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 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.

The Bible in English

John WycliffeThe translation of the Bible into English by John Wycliffe (1330-84) was seen as a threat to the authority of the Catholic Church, whose Bibles, 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 the texts or interpret them for themselves.

More on challenges to the Church: In 1516, the famous scholar Erasmus (c. 1467-1536), who had already published an attack on Church corruption in his book In Praise of Folly (1511), published a new edition of the New Testament in Ancient Greek. Ideas inherent in his edition challenged some of the key doctrines of Catholicism. By this time, of course, printing enabled his work to be much more widely read.

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. Luther returned to Germany, where he lectured at the University of Wittenberg.

Marlowe's attack on papal laxity and self-indulgence in Scene 8 of Doctor Faustus is in the spirit of Luther's criticism, but there is no evidence to suggest that Marlowe shared Luther's views. Indeed, the play seems to exemplify a rather Catholic sense of the implacability of God's punishment.


1500s indulgenceLuther was even more appalled by the arrival in Germany of the Pope's representative Tetzel, who had come to sell indulgences.

Indulgences were documents issued by the Pope and on sale to the public. Instead of stressing the need for penitence, the Pope was suggesting that, if people paid for indulgences it would lessen the time that sinners – or even their dead relatives –spent in Purgatory, the place of purification between Heaven and Hell.

The sale of indulgences was a means of raising money for the papacy. Leo X (who became Pope in 1513) hoped to rebuild the Church of St Peter's in Rome with the money raised from these sales.

The sale of such documents had been condemned as corrupt for many years; Chaucer's Pardoner (a man who sells pardons or indulgences) is the most unpleasant of the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales. The system was vulnerable to abuses ranging from the forgery of indulgences to Pardoners who kept the money for themselves. The practice was common at places of pilgrimage, including Canterbury, Marlowe's birthplace.

The Wittenberg Theses

Luther was outraged at the idea that the consequences of sin could be avoided 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 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?

Doctor Faustus and Protestantism

In the B-text of the play, Faustus is described as studying at Wittenberg. The A-text, however, has Württemberg, which was well-known as a centre of radical Protestant ideas.

Although Doctor Faustus is fiercely anti-clerical and anti-Papist, there is no indication that either Faustus or his creator shared Luther's views. Faustus' fear of damnation at the end of the play does not suggest a Protestant sense of security in the power of God's mercy and grace.

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