Europe Reopens Its Eyes
Europe - Renaissance, Exploration and Reformation – 1400 > 1700
In less than one hundred years, the face of the globe changed, and the countenance of Western Europe would never be the same again. Though the world of 1550 might have looked pretty similar to the world of 1450, the choices made and the feats accomplished set the wheels of progress turning in directions that would totally alter how humans interacted.
Feudalism took its last breaths, making way for the formation of the nations of Spain, France and England. The two continents previously unbeknownst to the civilized world appeared from out of nowhere when an Italian sailor accidentally bumped into some islands off the coast of Florida. European art and culture blossomed into an era of creativity and expression not seen since the days of Pericles’ Athens. And the Catholic Church faced a violent and unrelenting challenge from Protestants that would leave a fractured Christendom unable to ever again unite.
It all started in 1492, the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue. That was the year the Spanish monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand once and for all kicked the Muslims out of the Iberian Peninsula (that little square chunk of land that juts out from the bottom of Europe). Ten years later, Leonardo da Vinci painted the most famous face in the world – the Mona Lisa. In 1507, Michelangelo laid on his back and finished the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In 1517, a priest named Martin Luther nailed an essay on the door of a church in Germany, condemning Christianity for being home to a bunch of hypocrites. And in 1522, Ferdinand Magellan’s crew returned from man’s first circumnavigation of the planet. In just thirty years, European persistence had inspired its first nation, its greatest works of art, the custody of two landmasses that would feed Europe’s wealth for centuries to come and a religious revolution that forever altered the power structure of the continent. These three decades were just the crowning triumphs of the eras historians later dubbed the Dawn of Absolutism, the Age of Exploration, the Renaissance and the Reformation.
Yet to deal with each separately almost misses the point. These five movements - one dealing with political reform, one with exploration, one with artistic inspiration, one with feats of navigation and one with religious reform – though seemingly disconnected, all erupted from the same umbrella of thought percolating through the greatest intellectual, artistic and political minds of Western Europe. This fresh philosophy, this “humanism,” directly challenged the Catholic Church – a secular response to the superstitions that kept Europe under a veil of ignorance for the thousand years of the Middle Ages. Even without a degree in etymology, you could probably figure out that humanism is the belief in…well…humans. In the 15th and 16th centuries, humanism was the feeling that humans had so much more to offer than the blind acceptance of religious rituals. Man’s imagination had been ignored. His mind had been wasted. But no longer. No longer would the Church be the sole source of wisdom. No longer would people merely survive this mortal world, clinging to the hope that their immortal existence might make up for a squandered life. Humanism offered an alternative to faith in an invisible god. It offered another source of inspiration. Man himself. Over the next hundred years man would experiment in ways he never would have before considered. And he had no one to thank but himself.
But these revolutions took time. In fact, like in most artistic and philosophical golden ages, the masses probably never got the memo that their lives were supposed to be golden. Initially, these breakthroughs were only felt in the bustling ports, thriving merchant city-states and sheltered palaces of the elite, but for the next few centuries, the world would look back at this era as when the rise of Europe (and the relative enslavement of Africa and the Americas) truly began. Not since Greek antiquity, when the ideas of a relatively small faction of learned men had been shared by Alexander across the known world, had so many peoples been forever altered by so few inspired visionaries.
None of these movements would have been possible had feudalism continued to keep a continent locked in seclusion. So what happened in Western and Southern Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries that made such a huge change possible? First, the rise of merchants and the growing prosperity in towns threatened to undermine the unquestioned power of regional lords. No longer did people have to live near the protection and the resources of a baron, a duke, a count or an earl. Instead of meeting at fairs once or twice a year, merchants set up permanent markets, and towns became centers of power. Next, traders needed money to take their goods afar, and early banks appeared, granting loans and extending credit. At first, it was only the Jews who could lend money (since the Bible forbade usury – the loaning of money with interest), giving this persecuted group a head start in an industry that would become a necessity when European economies commercialized. As the Church reduced its restrictions on money lending, more Christians entered the field and money started flowing through the hands of new classes of people, not merely through the palms of the provincial lords.
With all of this newfound wealth to be made from trade and banking, it wasn’t long before monarchs wanted more for themselves. Throughout the Middle Ages, kings might have been seen as the chief monarchs of emerging nations, but the nobles all stood between them and absolute, unquestioned power. The nobles had first dibs on peasant taxes, they controlled the warrior knights and their landholdings and prominent voices meant they had to be consulted should a monarch want to extend the nation’s boundaries.
Kings weren’t exactly fond of this arrangement. They wanted absolute power and the idea of having to consult with lords was more than a bit annoying. So when gunpowder finally entered Europe, they had their chance to tilt the power even more in their favor. Before, in the Middle Ages, nobles could barricade themselves inside their impenetrable castle walls or send out their trained knights to foil any royal power play. A king could try all he wanted, but a fortified lord behind stone walls was a tough nut to crack. But within one generation, gunpowder made castles and knights obsolete. What match could a stone wall be for a well-placed cannonball? Could a mounted knight with a lifetime of training survive a well-aimed musket? And when you combined the two – a gunpowder-fed artillery with a musket-yielding army – medieval warfare had no chance of survival. The age of knights had ended. One by one the nobles lost their kingdoms, with each loss only increasing the power of the monarchs.
But kings still needed money. Money made the whole system work. More money meant more weapons. More money meant more armies. More money meant more ships. They needed money, so they taxed. They borrowed. They encouraged trade. They promoted local manufacturing. They even gave money to crazy seamen who believed they could find shortcuts to Asia (we’ll talk about Chris and Ferdinand in a minute). And the investments paid off. The risks proved worth it. Money started rolling in from all corners of the planet, and with each new revenue stream, more land could be taken over and more profit-producing enterprises could be financed.
By 1600, four new nations appeared, each demanding unquestioned loyalty from their countrymen. Portugal, Spain, France and England shared the traits of this new era of absolutism, this age of national dynasties. They forced everyone to speak the same language. They made everyone use the same money and made everyone use the same units to measure goods. They created one set of laws enforced by a network of bureaucracies. They constructed absurdly lavish palaces and established elaborate ceremonies, each maintained to showcase their godlike supremacy. And as for the nobles, their voices were relegated to the newly formed parliaments and national assemblies, governing bodies whose power varied based on the whims of each subsequent monarch.
But above all else, they expanded. The more land they gobbled, the more power they yielded. Expansion triggered their ascendancy, and only with expansion could they maintain their power. And as the resources of the European continent increasingly fell into the hands of fewer and fewer monarchs, the kings of western and southern Europe looked to distant shores for new sources of wealth.
Although the days of England, France and the Netherlands ruling the seas would one day come, in the 15th century, the only countries with a true sea presence were Portugal and Spain. If the world was going to be mapped, it would be by a navigator sailing under the flag of one of these two nations on the tip of the Iberian Peninsula. Long excluded by the Italians from the Mediterranean trading networks, the Portuguese and Spanish rulers realized if they wanted to secure a share of the mountains of wealth promised by the Asian manufacturers, they would need to find a new course to the Indies. At the end of the 15th century, the Indies had become the general term for any of the desired trading posts in Asia, be it India, China, Japan, Malaya or Java (Indonesia today). Any semi-intelligent merchant knew that the key to wealth was the Indies, with its spices, its silks, its unrivaled pottery and its luxury goods. A successful expedition guaranteed a 1000% return on their investment, and every emerging nation knew what greatness could be purchased with this money, but more important, what risks existed should their neighboring country find the unknown path first. The race was on.
By the end of the 15th century, a convergence of factors materialized that set in motion an unprecedented Age of Discovery by Portugal and Spain. In 1453, when the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, destroying the Byzantine Empire once and for all, the trans-Eurasian Silk Road, that had for centuries brought goods from Asia, was now cut off. For a couple hundred years, the Mongols had protected the salesmen of the Silk Road. But no longer. With an unpredictable Muslim power replacing the Mongol-enforced peace, European merchants were at the mercy of these Muslims. Yet with so many goods just waiting to be imported, traders realized if they couldn’t go through the Islamic world, they’d just have to find a way of going around it.
Ironically, it was the Muslims who made Europe’s Age of Exploration possible. It was the Muslims that brought the nautical technology from the East that allowed Europeans to sail out of sight of land and start heading into open waters. They passed on the compass, a triangular sail that could catch the wind and the astrolabe for reading the stars. Navigators could finally use the sun, the stars and the earth’s own magnetism to guide their ships across the open seas. Ships were then built stronger, faster, with three masts and a bigger, more accurate rudder. Sailors could catch the prevailing winds and sail away to far-off lands. And with their newfound gunpowder-fed cannons, no pirate dared threaten these imposing beasts.
And why were Portugal and Spain the first out of the gate? With their geographic proximity to northwestern Africa and the Atlantic Ocean, their independently powerful and moneyed monarchs and their direct link to the navigational knowledge of the Muslim world, Portugal and Spain were the most likely contenders to find a water route to Asia. For decades, Portugal had flirted with the western coast of Africa, hearing stories of endless supplies of gold and even of a mythical Christian leader named Prestor John (a long lost monk who many Europeans believed had established a Christian empire in Africa). If Prestor John could be found (or so the story went), his empire could be united with the European forces of God to encircle the Muslim forces. This mythical reunion was nothing more than a wild fantasy. But the gold was real.
The first to actively explore Africa was Prince Henry of Portugal. The world has had Alexander the Great, Richard the Lionhearted, Attila the Hun and even Vlad the Impaler. But when it comes to a really cool nickname that will impress the ladies at the local pub, look no further than Prince Henry the Navigator. Prince Henry rose to power on the heels of his military victories that pushed the last Muslims out of Portugal. In one of the last Muslim strongholds, the city of Ceuta, Henry not only found the indispensable libraries representing the sum total of Muslim learning, but he also came across a vast storehouse of spices, including most notably pepper and cinnamon. Henry could have merely sold these luxuries on the open market, fetched a handsome profit and our story would have ended there, but Henry had a bit more foresight. He knew that the man who could monopolize this spice trade would be the man who could enrich his kingdom. Prince Henry then, in the southern city of Sagres, established a school of navigation to improve the maritime technology available to Europeans, but also answer questions such as “Why does the North Star, a navigator’s most reliable landmark in the sky, disappear when sailors venture further south?” These astronomers, navigators, biologists and chemists began dispelling the major myths of the day – that the ocean boils when you head south, that the sun touches the ocean, that the earth was flat. Many learned Europeans had already deduced these realities, but at Henry’s school, his scientists fueled the captains with the confidence to head further and further south along the west coast of Africa. With each expedition, the Portuguese explorers leapfrogged each other, heading a few more miles south, mapping the terrain, making contact with locals and potentially heading inland to look for gold and Prestor John. But to actually make it to the southern tip (a distance of about 5000 miles), someone would have to be willing to leave Europe for what could be years and refuse to return until the destination was reached. That man would be Bartolomeu Dias.
Dias set sail in August 1487, and seven months later, he had finally reached the southern tip. Going around Africa scared the bejeepers out of Dias’s crew, as the waters beneath the tips of continents aren’t known for being especially friendly. When you have two great oceans colliding, the storm patterns make for deadly waves with violently unpredictable winds.
But he made it around the tip. Once on the eastern side of Africa, Dias wanted to continue toward Asia, but his crew felt they shouldn’t push their luck any further and should instead get back to Europe while they still had their lives. Dias agreed and returned to Portugal in December of 1488, and his Christmas present to the king was the knowledge that the Portuguese had been further south than any other European. As he recounted his treacherous trip around what Dias named the Cape of Storms, the Portuguese monarch King John II thought it might be prudent to rename the route something a bit more positive to encourage future navigators, thus the southernmost point of Africa became known to the world as the “Cape of Good Hope.”
Now that the southern route around Africa was proven passable, Portugal’s Vasco de Gama set out in 1497 to finish what Dias never could – reaching Asia by sea. Instead of hugging the coastline for the entire route, when de Gama reached the southern tip of North Africa (where the continent shoots eastward for a thousand miles), he chose the shortest direction between two points and headed diagonally down to the cape. Although Columbus would receive a ton of praise for his fearlessness in heading across unchartered oceans, it was de Gama who spent the longest time on the open ocean without site of land. Columbus was gone for five weeks, de Gama for thirteen. When he finally hit the Cape of Good Hope, he headed up the east coast and met some Indian traders who showed him how to catch the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean. On May 20, 1498, about a month shy of one year, de Gama reached Calicut, India, becoming the first European to reach Asia by sea. No European would ever have to trade across the treacherous, costly Levant and Silk Road again. Within a decade the Portuguese had set up ports all around Africa and South Asia, even reaching as far as modern day Malaysia at a trading town called Malacca. The Portuguese had succeeded in opening up the Indies, and over the next century, spices, tea, ceramics, textiles and even slaves flowed freely from East to West, while European gold ended in the hands of the East.
With the southern route securely in the hands of the Portuguese, the Spanish could only go one other direction - west. However, nobody really wanted to head west. Nobody except for a persistent Italian sailor from Genoa, Italy. Christopher Columbus (or Cristoforo Colombo to his mom and dad) spent his adulthood on the seas. He made up for his lack of schooling by learning from everyone he encountered. He learned the latest navigation techniques from the Portuguese. He listened to of tales of a “new found land” from the Viking descendants he met in England. He read of Marco Polo’s adventures and Ptolemy’s theories of the earth’s spherical shape. He took all of this knowledge and came up with the theory that right on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean rested the Indies, ripe for the taking. He took his theories and his calculations to the thrones of Europe. Somebody had to be willing to finance his dream. But the Italians, the French, the Portuguese and even the Spanish refused to accept his proposal.
But he persisted. After seven years of patiently pleading his case, he finally convinced Queen Isabella of Spain that the potential rewards far outweighed the negligible risks. With a few ships – the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria – he promised he could radically cut the distance to the Indies, allowing Spain to monopolize sea trade.
Columbus set sail in 1492 on a trip to Japan that he thought would be about 2,500 miles. He was just a bit off. Japan is actually about 10,000 miles away from Spain, and had Columbus and his crew not bumped into these little chunks of land known today as the Americas, his crew would have starved to death and his ships would have ended up at the bottom of the sea.
But Columbus did hit land, a small island called Guanahani inhabited by the Tainos. Columbus insisted these people were from the Indies, and erroneously named them Indians. His first account of these people didn’t bode well for how they’d be treated in the coming century:
They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane...They would make fine servants...With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
Ahhh, what a lovely sentiment? Columbus wasn’t exactly the poster child for humanitarianism. But racial equality was the least of his concerns. He wanted Asia.
And Columbus truly believed he had, in fact, found an island off the coast of Japan. Until his dying day, he insisted this land was Asia. He took several more trips back and forth across the ocean, each time finding more islands in the Caribbean. Though he proved a capable navigator (if maybe off course by a continent or two), he was less impressive as a governor, and his legacy of rule was seen as nothing more than a period of chaos, murder and plunder for gold. After initially being seen as a hero, he spent some time in jail for his bungling of these newfound lands and died not knowing the true import of his discovery. Portuguese explorer Amerigo Vespucci eventually set foot in Uruguay, and when in 1502 German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller created a map with Amerigo’s name next to the Nuevo Mundo (new world), the Americas had their namesake.
Although Columbus received little initial credit for his discoveries, even losing out to Amerigo for the naming rights to these new lands, his efforts set in motion centuries of exploration and discovery that would wipe out civilizations that had prospered for millennia, transport civilizations to unknown lands and unite the globe in trade networks that moved not only peoples, but goods and ideas. Some of these exchanges were conducted peacefully, but for the most part violence and death followed each new discovery. Historians have since debated whether Columbus was a hero or a villain, but regardless of the ethical judgments surrounding his discoveries, his findings allowed humans to expand further than ever thought possible.
While the Spanish and Portuguese were expanding their boundaries, back home in Europe, a group of artists and thinkers began expanding the possibilities of human creativity. In the flourishing city-states of Italy, the humanistic trend toward self-discovery meant that artists could again begin testing the limits of imagination. Whereas throughout the Middle Ages, art remained two-dimensional and centered on the depictions of saints and Biblical stories, during this artistic revolution known as the Renaissance, man again became the muse and those possessing the skills of perspective and realism became the most prized craftsmen (sort of like in the Golden Age of Athens). Although the Renaissance would eventually spread across Western Europe to include a literary transformation, the first (and most famous) pieces came from Florence and Rome and revolved around achievements in painting, sculpture and architecture.
Before looking at the works of da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Donatello, we must first ask the questions: Why 1500? Why Italy?
Was it because the Italian peninsula was home to thousands of Roman sculptures and monolithic ruins left over from the Pax Romana, constantly reminding the locals of a past far more glorious than their current state? Was it because so many Muslim recordings of antiquity began flowing into Italy, spawning a revived interest in Greece and Rome? Or was it because immeasurable wealth rested in the hands of opulent patrons, more than willing to throw a few coins at the artistic community?
Whether it was the merchant Medicis of Florence or the pampered Popes of Rome, there was money to be spent, and what better way to distribute wealth than to hire artists to decorate their homes, palaces, churches and tombs?
Regardless of the reason, from 1475 to 1525, the greatest works of the last thousand years streamed from Italian hands. Venetian Leonardo da Vinci used his knowledge of the human body gained through his examination of cadavers to sketch hundreds of images of the lifecycle of man, from the womb to the grave (most notably the Vitruvian Man…that sketch with circles and a standing man with arms outstretched). He masterfully painted The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, the most recognizable piece of art in the world (yet don’t be surprised if you’re a bit underwhelmed by its size when you visit it in the Louvre). And in his spare time, he invented the helicopter, the parachute and the submarine (though worried his ideas might be used for war, he encoded all of his ideas in backwards text). Da Vinci became the world’s first Renaissance Man, a man at the top of his game in so many fields.
If da Vinci was the number one symbol of the Renaissance, Michelangelo was a close second. Commissioned almost exclusively by religious leaders to bring the Bible to life, Michelangelo still found a way to throw in his humanistic touch. He was asked to sculpt the boy underdog from the Biblical battle of David versus Goliath. He returned with a fifteen-foot tall naked man whose private parts have shocked citizens and visitors to Florence for generations. When asked to recreate the stories of the New Testament on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo returned to Pope Julius II a fresco with women that look like bodybuilders with breasts and a central image of God giving life to Adam, a reclining figure depicted as more dominant than even the likeness of God. The ceiling was not exactly what Julius had ordered.
Although da Vinci and Michelangelo are the most renowned, the patronage of the merchant families and the Catholic Church created a network of artists who filled Italian homes, city squares and places of worship with frescoes, statues, fountains, paintings, ceilings and entryways. Donatello mastered the art of bronze statuary. Raphael created the School of Athens and the Sistine Madonna (that painting with the two adorable little cherubs gazing into the sky).
Once the artistic revolution was underway in Italy, it wasn’t long before the rest of Europe joined the movement. With the printing press able to spread the works and the philosophies of the Renaissance into the libraries of the wealthy and the pious, with the rising frequency of travellers and with the myriad of wars that brought peoples into contact with these new forms of creativity, the Renaissance spread into France, the Netherlands and then England. These 16th century pieces continued to have a religious undertone, but the focus on the beauty, and sometimes the ugliness, of the human form increasingly dominated. When the imagination and creativity of the visual arts spread to the written arts, a new age emerged where with a pen and a wicked wit, artists could bring down even the most prominent member of society.
In England, by the end of the 16th century, William Shakespeare was spinning out dozens of plays and poems that explored the greatest moments in European history, while also dealing with themes of the fallibility of the human spirit. His cutting comedies and bitter tragedies gained an audience with the lowest classes, and his plays performed at the Globe Theater gained a cult following. Ironically, today the original works of the barb are seen almost as too highbrow for us mortals, but his themes and characters continue to be seen in films such as Ten Things I Hate About You, O, She’s the Man and the inevitable Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet recreation that surfaces once every generation (think West Side Story and The Lion King). And who couldn’t recognize a good Shakespeare quote – “to be or not to be,” “it’s all Greek to me,” “all the world’s a stage,” “eaten me out of house and home” or “to thine own self be true?” Shakespeare might not have created the English language, but he could be seen as the one who advanced it the furthest, himself adding what some etymologists believe to be some 3000 new words to the English lexicon.
By 1600, the Renaissance had transformed the world of creativity, and Europe would never again return to the days of artistic stagnancy. Though initially funded by the Catholic Church, with each piece chronicling the mind, body and soul of man, the Renaissance and its shift away from spirituality steadily tore cracks in the unquestioned foundation of the Church. These cracks would eventually become irreparable fissures when one man chose to publicly challenge Christendom, unintentionally spawning the creation of dozens of new faiths, all rivaling the supremacy of Europe’s first Church.
As the Middle Ages trudged along, the Church steadily lost its monopoly on the minds of Europeans. After Europe’s less-than-impressive oh-for-nine won/loss record against the Muslims in the Crusades, it was a bit tough to swallow that God only had one chosen people. When the Church failed to quell the suffering of the Black Plague, some questioned the value of a faith that couldn’t even keep people alive. But even with these challenges, few dared publicly confront their religious superiors for fear of torture, both in this life and the hereafter.
Yet by the 1500s, the centuries of clerical abuses had started to become too much for even the most pious followers. Priests weren’t exactly the immaculate models of godliness. Some married. Some had mistresses. Some even had children. Some cared more about securing their garish lifestyles than protecting the souls of their parishioners. Some fought in wars. Some didn’t even show up to their parish, and when they did, their illiteracy prevented them from accurately reading the Bible. And for some reason, the priests’ interpretation of the Bible always ended up in an appeal for more coins in the offering plate. Some priests started money lending and others even sold vacated religious positions to the highest bidder. Even merchant families (like the Medicis) could become Popes. Of course, not all the clerics were wicked or incompetent, but like the Catholic Church of today, a few guilty clergy can spoil the reputation of the entire faith.
The above transgressions were annoyances, but not enough to bring down the Church. In 1517, caught up in the artistry of the Renaissance, Pope Leo X commissioned the restoration of St. Peter’s Cathedral, and to raise the money, he conveniently redefined the centuries old tradition of “indulgences.” Pope Leo X promised that for a few coins, you could free your ancestors from purgatory and put them on the fast track to heaven. These “Get Out of Hell Free” cards followed a price index based on your status in life. A king might pay twenty gulden, whereas a farmer might pay only one. With this payment, no matter your uncle’s, your father’s or your brother’s crime, any one of their souls could be freed.
This little scheme posed a few problems. If you could merely buy yourself out of Hell, why follow the commandments when on earth? If the Pope really had the power to free your soul from Hell, why didn’t he just do it out of the kindness of his heart? And what of faith? Did you even need to believe in God? Wasn’t that little, fairly significant nugget a criterion for Christian salvation?
In Germany, the indulgences had become quite common, and with salesman such as John Tetzel peddling salvation through his carnival-like performances, more than a few eyes started to turn. One man saw these indulgences for what they really were – a blatant scheme to rob the people. And this man had had enough. At the university at Wittenberg, this man, a professor of theology named Martin Luther (not that Martin Luther…this one’s last name isn’t King) couldn’t stand the corruption and hypocrisy any longer. So what did he do? How did this Martin Luther fight the power?
He wrote an essay.
Not just any essay, but an essay with 95 subcategories - his 95 Theses. He took this outlined list of the Church’s indiscretions and nailed them to the door of the Wittenberg Church. At this point, he had no intention of bringing down the Church; he just wanted to start a conversation with his fellow theological brothers. However, his message went far beyond the inner circle of clerics in Germany. The printing press stepped onto the European stage and took what could have been a mere footnote to Church history, and created a movement. If you lived in a town in 1522, you’d have heard of the 95 Theses. Not everyone could read, but everyone could listen, and there was always someone in town willing to report Luther’s finding to an attentive audience. Luther wasn’t done. He followed up his formal complaints with a series of pamphlets and sermons, each challenging the legitimacy of Church doctrine.
Should priests marry? Should priests be literate? Were priests even needed? Or could a man simply believe in God and that be enough? Did he have to go to a building on Sunday to go to heaven? Or merely trust that Jesus died for our sins? Should the Church advertise relics (the bones or sacred belongings of the saints) to expand their audience, or should the words of the Bible be the sole spiritual commercial?
The Pope was less than pleased. He ordered Martin Luther to renounce his teachings, but Luther continued. The Church faced a tough decision. Punish Luther, he becomes a martyr. Ignore Luther, his message continues to spread. The solution – put Luther on trial. Luther was brought before the Diet of Worms (not an uncouth menu selection, but a meeting of the princes of the Holy Roman Empire at a city called Worms). The Holy Roman Emperor gave Luther a choice – recant or die. But Luther could not recant. He could not deny his beliefs when he knew he was right. Nothing in the Bible contradicted his teachings. He knew he was on the right side of the truth.
The Church was stuck. They couldn’t kill him, but they couldn’t just let him directly challenge the Church and go free. His punishment was ostracism. They let him go free and vowed to punish any man who gave him aid. And should a defender of the Church kill the rebel, oh well, it was out of their hands. The assailant would not be punished. They essentially dared a Christian follower to assassinate Martin Luther. Luther was released.
But Luther was never killed. He was never again arrested. Instead, Prince Frederick III of Germany outwitted the Church, by “kidnapping” Luther and hiding him in Wartburg Castle for a few months. Luther spent his days of banishment rewriting the Bible in a language his German brethren could actually understand. But in 1522, there was no singular German language, simply dozens of provincial languages like Bavarian, Saxon, Low German and High German. If Luther was to translate the Bible from Latin to German, he would have to invent the German language. In 1534, he finally finished his magnum opus, writing the first of what would become dozens of Bibles written in dozens of languages. These new versions completely flipped the power structure of the Christian faith. No longer would the writings of the followers of Christ reside solely in the hands of those that spoke Latin. Now, anyone could read the Bible. Now, anyone could interpret the Bible. Dozens of new faiths emerged, and each of these “protesting” faiths offered an alternative to the Church. Each of these new sects became part of what is today known as the Protestant Reformation.
But the Church wasn’t going to take these challenges sitting down. The Church responded by declaring they were the one, true, “universal” faith. And the Latin word for “universal” was “catholic,” – thus the Church was renamed the Catholic Church. But a simple renaming wasn’t the only alteration the Pope made from Rome. The church leaders then mounted their own Counter-Reformation, becoming even more strict, more dogmatic. They had no intention of giving in to the Protestant challenge. You were either with the Church or you were against it. And if that meant war, the Catholic Church was more than willing to take up arms. Princes, lords and kings took to the sword, killing each other to prove what was the one true faith. The continent fell into an age of chaos, as soldiers of God waged war for the hearts and minds of Europe. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, from England to Germany to Norway to Spain, would perish.
Martin Luther’s publishing of his Bible, and this ensuing century of warfare, nailed the final stake in the coffin of the Middle Ages. Europe’s epoch of mediocrity began to fade, and a new Europe emerged. This new Europe would be stronger, mobile and empowered by both a revolutionary zeal and a newfound faith in humanity that would take them across the globe. For the select few merchants, artists, explorers, patrons, patriarchs and politicos who ushered in this rebirth, Western Europe felt like it was living through a new golden age.
Yet like all golden ages, this one too came to a premature end, but what emerged from this prosperity of the human spirit surprised even the most disheartened cynic. What did Europeans think would happen when the institutions that stabilized the continent for a thousand years were completely uprooted? What did Europeans think would happen when previously isolated civilizations came face to face with a people bent on stealing their wealth at any cost?
What happened? Europe and the lands its explorers and settlers touched entered into a century of violence and upheaval that forever restructured the power of peoples and regions.
But that is for another chapter.