Eugen Weber

The world was condemned. It wasn't only that it was evil, but that it was dark—quite literally so when windows were few and artificial light was lacking, when murky forests lapped close to villages and fields, brimming with sinister forces like spooks, spirits, witches, imps, elves, goblins, and devils. Now, having banished the memory of children lost in dark forests to the realm of fairy tales, we find it hard to envision the times when such fears were more than imaginings, when the violence and apprehension of material reality shaded quite naturally into a supernatural that was just as real. One sixteenth-century scholar, Nicolas Cardan, has recorded how, on waking one morning, he saw the sun shine through his shutters, with flecks of dust dancing in its golden rays. Imagining that he saw a monster in the dust biting off heads with its bloody fangs, he panicked, jumped out of bed, and fled the house in nothing but his shirt.

Bosch, Bruegel, Durer, Cranach, and their contemporaries have recorded this world of anxious imaginings, teeming with shaggy devils pricking up goat-like ears, prancing on intimidating hooves, horrifying and tormenting. Yet these fantastic monsters were no worse than the brutality of a world where the best entertainment was cruel executions by boiling in oil or cudgeling to death; where unwary travelers could bump into rotting corpses hanging from roadside gallows; or where a Swiss physician riding to Lyon passed 'a Christian in a shirt' with a bundle of straw tied to his back, to fuel the fire that would shortly consume him.

In contrast to this decaying world of darkness, the contemporary clerks, scholars, and gentlemen who named the Renaissance presented it as a resurrection: a revival of texts, art, systems of government, and ways of thinking long dormant; a renovatio, or renewal, of knowledge long lost and now plumbed anew; a palingenesis, or the beginning of a new world cycle after the old had worn itself out. But the renewal that Renaissance humanists referred to was mostly reserved for a small elite with access to the redemptive knowledge of gnosis—those spiritual mysteries of the origin and destiny of man which offered privileged access to redemption.

A mixture of Greek, Jewish, Egyptian, and Zoroastrian speculations alternately denounced as pagan or heretic, gnosticism had survived on the margins of Christianity since the first century. Manicheanism, which 'unveiled' the primeval conflict between light and darkness and which seduced Augustine before he rejected it, carried gnostic doctrines through the Middle Ages in a variety of forms. Then, just when these notions had been crushed or seemed to have petered out, humanists began to explore the Greek and Latin writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, translations from an Egyptian god, Thoth-the-Very-Great. Thoth was the god of knowledge, and hence of science (including alchemy), astrology, cosmology and every kind of esoteric lore. Hermes was his hetero-Christian incarnation; and the hermetic writings attributed to him were, by definition, difficult, obscure, and secret—the sense that the term retains today. As such, hermetic writings remained the prerogative of small numbers, but continued to be plumbed.

The gnosis of initiates did not carry them far from Biblical lore. The 'modern' interests of Renaissance humanists were about present times (modo means 'now'), but they also involved a return—past the dark tunnel of the Middle Ages—to the higher, purer wisdom of the ancients: of Greece and Rome, and of the Bible, too. The Platonist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola believed both in the Dignity of Man (1486) and in the coming Day of Judgment. No wonder that he used the Hebrew Kabbala in support of Christian theology, or that his many works include an exposition of Genesis. Apocalypticism, after all, involves divine secrets revealed to a few elect: precisely the principle of gnosticism, which is also about enlightenment accessible only to the few.

In Christian belief, Simon Magus, the sorcerer of Acts 8 who bewitched the people of Samaria, was regarded as the founder of gnosticism. His legend portrayed him as falsely pretending to be a messiah, or son of God, or the Holy Spirit, and falling to his death in an attempt to demonstrate his occult ability to fly. But the promise of salvation through the secret knowledge he possessed continued to attract followers. The gnostic quest for salvation on an esoteric plane inevitably mixed with the spiritual aspirations of more orthodox believers. The 'unveiling' offered by both gnostic and the more familiar apocalyptic revelations could be pursued as one, and they sometimes were.

A more understandable and accessible kind of renovatio was to affect the fortunes of the church and of Christendom more immediately. The sense of corruption, decadence, and decline that fed apocalyptic fires through the Middle Ages was partly grounded in the failings of Christ's church. If the world faced God's wrath and his early Judgment, that was due partly to people's sins, but also to a church that failed to do its job. God's church reflected the wickedness of God's creatures, or, worse, led them astray. Not only had they succumbed to greed, worldliness, and pride, but they were returning to paganism.

Revived interest in antiquity and ancient texts affected theology and the papal court. Inspired by Cicero, God the Father was associated with Jupiter, and the Virgin Mary with Diana, with whose attributes she was sometimes painted. No longer in opposition to paganism, Christianity could be regarded as the fulfillment of its best wisdom. On Michelangelo's ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, pagan prophetesses rubbed elbows with Old Testament prophets; in the frescoes that Pinturicchio painted for the Borgia apartments in the Vatican, the mysteries of Osiris preface the mysteries of Christ. The abomination of desolation stood in the holy place (Matthew 24:15). No wonder that Savonarola identified Rome with Babylon, and Alexander VI (who was to excommunicate him) with the forces of Antichrist.

The new classical orientation of the clerical hierarchy offended devout Christians as much as its worldliness and venality, and pious fifteenth-century Christians sought to restore the church to its primitive faith. As the sixteenth century opened, their struggles to save their souls and renovate the church brought about the Reformation: another way of trying to restore the conditions of primitive Christendom.

A simple interpretation of the Reformation has it born of a reaction against clerical abuses—plurality of offices, nonresidence, nepotism, debauchery and graft, and the buying and selling of offices, masses, and indulgences that liberated souls from purgatory. Simony—the sale of holy things for money, named after Simon the Sorcerer, who offered the apostles money for the power to work miracles—was ubiquitous. The seven deadly sins—pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, sloth—had taken up residence around St. Peter's shrine. The power of the popes rested on avarice and arms: they hired great architects to build ostentatious temples to poor Galileans, and waged war on behalf of a religion of meekness and peace. Yet they had acted this way for a very long time without setting off more than growls or sniggers. What made the difference?

What Luther denounced was less the pious rackets of the Roman Church than its blasphemous confidence trick in pretending that its rituals and its intercession could absolve people from sin and assure salvation. Confession and absolution could not save from sin: only trust in God could do that, and those who pretended otherwise were deceivers. Christians should live by faith, and faith came from the gospels and the grace of God, not from priests and sacraments. This personalization was an exhilarating simplification of religious life, and, in its perspective, the old church stood for galling complications, and the pope for Antichrist. Gutenberg's age of print, which gave an extraordinary boost to reformed arguments, was also the age of woodcuts. Frequently the papacy was depicted in graphic detail as diabolic: devils excreting popes, popes crucifying Christ, or popes reincarnated as the Great Beast of Revelation, each of its seven heads crowned with the papal tiara.

But what of notions of the Apocalypse? As late as the nineteenth century a bishop would explain: 'The perpetuity of the Catholic Church to the end of time is a dogma. Not eternal perpetuity, since it must end with the world, but indefinite for us who ignore that time.' The researches undertaken to establish an approximate date for that end time can never be more than conjectures about an event whose secret God has reserved for himself. So, in the nineteenth century, Christians were still busy trying to track God's secret by calculating when the world would end, and the church was still telling them, as it had since the fifth century, that there was little point in that exercise. Most sixteenth-century reformers agreed with this orthodox church view, at least in principle, but they could do no more against popular sentiment than their Catholic competitors. Both Luther and Melanchton believed that the end of time was not far off, certainly no farther than 1600. And Heinrich Bullinger, chief pastor of Zurich in 1531, delivered and published a whole volume of sermons entitled: One Hundred Sermons upon the Apocalypse of Jesu Christ (in Latin in 1557, translated into English in 1561).

Once the seamless garment of the church was rent, a patch-work of creeds replaced it and the cacophony of their discordant messages dismayed reforming leaders as much as it did their rulers. Prophets proliferated. Before the commotion spilled over to the Atlantic rim and beyond, central Europe was a chaos of Christianities, sects, cults, factions, nonconformities, dissensions, and secessions, all of which whipped up the climate of crisis. Luther seemed to preach the priesthood of all believers; but believers who follow their inner light can easily mistake sparks of imagination for inspiration from on high. It was not easy to tell the two apart when Anabaptists ran naked through the streets of Amsterdam crying 'Woe, woe, woe, the wrath of God'; when the small Saxon town of Zwickau spawned a brood of prophets forecasting the purification of the church and the imminent end of the world; when Thomas Munzer, who believed that souls needed to be purified by suffering and tribulation, recognized in the social rebellion of German peasants the struggle of the saints of the Last Days; and when, after the peasants' disastrous defeat and Munzer's execution in 1525, Hans Hut announced the end of the world and Christ's return for 1528. Hut was executed in 1527, but his disciples attempted to hasten the predicted coming by force of arms.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.