« 34.1 Christianity and Popular Education |Contents | 34.3 The Great Plague and the Dawn of Communism »

34.2 Europe Begins to Think for Itself

But though it is certain that the Catholic Church, through its Propagandas, its popular appeals, its schools and universities, opened up the prospect of the modern educational state in Europe, it is equally certain that the Catholic Church never intended to do anything of the sort. It did not send out knowledge with its blessing; it let it loose inadvertently. It was not the Roman Republic whose heir the Church esteemed itself, but the Roman Emperor. Its conception of education was not release, not an invitation to participate, but the subjugation of minds. Two of the greatest educators of the Middle Ages were indeed not churchmen at all, but monarchs and statesmen, Charlemagne and Alfred the Great of England, who made use of the church organization. But it was the church that had provided the organization. Church and monarchs in their mutual grapple for power were both calling to their aid the thoughts of the common man. In response to these conflicting appeals appeared the common man, the unofficial outside independent man thinking for himself.

Already in the thirteenth century we have seen Pope Gregory IX and the Emperor Frederick II engaging in a violent public controversy. Already then there was a sense that a new arbitrator greater than pope or monarchy had come into the world, that there were readers and a public opinion. The exodus of the popes to Avignon, and the divisions and disorders of the Papacy during the fourteenth century, stimulated this free judgment upon authority throughout Europe enormously.

At first the current criticism upon the church concerned only moral and material things. The wealth and luxury of the higher clergy and the heavy papal taxation were the chief grounds of complaint. And the earlier attempts to restore Christian simplicity, the foundation of the Franciscans, for example, were not movements of separation, but movements of revival. Only later did a deeper and more distinctive criticism develop which attacked the central fact of the church’s teaching and the justification of priestly importance; namely, the sacrifice of the mass.

We have sketched in broad outlines the early beginnings of Christianity, and we have shown how rapidly that difficult and austere conception of the Kingdom of God, which was the central idea of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, was overlaid by a revival of the ancient sacrificial idea, a doctrine more difficult indeed to grasp, but easier to reconcile with the habits and dispositions and acquiescences of everyday life in the Near East. We have noted how a sort of theocrasia went on between Christianity and Judaism and the cult of the Serapeum, and Mithraism and other competing cults, by which the Mithraist Sunday, the Jewish idea of blood as a religious essential, the Alexandrian importance of the Mother of God, the shaven and fasting priest, self-tormenting asceticism, and many other matters of belief and ritual and practice, became grafted upon the developing religion. These adaptations, no doubt, made the new teaching much more understandable and acceptable in Egypt and Syria and the like. They were things in the way of thought of the dark-white Mediterranean race; they were congenial to that type. But as we have shown in our story of Muhammad, these acquisitions did not make Christianity more acceptable to the Arab nomads; to them these features made it disgusting. And so, too, the robed and shaven monk and nun and priest seem to have roused something like an instinctive hostility in the Nordic barbarians of the North and West. We have noted the peculiar bias of the early Anglo-Saxons and Northmen against the monks and nuns. They seem to have felt that the lives and habits of these devotees were queer and unnatural.

The clash between what we may call the «dark-white» factors and the newer elements in Christianity was no doubt intensified by Pope Gregory VII’s imposition of celibacy upon the Catholic priests in the eleventh century. The East had known religious celibates for thousands of years; in the West they were regarded with scepticism and suspicion.

And now in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as the lay mind of the Nordic peoples began to acquire learning, to read and write and express itself, and as it came into touch with the stimulating activities of the Arab mind, we find a much more formidable criticism of Catholicism beginning, an intellectual attack upon the priest as priest, and upon the ceremony of the mass as the central fact of the religious life, coupled with a demand for a return to the personal teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels.

We have already mentioned the career of the Englishman Wycliffe (c. 1320-1384), and how he translated the Bible into English in order to set up a counter authority to that of the Pope. He denounced the doctrines of the church about the mass as disastrous error, and particularly the teaching that the consecrated bread eaten in that ceremony becomes in some magical way the actual body of Christ. We will not pursue the question of transubstantiation, as this process of the mystical change of the elements in the sacrament is called into its intricacies. These are matters for the theological specialist. But it will be obvious that any doctrine, such as the Catholic doctrine, which makes the consecration of the elements in the sacrament a miraculous process performed by the priest, and only to be performed by the priest, and which makes the sacrament the central necessity of the religious system, enhances the importance of the priestly order enormously. On the other hand, the view, which was the typical «Protestant» view, that this sacrament is a mere eating of bread and drinking of wine as a personal remembrance of Jesus of Nazareth, does away at last with any particular need for a consecrated priest at all. Wycliffe himself did not go to this extremity; he was a priest, and he remained a priest to the end of his life, be held that God was spiritually if not substantially present in the consecrated bread, but his doctrine raised a question that carried men far beyond his positions. From the point of view of the historian, the struggle against Rome that Wycliffe opened became very speedily a struggle of what one may call rational or layman’s religion making its appeal to the free intelligence and the free conscience in mankind, against authoritative, traditional, ceremonial, and priestly religion. The ultimate tendency of this complicated struggle was to strip Christianity as bare as Islam of every vestige of ancient priestcraft, to revert to the Bible documents as authority, and to recover, if possible, the primordial teachings of Jesus. Most of its issues are still undecided among Christians to this day.

Wycliffe’s writings had nowhere more influence than in Bohemia. About 1396 a learned Czech, John Huss, delivered a series of lectures in the university of Prague based upon the doctrines of the great Oxford teacher. Huss became rector of the university, and his teachings roused the church to excommunicate him (1412). This was at the time of the Great Schism, just before the Council of Constance (1414-1418) gathered to discuss the scandalous disorder of the church. We have already told how the schism was ended by the election of Martin V. The council aspired to reunite Christendom completely. But the methods by which it sought this reunion jar with our modern consciences. Wycliffe’s bones were condemned to be burnt. Huss was decoyed to Constance under promise of a safe conduct, and he was then put upon his trial for heresy. He was ordered to recant certain of his opinions. He replied that he could not recant until he was convinced of his error. He was told that it was his duty to recant if his superiors required it of him, whether he was convinced or not. He refused to accept this view. In spite of the Emperor’s safe conduct, he was burnt alive (1415), a martyr not for any specific doctrine, but for the free intelligence and free conscience of mankind.

It would be impossible to put the issue between priest and anti-priest more clearly than it was put at this trial of John Huss, nor to demonstrate more completely the evil spirit in priestcraft. A colleague of Huss, Jerome of Prague, was burnt in the following year.

These outrages were followed by an insurrection of the Hussites in Bohemia (1419), the first of a series of religious wars that marked the breaking-up of Christendom. In 1420 the Pope, Martin V, issued a bull proclaiming a crusade «for the destruction of the Wycliffites, Hussites, and all other heretics in Bohemia», and attracted by this invitation the unemployed soldiers of fortune and all the drifting blackguardism of Europe converged upon that valiant country. They found in Bohemia, under its great leader Ziska, more hardship and less loot than crusaders were disposed to face. The Hussites were conducting their -affairs upon extreme democratic lines, and the whole country was aflame with enthusiasm. The crusaders beleaguered Prague, but failed to take it, and they experienced a series of reverses that ended in their retreat from Bohemia. A second crusade (1421) was no more successful. Two other crusades failed. Then unhappily the Hussites fell into internal dissensions. Encouraged by this, a fifth crusade (1431) crossed the frontier under Frederick Margrave of Brandenburg.

The army of these crusaders, According to the lowest estimates, consisted of 90,000 infantry and 40,000 horsemen. Attacking Bohemia from the west, they first laid siege to the town of Tachov, but failing to capture the strongly fortified city, they stormed the little town of Most, and here, as well as in the surrounding country, committed the most horrible atrocities on a population a large part of which was entirely innocent of any form of theology whatever. The crusaders, advancing by slow marches, penetrated further into Bohemia, till they reached the neighbourhood of the town of Domazlice (Tauss). «It was at three o’clock on August 14th, 1431, that the crusaders, who where encamped in the plain between Domazlice and Horsuv Tyn, received the news that the Hussites, under the leadership of Prokop the Great, were approaching. Though the Bohemians were still four miles off, the rattle of their war-wagons and the song, ‘All ye warriors of God,’ which their whole host was chanting, could already be heard». The enthusiasm of the crusaders evaporated with astounding rapidity. Lützow[1] describes how the papal representative and the Duke of Saxony ascended a convenient hill to inspect the battlefleld. It was, they discovered, not going to be a battlefield.

The German camp was in utter confusion. Horsemen were streaming off in every direction, and the clatter of empty wagons being driven off almost drowned the sound of that terrible singing. The crusaders were abandoning even their loot. Came a message from the Margrave of Brandenburg advising flight; there was no holding any of their troops. They were dangerous now only to their own side, and the papal representative spent an unpleasant night hiding from them in the forest. . . . So ended the Bohemian crusade.

In 1434 civil war again broke out, among the Hussites, in which the extreme and most valiant section was defeated, and in 1436 an agreement was patched up between the Council of Basle and the moderate Hussites, in which the Bohemian church was allowed to retain certain distinctions from the general Catholic practice, which held good until the German Reformation in the sixteenth century.

[1]Lützow’s Bohemia

« 34.1 Christianity and Popular Education |Contents | 34.3 The Great Plague and the Dawn of Communism »

comments powered by Disqus

Table Of Contents