فصل 28

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فصل 28

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As you will remember, there were popes ruling in Rome after 1400 who cared more for might and magnificence than for their role as priests, and it was they who commissioned the most famous artists to build beautiful churches. This was especially true of two Medici popes, members of the family that had already done so much for the prestige and adornment of Florence. During their reigns the grandest and most magnificent buildings rose into the skies above Rome. Old St Peter’s ­ a church thought to have been founded by Constantine the Great and in which Charlemagne had been crowned emperor ­ was too plain for their taste. They planned to build a new church, far bigger and more beautiful than any seen before. But it would cost a great deal of money. Where this money came from mattered less to the popes of the day than getting hold of it and completing their wonderful church. And in their desire to please the pope, priests and monks collected money in a way which did not conform with the teachings of the Church. They made the faithful pay for the forgiveness of their sins, and called it ‘selling indulgences’. They did this in spite of the Church’s own teaching, according to which only sinners who repented might be forgiven.

Now there was at that time in Wittenberg, in Germany, a monk who belonged to the order of the Augustinians. His name was Martin Luther. When, in 1517, one of these sellers of indulgences came to Wittenberg to collect money for the new St Peter’s, whose construction that year was under the supervision of Raphael, the most famous painter in the world, Luther was determined to draw attention to the irreligious nature of this way of raising funds. He nailed a kind of poster to the doors of the church, on which he had written ninety-five theses ­ or points for discussion ­ denouncing this trade in divine forgiveness. What shocked Luther most was that people might think that they could atone for their sins with money, that God’s free, forgiving mercy could be bought. He had always seen himself as a sinner living, like all sinners, in fear of God’s wrath. Only one thing could save him from God’s punishment and that was God’s infinite mercy which, as Luther believed, could not be bought, for if it could, it would no longer be mercy. Before God, who sees all and knows all, even a good person is a sinner who deserves to be punished. Only faith in God’s freely given mercy can save him, and nothing else.

In the bitter arguments that now broke out on the subject of indulgences and their abuse, Luther’s opinions took on an increasingly insistent and forceful tone, both in his teaching and his writings. Nothing but faith matters, said Luther. All else is superfluous. And that also goes for the Church and the priests who, when they celebrate Mass, intercede on behalf of the faithful so that they, too, may share in God’s mercy. God’s mercy needs no intercessors. All an individual needs to be saved is his own unshakable belief and faith in his God. Faith means believing in the great mysteries of the Gospel, believing that we are eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood from the chalice when we take Holy Communion. No one can help another person to obtain God’s grace. Every believer is, as it were, his own priest. A priest of the Church is no more than a teacher and helper, and as such may live like other men, and even marry. A believer must not be content to accept the teaching of the Church. He must look to the Bible for God’s purpose and seek it out for himself. For, in Luther’s opinion, the truth was only to be found in the Bible.

Luther was not the first to have such thoughts. A hundred years earlier a priest called Jan Hus had taught much the same in Prague. In 1415 he was brought before a council of Church dignitaries in Constance, and despite the promise of an imperial safe conduct, was burned as a heretic. Many of his followers were persecuted and killed in a succession of long and bloody battles that devastated half Bohemia.

The same fate might have befallen Luther and his followers, but times had changed. Thanks largely to the invention of the art of printing, Luther’s writings were bought and read throughout Germany. They were written in a style that was vigorous and rousing ­ and often very coarse. Many people were won over by his arguments. When the pope came to hear of it, he threatened to excommunicate Luther. But Luther’s following was by now so great that he no longer cared. He burned the pope’s letter in public, and then he really was excommunicated. Next he announced that he and his followers had left the Church altogether. Germany was in an uproar, and many people sided with him, for the luxury-loving pope, with all his wealth, was not at all popular in Germany. Nor was there much opposition from the German princes, for if the bishops and archbishops were to lose their power, the Church’s vast estates would fall to them. So they, too, joined the Reformation, which was the name that was given to Luther’s attempt to reawaken the Christian piety of old.

Now at about this time ­ that is, in 1519 ­ the emperor Maximilian, the ‘Last Knight’, died. His grandson, the Habsburg Charles V, who was also a grandson of the Spanish queen, Isabella of Castile, became the new German emperor. He was just nineteen years old and had never set foot in Germany, having only lived in Belgium, Holland and Spain, which also formed part of his inheritance. As king of Spain he also ruled over newly discovered America, where Cortez had recently made his conquests. And so anyone who wished to flatter him could say that over his kingdom the sun never set (it being daytime in America when it is night-time here). His vast realm ­ comprising as it did the ancient hereditary Habsburg lands of Austria, the Low Countries inherited from Charles the Bold of Burgundy, Spain and the German empire ­ had only one rival in Europe, and this was France. However, the French kingdom, under its able king, Francis I, though far smaller than Charles V’s empire, was more united, richer and more stable. These two kings now embarked on a fearfully complicated and long drawnout war over Italy, the richest country in Europe. Successive popes backed first one, then the other, until finally, in 1527, Rome was sacked and pillaged by the emperor’s German troops and Italy’s wealth destroyed.

But in 1519, when Charles V first came to power, he was a very devout young man, still on excellent terms with the Pope, and anxious, once his coronation at Aachen was over, to settle the case of the heretic Luther. It would have been simplest to have him arrested, but Frederick, Duke of Saxony, the Prince of Wittenberg, where Luther was living, would not allow it. Known as Frederick the Wise, he was to be Luther’s great protector and would one day save his life.

So instead Charles V ordered the rebellious monk to present himself before the first parliament that Charles was to hold in Germany. This was in Worms, in 1521. All the princes and great men of the empire were there, in a solemn and splendid assembly. Luther came before them dressed in his monk’s cowl. He had already made it known that he was ready to renounce his teaching if it could be shown from the Bible to be wrong ­ for as you know, Luther would accept only what was written in the Bible as the word of God. The assembled princes and noblemen had no wish to become trapped in a war of words with this ardent and learned Doctor of Theology. The emperor ordered him to renounce his teaching. Luther asked for a day to think. He was determined to hold fast to his convictions, and wrote at the time to a friend: ‘Truly, I shall not renounce even one letter of it, and put my trust in Christ.’ The next day he appeared again before the assembled princes and noblemen of the parliament and made a long speech in Latin and German, in which he set out his beliefs. He said he was sorry if, in his zeal to defend himself, he had given offence, but recant he could not. The young emperor, who had probably not understood a word, told him to answer the questions clearly and come to the point. To this Luther replied heatedly that only arguments drawn from the Bible would compel him to recant: ‘My conscience is bound by the word of God, and for that reason I can and will renounce nothing, for it is dangerous to act against one’s conscience . . . So help me God. Amen.’

The parliament then passed an edict declaring Luther an outlaw, which meant that nobody was allowed to give him food, aid or shelter. If anyone did, they too would be outlawed, as would anyone caught buying or in possession of his books. Nor would anyone be punished for his murder. He was, as they put it, ‘free as a bird’. But his protector, Frederick the Wise, had him kidnapped and taken in secret to his castle, the Wartburg. There Luther lived in disguise and under a false name. He took advantage of his voluntary captivity to work on a German translation of the Bible so everyone could read it and think about its meaning. However, this was not as easy as it sounds. Luther was determined that all Germans should read his Bible, but in those days there was no language that all Germans could read: Bavarians wrote in Bavarian, Saxons in Saxon. So Luther had to invent a language that everyone could understand. And in his translation of the Bible he actually succeeded in creating one that, even after nearly five hundred years, is not all that different from the German that people write today.

Luther stayed in the Wartburg until one day he heard that his speeches and writings were having an effect which did not please him at all. His Lutheran followers had become considerably more violent in their zeal than Luther himself. They were throwing paintings out of churches and teaching that it was wrong to baptise children, because everyone had to decide for themselves whether they wished to be baptised. People called them Iconoclasts and Anabaptists (destroyers of images and re-baptisers). Moreover, there was one aspect of Luther’s teaching that had had a profound effect on the peasants, and which they had taken very much to heart: Luther had taught that each individual should obey the voice of his own conscience and no one else and that, subject to no man, should freely and independently strive for God’s mercy. The feudal peasant serfs understood this to mean that they should be free men. Armed with scythes and flails they banded together, killing their landlords and attacking monasteries and cities. Against all these Iconoclasts, Anabaptists and peasants, Luther now turned the full force of his preaching and writings, just as he had previously used them in his attacks on the Church, and so he helped crush and punish the rebel bands. This lack of unity among Protestants, as Luther’s followers were called, was to prove very useful to the great, united, Catholic Church.

For Luther wasn’t alone in thinking and preaching as he did during those years. In Zurich a priest called Zwingli had taken a similar path, and in Geneva another learned man named Calvin had distanced himself from the Church. Yet despite the similarities of their teachings, their followers could never bring themselves to tolerate, let alone live with, one another.

But now there came a new and even greater loss for the papacy. In England, King Henry VIII was on the throne. He had married Catherine of Aragon, an aunt of the emperor Charles V. But he didn’t like her. He wanted to marry her lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, instead. When he asked the pope, as head of the Church, to grant him a divorce, the pope refused. So, in 1533, Henry VIII withdrew his country from the Roman Church and set up a Church of his own, one that allowed him his divorce. He continued to persecute Luther’s followers, but England was lost to the Roman Catholic Church for ever. It wasn’t long before Henry was tired of Anne Boleyn as well, so he had her beheaded. Eleven days later he remarried, but that wife died before he could have her executed. He divorced the fourth and married a fifth, whom he also had beheaded. The sixth outlived him.

As for the emperor Charles V, he had grown weary of his vast empire, with all its troubles and confusion, and the increasingly savage battles fought in the name of religion. He had spent his life fighting: against German princes who were followers of Luther, against the pope, against the kings of both England and France, and against the Turks, who had come from the east in 1453 and had conquered Constantinople, capital of the Roman Empire of the East. They had then gone on to lay waste to Hungary and in 1529 had reached the gates of Vienna, the capital of Austria which they besieged without success.

And having grown tired of his empire, along with its sun that never set, Charles V installed his brother Ferdinand as ruler of Austria and emperor of Germany, and gave Spain and the Netherlands to his son Philip. He then withdrew, in 1556, an old and broken man, to the Spanish monastery of San Geronimo de Yuste. It is said that he spent his time there repairing and regulating all the clocks. He wanted them to chime at the same time. When he didn’t succeed, he is reported to have said: ‘How did I ever presume to try to unite all the peoples of my empire when I cannot, even once, persuade a few clocks to chime together.’ He died lonely and embittered. And as for the clocks of his former empire, whenever they struck the hour, their chimes were further and further apart.

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