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Introduction to the Reformation

This period is known as the Reformation, quite simply because it was then that the Church was reformed. That is, people criticised and changed the way the Catholic Church worked.

The desire for reform was not universal - some people wanted change while others did not. There were two main groups of people who were trying to alter the Church: Those within the Church - the clergy and the lay people - ordinary people.

During the Council of Constance (1414-1418) and the Council of Basle (1431-1439), a debate had begun within the Church. At these meetings, high-level clergy met to discuss problems within the Church. The result of these discussions was a call to reform certain things. By discussing its problems the Church highlighted to people what was wrong.

In addition to this, people's attitudes were being radically altered by the Renaissance. For example, men such as Leonardo da Vinci were developing modern science and challenging traditional beliefs about the world. This led to a growth of knowledge that was uncontrolled by the Church and which often challenged what was written in the Bible, as well as what the pope said. Another example was Copernicus who began to argue that the sun, and not the Earth, was the centre of the Universe.

There were challenges to the Bible aided by the invention of the printing press. From around 1450, various people in Europe, including Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany, developed a way of using printing blocks to produce books rather than copying them by hand. Until then the writing or copying of books had always been under the control of the Church. Monks had laboriously copied pages and pages of text and provided illustrations for them. Gutenberg's press changed all this. The Church could no longer censor books that it considered unsuitable (i.e. those that challenged the Church's ideas). Luther and Calvin were able to develop their own versions of the Bible as a result.

The cost of books came down as their availability increased. This, added to the fact that there was a growing middle class, led to more ideas being easily available to more people.

Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543)

Nicholas Copernicus

Copernicus was a truly versatile man. He was born in Poland and, with the help of his uncle, a bishop, became canon of the chapter at Frauenburg Cathedral. He kept this post throughout his lifetime but he was allowed to spend time in Italy in order to advance his studies. He obtained a degree in Law from the University of Ferrara and he studied Medicine at the University of Padua. Astronomy was his hobby. He rejected the idea, dating back to Ancient Egyptian times, that the Earth was the centre of the universe. His book, "Concerning the Revolution of Celestial Spheres", published in 1543, proved that the Earth did move in space and explained the movement of the stars and other planets.

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