By the turn of the 15th century, the Catholic Church was divided
and in chaos. Three rival Popes had established themselves in Avignon,
Pisa and Rome. An ex-pirate, Baldassare Cossa, was elected Pope then defrocked for corruption and fornication.
The reformer Jan Hus was burned at the stake for daring to question the
conduct of the church.
But in the streets and piazzas of peaceful, mercantile Italy, the troubled church could do little to stop a new trend for reviving ancient thought.
Classical art and philosophy, which survived from Greece and Rome, had long been condemned as heretical and pagan. Now it was left to lone friars to
rail against the habits of humanists like Cosimo de'Medici.
After the Medici were expelled from Florence in the 1490s their cultural influence was challenged, principally by the zealous monk, Savonarola.
He attempted to cleanse Florence of decadence and sin but only succeeded in trying the patience of the Vatican when he set up his own rival theocratic state.
Threatened with excommunication, he rejected the authority of the pope, effectively signing his own death warrant. Within weeks he was challenged to trial
by fire, which he avoided, only to be caught by a bloodthirsty mob and brutally tortured.
Both Hus and Savonarola had aimed to return to the purity of the ancient church. Neither heretic had the advantage of printing, or a powerful backer.
Martin Luther had both.
A troubled Augustinian monk, Luther suffered from bouts of depression caused by the pressure of explaining catholic theology to his students.
Luther finally snapped in 1517, when papal agents hawked indulgences on German street corners. To this deeply spiritual man, the idea of buying
salvation was abhorrent, and he composed a vicious tirade against the greed and debauchery of the Medici Pope, Leo X.
Luther's “95 Theses”,
nailed to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, became an international bestseller. Thanks to the new technology of printing, developed just a generation before,
now any literate man could read Luther's views and decide for himself.
Despite Luther's continued provocations, including more than 20 pamphlets in 20 years, successive Popes couldn't punish the wayward monk.
He was too well-protected. Luther's shrewd supporter, the Prince of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, saw that Luther offered an opportunity to escape Rome's control.
It was also in Charles V's interests, as the Holy Roman Emperor, to allow Luther's opposition to the Vatican to go unchecked. Charles V,
the leader of two thirds of mainland Europe, was reliant on the goodwill of the German princes for survival, and was frustrated playing second fiddle to the Pope.
Luther was to be controlled by no one. His ideas swept across Europe like wildfire. He inspired rebellion in Germany and prompted new heresies in England,
France and Switzerland. By 1540, Protestantism was born, and the followers of two competing churches began to tear each other apart.
The Catholic era of supremacy was over. For the next 500-years Europe was to be plagued by brutal sectarian war.
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