Setting the Stage
by Ryan Reeves
Of all the centuries of church history, the fifteenth century is one of the most pitiable. In popular imagination, it is a bridge between the medieval and the Reformation worlds. And while it may be important for the journey, few stop to admire a bridge.
We need to avoid this perspective if we are to understand the transition between the medieval and Reformation ages. The fifteenth century was an era of destruction and exploration. In Africa, the rapid expansion of Islam brought first pressure and then destruction to the kingdoms of Nubia—an expression of Christianity that stretched back to the expansion of the faith in the Roman Empire from the second half of the fourth century and beyond. Local Christian faith likely dated as far back as the early fourth century, if not earlier. The Ethiopian Church to this day dates itself to the first-century expansion of the faith, and if this is true, it would make this branch of the church the only extant pre-colonial expression of the faith in Africa. The centuries of Christian witness, though, came under fire with the expansion of the Arab empire during the later Middle Ages, which brought pressure to the church, and eventually led to the collapse of the final Nubian kingdom in 1504 and the loss in our collective memory of this important African branch of the Christian heritage.
In the fifteenth century, Columbus “sailed the ocean blue.” Columbus was an Italian sailor who, for economic and spiritual reasons, wanted to find a better path to the Far East. Columbus did not believe that the world was flat. Those who were well educated knew from Aristotle, Ptolemy, and the Venerable Bede that the world was spherical. What they were unaware of were the number of longitudinal spans it would take to go from Europe to Asia if one headed over the Atlantic. If they could get there quickly, then the exploration was worth a shot. Others sunk money instead into rounding the southern tip of Africa. This was accomplished in 1488 by Bartolomeu Dias, who liked to refer to Africa’s tip as the “Cape of Storms” (Cabo das tormenta) since there was little hope in sailing these seas without losing everything.
In the East lived a people who still called themselves “Roman” and who considered themselves heirs to the world Constantine created in the fourth century. They were the Byzantines, with their imperial seat in the city of Constantinople. The plague of war was about to bring an end to their way of life.
In May 1453, the Ottoman armies sailed to the Bosporus and besieged the city, though the Byzantines believed they held a defensible position. The “Theodosian Walls” that surrounded the city were among the most impressive ever built, making a frontal assault nearly impossible. The Byzantines had good reason to be optimistic. In a time of rampant wars and conquest, the city of Constantinople had fallen only once in more than a millennium—and that at the hands of Western Christians during the Fourth Crusade in 1203. Never had the imperial city fallen to the infidel. The besieging ships, though, brought with them a set of massive cannons that, according to one eyewitness, could hurl a shot of nearly six hundred pounds at the fortifications. After six weeks, the city fell to invasion, along with Christianity in Asia Minor, where Christians became a persecuted minority. Hagia Sophia, one of history’s greatest church buildings, was converted to a mosque, while nearly all of the leading intellectuals and churchmen fled thecity.
The fifteenth century was also a time of destruction and renewal for European kings and empires. For the first half of the century, the old enemies of France and England threw themselves at each other in what we call the Hundred Years’ War. This was a series of skirmishes over land and title within Europe. England pummeled France for the majority of these wars and, were it not for the intervention of a cross-dressing female warrior who allegedly experienced ecstatic visions of God’s plan for France, then England might have taken half of the European mainland. When Joan of Arc appeared, even her French lords found her appearance comical, but their cause was desperate enough to send Joan to the front line to see if she might stoke the morale of the soldiers. It worked. In 1429, she helped lift the siege of Orléans (the traditional seat of French coronation) and turned the tide of the war in favor of the French. Her efforts were rewarded with treachery, when the Burgundians in the south of France handed her to the English to be burned as a witch.
In England, the Wars of the Roses (1455–87) were concluded when Henry VII defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth—with Richard, according to Shakespeare, bellowing, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” in order to escape the coup. In the stroke that killed Richard, Henry brought into existence the Tudor dynasty. It was his son, Henry VIII, who would quarrel with the pope about his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon and who would create by his own power the Anglican Church. It was Henry VII’s granddaughter, Elizabeth I, who would create the context of the struggle between Conformists and Puritans within the Church of England.
In other words, the political and social shape of Europe that feels so familiar to us in the Reformation world was in several cases only beginning to take shape just before the Reformation.
The same could be said for the intellectual shape of Europe. As the century opened, the reform movement of Jan Hus allowed for the creation of a separate Czech church. Hus stood on the text of Scripture to reject the theological changes of the medieval Catholic church, though he was also spurred by the love of his country to seek independence from the Holy Roman Empire. The result was the formation of the Hussite church—a church that during the Reformation was a byword for heresy, and with which Luther openly identified at the Leipzig Disputation in 1519, when he claimed, “Ja, ich bin Hussite” (“Yes, I am a Hussite”). By 1415, Hus had been burned for his reformation, and the theology faculty at Leipzig had been formed as a result of faculty from Prague fleeing the university and forming their own in the city of Leipzig. The sting of the Hussite movement had hardly subsided when Luther’s reformation began.
Yet Hus was not the only theologian to take issue with papal power or the innovations of the medieval church. There was also the Renaissance, part internal critique of the medieval church and part flowering of new learning. The humanists were aided in their efforts by new technology. A German entrepreneur named Johannes Gutenberg invented a new method for printing books—known today as the moveable type press. He did not invent the press itself, but rather a method for moving letters around on a grid for each page, which cut the expense of creating a book down to a fraction of the cost to print one on earlier presses. Once, a printed Bible cost as much as a small home, but now it was the cost of a week’s wages.
Sensing the opportunity to expand learning and literacy, the humanists unleashed a torrent of writing on theology, Bible, classical studies, and history. Of all the humanists, Erasmus of Rotterdam was their prince. Born in 1466 as the illegitimate son of a priest, Erasmus demonstrated skill with languages and textual criticism that propelled him onto the stage as a leading light of the new intellectual movement of the Renaissance. In the course of his life, Erasmus gave the world complete editions of the works of the church fathers as well as numerous tracts on theological subjects. By far his most impactful work was the Greek New Testament—a work he admitted was gathered in a slapdash manner from twelfth-century Byzantine texts, with some passages wrongly added to the Bible and six verses of the book of Revelation missing entirely. The Greek New Testament was something like a modern interlinear Bible. In one column was the Greek text; next to it was a fresh Latin translation by Erasmus. Not only did this provide readers with the original Greek, but it also provided a road map for students to help determine how to render the Greek into their language. It is no surprise, then, that Luther used this text as the basis of his German New Testament, which he translated after his trial at the Diet of Worms.
Through destruction and exploration, the fifteenth century did more than bridge the gap between the medieval age and the modern world; it set the stage for the Reformation.