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The Reformation In Germany History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

On the 31st October 1517, a monk by the name of Martin Luther, pinned up his ninety five these on to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, challenging the Roman Catholic Church. This initiated a turning point in European history, as it sparked a controversy that Martin Luther had perhaps not intended. The cry for reform, according to the Historian Alister McGrath, meant for many ‘a plea for administration, moral and legal reformation of the church…’ [1] However not everyone in Germany was ‘crying out’ for religious reform on the eve of the Reformation. [2] The German people seemed to be dissatisfied political, social and economically as well. This essay will explore why the German people were calling for economic, social and political reform and finally concluding why did the Reformation take place then and why in Germany.

Firstly I will explore the calls for religious reform as this was the main tone that the Reformation would take. I will begin by looking at popular piety within Germany on the eve of the Reformation. Earlier historians tended to claim that piety in the late medieval age was in decline. However the historian Brendt Moeller claimed that during the fourteenth and fifteenth century there was an increase in popular piety within the German Empire. [3] To an large extent, the German people were obsessed with religious suspicions because for them, heaven and hell were very real . The things they did in life would define their afterlife. So there was an increase in piety of the doctrine of purgatory and the selling of indulgence during the late mediaeval period. It was common for the German people to pay for a priest to pray for dead members of the family in hopes of shorting their time in purgatory and as well as buying indulgence one was making an act of penances buy donating money to the church. Its this concept of buying your way to heaven, that caused people to criticise, as the church was it ‘exploited the hopes and fears of ordinary people’, where it should have been encouraging hard work in life to secure the German peoples salvation after death. [4] 

The exploitation of the clergy in this new found religious interest would lead in to increase in anti-clericalism. Predominantly through the fifteenth century people became increasing dissatisfied and resentful of the Roman Catholic Church and the clergy within the German Empire. The Historian D.A Eltis explores why there was tension between eight different cities in the German Empire, Strassburg, Mainz, Frankfurt am Main, Worms, Speyer, Cologne, Magdeburg and Trier, and the clergy in the late Middle Ages. These eight cities were ‘prone to outburst of violence against the clergy’ due the dissatisfaction with the clergy. [5] An good example of a city ‘taking revenge on the clergy’ was Magdeburg, where the citizens went as far as murdering their archbishop in 1325 and going on a rampage burning and looting clergy owned areas in the city. [6] 7Elties highlights in, his journal, several key reason as to why the German cities where so dissatisfied with the Clergy in their cities. The first factor that he makes note of is the very intense resentment that the cities had to the clergies exemption of taxes. For example in the late fifteenth Century, the ecclesiastical population of the city of Mainz was 8%, then a quarter of the city’s population was employed by the clergy. With this in mind, the church exemption to taxes also extended to their servants and employees, meant that overall the city of Mainz nearly lost half of its tax revenue. This had severed effects on the city’s economy especially during times of economic difficulties that Germany suffered during the 1400’s. [8] By the eve of the Reformation, the leaders of the cities where calling for reform that would allow them to tax the clergy within their cities.

Another factor that Eltis brings to the forefront of anticlericalism was the problem of mortmain. For instance in the city of Frankfurt the church owned about a third of the land within the city. Once again resentment was caused towards the clergy due their lands being ‘non-taxable’. However, much of the lands owned by the church had been ‘donated’ to the clergy in exchange for popular masses for donors and their families souls. [9] This could have dire consequence for cities revenue, like it had for the city of Mainz who had lost it independent state and been left impoverished and with only a small tax base, by the late fifteenth century. [10] The cities were faced with two possible solution: either force more taxation on the wealthier families and thereby invoking a backlash of violence against the clergy, or by attempting to force taxation on the clergy. The city governments tended to challenge the church taxation immunity in attempt to solve their financial problems.

A final factor that was significant to characterizing anticlericalism, and was particular a sensitive area for cities, was the apparent ‘abuses’ that the clergy committed within the church and their immoral lifestyle. [11] This links back to my earlier statement about popular piety and the buying of indulgence, as this was seen as a church ‘abuse’ of the German people. On the eve of the reformation it was humanist, such as Martin Luther and Erasmus that heavily criticized the clergy of living a comfortable, luxurious secular life and not fulfilling their duties properly. For example out of fourteen parishes within Germany, only one had a permanent pastor in residence. [12] The Christian humanist theologians were calling for religious reform because they believed that original message of Christianity had been distorted in favour of furthering interest in wealth. [13] They cried out for ‘ad fontes’: returning back to the sources or in this case back to the Bible. [14] They believed that the church needed to return to basic Christian practise of the ‘Golden Age’ of apostolic poverty, celibacy and going back to the teaching of the Scriptures and the preaching’s of the Gospels. [15] 

Overall by the eve of the reformation, there was extensive need to reform the church. Anticlericalism, which can be argued, was a product of popular piety of the fourteenth and fifteenth century. However it would be wrong to state that anticlericalism was sole cause of the reformation but rather one of the outstanding branches that ‘helped fuel’ the Reformation. [16] 

Leading on from the poltical need for reform, I will look at the economic structure of the German empire on the eve of the reformation and its effect on the call for reform. As Eltes already highlighted, both imperial and free cities and the territorial cities had been effected by economic difficulties partly due to the Catholic church, during the late medieval age, however other factors played a part on how well the economy feared locally and nationally. One feature that the historian C. Scott Dixion seems to emphasise was that Germany was predominately an agrarian economy, mainly in cereal crop and dairy depending on land suitability. [17] For example, in Cologne in order to feed the people, 10,000 wagons yearly passed through the city with crops and livestock. [18] Nevertheless the Empire also had small areas of newly found industrial economies in mining of metal ores . [19] One fact about the economy was that, by the eve of the Reformation it was recovering from several agrarian failures during the fifteenth century. [20] To add to this, the population of the German Empire was increasingly growing and it needed to find a away to economically accommodate the growing population. Therefore it’s difficult to say if Germany was economically stable as a whole, due to varying patterns of economy from region to region. These economic issues would lead to increasing social unrest rurally and urbanely, which would lead to a call for social reform. I will explore this further in the next part of the essay.


The Historian Andrew Johnstone describes the process of the Reformation as ‘several tributaries converging together as one river’ [21] meaning that the Reformation was not a single event but rather a complex process that

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