Christendom (Europe) in the 15th Century
The Three Popes Problem
The leading lights of the Catholic Church met at Pisa in 1409 to solve the problem of having two popes. It was at Pisa, that the church leaders decided that the solution to their problem would be to depose both men and declare a new pope. Unfortunately, the two popes refused to cooperate and accept their dethronement—so now there were three popes. Their desire for unification had only created further separation, and in turn, the existence of three popes filled Christendom with strife, crime, and tumult.
In 1411, one pope started a crusade against another, promising forgiveness of sins to anyone who would support him financially. All three popes soon made the same offers. Christians were confused. How could they know and be certain which of them was the Vicar of Christ; how could anyone be sure of where to lay their allegiance when three different men claimed the same title?
In 1414, 50,000 Catholics met in Constance. That meeting lasted a total of four years. The newest pope agreed to step down after evidence was presented that he was sexually voracious, and an avaricious murderer. The council itself attracted 700 prostitutes to Constance.
Four years later, the Council of Constance came to announce that the council itself, not the pope, was to be the final authority in the church. After all these centuries, the pope had a master.
Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc was born in 1412. When she was thirteen-years-old, God spoke to her. Four years later, she dressed in men’s clothes and led the French to a glorious victory over the English. She was then deemed “The Maid of Orleans.” Her virginity was a curious source of pride to the French soldiers.
Joan of Arc wore a specially made suit of armor that created a stirring image around which her legend could flourish. As her legend grew, she demanded that the soldiers of France not only give up swearing, and attend church, but that they must also refrain from looting— they complied.
Joan was captured in 1430. After her capture, the English set up a church tribunal, which convicted her as a witch—wearing men’s clothes served as the convincing evidence. She was led out to a market place in Rouen and burned at the stake. She was nineteen years old. Thanks to her inspiration, the 116-year war, the Hundred Years War, ended in a victory over the English for France.
'The Golden Age of Prostitution' in Europe was from 1350 to 1480. Public whorehouses were licensed to operate in most towns, sometimes as many as one for every 60 men. It was seen by Church and state as a means to temper street disorder, and prepare young men for conjugal duty.
After 1480, everything changed. Expensive courtesans served the wealthy, fallen women were reeducated, and men without means went without professional services.
The 15th Century saw the blossoming of Capitalism in Europe. It began with people who had money in France backing merchants who had the desire and connections to import silk, spices, weapons, and armor from Italy. Soon, “bills of exchange” that were an early form of checks were created, to keep robbers from purloining gold en route from place to place to pay for goods. It was not long before money and credit moved effortlessly around Europe.
These pioneer capitalists are not the petty dealers and vendors, competing intensely in small-scale local market economies. These men were of superior intelligence and commanded large sums of ready cash. They would become rich and powerful long-distance merchants by concentrating on single transactions of great promise, eventually including money trading.
The Renaissance officially began in 1450, according to historians. At the time, it wielded no political, cultural, or social influence whatsoever in the everyday lives of people in large sectors of European society, and huge areas of European territory.
A burgeoning interest in classical learning and art had been gathering steam for three hundred years. The Renaissance is incomprehensible without reference to the depths of disrepute into which the previous fount of all authority, the Medieval Church, had fallen. The Renaissance freed princes from the control of the Roman Catholic Church. The Renaissance led to the Reformation, which led to the Scientific Revolution, which led to the Enlightenment.
The great men of the Renaissance, such as the artists Sandro Botticelli (1446-1510) and Raphael Santi (1483-1520), were filled with self-confidence. They credited God with their ingenuity, which they felt could, and should, be used to unravel the secrets of God’s universe. By extension, they felt that man could control and improve his fate on Earth.
The pioneering luminaries of the Renaissance include many Florentines such as the architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1379-1446); the sculptor Donatello (1386-1466); and the political writer Machiavelli (1469-1527). Florence is the “Mother of Modern Europe.”
The greatest of the Florentines was Leonardo da Vinci (1462-1519). His notebooks contain anatomical drawings; and designs for a helicopter, a submarine, and a machine gun. As a young boy he bought caged birds just to set them free. He did the same for the secrets of art and nature.
The causes of the Renaissance are deep and wide. The Byzantines who visited Ferrara, to reconcile the Church, also spent time in Florence. Some of them were persuaded to stay and teach Greek. Soon, westerners were reading the New Testament in the original language for the first time. Renaissance literature exploded in vernacular languages, and saw the world afresh in every way. The growth of cities and trade, technical progress, and the rise of Capitalism were major factors. The roots of it are in the realm of ideas.
Renaissance thinkers became known as “humanists.” Humanism featured a renewed interest in the human body, an emphasis on the sovereign state, and gave rise to the Protestant emphasis on individual conscience.
The Renaissance masters saw no contradiction between humanism and Christianity. They would have been horrified at the suggestion. The overwhelming themes of European art were of Christian devotion. All of the great masters were Christian believers. One of the greatest, the mighty Michelangelo Buonarroti (1474-1564) created the sculpture David; painted the Sistine Chapel; and designed the dome of the new St Peter’s Basilica.
Roman Catholic Church
Lorenzo Valla (1406-1457) exposed the Donation of Constantine as a forgery, and the work of the devil; and proved that the apostles did not write the Apostles’ Creed. As a reward he was appointed secretary to Pope Nicholas V.
Nicholas V became the pope in 1447. He was an ambitious and cultured Florentine. Nicholas used the wealth of the Church to bring Renaissance art and architecture to Rome. He also collected the 1,200 manuscripts that started the Vatican Library. Rome was filled with new churches, and the pope and his top church officials lived in luxury and ostentatious splendor.
To raise money to pay for all of this, Pope Innocent VIII approved the sale of forgiveness, called “indulgences.” And he created thousands of meaningless ecclesiastical jobs, which he then sold to the highest bidder.
Pope Alexander VI was the infamous Rodrigo Borgia. He gained the office through huge bribes in 1492, at age 61, and moved into the Vatican with his 19-year-old girlfriend. Alexander’s passions were gold, women, and the careers of his bastard children.
Alexander had the Florentine reformer, hellfire preacher, and fanatical friar Savonarola (1452-1498), tortured and killed to silence his criticisms of the vast sex shows the pope was staging at the Vatican. Alexander also commissioned work from Michelangelo.
In 1506, Pope Julius II laid the foundation stone for a new St Peter’s church in Rome, the glorious abode for St Peter’s ancient corpse that we see there today.
The people of Europe were disgusted at the decadence of the clergy, and this would soon lead to religious revival. Europe was full of tales about the purchase of Church offices (Simony), rampant nepotism, promiscuous priests, idle monks, and above all, the sheer worldly wealth of the Roman Catholic Church.
Savonarola was a serious and sensitive boy enamored with the study of religion. He was trained to be a physician but he joined the Dominicans to fight evil. Savonarola was deeply distressed by the corruption within the Catholic Church. He spent his young adulthood praying, fasting, teaching, and preaching. Many considered him to be a prophet.
He became popular and powerful. He was a good Catholic in all his ways except he did preach justification by faith and the importance of living a godly life.
Savonarola became the dictator of Florence, and the city underwent a startling transformation under his leadership. Churches were crowded, people read the Bible, businessmen returned ill-gotten gains, sinful carnivals became a time to serve the poor and sing hymns. But the Roman Catholic clergy hated him. He did not acknowledge the pope’s authority and openly condemned his character. The pope summoned Savonarola to Rome in 1495, but he refused to go.
In 1497, the children of Florence gathered a pile of indecent books and pictures and made a “Bonfire of the Vanities” of them while singing hymns. Savonarola was soon after condemned of heresy by the pope, brutally tortured, hanged, and his body burnt.
Johann Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany invented the world’s first printing press in 1450. This invention revolutionized information technology, eventually made hand copyists obsolete, and transformed the western mind. Suddenly, limitless copies could be made of every book, cheaper than ever, and infinitely faster.
The first book to roll off the first printing press was the Bible, soon appearing in German, Italian, Dutch, French and Spanish. Finally, ordinary Christians could read the Bible for themselves and they were puzzled to find no mention in it of papacy, purgatory or pilgrimages.
In 1485, Europe’s first censorship office was set up in Frankfort, and the first edict banned vernacular translations of the Bible.
Vlad the Impaler (1431-1476) was the Prince of Wallachia, a kingdom squeezed between Hungary and the Ottoman Turks, both of which considered him their vassal. As a 12-year-old boy he was held hostage by the Ottoman sultan, who subjected him to homosexual rape for years that is the source of his later psychiatric problems.
Vlad, otherwise known as Dracula, escaped and rose to power in 1456. He raised an army to fight the Muslims and in one expedition captured 23,833 prisoners, whom he impaled on a needle-thin stake, specially sharpened and greased, that was then rammed in the victim’s rectum and out through the mouth in such a way that the death throes could last for days. Later, he decided to kill his own subjects. Perhaps 20,000 men, women, and children were impaled on a forest of stakes beneath his castle window.
Spain drove out the Muslims late in the 15th Century, and at the same time was transformed from a weak, backwater of Europe to a burgeoning superpower. Some of the Muslims became pirates—corsairs—who terrorized the coasts of western and southern Europe for centuries, taking hundreds of thousands of slaves.
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella wanted a homogenous society in Spain comprised of nothing but Christians. Henceforth, all of the 200,000 Jews living in Spain were expelled in 1492, for not converting within 90 days to Christianity. The catch was that all converts had to reveal anybody they knew who didn’t convert.
Spain had been the safe haven for Jews for centuries, and had become the center of Jewish learning and finance. Half of those expelled fled to Portugal, next door. Many went to Northern Africa and Turkey, where they would have to live as second-class citizens under Muslim rule. The only Christian nation that would take them was the Netherlands, and so many Jews moved there.
Spain had been the home for these Jewish families for fifteen hundred years. They were expelled on August 2nd—the same day on the Hebrew calendar as the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. that began the exile to Babylon; the same day as the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. that began their exile among the Gentiles; the same day as their expulsion from England in 1290.
The exiled Spanish Jews became known as the Sephardi, a corruption of the old word for Spain. They remained dispersed until the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
1492 was also the year that Cristobal Colon (1446-1506), who we know as Columbus, was named “Admiral of the Ocean” and sailed from Spain to the New World.
The Spanish Inquisition, under Tomas de Torquemada, himself secretly a Jew, burnt 2,000 Christians suspected of backsliding. Heresy and treason became indistinguishable. King Ferdinand personally attended the burnings and enjoyed them.
Pope Sixtus IV authorized the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. It was to last for three hundred years. 32,000 Christians were burned at the stake during the entire history of the Spanish Inquisition. 321,000 other people were punished and had their property confiscated by the King.
Grounds for arrest included rumors or accusations. Arrestees were held in secret prisons, with no contact with the outside world. They could not know the names of their accusers or witnesses, nor were they allowed to see any documents pertaining to their case. The charge could be simply saying that the Virgin Mary did not affect cures. Virtually everyone arrested was tortured to extract a confession and the names of other supposed heretics.
Christopher Columbus and his brother were mapmakers in Lisbon. As Columbus sailed westward into the unknown, he wrote Bible verses in his journal such these from Isaiah 49:
“Listen to me, all of you in far-off lands! The Lord has called me before my birth; from within the womb he called me by name. I shall make you a light to the Gentiles, and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
Columbus was the first in his party to set foot on land. He named the land he stood upon San Salvador meaning Holy Savior. He and his men knelt in the sand and he prayed aloud:
“O Lord, Almighty and everlasting God, by thy holy Word thou hast created the heaven and the earth and the sea; blessed and glorified be thy name and praised be thy majesty, which hath designed to use us, thy humble servants, that thy holy Name may be pronounced in this second part of the earth.”
The conquest of Constantinople and the rest of Christian Byzantium by the Muslims Turks cut Europe off from the trading routes with India and the Levant. Portugal solved this problem when its explorer, Vasco da Gama, completed and unbroken voyage from Lisbon to Calcutta in 1497, in a new type of ship, the caravel.
A map of Europe from 1493 shows thirty sovereign states. Today only three of those remain: Switzerland, Monaco and Andorra. The formation of a civilized state had as its aim a legal framework within which empires, monarchies, and republics organize their government, gain recognition, and control their dependencies.
Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) was a great scholar and satirist. He would frequently visit London and Cambridge. Erasmus published the west’s first New Testament translated directly from the original Greek in 1516.
Born Gerhard Gerhards, he was a devout Christian priest and a savage wit. Erasmus wrote of Pope Julius II, “What disasters would befall Rome, if ever the supreme pontiffs, the Vicars of Christ, should make the attempt to imitate His life of poverty and toil? Thousands of scribes, sycophants, and pimps would become unemployed.”
Slave trading had gone on in Africa since time immemorial. In 1441, the Portuguese got in on the action, trading European goods to African kings for slaves. Muslims had been doing this for centuries, as they still are to this day.
The first black slaves were shipped to Portugal, but in 1515 Spain started something new—trading goods for African slaves that were then sent to the New World, where they were traded for sugar.
In 1562, the English broke the Portuguese and Spanish monopoly, and began their own triangle—they traded European goods (especially firearms) to African kings for slaves; traded the slaves in the West Indies for goods from the New World; and sold those goods back in England.
Before Christian abolitionists stopped the slave trade in the Nineteenth Century, 15 million Africans had been purchased for slavery by Europeans. 3.5 million of them died during the passage across the Atlantic Ocean.
Sources for this article include Europe by Norman Davies; The One Year Book of Christian History by E. Michael and Sharon Rusten; A Short History of Christianity by Stephen Tomkins; and Great Tales from English History by Robert Lacey