Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/689

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CHAPTER XIX.
THE EVE OF THE REFORMATION.


As the sixteenth century opened, Europe was standing unconscious on the brink of a crater destined to change profoundly by its eruption the course of modern civilisation. The Church had acquired so complete a control over the souls of men, its venerable antiquity and its majestic organisation so filled the imagination, the services it had rendered seemed to call for such reverential gratitude, and its acknowledged claim to interpret the will of God to man rendered obedience so plain a duty, that the continuance of its power appeared to be an unchanging law of the universe, destined to operate throughout the limitless future. To understand the combination of forces which rent the domination of the Church into fragments, we must investigate in detail its relations with society on the eve of the disruption, and consider how it was regarded by the men of that day, with their diverse grievances, more or less justifying revolt. We must here omit from consideration the benefits which the Church had conferred, and confine our attention to the antagonisms which it provoked and to the evils for which it was held responsible. The interests and the motives at work were numerous and complex, some of them dating back for centuries, others comparatively recent, but all of them growing in intensity with the development of political institutions and popular intelligence. There has been a natural tendency to regard the Reformation as solely a religious movement; but this is an error. In the curious theocracy which dominated the Middle Ages, secular and spiritual interests became so inextricably intermingled that it is impossible wholly to disentangle them; but the motives, both remote and proximate, which led to the Lutheran revolt were largely secular rather than spiritual. So far, indeed, as concerns our present purpose we may dismiss the religious changes incident to the Reformation with the remark that they were not the object sought but the means for attaining that object. The existing ecclesiastical system was the practical evolution of dogma, and the overthrow of dogma was the only way to obtain permanent relief from the intolerable abuses of that system.