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The Shaping of Modern Europe Index

Introduction to the Reformation
The Church before the Reformation I : Indulgences, Relics and Pilgrimages
The Church before the Reformation III : The Clergy
The Church before the Reformation IV : Inside a Church
The Lutheran Revolt
Conflict between Luther and the Church
The Church reacts to Luther
The Catholic and the Lutheran Church
Huldreick Zwingli
John Calvin
The English Reformation

17th Century Europe

Europe in the 1600s
17th Century Europe

History Chapters Main Index

 

The Lollards

Two hundred years before the start of the Reformation there existed a religious group in Holland which was already questioning the established Church. This group of heretics was called the Lollards. The Lollards did not agree with the show of wealth, such as gold and silver ornaments, surrounding the mass and the sacraments. They also rejected the pope as head of the Church. Much like the Puritans a couple of centuries later, they believed in simple living, being guided by the Bible in Christian life and obedience to God.

The Dutch Lollards came into existence at the turn of the 14th century. In about 1387 the name was used to describe a similar group in England which was led by a man called John Wycliffe. The English Lollards wore long, brownish clothes and carried staffs. They lived lowly lives, begging for food and shelter. King Henry IV persecuted the Lollards because they did not believe that an organised Church was necessary for salvation. This, of course, was against the religious law of the land and by 1420 the king had managed to practically stamp them out.

John Wycliffe and other Lollards

John Wycliffe and other Lollards

Although the Lollards were no longer effective in England, their ideas had spread and had taken root in other areas of Europe. In Bohemia a man called John Huss was burned at the stake in 1415 for starting a group which followed John Wycliffe's ideas. His followers were called Hussites. Although people who held these ideas were persecuted, the Lollard doctrines were not completely silenced, and one hundred years later a German friar named Martin Luther spoke out against the established Church and paved the way for the Protestant religion.

 

 

THE SHAPING OF MODERN EUROPE

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The Wealth and Political Power of the Church

Transubstantiation

There were in the Middle Ages, and there still are today, different types of church services. One of the most important was the mass (also called holy communion) practised in the Roman Catholic churches.

The mass was a re-enactment of the last supper, when Jesus ate bread and drank wine with His disciples before he was crucified. At this meal, Jesus told them that the bread was His body and the wine His blood.

The Church told the people that, when they ate the bread and drank the wine (the Eucharist) at mass, they were actually eating Jesus' body and drinking His blood. They called this transubstantiation.

Some heretics in the Church disagreed and claimed that it was just representative of His body and blood.

 

The wealth and power of the Church

At first glance, it would seem that the Catholic Church, and the Vatican in particular, was very rich. Thousands of people lived in monasteries or were employed by the Church as priests. Probably a third of the land in England, in the 15th century, belonged to the Church. The Church did have a variety of sources of income.

 

Tithes - these represented one tenth of a person's income and were usually paid in wheat.

Indulgences - The forgiving of a sin and therefore the reduction of time spent in Purgatory by the soul of a dead person.

Gifts - wealthy people often left land or money so that churches could be built.

 

In spite of this, however, the pope was often short of money. He frequently had to borrow from the big banking families in Europe, such as the Fuggers of Augsburg.

 

The Political Power of the Church

The church also had a lot of political power. Bishops were appointed by the Pope to rule in all the countries of Europe. People often looked to their Bishop as their Lord and Master, and in each country the Bishop took orders from the Pope, not the king. Therefore the Pope appeared to be more important than kings. He wielded the power of excommunication. This meant that if people opposed him the Pope could cut them off from the Church. this would result in them going to Hell.

According to the Roman Catholic Church the Pope's power stemmed from God. He had been appointed by God to make sure that the Bible was followed. In reality the Pope's authority came from the fact that he gave jobs to people. People wanted to become Bishops because they could collect tithes and become rich. Therefore they would pay the Pope to be appointed a Bishop. During the 15th century wars were fought over this right. In England and in parts of Germany the king could appoint Bishops.

In theory the Pope was Europe's most powerful ruler but in practice this was not the case. The Holy Roman Emperor was one challenge to his supremacy. The other main problem was that the Pope was in Rome and Europe was a large area of land to control, with only the horse and boat as methods of communication.

Popes had also lost authority during the Renaissance through their actions. The Borgia Popes held orgies and Julius II led his army into battle in 1500. The Popes increasingly displayed their vast wealth when many people in Europe thought that poverty was the way to Heaven. In 1506 the building of St. Peter's Church in Rome was begun. This needed millions of ducats to finish.

 

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