Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/709

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monasteries were brothels. The official conscience was illustrated in the Hospital of San Giovanni in Laterano where the confessor, when he found that a patient had money, would notify the physician, who thereupon would administer a deadly dose and the two would seize and divide the spoils. Had the physician contented himself with this industry, he might have escaped detection; but he varied it by going into the streets every morning and shooting with a cross-bow people whose pockets he then emptied, for which he was duly hanged (May 27, 1500). The foulness of the debaucheries in which Alexander VI emulated the worst excesses of the pagan empire was possible only in a social condition of utter corruption; and, as a knowledge of the facts filtered through the consciousness of Europe, contempt was added to the detestation so generally entertained for the Holy See. This was ominously expressed, in 1501, in a letter to Alexander VI from a knight and two men-at-arms who had despoiled the convent of Weissenburg and had disregarded the consequent excommunication. Under the canon law this rendered them suspect of heresy, for which they were summoned to Rome to answer for their faith. They replied in a tone of unconcealed irony; the journey, they say, is too long, so they send a profession of faith, including a promise of obedience to a Pope honestly elected who has not sullied the Holy See with immoralities and scandals.

In fact, one of the most urgent symptoms of the necessity of a new order of things was the complete divorce between religion and morality. There was abundant zeal in debating minute points of faith, but little in evoking from it an exemplary standard of life—as Pius II said of the Conventual Franciscans: they were generally excellent theologians but gave themselves little trouble about virtue. The sacerdotal system, developed by the dialectics of the Schoolmen, had constructed a routine of external observances through which salvation was to be gained not so much by abstinence from sin as by its pardon through the intervention of the priest, whose supernatural powers were in no way impaired by the scandals of his daily life. Except within the pale of the pagan Renaissance, never was there a livelier dread of future punishment, but this punishment was to be escaped, not by amendment but by confession, absolution, and indulgences. This frame of mind is exemplified by the condottiere Vitelozzo Vitelli who, when after a life steeped in crime, he was suddenly strangled by Cesare Borgia, in 1502, felt no more poignant regret than that he could not obtain absolution from the Pope—and that Pope was Alexander VI. Society was thoroughly corrupt—perhaps less so in the lower than in the higher classes—but no one can read the Lenten sermons of the preachers of the time, even with full allowance for rhetorical exaggeration, without recognising that the world has rarely seen a more debased standard of morality than that which prevailed in Italy in the closing years of the Middle Ages. Yet at the same time never were there greater outward manifestations of devotional