The Reformation

Radical changes in the Christian Church

 For some centuries there had been criticism of the way some supposed churchmen behaved.

More on Church corruption: Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales was written towards the end of the fourteenth century. As Chaucer introduces each new character, he makes increasingly scathing attacks on corruption within the Church, contrasting the greed, pride, deceit and sexual immorality of some churchmen with the Christian ideals and practices of the Poor Parson.

The Bible in English

The translation of the Bible into English by John Wycliffe (1330-84) was seen as an attack upon the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, whose copies of the Bible, prayer books and services were all in Latin. This gave the priests considerable control over the beliefs of the uneducated people who could not read them.

More on challenges to the Church: In 1516, the famous scholar Erasmus, who had already published an attack on Church corruption in his book In Praise of Folly (1511), also published a fresh translation of the New Testament. Ideas inherent in his version challenged some of the key doctrines of Roman Catholicism. By this time, of course, printing enabled his work to be much more widely read.

Martin Luther

Moral outrage

Martin Luther

Perhaps the most famous reformer of the Church was Martin Luther (1483-1546). He was a German friar, who, on a visit to Rome, was appalled at the luxurious way of life and sexual immorality of the Pope and cardinals. Luther returned to Germany, where he lectured at the University of Wittenberg.

More on Wittenberg: Act I scene ii tells us Hamlet is studying in Wittenberg, though we are not given any clear indication of whether Hamlet is supposed to share any of Luther's beliefs.

He was then even more appalled by the arrival in Germany of the Pope's representative Tetzel, who had come to sell indulgences.

More on Tetzel's attitude: There is a powerful re-enactment of Tetzel's speeches to the German crowds in John Osborne's play Luther published in 1961.


Indulgences were documents issued by the Pope and on sale to the public. They were a way of raising money.

More on the need for money: Pope Leo X (who had become Pope in 1513) hoped to rebuild the Church of Saint Peter in Rome.

Instead of stressing the need for penitence, the Pope was suggesting that, if people paid for Indulgences, he could lessen the time sinners – or even their dead relatives – needed to spend in purgatory.

More on purgatory: According to Catholic belief, purgatory is the place of purification, between heaven and hell, where Hamlet's father's ghost is confined:

'I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.
Are burnt and purged away.' (Act I scene v)

The sale of such documents had been condemned as corrupt for many years – Chaucer's Pardoner (i.e. a man who sells Pardons or Indulgences) is the vilest character in The Canterbury Tales.

The Wittenberg Theses

Wittenberg All Saints' Church. The "Theses Doors"Luther was outraged at the idea that the effects of sin could be removed by paying money. He wrote out ninety-five theses, or reasons why the sale of Indulgences should be stopped, and nailed them to the door of the main church in Wittenberg.

As a result, in 1520 Luther was excommunicated by the Pope. This placed his life in danger, but he was protected by one of the most powerful Princes of Germany.

More on Henry's VIII's early position on the Catholic Church: Ironically, a year later in 1521, Henry VIII, who at that point still saw himself as a faithful member of the Roman Catholic Church, published his book defending the Church and its beliefs — see Social/political context: The grounds for divorce.


Those who accepted the ideas of Luther and other reformers of the Church, and protested against its current state and practices, were known as Protestants.

More on protestant views: Their views became more hardened as they formulated their own ideas, stressing, for example, that salvation could not come through good works but through faith in the grace of God.

An even more contentious issue, and one that divides Christians to this day, is the matter of transubstantiation. This is the question of whether the bread and wine, taken by believers at the service of mass or holy communion:
  • physically turns, by a divine mystery, into the actual body and blood of Christ, as Roman Catholics believe
  • is to be viewed as a memorial of Christ's body, as Protestants believe.
For further detail see Big ideas: Last Supper, communion, eucharist, mass
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