Note from UTH: In this lesson, the author (a Protestant) expresses his unvarnished opinion of Catholicism. Parents may wish to review the chapter before teaching it. The text may potentially serve as a good exercise to critically evaluate the notions expressed and any supporting or countering evidence.

The Progress of the Human Race Is Best Compared to a Gigantic Pendulum Which Forever Swings Forward and Backward. The Religious Indifference and the Artistic and Literary Enthusiasm of the Renaissance Were Followed by the Artistic and Literary Indifference and the Religious Enthusiasm of the Reformation
'Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam' by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Of course you have heard of the Reformation. You think of a small but courageous group of pilgrims who crossed the ocean to have "freedom of religious worship." Vaguely in the course of time (and more especially in our Protestant countries) the Reformation has come to stand for the idea of "liberty of thought." Martin Luther is represented as the leader of the vanguard of progress. But when history is something more than a series of flattering speeches addressed to our own glorious ancestors, when to use the words of the German historian Ranke, we try to discover what "actually happened," then much of the past is seen in a very different light.

Few things in human life are either entirely good or entirely bad. Few things are either black or white. It is the duty of the honest chronicler to give a true account of all the good and bad sides of every historical event. It is very difficult to do this because we all have our personal likes and dislikes. But we ought to try and be as fair as we can be, and must not allow our prejudices to influence us too much.

Take my own case as an example. I grew up in the very Protestant center of a very Protestant country. I never saw any Catholics until I was about twelve years old. Then I felt very uncomfortable when I met them. I was a little bit afraid. I knew the story of the many thousand people who had been burned and hanged and quartered by the Spanish Inquisition when the Duke of Alba tried to cure the Dutch people of their Lutheran and Calvinistic heresies. All that was very real to me. It seemed to have happened only the day before. It might occur again. There might be another Saint Bartholomew's night, and poor little me would be slaughtered in my nightie and my body would be thrown out of the window, as had happened to the noble Admiral de Coligny.

Much later I went to live for a number of years in a Catholic country. I found the people much pleasanter and much more tolerant and quite as intelligent as my former countrymen. To my great surprise, I began to discover that there was a Catholic side to the Reformation, quite as much as a Protestant.

Of course the good people of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who actually lived through the Reformation, did not see things that way. They were always right and their enemy was always wrong. It was a question of hang or be hanged, and both sides preferred to do the hanging. Which was no more than human and for which they deserve no blame.

When we look at the world as it appeared in the year 1500, an easy date to remember, and the year in which the Emperor Charles V was born, this is what we see. The feudal disorder of the Middle Ages has given way before the order of a number of highly centralized kingdoms. The most powerful of all sovereigns is the great Charles, then a baby in a cradle. He is the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella and of Maximilian of Habsburg, the last of the medieval knights, and of his wife Mary, the daughter of Charles the Bold, the ambitious Burgundian duke who had made successful war upon France but had been killed by the independent Swiss peasants. The child Charles, therefore, has fallen heir to the greater part of the map, to all the lands of his parents, grandparents, uncles, cousins and aunts in Germany, in Austria, in Holland, in Belgium, in Italy, and in Spain, together with all their colonies in Asia, Africa and America. By a strange irony of fate, he has been born in Ghent, in that same castle of the counts of Flanders, which the Germans used as a prison during their recent occupation of Belgium, and although a Spanish king and a German emperor, he receives the training of a Fleming.

As his father is dead (poisoned, so people say, but this is never proved), and his mother has lost her mind (she is traveling through her domains with the coffin containing the body of her departed husband), the child is left to the strict discipline of his Aunt Margaret. Forced to rule Germans and Italians and Spaniards and a hundred other groups of people, Charles grows up a Fleming, a faithful son of the Catholic Church, but quite averse to religious intolerance. He is rather lazy, both as a boy and as a man. But fate condemns him to rule the world when the world is in a turmoil of religious fervor. Forever he is speeding from Madrid to Innsbrück and from Bruges to Vienna. He loves peace and quiet and he is always at war. At the age of fifty-five, we see him turn his back upon the human race in utter disgust at so much hate and so much stupidity. Three years later he dies, a very tired and disappointed man.

So much for Charles the Emperor. How about the Church, the second great power in the world? The Church has changed greatly since the early days of the Middle Ages, when it started out to conquer the heathen and show them the advantages of a pious and righteous life. In the first place, the Church has grown too rich. Some Popes during history were no longer the shepherds of a flock of humble Christians. The Pope lives in a vast palace and surrounds himself with artists and musicians and famous literary men. His churches and chapels are covered with new pictures in which the saints look more like Greek Gods than is strictly necessary. Some Popes divided their time unevenly between affairs of state and art. At certain points in history, the affairs of state took ten percent of the Pope's time. The other ninety percent went to an active interest in Roman statues, recently discovered Greek vases, plans for a new summer home, the rehearsal of a new play. The Archbishops and the Cardinals follow the example of their Pope. The Bishops try to imitate the Archbishops. The village priests, however, have remained largely faithful to their duties over time. They have better kept themselves aloof from the wicked world and the heathenish love of beauty and pleasure. They stay away from the monasteries where the monks seem to have forgotten their ancient vows of simplicity and poverty and live as happily as they dare without causing too much of a public scandal.

Finally, there are the common people. They are much better off than they have ever been before. They are more prosperous, they live in better houses, their children go to better schools, their cities are more beautiful than before, their firearms have made them the equal of their old enemies, the robber barons, who for centuries have levied such heavy taxes upon their trade. So much for the chief actors in the Reformation.

Now let us see what the Renaissance has done to Europe, and then you will understand how the revival of learning and art was bound to be followed by a revival of religious interests. The Renaissance began in Italy. From there it spread to France. It was not quite successful in Spain, where five hundred years of warfare with the Moors had made the people very narrow minded and very fanatical in all religious matters. The circle had grown wider and wider, but once the Alps had been crossed, the Renaissance had suffered a change.

The people of northern Europe, living in a very different climate, had an outlook upon life which contrasted strangely with that of their southern neighbors. The Italians lived out in the open, under a sunny sky. It was easy for them to laugh and to sing and to be happy. The Germans, the Dutch, the English, the Swedes, spent most of their time indoors, listening to the rain beating on the closed windows of their comfortable little houses. They did not laugh quite so much. They took everything more seriously. They were forever conscious of their immortal souls and they did not like to be funny about matters which they considered holy and sacred. The "humanistic" part of the Renaissance, the books, the studies of ancient authors, the grammar and the textbooks, interested them greatly. But the general return to the old pagan civilization of Greece and Rome, which was one of the chief results of the Renaissance in Italy, filled their hearts with horror.

But the Papacy and the College of Cardinals was almost entirely composed of Italians and they had turned the Church into a pleasant club where people discussed art and music and the theater, but rarely mentioned religion. Hence the split between the serious north and the more civilized but easygoing and indifferent south was growing wider and wider all the time and nobody seemed to be aware of the danger that threatened the Church.

There were a few minor reasons which will explain why the Reformation took place in Germany rather than in Sweden or England. The Germans bore an ancient grudge against Rome. The endless quarrels between Emperor and Pope had caused much mutual bitterness. In the other European countries where the government rested in the hands of a strong king, the ruler had often been able to protect his subjects against the greed of the priests. In Germany, where a shadowy emperor ruled a turbulent crowd of little princelings, the good burghers were more directly at the mercy of their bishops and prelates. These dignitaries were trying to collect large sums of money for the benefit of those enormous churches which were a hobby of the Popes of the Renaissance. The Germans felt that they were being mulcted and quite naturally they did not like it.

And then there is the rarely mentioned fact that Germany was the home of the printing press. In northern Europe books were cheap and the Bible was no longer a mysterious manuscript owned and explained by the priest. It was a household book of many families where Latin was understood by the father and by the children. Whole families began to read it, which was against the law of the Church. They discovered that the priests were telling them many things which, according to the original text of the Holy Scriptures, were somewhat different. This caused doubt. People began to ask questions. And questions, when they cannot be answered, often cause a great deal of trouble.

The attack began when the humanists of the North opened fire upon the monks. In their heart of hearts they still had too much respect and reverence for the Pope to direct their sallies against his Most Holy Person. But the monks, living behind the sheltering walls of their rich monasteries, offered rare sport.

The leader in this warfare, curiously enough, was a very faithful son of the church Gerard Gerardzoon, or Desiderius Erasmus, as he is usually called, was a poor boy, born in Rotterdam in Holland, and educated at the same Latin school of Deventer from which Thomas à Kempis had graduated. He had become a priest and for a time he had lived in a monastery. He had traveled a great deal and knew whereof he wrote, When he began his career as a public pamphleteer (he would have been called an editorial writer in our day) the world was greatly amused at an anonymous series of letters which had just appeared under the title of "Letters of Obscure Men." In these letters, the general waywardness of the monks of the late Middle Ages was exposed in a strange German-Latin doggerel which reminds one of our modern limericks. Erasmus himself was a very learned and serious scholar, who knew both Latin and Greek and gave us the first reliable version of the New Testament, which he translated into Latin together with a corrected edition of the original Greek text. But he believed with Horace, the Roman poet, that nothing prevents us from "stating the truth with a smile upon our lips."

In the year 1500, while visiting Sir Thomas More in England, he took a few weeks off and wrote a funny little book, called the "Praise of Folly," in which he attacked the monks and their credulous followers with that most dangerous of all weapons, humor. The booklet was the best seller of the sixteenth century. It was translated into almost every language and it made people pay attention to those other books of Erasmus in which he advocated reform of the many abuses of the church and appealed to his fellow humanists to help him in his task of bringing about a great rebirth of the Christian faith.

But nothing came of these excellent plans. Erasmus was too reasonable and too tolerant to please most of the enemies of the church. They were waiting for a leader of a more robust nature.

He came, and his name was Martin Luther.


Study the lesson for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the lesson.
  • Review the synopsis.
  • Study the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.
  • Answer the review questions.


Emperor Charles V was born in 1500. Raised a Catholic, he believed in religious tolerance, although as a ruler he continually had to intervene in conflicts, in part over religion. When he died at age 58, he was tired and dispirited by settling the continual quarreling and fighting. During this time, the Roman Catholic Church gained power and riches. In southern Europe, the attention of the people turned from religious matters to art and music and theater. People further north were more serious and religious-minded. A schism grew between the people of the north and south, and a desire for reform kindled in Germany. As literacy grew in Germany, people began to read the Bible for themselves and to question what the priests were telling them. Desiderius Erasmus printed pamphlets and a book called 'Praise of Folly,' critical of the behavior of the monks. However, it was Martin Luther that sparked the real reformation rebellion against the Roman Catholic Church.


Reformation: The religious movement initiated by Martin Luther in the 16th century to reform the Roman Catholic Church.
Tolerance: The ability or practice of accepting the existence of the beliefs, opinions or practices of others.
Monk: A male member of a monastic order who has devoted his life for religious service.
Pope: An honorary title of the Roman Catholic bishop of Rome as father and head of his church, a sovereign of the Vatican city state.


Activity 1: Narrate the Lesson

  • After you read the lesson, narrate the lesson aloud using your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Lesson Picture(s)

  • Study the lesson picture(s) and describe how they relate to the lesson.

Activity 3: Map the Lesson

  • Find Germany on the map of Europe.

Activity 4: Complete Copywork, Narration, Dictation, and Coloring   

Click the crayon above. Complete page 24 of 'World History Activities for Fourth Grade.'


Question 1

Why was Emperor Charles V dispirited at the time of his death?
1 / 4

Answer 1

Emperor Charles V was dispirited by having to settle the quarreling and fighting among his people, in part caused by religious differences.
1 / 4

Question 2

Contrast the religious views of southern and northern Europe prior to the Reformation.
2 / 4

Answer 2

People in the north were more serious about religion, while those in the south turned some of their attentions from religion to non-religious art, music, and theater.
2 / 4

Question 3

Why did people in Germany begin to question what their priests told them about religion?
3 / 4

Answer 3

People in Germany became more literate and began to read the Bible. They found the Bible text at times differed from what their priests told them.
3 / 4

Question 4

Who was Martin Luther?
4 / 4

Answer 4

The leader of the Reformation movement to reform the Roman Catholic Church.
4 / 4

  1. Why was Emperor Charles V dispirited at the time of his death? Emperor Charles V was dispirited by having to settle the quarreling and fighting among his people, in part caused by religious differences.
  2. Contrast the religious views of southern and northern Europe prior to the Reformation. People in the north were more serious about religion, while those in the south turned some of their attentions from religion to non-religious art, music, and theater.
  3. Why did people in Germany begin to question what their priests told them about religion? People in Germany became more literate and began to read the Bible. They found the Bible text at times differed from what their priests told them.
  4. Who was Martin Luther? The leader of the Reformation movement to reform the Roman Catholic Church.