The Protestant Reformation
�What historians call a Big Ass Deal�
John Green (from Luther and the Protestant Reformation: Crash Course
World History #218)
Western (European) History is traditionally divided up into
three main Ages:
- Classical Antiquity (700 BC to 500 AD)
- The Middle Ages (500 AD to 1500 AD)
- The Modern Age (> 1500 AD, the past 500 years)
Classical antiquity (also the classical era or the
Classical Age) is centered on the Mediterranean Sea, comprising the
interlocking civilizations of ancient Greece and ancient Rome known as the
Greco-Roman world. This was the age of the Roman Empire.
Middle Ages == Medieval Times == Dark Ages:
Roman Empire has collapsed and lots of valuable knowledge is lost
(science, technology, medicine, and literature).
Mass migrations, wars, plagues. Life was short and poor.
The remnants of the Roman Empire slowly became independent nations: England, Scotland, France, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Lithuania, Denmark and Norway.
Key point: the Protestant
Reformation is one of the major factors that moved Europe out of the Middle
Ages and into the Modern Era (along with major events like the discovery of America in 1492).
Here are the details:
- Leading up to 1500, all Christians in Europe were
generally still Roman Catholics. In fact, Roman Catholicism had been the
dominant form of Christianity since around 300 AD (the �4th�
- The advent of the Protestant Reformation (think �PROTEST�
and �REFORM�) was much more than just a religious movement. It had
widespread political and social effects as well:
- People became more literate as an after effect of the PR.
- Governments were forced to grant religious freedoms to
their people after the PR.
- The main idea behind the PR (what was there to protest?,
what was there to reform?) was that, up to then (up to around 1500), the
Catholic Church had become immensely powerful and immensely corrupt,
keeping people poor and enslaved by praying on their fear of the afterlife
(for themselves and their loved ones), making them pay up to speed up the
painful time through Purgatory (that muddy middle-ground in the afterlife
where you �burned up� whatever remaining sin you had left over after you
died). The church dictated every aspect of your life (your Parish Priest baptizing
you, leading you through Communion each day with the Lord, hearing your
confessions, issuing out your punishments, marrying you to your spouse,
and issuing you your Last Rites � a speed ticket through purgatory).
- All of this was upset by one pissed off monk by the name
of Martin Luther. And he was just one of many people protesting this
setup, but he was at the right place at the right time. The PRINTING
PRESS was just becoming mainstream, and thus his ideas (and protests)
could be widely spread to the people. The bible as well, for the first
time, was translated from the closed-off language of Latin (of which only
the Parish Priest could read) to the common language of German.
- With their own Bibles in hand, people could now make up
their own minds about God. And people did�
- The Middle Ages were marked by the Catholic Church having
immense power. The Church owned over a THIRD of all the land in Europe, and thus collected taxes from people, controlled what could be built there, etc.
The Church also ran and maintained social services like orphanages and
schools, and so controlled what got taught there.
- The power hierarchy looked like this:
The Roman Emperor
The individual Kings of each Nation
- Enter MARTIN LUTHER. In the late 1400s and early 1500s,
there lived a man named Martin Luther who first studied Law, then got
struck by lightning and devoted his life to becoming a monk. He went to
study scripture at Wittenberg (of Hamlet fame). On a diplomatic mission to
Rome (after becoming a monk), Martin was absolutely disgusted by the
corruption he saw of the Roman Catholic Church. Lawlessness abound
(prostitution and crime on the streets, priests who totally didn�t take
their jobs seriously, rushing through mass and just collecting money from
- The straw that broke the camels back: when Luther
discovered the churches �Indulgences� practice: offering salvation to
people�s loved ones for half their yearly salary! Salvation in this sense
meant a speedy trip through Purgatory, where they were surely burning up
in pain as we speak.
- This prompted Luther to write up all his grievances with Indulgences
(95 in all) and he dramatically nailed them to a church door in protest.
- Luther believed that the Pope and all the Priests beneath
him were frauds. They had no real power over people�s souls, and held no
real religious authority. Luther proposed that a person only needed FAITH
in God in order to go to heaven, and that they didn�t need to pay money,
or pray, or fast, or give to the poor, or do good deeds, or go on
pilgrimages, or practice rituals, or confess, or any of this bullshit
(this is the main difference between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism:
that it is FAITH and not ACTS which grants one access to Salvation).
- What greatly helped Martin Luther spread this word was the
advent of the printing press. He had many (thousands) of his papers and
ideas printed up and spread throughout Europe. As well, he had the bible
translated from Latin into German, thus granting people access to the
bible for the first time in their lives.
- Luther thought, �Here people, read the bible for
yourselves, and you�ll see there is only one simple truth to all of this:
all you need is faith.� What happened however, was that people came up
with their own interpretations of the bible (naturally) and hundreds of
different fractured paths resulted. So �Protestantism� is better
understood as �any deviation from Catholicism that resulted from people
forming their own ideas and interpretations of the Bible�. But that main
idea (faith over acts) was a common theme.
- Things got messy from here (massive uprisings of religious
rebellion, and bloodshed in keeping them at bay). The power shifted from
the Church and Priests to the Kings of each nation (why not collect that
church money for themselves, they reasoned. Take the land from the church
and you take the power over the people as well). Kings were appointed by
God they reasoned (a common theme in Shakespeare) and so could make up the
- So the PR (Protestant Reformation) basically stripped the
Roman Catholic Church of their remaining power, concluding the role of the
Roman Empire as controlling all of Europe. Power shifted to individual
Kings, and independent nation-states were formed as a result (England, Scotland, France, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Lithuania, Denmark and Norway), bringing Europe into the Modern Ages.