Why did the devout Western and medieval European Christians rebel? What made them abandon reverence for the successors of the apostles, stop marveling at the learning of the priests and cease marking their days, months and years with the prayers and rites devised for them by the clergy? Finally, how did they come to view the Catholic Church hierarchy as corrupt liars and deceivers who oppressed them and must be opposed by any means to save the very faith those clerics had taught them?
Even someone who doesn't hold to Karl Marx’s entire edifice of dialectical historical materialism can accept his canny insight that ideas, including religion and faith, are at least influenced by the material conditions of survival. To put it in Marx’s own ponderous 19th century words: “The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”
This was arguably true of Christianity in the West, as Europe—beginning with marked material changes during the high Middle Ages—entered a period of true cultural, economic, social and political renaissance. It began in the heart of Italy, the city-state of Florence.
In the Middle Ages, the communities of Christian believers changed from persecuted secret cells scattered throughout the Mediterranean basin to the primary social institution that held society in Europe together. After the imperial state collapsed in the West power was reluctantly assumed by the only people who could read and write, the clerics.
The Church took on, to use medieval language, “temporal” (or noneternal) concerns. It became the primary source of education, social norms, entertainment and even basic survival for many. It founded academies, schools and universities. It modernized the administration of justice, introducing the notion of proof and witness. It established norms of behavior through canon law and rigorous moral teaching in the face of chaos and depravity and entertained with religious plays, processions and events. It produced food and goods in its network of monasteries and convents. The Church crowned emperors, mediated between princes, established the beginnings of international law and even blessed certain wars called crusades.
Political CausesThe rebellion can be said to have started with what T.S. Eliot memorably called murder in the cathedral. On December 29, 1170, four knights, acting on what they interpreted to be the order of Henry II, arrived at Canterbury to challenge the archbishop, Thomas Becket, and kill him. They caught up with him in the cathedral, near a door to the monastic cloister, where the monks were chanting vespers. There they stabbed Becket to death.
Becket’s assassination was only one chapter in the conflict between the church hierarchy and monarchs of many lands over the power to name the overseers of the many productive and prestigious enterprises of the Church, not to mention acquire control over their revenue. Thus, the political cause of rebellion was a mixture of envy and indignation that such enormous resources were in the hands of an institution that had filled the vacuum left by the Roman Empire.
Economic CausesJust as the Church began to accumulate wealth by taking on responsibility, Europe’s entire economy began to shift.
For centuries, cities had dwindled to villages after barbarian hordes pillaged them and their craftsmen and merchants fled to the countryside. The continent had split up into fiefdoms protected by feudal lords whose knights and armies were fed by starving serfs. These various localities and farms had relied on a thin existence, barely trading with one another locally, as roads went to ruin and became dangerous and commerce became moneyless barter.
Sometime around 1050, the European economy began to turn around, slowly at first, but quickly accelerating. Major cities, such as Paris and London, doubled in population in the century leading up to 1200, then doubled again by 1300. Historian and political philosopher Quentin Skinner points out that Otto of Freising, a German bishop visiting northern Italy during the 12th century, noticed a widespread new form of political and social organization.
Italy’s resurgent city-state republics had left feudalism behind and were run by merchants, such as the prominent and munificent Lorenzo de Medici, in the city at the vanguard of the 14th century renaissance, Florence. Some historians theorize that the 15th century War of the Roses was caused by the emergence of a money economy and a phenomenon still-medieval England had not yet named: inflation.
Later on, we shall see the broader effect of trade on Christianity. For the moment, however, the economic center of gravity moved from the Church to the banking families of Europe, mainly of Italy, who invented the notion of capital—money as not just a token but a commodity in itself—and even persuaded Church officials to lift the long-established penalties on lending at interest.
Social CausesAlong with these political and economic developments, a society emerged that no longer resembled a Gothic cathedral rising upward in prayer, but was instead suddenly aware of its earthly and bodily existence.
A leading cause of this shift is thought to be devastation caused by the Black Death, which ravaged Europe between 1348 and 1350 and hit Italy—Florence in particular—very hard. Some argue that the plague was a result of the slaughter of cats, connected with the persecution of witches, which left the rat population unchecked by its natural predators. If that is true, religious superstition proved its own undoing. Others suggest that the plague had to do with resurgent trade.
As shown in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, the resulting familiarity with death caused many to dwell more on their material lives than on spirituality and the afterlife. Conversely, others argue that the Black Death prompted a new wave of piety, manifested in the sponsorship of religious works of art, as a kind of atonement for sins that brought on such evil.
Ideological CausesWhatever the political, economic and social causes of rebellion against the hierarchical, spiritual and God-human verticality of the Middle Ages, the renaissance brought on the emergence of a new way of learning that overtook scholasticism—the humanities, or humanism. The scholarship of the humanists involved the study of poetry, grammar, history, moral philosophy and rhetoric.
Some of this change involved an effort to recover, interpret and assimilate the language, literature, learning and values of ancient Greece and Rome—in other words, the rebirth of antiquity in Europe. But the truly central idea of humanism was the value and dignity of human being and the human mind as opposed to medieval theology’s castigation of humanity as essentially fallen.
This view inspired figures as diverse as Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas More. But perhaps Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) is the quintessential renaissance humanist, as the author of the manifesto of the era, the Oration on the Dignity of Man, which in part states:
“God the Father, the Mightiest Architect, had already raised, according to the precepts of His hidden wisdom, this world we see, the cosmic dwelling of divinity, a temple most august. He had already adorned the supercelestial region with Intelligences, infused the heavenly globes with the life of immortal souls and set the fermenting dung-heap of the inferior world teeming with every form of animal life. But when this work was done, the Divine Artificer still longed for some creature which might comprehend the meaning of so vast an achievement, which might be moved with love at its beauty and smitten with awe at its grandeur. When, consequently, all else had been completed (as both Moses and Timaeus testify), in the very last place, He bethought Himself of bringing forth man.”Once such thoughts had been absorbed, in an environment of political, economic and social change, nothing was ever quite the same.