The Empire At The Dawn of the Reformation

The Empire At The Dawn of the Reformation


THE subject of the chapter will not direct our attention much beyond the bounds of Germany. The theoretical fiction, indeed, which assigned to the Emperor the proud position of heir to the dominion of the Cæsars, was not extinct. A token of the thought that the imperial office had relation at least to the whole of Latin Christendom appears in the fact that, on the death of Maximilian I. in 1519, the King of France and the King of England were each mentioned as possible incumbents, and the claims of the former were seriously urged. This, however, was a mere episode. France, England, and Spain were no part of the empire, save in the mind of the political idealist. Italy, though connected by a much closer bond of historical association,had become essentially foreign territory. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, France and Spain had more influence in Italy than the empire.


In its internal arrangements the empire was a scene of the greatest complexity. The relation of the different factors to each other involved no little ambiguity. Scarcely any rank or party was satisfied with its position, and turmoils were of frequent occurrence.


Early in the reign of Maximilian, who came to the throne in 1493, an earnest attempt was made to secure better safeguards for public order. The Diet, which was the great instrument for settling affairs of common concern, brought forward at its session in Worms, in 1495, a new plan for the administration of the empire. An important feature was the provision for an Imperial Chamber, to which disputes between the different states might be referred, as well as appeals in private causes. The judges in this tribunal were to be appointed with the consent of the Diet. Some years later, to give greater effectiveness to the new institute, the empire was divided into a number of districts, each of which had its council and was charged with responsibility for securing the execution of the sentences of the Imperial Chamber. Though the Emperor stipulated for the inviolability of his prerogatives, the provision carried out in good faith could not work otherwise than as a limitation of imperial sovereignty. Respecting the plan as a whole, which was agreed upon at this Diet, Ranke remarks, "It was a mixture of monarchy and confederacy, in which, however, the latter element had the preponderance." 1 Deutsche Geschichte in Zeitalter der Reformation, I. 78.


Though his reign was successful beyond the average, Maximilian, sharing in the common experience of a long line of predecessors, found it difficult to bring his actual power into any true correspondence with the imperial name. A Venetian ambassador who was in Germany in 1502 expressed his astonishment at the small respect which was shown the Emperor, and represented Maximilian as declaring for himself, that he wished that he were merely Duke of Austria, for then he would receive some consideration, whereas in his character as Roman king he experienced only abuse. 1 Ranke, I. 98. This was, no doubt, strongly put, and represented a season of special depression; but taken in connection with a man like Maximilian, whose personal traits were well suited to win popularity, it may serve to indicate that a German emperor, under the existing conditions, had to pay a fair price for his honor.


The princes, on their part, considered that they had just grounds of complaint. They were displeased with the indifferent regard which the Emperor paid to the reforms of 1495. In particular, they took umbrage at his undisguised ambition to build up the house of Hapsburg and make Austria a leading power in Europe. They were unwilling that talents and resources, which the imperial office seemed to pledge to the common good, should thus be expended upon a private interest.


Their opposition, however, was not sufficient to thwart the designs of Maximilian in this direction. His reign laid a foundation for the ascendency of the house of Hapsburg. An alliance with Spain was a special means of promotion. Through the marriage of his son Philip with the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, it was brought about that 8 scion of his house was elevated to a more extended rule than had been grasped by any European sovereign since the days of Charlemagne. Charles V., the son of Philip, was heir on the Spanish side to the kingdom of Spain, to Sicily and Naples, to the new acquisitions of Spain on the American continent, while on the German side he had title to the Austrian dominions and to Burgundy (Franche-Comté and the Netherlands). To this was added in 1519, through the unanimous vote of the electors, the imperial dignity.

1 Of the seven princes who composed the Electoral College, three belonged to the ecclesiastical rank; namely, the Archbishops of Mayence, Treves, and Cologne. The remaining four were the Duke (or King) of Bohemia, the Margrave of Brandenburg, the Count of the Palatinate of the Rhine, and the Elector of Saxony. The Baron electorate, it should be noticed, comprised at this time only a part of Saxony, the dukedom having been divided in 1485.


It might be supposed that Charles V., with such a range of power back of him, would have been in a condition to lay hold upon the affairs of Germany with superior vigor. It is to be noticed, however, that the available resources of Charles were by no means equal to the extent of territory which lay under his sceptre. His dominions were as scattered and heterogeneous as they were immense. Their extent and the variety of their demands limited the attention which he could devote to the internal affairs of Germany. Moreover, the power of the neighboring King of France, a power more concentrated and available, if less extensive, than his own, reminded him that in dealing with the states of Germany he must not despise the arts of conciliation, We find him, accordingly, at the first Diet held under his auspices, that of Worms in 1521, showing a good degree of compliance with the wishes of the princes for the confirmation and perfecting of constitutional provisions which had been brought forward in Maximilian's reign.


What has been said may serve to illustrate the position of the Emperor, and his relations with the higher dignitaries of the realm. The status of the latter, it would seem, was in the way of improvement. Within their respective domains they were making advances toward a larger and better-defined authority.


But there were classes in the empire who were far from being satisfied with their position and prospects. The nobles looked jealously upon the modern movement toward concentration of power in the hands of the princes. They saw themselves thrust aside, without voice in the Diet, and continually declining from the importance which they had enjoyed under the old feudal system. To this restlessness on political grounds was added the stimulus of the great religious agitation which had been started in Germany. At length the disquiet broke out into a species of revolutionary effort. Franz von Sickingen, who was seconded by Hutten, determined to make a bold stroke for the nobility and for ecclesiastical reform. Being a soldier of reputation, and possessing unusual talents for exciting personal enthusiasm, he rallied to his standard the nobles of the Upper Rhine, and proceeded to attack the Archbishop of Treves. But Sickingen had miscalculated the strength with which he had to contend. He was speedily driven to act on the defensive, and fell mortally wounded in his castle (1523). With him fell the hope of the nobility to regain the old measure of power and independence.


The peasantry was quite as much dissatisfied as the nobility, and with much better reason. The latter deserved to be curbed in view of the inexcusable lawlessness which they had frequently indulged. But the peasants were the victims of a grievous oppression. The safeguards which were being introduced in behalf of other classes had little or no relation to them. To whom could they look for protection? "To no one. These half-human beings had no rights, and in the current view were entitled to none. They were dependent solely upon the grace and compassion of their masters." 1 G. Sartorius, Versuch einer Geschichte des deutschen Bauernkriegs. Their estate ranged from actual serfdom to a lot not many degrees better. "Even in Swabia, and the countries on the banks of the Rhine, where their condition was most tolerable, the peasants not only paid the full rent of their farms to their landlord, but if they chose either to change the place of their abode, or to follow a new profession, before they could accomplish what they desired they were obliged to purchase this privilege at a certain price. Besides this, all grants of lands to peasants expired at their death, without descending to their posterity. Upon that event, the landlord had a right to the best of their cattle, as well as of their furniture; and their heirs, in order to obtain a renewal of the grant, were obliged to pay large sums by way of fine." 2 W. Robertson, History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V. These were customary burdens, and as such were borne with some degree of patience, though not with entire cheerfulness or absence of protest. But in the time of Frederic III. and Maximilian I., new burdens were added. More expensive habits of living began to prevail among princes, nobles, and ecclesiastics. The change in the mode of warfare, which substituted paid troops for feudal retainers, created an enlarged demand for revenue. The consequence was that the peasants, as the most helpless class, were plied with new exactions.


What wonder that an outbreak should have occurred? Since the middle of the fifteenth century, the discontent of the peasants had issued in a number of eruptions, some of which were of considerable extent. 1 Menzel, Geschichte der Deutschen, II. 226-229 How, then, could it be expected that this exasperated element would remain quiet when all minds were being stirred by the excitements of the age? The responsible cause of the uprising of the peasants was the oppressions under which they groaned. The Reformation was but the occasion. As the herald of a new era, it could not fail to give hope and courage to the oppressed multitude, whether or not it made any direct connection with their cause.


The peasant revolt commenced the next year after the abortive attempt of the nobles under Sickingen. The two movements were independent of each other, as the two classes were unconnected in sympathy. "Each class," says Häusser, "went its own way, and perished alone, -- the nobles like an army of officers without soldiers, the peasants like soldiers without officers. Had they united their forces, they would have formed a lever which would have produced a tremendous commotion. These two elements afterwards combined to upset the ancient monarchy of France." 2 Period of the Reformation, translated from the German by Mrs. G. Sturge.


The cause of the peasantry was not a little affected by their alliance with the Anabaptist enthusiasts. It will be convenient, therefore, to postpone the further consideration of the subject, till we have brought the story of the Reformation up to the eve of the attempted revolution.


If there was less cause of ferment in the cities than among the nobles and the peasants, they still had their own occasions of agitation. Constant watchfulness and energy were required to guard their privileges against the encroachments of princes and nobles. In not a few of them, moreover, there was an interior conflict, -a struggle between aristocratic and democratic elements. Some of the cities, especially in Southern Germany, were suffering from a decline of industry. This naturally bred discontent among the poorer citizens. It is probable that a fraction of this class, impelled at once by their unpromising state and their feeling of exasperation toward the clergy, who seemed to care more for pleasures and emoluments than for pastoral service, were not disposed to frown altogether upon the revolutionary effort of the peasants.


A brief reference to the relations of the German Government and people with the Roman Court may properly conclude the chapter. Maximilian evidently cherished no great affection for the popes. It was with ill-concealed disgust that he looked upon their expedients for draining away the gold of the realm. He complained that they took from his subjects a hundred times as much as found its way into the imperial coffers. 1 Ranke, I. 37. At times also he had occasion for displeasure, because special projects of his were opposed at Rome. This may explain the passive attitude which he assumed toward the first stages of the Reformation. He is even said to have felt a malicious satisfaction in what was transpiring at Wittenberg, and to have advised the Elector Frederic to take good care of the bold monk, as he might be serviceable at some future time. All this, however, was dictated merely by his political interest. In his last days the same interest moved him to seek a good understanding with the Pope, inasmuch as his friendship was thought to be necessary to realize the ambitions which he entertained for his house.


As for Charles V., there is no reason to doubt that he was sincerely interested to maintain the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church. From first to last he was a stranger to the great religious revolution. He had little conception of its significance, and it took not the slightest hold upon his heart. But while Charles V. looked upon contemporary events with the eyes of a Roman Catholic, he looked upon them also with the eyes of a politician, and had very little inclination to sacrifice any political interest out of consideration for the Pope. In fact, there were times in his reign, when the Pope, as acting the part of a political adversary, received very scant honor at his hands.


Among the secular princes of Germany there was a general feeling of ill-will toward the Roman court; and this feeling descended to all classes of the laity. Even those who had no thought of theological reform were loud in their complaints of ecclesiastical abuses.


Resentment against Rome and the hierarchy was by no means equivalent to love for the evangelical message. Yet the one, as disabusing the mind of a blind allegiance, prepared for the reception of the other.


Among the noblest of those in high station who turned an inquiring and receptive mind toward the teachings of the Reformers, was the Saxon Elector Frederic. The esteem in which he was held is evinced by the fact that, had he so chosen, he might have succeeded Maximilian in the imperial dignity. He prudently declined the honor, in the conviction that the exigencies of the times called for one who could bring to the sceptre a stronger hand and greater resources. In his relations to the Reformation, while he proceeded cautiously, he comported himself as a true friend of the movement, and rendered it an invaluable service.