International School History - International Baccalaureate - MYP History

MYP4 Last update - 10 May 2018  
Unit 2 - Lesson 6 - The Reformation

500 years ago in 1517, a monk called Martin Luther may, or may not have, nailed a document (his 95 Theses) to the church door at Wittenberg. This event led to a split in the European church which changed the world. It was called the Reformation. 500 years later in 2017 a playmobil toy of Martin Luther became the bestselling toy in the company's history, shipping over 1m examples at last count. This lesson hopes to explain why a single event and a single document could be so important. In short, the answer is, they weren't. As is often the case, it's what came before (and after) that make the events of 1517 so important.

As we discussed in our first lesson this year, history is more than the past, because the past has no meaning. The job of historians is to use the known events of the past and to organize these events into narratives (stories) that give the past meaning.

If we are to understand the importance of 1517 and Playmobil sales, we need to understand how it can be fitted into a story of what came before and what came after. First of all, the event itself, courtesy of Joseph Fiennes and Hollywood.


500 Years

How is the world commemorating the 500th anniversary? Time magazine

Luther probably never nailed the 95 Theses to the door, although if you visit the church today you will see that in 1858, the wooden doors were replaced with bronze (see right), inscribed with the Latin text of the 95 theses.   The story of the Theses being nailed, was first written by one of Luther's fellow professors at Wittenberg,  Philip  Melanchthon. Melanchthon wasn't in Wittenberg in 1517 and waited after Luther's death before including the nails and door in his story. So if this legend is not really very important, what is?

Martin Luther and the Reformation

In brief, Martin Luther (1483-1546), was the first reformer to lead a large number of people to openly and successfully, break with the church in Rome. As we have seen, during the Middle Ages the powerful authority of the church had extended over all areas of political, economic, social and cultural life. The Reformation did much to destroy this control. The Reformation was a revolt against the authority of the Catholic Church in Rome. The Reformation was also a rebellion against the corruption and abuses in the church and the interference of the leader of the Church - the Pope - in non religious affairs. Those who rebelled, protested against the Pope and demanded a reform of the church were called ‘Protestants’.

Luther was a native German who became a monk at the age of twenty-two and 1510 he was sent to Rome, an event that marked a turning point in his life. In 1512 he was appointed as professor of theology in the University of Wittenberg. He questioned the sale of indulgences in 1517 by agents of Pope Leo X, who were collecting money for the construction of St. Peter’s Church at Rome.

Image result for 95 theses door

Activity 1 - Luther's ideas

Watch the video extract above. Make a list of the criticisms of the Catholic church that are illustrated by the film.

In 1520, Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X who requested that the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V punish him as a heretic. Luther was asked to come before the Imperial Diet (Church Council) at Worms in 1520-21, where he refused to take back anything he had said. He advocated that "it is neither right nor safe to act against conscience". Such heresy, as we shall see, usually resulted in burning at the stake. But Luther got away with it. There were several people in Germany who protected him. Frederick III, of Saxony hid Luther at Wartburg Castle at Eisenach from 1521 to 1522 and succeeded in defying the emperor and also the Pope. The consequences are both hard to underestimate and almost impossible to summarize (see next unit); war, civil war and revolution would divide the European continent for hundreds of years and divisions between Protestants and Catholics still explains the political geography of Europe today. But it also had a number of positive consequences: it helped advance still further the cause of Humanism (see last lesson), it encouraged literacy and development of the written vernacular (German, English, French) language etc. and it undermined still further the feudal system in which political authority and the influence of the church went hand in hand. Perhaps most importantly, the Reformation helped to change Europeans. The Reformation encouraged Europeans to be individuals who thought for themselves.

Building the narrative, long and short-term causes.

Understanding causes is central to what history is about. Historians like to link different events together that share something in common. For example, as we saw in Unit 1, historians use categories like political, economic, social and cultural (PESC) to explain clearly why things happen. Another way of organizing causes (and consequences) is to divide them into long-term and short-term. Long-term causes take place a long-time before the event and are not an obvious, direct cause of the event. They often provide the context in which the event is more likely to happen. Short-term causes happen immediately before the event and are obviously and directly linked to the event.

Long-term causes

First a short detour into philosophy (again). Unit 2 has all been about the long-term, contextual causes of the Reformation. However, the history covered by these lessons, for example the Black Death, is significant not simply because of what it helped cause later. This is to be overly teleological. These events are important in their own right. But, if we are to fully understand what came later, we can only do so in the light of what came before. These are long-term causes of the Reformation then, because these events happened a long-time before the Reformation and are not obviously connected to it.


From ancient Greek philosophy. To define the quality of something in terms of what it has the potential to become. Aristotle claimed that an acorn's telos is to become a fully grown oak tree, yet in reality very few acorns do.

In Lesson 1, we examined how the development and growth of towns, created new types of human, townspeople. Townspeople had greater autonomy and freedom, and feudalism and the church had less daily control over people's lives. The Reformation started in towns with universities and printing presses. As Marx argued, 'It is not the consciousness of man that determines his social being, but rather, his social being that determines his consciousness.' Town air made men free.

In Lesson 2, we leant how Christendom was undermined by forces outside of Europe, notably Islam. The fall of Toledo, the Crusades, the trade routes across the Mongol empire and the fall of Constantinople in 1453, all saw superior Arabic and pre-Christian (e.g. Greek) ideas infiltrate Europe. These ideas not only challenged the hegemony (domination) of Christian teaching, they also stimulated the trade and generated the wealth that the towns and cities of Lesson 1 were based on.

In Lesson 3,  we saw how the Black Death (1347-51) in  particular had had a negative impact on the influence of the church, especially in Western Europe. A very high percentage of priests were killed and the credibility of the church was damaged by its inability to explain the disease. As the biggest landowner in Europe the church also suffered from the damage done to the feudal system by peasants rebelling against their masters.

In Lesson 4, we explored the beginning of the great Age of Discovery. The discovery of the sea route to India in 1498 and the trans-Atlantic Voyages of Christopher Columbus between 1492 and 1502, were driven by social and economic forces and had enormous long-term consequences. The wealth unleashed, kick-started the new mercantile capitalist economies of the growing towns that further eroded feudal power. And of course, without it, we would never have had the Pizza!

In Lesson 5, we studied the Renaissance and how the new philosophical outlook of Humanism encouraged some to think outside of the box of scholasticism. We saw how new paradigms in the sciences (e.g. heliocentricism) and new techniques in the arts, encouraged people to see the world anew. The study of Greek after the fall of Constantinople and the development of the printing press (both in the 1450s) transformed both the content and means of communication. The importance of which is explained in this film.



Earlier opposition to the Church

Martin Luther in 1517, was not the first to criticize the Catholic Church. During the 14th and 15th centuries, strong criticism was made about the practices of clergymen. The clergy’s wealth made it appear that they were worshippers of money rather than of God. Church rituals and practices became a source of profits. There was an unlimited sale of relics. Several scholars raised their voices in opposition to certain Catholic teachings and practices. Among them was John Wycliffe (1320-1384), an English priest and professor at the University of Oxford who declared that the pope was not Christ’s representative on earth. He also felt that individual Christians should only be guided by what they read in the Bible. His followers were known as the Lollards. The English Kings, tried to stop the spread of the Lollard movement through fines, imprisonment and burning.

After Wycliffe’s death, his writings were spread in Bohemia by John Huss, a priest and professor in the University of Prague. The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund invited John Huss to attend a general church council at Constance where he was burned at the stake in 1415. This led to a popular protest in what is today’s Czech Republic. The Hussite Wars  lasted for many years.

A second problem arose when the Catholic world became divided over the legitimacy of the real pope. This was the Great Schism. The Pope’s power had already begun to decline with the rise of powerful Kings. For example, the French King Philip IV (1285-1314) succeeded in establishing the right to tax church property, despite opposition by the pope. He also forced the pope to live in Avignon in France, instead of Rome, after the pope’s interference in his political affairs. This ‘Babylonian Captivity’ lasted for 70 years and greatly damaged the pope’s prestige and power. The election of two popes, one by the Italian church and another by the French church, damaged the Church still further. In 1409 a council in Pisa was established to resolve the situation, but in the absence of the Roman and French delegations, ended up electing a third pope. The matter was settled in 1417 when a new pope was elected and accepted by all. But the damage to the credibility of the church had already been done.

A final powerful influence on the decline of the church was to be found in the increasingly irreligious behaviour of the popes themselves, which was leading to wide-spread criticism. In 1512  Hieronymus Bosch painted the Haywain. In the central panel Bosch shows humanity dragged along by sin, following behind a haywain. Leading the crowds to hell is the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. This echoed the sentiments of the work of Dürer we saw last week.

Image result for bosch the haywain



The Short-term causes of the Reformation

The actions of the popes at the beginning of the 16th century did much to bring the Catholic church into disrepute. The popes were involved in financial corruption and political assassination, the word 'nepotism' comes from the papal practice of this time of giving their nephews well paid and influential roles in the church. The most notorious pope was Alexander VI (1492-1503), who ended up wearing a mask to cover-up his disfigurement by syphilis and died, according to some theories,  when an attempt to poison a cardinal went wrong.



Nepotism is favoritism granted in politics or business to relatives. The word is derived from the Italian nepotismo, which was used to describe the appointment of relatives to influential position within the Catholic Church.


But it was the actions of Pope Leo X that would precipitate the Reformation. From the powerful Medici family, nepotism saw him become an Abbot at the age of eight and head of the great abbey of Monte Cassino aged eleven. As pope, he enjoyed banquets and processions, he had a pet elephant and spent astronomical amounts on the arts. But his most ambitious plan was to rebuild St Peter's basilica in Rome. The money for this project was to come from the sale of indulgences. As we have seen, an indulgence was like a get-out-of-purgatory-free card, extra credit the church could issue, acquired from all the good deeds of Jesus and the Saints.  In 1476, Pope Sixtus IV had declared that it was possible to buy an indulgence for someone already in purgatory. This proved to be a highly marketable idea, especially in the hands of a master indulgence salesman like Johannes Tetzel and his slogan 'When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs'.

The final important short-term cause of the Reformation requires some explanation of why Luther's criticisms did not lead to his execution. Earlier reformers like Huss or just before Luther Girolama Savanarola, had been executed, so why not Luther? We will examine the details of this later, but here it is enough to recognize that by 1517, in some northern European states, Luther's ideas were popular with monarchs and princes who were looking to attain greater independence from the political and economic demands of Rome. By 1517, some of these rulers were prepared to defend reformers like Luther  who offered them a spiritual justification for taking control.

Activity 2

1. Explain what is meant by long-term, medium and short-term causes. Give an example from your own life to explain the long, medium and short-term causes of an event that happened to you.

2. Make a revision diagram of the causes of the Reformation using the information given to you in this text. The diagram should distinguish between short-term and long term causes. It should be a full page of A4 in size; it should be carefully designed, factually rich and accurate.




About I Contact Richard Jones-Nerzic