Howdy folks? Here is a second installment of our series discussing random time periods in European history, following a neo-romantic turn that saw the birth of Europe’s first superhuman in 1816. This time we are flying off to 1517, a year which, save for the smell and the pitchforks, can be considered an identical twin of 2017. Sit back and enjoy a vivid tale of depravity, religious zeal and foolishness like no other.
CHAPTER II: 1517
The New World
Due to good weather 1517 was particularly ripe for travel. With America freshly discovered, it was up to the pioneers to go on-site and discover whether the jungles are habitable and if they have oil. Someone named Thomas Splurt, a British admiral, reached Hudson Bay and continued inland to find a bunch of weirdos with slanted eyes smoking pot and dancing around fires, a practice embraced centuries later by anti-war protestors. Splurt heard rumors among the locals of a magical city deep into the jungle, where he could find a good hotel and a piece of mind. After an exhausting journey through mountain, bush and prairie, Splurt, as disheveled and weary as he was, finally got it – there was nothing on this continent, nothing but a Godless desert. Perfect, he said to himself. Meanwhile, back at home a major religious debate was threatening to snatch the souls of laymen from the clutches of extreme ignorance.
The Wittenberg firebrand
It all started with the unyielding drive of the Papacy for reinvention. After returning from the dungeons of Avignon, a small castle in the lesser Kingdom of Arelat, where seven consecutive Popes were forced to swap the grandeur of Rome for a simple life in the countryside, the Pontificate craved for a fresh start. The initial idea was to fix St. Peter’s Basilica, the former Papal headquarters, which had fallen into disrepair during the decades of exile. However, the building was considered too mundane for the times, plus the ambitious Pope Julian decided it would be nice to build a giant tomb for himself. Soon new plans emerged envisaging the demolition of the ancient basilica and the construction of the biggest, baddest temple of worship the world has ever seen.
Of course, as any plan of such scale it needed plenty of cash. Initially, construction was done using bricks from the nearby Colosseum, which was gnawed to its current state as a consequence. However, when it eventually became clear that money will not suffice, the Papacy reverted to what it did best to ensure the completion of the project – selling its position as a medium between God and death-fearing peasants.
A clever plan was conceived by the chief Papal economist, based on the notion of original sin: laymen are sinful by default, they tend to sin more during their wretched existence and, hence, try desperately to gloss it over by doing good. So, why not, for a small price, help them alleviate the punishment and save them time and energy by certifying their good deeds on the spot, relieving them of the actual responsibility to act?
“There was no escape from those punks, you go to the toilet and a priest pops up trying to sell you at half-price remission of your penance for having looked at the neighbor’s bosom the previous day. Sometimes they would even hide the water bucket and return it only after you have bought one or two of the damn things”
The marketing campaign did not remain unnoticed. Martin Luther, an acerbic young lad in a love-hate relationship with reason, which he rejected in favor of pure faith, developed a distaste for the strong commercial messages. Luther felt particularly exasperated by the increasingly invasive methods used by the Catholic church to sell certificates. As he wrote in one of his early manuscripts: “There was no escape from those punks, you go to the toilet and a preacher pops up trying to sell you at half-price remission of your penance for having looked at the neighbor’s bosom the previous day. Sometimes they would even hide the water bucket and return it only after you have bought one or two of the damn things”. The turning point for Luther, however, was when, in his own words, one day he looked himself in the mirror and instead of his own reflection saw a hooded figure with a stack of parchment up his sleeve. “That was when I realized something had to be done, it was high time I took action”.
Laymen do not need to do anything to be granted pardon for their sins, Luther argued, they just need to sit still, relax and believe. Suffering is inescapable and they would not be able to do much about it if they helped the next-door babushka to cross the road or even if they fed an army of orphans.
Luther, himself a monk and a trained theologian, decided to use the only means he had at his disposal to counter the pest. He put together a list of ninety-five theses, which he stuck to the gate of Wittenberg Uni in hope of provoking an academic debate on the usefulness of punishment remittance provided with the ongoing certification. Laymen do not need to do anything to be granted pardon for their sins, Luther argued, they just need to sit still, relax and believe. Suffering is inescapable and they would not be able to do much about it if they helped the next-door babushka to cross the road or even if they fed an army of orphans.
Needless to say, the Catholic church did not like somebody poking at its plans, especially with the building of St. Peter’s halfway through. One thing led to another, and, as it often happens, a trivial discussion about selling certificates turned into a fully-fledged debate regarding the legitimacy of the ecclesiastical institution, which, according to Luther, was subject to reform. And soon. Luther was consequently outlawed by both Pope and emperor.
Little is known about the life of Martin Luther as an outlaw. Scarce reports see him making a living by preaching protest against the church on the side or selling the Bible to laymen, which he had to translate from Latin to the peasant Saxe dialect, as the locals were unable to read high language. He also got into a bitter quarrel with Erasmus Plus of Rotterdam, another critic who questioned the abuses of the church, but who refused to go the full nine yards, claiming that a middle way was possible. Deeply concerned about Luther’s mental health, Erasmus argued that denying laymen free will is not good for the morale. The latter should be able to know evil and decide for themselves how it feels (good, according to most accounts) and whether it is better to avoid it or give in to it and search a path to salvation afterwards. Luther turned green and spewed a fiery work, where he insisted that laymen were sinful by nature, were unable to redeem themselves and nothing was able to change that, except possibly God, but only on workdays. 500 years later a conglomeration of nation states in Europe would embrace Erasmus’s logic over that of Luther, both in terms of trying to find a middle way that works and giving in to sin.
At one point Luther reportedly died, and was reborn as a civil rights activist somewhere in the New World.
End of chapter 1517. On to chapter 681.
Cover photo: thierry ehrmann (Flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0