Radical changes in the Christian church

The Reformation

For some centuries there had been criticism of the way in which some churchmen behaved. The desire to reform how the Church operated became widespread in Europe and resulted in a movement known as the Reformation 

More on religious criticism in literature: Geoffrey Chaucer's The 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.

Martin Luther

Moral outrage

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. He was also outraged at the church selling indulgences.

More on indulgences: Indulgences were documents issued by the Pope and on sale to the public. They were a way of Indulgenceraising 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 people's dead relatives – needed to spend in Purgatory.

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

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 excommunication in The White Devil: After Cardinal Monticelso is elected to the papacy in Act 4 sc 3, his first action is to excommunicate Vittoria and Brachiano when he hears of their flight from Rome and their subsequent marriage. This gives legitimacy to Francisco de Medici and Lodovico to plot their murders.


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.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.