmus: criticising the corruption in the Church 

In the 16th century, many humanists in the Church spent a lot of time translating biblical texts and early Christian texts. They were trying to get a better understanding of what these texts were about and what they meant. One of the people doing so was Desiderius Erasmus. Living between 1466 and 1536, Erasmus was a Catholic priest in Rotterdam. He was a highly educated man. Despite being a priest, Erasmus spent most of his life as an influential critic of the Catholic Church. 

One of the things he is most famous for is his book The Praise of Folly (Lof der Zotheid), a satire with which he confronted superstitions and other believes in Europe and the Catholic Church itself.
Erasmus believed in a simpler, more personal relationship between people and God, and criticised excesses in the Church. What these excesses were you can read in the next slide.

Erasmus is still a big name in the Netherlands today

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The excesses in the Church

So, what exactly were people like Erasmus, Martin Luther and John Calvin protesting against?
By reading the original bible texts humanists discovered many rules that were just added by the Church later. These rules were never in the original bible and were only added to make the church more powerful and wealthy.
These rules included the following:
  • For one, the Catholic Church had become corrupt. Any job within the Church was for sale. With enough money you could even become the pope! 
  • The Church also declared people to be saints. The remains of these people were put on a display as relics, and people went on pilgrimages to visit them. The worship of saints and relics was never mentioned in the Bible. Erasmus had even made fun of this in his book The Praise of Folly. 
  • The Church was immensely rich. The pope, bishops and other clerics lived in beautiful villas enjoying many luxuries, while Jesus had been a poor carpenter and had said that people should live simple lives.
  • The bible was only available in Latin. Therefore only priests could read it. Normal people depended on priests to tell them about God and how they should live to enter heaven when they died. Luther believed that everybody should be able to read God’s words. 
  • The greatest offence however was the sale of indulgences. These were letters signed by the pope or a bishop in which all your sins were forgiven, even before you had committed one! Erasmus and Luther however believed only God could forgive sins, not the Church.

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The Reformation begins 

It is said, that on a morning in 1517, a monk and university teacher named Martin Luther walked to the door of the All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Hammer, nails and paper were in his hands. He nailed his pamphlet called The Ninety Five Theses to the church door. In his pamphlet he protested against what, in his opinion, was wrong with the Catholic Church. 
The pope sent Luther a letter ordering him to take back his words, but Luther burned this letter. 

top: Luther nails his theses to the church door in Wittenberg (modern illustration)

left: the first printed version of Luther's 95 theses

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The pope became furious and excommunicated him. 
Then the pope ordered Frederick III, the ruler of Saxony - the German princedom where Luther lived - to arrest Luther. Frederick III refused to do this. 

In 1521, Luther was ordered to come to the Diet at Worms, by Charles V, emperor of modern-day Spain, Germany and the Low Countries. A Diet or Imperial Diet was a parliament-like meeting between the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. At the Diet, Luther was asked to speak for his actions. Even when directly facing such powerful people, Luther refused to take back his words.

Luther facing the emperor at the Diet of Worms. Painting from 1877.

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left map: The Holy Roman Empire was mainly on German territory. Germany as a state did not yet exist. Nor was the Holy Roman Empire a united empire. It was made up of many different princedoms, each with its own ruler.
But above these princes there was the emperor: Charles V. The emperor ruled all the princedoms, but he needed to discuss matters with the princes if they were to obey him. Not all princes did, as you could see with Frederick III, who hid Luther while Charles V wanted to arrest him.
Right map: through marriage and inheritances Charles V also gained Spain (and its American colonies), the Low countries and Southern Italy, making it a really big empire.

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After the Diet of Worms 

The Diet of Worms decided that Luther should be arrested and that all his work should be burned. 
After the Diet, Frederick III hid Luther away in one of his castles for protection. 
In Luther's opinion, believing was a personal relationship with God. In fact, no one even needed a priest to be a good Christian. Therefore, Luther started to translate the Bible from Latin into German. He used the Latin texts that Erasmus had translated from Greek. 

top: St. Peter's cathedral in Vatican City, (notice the Renaissance architecture) was payed for mainly by selling indulgences. 
left: the first German Bible (1534) translated by Martin Luther

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source A
Pope Clement VII and Emperor Charles V on horseback under a canopy, painted by Jacopo Ligozzi, 
c. 1580. 

It describes the entry of the Pope and the Emperor into Bologna in 1530, when the latter was crowned as Holy Roman Emperor by the former.

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In his absence, a group formed in Wittenberg. 
They called themselves Lutherans and were extremely radical. They used Luther's protests against the excesses of the Church in order to justify making a new Church to split away from the Catholic Church. The Lutherans called for religious and political reforms. Their radical ideas spread all over Germany, causing violence against Churches and priests. Luther was very upset by this. He wanted the change to come peacefully. 

The German rulers crushed many of the revolts with great violence. Some rulers however accepted the changes the Lutherans called for, and they even built Lutheran Churches. These events would echo through history as the moment the Reformation began.

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The Catholic Church defends itself 

The Catholic Church reacted harshly to all things Protestant in Europe. In 1545, Catholic leaders met in Trent, in Northern Italy. At this Council of Trent they started a new movement to protect the Catholic Church, called the Counter-Reformation. They declared everyone who was Protestant to be a heretic

After this, they started hunting Protestants through all of Europe. We call this the Inquisition. When they found Protestants, they would question them, torture them and force them to renounce their faith and become Catholic again. If these Protestants refused, they were killed, usually publicly, by burning. 

members of the Inquisition questioning heretics

heretics who refused to recant their beliefs were burned at the stake

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Word Duty


Humanism: philosophical point of view in which human beings have control over
their lives; it places critical thinking and reason over religion 
Classical Learning: the methods and ideas used by the ancient Greeks and 
Romans to study the world
The Praise of Folly: a satirical book by Erasmus in which he criticises superstitions in Europe and the Church 
Saint: a title the pope gave to a deceased person who had lived a very devout life
Pilgrimage: a journey to a holy place
Relics: the remains of saints or objects that a saint has touched. 
Diet: a parliament-like meeting between the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire 
Indulgences: letters signed by the pope or a bishop in which all your sins were forgiven
Excommunicate: the power of the pope to exclude someone from the Catholic Church (so he can't go to heaven)
Reformers: people who wanted to reform the Catholic Church, like Luther and Calvin 
Reformation: the split between the Catholic and the Protestant church 
Protestants: all followers of reformers
Lutherans: protestants who prefer the ideas of Martin Luther over those of other reformers
Counter-reformation: Catholic reaction to the reformation, meant to protect their church and reform all Protestants 
Inquisition: the systematic persecution of Protestants in Europe 
Heretics: people who have a different view on their religion than the official view

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Important dates in this lesson:

1511: Erasmus publishes Praise of Folly
1517: Luther nails his 95 theses to the Churchdoor in Wittenberg
1521: Diet of Worms
1534: first German Bible published
1545: Counsil of Trent

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Make your own summary using the main questions:

  1. What were the main ideas of humanism?
  2. Why did people start to question the Catholic Church?
  3. What were the excesses of the Catholic Church?
  4. How did the actions of Martin Luther start the Reformation?
  5. How did the Catholic Church react to the Reformation?

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