The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church 1000 – 1550

 Misuse of religious power

The start of the Catholic religion is covered in: Christianity steps into power vacuum.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire the pope became isolated in Rome and the bishops started to largely operate on their own, in most situations this resulted in a combination of secular and ecclesiastical activities and often the secular ones gained the upper hand.

While some of the early church fathers already  protested again misuse of powers under the Roman period, it was not until the 6th century that this started to lead to counteractive activities mainly led by monks and missionaries. There were several Councils, especially during the later  Carolingian period, that tried to end the many abuses but after short lived reforms many of the local bishops and abbots returned to the pleasures of the flesh.

During the High and Late Middle Ages this deplorable situation continued, despite at occasions successful periods where morals were restored, but seldom did these reforms have any long lasting large scale effect.


Cluniac Reforms

Many of the monasteries also started to become rather fat and lazy, with similar misuses as the ones mentioned above.  The Cluniac reforms  started – around 950 – as monastic reforms, they rather rapidly spread from France to the Low Countries, Germany and Italy and engulfed all aspects of catholic organisations.  During its height (c. 950–c.1130) the Cluniac movement was one of the largest religious forces in Europe and perhaps the most important one in the history of the Church, which went way beyond the monasteries themselves. It awakened Christian piety – and the developments of that infallible medieval belief system (see below) as well as the power of the Church.  The Cluniacs supported the Peace of God – and thus contributed significantly to a more peaceful society – and promoted pilgrimages to the Holy Lands. The Abbots of Cluny had also great influence on the church policies issued by the popes of this period.

In the context of a powerful church it is also during this period that the ideas of crusades started to get form and were eventually proclaimed and they can therefor also be seen as an important result of this reform movement, protecting the interests of the Church.

An increasingly rich liturgy stimulated demand for altar vessels of gold, fine tapestries and fabrics, stained glass, and polyphonic choral music to fill the Romanesque churches.


Golden Ages of Christianity

With most of Europe Christianised the Church was able to transform itself into an institution, a period that covered two centuries between 1100 and 1300. This coincided with a period of economic growth, the arrival of cities and new cultural developments.

It was under Pope Leo IX (1049-1054) that slowly papal authority could be effectively also be exercised outside the Papal States.

After fifty years of warring over the investiture issue, a compromise was reached in 1122, signed on September 23 and known as the Concordat of Worms (concordats are treaties between the church and a state). It was agreed that investiture would be eliminated, while room would be provided for secular leaders to have unofficial but significant influence in the appointment process. Church appointments were handed over the various chapters linked to cathedrals, however these chapters were largely made up of members of the nobility, this gave the local secular rulers significant influence in these appointments. As an example in the 15th century the Burgundian Duke Philip the Good was able to arrange a bishop position for 32 of his  relatives.

However, as the Roman Emperor tried to take greater control of the rest of Italy, he remained interested in the affairs of the pope.  The Holy Roman Emperor Henry III, saw the political value of the prestigious papal office. He wrestled control away from the Roman aristocratic families. However, during the next 300 years the German emperors were unsuccessful to subdue the pope to their imperial powers, as there with little or no intention to address the many misuses of the Church also these reforms very rapidly worn off. However, this did establish the start of a more powerful Church that was able to turn itself in what would become the most dominant institution of the Late Middle Ages.

This was possible once – around the 12th century –  the church became more organised  we see a power shift from the rural based monasteries to the bishops and their ecclesiastical systems they were able to built around them in the emerging villages and cities. This allowed them to built out the system of parishes. Initially the local parish priests were elected by the local people.  They were ordinary men with their own faults and temptations however with the clear obligation to try and lead them to salvation in Heaven  However, soon the local secular and ecclesiastical nobility became involved in these appointments and both the parish and the priests became an integral part of  the church reforms.

Organisational wise, with a better grip on society the church was able to much better manage their flock; the fact that more and more people started to live in cities also made their work easier. This of course was all greatly assisted by the integrated nature of State and Church, a phenomena that applied to all of Europe.

This organisation made it also possible to much more effectively and efficiently collect the tithes and church fees. Often this was done by the  local aristocracy who did this on behalf of the Church – obviously for a cut of the proceeds.  This was often also taken one layer further down,  resulting in for example the local priest not residing in the parish, he in turn could farm that office out to somebody in the village, while he kept the largest share of his part of the  incomes related to that parish. In most villages, throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, pastoral care was heavily under paid – the priest relied on his own farming activities or on hand outs from his parishioners – and in general the religious services were of a very low quality. This is also obvious in the many caricatures, satires and stories of these ages, where he often is portrayed in a negative way.

Because of the fear of dissidence, the Church now also more effectively started to control  knowledge, this becomes clear when  looking at the intellectual output of the following ages, the written words written at that time are nearly without exception church manuscripts. It owned a third of all the land and touched daily upon the lives of every living soul in the land. As Robert Fossier write [1. The Axe and the Oath, 2010, p 272] the Church controlled, visited, judged, exploited but also supported, nourished, taught and cautioned. All very well controlled by a tight and powerful hierarchy. Dissidence was heresy and could be punished by death.

While again further reforms took place in the 12th and 13th centuries, the level of misuse of power and greed – and consequent protest – remained high. and the Church was often unable to keep its flock under control. However, any protest was rapidly classified as heresy and the Church eagerly initiated crusades and later on the Inquisition to persecute these people.

At the Council of Lateran in 1215, the Church started to reach its pinnacle and could used its authority to further increase its grip on society. They introduced the sacrament of confession, dictated that people had to follow services in the parish church they belonged to, made them to take communion at least once a year, further rules and regulation were added over following decades as it became clear that the flock continued to stray from the path the Church had set out for them.

Another powerful element of the Christian religion were miracles, undisputed events in which God revealed themselves to his people, it could be a warning to those straying from the path, a gift to those being virtuous or a general act of charity. In most instances  it was an event against the law of nature, old pagan traditions and magic.

Popular protests

The Church was right about its fear of dissidence. From the 11th century onward we see a sharp increase of violent protest mainly from the newly emerging very poor underclass in the many new towns and cities that started to emerge. These popular uprisings were fueled by the extreme misery and poverty of the underclass in sharp contrast the richness of the church, the local merchants’ oligarchies and the nobility. The church reacted by denouncing them, calling them heretics and pursuing the followers and if needed exterminating them for which they established Inquisitions to persecute heretics.

Protests were often led by renegade monks and priests who were told – in prophesy they received that they had to lead this protest which would eventually bring salvation. These protests and salvation prophesies were often linked to religious concepts such as  eschatology and chiliasm. They included prophesies surrounding the end time (eschatology), the arrival of the Antichrist, followed by a better world and salvation (chiliastic). The whole idea got into a frenzy when it became linked to the end of the first  millennium (chilia, mille, thousand).

These ‘prophets’ and ‘holy men’ often linked the wealthy and greedy Church (popes, bishops) to the Antichrist, whilst sometimes French Kings and German Emperors were seen as the heroes delivering their subject this golden ‘millennium’. At several occasions Charlemagne was seen as the possible new Christ who would rise from the death to defeat the Antichrist. Over the 10th and 11th centuries more and more ‘fantasies’ were added to the concept of the Antichrist and these phantasies were treated with deadly seriousness by the masses of the Middle Ages.

At the same time these infallible dogmas were also used for political expedience by the various (secular) leaders. And equally, political decisions were coloured by eschatology expectations.

The Church disapproved of chiliasm as it didn’t support the notion of an earthly paradise; however, it was impossible to suppress this belief as it was one of the few elements hope that most of the dreadfully poor people could cling to. The Middle Ages are ravaged with famine, pest and war; death was the norm and chiliasm provided a spark of hope.

Infallible Medieval belief

Religion, as we saw in Early beliefs, paganism and religion has always been an integral part of human society and its culture and  in its very basic form has a remarkable uniformity across the world. Lack of scientific explanations of natural phenomena, natural disasters, human suffering, etc, made religion a very logical development in human societies. Initially Christianity built on these traditional believes and as saw a rather smooth transition from paganism to Christianity and in all reality many pagan elements survive well into modern times. After the collapse of the Roman Empire a more secular dimension was added and as a consequence state and religion became one. As we also see in modern days theocracies have a tendency to limit free thoughts, new ideas and often stifles innovation and human development. Once state and religion became one, the state used religion to justify war (so called just wars) to convert other believers to Christianity if needed with military force and implement church taxes (such as the tithes). It used secular powers to enforce their dogmas and prosecute heresy, however it outsourced penalties such torture and burning at the stake to the secular powers.

Adding this all together: the natural pagan believe systems that enabled people to make sense of their environment, the more social elements added to (Roman and Pagan) religions by the original Christian religion (love thy neighbour), the secular functions taken over by the Church and the military opportunities that this brought with it to enforce dogmatic believe, created the basis that would led to the infallible Medieval belief system.

Eastern Schism of 1054

After the Fall of Rome in 476 the Popes saw themselves as the leaders of the faith. In the Roman Empire of that time state and religion were one. Long before the Fall Rome had already lost in secular importance after the capital had moved to Constantinople in 330. So the main power that was left in Rome at that time was mainly religious. The Emperor in Constantinople had at least nominal power over Rome and until 755 the Popes in Rome all came from the ‘Greek’ lands. However, by that time the Papacy was under siege by the Lombards who had recently moved into northern Italy and who had been able to extend their powers. The Byzantium Emperor however, provided less and less support to the Papacy and Pope Stephen travelled to Paris to seek the assistance of the newly emerging power of Western Europe the Franks. He received that military support and from that moment onwards the Popes were ‘Latin’ popes from Western Europe (mainly Italy). This new era had a rough start, which is known as the pornocracy, this led to a severe decline in papal authority. Add to this a range of ecclesiastical differences and theological disputes. Prominent among these were the issues of “filioque”, whether leavened or unleavened bread should be used in the Eucharist, the Pope’s claim to universal jurisdiction, and the place of Constantinople in relation to the Pentarchy (the five major Episcopal sees, or patriarchates, of the Roman Empire: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem).

Finally a more powerful pope arrived (Leo IX) and he started to exercise papal authority outside again beyond just  Rome. In 1054 he sends a legate to Constantinople with an ultimatum to accept his authority and the theological doctrine of the ‘Latin’ Church. When the Patriarch of Constantinople Michael Cerularius, refused he was excommunicated, which meant a  – up to this date – permanent split between the Greek and the Latin Churches or as they became known the Greek or Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

In the meantime the secular powers of the Byzantine Empire were also dwindling.  The Venetians had became the dominant traders of the eastern Mediterranean. The Normans had conquered Sicily and Naples started to attack the other  remnants of the Byzantium Empire on the Italian mainland.

It is against this background that we also need to place the the Crusades, the Massacre of the Latins in 1182 and the capture and sack of Constantinople in 1204, are all direct consequence of those dwindling powers and the Eastern Schism.

Nevertheless ever since the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 this city had been transformed into a Christian utopia, it became the centre of the Christian map, representing an ideal world that humans had to find and it has indeed been drawing Christians pilgrims/tourists to the city ever since.

In 1182, the city had approx 60,000 Latins amongst its citizens. Mainly from the  large rival  merchant communities from Venice, Genoa and Pisa. This rivalry led to attacks from the Venetians and the Pisans on the Genoese quarters, this led to mass arrests and expulsions of the Venetians. However, the Venetian navy was more powerful that those from the Byzantines and they came back and again attached the Genoese. This led to a popular revolt amongst the inhabitants of Constantinople, which ended in a massacre that saw most of the Latins killed and some 4000 were sold off as slaves to the Turks. A clear combination of religious hatred mixed with envy and greed.

The event went as a shock-wave through Europe and increased the level of hatred against the Eastern Church and was certainly a reason for what happened in 1204 when the Crusaders together with the Venetian Navy sacked the city and indiscriminately destroyed most of its treasures. The Crusaders than established the Latin Empire of Constantinople. Count Baldwin of Flanders became the first emperor.

Reunion between the two church branches was attempted twice, at the 1274 Second Council of Lyon and the 1439 Council of Florence. The Council of Florence did briefly re-establish communion between East and West, which lasted until after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. It was nor until 2004 before the Pope officially apologised for the sacking of Constantinople, which was accepted by the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Great or Western Schism 1294 – 1377

So at end of the 13th century Papal power at Rome was at a near collapse. This situation came to a breaking point in 1294 when Pope Boniface VIII became pope and immediately placed himself above the world and claimed that the highest power in their world resided with him and with him alone. The action was mainly aimed at the French king Philip the Fair.

The French king decided to move the Pope from office, he was captured but also soon released but died shortly afterwards. A combination of events that happened in this period led in 1309 of the removal of the papal court to Avignon by the next pope Clement V.  Interestingly Avignon was then part not of France, but part of the county of Provence, which was part of the German Emperor and held in fief by the king of Naples.

The move however, has to be seen against the background where Clement V wanted to repair the relationship with the French king.

A price that Clements V had to pay for the whole affair was the denunciation of the Knights Templar. The French king wanted to lay his hands on the assets of this extremely rich Church Order – which was headquartered in Paris –  but needed the Church assistance to do this in a ‘legal’ way. The French Court was the largest debtor to the Knights Templar. The pope agreed to the persecution and condemnation of the Order in 1307. Seven hundred years later in 2007 the Church made a rare back flip and appoliged for its wrong doings and reinstated the Knights.

Holy Roman King Henry VII had himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor, but failed to establish his authority in (northern) Italy. His successor Louis of Bavaria did the same but was even less successful of reinstating Rome as the Holy Roman City.

Eventually some of the differences were put aside and in 1377 Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome. However, after his death the following year a great schism occurred when the election of a new pope resulted in the election of a new pope followed by a retraction of him and elected an anti pope who set up court in Avignon.

The Great or Western Schism resulted in serious political problems throughout Latin Europe as the various rulers had to chose which pope they would support. France and its allies (e.g. Naples, Spain, Scotland and Burgundy) choose for Avignon and the rest of the region for Rome. This had a serious effect on the income of the Church and the the Court in Avignon rapidly resorted to a new form of simony that required all candidates for religious functions to pay for the privileged of taking over a vacant office, also the first year revenues would have to be handed over, but on the other side rules on having concubines were relaxed as was the handing over property rights to family members (of course all of this would involve some form of financial compensation). The emphasis of a religious office was again put on the financial results rather than on spiritual duties.

This also had its effect on the local priests and their parishes. Often the ‘owner’ of the local church didn’t reside there and appointed a priest to operate the parish. They were often poor and not well educated. Like the local farmers they would have to work to earn a living, their morality and standards were often of a similar quality.

Laypeople also had to pay through fees for baptism, marriage and dispensation for children born out of wedlock. The most lucrative form of revenue raising however, was that of the sale of indulgences (based on the sacrament of penance – see also below). The Church also invented the Treasury of Merits, while in the past this was used to award people for special services such as crusades, now you could by merits, aimed a reducing time spend in Purgatory either for oneself or for family members and others.

Under the leadership of Emperor Sigismund the Council of Constance (1414 – 1418) was established to solve the schism. The Council was at that time the largest public European gathering ever  and all nobles as well as ecclesiastic participants were allowed to vote. The sitting popes were forced to resign and a new pope Martin V was elected and ruled from his court in Rome.

Many of the religious scams were happily taken over by the Papacy in Rome.

Conflicts between the pope and the secular rulers continued as was evident when Emperor Charles V imprisoned Pope Clements VI during the sack of Rome in 1527. It was not until after the Reformation that finally changes started to occur that resulted in a more clearer separation between religion and state.

Change in mentality

The dynamics of the commercial revolution of the 12th and 13th centuries also created a new mentality that of  chasing profits. This brought the merchants in conflict with the church. People only had one duty on earth and that was to prepare themselves for a blessed after life. They had to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, looking after the less fortunate and themselves live in poverty. The church categorically rejected the gathering of earthly possessions and therefore rejected money lending and making profit.

However, they were unable the tsunami of change and during the 13th century they adjusted their position, for the first time in history they  accepted that people were allowed to also on earth pursue happiness. Money lending rules were also relaxed and in general this stimulated further economic development and trade.

Age of devastation

The effects of climate change in the late 13th and early 14th centuries led to the Great Famine of 1318 – 1325 which in particular devastated north western Europe, a region already heavily stricken by a range of floods. On top of that the whole of Europe was devastated by the Black Death which raged through the continent between 1347 and 1350.

It therefore doesn’t come as a surprise that during the century of devastation the people were totally obsessed by death.  In the first half of the 14th century, the average lifespan had dropped from 35-40 years to below 30. But averages are of course a bit distorted in such situation. A healthy man could around 1300 expect to live to 54 years, 100 years later that had dropped to 48 years.

Art and literature from this period is dominated by the death theme. Also the mystical (and pagan) elements of the believes of the people of the late Middle Ages are a reoccurring element in these works. Popes and kings continued to use astrologers and priest were actually involved in driving out devils and believe in angels was omnipotent. Throughout history many of the pagan elements continued to remain an important part of the life of the Europeans. In an age with limited scientific knowledge the  fear for the unknown often lead to hysterical behaviour.

On one side we see that religion played a key role in getting through these very difficult times, however at the same time there is also widespread evidence that death treats everybody very equal rich poor, good and bad people.

This also led to a less stringent following of the official church rules and regulations, as apparently this had very little influence on the selection who would die and who would live. Instead a more personalised relationship with God was pursued.

People observed the often outrageous richness of the clerics, their non-adherence to rules such as chastity and poverty. This led to a new direction in medieval spirituality, based on private devotions.

However, this got also often mixed in with a whole new series of uprisings that had at regularity addressed the economic and social injustice of these systems as they operated throughout the Middle Ages. Many elements of the earlier uprisings are coming back here complete with the zealots and prophets. All proclaiming the end times and as long as people followed them they would be led by these new spiritual leaders into the New Millennium.

The success of the spread of this development was this time around no doubt also facilitated by the increase in literacy and later on the invention of printing machines. One of the most read mystics of the time was the Brabantine Jan van Ruusbroec. ( the ‘Admirable’, ‘Wonderbare’ in Dutch), he also was a strong mystic  Churchman who did oppose some of the ‘heretic’ mystics, for which he however, was regularly ridiculed by the local populace.

New spiritual awareness

With little or no effect of reforms aimed at ending the many misuses that were taking place within the Church, local believers more and more turned away from the institutional  Church. While the secular laws forced them to pay the tithes and other taxes, it was more difficult for the Church to also control people’s spirituality.  Increasingly local priest and monks concerned about the situation became involved in new spiritual movements.

Another secular religious development was that of the confraternities, they worked next to the guilds and played a key role in medieval city life with their own processions, church altars and good deeds.  Bruges, in 1475, had 22 processions.

Until the 12th century faith mainly concentrated around the theme of Christ as the king of heaven and earth. From then onward as more attention was given to the human element of Christ; this also created more interest in Maria and the saints.

From the 13th century onward  this new spiritual awareness also led to the formation of new orders, convents and religious communities outside the traditional ones. An important development here was again the arrival of the cities,  people started to interact more with each other and also  wanted. in a secular way, be involved in religious activities. For the first time, secular people  started to participate in the local operations of the Church.

An important movement that started in the 13th century  is known as the The Third Order. People joining this movement became generally lay members of the religious orders, i.e. men and women who did not necessarily live in a religious community and yet could claim to wear a habit and participate in the good works. As indicated above, often these people were unhappy with many misuses that saw happening in the Church.

In the County of Holland alone the number of monasteries grew from a handful around 1300 to more than two hundred, 50 years later. These trends are not dissimilar to some of the early spiritual cycles of reform and renewal. We saw this at the early church around 200/300 in Egypt, than again with the developments from around 600 during the Merovingian period in the southern part of the Low Countries and northern France and also the reforms that developed around 1100 in the middle of France, spreading further north and into Rhineland. The re-occurring theme is the return to some notion of the primitive church – back to basics and pagan traditions; a trend that also can be seen in the 21th century. However, in the Middle Ages all of this was still strongly linked to the unrelenting faith of the people and the stronghold of the Church  on authority.

The devotion of the people and the call to  follow in Jesus footsteps was in stark contrast with the wealth on display by the bishops. For the time being the power of personal spirituality was no match to the power of their wealthy leaders.

Very slowly however, from around 1350 onward we also see a more humanistic approach entering society. On the one side we that certain people saw  God was more and more in the people themselves (God is in us) rather than in the traditional external medieval way. However, while  these new movements didn’t deliver an innovation to the Church, they were tolerated.  These movements could be grouped together as pre-Reformation and some of them will be discussed below.

At the same time we see many of the nobility and the merchant class slowly moving away from the heterodynamic model (the world is effected by events from the outside)to an autodynamic model (people taking control over their lives independently). There were less effected by mysticism and started to become more independent, self-reliant and competitive, but this should not be confused with individualism – something that followed in the 16th century. [x. Understanding the Middle Ages, Harald Kleinschmidt, 2000, p76-84].

However it would still take more than a century before more significant changes in society – known as the Renaissance followed by the Reformation – would finally end what we call the Middle Ages. But the changes leading up to that were instigated by those who had become autodynamic.


Apart from spirituality also mysticism reached new heights in the late Middle Ages.  Mysticism has been part of human nature for ever and was particularly potent during times of distress, when the imagination was used to envisage better times, it is a compensation for worldly failures – a longing for a better world.   Mysticism could achieve an intuitive and emotional (often ecstatic) inner relationship with God. This was different from prophesies, prophets were passive messengers (of God), mysticism is an active experience.

Cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153) and the German (Thuringen) philosopher Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) were  leaders of mystical revival. He became a preacher and adviser to Dominicans and the new movement of the (lay) Beguines.  Eckhart based this on an intellectual basis, Bernard on non-intellectual elements, especially those linked to the suffering of Christ, which in particular appealed to devout women. The symbol of the crucifixion (not just the cross) gained prominence during this time. Images from the late Middle Ages are riddled with rather repulsive images of Jesus sufferings and crucifixion.

Famous mystic women in the Middle Ages

  • Hildegard van Bingen (1098 – 1170)
  • Hadewych (13th century)
  • Mechteld von Maagdenburg (1207 – 1282)
  • Margarete Porete (1250/1260 – 1310)

These devotions (especially directed towards Jesus and the Virgin Mary) were supported by a range of church festivals, processions and pilgrimages. A range of holy virgins made it to sainthood during this period (Catherine, Barbara, Lucia, Ursula – Cologne even added 11,000 virgins to the list). There certain was also an erotic fantasy element linked to  the veneration of to some of these virgins.

Like so many ‘thinkers’ in the Middle Ages also Eckhart was walking a tightrope, many of his students were declared heretics and excommunicated. Eckhart did not support the need to focus so strongly on the suffering of Christ. Soon after his death the pope declared 17 theorems from his work as heretical.

Nevertheless he inspired many of his followers, mystics in particular in Rhineland and the Low Countries they include: Hendrik Suso/Seuse (1295-1366), Johannes Tauler (1300 – 1361) and Nicolaas van Kues/Cusa (1401 – 1461).

On the other end of the ‘spiritual scale’, especially during periods of great distress  we see that zealots often got the upper hand in these rather unorganised and highly localised movements. Their leaders often declared themselves the reincarnation of God and linked the movement to eschatology. They proclaimed that the end was near and that their followers were the chosen people who needed to punish the sinners and they often got the poor masses behind them to kill priests and other authorities who were seen as the Antichrist which needed to be killed before the messiah would arrive.

And very much like modern day zealots you had to give all your possessions to the leader who, as God had told him, should live in splendour; free love was often another elements of the mystics, that’s according to (some of) them why God had created women.

The Church took a very tough stand on these movements and only those authorised  by them were tolerated.

Brethren of the Free Spirit

An important semi-religious movement, closely linked to the earlier Cathars (see also: The battle between religion and state) was that of the ‘Free Spirit’ , their followers believed that God was in everything and therefore God was also part of them. This totally contradicted the Church stand on this issue that God was only present in the Eucharist. The Oneness of God also challenged the concept of the Trinity.

This movement was especially prevalent during the 13th and 14th centuries  in the Low Countries and the Lower Rhine region.

These themes bear close relationships with early Neo-Platonism, which did form the basis for early Christian doctrines but which were later discounted.

The Brethrens were strongly opposed by Jan van Ruusbroec and much of these ‘heretics’ is known because of his writings.


The church’s reaction to the devastation in the 13th and 14th century also created the flagellants movements. People worked themselves in a frenzy and started to whip themselves as a penance by ‘self-mortification’ for their sins that according to the church were the cause of all Medieval disasters the people suddenly faced. In an age with limited scientific knowledge the  fear for the unknown often lead to hysterical behaviour.

Flagellantism in itself was not totally new it had also been practised by previous cultures such as the Egyptians and the Romans, but it never reached the level of mass hysteria following the disasters in the Middle Ages.

Initially ascetic monks and fanatic members of the clergy – such as the Italian zealot Dominicus Loricatus – led or participated in the flagellation processions. This happened at a time that the countryside was already devastated by the ongoing civil war between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines (see also: The battle between religion and state).

During the flagellations they sung psalms and hymns while regularly throwing themselves on the ground (in the mud), especially when the song contained references to the Passion of Christ (imitatio Christi). Many of these processions took place around Easter.

The medieval flagellants were first mentioned in 1259, following a year of famine followed by an epidemic outbreak in the Guelph city of Perugia, Italy. In this mania they also (again) killed their local Jews as well as priest who opposed the frenzy. Often these flagellation frenzies were also linked to eschatology. By punishing themselves they expected salvation once the Golden Millennium would arrive, the prophesy at that time was that this would happen in 1260 [2. Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, p126].

Flagellation was officially banned by the pope in 1261, it died out in Italy but moved on to Austria and  the Lower Rhine area in Germany and the Low Countries, where they are first reported in 1309 [3. Middeleeuwen, D.E.H. de Boer, J.van Herwaarden, J.Scheurkogel, 1995, p348] . The movement  reached new heights in  1348/49, following the outbreak of the Black Death.

Here a movement known as the Brothers of the Cross, participants wore white robes, with a red crosses on front and back and a hat or hood also with read crosses on both sides.  They were led by a (lay) Master or Father and marched across Germany in 33.5 day campaigns (each day referred to a year of Jesus’ earthly life) of penance, only stopping in any one place for no more than a day. Also here eschatology fantasies played a key role in the movement. The movement is also linked to Jewish persecution, as the flagellation and suffering of Jesus evoked feelings of hatred towards the Jews who were blamed for it.

They established their camps in fields near towns and held their rituals twice a day. From here they would make their way to the church, form a circle in front of it, take of their cloths and shoes and put on a sort of skirt. The ritual began with the reading of a letter, claimed to have been delivered by an angel and justifying the Flagellants’ activities. Next the followers would marched around in circles and than they would fall one by one on their knees and scourge themselves, gesturing with their free hand to indicate their sin and striking themselves rhythmically to songs (about the Passion of Christ and the glories of the Virgin), sung in the vernacular – often call-and-response – until blood flowed.

In Tournai – heavily effected by the plague -flagellants began pilgrimages every day from August to mid-October 1349; 5,300 flagellants reportedly passed through the town, they came from Bruges, Ghent, Sluys, Dordrecht and Liege.

In Frankfurt and Brussels the flagellants also led to the killing of Jews, who were held responsible for the outbreak of the plague. Despite the efforts of the Duke of Brabant, 600 Jews were killed in Brussels based on rumours that they had poisoned the wells of the city. Throughout the Low Countries many Jews were killed mostly instigated by flagellants.

Not surprisingly some towns started to report plague epidemics after the flagellants had visited and increasingly they were banned from cities. Soon most towns would close their gates when flagellants arrived. Tournai resisted them in 1351, Utrecht and Cologne in 1353 and other towns that forcefully kept them out include: Maastricht, Ghent, Tongeren. Liége and Visé.

Also with the second wave of flagellantism it was often fanatic monks who led the movement but also this time the church intervened and banned the practice again in 1349. Interestingly the Beghards and its sister movement of the Beguines became associated with the flagellants. While the lay organisation were closely linked to pietism and mysticism, they were sometimes also very critical of the Church, which landed them on the boarder of being declared heretics.

Interestingly in the birthplace of my parents and grandparents, Ootmarsum in the east of the Netherlands there still is the annual procession known as vlőggeln. It is recognised as an age old tradition, while there is no historic evidence about a link with the flagellants, the possibility has been debated at many occasions. The procession takes place every Easter and the local people walk hand-in-hand around town following an age old route through certain farmhouses and local inns. They sing hymns, also in the vernacular and also in a call-and-response way: a leader starts each couplet which is than sang in union by the vlőggelers. Both songs are about the Passion Of Christ. Possibly the flagellants also visited Ootmarsum,  as during the Middle Ages it was one of the most important towns in this region  and possibly the event had such an  impact on the pious  population that they carried the tradition on during the Easter period because of the fact that the original flaggelants used those songs about the Passion Of Chris.


They were closely related to the religious laymen movement of the Beguines, which as we will see below were often rightly or wrongly  linked to the flagellants and therefore often actively prosecuted.



After Hildegard of Bingen the new trends in mysticism were taken op by a new group of semi religious women the Beguines (begijnen).  Especially in the southern part of the Low Countries there was a real explosion of this movement – lower class, lay women who vowed to live a life of chastity within their own courtyards. Following on the one hand the perpetual wars and feuds during the Middle Ages and on the other hand the spiritual explosion which led to an increase in (male) clergy and to the formation of monasteries there were suddenly more women than there were potential husbands.

Spinsters and widows from the lower and middle class were leading the religious laywomen movement of the Beguines. Uptil that time nuns were mainly from the upper class. By the middle of the 13th century there were over 200 Beguines communities in the Low Countries, with on average 15 women per community. The first known community was in Breda (1240). Middelburg (before 1250), ‘s-Granvenzande (1255) and Groningen (1276).

They supported themselves with spinning and embroidery work, something not always appreciated by the local guilds. Nor did they receive a warm welcome from the Church; especially during the Middle Ages the relationship was at best tolerated. They never showed any active heretical tendencies but passively they felt strongly mythical desires and were as such often linked to the Free Spirit movement.

By 1500 the number beguines communities had dropped to approx. 100. [4. De Middeleeuwse Kloostergeschiedenis van de Nederlanden, Paulina de Nijs, Hans Kroeze, 2008]. The last beguine in Belgium died in 2013.

One of the best preserved Beguines Courtyards is in Leuven, its now classified as world heritage and we visited this in 2005.


Marcella Pattyn – the world’s last beguine

Marcella Pattyn, the world’s last Beguine, died on April 14th 2013, aged 92. This is her printed obituary.

At the heart of several cities in Belgium lies an unexpected treasure. A gate in a high brick wall creaks open, to reveal a cluster of small, whitewashed, steep-roofed houses round a church. Cobbled alleyways run between them and tiny lawns, thickly planted with flowers, grow in front of them. The cosiness, the neatness and the quiet suggest a hortus conclusus, a medieval metaphor both for virginal women and the walled garden of paradise.

Any veiled women seen there now, however, processing to Mass or tying up hollyhocks in their dark habits and white wimples, are ghosts. Marcella Pattyn was the last of them, ending a way of life that had endured for 800 years.

These places were not convents, but beguinages, and the women in them were not nuns, but Beguines. In these communities, which sprang up spontaneously in and around the cities of the Low Countries from the early 13th century, women led lives of prayer, chastity and service, but were not bound by vows. They could leave; they made their own rules, without male guidance; they were encouraged to study and read, and they were expected to earn their keep by working, especially in the booming cloth trade. They existed somewhere between the world and the cloister, in a state of autonomy which was highly unusual for medieval women and highly disturbing to medieval men.

Nor, to be honest, was it the first thing Juffrouw Marcella thought of when, as a girl, she realised that her dearest wish was to serve her Lord. But she was blind, or almost so, and no other community would accept her. She wanted to work, too, and was not sure she could in an ordinary convent. The beguinages had originally been famous for taking the “spare” or “surplus” women who crowded into 13th-century cities in search of jobs. Even so, the first community she tried sent her back after a week, unable to find a use for her. (In old age she still wept at the thought of all the rejections, dabbing with a handkerchief at her blue unseeing eyes.) A rich aunt intervened with a donation to keep her there, and from the age of 21 she was a Beguine.

Contentedly, in the beguinage at Ghent from 1941 and at Courtrai from 1960, she spent her days in tasks unaltered from the Middle Ages. She knitted baby clothes and wove at a hand loom, her basket of wool beside her chair, chatting and laughing with the other women. At lunchtime, like the others, she ate her own food from her own cupboard (identified by the feel of the carvings under her hands), neatly stocked with plates, jugs, coffee and jam. Cooking she was spared, ever since on the first occasion she had failed to see the milk boiling over, but she washed up with a will.

A good part of the time she prayed, all the prayers she could remember, but especially her rosary whose bright white beads she could almost see. Most usefully, since she was musical, she played the organ in chapel; and she cheered up the sick, as she nursed them, by serenading them on banjo and accordion. Almost her only concession to modernity was the motorised wheelchair in which she would career around the alleyways at Courtrai in her later years, wrapped in a thick knitted cape against the cold, her white stick dangerously levelled like a lance.

When she was known to be the last, Juffrouw Marcella became famous. The mayor and aldermen of Courtrai visited her, called her a piece of world heritage, and gave her Beguine-shaped chocolates and champagne, which she downed eagerly. A statue of her, looking uncharacteristically uncertain, was cast in bronze for the beguinage.

The story of the Beguines, she confessed, was very sad, one of swift success and long decline. They had caught the medieval longing for apostolic simplicity, lay involvement and mysticism that also fired St Francis; but the male clergy, unable to control them, attacked them as heretics and burned some alive. With the Protestant Reformation the order almost vanished; with the French revolution their property was lost, and they struggled to recover. In the high Middle Ages a city like Ghent could count its Beguines in thousands. At Courtrai in 1960 Sister Marcella was one of only nine scattered among 40 neat white houses, sleeping in snowy linen in their narrow serge-curtained beds. And then there were none.



Modern Devotion – Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life

Closely linked to these Free Spirit movements are those of the Modern Devotion (Devotio Moderna), they founded houses, known as the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life or by its Dutch name ‘Broeders en Zusters van het Gemene Leven’, this in particular took hold in the eastern part of then Low Countries. The movement was founded by the devout burgher Geert Groote (1340-1384), a son of a merchant in Deventer, who agitated strongly against the laxity of the clergy, but also protested against the rapid social changes that were taking place towards the end of the Middle Ages. With its focus on literacy, education and the removal of of spiritual life of the individual from outward, formal religion,  the Modern Devotion was the first appearance of Religious humanism in Europe and had significant effects on both civic and monastic life. From here here it spread to many other parts of Europe.

One of Groote’s closet followers was Ootmarsum-born priest and scholar Johannes de Gronde. On their first ‘homes’ was founded in 1407, in Albergen, Twente (St Antonius monastery).

We saw the first flourishing of ‘devotion’ at the start of the spiritual ‘explosion’ shortly after 1000. This ‘modern’ version built on that and further strengthened the notion of personal spirituality, through meditation and prayer, its aim was inner development oif the individuals. They didn’t concern themselves with questions of dogma or church organisation – they stayed well and truly within the Church. Similar as the beguines in neighbouring Brabant and Flanders, this also led to a pious lay movement with their own houses, their monasteries spread east wards along the Rhine basin.

The movement’s mission was to write, translate, copy and condense text in the vernacular in order to assist the reader in their own devotion. The movement was greatly supported by the invention of the printing press. The early driving force behind this invention was the demand for a large amount of devotional material.

The most famous of its members was Thomas à Kempis and his works are among the most read works in the Catholic Church, in particular: De Imitatione Christi (Imitation of Christ) . Thomas however, was wary about mysticism. Another luminary was Dutch theologian Wessel Gansfort (1419-1489) whose writing influenced Luther.

Thomas work was also used by Erasmus who attended the Latin school in Deventer  between 1475 and 1484 where he followed lectures from among others Rudolph Agricola, who was another key player in the Modern Devotion, among jobs Agricola was an advisor to the Dukes of Burgundy and rector of the Latin  school of Antwerp. He travelled widely and brought with him new humanist ideas from Italy as well  rediscovered Greek and Latin works, which were further propagated with the work of the Modern Devotion.  All these three intellectuals  remained important figures not just for Catholics but remarkably – despite them being a catholic – also for the reformed churches . The influence of Erasmus in the intellectual development of Europe remains relevant to this day.

Interestingly like Erasmus also Luther had been a member of the Modern Devotion he followed its lectures in Maagdenburg. The two had very much in common however, Erasmus was worried that Luther’s revolt would harness the hard-liners within the church who opposed  the development of humanism.  However, he never denounced Luther.

Apart from Deventer, Zwolle and Groningen, the Cistercian Abbey of Aduard, just north of Groningen, became a key learning centrum of the movement and played a key role in the development of Christian humanism. Until 1500 Deventer was also the leading centre of humanist printing in north Europe, producing more Greek editions than Paris and an imposing series of classic  Latin authors [5. The Dutch Republic. Its rise , Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806, Jonathan I. Israel, 1995]

Throughout this period there was a fine line between what fit within Church doctrine and what was heretical. However, the enormous popularity of these movements made it very difficult for the Church to effective oppose it, only in extreme situations were certain splinter groups successfully prosecuted by the Inquisition.

By 1500 there were an estimated 46 communities of the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life in the Netherlands. [6. De Middeleeuwse Kloostergeschiedenis van de Nederlanden, Paulina de Nijs, Hans Kroeze, 2008]

In its origin the Reformation that started by Luther lay in many aspects close the ideas of the Modern Devotion and Religious Humanism, which both started in the Low Countries, yet the Reformation itself started in Germany. However, the enormous support the Reformation received in the Republic of the Seven Dutch Provinces in the latter part of the 16th century shows how closely related  these movements were.

Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536)

The important position that Erasmus during the Late Middle Ages was very much influenced by his monastic education and in particular by the Brethren of the Common Life (see above), where he gleaned the importance of a personal relationship with God. He attended the Latin school in Deventer  between 1475 and 1484 where he followed lectures from among others Rudolph Agricola, who was another key player in the Modern Devotion and Religious Humanism..

Erasmus also played a key role in spreading humanism further into the Low Countries and the rest of northern Europe. From places such as Deventer humanism first spread via the (civic) Latin schools in Holland, Brabant and Flanders.

After Deventer Erasmus completed his studies at a monastery of the Brethren of the Common Life in Den Bosch. Interestingly he studied in Den Bosch, at the same time as the famous artist Hieronymus Bosch painted his remarkable works, which have many humanist overtones, it is unknown if the two actually met but Den Bosch certainly had an active early humanist community. Hieronymus was unique amongst Dutch painters who at that time all still were very much working on the typical traditional medieval religious works of art.

In 1492 he was ordained to the Catholic priesthood and took vows as an Augustinian canon at Steyn, near Gouda. Soon after this he was  offered the post of secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai. For the next five years he lectured and studies at several of the great European universities. In 1495 he went on to study at the University of Paris.

In England he worked with John Colet, Thomas More, John Fisher, Thomas Linacreand William Grocyn. At the University of Cambridge, he was the Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity. He stayed at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and may have been an alumnus.

In 1502 he became a lecturer at the university of Leuven. From 1506 to 1509, he was in Italy: in 1506 he graduated at the Turin University, and he spent part of the time at the publishing house of Aldus Manutius in Venice.

In 1516 he became an adviser the Emperor Charles, he lived in Brugge, Leuven, Mechelen and Antwerp till 1521.

For him Christian Humanism was not just a revolution in learning, studies and secular culture but also in religious thought, piety,  philosophy and art. For him humanism also had to lead to a deepening of the scholar’s commitment to Christ. Thanks to Erasmus humanism made greater stride in the Low Countries than in any other part of northern Europe and its intellectual influence played a key role in developments to come including the Reformation and the Dutch Revolt..

His residence in the Netherlands, exposed Erasmus to much criticism from those ascetics, academicians and clerics hostile to the principles of literary and religious reform and the loose norms of the Renaissance adherents to which he was devoting his life. However, feeling that this lack of sympathy was actually a form of mental persecution, he sought refuge in Basel, where under the shelter of Swiss hospitality he could express himself. Here he was associated for many years with the great publisher Johann Froben, and to him came the multitude of his admirers from all quarters of Europe. Erasmus also greatly influenced the leader of the Reformation in Switzerland Huldrych Zwingli.

While Erasmus had its reservations about Luther – he was worried about the violence that would result from his approach – he had even more reservations about the Church itself. Interestingly like Erasmus also Luther had been a member of the Modern Devotion; he followed its lectures in Maagdenburg. He also was worried that Luther’s revolt would harness the hard-liners within the church who opposed Erasmus and that this would be an opportunity for them to also end the development of humanism.

At that stage it was far from clear that Luther would be successful and if he were to be defeated that would mean a cold winter ahead for the more liberal thinkers within the Church. However, he never denounced Luther and in 1521 his position within the Netherlands became untenable. Unlike Germany the Reformation had no protection from local Counts or Dukes as the Netherlands was rapidly brought under the central control of the Habsburg rulers, who were staunch Catholics. As a consequence the Netherlands suffered Europe’s most severe clash between the Reformation and the authoritarian attitude of the rulers. This became a key precursor of the Dutch Revolts which would start a few decades later. For Erasmus there was no other way than to ‘flee’ to Switzerland, never to return to his mother land again.

Initially Erasmus was sympathetic with the main points in Martin Luther’s criticism of the Catholic Church. Luther always spoke with admiration of Erasmus’s superior learning. Luther hoped for his cooperation in a work which seemed only the natural outcome of his own. Erasmus declined to commit himself, arguing that to do so would endanger his position as a leader in the movement for pure scholarship which he regarded as his purpose in life.

As the popular response to Luther gathered momentum, the social disorders, which Erasmus dreaded and Luther disassociated himself from, began to appear, including the Peasants’ War, the Anabaptist disturbances in Germany and in the Low Countries, iconoclasm and the radicalisation of peasants across Europe. If these were the outcomes of reform, he was thankful that he had kept out of it.

When the city of Basel was definitely and officially “reformed” in 1529, Erasmus gave up his residence there and settled in the imperial town of Freiburg im Breisgau.

In 1536 Erasmus died suddenly in Basel and was buried there in the cathedral.

The Reformation

Papal immorality and extravagant court life reached another height during the so called Renaissance Popes who ruled during the late 15th and early 16th century. A lot of this was paid for by the indulgences. Obviously the example set in Rome was copied throughout the Catholic Church and bishops and abbots (mostly secular members of the nobility) copied the extravaganza, often financed by their share of the indulgences. As much as a quarter of the local priests had mistresses or concubines.  Finally after a millennium of largely failed church reform, the bubble burst. While not all popes during this period ignored their spiritual duties, it was another nadir in history of the Catholic Church, even more damaging than the Papal Pornocracy during the 10th and early 11th century.

While Church Council after Church Council for hundreds of years condemned the misuse in the Church, they were unable to implement any meaningful reforms.  Power politics from the pope and most of his bishops were far more important than the internal affairs of the Church. Their interests was more in secular international arrangements (concordats) that in the well-being of the national churches.

In order to protect their powers religious life was dominated by doom and gloom if one would fail to obey what the church said people should do or not do. They used sacraments, rituals and cults around saints to keep the people mystified . The use of Latin in all of their services and rituals further alienated the people. There was very little attention to what the Bible and the Gospels had to say.

In the end it was Martin Luther (1483-1546) who became the catalyst for change. While he repeated the much earlier messages  from John Hus (c1369-1415) and from the English philosopher John Wycliff (1328-1384). However, this time,  the messages final received the much needed impact. Times had also changed with explorers  reporting new countries and new people which resulted in serious questions in relation to knowledge. Scientific concepts had changed very little since Plato and Aristotle and the new  discoveries called much of this now into question. How could this gap in knowledge be explained and where did these new people fitted into God’s creation? We would be less surprised to find extraterrestrial life than the people of the Late Middle Ages would expect to find these people in the New World.


Indulgences were and still are part of the Roman Catholic faith. The Church has always preached that salvation could be achieved by faith as well as by good works. This slowly turned into a system whereby indulgences were be linked to specific action. This started with the crusades (1096) a total indulgence was provided for those who participated, this was in particular attractive to many of the nobles who being regularly involved in warfare needed some high quality indulgence in order to secure their salvation. Their regular sexual misconduct was another problem they faced on the way to salvation. It didn’t take long before an even better solution was offered, you could actually pay for somebody to participate on your behalf in a crusade and you would still receive a total indulgence.

Soon lots of other good courses provided an opportunity to receive indulgences by making donations to the church; they came in various sizes mainly around shortening time in purgatory, you could also pay to get somebody else out of purgatory. The money collected through this scheme was used for building churches, schools, hospitals but also civil works such as roads and bridges. The St Jan’s Cathedral in Den Bosch and the St Peter in Rome have both been largely financed from indulgences.

The Pope also could provide bishops, cardinals, churches and monasteries the right to issue indulgences and soon there was a real trade going on throughout Europe, especially under corrupt Popes such as Leo X (Member of the powerful Medici family), his cousin Pope Clement VII and Paul III from another powerful Roman family the Fernese’s.

Corruption was thriving, with so many now involved in this lucrative business. Money’s was used to finance wars, build palaces; enormous amounts of money in those years were also spent on art (e.g. the Sixteenth Chapel).

The misuse of indulgence was perhaps the single most important reason for Luther’s success. He very aggressively preached against the practice and ridiculed the behaviour of the Popes in these and other matters wherever he could. He called upon the people to stop buying indulgences.

The most blatant misuses were addressed at the Council of Trent (1563) but it was not until Pope Clement IX (1669) that the system of indulgences was truly reformed.

Indulgences (of course not the misuses of it) is still an important element of the Roman Catholic faith. I remember that around Easter there was an opportunity to earns lots of indulgences (especially aimed at passed away family members ‘getting souls out of purgatory’) by going to the church on that particular day, pray, walk out of the church, walk back in , pray again and earn many indulgences that way,  we had a bit of a competition going on with some of my junior school mates.

In 1517 Luther nailed his famous articles against the sale of indulgences on to the church door in his town Wittenberg. Two years later he disputed the supremacy of the Pope. In 1520 he published three thesis that formed the start of the German Reformation and for this he was excommunicated.

Some of the key Electors of the Holy Roman Empire supported Luther. One of them,  Frederick the Wise of Saxony,  provided advice to Emperor  Charles V that closely followed that of Erasmus; ‘all reasonable men must feel that Luther was behaving reasonable when he declared himself ready to participate in a public disputation before unprejudiced judges” [7. The Emperor Charles V, Karl Brandi, 1939, p127]. Charles  ordered Luther to the Council in Worms, where he was heard and condemned. But thanks to the support of Frederick, Luther was allowed to travel home.

Charles  totally missed the opportunity to lead his country here, the young Emperor was initially seen by Luther as a leader of this movement, but the opposite happened, Charles wavered and showed some sympathy for Luther, but his reaction was to get the Pope and the Church to take on these reforms themselves. While Pope Adrian wanted to see prompt action against Luther he at the same indicated that he also wanted to implement far reaching reforms with the Church and as such he admitted the part guilt of the Vatican in the decline of the Church [8. The Emperor Charles V, Karl Brandi, 1939, p185].

The Dutch Pope Adrian – and a teacher of Charles during his teenage years  – acted in good faith but he was seen by the Vatican elite as a barbarian and never received any serious support for true reformation, he died in 1523 just over a year after his appointment.  The Contra-Reformation that Adrian wanted to start did not eventuate until the Council of Trent (1545-1563) In the meantime Charles also maintained his indecisiveness. His loyalty was with his dynasty not with his people. Over the next century and a half a third of the German population would be killed in conflicts as a direct result of this.

While the devout catholic  emperor confirmed that Luther’s teaching were heretic, he couldn’t do all that much about this in German states. However, in the Low Countries, where there as yet was no support from the nobility he was able to set up the Netherlands Inquisition, run by fanatic Catholics, often Dominicans.  Possessing forbidden books would lead to exile and from 1527 even the death penalty. The first two executed were Augustine friars from ‘s Hertogenbosch, they were burned at the stake in Brussels in 1523 and became not only the first Protestant martyrs of the Netherlands, but also of Europe. The execution made a deep impression on Luther who composed a religious song to honour the two martyrs. [9. Reformatie in Brabant, Gerard van Gurp, 2013, p26]

These executions became a catalyst for the spread of the Reformation. The Governess of the Netherlands Margaretha of Austria wrote in July 1525,  in a letter to her nephew Emperor Charles V, that the ‘lutherij’ heresy had mainly spread to Gent, Antwerp, ‘s Hertogenbosch, Amsterdam, Delft, Bergen op Zoom and other towns in Holland, Hainault and Luxembourg.


While Luther was certainly not politically motivated, the fact that he immediately received political support made it possible for the Reformation to succeed, but it also made it from the early beginning as much a political movement as a religious one.

Interestingly also Luther’s belief had a strong link with eschatology, he also believed as many of the zealots before him that the Last Days were near and he saw the Pope as the Antichrist. However, what made his so different from those zealots was that he saw the new Millennium clearly in a spiritual way and he believed that the truth could be unveiled by a proper dissemination of the true Gospel. He showed people the bigger spiritual picture, which was not bound up in the many trivialities of the myriad of Church conventions and moral codes, which only seemed to apply to ordinary people. His Reformation therefore didn’t require an armed revolt he lifted their fears from the eternal damnation something that was used by the Church to keep the people under their control.

As he didn’t see it as the beginning of a new religion, Luther was able to obtain the support of many priests who also opposed the many wrongdoings within the Church. While revolts and uprisings against these misconducts had been happening for 400 years, it was finally the Reformation that started to make the long awaited impact. In the early days of the Reformation it were indeed priests and monks – fed up with the misconduct in their Church  – who joined the new movement.

However, the movement was also very quickly turned into political opportunism. This ‘Lutheran party’ was used by the hundreds of warring Princes, Price-bishops, and other local rulers to position themselves for a purely political purpose against the  Emperor. At the same time these elements provide the Reformation with the legs needed to establish itself as a true alternative Christian religion. One of the first supporters of Luther was Duke John of Saxony. Closely linked to both the emperor and the Duke was William of Nassau-Dillenburg, a brother of Charles’ closest confidante, his Chamberlain Henry of Nassau. Duke William was also the father of what would become the first ruler of an independent Netherlands, William the Silent. Duke William did lean towards the Reformation, but didn’t openly proclaim this. This made it possible that his son William was raised at the Court of Charles V in Brussels.

Priest rapidly lost there role as mediators between the people and God and also within the emerging Lutheran Church we see laymen filling up this space as spiritual guides.

In a more general sense the Reformation was a reflection of the time, after centuries the people as well as society as a whole were truly fed up with the misconducts of the clergy from the Pope down to many of the local priests and monks. Religious privileges stifled economic progress and hampered society moving forwards. It created  the perfect conditions for the the storm change.

The movement was also greatly supported by the printing press that had been recently invented and by now had spread all over Europe. It is safe to conclude that without the printing press there would not have been the Reformation. There had been serious protest against the misdoings of the Church for several centuries, however it was the power of this information revolution that finally forced the changes to happen. This ‘new medium’ had become a key communication tool for the reformists. This even led to the pope (unsuccessfully) banning the printing press.

Change was in the air and Luther was the right man at the right time to make the Reformation happen. This was in total contrast to a rather unchanged and authoritarian landscape that the Church had provided over the previous 400 years. The Reformation created a sense of liberation, but it also created a sense of disorientation and rapidly a new sect standing between the Lutheran and Catholic Church emerged as early as 1528 and is known as Anabaptism, which was in particular catching on in Low Countries, where –  because of persecution –  there was little religious leadership available to the Reformation.

Anabaptists – wederdopers

Anabaptists are Christians of the Radical Reformation of 16th century Europe. The Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites are direct descendants of the movement.

This name was given them by their enemies in reference to the practice of “re-baptising” adult converts who already had been baptised as infants.

As a result of their views on the nature of baptism and other issues, Anabaptists were heavily persecuted during the 16th century and into the 17th by both other Protestants and Roman Catholics.

The radical north German lay preacher Melchior Hoffman introduced Anabaptist apocalyptic ideas (chiliasm) from Emden into the Netherlands, where they received the name wederdopers. He preached in amongst other cities Amsterdam and Leeuwarden where he converted hundreds of people. They were heavily persecuted and Hoffman had to flee to Strasburg. In Emden he was replaced my Jan Mathijs from Haarlem. He proclaimed that he had received divine revelation that in Münster the thousand year kingdom of God would be established.

He send two of his messengers, Bartholomeus van Hall, a bookbinder from ‘s Hertogenbosch and Willen de Kuiper from Heusden to Münster who baptised 1400 people in this city.

These radicals didn’t just attack the Church but also the secular order, they opposed the practises of the large landowners, the misuse of economic powers by the merchants and the corrupted political systems that supported those powers. In Münster, his diciple Jan Beukels from Leiden took over the governance of the city. However, he did suffer of religious insanity and believed the end of the world was near. For the rest of the drama that followed see:  Münster.

The first protestant martyr of the Reformation in the Northern Netherlands was Jan de Bakker, in 1525 he was – as a heretic – burned at the stake in the Hague – at the order of the Governess of the Netherlands Margareta of Austria, an aunt of Emperor Charles V. However, in general the Dutch Catholic clergy didn’t lead an aggressive campaign amongst their flock to resist the protestants. This for example in contrast to the French Catholic clergy who were able to mobilise their flock to resist the protestants. .  [10. J.Pollmann, Countering Reformation in France and the Netherlands: Clerical Leadership and Catholic Violence 1560-1585, 2006] The name protestants was first mentioned by the German nobles at the Diet of Speyer in 1529, indicating a protest not a break.

In the Netherlands, open persecution petered out during the 1530s as it did not receive any support from the nobility, there was as mentioned hardly any opposition from the Catholic Church in the Netherlands. At least during this period people and the nobility in general supported a freedom of religious choice.   While outwardly most of the nobility, regents, the merchants upper class, intellectuals as well as significant proportion of the monks and clergy conformed to the Catholic Church, inwardly many rejected the old Church.

At the level of the ‘ordinary’ people it was for many a relief to be able to finally stand up against the Church as an institution. This also is clear from the many complaints, during these decades,  from those still supporting the Old Church  to both the Emperor and the Pope about the low level of participation of the people in attending mass and other religious activities. The only region within the Hapsburg Netherlands where the Old Church remained supported was in the Walloon provinces.

No longer supported by society , the anti-heresy placard from the Hapsburg rulers were from the 1540s onwards virtually ignored. This significantly undermined the authority of the rulers. Frustration on the side of the rulers led to brute force which more regional tribunals and executions which only fuelled the resentment and created an environment that gave people the courage  to finally to overthrow the occupying regime. In all some 1300 people were executed under these anti-heresy activities between 1523 and 1565.

In 1555 Charles V abdicated and his son, the uncompromising Spanish King Philip II, became the formal ruler of the Netherlands. The Church was in a dismal state with forever dwindling  number of churchgoers  – not just because of the Reformation. In many towns in Brabant – outside the areas effected by the Reformation, including, Oss – reported church attendance of less than 8 people and that included people coming from outside the town.

To increase Catholic control  a reorganisation of the Church was propose by Philip II  and his advisers and this was introduced in 1558 and resulted in the foundation of  eleven new bishoprics in the Netherlands (only to see most disappearing again during the Revolt). Philip’s advisor Antoine Granvelle became the cardinal of the arch bishopric of Mechelen, under which the new bishopric of ‘s Hertogenbosch also resorted. Here the previous inquisitor Franciscus Sonnius was appointed as the first bishop.  [11. Reformatie in Brabant, Gerard van Gurp, 2013, p59]

It was Willem of Orange who finally in  the early 1560s made a presentation at the Council of State in Brussels that there was no longer room for the repression of the individual conscience, he made it a political issue. For decades he kept fighting for this middle road but eventually had to give in to Calvinistic extremism .

Militant and structured Calvinism took hold in Holland

As mentioned above  Martin Luther never contemplated to leave the Catholic Church he wanted to change from within. He didn’t succeed and was excommunicated. However, he never took a militant stand in the conflict, to the contrary he opposed any violence from both sides.

Jean Calvin (Jehan Cauvin, Calvinus – 1509-1564) on the other hand justified  revolt against secular rulers by local authorities. This of course was in the ears of those leading the Dutch Revolt. Calvinist also objected against Lutheran liturgy and their ‘evening meal’, that reminded them too much to the Catholic religion.  Later on the link to Germany was held against the Lutherans  most of their ministers studies in Germany and the service was in German. The Lutheran community in Nijmegen was the last one to move to Dutch language services in 1908.

Calvin took a far more puristic role in the Reformation and his followers were therefore also far more militant and is lead the iconoclasm that swept especially the Low Countries in the 1560s. As mentioned  Willem of Orange took a far more conciliatory stand in the religious conflict and wanted to unite all of the Nederlandish people. Without strong religious leadership and within this perhaps somewhat idealist notion of conciliation there were many interpretations of the new doctrine, with all these competing flavours there was also a yearning for leaders to guide their flock into this new environment. Calvinism had that very clear structure and doctrine this was needed to unite the reformed forces in the Netherlands.

The Spanish King Philip II, together with his military commander Alva tried to suppress any form of Protestantism. So in the end it was not the ‘middle road’ but the militant forces that got the political upper-hand  – and perhaps were also  needed – to overthrow the Spanish yoke.

For this reason it was Calvinism that settled in the Netherlands, while Lutheranism remained the dominant force in Luther’s homeland. However, the middle road element never disappeared totally and until this date there are still a range of different protestant churches in the country.

After the various ups and downs of Reformation between 1525 and 1565 the new religion had mainly taken hold in the Northern Netherlands and in Flanders. In Brabant Antwerp, Brussels, ‘s Hertogenbosch and Eindhoven were the only cities where Reformed churches existed. Because of their extensive lines of communication the Reformation spread faster through the cities and hardly reached the rural areas. However, as result of the turmoil Bishop Sonnius of ‘s Hertogenbosch reported that half of the 180 villages in his bishopric were without a priest.  [12. Reformatie in Brabant, Gerard van Gurp, 2013, p141]

Beeldenstorm – iconoclastic Fury

In 1559, Margaretha of Parma had become the Governess of  the Netherlands. She was forced to adjust herself to the advices of the by Philips appointed minister Antoine  Granvelle, who was greatly disliked in the Netherlands, and was ultimately forced to retire in 156. From that moment on however, ,she was forced to have every task approved by Philip, despite the fact that a letter from Netherlands and Spain could take months to reach its recipient. In 1565, a delegation of 200 Dutch nobles presented her with a letter of complaints (smeekschrift), in which they asked to soften the regulation (plakkaten)  regarding religious repression.  These nobles were introduced to the Governess as ‘gueux’ (beggars), the word Geuzen became the honorarily title for all those who opposed the Spaniards. There was very little she could do as she had no army to put against them. She gave in for the duration it would take to get the official response from King Philip.

Feeling some relief from the heavy handed persecution against them the Calvinist took the opportunity to hit back. Between June and October 1566, Iconoclastic riots took place all over the Netherlands. The Reformation saw the statues, artworks and other symbols of God, Jesus, Maria and the saints as idols of, which had to be destructed.

Catholic art and many forms of church fittings and decoration were destroyed in unofficial or mob actions. Some churches (including the John Cathedral in ‘s Hertogenbosch) saw the onslaught arriving and had brought some of its precious art and church ware  to safety. In France unofficial episodes of large scale destruction of art in churches by Huguenot Calvinists had begun in 1560; here however, unlike in the Low Countries they were often physically resisted and repulsed by Catholic crowds. In the Netherlands the Catholic Church had evidently lost the loyalty of the population, and Catholic anti-clericalism was now dominant.

On August 10, 1566, the feast-day of Saint Lawrence, at the end of the pilgrimage from Hondschoote to Steenvoorde, the chapel of the Sint-Laurensklooster was defaced by a crowd who invaded the building. It has been suggested that the rioters connected the saint especially with Philip II, whose monastery palace of the Escorial near Madrid was dedicated to Lawrence, and was just nearing completion in 1566. Iconoclastic attacks spread rapidly northwards. The attacks reached  Antwerp, on August 20, and Ghent  and ‘s Hertogenbosch two days later, reaching Amsterdam at the end of the month. Over 400 churches were attacked in Flanders alone. Most looked like pre-planned activities – probably from Antwerp –  with payments paid to those who participated, often young men. After the churches were done the mobs went to the monasteries and continued their destruction and their activities often included violence against the monks and nuns.

On August 29 Margaret wrote a somewhat panicked letter to Philip, “claiming that half the population were infected with heresy, and that over 200,000 people were up in arms against her authority”. By October however, she largely had the situation under control again, but rumours regarding the continuation of the Inquisition was enough to lead to yet another storm of destruction. Ongoing hesitation from many of the local authorities only aggravated the situation and provided a free run for the mob.

Following these actions many Reformed churches were established and eventually in most cities some sort of an arrangement was achieved between the remaining Catholics and the Reformed. However, these ‘wonder years’ quickly came to an end.

Philip decided to send the Duke of Alba with an army which arrived the following year, and soon replaced Margaret as Governor-general, Alba’s heavy-handed repression, which included the execution of many convicted of iconoclastic attacks of the summer before, only made the situation worse and only further fuelled the Dutch revolt.

Troops led by the Stadholder of Gelre, Karel de Brimeu, Count of Megen went to ‘s Hertogenbosch in January 1567  ready to occupy the city and take over the governance of the city. The Governess Margaretha revoked all of the city’s privileges, which had a devastating effect on the local economy. From now on passports were needed to travel in and out of the cities. Eventually the Reformed leaders together with many of their followers fled the city. Bishop Sonnius returned to the city the following month. However, the Count of Megen reported to the Governess that, quietly, many of the refugees returned back  to ‘s Hertogenbosch in the following months. He classified these ‘Geuzen’ as subversive and a danger to the State.

The region around ‘s Hertogenbosch – the Meijerij – was very hard hit during the Dutch Revolt once the between the Spaniards and the troops of Willem of Orange started to clash. The towns and villages saw occupations following each other and every time that lead to devastation. Poverty and devastation led to epidemics and and starvation and the region became severely depopulated.

As an example Oss had a garrison of 60 Spanish horseman, however, when in 1572 troops of Phillipe de Croy entered Oss on Easter the Spaniard fled but the local pastor was murdered by the troops, on leaving the town the burned down 60 houses. This situation would last for the next 80 years, till the Peace of Münster in 1648 – with a short period of relief during the ceasefire  from 1609 1621. In general what Oss had to face were roaming troops of often unpaid mercenaries from foreign countries. During that period Oss had mainly to rely on their own militias (schuttergilden). The Spaniards were unable to fetch sufficient troops to control the area between the key fortified towns of ‘s Hertogenbosch and Grave. These militia successfully defended the town in 1586 and 1589.

However, a couple of years later muting troop burned several houses. However, the most devastating year was 1599, at that time it had again a Spanish garrison within its walls.  The situation was so dire that all citizen from outside the walls were brought in as well. This garrison forced the citizens of Oss to pay for a range of supplies. This led to severe poverty add to this the cramped living satiation and as a result that year saw a major diarrhoea epidemic which killed as much as 20% of its population, including its two priests;  the situation remained dire for many years after this disaster year. After the Spanish left, Dutch mutineers harassed the town. When the Dutch Prince Maurits fought in the area he flooded the area between ‘s Hertogenbosch and Grave and again Oss was severely affected, the aim was to drive their enemies from the entrenchments (schansen). Oss  was again attacked by the Spaniards, the Dutch and the mutineers. After the ceasefire ended in 1621 Grave was in the hands of the Dutch and ‘s Hertogenbosch was in the hands of the Spaniard, with Oss in between its fate was sealed.  During the siege of  ‘s Hertogenbosch foraging troops also plundered Oss, After the city was conquered by Prince Frederik Hendrik, both parties quarrelled about who controlled the Meijerij and as a result both parties send their tax collector to the cities, a situation that only ended in 1648. In order to appease the various military groups camping in the area, regular gifts were provided to the military commender with the aim to stop their troops from plundering Oss. [13. Geschiedenis van Oss, Jan Cunen, 1932, p47-60]

Medieval catholic church culture saved by Lutherans

The puritan Calvinist didn’t want anything in the churches they took from the Catholics that reminded them of that old religion and they stripped the church bare of any catholic symbols, artefacts of other elements. On the contrary many Lutheran communities kept these Catholic churches more or less in tact and only removed elements that no longer fitted in their religion. There are also indications that many catholic traditions continued to well into the 19th century in some Lutheran communities, once a more central regime could be executed those traditions disappeared, however those medieval catholic interiors continued to survive.

In the meantime the internal Catholic Reformation pronounced at the Council of Trent that was held on and off between 1545 – 1564 also saw major changes happening in the Catholic churches and to break with the past a new form of art swept though these churches and their medieval interiors were changed by new the Baroque. From an interior point of view a second art revolution swept through the Catholic church in the 19th century that of the neoclassic.

These two art reformation lead to a more or less total elimination of medieval catholic churches interiors in catholic churches.

At a lecture at the University of Sydney, Professor Justin Kroesen from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands presented an eye opening overview of this ‘hidden’ history and he indicated that it is only since recent that  historians have realised that these medieval interiors have much better survived in the Lutheran churches as they didn’t see these two art revolutions swept through their buildings.

An estimated 1,000 Lutheran village and town churches in Germany and Scandinavia still have significant medieval interiors in place. Some of it simply continued to be used in the traditional way, some of it was reused in a different way and some of was simply not used and either stored or put aside.

In particular the churches on Gotland in Sweden show this rich medieval culture.

The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)