Karl Kautsky

Thomas More and his Utopia


Part I.


1. The Church in the Middle Ages – Its Necessity and Power

THE class antagonisms indicated in the preceding chapter assumed the most various shapes in the course of their development, changing in accordance with time and place, and their elements combined according to external influences, historical traditions, and the interests of the moment, in the most manifold ways. But confused as the history of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries may seem, a scarlet thread runs through it and stamps this age: the struggle against the Papal Church. The Church should not be confused with religion, with which we shall deal later.

The Church had been the predominant power in feudal times, and its fate was bound up with that of feudalism.

When the Teutons invaded the Roman world empire, they were confronted with the Church as the inheritor of the Caesars, as the organisation which held the State together, as the representative of the mode of production of the dying epoch. Shrunken as this State was and retrogressive as was the mode of production, both were far superior to the political and economic conditions of the barbarous Teutons. The Teutons were superior morally and physically to decadent Rome, which, however, seduced them by its prosperity and its treasures.

Plundering is not a mode of production. The mere plundering of the Romans could not permanently satisfy the Teutons; they began to produce after the manner of the Romans. In the degree that they did so, they fell imperceptibly into dependence on the Church, which was their teacher, and when a political organisation corresponding to this mode of production became necessary, the Church alone could supply it.

The Church taught the Teutons improved methods of agriculture – the monasteries were model agricultural institutions until the late Middle Ages. It was also priests who taught the Teutons arts and handicrafts. Not only did the peasant thrive under the protection of the Church, but the Church also protected the majority of the towns until the latter were strong enough to protect themselves, and she encouraged trade.

The great markets were mostly held in or near churches. In every way the Church sought to attract buyers to such markets. She was also the sole power which in the Middle Ages attended to the maintenance of the great trade routes and facilitated travel by the hospitality of the monasteries. Many of the latter, as the hospices on the Alpine passes, were devoted almost exclusively to promote commercial intercourse. The Church deemed commercial intercourse so important that, in order to assist it, she allied herself with influences representing the culture of the late Roman Empire in the Teutonic States-viz., Judaism, which the Popes protected for a long time. While the Germans remained unsophisticated Teutons, the Jews were cordially welcomed as the messengers of a higher civilisation.

The Teutonic Christian merchants did not become Jew baiters until they understood huckstering equally as well as the Jews.

That all the knowledge of the Middle Ages was to be found in the Church, that she supplied builders, engineers, doctors, historians, and diplomats, is well known.

The whole material life of mankind, as well as its mental life, was an outflow from the Church: no wonder she captured the whole of mankind, and determined how men should think and feel. Not only did birth, marriage, and death give her occasion for intervention, but also labour and the festivals were regulated and controlled by her.

Moreover, the economic development made the Church necessary not only for the individual and the family, but also for the State.

We have already pointed out that when the Teutons moved to a higher mode of production, to developed agriculture and urban handicraft, a new political system became necessary.

But the transition to a new mode of production proceeded too rapidly, especially in the Romance countries, Italy, Spain, and Gaul, where it was already rooted in the native population, to permit the Teutons to fashion the new political organ out of their primeval constitution. Political functions devolved almost wholly upon the Church, which had become a political organisation in the late Roman Empire.

The Church made monarchs of the Teutonic chiefs, who had been democratic popular leaders and captains; but as the power of the monarch grew over the people, so did the power of the Church over the monarch. He became her puppet, and the Church became mistress instead of teacher.

The medieval Church was essentially a political organisation. Its extension signified the extension of the political power. The establishment of a bishopric in a heathen country by a monarch did not merely signify a campaign for the conversion of the heathen; for such an object neither Charles the Great would have ruined the Frankish peasants and slain innumerable Saxons, nor would the Saxons, tolerant in matters of faith, have offered an obstinate resistance to Christianity for decades. The establishment of a bishopric in a heathen country meant the grafting of the Roman mode of production on to the country where the bishopric was established.

The nearer the Teutons came to the social level of the Roman Empire at the time of its fall, the more necessary the Church became both for State and people. While she was useful for both, her own interests were not neglected. The services she rendered were dearly bought; the only general tax known to the Middle Ages, the tithe, flowed into her coffers.

The most important source of power and revenue in the Middle Ages was, however, landed property. The Church developed the same hunger for land and people as the nobility, and, like the latter, sought to acquire land and gain subjects. The landed property which the Church had possessed in the Roman Empire was mostly abandoned to her by the Teutonic invaders; where this was not the case she was soon able to regain it and something in addition. As the Church offered as much protection as the nobles, many peasants came under her sway. The Church conducted the political administration and priests were the counsellors of kings. It is not surprising that they were often prevailed upon to bestow Crown lands upon the Church. In conquered heathen countries the ample equipment of monasteries and bishoprics was dictated by necessity.

Meanwhile the Church was the sole power on which the king could rely in contests with the nobility. The best way to weaken an arrogant noble was to deprive him of a portion of his land and give or lend it to the Church.

Sometimes the Church did not wait until peasants, kings and nobles were disposed to add to her property; she took what she could and, when called to account, justified the theft by a forged deed of gift. Reading and writing were almost a monopoly of the priesthood. In the Middle Ages forged deeds were as customary a means to legalise the acquirement of lands as are to-day mortgages, executions, and the like.

It looked as if the Church aspired to become the sole landed proprietor in Christendom. But the mightiest were to be curbed in their pride. The nobles were always hostile to the Church; when the latter acquired too much land, the king turned to the nobles for assistance insetting limits to the pretensions of the Church. Moreover, the Church was weakened by the invasion of Heathen tribes and the Mohammedans.

In view of the fluctuations to which the property of the Church was subject, it is difficult to estimate its extent in an age that had no idea of statistical measurements. Speaking generally, it may be said that in the Middle Ages one-third of the land was in the hands of the Church.

We have indicated what power was conferred by landed property in the Middle Ages. This applied with special force to the Church. As her properties were the best cultivated, the most thickly populated, her towns the most flourishing, the revenue and the power which she derived from them was greater than what a property of equal extent afforded the nobility or the monarchy. But as this income was mostly paid in kind, the problem was how to dispose of it. The monks and clergy could not consume it all. Although the abbots and bishops of the Middle Ages carried on feuds, like secular lords, the Church was seldom sufficiently bellicose to consume most of her revenues in fighting. Her advantage lay in her intellectual rather than her physical superiority, and her economic and political indispensability. She had less to expend on warlike aims than the nobility, while her income was greater. Her landed property was not only the most fertile, but she was entitled to a tithe from the land not subject to her.

She had therefore less reason than the nobles to exploit her subjects, to whom she was usually benevolent.

It was pleasant to live under the Cross; at any rate, better than under the sword of noble lord keen on war and hunting. Despite this relative forbearance, a superfluity of the means of life remained to the various ecclesiastical institutions, which the latter had no use for except to relieve the poor.

Here, as in many other points, the Church was only continuing her traditions from the imperial age. In the decaying Roman Empire pauperism was always increasing, and the relief of the poor became a problem of growing complexity for the State.

But the old Pagan State was not able to solve it, and relief of the destitute was undertaken by the new organisation created by the altered conditions, the Church.

It became one of her most important functions, to which she was not a little indebted for the rapid growth of her power and her wealth. The philanthropic institutions of private persons, of municipalities, of the State itself, which became more and more necessary and expensive, were handed over to the priests for administration. It is easy to understand why the influence of the Church over the whole people steadily increased.

The object of the gifts to the Church, as well as of the regular dues, was largely to assist the relief of the poor.

In the case of tithes, it was laid down that they were to be divided into four parts: one for the bishop, one for the lower clergy, one for public worship, and one for the maintenance of the poor.

As the Teutons adopted the Roman mode of production, the inevitable result followed – private property and poverty. Common property in wood and meadows and untilled ground, which still survived by the side of private property in cultivated land. checked the impover-ishment of the peasant. But in the early Middle Ages events frequently happened which plunged whole districts into distress and poverty. To the eternal wars and feuds of the lords were added invasions of nomadic tribes or raids of pirates, such as Normans, Hungarians, and Saracens, which were so disastrous for settled agrarian peoples. Failures of the crops were also a frequent cause of distress.

When the distress was not so acute as to bring ruin upon the Church, the latter was the angel of salvation. She opened the great granaries in which her reserves were stored, and succoured the needy. And the monasteries were great almshouses, which afforded refuge to many a decayed and impoverished noble, driven from hearth and home or disinherited. By entering the Church he attained power, repute, and prosperity.

There was no class in feudal society which did not have an interest in supporting the Church – although not to the same extent. To question the existence of the Church in the Middle Ages was to question the existence of society and of mankind. To be sure the Church conducted violent struggles with other classes, but in these her existence was not at stake, it was a question of degrees of power. The whole of material and, likewise, mental life was dominated by the Church which was interwoven with the whole life of the people, until in the course of time the ecclesiastical mode of thinking became a kind of instinct blindly followed, like a natural law, and to act contrary to it was felt to be unnatural. All expressions of political, social, and family life were clothed in ecclesiastical forms. And the forms of ecclesiastical thinking and behaving persisted long after the disappearance of the material causes which had produced them.

It was natural that the power of the medieval Church should develop the earliest in the countries which had formerly belonged to the Roman Empire in Italy, France, Spain, England, later in Germany, and latest in the North and the East of Europe.

The German tribes, which during the migration of peoples had sought, in opposition to the Roman Church, to establish their States on the ruins of the Roman Empire, an antagonism which was expressed by their adhesion to the Arian sect, either vanished like the Ostrogoths and Vandals, or escaped impending downfall by submitting to the Roman Church.

But predominance in Western Europe fell to the tribe which at the outset had founded its empire in alliance with the Church of Rome, the tribe of the Franks.

The King of the Franks, in alliance with the head of the Roman Church, established the union of Western Christianity as an organism with two heads, a secular and a spiritual. It was a union against enemies pressing from all sides, and was imperatively dictated by the conditions.

But neither the King of the Franks nor his Saxon successors could make this union permanent. The Roman Popes accomplished what the Roman Emperor of the German nation had vainly attempted, the gathering of Christendom under a single monarch.

No feudal king, whatever his race, could perform this task, which required an organisation stronger than the monarchy – viz., the centralised Church.

2. The Basis of the Papacy’s Power

Even before the migration of peoples the Bishop of Rome was the head of the Western Church; he was the heir of the Roman Emperor, as representing the city which had always been the actual capital of the Western Empire, although it had ceased to be the residence of the Emperor.

The break-up of the Roman Empire was accompanied by a temporary eclipse in the power of the Popes of Rome and the ecclesiastical organisations of the various Teutonic Empires became independent of them. But the Popes quickly regained their former position, and even strengthened it. However decayed Italy might be, she was always the most highly cultivated country in Western Europe. The level of agriculture there was higher than in any other country. Industry was not quite extinct, and there was still some small trade with the East. The treasures, and also the mode of production, of Italy were the envy of the semi-barbarians beyond the Alps. The closer their tie with Italy, the more prosperous they became. The powers which had a special interest in this development, because they benefited from it – the monarchy and the Church in every Christian country of the Occident – aimed at strengthening the ties with Italy. But Italy’s centre was Rome. The more dependent on Italy in an economic respect the Western countries became, the more dependent became their kings and bishops upon Rome, and the more the centre of Italy became the centre of Western Christendom.

The economic dependence of Italy and the influence of Rome upon Italy (so far as thin obtained in the realm of Catholicism and not of the Greek Church and of Islam) were then scarcely so preponderating as to explain the enormous power which the Papacy obtained. These factors merely explain why the direction of Christendom fell to the Popes. But the tendency was for mere advice to become commands. When struggles broke out which threatened the whole of Christendom, the Papacy, being the sole influence recognised by all peoples as their leader, inevitably assumed the leadership and organised the resistance. The longer the struggles lasted and the greater their extent, the more the directive power became absolute master, the more it enlisted in its service all the forces mustered against the common enemy.

And such struggles came. The collapse of the Roman Empire set in motion not only the Teutons, but also all the numerous, apparently inexhaustible, tribes of semi-barbarians in the neighbourhood. As the Teutons moved towards the West and South, other peoples pressed upon them. The Slavs crossed the Elbe; from the steppes of South Russia came one Cossack tribe after another, as well as Huns, Avarians, and Hungarians (the latter at the end of the ninth century), who extended their plundering expeditions along the unprotected Danube, and even beyond the Black Forest and the Rhine, and beyond the Alps to Northern Italy. From Scandinavia, too, expeditions of Norman pirates followed one another. No sea was too broad for them to traverse, no empire too large to attack. They ruled the Baltic, seized Russia, established themselves in Iceland, discovered America long before Columbus; but what for us is important, from the end of the eighth to the twelfth century, they threatened to destroy the whole laboriously constructed civilisation of the settled Teutonic tribes. Not only were the coastwise countries of the North Sea entirely devastated by their plundering expeditions; with their small ships they sailed up the rivers and penetrated far into the country; nor did they fear the dangers of a long sea voyage. They soon began to attack the Spaniards, and finally extended their raids as far as Southern France and Italy.

The most dangerous enemy of the settled Teutonic tribes was, however, the Arabs, or rather the Saracens, as the writers of the Middle Ages called all those Eastern peoples set in motion by the Arabs to seek booty and a habitat in more highly civilised countries. This, of course, did not prevent the Saracens from absorbing this civilisation in the course of time and propagating it.

In the year 638 the Arabs invaded Egypt, and quickly conquered the whole of the Northern Coast of Africa; they appeared at the beginning of the eighth century in Spain, and not quite a hundred years after their invasion of Egypt, they threatened France. Charles Martel’s victory saved France from the fate of the Empire of the Western Goths; but the Saracens were by no means rendered powerless.

They stayed in Spain, established themselves in Southern Italy and at various points of North Italy and Southern France, occupied the most important Alpine passes, and sallied forth to raid the northern slopes of the Alps.

During the migration of peoples the settled Teutonic tribes had occupied the greater part of Europe and a part of North Africa; now they saw themselves confined to a small space, and were hardly able to maintain this. Burgundy, which was practically the geographical centre of the Catholic West in the tenth century, was as much exposed to the invasions of the Normans as to that of the Hungarians and Saracens. The end of the peoples of Western Christendom seemed at hand.

And just when the pressure of external foes was most severe, the political power was most impotent, the feudal anarchy was most unchecked, and the only firm, coherent power was the Papal Church.

Like the monarchical powers, the Papal power, in its contest with the external enemy, became strong enough to defy its foes at home.

The Saracens, who were to some extent superior in culture, could only be grappled with by the sword; in the fight with Islam the Papacy summoned and organized the whole of Christendom. The unstable enemies in the North and East could be temporarily repulsed by force of arms, but not permanently subdued. They were subjugated by the same means as the Roman Church had employed to subjugate the Teutons: they were forced to adopt a higher mode of production – after being won for Christianity, they settled down and were rendered harmless.

The Papacy celebrated a brilliant triumph over the Normans. It transformed them from the most formidable of the Northern enemies of Christianity into the most pugnacious and energetic antagonists of the Southern enemy. The Papacy made an alliance with the Normans similar to that which it once concluded with the Franks. The alliance recognised the fact that the Normans had not been pacified by their incorporation in the feudal mode of production. They remained a restless, predatory people, but the object of their raids was now changed. By being made feudal lords, the land hunger peculiar to feudalism was aroused in them, and from plunderers they became conquerors.

The Papacy knew how to make excellent use of this appetite for conquest – by turning it against the Saracens. The Papacy had as much to gain from the victory of the Normans as the Normans from the victory of the Papacy. The Normans became vassals of the Pope, who invested them with their conquests as fiefs. The Pope blessed their arms, and the Papal blessing was of great effect in the eleventh century, as it placed the powerful organisation of the Church at the service of the recipient. With Papal assistance the Normans were enabled to conquer England and Lower Italy.

By enlisting the Normans in its service, the Papacy attained to the summit of its power. It triumphed not only over its internal enemies, it not only imposed on the German Emperor the humiliation of Canossa; it felt strong enough to take the offensive against the Saracens the epoch of the Crusades began.

The Popes were the organisers of the Crusades, the Normans their champions. What drew the latter towards the East was land hunger; they established feudal States in Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Cyprus, and finally in the Greek Empire as well.

Next to the Normans the majority of the Crusaders was composed of people for whom social pressure at home had become intolerable, serfs excessively exploited by their feudal lords, lesser nobles crushed by the preponderance of the great feudal lords.

In the chivalric army of the first Crusade the Normans were most conspicuous. The peasant army was characteristically commanded by several decayed knights, of whom one bore the expressive name of “Walter the Penniless.” In the thriving East they hoped to obtain what their country denied them: well-being and prosperity.

It testifies to the great power of the Papacy that it was able to compel many elements to participate in the Crusades which had nothing to gain thereby. Many German emperors were obliged, much against their will, to recruit for the Papal armies and to carry the Papal flag, the Cross.

3. The Overthrow of the Papal Power

The Crusades marked the highest point of the Papal power. They were a powerful agent in promoting the rapid development of the element that was destined to overthrow the feudal world and its monarch, the Pope. We mean Capital.

Through them the East was drawn closer to the West, commodity production and trade were alike promoted. The Church then began to wear an altered countenance. The development of landed property as a result of the growth of rural commodity production reacted in various ways upon ecclesiastical landed property. Additional burdens were placed on the peasants, common land was annexed, and farms were broken up.

Growing avarice impelled the Church to practise in-creasing parsimony in the relief of the poor. What had once been given gladly because it could not be consumed, was now retained because it had become a saleable commodity, because it could be exchanged for money, where-with articles of luxury could be purchased. The fact that laws were passed with the object of compelling the Church to support the poor proves that she no longer met her obligations in an adequate manner. In the reign of Richard II of England a law was passed (1391) ordering the monasteries to devote a portion of the tithes to the support of the poor and the lower clergy.

While the Church aroused the bitterness of the humble people because she afforded them too little protection against impoverishment, she drew on herself the enmity of the burgher class, because she still formed a certain bulwark against the impoverishment of the masses, as this process was not proceeding fast enough. The propertyless person was not delivered bound hand and foot to Capital so long as he received even scanty alms from the Church. That the monks were allowed to live an idle life instead of being thrown on the streets and placed at the capitalist’s disposal as wage slaves, was in the eyes of aspiring burgherdom a sin against the national welfare.

That the Church should still keep the numerous festivals of the feudal times, despite the maxim of nascent burgher society that the workers do not work to live, but live in order to work, was nothing short of a crime.

The increasing wealth of the Church aroused the envy and the avarice of all the propertied classes, especially the great landowners and the land speculators. Even the kings thirsted for ecclesiastical treasures, in order to fill their coffers and buy “friends.”

In the measure that the avarice and wealth of the Church grew as a result of the spread of commodity production, in the same measure she became superfluous in economic and political respects. In the towns a new mode of production had developed, which was superior to the feudal mode, and the towns supplied the organisations and the men which the new society and the new State needed The priests ceased more and more to be teachers of the people, the knowledge of the population, especially in the towns, advanced beyond them, and they became one of the most ignorant sections of the people.

Moreover, the Church tended to become superfluous in connection with political administration. The modern State at least required the parish priests in the country; even to-day the parish priests have administrative functions, albeit of a trivial nature, to fulfil in backward countries.

Only when the modern bureaucracy was highly developed could the complete abolition of the parish priests as a political institution be contemplated.

The parish clergy were still necessary in the sixteenth century; nobody thought of abolishing them; but the modern monarchy, based upon financial power, no longer needed to be subservient to them or their leaders, the bishops. The priests were obliged to become State officials, so far as they were necessary for political administration.

Two elements of the Church, however, tended to become increasingly superfluous and even an obstacle from an economic and political standpoint, two elements which had been of prime importance in the Middle Ages: the monasteries and the Papacy.

The former became superfluous for the peasants, like every feudal lord; superfluous as protectors of the poor; superfluous as guardians of the arts and sciences, which were thriving in the towns; superfluous for the cohesion and administration of the State; and finally they became superfluous owing to the obsolescence of the Papacy, whose strongest support they had been.

Without any functions in social and political life, ignorant, idle, rude, albeit immensely rich, the monks sank deeper and deeper into vulgarity and dissipation, and became a subject of universal ridicule. Boccaccio’s Decameron shows us better than the most erudite treatise the demoralisation of monkery in the fourteenth century in Italy. In the following century matters were no better. The extension of commodity production propagated the moral infection of the monasteries as far as Germany and England.

The Papal power became as superfluous as the monasteries. Its chief function, the union of Christendom against the infidel, disappeared with the success of the Crusades. True the adventurers from the West could not maintain their conquests in the countries of Islam and of the Greek Church. But the power of the Saracens was none the less broken. They were driven from Spate and Italy and ceased to form a danger for the West.

Instead of the Arabs and the Seljuks, a new Oriental power arose, the Osmans, who destroyed the Greek Empire and threatened the West. But the attack this time came from another side, not from the South, but from the East; it hurled its weight not against Italy, but against the Danubian countries.

The attack of the Saracens had threatened the very existence of the Papacy, which was obliged for its own preservation to summon the forces of the whole of Christendom against the infidels. From the Turks, however, the Papal territories had little to fear, so long as the Venetians and Knights of St. John resisted them in the open harbours of the Mediterranean. The Hungarians were the first to be attacked by the Turks, after the latter had crushed the South Slavs, and then it was the turn of South Germany and Poland. The struggle against the Turks was not the business of the whole of Christendom, but a local affair pertaining to its eastern bulwarks. As the struggle against the Heathens and Saracens had fused the whole of Christendom into the Papal monarchy, so the struggle against the Turks now united into one polity the Hungarians, Czechs, and South-Eastern Germans, and the Hapsburg Monarchy came into existence.

Towards the end of the fourteenth century the Turks began their raids on Hungary, and caused Sigismund, the king of that country, to march against them. He suffered a terrific defeat at Nikopolis in the year 1396. A second defeat, equally severe, was inflicted on the Poles and Hungarians under King Ladislaus at Varna (1444). In 1453 Constantinople fell into the hands of the Turks.

For a period the Papacy held fast to its traditions, although they were becoming increasingly meaningless, and acted as if it intended to perform the task of organising the opposition against the Turks. But its zeal tended to diminish, and the resources which the Popes collected from the peoples of Christendom for the struggle against the Turks were to an increasing extent diverted to the private use of the Popes themselves. The power of the Papacy and belief in its mission, which up till the twelfth century had been instruments for saving the peoples of Christendom, after the fourteenth century became instruments for their exploitation.

The centralisation of the Church had placed her resources wholly at the service of the Papacy, whose power was thereby enormously increased, but whose wealth was but slightly augmented so long as commodity production still remained weak and undeveloped. So long as the greater part of the revenues of the Church were paid in kind, the Papacy could not derive any considerable advantage from them.

The princes or bishops could not send corn, meat, and milk across the Alps. But money was a rarity until far into the period of the Crusades. In any case, as its power grew, the Papacy obtained the right of filling ecclesiastical offices outside Italy, and thus made the clergy dependent upon it. But so long as social or political functions were connected with these posts and the greater part of their revenues were paid in kind, they had to be filled by men willing to work, acquainted with the country, and prepared to remain there. The Pope could neither fill them with his Italian favourites nor sell them.

All this changed with the development of commodity production. Church, princes, and people were now able to obtain money. Money is easily transportable, does not lose its value on the way, and may be spent quite as well in Italy as in Germany.

This gave an impetus to the tendency of the Papacy to exploit Christendom. Like every other class the Papacy had striven to derive the utmost advantage from its social utility. Consequently, as its power grew, it sought to impose money taxes upon the ecclesiastical organisations and the lay world, and this money it required to enable it to perform its functions. But, as stated, these money dues were originally insignificant. As commodity production extended, the Popes became more avaricious and intensified their exploitation of the lay world, while their functions became less and less important.

The Popes of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries were as inventive as modern financiers. The direct taxes imposed were usually small. The Peter’s Pence collected from the Poles in 1320 could scarcely have yielded much. A higher sum was yielded by the Peter’s Pence which had been sent to Rome from England ever since the eighth century. Small at the beginning, it served to support a college for English priests in Rome – this tribute had increased so much by the fourteenth century as to surpass the income of the English king.

But, like other financial geniuses, the Papacy preferred indirect to direct taxes, which disclosed the exploitation too plainly. Trade was then the chief means of cheating people and acquiring great wealth quickly. Why, then, should not the Popes also become traders dealing in the commodities which came cheapest to them? The commerce in ecclesiastical posts and indulgences began.

In fact, ecclesiastical offices became very valuable commodities in the course of the development of commodity production. A number of the Church’s functions either disappeared or became obsolete. But the offices which were established to execute these functions remained, and were often augmented. Their revenues grew with the power and avarice of the Church, and an increasing portion of these revenues were paid in cash and could be consumed elsewhere than in the place to which the office was attached. Thus a number of ecclesiastical offices became mere sources of revenue, and value was imparted to them as such.

The Popes presented them to their favourites or sold them, mostly, of course, to Italians and Frenchmen, who had no idea of filling the posts, especially if they were in Germany and their stipends could be sent across the Alps.

Moreover, the Church devised other means for exploiting the ecclesiastical positions; in particular, the annates, fines which every newly installed bishop paid to the Papal Stool.

In addition, there was the traffic in pardoning sins, which became ever more shameless.

The indulgences followed one after another (we find five indulgences shortly before the Reformation: 1500, 1501, 1504, 1509, 1517); their sale was eventually even farmed out.

The revolt against the Papacy was essentially a struggle between exploiters and exploited, not a struggle over mere ecclesiastical dogmas or vague slogans, such as a struggle between “authority” and “individualism.”

The Popes hastened their own destruction by becoming increasingly contemptible. This is the fate of every ruling class that has become obsolete and is approaching extinction. Their functions dwindle as their wealth grows, and nothing remains for them to do but dissipate the proceeds of their extortions.

They decline intellectually and morally, often physically too. In the degree that their senseless extravagance provokes the famished multitude, they lose the strength to maintain their rule. Thus sooner or later every class is removed that has become injurious to society.

As we already know, Italy was the richest country in Western Europe during the Middle Ages; she preserved most of the traditions of the Roman mode of production; she was the medium for trade between East and West; commodity production and capitalism first developed in Italy.

It was there that a new outlook on life, hostile to the ecclesiastical-feudal, first arose. With the headlong arrogance of youth, the burgherdom thrust aside all traditions, discipline, and morality. The Popes could not escape the influence of their environment. In fact, as secular princes of Italy, they marched at the head of the new revolutionary mental tendency. As such they pursued the same policy as all the other princes of their time encouraging the middle class and fostering trade and national greatness. As heads of the Church, on the other hand, their basis was international and they were obliged to cling to the foundation of the ecclesiastical power, the feudal mode of production. Revolutionary in their secular capacity, they were reactionary in their ecclesiastical capacity. We therefore find in the Popes of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries a peculiar mixture of two very diverse elements, youthful daring and senile lasciviousness. The revolutionary contempt for the traditional, proper to an aspiring class, mingles with the unnatural sensuality of an exploiting class hastening to its destruction.

This strange combination of opposites interpenetrates the whole mental life of the Italian Renaissance. The mixture of revolutionary and reactionary elements was a feature of Humanism and distinguished the Humanist Thomas More.

Revolutionary or reactionary, the result was a life which violated all feudal conceptions of property and morality. And this dissolute mode of life achieved its acme while Germany was yet living under the ban of feudalism.

Prior to the Reformation it was a custom to make a pilgrimage to Rome. Three things, says Hutten, brought the pilgrim back: a bad conscience, a queasy stomach, and an empty purse.

It may be imagined that the picture which such a pilgrim drew of the Holy Father would hardly correspond to the medieval ideas of sanctity. More shocking for pious souls, however, was the unbelief that prevailed in Rome and which the Pope scarcely concealed.

Sceptical as the Popes and their courtiers might be, they did not lose sight of the fact that faith was the basis of their power. After the material conditions had disappeared which had made the Popes masters of Christendom, the ideas springing from the conditions remained as their sole support, and these ideas came ever more into conflict with the social facts. The power of the Papal Church depended upon keeping the people ignorant of these facts, deceiving them, and hindering their development in every way. While this motive might be present only to a few thoughtful members of the Church, the priests everywhere fostered the credulity of the people in order to extract money from them. A swindling traffic in miraculous pictures and relics began. The zeal of the various churches and monasteries to impute the greatest miracles to their relics was one of the first expressions of free competition.

With competition came the tyranny of fashion. The priests must continually invent new saints to attract the multitude by the charm of novelty.

The greater the scepticism of the Papacy became, the more zealously it encouraged superstition, giving offence to the pious by the former and to the free-thinking by the latter.

Indignation at immorality, scepticism and superstition would have been ineffectual, had not the Papacy become a mere exploiting machine. It had already fallen into a dubious moral state before it reached the summit of its power. It was the economic and political, not the moral changes, which impelled the peoples to break away from the Papacy.

In many countries, especially in Germany, all classes had an interest in ending the connection with the Papacy; not alone the exploited people, but also the native exploiters, who were enraged at seeing so much money leave the country. Even the national clergy had an interest in the separation of the Church. In fact, they were merely the tax gatherers of the Roman Stool; they had to send to Rome the lion’s share of what they collected from the people; fattest benefices they had to yield to Rome’s favourites, while the badly paid and onerous curacies were left to them. It was precisely that section of the clergy which still performed certain functions in the life of the State, which continued to enjoy a certain repute among the people, the secular clergy, that was impelled by its interests to offer the most energetic opposition to the Roman Stool.

The centralisation of the Church had not been an easy task for the Popes, but had been imposed in the course of violent struggles upon the ecclesiastical organisations of the individual countries. The various orders of monks had proved an effective tool for the subjugation of the secular clergy. As early as the eleventh century there were hostile relations between the Pope and the German bishops. The latter supported Henry IV, while the higher nobility espoused the Papal cause. Only after severe struggles were even the French and English Churches made to submit to the Papal supremacy.

The struggle between Rome and the various national churches did not, however, entirely cease. After the Crusades it assumed more violent forms as Papal exploitation grew, until a complete breach with the Papal Stool was effected in various countries.

The lower clergy in particular assumed the leadership in the struggle with Rome; the Reformers were priests – Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, etc.; and the lesser clergy marked out the intellectual lines which the Reformation struggles were to follow.

But while the Church of the early Middle Ages was the force that held the State and society together, at the time of the Reformation the Church was a mere tool of the political administration; the basis of the State had changed. When the national Church broke away from Rome, it parted with the traditional illusions that alone could have perpetuated its rule in the State. Consequently the clergy of the Reformed Churches became servants of the State power, or officials of absolutism. The Church no longer determined what men should believe and how they should act; the State power prescribed what the Church should teach.

Not all nations and not all classes in the nations had an interest in separation from the Papacy. Nobody in Italy for instance.

The ruler of the Hapsburg countries, the Emperor, also had no interest in the Reformation. His power in Germany was as unsubstantial as that of the Popes; it was partly based on illusions doomed to disappear. To expect the Emperor to cut adrift from the Pope was to expect him to commit suicide.

Nor was he interested in the Reformation as ruler of the variegated Hapsburg lands, in the cohesion of which Catholicism was a potent element.

Only under his leadership could a Crusade of the whole of Christendom against the Turks be undertaken; which would primarily have strengthened the House of Hapsburg. With the Reformation every hope of such a Crusade vanished.

Just as little cause had the rulers of France and Spain to separate from Rome. In these countries the kingly power was at that time preponderant. In both countries trade and commodity production had developed at an early period, earliest of all in Southern France, where the first revolt against the Papal power had broken out, the “heresy” of the Albigenses, who were exterminated in a bloody war at the beginning of the thirteenth century. But where the city republics of Southern France had failed, the kings of France at a later date succeeded. In 1269 Saint Louis issued a pragmatic sanction, which was renewed and extended by Charles VI in 1438. This made the French clergy to a large extent independent of Rome and placed them under the king, thus practically achieving what the German princes accomplished during the Reformation nearly a hundred years later. The king made the higher clerical appointments and it was forbidden to raise money for the Pope without the king’s consent.

Similarly in Spain. From 1480 onwards the Inquisition itself became the police force of the kingly power, which appointed the inquisitors and made the institution subservient to its political ends. From Spain no more than from France could the Pope obtain money without the royal permission.

The permission to sell indulgences, which gave the impulse to the Reformation, was dearly bought by Leo X in France and Spain. Charles V received a loan of 175,000 ducats; Francis I of France took a nice share of the proceeds of the indulgences. Of the German princes only the Elector of Mainz was strong enough as a spiritual and secular priest to obtain a share of the spoil. The other German princes received nothing, which aroused their indignation and inclined them towards the Reformation.

Not only had the kings and the clergy of France and Spain, in consequence of the higher economic development of their countries, practically obtained before the Reformation what the princes and clergy in Germany had to wrest in a severe struggle, but they had become strong enough to try and make the Pope himself their tool and exploit his influence and power for themselves, Thus it was in their interest to maintain his rule over Christendom, which was in truth their rule.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century the French kings had become strong enough to compel the submission of the Popes of Rome, who established themselves on French soil, at Avignon, from 1308 to 1377. It was not the influence of the Church, but the strengthening of Italy and of the national and monarchical idea itself, concomitant with the economic development, which enabled the Pope finally to break away from France and withdraw to Rome. But now the French began their attempts to subjugate Italy, including the Pope. The same attempt was made by Spain, whose position was most favourable at the beginning of the Reformation, when Charles united the German Imperial Crown with the Spanish Crown. Just when the German princes were cautiously and tentatively trying to escape from the yoke of the Papacy, the two great Catholic powers were locked in fierce combat for its control.

In the year 1521 Pope Leo X submitted to the Emperor Charles V, and in the same year the latter placed Luther under the ban of the Empire. Hadrian VI, Leo’s successor, was “a creature of his Imperial Majesty,” and when Clement VII, who followed Hadrian, endeavoured to become independent of the Emperor, this defender of the Catholic faith sent his mercenary army against the “Holy Father,” stormed Rome, and devastated the city.

That Italy, France, and Spain remained Catholic is not to be ascribed to their spiritual backwardness, but rather to their higher economic development. They were the masters of the Pope; through him they exploited Teutonic Christendom, which was compelled to separate from the papacy in order to escape exploitation, but at the cost of severing its ties with the wealthiest and most highly developed countries in Europe. In so far the Reformation was a struggle of barbarism against civilisation.

It was not by chance that the brunt of the Reformation fell on two of the most backward nations of Europe: Sweden and Scotland.

This is, of course, not to be understood as a condemnation of the Reformation. We have recorded the above facts because it explains why the most cultivated minds in Germany as in England would have nothing to do with the Reformation, a phenomenon which is unintelligible if we adopt the traditional view that the Reformation was essentially of a spiritual nature, a struggle between Protestant light and Catholic darkness.

On the contrary, Humanism was in complete antagonism to the Reformation.


Last updated on 23.11.2003