Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 38: The Victory of the Reformers and the Birth of the Protestant Churches


That which is called the Reformation and saw the emergence of schismatic Churches around Martin Luther and John Calvin did not add any fundamental novelty to the program of the reformers who, from the Eleventh Century on, fought against the temporal interests of the clergy and Rome. Commonly accepted among historians, the idea that Catholicism had had control over the people of Europe was contradicted from the moment [and there were, as we have seen, many such moments] that one distanced oneself from the power of the laws imposed by the princes and the ecclesiastic hierarchy, with its grid of parishes, confessors, priests, inquisitors and preachers who propagated guilt, horror for sexuality, the Satanism of women, the omnipresent image of death and a Hell directly inspired by the services of penal justice.

The fear of and hatred and scorn for the Constantinian Church never ceased to animate the most diverse classes of society. Indifference and irreligion reigned in the disadvantaged milieus, while the cynicism of false piety served the beggars and solicitors. Only the aspiration for a pre-Constantinian Christianity – ascetic, altruistic, loyal to voluntary poverty, inclined towards martyrdom, anti-clerical and theocratic – brought a religious coloration to the collectivist nostalgias from the Fourth to the Sixteenth Centuries. Each time that Christianity manifested itself, the Catholic Church persecuted it (with the exception of a brief period in the Eleventh Century).

Attentive to the temporal prerogatives that, through enrichment, conferred upon it a considerable power, the Catholic Church was more and more distanced from the Ekklesia, the spiritual communities of the faithful, which pinned their hopes on the Waldensians, the adepts of voluntary poverty, Wycliffe’s Lollards, the Hussites, the Taborites and a crowd of agitators whose project to abolish tithes guaranteed [a certain amount of] success.

In the Church itself, voices were raised to clamor for new accords between the interests of God and the financial interests of a “multinational” that claimed to be descended from the Zealot Simon, metamorphosed into Saint Peter.

“Our greasy canons believe themselves freed from God if they sing in a clear voice, in the choir, a hallelujah or a response; then they to return to their homes to entertain themselves and have supper with their wandering minstrels and jugglers.”[1] This diatribe was not written by Savonarola, nor by Luther, but by Anthony of Padua (1195-1231), an orthodox spirit but aware of the split between the faith of the poor and the Church of the rich that, through its carelessness, discouraged the resignation of the disadvantaged, who were quite flabbergasted by “living like Christ did.”

Neither Wycliffe, Huss, Savonarola, Luther nor Calvin pursued aims that were revolutionary, schismatic or hostile to Catholicism. Their designs placed them in the political line of Gregory IX when he took the side of Ramihrdus against the high clergy.

The development of the economic process gave Luther and Calvin a weapon that was finally capable of breaking the spiritual monopoly that the cynicism of the pontifical bureaucracy had discredited through the scandal of the market in indulgences and the priority given to business affairs. The expansion of commerce, the growing independence of the banks and the preindustrial artisanal enterprises established a state of mind that was favorable to the new reformers. The separation from Rome did not simply signify the end of an odious hierarchy that intermixed faith and financial interests; it implied the ideas that belief properly belonged to the individual in his or her relationship with God and that the management of capital constituted a domain separate from religion, [but] governed by the imperatives of Christian morality. The rigorous obedience to God of a Calvinist businessman was in accord with the intransigent search for profit, because – banishing the crazy expenditures of hedonism – it underwrote an ascetic morality that was in conformity with the Christian institution. As Max Weber has shown, Protestantism discovered in the austerity of accumulation and the reproduction of capital a Puritanism that inspired the “free” relationship between the sinner and the tutelary God who kept watch over the rate of profit. While Rome had looted [pille] and squandered [gaspille], the reformers economized and invested.

The concern with rendering moral the morals of the clergy intervened too late to dam up the pious ethics of the reformers. The Council of Trento ran aground in its attempt to restore the authority of Catholicism in the northern regions, the cradle of the industrial revolution and the first bourgeois, parliamentary and democratic regimes.


Two Agitators at the Dawn of the Reformation: Hans Böhm and Girolamo Savonarola

“He was,” Norman Cohn writes, “a shepherd and, in his spare time, a popular entertainer, drumming and piping in hostelries and in the market-place – whence the nickname, by which he is still known, of Drummer (or Piper) of Niklashausen.”[2]

Through an ordinary irony of history, Hans [Böhm] heard the Italian Franciscan John of Capistrano, not as a pitiless inquisitor, the author of the massacre of the Fraticelles in Maiolati, but as a brother extolling repentance and the rejection of luxury in Germany thirty years previously. Since John of Capistrano had invited his listeners to take part in the bonfire of the vanities, in which the people set aside their beautiful clothes, their games of dice and cards, and their objects of pure enjoyment, on the day of Lent, this shepherd decided to burn his drum in front of the parish-church of Niklashausen and start preaching.

Mary appeared to him and intimated to him the order to propagate the Good Word, so that Niklashausen could be raised to the glory of a terrestrial Jerusalem. In the local church, there was a statue of the Virgin, to which miraculous powers were attributed. The priest of the parish did not give his support to this project, which would have erected Niklashausen, not Rome, as the place selected by divine providence.

This little shepherd suddenly revealed himself to be endowed with an extraordinary eloquence. He soon inferred from the fascination that he exercised upon the crowds and diverse classes of society that God had endowed him with thaumaturgic powers. He preached the simplicity of morals, which was strong enough to keep any soul out of hell. The bonfire of the vanities was to be followed by violent attacks on the corrupt clergy and the powerful.

He soon incited his listeners to refuse to pay taxes and tithes. And that the priests should abandon their outrageous privileges and content themselves with whatever the people agreed to give them.

The Archbishop of Mainz, who had until then been restricted to a prudent reserve, plotted to put an end to an agitation that had won over a growing number of regions in Germany.

In the words of Norman Cohn:

“In the end Böhm emerged as a social revolutionary, proclaiming the imminence of the egalitarian millennium based on the Law of Nature. In the coming Kingdom the use of wood, water and pasturage, the right to fish and hunt would be freely enjoyed by all, as they had been in olden times. Tributes of all kinds would be abolished forever. No rent or services would be owed to any lord, no taxes or duties to any prince. Distinctions of rank and status would cease to exist and nobody would have authority over anybody else. All would live together as brothers, everyone enjoying the same liberties and doing the same amount of work as everyone else. ‘Princes, ecclesiastical and secular alike, and counts and knights should only possess as much as common folk, then everyone will have enough. The time will have to come when princes and lords will work for their daily bread.’ And Böhm extended his attack beyond the local lords and princes to the very summit of society: ‘The Emperor is a scoundrel and the Pope is useless. It is the Emperor who gives the princes and counts and knights the right to levy taxes on the common people. Alas, poor devils that you are!’

“No doubt Böhm’s teaching appealed in different ways to different sections of the population. The demand for the overthrow of all rulers, great and small, probably appealed particularly to the urban proletariat; we know that the townsfolk did in fact come to Niklashausen, not only from Wurzburg but from all over southern and central Germany. On the other hand, in demanding that wood, water, pasturage, fishing and hunting should be free to all men, Böhm was voicing a very general aspiration of the peasants. The German peasants believed that these rights had in fact been theirs in olden time, until usurped by the nobility; this was one of the wrongs which they were always expecting the future ‘Emperor Frederick’ to undo. But above all it was the prestige of the preacher himself, as a miraculous being sent by God, which drew the tens of thousands into the Tauber valley. The common people, peasants and artisans alike, saw in him a supernatural protector and leader, such as the ‘Emperor Frederick’ was to have been: a savior who could bestow on them individually the fullness of Divine Grace and who would lead them individually into an earthly Paradise.

“News of the wonderful happenings at Niklashausen passed rapidly from village to village in the neighborhood and was carried further afield, too, by messengers who went out in all directions. Soon vast hordes of common folk of all ages and both sexes, and including whole families, were streaming towards Niklashausen. Not only the surrounding country but all parts of southern and central Germany were in commotion, from the Alps to the Rhineland and to Thuringia. Artisans deserted their workshops and peasants their fields, shepherds and shepherdesses abandoned their flocks and hastened – often still in the same clothes and carrying their picks and hammers and scythes – to hear and adore him who was now known as ‘the Holy Youth.’ These people greeted one another only as ‘Brother’ or ‘Sister’ and these greetings acquired the significance of a rallying-cry. Amongst the multitudes of simple, wildly excited folk there circulated fantastic rumors. What the plebs pauperum had believed of Jerusalem these believed of Niklashausen. There Paradise had literally descended upon the earth; and infinite riches were lying ready to be gathered by the faithful, who would share them out amongst themselves in brotherly love. Meanwhile the hordes – like the Pastoureaux and the Flagellants before them – advanced in long columns, bearing banners and singing songs of their own composition.”[3]

Hans Böhm began to preach around 1474. Towards the end of March 1476, the pilgrimages [to hear him] led to retaliatory measures on the part of the large towns. The municipal council of Nuremburg prohibited its inhabitants from going to Niklashausen. Wurzburg closed its doors and armed its militias. On 12 July, the Prince-Bishop sent a squadron of cavalry to the holy city. Arrested, Hans Böhm was incarcerated in Wurzburg, while a peasant, invested in his turn with a prophetic role, incited the people to march upon the Episcopal city, where the walls would fall like those of Jericho. Forty millenarian liberators were killed. Judged hastily, Hans Böhm was sent to the pyre where he died, one says, singing hymns. The offerings deposited by the pilgrims in the church of Niklashausen were confiscated. The Archbishop of Mainz, the Bishop of Wurzburg and the count upon whom the New Jerusalem depended did not disdain from sharing the loot equitably amongst themselves. The cinders of the prophet, dispersed so that no cult could render homage to him, did not fail to put into the air of the time the seeds of a millenarian and reformational resurgence that would break the reins of all-powerful Rome.


Girolamo Savonarola

For Girolamo Savonarola, Joachimite prophecy, voluntary poverty, the asceticism of the Spirituals, and the political calculations of the communalist tribunes formed a conjunction of diverse ambitions that [both] elevated him to power and plotted his downfall.

Born in Ferrara in 1452, he distinguished himself [from the others] in the Order of the Dominicans by his eloquence and his culture. The Prior of the Monastery of Saint Mark in Florence, he soon exercised upon the brilliant court of Lorenzo de’ Medici a fascination that increased the appeal of purity, so common in the decline of [enjoyment taken in] guilty pleasures.

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, whose philosophical theses were condemned by the Church, discerned an ally in this monk-prophet who, through his diatribes against the luxuria and aviditas[4] of the Pope and the clergy, added his voice to the popular anger, accumulated over the centuries, about the despotism of Rome.

Savonarola’s millenarianism was quite seductive in a time during which reversals of fortune and ordinary misery suggested an imminent apocalypse. Savonarola shared with Dolcino the mistake of giving a too-precise date to his prophecies. He announced terrible misfortunes for Italy. He was believed, because misfortune occurred every day. Death even appeared in the lines of the poems in which Lorenzo celebrated youth and beauty.

Against the vices and tyranny of the papacy, Charles VIII, the King of France, brandished the “scourge of God, the vengeful sword,” the new Charlemagne, the new Frederick, the new king of a Third Age. Marsilio Ficino, a scholar who was well versed in Kabala and a friend of literature and pleasure, discerned in the monk [Savonarola] the acrid odor of a rigor as pernicious as the Sadean hedonism of the prelates and aristocrats.

After the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who, at the end of a dissipated life, had invested Fra Girolamo with the secret hope of redemption, [his son] Piero de’ Medici showed greater reserve, nay, even frank hostility to the one who now aspired to rule the lives of the Florentines.

Savonarola’s appeals to voluntary poverty, which revived memories of the Fraticelles and the Spirituals, rallied to him the suffrage of the disadvantaged classes. He soon after tipped over into the mystical Puritanism that is shared by of all the [religious] extremisms.

The flight of Piero, the proclamation of the Florentine Republic in 1494, and the triumphal entry of King Charles VIII into the city granted Savonarola the power of a spiritual and temporal leader.

[The new government of] Florence, promoted as the New Jerusalem, finally marked the beginning of the Third Age, the prelude to the return of Christ to earth and the massive conversion of the Turks and the Jews.

The hysteria inherent in the compulsion for virtue kindled in the town, renowned for the refinement of its arts, purifying flames that one called “pyres of the vanities.” On them were thrown jewels, ornaments, books, paintings, and luxurious clothes.

Sandro Botticelli, the most sensual of the painters, succumbed to this destructive madness, to this rage in which life took revenge upon the scorn that had overwhelmed it by annihilating with a sinister joy all that had made life pleasant. Into this rage was mixed the legitimate resentment of the exploited, on whose backs pressed the weight of luxury, from which the exploited were excluded. Savonarola’s sermons, which both flattered the demands that he could not satisfy and the hatred to which he gave evangelical virtue, alienated him from the aristocracy and the intellectuals little by little, at the same that his promises of a new order remain dead letters politically.

The party of Rome regrouped its partisans. Pope Alexander VI, who was intelligent, brutal and corrupt, excommunicated the monk and prohibited him from preaching. Savonarola ignored him. Arrested in his convent at Saint Mark, tortured, and charged with heresy, which his doctrine did not merit, he was – despite the effervescence of his partisans, the Piagnomi (a name that came from the Piagnone, which was the bell in the convent of Saint Mark) – hanged and burned with two of his disciples, Domenico da Pescia and Silvestro Maruff, on 23 May 1498.

The program for the renewal of the Church, which Savonarola had folded into the uncertain politics of the city, was expounded by Luther as a protest by all of Christianity against the ignominy of Catholicism, the religion soiled by the unworthiness of its priests. Luther had the prudence to remain in Germany, where the tradition of the emperors and princes who were hostile to Rome made the old principle cuius regio, eius religio[5] work in favor of Lutheranism.


From Heresy to the Religion of the State: Luther and Calvin

The Reformation of the Church triumphed with Luther and Calvin, but it triumphed outside of the Church and against it. What victories could those who dreamed of a renewal of faith and the freedom of belief hope to see from the new religions of the State?

Born in 1483, a student, then dismissed from the University of Erfurt in 1505, Luther was ordained a priest in 1507. He attained the position of professor and preacher at the University of Wittenberg due to the sympathies that he aroused in the Prince-Elector of Saxony.

A visit to Rome in 1511 revealed to him the state of cupidity and license that reigned among the prelates and at the pontifical court. Assuredly, he was not the only one, nor the first, to be jealous of the splendor and luxury of the Church, to be indignant about it with great vehemence.

The promotional sale of indulgences, begun by Pope Leon X to finance the building of the Church of Saint Peter, offered Luther an occasion to excite the discontent of the northern towns and the regions heated by the agitation of Böhm and the Taborites, but also the discontent of the German princes, who were traditionally hostile to Rome and were soon thereafter (around 1520) put off by the authoritarianism of the Catholic Emperor Charles V.

The archbishop of Mainz, deputized the Dominican [Johann] Tetzel, a talented preacher who would absolve all sins if his price was paid, to collect funds from the sale of indulgences, which could allow someone “to fornicate with the Virgin Mary herself.”[6]

After Tetzel’s arrival in Wittenberg, a violent polemic opposed him against Luther, who had the double advantage of being there with him and able to express with the colorfulness of popular language opinions that were widely held. With the glibness of a traveling businessman, Tetzel proposed to settle the debate with an ordeal of fire and water: “I mock your jackass braying,” Luther retorted. “In place of water, I advise you to use the juice of the trailing vine and, in place of fire, the aroma of a roasted goose.” The rough treatment that the people gave to Tetzel’s emulators alarmed those in Rome responsible for the marketing[7] operation founded on the redemption of sin, while the monk of Wittenberg – emboldened by his popularity – summarized in ninety-five articles his theses against the Roman clique. On 31 October 1517, he attached them to the walls of the Church of All Saints. The Cardinal Cajetan, the apostolic nuncio and the ecclesial hierarchy tried and failed to get him to sign a retraction.

In 1520, the Papal Bull Exsurge condemned forty-one of Luther’s propositions and ordered that his pamphlets be burned. Accompanied by his disciples, Luther went to the door of Wittenberg, where a pyre had been lighted, and, with great solemnity, threw both the Papal Bull and the writings of Luther’s adversaries into it.

From Germany to England, by way of France and the Netherlands, the pyre of Wittenberg – which had symbolically consumed the power of Rome – inflamed public opinion. For the princes and kings, Catholicism was merely an instrument of political domination. None of them had any scruples about rejecting it if it encumbered more than it served. In 1527, the very loyal servant of faith named Emperor Charles V subjected Rome to the most pitiless sacking and massacres that it had known since the days of the Visigoths. Francois I, King of France, no less a good Catholic, burned the Protestants but helped the German reformers in their struggle against Charles V; he hated the Emperor so much that he did not hesitate to ally himself with Islam.

The economy had condemned Dolcino, the Spirituals and Savonarola, but it saved Luther and his movement; it carried them to power by virtue of the force that, underneath the outward appearance of religion and ideology, began to appear in broad daylight as the veritable mode of government of mankind: the economy.

Luther and Calvin ratified the obscure decrees of free enterprise, and even helped crush peasant communalism and condemn the free spirit that was so resolutely irreconcilable with the economic control exercised over the lives of men and women.

In 1521, Charles V summoned Luther to appear before the Diet of the Princes convened in Worms, in the Rhineland. Strong from the sympathy that his act of rebellion had aroused among the lords who were not anxious to grovel under the boot of the Emperor, Luther presented his profession of faith like a challenge, then, foreseeing arrest, took refuge in Saxony, where the Elector – under the pretext of imprisoning him – protected him at his castle in Wartburg. There Luther translated the Bible into German and laid the basis for a new dogma.

In 1521, Thomas Müntzer, taking the freedoms claimed by Luther literally, joined the peasants in revolt and revived the hopes for a Joachimite Third Age. In 1525, Luther, in his pamphlet titled Against the Bands of Looting Peasants and Assassins, appealed for the most pitiless repression, thereby removing the last hesitations from the German princes concerning his doctrine and co-signing the birth of Lutheranism as the religion of the State. In five years, the heresiarch repeated the Constantinian operation of the Roman Church in his own way. He set himself up as the pontifex maximus[8] by according the support of the bourgeoisie of free enterprise (which saw in enrichment the compensations for sacrifice and obedience to a reasonable God) to the national and religious independence of the Northern principalities and kingdoms.


Johannes Calvin

The career of the heresiarch Johannes Calvin ended with a coup d’Etat whose success he himself assured. He was born in 1509 at Noyon, in Picardy, where his father, the prosecutor at the local chapter, had reserved a career for him in the Church. After studying at the College of Montaigu in Paris, Orleans and Bourges, he published a commentary on Seneca’s De clementia.

Around 1533, he adopted the ideas of the Reformation. Suspected of having drafted the rant by his friend (the Rector of the University of Paris, Nicolas Cop, who was deeply permeated by the Lutheran doctrine), he fled to Angouleme and then took refuge in Nérac with the help of Marguerite of Navarre, sister of Francois I and protector of the reforms.

In 1534, Calvin was in Basle, where he drafted the first version of The Christian Institution. In 1536, Guillaume Farel, who attempted to establish the Reformation in Geneva, invited him to use his authority to convince the citizens, who were not in a hurry to exchange a new religious truth for an old one that they cared little about. Banishment sanctioned them both in 1538 and Calvin went to Strasbourg, where Martin Bucer had consolidated one of the bastions of Lutheranism. Returning to Geneva in 1541, Calvin thenceforth worked to establish his [own] power. An opposition among the inhabitants of the city rose against him, founded just as much on the awareness of belonging to a free state as on the repugnance that Calvinist austerity aroused among the people who were naturally inclined to the joys of existence. Calvin worked patiently at breaking the party of political freedom – stigmatized under the name “libertines” – that was led by Jacques Gruet and the faction constituted by Pocques, Perceval and Quintin Thierry, vituperated under the name “Spiritual Libertines.”

In 1547, after an iniquitous trial, Jacques Gruet was decapitated for having defended the free choice of atheism and for fighting against the dictatorship of the Puritanism that, in the Northern Europe, forged the Anglo-Saxon mindset that English Victorianism and Americanism illustrated in the most deplorable way.

To confirm the truth that God had enjoined him to impose and to share in the Inquisitorial barbarity, Calvin did not fail to put on the pyre the physician Michael Servetus [Miguel Serveto Conesa], who had taken refuge in Geneva in 1553.


[1] [Emile Gebhart,] L’Italie mystique, p. 156.

[2] Translator: Norman Cohn, In Pursuit of the Millennium, p. 241.

[3] N. Cohn, Les Fanatiques de l’Apocalypse, pp. 247-254. [Translator: Norman Cohn, In Pursuit of the Millennium, p. 243-245. Rather than translate Cohn back into English, I have quoted directly from the original.]

[4] Translator: Latin for “lust” and “greed,” respectively.

[5] Translator: Latin for “Whose realm, his religion,” that is to say, the religion of the ruler becomes the religion of those who are ruled.

[6] Translator: in the priceless words of The Catholic Encyclopedia (1914): “History presents few characters more unfortunate and pathetic than Tetzel. Among his contemporaries the victim of the most corrosive ridicule, every foul charge laid at his door, every blasphemous utterance placed in his mouth, a veritable fiction and fable built about his personality, in modern history held up as the proverbial mountebank and oily harlequin, denied even the support and sympathy of his own allies — Tetzel had to wait the light of modern critical scrutiny, not only for a moral rehabilitation, but also for vindication as a soundly trained theologian and a monk of irreproachable deportment.”

[7] Translator: English in original.

[8] Translator: Latin for “Supreme Pontiff.”


(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. Footnotes by the author, except where noted.)



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