21) The Great Equalizer

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Following the Gospels
"Then Jesus said to his disciples, Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." [Matthew 19:23-24]


Peter Waldo
Peter Waldo
Suddenly, one day, during the 1160s, a wealthy clothier merchant from Lyons, France, left his business and began distributing his belongings to the poor. He set out on his mission as a self-taught lay preacher professing the word of Christ. His name was Peter Waldo. Waldo then instigated an active protest against the wealth of the Church and its clerics, insisting that man could not serve both God and Mammon. Waldo also rejected the Church's concept of transubstantiation, a view then considered a capital offense (heresy) in the eyes of the Church. Protestantism had been born.

By 1170, Waldo had a following that lived in volunteer poverty as they spread their lay teaching and alms to the poor, disguised as peddlers. Subsequently, they were referred to as the Poor of Lyons and eventually, the Waldensians.

Not only was Waldo the first known European to organize a sect which would openly break with the Church and challenge primacy and church authority, he is also the first non-cleric to transcribe the bible (1175-85) into common vernacular (Franco-Proven├žal). This was almost three centuries before the Gutenberg Bible.

Burning the Remains of Arnold of Brescia

Competing Vows of Poverty

Arnold of Brescia (1090-1155), an Italian canon regular from Lombardy, called on the Church to renounce property ownership. Consequently, he had been arrested, hanged and posthumously burnt by the papacy.

Waldo's shunning of wealth and the assembling of his Poor of Lyon following began in 1160, just five years after the execution of Arnold of Brescia and nearly a half century before Francis of Assisi took his vow of poverty and began the Franciscan order (1209).  Waldo had petitioned Pope Alexander III's Roman Curia in 1179 to present his views. Those views included criticisms of the universal priesthood. He was condemned at the Third Lateran Council later that same year. He and his followers where then driven from Lyons. Waldo was later excommunicated by Alexander's successor, Pope Lucius III, during the synod of Verona, in 1184. However, the sect continued to grow. It was later condemned by the Fourth Lateran Council, in 1215, as a heretical following.

St Francis of Assisi (El Greco)
Francis of Assisi's Franciscan order and Peter Waldo's Poor of Lyon have their similarities. Each order wished to remain lay members of the church (Third Orders) and not be ordained as priests. Both were mendicant orders (embracing poverty and supported by alms). One clear, cosmetic difference between the two orders was the Franciscans taking to the countryside, while the Poor of Lyon remained urban.

In regards to Rome, and the formal establishment an order, Francis had approached Pope Innocent III to in 1209. That was thirty years after Waldo had approached Pope Alexander III (1179). However, unlike the defiant Waldo, Francis of Assisi aired no complaints with the Church and did not attempt to challenge any of its core beliefs (i.e.: transubstantiation). Moreover, the Franciscans were Italian based and local to Rome (under the watchful eye of the papacy), whereas Waldo advocated translations of the gospel into vulgar tongue with lay interpretations of the gospels that conflicted with those of the Catholic Church.

John Wycliffe
The First English Bible

In the mid to late 14th Century, a movement of non-clerical intellectual arguments, criticizing the wealth of the Church and its power to influence secular matters, was fathered by John Wycliffe (1320-84), an English theologian and secular university instructor at Oxford. Wycliffe upheld the Bible to be the sole guide to Christian doctrine.

Wycliffe is also responsible for the second known instance of translation of the Bible to the vernacular for the laity, this time English (Peter Waldo's translation being French). Wycliffe's arguments for the secularization of church property was widely embraced by nobility, most notably John of Gaunt the 1st Duke of Lancaster, who shared Wycliffe's concern with the Church's excessive involvement in secular power. Wycliffe's teachings also found favor with many of England's peasants. Wycliffe's support expanded to Parliament and the House of Commons who protected him in his struggles with the opposing views of William Courtenay, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Wycliffe planted the earliest seeds of English resistance to the papacy, which would eventually lead to its secession from Rome, and the formulation of the Church of England.

Social/Economic Decline

Wycliffe's emergence in England was at a time when large numbers of Europe's urban populations fell into serfdom due to tax debt or failed crops. Additionally, by the mid 14th Century, the earth had entered a period of climate change, today referred to as the "Little Ice Age". Reduced global temperature had shortened growing seasons following the Medieval Warm Period, when population was on the rise during a period of bumper harvests. Consequently, social unrest developed as the growth in population outdistanced the ability of the land to sustain nourishment and livelihood for its inhabitants.

Famine affected all levels of society. Feudal lords were evicting tenants when failed crops could not secure rent. This in turn would negatively impact the income of the lords while negatively effecting the collection of taxes throughout all of Europe's kingdoms.

Collection of Papal Indulgences
By the mid 1300s, the Catholic Church was at the zenith of its power. Scriptures dating into the Old Testament had taught misfortune to be the consequence of sin. Subsequently, through drought and famine, the Church was benefitting from a rise in church attendance. This resulted in a collection of alms and the sale of indulgences obtained by peasants hoping to place themselves in a state of grace, thereby becoming more susceptible to the grace and good fortunes of God. Consequently, holy priests adorned in richly appointed robes, atop a beautiful steed, were seen to be benefitting from circumstances.

Feudal lords with delinquent tenants and royal households seeking taxes then began to view the Church and its ministries as non-contributing, tax exempt squatters. Not only was the Church not paying tribute to the crowns of Europe, they were competing with the collection of taxes from peasants with their own gathering of alms and indulgences from what little income remained available.

Black Death: The Great Equalizer
A Scythe of Social Reform
The Black Death had reached Europe in 1346. By 1353, it had peaked. The result was an indiscriminate reduction to almost half of Europe's population, ranging from 30% to as high as 60% in some regions, with the world's total population declining by more than 20% (estimates very between 350-450 million worldwide). Subsequently, after the plague had left Europe, both land and jobs became plentiful.

Illustration of the Black Death (1411)
Illustration of the Black Death (1411)

Pockmarked and immune, the plague's survivors were prepared to take advantage of what was now an abundance of land, food and natural resources. Moreover, up until the plague, questions regarding the authority of the Church and its doctrine had been limited to clergy or educated laity. However, the criminal as well as the saintly had equally fallen victim to the Black Death and monastic living had proven especially susceptible to the rapid spread of the disease. Consequently, the Church's graveyards were full and, for the first time, Europe's peasant survivors along with other surviving classes found themselves questioning articles of faith. How God would permit such indiscriminate genocide, became a common thread.

It wasn't just faith, which began to fall into question. Birthright too, began to be challenged. Word of earlier uprisings in Bulgaria and Flanders now began to erupt as revolts in France, Italy and England to eventually most of Europe. Post-plague Europe was now entering a time of economic and theological crisis.

Feudalism Ends

Post Plague Landowner Farmers
The most significant social and economic consequences of the plague resulted from an almost immediate deterioration of the lord and vassal relationship. In relationship to the general population, feudal lords had been a ruling minority during pre-plague Europe. As their numbers had been reduced further by the plague, hereditary land grant holdings began to fragment and fall into questionable ownership. 

Consequently, lesser lords began to emerge in number to overtake and usurp previous land rule. Simultaneously, opportunities improved for entrepreneurial peasants to become gentlemen farmers. In short, the plague had brought about a type of land rush, ushering in a new age upon Europe. The totalitarian rule of the Church along with its anointed kings and birthright lords would henceforth be questioned and forever redefined.

Black Death's Dance Macabre

Questioned Dogma

With the plague came the end of an almost superhuman status held by the Church and Europe's nobility. Peter Waldo had earlier questioned the very relationship Black Death would forever alter. The superior roles of clergy were finally questioned as holy priests and monks became infected, died, and had their corrupt corpses lain in streets next to the basest surfs.

A new day had dawned. The discovery of the New World would accelerate the process further with a flood of questions demanding further investigations into the new frontiers of science and reason. Almost at once, the flat, two-dimensional world of medieval Europe had finally matured to become round and full of pregnant inquiry.

It took the elimination of nearly half of Europe's population to break clerical dominance and feudal serfdom. Eventually, the Catholic Church would re-emerge as a major force. However, try as it may, with religious wars, heresy charges and punitive excommunications, it would never be able to undo the social, economic and intellectual forces released by the Black Death. Western civilization had at last tasted discovery and freethinking.

Go to: Chapter 22) Discovery

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