It can hardly have escaped the sagacious reader’s notice that all was not well in the Catholic Church as the Renaissance began.

Periodic attempts were made by the sincerely religious to purge the hierarchy of its avarice and pettiness: we have already seen how Catherine of Siena gave the pope a good basting when he needed it.

In England, John Wycliffe (or Wyclif, or Wycliff, or Wiclef, or Wyckliffe, or Wicliffe, or Wickliffe—the man was a bit shaky with his spelling) made a big stink with his insistence that the luxury of the priests and bishops was a sin. He actually died of natural causes, but a few decades later the pope had him dug up and killed properly.

In Bohemia, John Huss took Wycliffe’s doctrines and ran with them, making enough of a nuisance of himself that the Church authorities succeeded in killing him before he could die of natural causes.

It would therefore be left to Martin Luther, an Augustinian priest, to make a truly immortal stink.

Martin Luther, like every superhero (or supervillain, depending on your allegiance), has a long, dull, and contrived origin story through which you must slog before he finally steps into the phone booth, ties on the cape, and starts into the special effects you came to see the movie for.

To keep it as brief as possible: Luther was a sincerely pious young man who entered the religious life because he genuinely cared about the fate of his immortal soul. He was appalled by his own inability to do anything good: he tried harder and harder to be good, but every time he was good, he realized that he was only being good because he wanted to avoid eternal punishment, which meant that he was being totally selfish, which meant that when he was being good he was being bad, which meant that he deserved to go to hell after all.

It was only after some very earnest self-torture that he found the solution to his problem in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. We are justified by faith, not by works: that was the message he got from Paul. Nothing we do can buy us a place in heaven, but if we ask for it God will give it to us anyway in spite of what utter rotters we are.

This was consoling news, but then Luther took a look around him and noticed that the entire Church was organized on the capitalist system. Selling places in heaven was its business plan.

And big profits were especially important because Rome had to be rebuilt. The long sojourn in Avignon had left the city of Rome a wreck. St. Peter’s Basilica, built by Constantine the Great, looked like one of the less desirable denizens of the warehouse district. It was imperative that the city of the popes should be returned to its classical magnificence. The popes decided to get rid of all the broken-down old rubbish, like St. Peter’s and the Colosseum (though they never quite finished dismantling the latter), and restore the imperial grandeur of Rome.

Of course, the popes also had to maintain their own lavish lifestyles. The dignity of the Throne of Peter required it; and besides, what was the point of being pope if you couldn’t have nice things? Three of the popes were extravagant enough that they have actually been remembered as the “Three Worldly Popes”: Alexander VI, Julius II, and Leo X. It took an exceptional degree of extravagance for a Renaissance pope to be remembered as unusually worldly. All told, the “Three Worldly Popes” of the Renaissance spent the equivalent of more than $318 million in today’s money on birthday cakes alone.

In 1507, construction began on the new St. Peter’s Basilica, which in size and magnificence has never been surpassed, not even by suburban mega­churches in Butler County. It would take a pile of money to complete—far more money than even the popes had. The popes therefore turned their attention to fundraising. What did they have that they could sell to raise money for the grandest church in Christendom? Obviously not any of their own possessions, such as their gold and silver or their priceless art collections or their mistresses. No, it would have to be something that cost the popes nothing, and yet would be irresistible in the market. What did the popes have that no one else could provide?

Heaven! Jesus had left Peter with the keys to heaven. Why would he have done that if he hadn’t expected Peter, and of course his successors, to get some use out of them? People would pay for access to heaven—for themselves, of course, and perhaps even more for their dead relatives. And fortunately the Church already had in place a system of indulgences for that purpose. All that was needed was a bit of a reorganization along capitalist lines.

The idea of an indulgence is simple enough. Once a sin has been forgiven, it still needs to be purified, whether now or later. If you don’t do it now, you can look forward to a certain amount of time spent in purgatory, which is a sort of Hell Lite for people who are ultimately headed for heaven but need a dose of the refiner’s fire first. The Church, in order to encourage good works, granted indulgences, in which the good work was acknowledged and a specific amount of temporal penalty for sin was waived. The pope had the power to decide which good works were good enough to receive an indulgence.

Well, what good work could be better than contributing to the new St. Peter’s? The popes therefore set up a direct-marketing scheme by which canvassing agents were sent out to grant certificates of indulgence to people who contributed money to the building fund. It could have been done by a vending machine if somebody clever like Leonardo had been hired to invent one, but canvassing agents were probably better, because they had the showman’s instinct. A particularly successful one named Johann Tetzel made a leap of logic, or perhaps only a little hop of logic, connecting indulgences with the communion of saints (which was quite correct) to turn them into get-out-of-jail-free cards for deceased relatives. Good works can purify sin, and because all Christians are linked in the communion of saints, the good works of one can be applied to the sins of another. Therefore you can spring your dead relatives out of purgatory right away by tossing a coin in the box. “As soon as the coin goes clank, the soul goes whee!” he told the gawking crowds.

Well, Luther thought, that can’t be right. You can’t buy your way into heaven. And since he lived in the university town of Wittenberg, his sense of injustice and outrage drove him to the same expedient that every college student or professor with a bee in his bonnet has adopted ever since: he put up a poster.

In those days, the church door was the university bulletin board. On October 31, 1517, Luther nailed his poster to the door, inviting anyone who wanted to flap his jaw for a while to an academic debate on ninety-five theses he had thought up, all having to do with abuses he saw in the Church.

Many of Luther’s theses begin, “If the pope knew…” Luther seems to have believed quite honestly that the pope would be on his side. Other reformers, like Francis of Assisi, had got the middle management of the Church against them, but then the pope came through on the side of light and virtue.

But Luther was wrong in his assumption. The pope did know. The pope just didn’t care much. “Whatever,” said the pope.

The problem with Luther’s plan was that the pope in question was Leo X, one of the Three Worldlies. Leo was not strongly motivated to reform the Catholic Church. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about the Christian religion; it was just that there were more important things that he cared about much more—things like, for example, Leo X. The corrupt and unreformed Catholic Church had been very good to him. He really had no complaints. As a lifestyle, being pope had considerable attractions. Why would he want to give up a life of luxury and set an example of monkish abstemiousness? What was in it for him? Had his father Lorenzo the Magnificent bought him a cardinal’s hat so he could live in a Motel 6 and eat celery? Had he schemed and backstabbed his way through the College of Cardinals for a bowl of lentil porridge? Was he even now making the papal military the terror of Italy so that he and his extended family could live in becoming poverty? No! “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it”—those were his words on ascending the throne of Peter. Or at least those were his reported words, though he may have said something more like “Party time!”

So Leo decided to step on Luther like a bug, and that would be the end of it. After all, even the worst schismatics of the Middle Ages, like the Albigenses, had been mostly confined to one region. It took quite a bit of effort to get rid of the Albigenses, but it was a local effort, so it was doable. A few massacres and atrocities took care of the problem. Just have Luther burned at the stake, and maybe sack Wittenberg and massacre all the citizens, and the problem would be solved.

But this is where Leo made his big miscalculation. Luther had made a medium-sized miscalculation about the attitude of the pope, but Leo made a gigantic miscalculation about the nature of the world. In spite of the frescoes of pagan gods and statues of naked people that surrounded him, Leo thought that, politically, he was still living in the Middle Ages. He was not. Leo was one of the first political victims of the age of mass media.

Here, once again, we shall need to jump back in history.

In about 1450, a goldsmith in Mainz, a town in what we anachronistically call “Germany” because it is far too confusing to sort out who was in charge of what in that part of the world, came up with a brilliant idea. Books, as everyone knew, were enormously expensive. A large book could be the product of years of work for a scribe and an illuminator. Yet this Renaissance thing was really taking off, and people were more and more interested in books. Now, the Latin alphabet has 24 letters, and a scribe’s work is basically just rearranging them in different combinations. Why not build a machine to do that?

Thus Gutenberg came up with the idea of the movable-type printing press. Printing from blocks had been done before, but Gutenberg’s idea of reducing the blocks to individual letters, which could be rearranged in any combination, made books into commodities rather than individual works of art.

All this is true, by the way, unless you live in Holland, in which case printing was invented about twenty-five years earlier by Laurens Janszoon Coster. We seldom realize how much the facts of history depend on one’s citizenship. If the world, for historical purposes, had been larger at this time, we should have been forced to take into account even earlier developments in China and Korea.

By 1517, printing presses were established all over Europe, and there was a huge market for printed anything—books, broadsides, pamphlets, crude woodcut cartoons, and (of course) certificates of indulgence. When Luther tacked up his Ninety-Five Theses, there were enough people who nodded their heads and said “Yeah, he’s right,” that some enterprising printer immediately thought, “I can sell this and make my numbers for November.” And when that printer sold his stock in record time, other printers took note.

Within two years, there were about 300,000 copies of Luther’s writings in circulation in Europe. To put that in perspective, 300,000 copies would put a book on the bestseller lists today in the United States, a country with more than 300 million people in it. A good estimate of the population of Europe in Luther’s time is about 80 million, and a majority of them were illiterate. Everyone who could read was reading Luther, and the ones who couldn’t were listening eagerly while their literate neighbors read Luther, or while their other illiterate neighbors repeated what they had heard at the tavern from some guy who heard it from some other guy who had listened while somebody read Luther. You couldn’t step on Luther like a bug, because there were 300,000 Luthers spread all over Europe. He wasn’t just a pest: he was an infestation.

At first, the anti-Luther party responded in kind, issuing their own tracts and treatises and broadsides and crude cartoons. Henry VIII, that great and selfless friend of Catholicism, wrote a response to Luther that earned him the title “Defender of the Faith” from the grateful Pope. The kings and queens of England and Great Britain have borne that title ever since, though it no longer refers to defending the Roman Catholic faith. Now it refers to defending the Church of England from Presbyterianism, and defending the Kirk of Scotland from Anglicanism.

Henry’s prime minister, Thomas More, carried on a spirited written debate with Luther. How inspiring it was to see two of the greatest minds of the age exercising their titanic intellects! More suggested that Luther’s arguments were a load of poop. Luther responded that More himself was a poopyhead. More replied that Luther was a double poopyhead whose poopy old treatise was a load of poop that he had pooped out. This was, after all, the age that had rediscovered Cicero.

Excrement, and its resemblance to one’s enemies and their propositions, was a subject studied with keen attention in the early 1500s. Luther was exceptionally well qualified in this branch of the rhetorical art, but his opponents certainly joined the debate with enthusiasm. Sometimes, indeed, the more refined writers varied their style with images of vomit rather than excrement; but, in general, the victory went to the combatant who mentioned excrement most explicitly and most often. Few could stand up to Luther in such a contest.

When excrement failed, there was always religious invective. One’s opponent was the Antichrist, the Whore of Babylon, Satan himself. And he was also a load of pig excrement, because the argument usually came back around to excrement. At first Luther had been very civil to the pope; but when it became clear that the pope wanted to squash him like a bug, Luther hit him with all his most refined rhetorical flourishes. The defenders of the Roman Church responded similarly to Luther.

However, argument soon reached the limits of its utility as a response to the Lutheran heresy. The problem with argument is that it is not final, especially in matters of philosophy or theology. Very often the two sides cannot even agree on which side won the argument, and then they will go on to argue about that for a while. So the two sides of the theological debate quickly turned to the more reliable and more final expedient of killing people. A dead opponent is one who may be regarded as having admitted the justice of one’s argument.

Luther himself was declared an outlaw, meaning that anyone could kill him and be doing the world a favor. He was rescued, however, by the conniving greed of the German princes.

Luther had never intended to found some new “Lutheran” church. He wasn’t the manager type. But if the pope in Rome was Satan and the Antichrist and a big lump of pig excrement, who was left to run the church?

Obviously, the legitimate secular government, instituted by God for the protection of his people, would have to take over the religion business as well.

Here is where Luther, quite unknown to himself, made a strategic decision that assured that he would succeed where Wyckliffe and Huss had failed. The Catholic Church had more money than God. All that money was just sitting there, forever out of reach of the greedy little aristocrats who ran the little bits of territory that made up the patchwork empire of Germany. Now Luther had shown these bickering little princelets a way into that previously impregnable vault that held the Catholic Church’s wealth in their little principalities. He might as well have put it on a billboard:


And Keep the Money for Yourself

Just think how much a prince could do for his poor suffering subjects if he had access to all that money! Why, he could build a grand castle for his subjects to admire from a safe distance. He could buy spiffy new uniforms for his personal bodyguard to wear while they were shoving his subjects out of the way. He could build a new palace wing for each of his mistresses to entertain her lovers with becoming decorum. Wouldn’t his subjects be pleased! And, of course, he could buy a bunch of cannons and finally settle his old score with that other princeling over there once and for all. For a short time it looked as though the Holy Roman Emperor would just shrug and let the princes choose which side would prevail in their own states; but when, in 1526, that decision was reversed, the Lutheran princes entered a protest, and thus gave their whole movement a name.

By the time Luther died in 1546, the whole world (meaning western Europe) was embroiled in religious conflicts. Millions died for being Protestant or Catholic in the wrong place; and then, as the Protestant side began to split into factions, people started dying for being the wrong kind of Protestant. In England, King Henry VIII excommunicated the entire Catholic Church from the Church of England, and the people shrugged. His daughter Mary brought England back to Catholicism, and the people shrugged. But Mary actually made herself so unpleasant that, when her sister Elizabeth kicked out the Catholic Church again, many of the people thought it might be sort of a good idea. Thus England joined the ranks of the Protestants, although we say that in a whisper in case any high-church Anglicans are listening.

So we find Europe in a bit of a mess, and it will remain in a bit of a mess for a while. It seems that the Reformation has not eliminated evil from the world after all, and perhaps the title of this chapter owes us an apology.

But that will not stop Europeans from extraordinary accomplishments. In our next chapter, we shall lurch back once again to meet some daring explorers, who will open our history to a whole New World. Naturally, they will celebrate with a round of massacres.

The chapters previously published:

Chapter 1.


Chapter 2.


Chapter 3.


Chapter 4.


Chapter 5.


Chapter 6.


Chapter 7.


Chapter 8.


Chapter 9.


Chapter 10.


Chapter 11.


Chapter 12.


Chapter 13.


Chapter 14.


Chapter 15.


Chapter 16.


Chapter 17.


Chapter 18.


Chapter 19.


Chapter 20.



  1. Joseph Moore says:

    Erasmus, if I recall, only called Luther a bad name once. Otherwise, in his correspondence with him, he was pretty much calm and reasonable.

    You can imagine how far that got him. Luther just dialed it up to 11.

    And it is remarkable how much of Luther’s work is addressed to German aristocracy. Almost as remarkable as how much of it has never been translated into English.

  2. It is said today that, in any argument (especially on the internet), the longer the argument goes on, the more likely it becomes that someone will compare their opponent to Hitler or the Nazis. In the discussions about Luther and his ideas, on the late-Renaissance equivalent of the Internet that was the international pamphlet-printing scene, they did not yet have Hitler and the Nazis to compare each other to. Thus, they were forced to resort to comparing each other to excrement, or vomit, or the Antichrist, or the Whore of Babylon, and so on.

    Perhaps the world owes a debt of gratitude to Adolf Hitler, for, by providing a universally-agreed standard of despicable and evil behavior, he allowed the great intellectual debates of future ages to finally rise above the level of calling each other poopyhead, and ascend to that rarefied rhetorical height of calling each other Fascist Scum.

  3. Saddam Hussein was worse than Hitler!

    But I guess that’s dialing it up to 11 . . .

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  1. […] take an extreme example from dear Dr. Boli. Here’s how he describes Pope Leo X’s position regarding to Luther’s issues with the selling of […]

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