The Medieval Synthesis Under Attack
Savonarola and the Protestant Reformation
Lecture 5: From The History Guide by Dr. Steven Kreis
The people of Florence are far from considering themselves ignorant and benighted, and yet Brother Girolamo Savonarola succeeded in persuading them that he held converse with God. I will not pretend to judge whether it was true or not, for we must speak with respect of so great a man; but I may well say that an immense number believed it without having seen any extraordinary manifestations that should have made them believe it.
—Machiavelli, The Discourses (Book I, Chapter XI)
If he was good, we have seen a great prophet in our time; if he was bad, we have seen a great man. For, apart from his erudition, we must admit that if he was able to fool the public for so many years on so important a matter without ever being caught in a lie, he must have had great judgment, talent and power of invention.
—Guicciardini, History of Florence (Chapter 16)
In 1489, the Dominican friar, GIROLAMO SAVONAROLA (1452-1498), was called to the city of Florence in order to preach to the people. Florence needed Savonarola. From 1490 to his death in 1498, this evangelical preacher, this man of God, took the city of Florence by storm. It has been said that the people of Florence who came to see Savonarola and to witness his miracle-working first-hand, fell to their knees in ecstasy. These followers of Savonarola, his children if you will, were aptly called The Weepers. The de Medici family looked upon Savonarola with suspicion and disbelief. The Medici, after all, had led the humanistic revival of Florence and here seemed to be a man who was preaching a new spiritualism which hearkened back to medieval morality.
THIS WILL BE YOUR FINAL DESTRUCTION was the message of Savonarola. He railed at the people, exhorting them to return to the ways of the Church. He painted horrific pictures of Hell and damnation which easily rivaled those poor souls who gnashed their teeth, pulled their hair and defiled their bodies in Dante’s Inferno. Once, in obedience to a voice he heard and interpreted as the voice of God, Savonarola preached one of his most terrifying sermons:
Rethink you well, O ye rich, for affliction shall smite ye. This city shall no more be Florence, but a den of thieves, of turpitude and bloodshed. The shall ye all be poverty-stricken, all wretched, and your name, O priests, shall be changed into a terror. . . . Know that unheard-of times are at hand.
When Lorenzo de Medici — Lorenzo the Magnificent, as he was known — was on his deathbed in 1492, it is said that he called the very popular Savonarola to his side and begged him to administer the last rites. Savonarola agreed, but on the condition that Lorenzo would grant three wishes to Savonarola.
ONE: Lorenzo, you must truly repent…agreed. TWO: Lorenzo, you must give up your wealth…agreed. THREE: Lorenzo, you must renounce any claim on behalf of the de Medici family to rule Florence and you must allow the city to become a democratic republic. Lorenzo flatly refused. Savonarola therefore refused to administer this most sacred of the sacraments. (I have recently heard that Savonarola may have indeed administered the last rites to Lorenzo, but since I cannot verify this with evidence, let’s just say this episode is questionable.)
I relate this story to you now because I believe that it highlights three fundamental dimensions of the Reformation which we have to consider. These three aspects can be considered the points of a triangle — all three must be present. The Reformation was not simply the result of the NINETY-FIVE THESES of Martin Luther (1483-1546). Nor was the Reformation an overwhelmingly religious phenomenon. Instead, I think we need to pay close attention to Savonarola for there we find a three-pronged attack. This attack took the shape of first, a religious protest, second, a protest against wealth and splendor and third, a protest of a political nature. So, the three ingredients are clearly Religion, Economics and Politics.
With Lorenzo dead, Savonarola controlled the city of Florence until 1498. He called on the population of that city to burn all its books, paintings, sculptures, luxuries and fineries — everything, in a word, that drove men away from higher spirituality. He wanted the people to return to the simple, unadorned ways of God, ways which once had been but which were now subsumed in possessions and possessiveness. The Weepers were urged to make “bonfires of the vanities” in the Piazza del Signoria — great conflagrations in which their worldly possessions were sacrificed. Savonarola, a man born and bred in the Renaissance, rejected humanism, rejected modern art, rejected the new science, rejected anything that was not oriented toward the divine presence. And who would know more about what God wanted than Fra Savonarola — after all, he was in constant communication with God and the angels.
all this, and more, was to be tossed into the bonfire. Jewelry, perfumes, soaps, silks, mirrors, hair combs, harps, chessboards, playing cards were brought out of Florentine homes by the wagonload. But why? Why would the people of Florence part with their possessions? Paintings, especially those depicting naked women — pornographic, in the eyes of Savonarola — were also destroyed. A wealthy merchant from Venice was said to be present at one of these bonfires — he approached Savonarola and asked if he could buy one of the paintings about to be burned. The painting was, after all, a portrait of his mistress. Savonarola picked up the canvas itself, looked at it for a moment, and then tossed it onto the flames.
While Savonarola oversaw these great conflagrations, these great acts of collective purgation, he was also preaching some of his most memorable sermons. On the popes in general he said, “Popes and prelates speak against pride and ambition and they are plunged into it up to their ears.” Compare this statement with those various remarks by Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) in the Praise of Folly. Is there a difference? Well, on the surface, such a remark could have been said be either man — not only that, I imagine you could have found any number of others saying exactly the same thing. After all, the same criticism is evident in Dante’s Divine Comedy as well as Boccaccio’s Decameron. The major difference is that Dante, Boccaccio and Erasmus were writing satire and parody — Savonarola, on the other hand, was dead serious.
Like Dante, Savonarola called the Vatican “a house of prostitution where harlots sit upon the throne of Solomon and signal to passersby: Whoever can pay enters and does what he wishes.” And of Pope Alexander, Savonarola said, “he is no longer a Christian. He is an infidel, a heretic, and as such has ceased to be pope.” Such language, even coming as it was from the mouth of a Dominican friar, was bound to get Savonarola in trouble. And as we shall soon see, it did. But Savonarola was a man who believed he was made of sterner stuff, and in fact, he believed that he had God on his side in more than just a spiritual manner. Savonarola regarded himself as an instrument of God and believed that nothing — not even Lorenzo the Magnificent — could stand in his way. Florence was to be reconstructed as a “respublica Christiana,” a Christian republic, a republic in which the true sovereign was God and God alone.
To produce such a Florence, Savonarola was forced to manipulate the conscience of the people. And this required thought control. A new morality would be enforced. Gambling was prohibited. Frivolity was prohibited. Clothing was to be more simple and more uniform. He also went as far as to take the young boys of Florentine families, instruct them in his holy ways and then have them spy on their parents for signs of any infidelities to the new moral order. If some of this reminds you of the theocratic dictatorship of a John Calvin (1509-1564) or Jean Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) offhand remark that those who do not conform “will be forced to be free,” or the totalitarianism of Stalinist Russia, well, then, you are getting the point.
By 1497, Dominicans, Franciscans and the Church authorities at Rome had enough of Savonarola’s evangelicalism. They were set to act. Things had gotten out of hand. Savonarola was actually winning converts! Early in 1498, Savonarola held his last bonfire of the vanities. This time, however, riots broke out on the Piazza del Signoria. In April, Fra Savonarola was brought to trial for heresy — he was said to have falsely claimed to have seen visions. He was found guilty by a council of eight and on the morning of May 23, 1498, Savonarola made his final prayer. “Pray God for me,” he implored, “that He may give me strength at my last end and that the Enemy may have no power over me.” He then followed a raised walkway ninety feet into the Piazza. At the far end of the walkway, on the very spot where he had held his bonfires of the vanities, stood a circular wooden platform, heaped with combustibles. In the center was a wooden column some twenty-three feet high. A transverse beam was attached to the column, and from it hung three nooses — one for Savonarola and one each for his associates, Silvestro Maruffi and Domenico de Pescia. As the three heretics walked to the gibbet, some young boys plunged sharp sticks through the cracks in the walkway. To the crowd’s disappointment, the three were oblivious to the pain. Silvestro was the first to go. The executioner tightened the noose and then pushed Silvestro forward. But because the rope did not draw tight, it took several minutes for him to die. Luckily, Domenico died quickly and then it was Savonarola’s turn. He asked for a cord to tie his tunic at his ankles so that the crowd would not see his genitals but the executioner refused. He followed the hangman up the ladder. At the top, he paused and looked from side to side. Most of the crowd were awaiting a word or sign from him, something that would have given them some hope for the future. But Fra Savonarola had his thoughts on the Savior on the cross at Cavalry. Faithful to his decision to emulate Christ, he silently offered his neck to the hangman. Savonarola died quickly, unlike the less fortunate Silvestro and Domenico. The flames reached the three within minutes and the great Savonarola was gone.
By the start of the 16th century, everyone who mattered in the western Church was crying out for reformation. For more than one hundred years, western Europeans had sought a reform of the Church “in head and in members.” They failed to find it! If you were to conduct a survey of those people calling out for reform, it would be nearly impossible to find any single point upon which they all agreed. The Pope intervened in nearly all matters of Church and State — men talked about limiting his authority. But, these same men needed the Pope’s help to manage the Church in their respective lands — they used his power as a loophole to escape the workings of canon law. Everyone protested that the practice of simony, that is, the buying and selling of Church offices, was wrong and in need of correction. But, from the standpoint of the Church, to pay fees on entry into office could be defended as a form of taxation.
The examples could be extended but the point is clear: what one honest man believed to be an abuse, another honest man defended. Everyone wanted reform but how to go about it, or what to reform, was an issue of imprecision. Some reformers created new orders — prayer and study sects. Bishops compelled the monks to live according to the monastic rule. At the administrative level, the quest for reform was indeed present. Between 1512 and 1517, an ecumenical council met at Rome. The council agreed that heresy should be suppressed, that the Turks were a danger to Christian Europe and that bishops ought to have more authority over the monks. They also argued that no one could preach without taking the sacrament of Holy Orders; that university professors must teach the doctrine of the soul’s immortality; and finally, that the printing of all theologically unsound books should be stopped. All this underlies some spirit reform, however, few outside the Church would admit that this would signify the necessary “reform in head and in numbers.”
When men of the Church spoke of reformation, they were almost always thinking of administrative, legal or moral reformation — they rarely, if ever, spoke of a doctrinal reformation. They looked at canon law and Church bureaucracy and argued that it bred inefficiency, graft, injustice, worldliness and immorality. And these pleas were sometimes intermingled with calls for a general intellectual improvement. They wanted popes and bishops to be less secular, monks to practice the rules of their order and the parish clergy to be better educated. They sometimes talked of a theology less remote from the common man — a faith less external and closer to the teachings of the Lord. But to gain these ends, few would have expected anything like doctrinal change.
The first question regarding reformation then, was not “is the teaching of the Church true?” In doctrinal matters, there were heretics like the Lollards, Hussites, Waldensians and others — these were the sectarian groups who uttered sedition and blasphemy. The cry for reform meant the suppression, not the encouragement of these abuses. Many of the more obvious abuses were committed by the highest of Churchmen. For instance, Linacre, the personal physician of Henry VIII, had the been rector of four parishes, a canon at three cathedrals and precentor at York Minster. On the surface, this seems sound. But Linacre held all these positions at one and the same time — that’s where the abuses lay. However, all this was perhaps a corruption of state rather than a corruption of the Church. Furthermore, what this example tells us, at least for the case of England, was just how close the state and church actually were.
Graft, inefficiency and immorality seemed to be the worst when they were perpetrated by clergymen in their own interests. After all, the clergy were keepers of public conscience — it was their duty to restrain avarice, sanctify poverty and excommunicate kings if they chose. If reform was needed, it was up to the clergy to proclaim it. They looked to the Pope and expected that he and he alone could bring peace, justice and integrity to the people. No Pope, not even a Hildebrand or an Innocent III could live up to those aspirations. The morally puritan of the Middle Ages saw the love of money as the root of all evil. Here lay the most painful contrast between religious ideals and clerical practices. Men like St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) or Thomas à Kempis (1379-1471) and countless others believed poverty was central to the moral life. But by 1500, the holy mendicant orders were no longer respected — too many had been revealed as frauds. Erasmus remarked in 1509 that the monks:
stay as far away from religion as possible, and no people are seen more often in public. . . . They cannot read, and so they consider it the height of piety to have no contact with literature.
And then there was John Calvin who, almost thirty years later wrote that the monks:
are all completely unlearned asses, though because of their long robes they have a reputation for learning.
The moral, ascetic ideal, furthermore, was reacting to vast social and economic changes. Still, there were those who agreed with Thomas à Kempis who nearly a century earlier had written in The Imitation of Christ:
It is vanity to seek riches which shall perish and to trust in them. It is vanity to pursue office and climb high rank. It is vanity to follow the desires of the flesh…vanity to wish for long life . . . vanity to love what passeth away so quickly, and not to hasten where abideth joy everlasting.
The moral idea for the followers of Kempis and the Brethren of the Common Life was other-worldly, still monastic and ascetic. This is true of the Franciscans as well. But Europe was changing fast and the mendicant orders, the best and worst of them taken together, were finding it increasingly difficult to “compete” with the material comforts of the City of Man.
Meanwhile, educated men and women of the middle classes, weaned on Renaissance humanism, a secular art and life in the cities, drank deep from the literature of Greece and Rome. They were delighted with the City of Man — here they found a society of growing wealth, wealth which was beginning to fall into their hands. Here, in the City of Man, they found an incongruity between the ascetic ideal and their everyday life. The old values of the past were now in conflict with the intellectual strivings of the present. The love of money was the root of all evil — and in the realm of money, the holy city of Rome had absolutely no power. Erasmus was in Rome in 1509 — Luther made the trip in 1511. Neither of them liked what they saw.
The word reformation shows that the quest for something better was perhaps characteristically medieval. It was backward-looking. Indeed, the medieval thinker saw early Christianity and the primitive Church through rose-colored glasses. Once, they thought, there was a golden age. Once there was devotion, piety, fervor, religion, holy priests, purity of heart. But now, the ancient age had turned from gold to silver, from silver to wood and from wood to iron. This was nothing new — three hundred years earlier, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) wished that before he died he would like to see the Church return to its ancient ways. His was a typical, medieval appeal. And during the 16th century, an educated humanist like Erasmus believed in a lost age of holiness, sanctity and purity. The Reformation always looked backward.
But the demand for reform grew — and it did so by channeling its energies into itself. To demand reform is to denounce abuse — to denounce abuse is to raise doubts in the public mind, to criticize officials and to hold them accountable. To demand reform was to diminish the prestige of Pope, bishop, monk, friar and parish priest and thus open the way for further criticism. So, anti-clericalism seemed to be the buzzword. In 1502, Erasmus made the offhand remark that a lay person felt insulted if he were called a cleric, a priest or a monk. The cry for reform — the demand for reform — went beyond the academicians. It grew into the clamor of the people. Reform was attempted toward the end of the 15th century — but it failed. The tragedy of Savonarola gives a sense of this failure in dramatic form. When he was hanged and then burnt at the stake in 1498, his cry for reform was uttered in medieval fashion. So too was his cry for reform silenced the medieval way. And twenty-five years later, Erasmus could only look at Savonarola as a sad example of what could be found among any Dominican friar.
One question which the previous discussion suggests is why were the calls for reform so potent in the early 16th century? Were Church abuses more numerous? Were they of a more heinous nature? Well, John Calvin listed some of the evils of his day — evils which he found in the Church and in human nature as well: self-love, ambition, pride, greed, wanton sex, dancing, adultery, drunkenness, frivolity, gossip, hypocrisy and a hundred other things. “Young people have lost that deference to their elders on which the social order depends,” wrote Calvin.
they reject all correction. Sexual offenses, rapes, adulteries, incests and seductions are more common than ever before. How monstrous that the world should have been overthrown by such dense clouds for the last three or four centuries, so that it could not see clearly how to obey Christ’s commandment to love our enemies. Everything is in shameful confusion; everywhere I see only cruelty, plots, frauds, violence, injustice, shamelessness while the poor groan under the oppression and the innocent are arrogantly and outrageously harassed. God must be asleep.
According to Calvin, men and women had a great deal to worry about. Temptation and lust seemed to be everywhere and so men and women had to be constantly on their guard to prevent contamination. So, it’s no accident that the sort of theocracy Calvin created was one based on the ethic of self-control, a sort of worldly asceticism. “Each of us should watch himself closely,” Calvin wrote.
The passions must be repressed and chained up, we must make every effort to beat down the impetuous frenzy in them.
The Reformation came to Europe not so much because Europe was irreligious but because it was religious. The abuses now condemned by Luther, Calvin, Erasmus and others had always been abuses and in fact, they had been around for quite some time. A great many priests were ignorant in 1500 — a great many were also ignorant in the year 910 as well as the year 1996. The reformers were under an illusion in looking back to some golden age of the past — they perhaps there found what they wanted to find. Again, the abuses were not worse — but, the awareness by more people of those abuses was heightened. The point is simple: more people were becoming aware of the nature and scope of abuses at all levels of high medieval society. It is true, as Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) once remarked that “we Italians are more irreligious and corrupt than others. . . “. He qualified this by adding that this was true “because the Church and its representatives set us the worst examples.”
Despite this proclamation, what is undoubtedly true about the late 15th and early 16th centuries is the extent of religious and devotional practice. For instance, Henry VIII is said to have heard three masses on days when he was hunting and five masses on other days. There were also new forms of devotion as well and they emerge as new forms of piety. Savonarola was characteristic of the new, perhaps misdirected piety. And in 1507, Pope Julius II sanctioned the cult of the holy house at Loreto, a house believed to be the Lord’s house miraculously transported to Nazareth by angels. And then we have Michelangelo Buonarroti’s (1475-1564) Pietà, the virgin of pity, with her dead son. All this was accompanied by a significant growth in the cult of the saints and their relics. And, all this existed alongside superstitions and popular beliefs. In 1500, witches were being tortured and burnt at the stake. So too were Jews experiencing persecution. But this was nothing new. It had been a fairly common occurrence for a number of years. But, in 1500, what was new was not the practice of these things but the way the leaders of opinion were beginning to regard them. In general, the gap between the religiosity of the literate few and the illiterate many was widening to a point in which the gap was unbridgeable. And while all, this was going on, the printing press was busy publishing more than one hundred editions of the Bible between 1457 and 1500 (see Lecture 4). One result is that the upper classes — the rulers and merchants — were becoming better educated. The presses were working and were multiplying. Libraries, though small, were adding volumes upon volumes to their once meager numbers. An information revolution was certainly taking place. Books were now being published in impressive numbers and could also be purchased more cheaply. More people were reading. Knowledge was increasing. So too were the tools for critical study.
There is a connection between the Renaissance and the Reformation but historians have had a difficult time defining that connection. Overall, the moral energies and spirit of a St. Bernard was more responsible for the Reformation rather than the critical spirit of a man like Abelard. The reason may be clear: the Reformation was more a movement of faith than it was of reason.
The Renaissance humanists were as varied a lot as possible. They had little in common except for their general respect for classical antiquity. Italian humanists lived in an entirely different atmosphere from their peers in Germany, France or England. Italian humanism was literary, artistic and philosophical whereas northern humanism was more overtly religious, even theological. In France, in Germany and in England, there was a movement taking its stimulus from the Italians and their renewed love of Greek and Latin antiquity, but transformed it into a decidedly religious context. This northern Christian humanism was best represented by DESIDERIUS ERASMUS (1466-1536).
As a young man, Erasmus believed that northern Europeans knew nothing of classical antiquity — his career sought to remedy this barbarism. Between 1498 and 1514 he lived at Paris, Oxford and Italy, taught for two years at Cambridge and then settled at Basel in Switzerland until 1536. More than any other northern humanist, he wrote books intended to educate the conscience of his northern readers. The bookshops couldn’t get enough of his works. A Parisian bookseller who heard that the Sorbonne might condemn Erasmus’ Colloquies as heretical, rushed 24,000 copies through the presses. As a writer, Erasmus was a master of style and scholarship — he was witty, cynical, amusing and humorous. He was far from superficial and in general, his intellect was unrivaled. He was known and respected throughout Europe — one of his friends was confessed: “I am pointed out in public as the man who has received a letter from Erasmus.”
Among all the targets to which he aimed his pen, he directed his most penetrating attack on the abuses he observed in the Church. The Netherlands of his youth were the home of zealous reformers, especially the Brethren of the Common Life. The Brethren were the paradigm of medieval piety and they also just happened to be Erasmus’ principal instructors. But unlike the Brethren or their spiritual father, Thomas à Kempis, Erasmus did not write devotional literature. He did, however, despise ignorance, superstition, obscurantism and wished to supply the remedy.
Educated men all over Europe were mumbling about the clergy, monks and the popes — mumbling about corruption, graft, popular superstition and idolatry. Erasmus brilliantly expressed what most men were barely articulating. And so, educated Europe laughed along with Erasmus. Their laughter, however, soon turned to serious approval. Erasmus had struck a nerve and the educated classes knew it. But, by 1517, Erasmus had become accepted by the established order. In other words, his biting criticism became part of a general awareness of Church abuses — it was not up to Erasmus to institute change. More than any other single man, Erasmus lowered the European reputation of pope and clergyman, monk and friar, and above all, the theologian, whom Erasmus described as “a scab of a fellow, theology incarnate.” The theologians had, for centuries, defended a creed with methods which had, by the time of the Late Renaissance, become nearly obsolete. Theology had become entangled with philosophical principles which philosophers themselves had ceased to believe. For more than two hundred years, Nominalist philosophers had conquered the universities of northern Europe. They were skeptical of the power of reason to reach true metaphysical conclusions. They were skeptical of the Thomistic synthesis as well. They did not think that Church doctrine was untrue. But they managed to drive a wedge between truth as known by revelation and the doubts of a rational mind. They did not seek concord between faith and reason. The Nominalists, then, simply did away with Scholasticism.
For men like Erasmus, the vocabulary of the Scholastics was meaningless, absurd. On top of this came a humanist criticism with its genuine lack of interest in philosophical inquiry and system-building. Criticism was certainly gaining ground. For instance, in 1505 a university professor was trying to prove that Paul and Augustine were not Saints. Erasmus himself had written that he doubted John was the author of the Book of Revelation. While they intended no critique of dogma, the humanists could not trample over the theologians without at the same time bringing into question the very foundations of the medieval Church. Erasmus intended to announce the discovery of a program for the recovery of what he called a true theology. In 1503, he published his Handbook for the Christian Warrior. The theology of the Handbook was simple, more Biblical, less tangled and caught up in Aristotelian logic. The Handbook contained a theology stripped of layers of glosses, authorities and commentaries. And in 1516, Erasmus translated and published a German version of the Greek New Testament, and also included a Latin translation as well. He wanted everyone to be able to read the Bible for themselves and this meant that the Bible had to be printed in the vernacular. How else to break the stranglehold of medieval Christianity then to give the Word to everyone? So, Erasmus cast aside centuries of glosses and commentaries on the Bible — he didn’t care whether these glosses were of European or Eastern origin. It’s obvious what he was trying to do. By eliminating the past interpretations of the Scriptures, Erasmus was trying to force a return to the source of all holiness, all sanctity — a true theology.
Erasmus remained impatient and angry with the penchant for superstition among the people. The cults of statues, the devotion to the relics of the saints — hair, pieces of bone and finger nail clippings — and visits to Madonnas with rolling eyes were vulgar to a man like Erasmus. The people, he thought, cultivated a religion of external acts and substituted pilgrimages, indulgences and relics for truth faith. After all, what else had the Church really taught these people? Erasmus wanted a true religion, stripped of centuries of medieval baggage. “Perhaps thou believest,” he wrote, “that all thy sins are wasted away with a little paper, a sealed parchment, with the gift of a little money or some wax images, with a little pilgrimage. Thou art deceived.”
With Erasmus, the contrast between the ideal and reality merged into a contrast between the Bible and the religion practiced in the Church. So, with Erasmus, more people became aware that what the Church practiced was not what it preached. More important, more people now understood that the religion of the medieval Church was far removed from the religion practiced by the original followers of Christ. Europe wanted reform — it was clearly not expecting revolution. Most men, Erasmus included, perhaps would have rather ridiculed the Church into action. However, there were more potent forces at work — forces to maintain the existing state of the Church which would not be altered without a violent attack.
[On the Radical Reformation, see Lecture 4, on the Catholic Reformation see Lecture 5, and on the Age of Religious Wars see Lecture 6, which are all part of my Lectures on Early Modern European History series.]
This article is reprinted here for educational purposes, with the permission of the author who retains copyright to this work. Many thanks to Dr. Steven Kreis for graciously granting us permission to reproduce this lecture, which originally appeared on his History Guide website.