The Catholic Church in the Renaissance

Causes of Reformation

By Rev. James A. MacCaffrey.

The great intellectual revival, that followed upon the successful issue of the struggle for freedom waged by Gregory VII. and his successors, reached the zenith of its glory in the thirteenth century. Scholasticism, as expounded by men like Alexander of Hales, Albert the Great, Roger Bacon, St. Bonaventure, and St. Thomas, and illustrated by a wealth of material drawn alike from the Scriptures, the writings of the Fathers, the wisdom of Pagan philosophers, and the conclusions of natural science, was alone deemed worthy of serious attention. Classical studies either were neglected entirely even in the centers of learning, or were followed merely for the assistance they might render in the solution of the philosophical and theological problems, that engaged men's minds in an age when Christian faith reigned supreme.

The Catholic Church, indeed, had never been hostile to classical studies, nor unmindful of their value, as a means of developing the powers of the human mind, and of securing both breadth of view and beauty of expression. Some few teachers here and there, alarmed by the danger of corrupting Christian youth by bringing it into contact with Pagan ideals, raised their voices in protest, but the majority of the early Fathers disregarded these warnings as harmful and unnecessary. Origen, St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Gregory of Nazianzen, St. Basil, and St. Jerome, while not ignoring the dangers of such studies, recommended them warmly to their students, and in the spirit of these great leaders the Catholic Church strove always to combine classical culture and Christian education.

With the fall of the Empire, consequent upon its invasion by the barbarian hordes, classical studies were banished to some extent to the Western Isles, Ireland and Britain, from which they were transplanted to the Continent principally during the Carlovingian revival. In the cathedral, collegiate, and monastic schools the classics were still cultivated, though beyond doubt compilations were used more frequently than were the original works; and even in the darkest days of the dark ages some prominent ecclesiastics could be found well versed at least in the language and literature of Rome. It looked, too, for a time, as if the intellectual revival of the twelfth century were to be turned towards the classics; but the example of men like John of Salisbury was not followed generally, and the movement developed rapidly in the direction of philosophy. As a consequence, the study of Latin was neglected or relegated to a secondary place in the schools, while Greek scholarship disappeared practically from Western Europe. The Scholastics, more anxious about the logical sequence of their arguments than about the beauties of literary expression, invented for themselves a new dialect, which, however forcible in itself, must have sounded barbarous to any one acquainted with the productions of the golden age of Roman literature or even with the writings of the early Fathers of the Latin Church. Nor was it the language merely that was neglected. The monuments and memorials of an earlier civilization were disregarded, and even in Rome itself, the City of the Popes, the vandalism of the ignorant wrought dreadful havoc.

So complete a turning away from forces that had played such a part in the civilization of the world was certain to provoke a reaction. Scholasticism could not hold the field for ever to the exclusion of other branches of study, especially, since in the less competent hands of its later expounders it had degenerated into an empty formalism. The successors of St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure had little of their originality, their almost universal knowledge, and their powers of exposition, and, as a result, students grew tired of the endless wrangling of the schools, and turned their attention to other intellectual pursuits.

Besides, men's ideas of politics, of social order, and of religion were changing rapidly, and, in a word, the whole outlook of the world was undergoing a speedy transformation. In the Middle Ages religion held the dominant position and was the guiding principle in morals, in education, in literature, and in art; but as the faith of many began to grow cold, and as the rights of Church and State began to be distinguished, secularist tendencies soon made themselves felt. Philosophy and theology were no longer to occupy the entire intellectual field, and other subjects for investigation must be found. In these circumstances what was more natural than that some should advocate a return to the classics and all that the classics enshrined? Again, the example set by the tyrants who had grasped the reins of power in the Italian States, by men like Agnello of Pisa, the Viscontis and Francesco Sforza of Milan, Ferrante of Naples, and the de' Medici of Florence, was calculated to lower the moral standard of the period, and to promote an abandonment of Christian principles of truth, and justice, and purity of life. Everywhere men became more addicted to the pursuit of sensual pleasure, of vain glory, and material comfort; and could ill brook the dominant ideas of the Middle Ages concerning the supernatural end of man, self-denial, humility, patience, and contempt for the things that minister only to man's temporal happiness. With views of this kind in the air it was not difficult to persuade them to turn to the great literary masterpieces of Pagan Rome, where they were likely to find principles and ideals more in harmony with their tastes than those set before them by the Catholic Church.

The thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, then, mark a period of transition from the Middle Ages to modern times. They saw a sharp struggle being waged between two ideals in politics, in education, in literature, in religion, and in morality. In this great upheaval that was characterized by a demand for unrestricted liberty of investigation, a return to the study of nature and of the natural sciences, the rise and development of national literatures, and the appearance of a new school of art, the Humanist movement or the revival of the study of the classics, the literae humaniores, played the fundamental part. In more senses than one it may be called the Age of the Renaissance.

Nor was it a matter of chance that this revival of interest in classical studies should have made itself felt first in Italy, where the downfall of the Empire, and the subsequent development of petty states seem to have exercised a magical influence upon the intellectual development of the people. The Italians were the direct heirs to the glory of ancient Rome. Even in the days of their degradation, when the capital deserted by the Popes was fast going to ruin, and when foreigners and native tyrants were struggling for the possession of their fairest territories, the memory of the imperial authority of their country, and the crumbling monuments that bore witness to it still standing in their midst, served to turn their patriotic ardor towards the great literary treasures bequeathed to them by Pagan Rome. Greek literature, too, was not forgotten, though in the thirteenth century few western scholars possessed any acquaintance with the language. Many causes, however, combined to prepare the way for a revival of Greek. The commercial cities of Italy were in close touch with the Eastern Empire, especially since the Crusades; ambassadors, sent by the Emperors to seek the assistance of the Pope and of the Western rulers in the struggle against the Turks, were passing from court to court; the negotiations for a reunion of the Churches, which had been going on since the days of the first Council of Lyons, rendered a knowledge of Greek and of the writings of the Greek Fathers necessary for some of the leading ecclesiastics of the West; while, finally, the fall of Constantinople in 1453 forced many Greek scholars to seek a refuge in Italy or France, and provided the agents sent by the Popes and Italian rulers with a splendid opportunity of securing priceless treasures for the Western libraries.

Though Dante (1265-1321) is sometimes regarded as the earliest of the Humanist school on account of his professed admiration for some of the Pagan masters and of the blending in his Divina Comedia of the beauties of Roman literature with the teaching of the Fathers and Scholastics, still, the spirit that inspired him was the spirit of Christianity, and his outlook on life was frankly the outlook of the Middle Ages. To Petrarch (1304-74) rather belongs the honor of having been the most prominent, if not the very first writer, whose works were influenced largely by Humanist ideals. Born in Arezzo in 1304, he accompanied his father to Avignon when the latter was exiled from Florence. His friends wished him to study law; but, his poetic tendencies proving too strong for him, he abandoned his professional pursuits to devote his energies to literature. The patronage and help afforded him willingly by the Avignonese Popes and other ecclesiastics provided him with the means of pursuing his favorite studies, and helped him considerably in his searches for manuscripts of the classics. Though only a cleric in minor orders, he was appointed Canon of Lombez (1335), papal ambassador to Naples (1343), prothonotary apostolic (1346), and archdeacon of Parma (1348). These positions secured to him a competent income, and, at the same time, brought him into touch with libraries and influential men.

The ruin of Italy and Rome, caused in great measure by the absence of the Popes during their residence at Avignon, roused all the patriotic instincts of Petrarch, and urged him to strive with all his might for the restoration of the ancient glory of his country. Hence in his politics he was strongly nationalist, and hence, too, he threw the whole weight of his influence on the side of Cola di Rienzi, when in 1347 the latter proclaimed from the Capitol the establishment of the Roman Republic. Nor did he hesitate to attack the Popes, to whom he was indebted so deeply, for their neglect of Rome and the Papal States, as well as for the evils which he thought had fallen upon Italy owing to the withdrawal of the Popes to Avignon. He himself strove to awaken in the minds of his countrymen memories of the past by forming collections of old Roman coins, by restoring or protecting wherever possible the Pagan monuments, and by searching after and copying manuscripts of the classical writers. In poetry, Virgil was his favorite guide. As a rule he wrote in Italian, but his writings were saturated with the spirit of the early Pagan authors; while in his pursuit of glory and his love for natural, sensible beauty, he manifested tendencies opposed directly to the self- restraint, symbolism, and purity of the Middle Ages. His longest poem is Africa, devoted to a rehearsal of the glories of ancient Rome and breathing a spirit of patriotism and zeal for a long lost culture, but it is rather for his love songs, the canzoni, that he is best remembered.

Petrarch, though a Humanist, was no enemy of the Christian religion, nor did he imagine for a moment that the study of the Pagan classics could prove dangerous in the least degree to revealed religion. It is true that his private life did not always correspond to Christian principles of morality, and it is equally true that at times his patriotism led him to speak harshly of the rule of the Popes in Italy and Rome; but he never wavered in his religious convictions, and never recognized that Pagan literature and ideals should be judged by other than current Christian standards.

The example of Petrarch was not followed, however, by several of the later Humanists. His friend and disciple, Boccaccio (1313-75), imitated his master in his love for the classics and in his zeal for classical culture, and excelled him by acquiring, what Petrarch had failed utterly to acquire, a good knowledge of Greek. Like Petrarch, he was assisted largely by the Popes, and took service at the papal court. But his views of life and morality were colored by Paganism rather than by Christianity. Many of his minor poems are steeped in indecency and immorality, and reflect only too clearly the tendency to treachery and deceit so characteristic of the Italian rulers of his day; while the Decameron, his greatest work, is more like the production of a Pagan writer than of one acquainted with Christian ethics and ideals. He delighted in lampooning the clergy, particularly the monks, charging them with ignorance, immorality, and hypocrisy. Such a line of conduct was not likely to recommend the apostles of the new learning to the admirers of Scholasticism, nor to create and foster a friendly alliance between the two camps. Yet, personally, Boccaccio was not an enemy of Christianity, and never aimed, as did some of the later Humanists, at reviving Paganism under the guise of promoting literature. He was unshaken in his acceptance of the Christian revelation, and, as the years advanced, he began to realize the evil of his ways and the dangerous character of his writings. Strange to say, it was to a body of the monks, whom he delighted in attacking, that he bequeathed the valuable library which he had brought together with such labor.

Had the Humanists contented themselves with advocating merely a return to classical studies, and had the Scholastics recognized that philosophy was not the only path to culture, it might have been possible to avoid a conflict. But, unfortunately for religion, there were extremists on both sides. On the one hand, some of the later Humanists, influenced largely by the low moral tone of the age, aimed at nothing less than the revival of Paganism, pure and simple; while, on the other, not a few of the Scholastics insisted strongly that Pagan literature, however perfect, should have no place in Christian education. Between these two conflicting parties stood a large body of educated men, both lay and cleric, who could see no irreconcilable opposition between Christianity and the study of the classics, and who aimed at establishing harmony by assigning to the classics the place in education willingly accorded to them by many of the Fathers of the Church.

But the influence of this latter body could not effect a reconciliation. A large section of the Humanists openly vindicated for themselves freedom from the intellectual and moral restraints imposed by Christianity. Laurentius Valla (1405-57) in his work, De Voluptate, championed free indulgence in all kinds of sensual pleasures, attacked virginity as a crime against the human race, and ridiculed the idea of continence and self-denial, while in his own life he showed himself a faithful disciple of the Epicureanism that he propounded in his writings. His denunciations, too, of the Popes as the usurping tyrants of Rome in his work on the Constantine Donation were likely to do serious injury to the head of the Church in his spiritual as well as in his temporal capacity. But bad as were the compositions of Valla, they were harmless when compared with the books and pamphlets of Beccadelli, the Panormite, who devoted himself almost exclusively to what was indecent and repulsive. Poggio Bracciolini in his work, Facetiae, and Filelfo, though not equally bad, belong to the same category. In the hands of these men the Renaissance had become, to a great extent, a glorification of Pagan immorality. Their books were condemned by many of the religious orders, but without avail. They were read and enjoyed by thousands, in whom the wholesale corruption prevalent in Florence, Siena, and Venice, had deadened all sense of morality.

A large number of the later Renaissance school were Christians only in name. If the great body of them were judged by the heathen figures and phraseology with which their works abound, they could hardly be acquitted of Pagan tendencies; but in case of many of them these excesses are to be attributed to pedantry rather than to defection from the faith. In case of others, however, although they were wary in their expressions lest they might forfeit their positions, Christian teaching seems to have lost its hold upon their minds and hearts. Carlo Marsuppini, Chancellor of Florence, Gemistos Plethon, the well- known exponent of Platonic philosophy, Marsilio Ficino, Rinaldo degli Albizzi, and the members of the Roman Academy (1460), under the leadership of Pomponius Laetus, were openly Pagan in their lives and writings. Had the men in authority in Italy been less depraved such teaching and example would have been suppressed with firmness; or had the vast body of the people been less sound in their attachment to Christianity, Neo-Paganism would have arisen triumphant from the religious chaos.

But not all of the Humanists belonged to the school of Valla, Beccadelli, Poggio, and Marsuppini. The Camaldolese monk, Ambrogio Traversari, his pupil Giannozzo Manetti (1431-59), a layman thoroughly devoted to the Church, and the first of the Humanists to turn his attention to the Oriental languages, Lionardo Bruni, so long Apostolic Secretary at the papal court and afterwards Chancellor of Florence, Maffeo Vegio (1407-58), the Roman archaeologist, who in his work on education endeavored to combine classical culture with Christian revelation, Vittorino da Feltre, a model in his life and methods for Christian teachers, Pico della Mirandola, Sadoleto, and Bida, were all prominent in the classical revival, but at the same time thoroughly loyal to the Church. They were the moderate men between the Pagan Humanists and the extreme Scholastics. Their aim was to promote learning and education, and to widen the field of knowledge by the introduction of the ancient literary masterpieces, not at the expense of an abandonment of Christianity, but under the auspices and in support of the Catholic Church. Following in the footsteps of Origen, St. Gregory, St. Basil, and St. Augustine, they knew how to admire the beauties of Pagan literature without accepting its spirit or ideals, and hence they have been called the Christian Humanists.

The revival of Greek in Italy, where Greek literature was practically unknown, is due in great measure to the arrival of Greek scholars, who were induced to come by promises of a salary and position, or who traveled thither on political or ecclesiastical missions. Of these the principal were Manuel Chruysoloras engaged at work in Florence from 1396, Cardinal Bessarion (1403?-72) who came westward for the Council of Florence and ended his days in Venice to which he bequeathed his library, Gemistos Plethon (1355-1450) the principal agent in the establishment of the Platonic academy at Florence, George of  Trebizond, Theodore Gaza, Lascaris, Andronicus Callistus, and others who fled from Greece to escape the domination of the Turks. With the help of these men and their pupils a knowledge of Greek and of Greek literature was diffused through Italy, and in a short time throughout the Continent. Everywhere collections of Greek manuscripts began to be formed; agents were sent to the East to buy them wherever they could be discovered, and copyists and translators were busy at work in all the leading centers of Italy. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 tended to help the Greek revival in the West by the dispersion of both scholars and manuscripts through Italy, France, and Germany.

Humanism owes its rapid development in Italy not indeed to the universities, for the universities, committed entirely to the Scholastic principles of education, were generally hostile, but rather to the exertions of wandering teachers and to the generous support of powerful patrons. In Rome it was the Popes who provided funds for the support of Humanist scholars, for the collection and copying of manuscripts, and for the erection of libraries where the great literary treasures of Greece and Rome might be available for the general public; in Florence it was the de' Medici, notably Cosmo (1429-64) and Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-92), by whose exertions Florence became the greatest centre of literary activity in Europe; in Milan it was the Viscontis and the Sforzas; in Urbino Duke Federigo and his friends; and in Ferrara and Mantua the families of d'Este and Gonzaga. Academies took the place of universities. Of these the academy of Florence, supported by the de' Medici and patronized by the leading Greek and Italian scholars, was by far the most influential and most widely known. The academy of Rome, founded (1460) by Pomponius Laetus, was frankly Pagan in its tone and as such was suppressed by Paul II. It was revived, however, and patronized by Sixtus IV., Julius II., and Leo X. Similar institutions were to be found in most of the Italian States, notably at Venice and Naples. In nearly all these cities valuable manuscript libraries were being amassed, and were placed generously at the disposal of scholars.

Another important aid to the popularization of the works of the Greek and Latin writers was the invention of printing and its introduction into Italy. The first printing press in Italy was established at the Benedictine monastery of Subiaco, whence it was transferred to Rome. From this press were issued editions of the Latin classics, such as the works of Lactantius, Caesar, Livy, Aulus Gellius, Virgil, Lucan, Cicero, and Ovid. Aldo Manuzio, himself an enthusiastic student of Greek literature, settled at Venice in 1490, and established a printing press with the intention of bringing out editions of the principal Greek authors. His house was the great centre for Greek scholars from all parts of Italy, and from the Aldine Press were issued cheap and accurate editions of the Greek classics. Later on when Florence and Milan were disturbed by the invasion of Charles VIII. of France (1483-98), and when Naples was captured by the Spaniards the Humanist movement found a generous patron in Leo X., a scion of de' Medici family. From the press founded by Leo X. many classical texts were issued till the pillaging of the city by the imperial troops in 1527 dealt a death blow to the revival in Italy.

That there was no opposition between the study of the classics and the teaching of Christianity is evidenced by the friendly attitude adopted by the Papacy towards the Humanist movement. The Avignon Popes, Benedict XII. (1334-42) and Clement VI. (1342-52), heaped honors and emoluments upon Petrarch and provided him with the means of acquiring manuscripts and of meeting scholars likely to assist him. A similar attitude towards the movement was adopted by Urban V. (1362-70). The leading classical scholars such as Coluccio, Salutati, Francesco Bruni, Lionardo d'Aretino, etc., were employed at the Papal court, and the apostolic college of secretaries became one of the greatest centers for the propagation of Humanism. The troubles that fell upon the Church during the Great Western Schism diverted the attention of the rival Popes from literary pursuits; but as soon as peace had been restored by the Council of Constance Martin V. (1417-31) assembled around him in Rome many of the ablest classical scholars, and vied with his cardinals in his protection of the Humanist movement. Eugene IV. (1431-47) was, if anything, more favorable, but yet his sympathies did not blind him to the dangerous tendencies of the revival as manifested in the books of men like Beccadelli.

With the election of Nicholas V. (1447-55) the triumph of Humanism at Rome seemed secure. The new Pope was himself one of the party. As a tutor in Florence he had been brought into contact with the great literary men of the time and had become an ardent student of the classics, nor did his enthusiasm lose any of its ardor when he ascended the Papal throne. His aim was to make Rome the intellectual as well as the religious capital of the world, and with this object in view he invited to his court the most distinguished scholars of the age, and bestowed upon not a few of them, such as Albergati, Capranica, and Caesarini the rank of cardinal. That he fully recognized the advantages which religion might derive from the revival of letters, and that he aimed at employing the services of the Humanists in defense of Christianity is evident from the works to which he directed the attention of scholars. The texts of the Scripture, the translations of the Greek Fathers, and the preparation of critical studies on the Lives of the Saints were amongst the works recommended to his literary friends. At the same time he did not proclaim war upon the less orthodox of the Humanist school. Men like Valla, Poggio, Filelfo, and Marsuppini were treated with friendliness and even with favor. Whether such a line of conduct was dictated by prudence and by the hope of winning over these scholars to a better understanding, or whether his anxiety for the success of his own literary schemes blinded him to the serious excesses of such leaders it is difficult to say; but, at any rate, it serves to show the great liberty enjoyed by literary men at this period even in the very city of the Popes.

As a means of ensuring to Rome the most prominent place in the revival, agents were dispatched to Greece, Turkey, Germany, France, and even to Sweden and Norway, to hunt for manuscripts. No expense was spared to secure everything that could be purchased or to have copies made where purchase was impossible. In order to preserve these treasures and make them available for scholars the Vatican Library was undertaken by orders of the Pope. Though long before this time the library of the Popes was of considerable importance, yet on account of the immense number of volumes produced by Nicholas V. he is generally regarded as the founder of the Vatican Library. The number of volumes which it contained at the time of his death is variously estimated at from one to nine thousand. The works of the Fathers of the Church, and the Scholastics and Canonists were well represented.

After the death of Nicholas V. the Pagan side of the Humanist movement became more and more apparent. Pius II. (1458-64), who, as Aeneas Sylvius, was well known as a clever writer of the Humanist school, seems as Pope to have been decidedly suspicious of his former friends. His own private library was filled with Christian authors, and care was taken to show favor only to those classical scholars whose writings were above reproach. Yet the cares of his office and the promotion of the crusade on which he had set his heart prevented him from taking the necessary steps for the purification of his court, and, as a result, many of the members of the College of Abbreviators were allowed to remain in office though they were really Pagan at heart. Paul II. could not tolerate such a state of affairs. He promptly abolished the College of Abbreviators, suppressed the Roman Academy, and arrested its two prominent leaders, Pomponius Laetus and Platina.

If Paul II. erred on the side of severity some of his successors went to the other extreme of laxity. The period of the political Popes, from Sixtus IV. to Julius II. (1471-1513), was marked by a serious decline in the religious spirit, nor can it be said that the policy of the Popes was calculated to check the downward tendency. Their attention was occupied too much by the politics of the petty Italian States to permit them to fulfill the duties of their high office; and, as a consequence, the interests of religion were neglected. Sixtus IV. adopted the friendly attitude of Nicholas V. towards the Renaissance. The College of Abbreviators was restored, the Roman Academy was recognized, and Platina was appointed librarian. The manuscripts in the Vatican Library were increased, more ample accommodation was provided, and every facility was given to scholars to consult the papal collection. Hence it is that Sixtus IV. is regarded generally as the second founder of the Vatican Library.

The revolutions and wars, caused by the invasion of Italy by the French and the Spaniards during the closing years of the fifteenth century and the early portion of the sixteenth, dealt a serious blow to Humanism in Florence, Milan, Venice, and other Italian centers. But the misfortunes of those cities served to strengthen the movement at Rome. Julius II. (1503-13) proved himself a generous patron of literature and in a special manner of art. Men like Giuliano da Sangello, Sansovino, Bramante, Michael Angelo, and Raphael were invited to Rome and induced to devote their genius to the service of religion and the glory of the Papacy. On the death of Julius II. in 1513 the complete triumph of the Humanist movement in Rome was assured by the election of Giovanni de' Medici who took the name of Leo X. (1513-21). As the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, to whom Florence owes its literary renown, and as the pupil of the celebrated Humanists, Poliziano and Marsilio Ficino, he was committed almost of necessity to the Humanist movement. Scholars and artists flocked to Rome from all sides to greet the new Pope and to assure themselves of his favor and protection. Under the new regime literary merit was the principal qualification sought for in candidates aspiring to the highest ecclesiastical honors. The Roman University was reorganized; the search for manuscripts was renewed with vigor; a new college for the promotion of Greek studies in Rome was founded, and the services of Lascaris and Musuro were secured; and artists like Raphael and Bramante received every encouragement. Humanism was at last triumphant in Rome, but, unfortunately, its triumph was secured at the expense of religion. Nor was Humanism destined to enjoy the fruits of the victory for a lengthened period. The outbreak of the Reformation and the capture of Rome by the soldiers of Charles V. turned the attention of the Popes to more pressing concerns.

The Renaissance movement in Germany is due largely to the influence of Italian scholars and to the teaching of the Brothers of the Common Life in their school at Deventer. The close political relations existing between the German States and the cities of Northern Italy, the mission of Petrarch to the court of Charles IV., the intermingling of German and Italian scholars at the councils of Constance, Florence, and Basle, and the exertions of Aeneas Sylvius, afterwards Pius II., during his term of office as Chancellor of Frederick III., helped largely to promote the study of the classics in Germany, especially when the invention and development of the art of printing had solved the difficulty of procuring manuscripts. As in Italy, Humanism owes much of its success to the generosity of powerful patrons such as the Emperor Maximilian I., Frederick Elector of Saxony and his kinsman, Duke George, Joachim I. of Brandenburg, and Philip of the Palatinate, Bishop John von Dalberg of Worms, and Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz; and as in Italy the academies were the most powerful means of disseminating classical culture, so also in Germany learned societies like the Rhenana, founded by Bishop Dalberg, and the Danubiana in Vienna, were most successful in promoting the literary propaganda.

But, unlike the Italian, the German revival was assisted largely by the universities. Basle, Erfurt, Heidelburg, and Leipzig showed unmistakably their sympathy towards the movement, and in a short time the programmes of university studies in nearly all the leading centers were modified in accordance with the new ideas of education. Scholasticism was obliged to make way for the classics and natural science. Cologne, alone in Germany, refused to abandon its old system, and, though not unfriendly to the classics, as is evident by the presence of Ortwin Gratius on its list of professors, still it showed itself highly distrustful of the tendencies of some of the Humanist leaders. Yet German Humanism had little, if anything, in common with the flagrant irreligion and immorality of the Italian school. With one or two exceptions German Humanists never assailed revealed religion as such, but attacked instead the prevailing educational system, which they held to be responsible for the widespread ignorance and general decline of the religious spirit. Many of the leading German scholars were exemplary in their moral character and in their loyalty to the Church, and few, even of those who were regarded as hostile, showed any sympathy with Luther once they understood that he aimed at revolt rather than reform.

Some of the greatest of the German Humanists differed from their Italian contemporaries also in the fact that they turned the intellectual revival into scientific channels, and made the study of the classics subservient to mathematical and astronomical research. Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1400-64), George Peurbach of Vienna (d. 1461), John Muller of Konigsberg (1436-76), better known by his Latin name Regiomontanus, and the great churchman and astronomer Copernicus (1473-1543) belonged to this section, which prepared the way for modern scientific developments. With these men religion and science went hand in hand.

On the purely literary side the most famous of the German Humanists were Conrad Celtes (1459-1508) the most active of the promoters of the classical revival beyond the Alps and one of the earliest of the German poets; Pirkeimer (1470-1528), who hoped for great things from the Lutheran movement at first, but having realised its real nature remained loyal to the Church; Mutianus Rufus (1471-1526), a canon of Gotha and at the same time a well-known free-thinker; Grotus Rubeanus (1480-1504), who at first favoured Luther; Jakob Wimpheling (1450-1528), and Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516), the learned historian and abbot of Sponheim; Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523), and Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522).

Of these the most important from the point of view of ecclesiastical history are von Hutten and Reuchlin. The former was born in the year 1488 and was sent for his education to the monastery of Fulda, from which he fled with very little mental equipment except a lasting hatred and distrust for all monks and ecclesiastics. As a wandering student he visited the leading centres of learning in Germany and Northern Italy, where he was particularly remarkable for his dissolute life, his ungovernable temper, and his biting sarcasm. Taking advantage of the rising spirit of unfriendliness between the Teuton and the Latin countries, he posed as a patriot burning with love for Germany and the Germans, and despising the French, the Italians, and in particular the Pope. Against the monks and theologians he directed his bitterest satires, to the delight of many, who did not foresee the dangers of such attacks at a time when the German nation generally was growing less friendly to the Papacy.

A dispute, which broke out about the destruction or suppression of Jewish books, afforded him a splendid opportunity of venting his spleen against the Church. A converted Jew of Cologne named Pfefferkorn advocated the suppression of all Jewish religious books except the Old Testament, as the best means of converting his former co-religionists. The Emperor, Maximilian, was not unwilling to listen to such advice supported as it was by the universities of Cologne, Mainz, and Erfut. Reuchlin, a professor of Heidelberg and himself a well-known Hebrew scholar, opposed such a policy as bad in itself and as injurious to the proper understanding of the Old Testament. A warm controversy thereupon ensued. The Dominicans of Cologne espoused the cause of Pfefferkorn, while the Humanists, scenting in the attack upon Jewish literature an onslaught directed against the entire literary revival, supported the contentions of Reuchlin. It was a war between two opposing schools--the Theologians and the Humanists; and, unfortunately for the Theologians, they had selected their ground badly, and were but poorly equipped for a battle in which victory was to be decided by popular opinion.

Reuchlin was summoned to appear before the Inquisitor to answer for the views put forward in his Augenspeigel (1511), and was condemned. He appealed to Rome, and the Bishop of Speier was ordered to investigate the case. The result was the acquittal of Reuchlin (1514), but his adversaries, having objected to the mode of trial, the case was transferred once more to the Roman courts. Meanwhile the controversy was carried on in Germany with great bitterness. Reuchlin published a volume of sympathetic letters received by him from the leading scholars of Germany, and Erasmus issued a new edition (1515) of his Praise of Folly (Encomium Moriae)  in which he ridiculed especially the monks and theologians.

But the book which was most damaging to the opponents of Humanism was beyond doubt the Epistolae virorum obscurorum. It was a work consisting of two volumes, the first brought out by Grotus Rubeanus in 1514, and the second mostly from the pen of Urich von Hutten (1517). Like Reuchlin's work it purported to be a collection of letters addressed by the theologians to Ortwin Gratius, the champion of Cologne university and, indeed, of the whole Scholastic party. It was full of bitterness and vulgarity, but, as a humorous caricature of the theologians, their arguments and modes of expression, it was calculated to make them ridiculous especially in the eyes of the university students. Against an attack of this kind serious arguments were unavailing, and, unfortunately, there was no apologist of theology capable of producing a reply couched in a strain similar to that of the Epistolae. Gratius himself did undertake the task in his Lamentationes obscurorum virorum, but without success, and undoubtedly in the eyes of the general public the victory rested with the Humanists. The whole controversy was extremely unfortunate, because it helped to blind many to the real issues at stake when the Lutheran movement began. By it the Theologians and Humanists were divided into two hostile camps, with the result that the latter were inclined to support Luther against their own former opponents and in vindication of the liberal policy which they had advocated; while the Theologian, having been discredited as narrow-minded obscurantists in the eyes of a large body of university men, were handicapped seriously in a struggle with Luther even though their struggle was for fundamental religious principles.

The most remarkable of the men, who, though not Germans, were closely identified with German Humanists, was Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1535). He was born at Rotterdam, was sent to school with the Brothers of the Common Life at Deventer, entered a monastery of the Canons Regular attracted by its library rather than by its rule, and left it after two years to become secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai. He studied classics at the University of Paris, and after his ordination as priest by the Bishop of Utrecht he became a tutor to an English nobleman. Later on he paid a visit to England, where he received a warm welcome from scholars like Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, Colet, Dean of St. Paul's, and Sir Thomas More, and where he was honoured by an appointment as Professor of Greek in Oxford. But the fever of travel was upon him. He returned to Paris, made a brief stay at Louvain, and started out to visit the leading literary centres of Italy, notably Bologna, Venice, and Rome, in the latter of which he was well received by Julius II.

On the accession of Henry VIII. he returned to England and lectured for some time at Cambridge. Later on he removed to Basle and settled down to the work of preparing editions of the New Testament and of the Fathers. The triumph of the Reformation party in Basle drove him for a time to seek a refuge in Freiburg, but he returned to die at Basle in 1536.

In his wanderings Erasmus was brought into contact with the leading scholars of France, England, Germany, and Italy, and was thoroughly acquainted with the lights and shadows of the Renaissance movement. In his knowledge of Greek he was surpassed by few of his contemporaries, and in the purity and ease of his Latin style he stood without a serious rival. Like many others of the Humanist school he delighted in attacking the ignorance of the monks and Scholastics, and in denouncing the abuses of the age, though, as was the case with most of the literary reformers of the time, his own life as an ecclesiastic was far from exemplary.

Yet Erasmus himself was never an enemy of Christianity, nor did he desire the overthrow of ecclesiastical authority. He did, indeed, advocate reform, and in his advocacy of reform he may have been carried too far at times, but in his heart Erasmus had little sympathy with doctrinal changes. Ignorance he believed to be at the root of the decline of religion, and hence he would have welcomed a complete change in the educational system of the Church. Instead of Scholasticism he advocated study of the Scriptures and of the early Fathers, and in order to prepare the way for such a policy he devoted himself at Basle to the task of preparing an edition of the New Testament and of the Greek Fathers. He was on terms of the closest intimacy with the leading Humanists of Germany, and shared all their contempt for scholastic theologians and much of their distrust of the Pope and the Roman Curia. Hence the sympathy and encouragement of Erasmus were not wanting to Luther during the early days of his revolt and before the true object of the movement was rightly understood; but once Erasmus realised that union with Luther meant separation from the Church he became more reserved in his approval, and finally took the field against him. In his work, De Libero Arbitrio, he opposed the teaching of Luther on free will, and before his death he received a benefice from Paul III. which he accepted, and an offer of a cardinal's hat which he declined. His life as an ecclesiastic was certainly not edifying, and his hatred of ignorance, antiquated educational methods, and abuses may have led him into excesses, but his theology was still the theology of the Middle Ages rather than that of the German Reformers.

In France the earliest of the Humanists were Nicholas of Clemanges and Gerson, both rectors of Paris University, and both well-known theologians. They were specially active in putting an end to the Great Western Schism, but in doing so they laid down certain principles that led almost inevitably to Gallicanism. The influence of these two men did not, however, change the policy of Paris University. For years France lagged behind in the classical movement, and it was only in the early portion of the sixteenth century that French Humanism made itself felt.

The movement gained ground by the exertions of individuals and of literary societies, by the results of the activity of the printing press, and the protection of influential patrons at the Court of Francis I. (1515-47). Paris University became more friendly to the classics, and eminent scholars like Lascaris and Aleandro were invited to lecture on Greek. The College of St. Barbe became a great classical stronghold within the university, and the movement began to develop so rapidly as to excite the jealousy and suspicions of the theologians. This unfortunate division was rendered more acute by the foundation of the College de France in 1529. It was handed over entirely to the Humanistic party in spite of the opposition of the more conservative school, and served as a centre for all kinds of literary, philological, and antiquarian researches.

The most eminent of the French Humanists were Budaeus (1467-1540), regarded in his own time as but slightly inferior to Erasmus, Germanus Brixius (Germain de Brie), Canon of Notre Dame and translator of portion of the works of St. John Chrysostom, Stephen Poncher, Bishop of Paris and advocate of the Humanist party at the Court of Francis I., the Dominican, William Petit, Robert (1503-59) and Henri (1528-98) Estienne (Stephanus) to whom we are indebted for the two monumental works, Thesaurus Linguae Latinae and Linguae Graecae, Scaliger (1540-1609) the well-known authority on chronology and epigraphy, and the philologist and classicist Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614).

In France there was a sharp rivalry from the beginning between the Scholastics and the Humanists. The university was divided into separate camps. The college of St. Barbe was opposed by the Montaigue College, the rector of which was the leader of the Scholastic party. The Humanists regarded the Theologians as antiquated, while the Theologians looked upon their opponents as supporters of the Reformation movement. In case of a few of these, as for example Lefevre d'Etaples, Gerard Roussel, and others, these suspicions were fully justified; but in case of many others their faith was sound, and however much they may have wavered in life they preferred to die at peace with the Church. To this latter section belongs Marguerite of Valois, sister of Francis I. She was a patroness of the Humanists and Reformers in Paris and was opposed undoubtedly to many Catholic practices; but it is not so clear that she wished for a religious revolution, and at any rate it is certain that she died a Catholic. This rivalry between the Theologians and Humanists and the misunderstandings to which it gave rise are largely responsible for the rapid development of Calvinism amongst certain classes of French society.

The classical movement in England is due largely to Italian influences, though the visit of the Greek Emperor Manuel in 1400, and the subsequent visits of Greek envoys and scholars must have contributed not a little to awaken an interest among English students in Greek studies. Individual Englishmen began to turn towards the great centres of Italian Humanism, and to return to their own country imbued with something of the literary zeal of their Italian masters. Of these the two who, more than others, contributed to give Greek and Latin a good standing in the schools of the country were William Selling and William Hadley, both Benedictine monks of Canterbury. They studied at Bologna, Padua and Rome, and were brought into contact with Politian and other distinguished Humanists. Selling was recognised as an accomplished Greek scholar, and on his return he set himself to remodel the course of studies at Canterbury so as to ensure for the classics their proper place. The influence of Canterbury and of Prior Selling helped very much to spread the classical revival in England.

Selling's most remarkable pupil was Thomas Linacre (1460-1524), who went to Oxford after having completed his early education at Canterbury, and was chosen Fellow of All Soul's College. Later on he accompanied his old master to Italy, where he had an opportunity of mastering the intricacies of Latin style from Politian, the tutor of the children of Lorenzo de' Medici, and of Greek from Demetrius Chalcondylas. He turned his attention to medicine and received a degree both at Padua and Oxford. His position at the courts of Henry VII. and Henry VIII. gave him an opportunity of enlisting the sympathies of the leading ecclesiastical and lay scholars of his day in favour of the literary revival. In his later years he was ordained priest and held some important ecclesiastical offices. Other distinguished scholars and patrons of the revival in England were Grocyn, a companion of Linacre at Oxford and in Italy and afterwards lecturer on Greek at Exeter College, Oxford; John Colet (1467-1519), Dean of St. Paul's, the friend of Budaeus, Erasmus, Linacre, and Grocyn, and founder of St. Paul's School; William Lilly, appointed by Dean Colet as first master in this school; Fisher (1459-1535) Bishop of Rochester; and Sir Thomas More (1480- 1535).

The Humanist movement in England, unlike the corresponding movement in Italy, was in no sense hostile to religion or to the Catholic Church. Many of its leaders desired reform, but not a single one of the prominent scholars of the period showed any sympathy with Luther's revolt. The very founders of the revival in England, Selling, Hadley, Linacre and Grocyn, were ecclesiastics whose faith was beyond suspicion; Colet died as he had lived, thoroughly devoted to the Church; while Fisher and Sir Thomas More sealed their loyalty to the ancient faith with their blood.

The revival in Spain owes much to the patronage of Queen Isabella and the exertions of Cardinal Ximenez (1436-1517). The leading universities, Seville, Alcala, and Salamanca, were not unfriendly, and the whole educational system was remodelled in favour of the classics. Cardinal Ximenez devoted himself to the preparation of the Polyglot edition of the Bible, the New Testament portion of which was printed so early as 1514, and the whole work was published in 1522. The leading Humanist scholars were Lebrixa, or as he is called in Latin Lebrissensis, Nunez, and Ludovico Vives (1492-1540), the latter of whom was deemed by his contemporaries not unworthy of being compared with Erasmus and Budaeus.

The Humanist movement and the general revival of literary, scientific, philological and historical studies to which it gave birth were not in themselves anti- eligious, nor did they find in the Catholic Church a determined opponent. Such studies, on the contrary, might have contributed much to promote a more enlightened understanding of theology, and more especially of the Scriptures, a fact which was understood thoroughly by the ablest ecclesiastics of the time. In Italy, Germany, France, and England, bishops and abbots vied with secular princes in their patronage of scholars, while the influence of the Popes, notably Nicholas V., Sixtus IV., Julius II., and Leo X. was entirely in favour of the Humanist party.

Yet, while all this is true, the Humanist movement did much, undoubtedly, to prepare men's minds for the great religious revolt of the sixteenth century. Springing into life as it did at a time when the faith of the Middle Ages was on the wane, and when many educated men were growing tired of the cold formalism and antiquated methods of the Schoolmen, it tended to develop a spirit of restless inquiry that could ill brook any restriction. The return to the classics recalled memories of an earlier civilisation and culture opposed in many particulars to the genius of Christianity, and the return of nature tended to push into the background the supernatural idea upon which the Christian religion is based. But the revival did more. The study of the classics brought into prominence serious problems regarding the authenticity, age, and value of certain writings and manuscripts, and by so doing it created a spirit of criticism and of doubt for which the Theologians of the day were but poorly prepared. In a word, it was a period of transition and of intellectual unrest, when new ideals in education were endeavouring to supplant the old ones, and when neither the friends of the old nor of the new had distinguished clearly between what was essential in Christianity and what was purely accidental.

In such a time it was to be expected that ardent Humanists, filled with their new-born zeal for classical studies, should advance too rapidly, and by confounding religion with the crude methods of some of its defenders should jump to the conclusion that a reconciliation between the revival and religion was impossible. Nor should it be a matter of surprise that the Theologians, confident in the strength of their own position and naturally suspicious of intellectual novelties, were not inclined to look with favour on a movement which owed its inspiration largely to Pagan sources. Moderate men, on the contrary, whether Humanists or Scholastics, aimed at a complete reconciliation. They realised that the great literary and scientific revival could do much for the defence of religion, and that the Pagan classics must be appraised according to Christian standards.

But this work of reconciliation was rendered very difficult by the attitude of extremists on both sides. Many of the Italian Humanists, as has been shown, were Christians only in name. In their writings and in their lives they showed clearly that they were thoroughly imbued with the spirit of Paganism. Such men merited severe condemnation, and it is to be regretted that the Popes, particularly Sixtus IV. and Leo X., did not adopt a firmer attitude towards this section of the Italian school. But before judging too harshly the friendly relations maintained by Sixtus IV. and Leo X. with the Italian Humanists, it is well to remember that the age in which they lived was noted for its general laxity and for the decline of a proper religious spirit, that the Pagan tone and Pagan forms of expression used by these writers were regarded as exhibitions of harmless pedantry rather than as clear proofs of opposition to Christianity, that most of these writers were always ready to explain away whatever might appear objectionable in their works, and that, finally, mildness in the circumstances may have been deemed the best policy. The attitude of the Popes at any rate prevented an open conflict between the representatives of the two schools in Italy until the outbreak of the Reformation and the invasion of Rome put an end to the danger by destroying the Humanist movement.

In Germany and France there were few traces of an anti-Christian tendency amongst the supporters of the new learning. But in both countries, more especially in the former, the supporters of the new learning criticised severely the ignorance of the monks and Theologians, and took little pains to conceal their contempt for the Scholastic methods of education. They blamed the Popes for their neglect of the true interests of the Church, and held them responsible in a large measure for the general decline of religion. According to them the study of theology must be reformed so as to give a more prominent place to the Scriptures and the writings of the early Fathers; the development of the internal spirit of religion as distinct from mere external formalism was to be encouraged, and many of the existing practices might be discarded as superstitious. Such views tended naturally to excite the opposition of the Theologians and to unsettle the religious convictions of educated men who watched the struggle with indifference.

In this way the ground was prepared for a complete religious revolt. Luther's movement was regarded by many as merely the logical sequence of Humanism, but that the Humanists themselves were not willing to accept this view is clear from the fact that once the early misunderstandings had been removed, and once the real issues were apparent, most of the Humanists in Germany and France remained true to the Church. Instead of regarding Luther as a friend they looked upon him as the worst enemy of their cause, and on the Reformation as the death-knell of the Renaissance.


This is taken from the History of the Catholic Church.





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