ODWS icon

The Open Door Web Site


The Shaping of Modern Europe Index

Introduction to the Reformation
The Church before the Reformation II : The Wealth and Political Power of the Church
The Church before the Reformation III : The Clergy
The Church before the Reformation IV : Inside a Church
The Lutheran Revolt
Conflict between Luther and the Church
The Church reacts to Luther
The Catholic and the Lutheran Church
Huldreick Zwingli
John Calvin
The English Reformation

17th Century Europe

Europe in the 1600s
17th Century Europe

History Chapters Main Index


The Reformation and the Renaissance

The Reformation owes much to the Renaissance. The Renaissance was a time when artists and scholars, weary of the drab "Dark Ages", looked back to classical times, and Ancient Greece became their model. Many scholars set about learning the Greek language, and their studies led them to the original Greek scripts from which the Gospels had been translated.

Page from a 14th century manuscript

Page from a 14th century manuscript

Up until this time, the only translation of the Gospels which had been allowed to be used by the Catholic Church was St. Jerome's dating back to 405 A.D.. This version was in Latin and it was called The Vulgate. The Catholic Church had given this version its seal of approval; that is to say, the Church controlled the contents of the text of the Gospels. Also, copies of the Vulgate were in Church hands. The clergy acted as middle-men in communicating the Gospels to the people.

As soon as scholars were capable of translating the Gospels from the original scripts, it became clear that there could be different interpretations. This meant that The Vulgate was put into question as was the Church. Naturally, there was much debate both within and outside the clergy. Such debate encouraged thought about the origins of Christianity and gave rise to the realisation that the Church might not always have got it right.

All this debate and reflection might well have had a limited influence if it had not been for the development of printing. Quite suddenly the printed word was available to all those who could read. Johannes Gutenberg finished printing one of the new translations of the Bible in 1455. The Bible was also translated into other languages. Luther, for example, produced a German translation. This access to the written word caused the religious debate to spread rapidly across Europe. It also stimulated new thinking. The domination of the domination of the Catholic Church over religious issues had ended.




Custom Search

The Church before the Reformation


For the Catholic Church sin is evil. If a sinner is forgiven his sins and is absolved (saved) from eternal punishment, he still has to be punished for a certain time, either in this life or in purgatory. An indulgence was granted to a sinner for the remission of part of his sin, but he still had to undertake penance for a certain period of time. This period varied from a few days to a lifetime. In addition, the indulgence would only be granted if the sinner was in "a state of grace" - which means that his sins had to be forgiven after a true and sincere confession, and if he had promised to fulfil the penance. Much more rarely, a "plenary indulgence" could be granted for the total remission of sins. The first plenary indulgences were granted by Pope Urban II in 1095 to those who participated in the First Crusade.


Johannes Tetzel

Johannes Tetzel

Indulgences were not "a short-cut to heaven" as they imposed severe penitence. This explains the furious reaction of Luther (and many other devout Catholics) to Johannes Tetzel selling pieces of parchment in the market places of Germany, like a shopkeeper selling vegetables, claiming that they were plenary indulgences.



Relics, such as a piece of Christ's cross, Christ's blood in a bottle, some nails from the cross and saints' bones, were in widespread use by the Church in the Middle Ages. People called pardoners would travel around the countryside, from village to village and from town to town, selling these relics. The pardoners had to buy a license from the Church in order to be allowed to sell relics. This was, therefore, a way for the Church and the pardoner to make money.

It is a difficult for us to understand why people would buy these "fakes", but we must remember that their attitude to religion was very different from ours.

Perhaps the main reason people bought relics was because they were superstitious. The people, in general, believed in goblins and ghosts as well as heaven and hell. If they died and went to hell they would burn for ever or be speared by fierce demons. The buying of a relic would reduce time spent in purgatory after death. The second main reason they bought relics was that it showed how devoted they were to God.


A proverb of the time neatly sums up why relics were bought so widely

"The moment the money tinkles in the collecting box, a soul flies out of purgatory."



Illustration of a scene from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

Illustration of a scene from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales


Pilgrimages were journeys undertaken by all sorts of people to confirm their faith in God. Sometimes priests would recommend that a sinner should go on a pilgrimage to be forgiven. Often people would go of their own accord.

Pilgrims destinations were Holy Places. The best place to go was Jerusalem - the centre of Christianity, but other places included Canterbury (England), Lourdes (France), Campostella (Spain) and Rome (Italy). In these places Saints were buried. People believed that if you touched the grave of a Saint you would be cured of disease or be guaranteed less time in purgatory. Such sites had pardoners and relic sellers, and each would have its own badge.

Pilgrimages could be seen as a remnant of the Crusades of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. They were a way for people to show their faith or repent of their sins.


The Open Door Web Site is non-profit making. Your donations help towards the cost of maintaining this free service on-line.

Donate to the Open Door Web Site using PayPal







The Open Door Team 2018
Any questions or problems regarding this site should be addressed to the webmaster

© Shirley Burchill, Nigel Hughes, Richard Gale, Peter Price and Keith Woodall 2018

Footnote : As far as the Open Door team can ascertain the images shown on this page are in the Public Domain.

Hosted By
Web Hosting by HostCentric