The Fifteenth Century


The fifteenth century is best known as the age of the Renaissance, which in many ways sowed seeds that would bloom into the sixteenth-century Reformation. This aspect of history was well captured in the sixteenth-century saying “Erasmus [prince of Renaissance writers] laid the egg and Luther hatched it.”

Defining the Renaissance

The Renaissance (“rebirth”) was not primarily a religious phenomenon, although it had religious elements. Actually, it is hard to define exactly what the Renaissance was; its character varied from one land to another, and even from one individual to another. Perhaps the nearest we can get to the heart of the Renaissance is to say that it was focused on retrieving ancient “classical” Greek and Roman culture for the present generation. The Renaissance involved a revival of classical forms of thought, expression, and action in grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and philosophy.

Renaissance thinkers saw these as the powers that transformed human nature’s raw material into the refined perfection of the cultured person. They placed a special emphasis on humans as communicators; the effective expression of thoughts and values in writing, speech, music, and visual art was central to the Renaissance vision.

Christian Humanism

In the nineteenth century, the German thinker F.J. Niethammer coined the term humanism to sum up this Renaissance conception of culture and life. We must not confuse it with today’s philosophy of secular humanism, which is anti-Christian. Most of the humanists of the Renaissance were Christian humanists. Their commitment to human culture was generally part of their Christian worldview, which saw a God-given meaning and value in the present life, as well as in the life to come.

Renaissance humanists looked back to the civilization of ancient Greece and Rome as the golden age of human culture. This golden age, they believed, had to be reborn in the present if humankind was to fulfill its potential. Growing out of this outlook, the Renaissance witnessed a fresh optimism about the possibilities of human achievement in art, music, literature, education, science, and government. This brought with it a reaction against the medieval monastic ideal of poverty, asceticism, and contemplation in favor of an active and productive life in the world. A new fascination for the individual person and a new stress on self-expression and self-development also appeared. These, in turn, gave rise to a flourishing of non-religious portraits and biographies.

Some Renaissance humanists simply wanted to restore the human-centered spirit of classical paganism. However, the Christian humanists did not limit their admiration to the pagan writers of the classical age. They wanted to go back to all the sources of Western European civilization, Christian as well as pagan. So they dug afresh into the riches of the Greek New Testament and the early church fathers. The Apostolic and patristic (church father) periods, in their eyes, represented a spiritual golden age.

This humanist quest for the life-giving wellsprings of culture, both pagan and Christian, found expression in the Latin phrase ad fontes, or “back to the sources.”

The Greek Revival

The Italian poet Francesco Petrarch (1304–74) heralded the revival of interest in ancient Latin culture; we looked at him in a previous Tabletalk issue on the fourteenth century (July 2014). There was soon a parallel renewal of enthusiasm for ancient Greek culture. This sprang up in the northern Italian city of Florence, especially through a number of Greek scholars who fled from the embattled Byzantine Empire and settled in Florence. Byzantium was the last remnant of the Eastern Greek-speaking Roman Empire, terminally threatened in the fifteenth century by the expanding Islamic empire of the Ottoman Turks. Eventually, Byzantium was extinguished in 1453 when its capital city, Constantinople, fell to the Ottomans.

These exiled Greek scholars from the East brought with them precious Greek manuscripts and a living knowledge of the Greek language. The most outstanding was Manuel Chrysoloras (c. 1355–1415), who lectured at Florence University, inspiring a new generation of Italian humanists. Also important was Gemistos Plethon (c. 1355–1450), who lectured in Florence on the philosophy of Plato.

The popularity of Greek studies in general, and of Plato in particular, reached its height in 1462 in the founding of Florence’s Platonic Academy, dedicated to discussing and spreading Platonism. Plethon dreamed up the idea of the academy; its director was Marsilio Ficino (1433–99), a priest whose theology was a potent blend of Christianity and neo-Platonism. Ficino translated into Latin the complete writings of Plato and the neo-Platonists, while his own influential treatises argued that Platonic philosophy was the divinely inspired partner of the Christian faith.

Lorenzo Valla

It was also in Renaissance Italy that the revival of interest in the early church first flowered. Important figures here were Ambrogio Traversari (1386–1439), a Florentine monk and one of the pioneer Renaissance students of Hebrew; John Bessarion (1403–72), a Byzantine archbishop who became a cardinal of the Roman church; Leonardo Bruni (1370–1444), a Florentine politician, historian, and enthusiast for Plato; and, towering above them all, Lorenzo Valla (1406–57).

Valla was a native of Rome who was ordained to the priesthood in 1431 and thereafter engaged in a life of lecturing, study, and writing financed by Pope Nicholas V and King Alphonso I of Naples. Valla combined a zeal for the early church father Augustine, a ground-breaking study of the Greek text of the New Testament, and a highly critical attitude to some ancient Roman Catholic traditions. His two greatest works were Concerning the False Credit and Eminence of the Donation of Constantine (1440) and Annotations on the New Testament (1505). In the first of these works, Valla exposed as a forgery the so-called Donation of Constantine, which popes had used for seven hundred years to back up their exalted political claims. Valla argued that the papacy should renounce all political power and become a purely spiritual institution. Annotations on the New Testament, published by Erasmus in 1505, consisted of a critical comparison of the Greek New Testament and the Vulgate, pointing out the latter’s many errors.

The Renaissance in Art

Florence was the chief center of the Italian Renaissance, but it took root in other cities as well, especially Rome. From the mid-fifteenth century, a series of “Renaissance popes” gave strong financial backing to the humanist cause. The first was Nicholas V (1447–55), Valla’s patron, who in 1453 founded the famous Vatican Library, soon to be home to the world’s greatest collection of books. The Renaissance popes made Rome into the vibrant heart of Italy’s artistic world with music, painting, sculpture, and architecture all lavishly supported by the papacy. Unfortunately, the popes’ zeal for the arts was not usually matched by a corresponding zeal for holiness; most of them lived scandalously immoral lives.

The Renaissance particularly affected the visual arts. In the Middle Ages, most artists had limited themselves to religious subjects, but Renaissance artists painted landscapes, scenes from everyday life, and individual portraits of people who were not saints or kings. They took great care to ensure the people they depicted looked like real human beings in natural settings. Religious subjects received the same treatment. For the first time, artists depicted biblical scenes and characters, including Jesus Himself, in a natural and realistic way.

Famous Italian Renaissance painters and sculptors included Fra Angelico (c. 1400–1455), Donatello (c. 1386–1466), Sandro Botticelli (c. 1444–1510), Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Raphael (1483–1520), Michelangelo (1475–1564), and Titian (c. 1477–1576), all of whom are among the greatest artists who have ever lived.

The Printing Press Revolution

From the closing decades of the fifteenth century, the Renaissance overflowed into the rest of Europe. One of the main reasons that humanist ideals spread so effectively from their Italian heartland was the invention of printing by movable type. In about 1450, Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1395–1468) of Mainz, Germany, set up the first such European printing press, and the first book he printed was the Bible. By 1500, more than two hundred presses were operating throughout Europe.

We can hardly overstate the cultural revolution this effected. Gone were the days when scribes had to copy books by hand. For the first time, a publisher could make thousands of copies of a book easily and quickly and then put them into mass circulation. This meant that ideas could spread more swiftly; it also meant that literacy became more highly valued.

The German Renaissance

Apart from Italy, the region of Europe where the Renaissance made the deepest impact was Germany. Here, the Renaissance was more fully Christian than in Italy. The German humanists created an intimate alliance between the pagan and Christian elements of classical culture. From its pagan elements, they derived models of literary style, Platonic philosophy, and ideals of political citizenship. From its Christian elements, they shaped a concept of Christian spirituality that emphasized the study of the New Testament, a simple Christ-centered faith, the abiding value of the early church fathers, and the importance of serving God in the world rather than retreating into a monastery.

German humanists developed these concerns in conscious antagonism to the “scholastic” theology taught in Europe’s universities in the later Middle Ages. Scholasticism, they believed, was as a distortion of the gospel, which seduced people from the simplicity of Christ into a barren wasteland of abstract arguments. The German Renaissance also moved away from the medieval tendency to interpret Scripture in an allegorical way (looking for deep, hidden spiritual meanings), placing a fresh emphasis on the “grammatical-historical” interpretation (understanding the Bible’s words and statements primarily in their ordinary, obvious sense).

Out of this alliance of the pagan and Christian aspects of classical culture, the German humanists fashioned a vision for the reformation of society. They hoped, through education, to purify people’s minds of ignorance and superstition and bring them up as godly and useful Christian citizens who would glorify God through their various gifts here on earth as artists, politicians, teachers, merchants, craftsmen, homemakers, and so on.

The Eve of the Reformation

As the sixteenth century approached, a variety of figures worked for the reformation of Christian teaching and living in Europe. Many of the Christian humanists were devoted to this purpose. In Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic), Jan Hus and the Hussites had made the embryonic “Protestant” ideals of the English Reformer John Wycliffe into a national reality. Outside of Bohemia, others anticipated many of the sixteenth-century Reformation’s convictions.

John of Wesel (1400–1481)

John of Wesel was born at Oberwesel on the Rhine (western Germany), lectured at Basel University in Switzerland, and in 1463 was appointed a preacher in Worms Cathedral in Germany. His criticisms of medieval Roman Catholic theology were many and bold. John taught that Scripture alone was the source of Christian teaching, and that popes and councils should not be followed if they contradicted Scripture. He defined the church as the whole body of believers, not the ecclesiastical organization headed by the papacy. He also rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation, indulgences, and the mandatory celibacy of the clergy.

Church authorities could not remain silent in the face of such criticisms. In 1479, the Inquisition in Mainz put John on trial. His frailty (he was seventy-nine years old) proved unequal to the persuasive powers of the Inquisition, and he agreed to recant his heresies in a public statement. The authorities burned all his writings.

Wessel Gansfort (1419–89)

Born at Groningen in the Netherlands, Wessel Gansfort studied in various universities before lecturing in Heidelberg and Paris. He was a pioneer humanist and an expert in Greek and Hebrew. In theology, Gansfort was at first a disciple of Thomas Aquinas, but he later turned to Augustine of Hippo as a safer guide. He went back to Groningen in about 1474 to act as spiritual director in the Mount St. Agnes monastery.

Gansfort’s preaching and teaching attracted a wide circle of admirers. As John of Wesel did, he made probing criticisms of medieval Roman Catholic doctrine. He denied the infallibility both of the papacy and of general church councils. He defined the church as the entire company of believers, not the organization headed by the papacy. He accepted the sacrifice of the Mass, but he also maintained that Christ was present in the bread and wine for believers only. A strong Augustinian, he upheld salvation by God’s sovereign grace, rejected indulgences, and even taught a doctrine of justification by faith, though it was somewhat confused.

Gansfort was more fortunate than John of Wesel in escaping the Inquisition; he died peacefully. None of Gansfort’s writings were printed until the Reformation, when Luther issued an edition with an admiring preface by himself.

Girolamo Savonarola (1452–98)

Girolamo Savonarola was a native of the Italian Renaissance city of Ferrara who in 1474 became a Dominican friar. In 1491, he was appointed prior of San Marco, a Dominican convent in Florence. His preaching was so popular that it gave him almost complete power over the city, especially after its ruling family, the Medici, fled from a French invasion in 1494.

Savonarola’s popularity was not because his sermons flattered people; no one denounced sin or warned of divine judgment as sternly as he did. His moral reforms made the city of Florence into a sort of monastic community. Famously, in 1496, the citizens of Florence burned in a public fire (the “bonfire of the vanities”) all their pornography, cosmetics, and things used for gambling. Savonarola also carried out far-reaching political reforms, drawing up a new democratic constitution for Florence.

In 1495, a fierce quarrel broke out between Savonarola and Pope Alexander VI. Alexander did not like Savonarola’s claim to be a heaven-sent messenger of Christ or the friar’s involvement in politics. (Alexander was also under the influence of the Medici, who wanted to regain their power in Florence.) He commanded Savonarola to stop preaching. Savonarola refused to obey, denounced Alexander as a servant of Satan, and began preaching against the corruptions of the papal court. Alexander excommunicated Savonarola in 1497. Savonarola appealed to a general council of the church.

The pope finally won his battle with Savonarola, who was burned at the stake on May 23, 1498. He was not really a theological reformer like John of Wesel or Wessel Gansfort; he still accepted the basic doctrines of medieval Roman Catholicism. Even so, Luther and others regarded Savonarola as a forerunner of the Reformation for two reasons. First, Savonarola was a strong Augustinian in his understanding of God’s sovereign grace. Second, he defied the papacy and paid with his life.

The Modern Way

The devotio moderna—the “modern way of serving God”—was a movement of (largely) lay piety originating in the late fourteenth century in the Netherlands and blossoming in the fifteenth century. It was marked by a sense of God’s personal nearness to the individual and a focusing of the mind on Jesus’ life and sufferings as recorded in the Gospels.

The most influential writing to emerge from this movement was The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471). Thomas was born in Kempen, northwestern Germany. In 1399, he joined the Mount St. Agnes community near Zwolle in the Netherlands. His elder brother was the prior of the community. Thomas studied the Bible and the early church fathers, preached eloquent sermons, and wrote many works on spiritual life such as Prayers and Meditations on the Life of Christ.

Thomas’ most enduring work is The Imitation of Christ. It has been translated into more languages than any other Christian book except the Bible. Rooted in a deep knowledge of the Scriptures and bathed in the spirituality of Augustine, the Imitation is a handbook on how to live an authentic Christian life. It is simple, direct (addressed to “you,” the reader), and governed by two great imperatives: (1) setting the heart on eternal realities, and (2) walking with Jesus in every aspect of daily life.

Thomas’ masterpiece has found wide acceptance among Protestants, despite the strong medieval Roman Catholic emphasis the Imitation places on the Mass. Perhaps its intensely personal depiction of the believer’s relationship with Jesus has enabled it to transcend certain boundaries among all who know Thomas’ Jesus, even if they do not share Thomas’ Roman Catholic doctrines.

The Witch Craze

The age of the Renaissance launched a heartfelt quest for a simpler, more rational, and more Scriptural piety. Yet oddly, the Renaissance also witnessed the birth of a mania that was to sweep across Western society for the next three hundred years—the witch craze. Fear and panic about the existence and activities of witches gripped almost every level of society.

People today often think that belief in witchcraft was a “medieval superstition.” This is far from the case. Heresy, not witchcraft, was the great dread of the medieval period. When the Inquisition was founded in 1215, it made no mention of witches. It was only in the fifteenth century that witchcraft replaced heresy as the ultimate enemy.

There was growing unease about witches in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but it was not until the fifteenth century that the church began to view witchcraft as requiring special treatment. In 1370–80, the Inquisition decreed in a series of tracts that witchcraft must be dealt with as severely as heresy. This was the first trickle. A hundred years later, in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII (1484–92) published one of the most famous papal bulls, Summis desiderantes, which made the burning of witches official Catholic policy. The trickle had become a flood.

In 1486, the most influential book ever written about witchcraft appeared: the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the witches), constantly reprinted throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The authors were high-ranking inquisitors, the Dominican friars Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. Here was everything anyone could want to know about witches and how to deal with them. Stories about occult powers that a previous generation had dismissed as weird delusions were now embraced as horrific fact and described in lurid detail. Modern readers will need a strong stomach to read the Malleus Maleficarum.

Kramer and Sprenger were particularly harsh toward women: there were ten female witches for every male one, they declared. Bad weather, crop failures, famines, droughts, infant mortality, sterility among humans and farm animals—witches were, it was said, the cause of all these. Society had to exterminate them for its own safety. One scholarly estimate puts the total number of victims throughout the period at between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand.

The witch craze was as fierce in countries that accepted the Reformation as it was in Roman Catholic lands. In Calvin’s Geneva, for instance, two or three women were executed each year for witchcraft. The most notorious Protestant episodes took place in Puritan England and Puritan America. During the English Civil War, the “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins excelled all other “witchfinders” in uncovering Satan’s agents. For example, in the summer of 1645, twenty-nine women were cited for witchcraft by Hopkins; nineteen were executed.

Puritan America supplies the more infamous episode at the village of Salem, Mass., in 1692. There, twenty people were put to death. Fortunately, some Puritan clergymen kept their cool, and outspoken criticism by Increase Mather helped bring the proceedings to a swift end. Five years later, one of the Salem judges, Samuel Sewall, publicly confessed to his church how deluded he had been to take part in such an outburst of public hysteria. His confession is one of the most moving testimonies to the power of the witch craze—no medieval superstition, but one that bloomed in the Renaissance and Reformation.

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