A. Before the Reform.
The strongly polarized religious mentalities of the late Middle Ages foreshadowed the schism of the sixteenth century. At one pole stood a rich ritual life which tended toward greater externalization in the sense of standardization and quantification. The medieval system as practiced by most laymen reflected the principle, “I give so that you may give” [do ut des]. This “salvation arithmetic” was increasingly complicated by the growing popularity of indulgences and the burgeoning cults of popular saints. In addition to the seven sacraments officially approved by the Church in 1215, the minor ritual acts (sacramentals) – e.g., the seasonal blessing of fields, processions, passion plays, and the prophylactic use of communion wafers – played a crucial role in the relationship of believers to the divine.
The other principal devotional tendency emphasized internalization in the form of mystical practices and new forms of piety, such as “the Modern Devotion” [Devotio Moderna], which stressed personal spiritual experience. The most popular text associated with the Devotion, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471), was originally written in Latin but was translated into numerous languages including German by the turn of the sixteenth century. Johannes Tauler (ca. 1300-1361), a student of the mystic Meister Eckhart (ca. 1260-1328), transmuted his teacher’s profoundly abstract religious teaching (some statements of which were declared heretical in 1329) into a more concrete message about the importance of personal conversion, sincerity, and moral reform. Tauler wrote his sermons in German for the Dominican nuns he counselled in Strasbourg. His thoughts are held to have influenced the young Martin Luther. The same can be said of The German Theology [Theologia Deutsch], an anonymous fourteenth-century tract written in vernacular German. Luther, who published this text in two annotated editions in 1516 and 1518, apparently remarked that, after the Bible and The Confessions of St. Augustine, this book had taught him the most about God, Christ, man, and the world. Luther cited both The German Theology and Tauler’s writings as evidence that his own teachings were not innovations but a continuation of orthodox ideas. (In fact, these mystical works – as the censure of Eckhart suggests – had long been viewed as suspect by the Church.)
Luther also called on the writings of the Bohemian theologian Jan Hus (ca. 1372-1415) as evidence that he stood in a tradition of reformers. He did so in defiance of the authority of the general council that had condemned Hus to death for heresy at Constance in 1415. Hus had taught that the laity should receive Communion in both kinds (bread and wine; the position is called “Utraquism”). In addition, Hus had criticized the sale of indulgences and advocated the right of the clergy to marry.
Around 1500, a number of preachers were active who preached in the vernacular and powerfully condemned immorality. The most famous of them was Johann Geiler von Keysersberg (1455-1510), an Alsatian who laced his sermons in Strasbourg’s cathedral with folk-sayings, proverbs, anecdotes, complicated metaphors, and sharp admonitions to reform and communal morality. He demanded, for example, that usurers – among whose ranks most of the merchants of the day were included – should be punished with excommunication. Equally compelling, perhaps, were the sermons of itinerant preachers, some of whom preached indulgences. One of them was the Dominican Johann Tetzel (1465-1519), who told his hearers that indulgences would lessen the time their deceased loved ones and they themselves would have to spend in Purgatory. By this time, such actions had become a well organized enterprise by preachers who employed, among other means, printed materials. It was in direct response to one of Tetzel’s trips through Saxony – made on behalf of the Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg – that Martin Luther penned his Ninety-Five Theses against indulgences, which, in hindsight, are said to have marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.