This topic covers the context we'll need to understand before diving into the Age of Reformations.
The Catholic Church dominated Europe for centuries. ☦ 💪🏽 They held incredible influence over European society and politics during the Middle Ages, and that influence continued long after the Middle Ages ended.
However, not everyone agreed with the actions and teachings of the Catholic Church. By the time of the Age of Reformations, a rich history of church criticism had sprung up.
It's important to note that Martin Luther was not the first person to criticize the Catholic Church. Jan Hus and John Wycliffe are some of the most well-known examples of pre-Luther reformers.
You won't need to know the specifics of their criticism for the AP Exam. However, note that both of them…
Openly and publicly challenged the Catholic Church
Criticized church officials and specific church policies for being "unscriptural"
Believed the Bible should be accessible to the common people, in the common language.
Sound familiar? Wycliffe and Hus are often cited as important influences for the Protestant Reformation.
While Wycliffe died a natural death, the tale of Jan Hus illustrates another — and unfortunate — continuity: religious persecution. Jan Hus was excommunicated and eventually burned at the stake for his beliefs. His supporters, known as Hussites, were persecuted.
What was the big problem with the Catholic Church, anyway?
The most common point of criticism you'll hear about is the sale of indulgences.
An indulgence was a document sold by the Catholic Church and its associates. The Church claimed that by buying an indulgence and donating money to the church, a person's soul (or the soul of their loved ones) could be saved from purgatory. 💸 As Johann Tetzel, an infamous indulgence seller, said, “As soon as the coin in coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” This catchy jingle got many people to pay up. The money earned by Tetzel and others was used to rebuild St. Peter's Basicila in Rome.
The church in Martin Luther’s day was also a massive political player in European politics and incredibly wealthy to boot, with influence all across Europe. (The Borgias
, an infamous Italian family that lived only slightly earlier than the Reformation, are a classic example of "abuse of clerical power")
While the blending of temporal power and desires with the spiritual authority of the church may make for interesting TV shows, many reformers were unhappy with this practice.
Here are some other issues reformers had with the church:
- simony (the buying or selling of church offices/privileges)
- nepotism (favoritism based on family relationships, especially when it comes to giving or receiving jobs)
- use of force to suppress dissent
- lack of knowledge by priests
Starting in the late Middle Ages, a process known as the Commercial Revolution occurred. This process is defined as the growth of commerce (the buying and selling of goods, and related activities) in Europe. It was aided by the voyages of exploration, and the subsequent increase in goods and trade, described in the last unit.
One of the most important technological and economic developments of the Age of Reformations was the printing press, said to have been invented by Johannes Gutenberg, circa 1440. Before, if you wanted a written document, you had to write it by hand. As a result, books were immensely rare. However, the printing press changed all that by allowing large numbers of documents to be produced at once. The printing press has been called the Twitter of Reformation Europe. Indeed, Martin Luther's teachings spread across Europe through printed pamphlets much the same way modern viral tweets spread today.
Growing commerce and population shifts caused cities to expand, and new inventions like the printing press sprung up. All of this changed how many Europeans lived. As a result, traditions that persisted through the Middle Ages would be challenged, and life would never be the same after.
🎥 Watch: AP European History - Reformation
Meanwhile, governments within individual countries would attempt to strengthen their own power at the cost of weakening the Church. One of the most fascinating parts of this unit is the ways that politics and religion would intersect.
For example, there is a debate to this day about the causes and motivations of the Thirty Years’ War, which we'll cover in a later guide: was it for religious motives? Political or economic ones? Both? In later decades and centuries, we'll see economic and political rivalries between nations begin to intertwine with religious divides.
We also see prior to the Age of Reformations an increase in political centralization, to varying degrees. For example, Henry the 7th (father of Henry the 8th) empowered the Star Chamber, a court separate from the common-law courts and under the jurisdiction of the King. While not to the extent that political centralization would happen in the Age of Absolutism (check out our Unit 3 guides!), rulers absolutely took advantage of the religious situation for their own ends. At the same time, however, the new religious teachings of the Age of Reformations brought with them new justifications for people to challenge state authority.