Did a pandemic cause the Reformation?

We are not living in unprecedented times. Back in March this year Pope Francis gave this advice to Catholics. “If you cannot find a priest to confess to, speak directly with God, your father, and tell him the truth. Say, ‘Lord, I did this, this, this. Forgive me,’ and ask for pardon with all your heart.” This has a precedent, in an earlier pandemic, with Bubonic Plage rampaging through Europe and many other places between 1347 and 1348, Pope Clement VI advised Christians to take their confessions and petitions directly to God.

I am being very speculative here. If I said that the first wave of Bubonic Plague in the 1300s caused the Reformation I would, quite rightly, be shot down in flames. But there is a link. The words of Pope Clement VI, who was Pope in Avignon, France, from 1342 to 1352 had an effect on a German monk suffering from depression, Martin Luther, 170 years or so later. I am not having a go at the Roman Catholic Church here, they have long admitted that the church was corrupt in this period, hence the Counter-Reformation.

plague doctor
A plague doctor in a mask that was thought to give protection from the plague.

There are a lot of other reasons for the reformation. The printing press meant that Luther’s words could be distributed quickly and widely, the Catholic church was slow on the uptake. The effect of the printing press in popularising Luther’s views cannot be trivialised, but the effects of the plague on Europe cannot be diminished, not can church feuds.

The papacy had moved to Avignon in 1309 following a scandal in Rome, Then in 1378 the papacy was reestablished in Rome, so there were now two Popes, each of which claimed to be the real one, and each of them excommunicated the other one. Meanwhile through the 1300s more waves of the plague swept across Europe and the church was squabbling among itself. Plage eventually took the lives of between 30% and 60% of the people.

The Popes in Rome won out over the Popes in Avignon and large areas of Italy became ownerless due to the plague. There was a power struggle in which the Papal territories were increased, indulgences were given by the church telling people they were guaranteed a place in heaven if they left their land to the church. Other beneficiaries of the power grab in Italy were two families, the Borgia family, from Borja in Spain, and the Medici family who gained a lot of land and control of the city of Florence. The Borgias and the Medicis did not get on. If this sounds like the plot of a Mafia film, you would not be far wrong, except the head of one of the three feuding families is wearing Papal robes.

If you think this picture of the land grabbing church sounds corrupt it gets worse. The Borgias get the papacy One of the Borgia Popes took a vow of chastity, had a daughter, then fathered a child to his daughter. You could not make this up, and I haven’t. Meanwhile, the Medici family are rebuilding Florence with money made from the land grabs after the plague. The Renaissance has begun.

The level of corruption in the church is too much for the Cardinals, the Borgias lose the Papacy and things are OK until the cardinals again elect someone they regret voting for. Pope Julius II is noted for two things, first his building projects, Julius gives Michelangelo the contract for the Sistine chapel, a project he started selling indulgences to finance and he was a warrior Pope, getting a large army together to wage war.

The next Pope is Leo X. Leo is the head of the Medici family and the first of four Medici Popes. He was elected Pope on 9th March 1513, which was announced on the 11th. He was not a priest at the time, so he was ordained on 15th Match, consecrated bishop on 17th Match and crowned Pope on 19th March. Leo was a nepotist, appointing family members into several roles. After financing Henry VIII of England in league with the Spanish in a war against the French between February and September 1517 and lavishing money on the arts, the Papacy was skint, and it had the Vatican basilica to complete. The sale of indulgences was wound up to an epic scale to pay for St Peter’s church and other Vatican buildings.

This is where we get to Martin Luther. Luther was upset about the sale of indulgences becoming widespread so not long after the war between England/Spain and France, financed by Leo, on 31st October 1517 he nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg church. The Reformation had begun.

The politics that led to the Reformation came out of a post-pandemic land grab. One of the main theological themes, that you can take your prayers and confession directly to God also came from a pandemic.

Global upsets, where society itself is turned upside down can be the catalyst for theological change. I wonder what is going to happen this time?





Wittenberg 31 oct 1517
12th cent Papacy moved to avignon 1309 to 1377 after a scandal Clement V, french

great schism, 1054.
Roman or Western schism & 2 popes. 1378 to 1417. .

2 thoughts on “Did a pandemic cause the Reformation?

  1. I think there’s a lot to be said for the pandemic being part of what eventually became the Reformation. Looking at our current situation, I think many people who previously were perfectly happy to ‘go to’ church have realised what it means to ‘be church’. So much so, that many people in our area have resisted the idea of reopening our buildings any time soon. I also think many more will be questioning the idea of us having so many buildings in our established churches. People have started to realise: we don’t need a building.

    1. Thanks for the reply ukeleleman,

      As for not needing a building, I’m not that sure. There’s a lot of work in the community on hold because of the building closures and I can’t wait for the buildings to be open for that. The toddler group that meets in our building is a case in point. There seems to be an increasing awareness that the buildings are a tool to be used.

      There is something special about worshipping God as a community too. YouTube church we are not together, people watch when convenient, Zoom church … well you can’t sing along, everyone is out of time with each other. If worship is someone up front doing it and everyone else an audience then yes there is no need of a building. Where the model is that every person is a participant then being together is important. People could easily get the idea that worship is just individual, just me and God, but it is about a community worshipping God. We are baptised into God and into a community.

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