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The Reformation

But a far deeper ground of dissatisfaction lay behind than any discontent with the education or politics of the time; religion, which touches the life of all classes in its inmost springs, had fallen into a deep degeneracy. If the common man had a hard life of it in this world, compelled to incessant toil, subject to pestilence, bad harvests, and the exactions of his superiors, what was there to raise him above his troubles or give him hope for the future? That conception of an inward self-surrender to God which He would inspire, and to which He Himself would respond by His helping presence now, and heaven hereafter--the conception which had been the very kernel of religion to Tauler and his school--was preserved but in few hearts. To most men, religion was an outside thing of rules and ceremonies; God was a harsh judge, whom all the sacrifices and merits of the saints could scarce propitiate while their appointed instructors, the clergy, were in popular estimation the very types of a proud, idle, often sinful life, led at the expense of other people. Once the clergy had been the preservers of learning, the protectors of the common people, and the assertors of justice against oppressive custom; now their luxury, their ignorance in many cases, their avarice, and their often impure lives, were the favourite themes of the satirical poems, which are the most important productions of the secular literature of this period.1010This is the era of "Renard the Fox," "Till Eulenspiegel," Brant's "Ship of Fools," and the poems of Rosenblüt. The way in which such men adapted the consolations of religion to the wants of the common people, shows a state of mind which it is very difficult for us to realize at all. Pious brotherhoods were 102 formed for accumulating a stock of spiritual treasures, the benefits of which were to secure to each member eternal salvation. Thus, for instance,1111Freytag, "Bilder aus der deutschen Vergangenheit," vol. i. p. 90. that of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, called St. Ursula's Ship, to which the Elector Frederick the Wise belonged, had a stock of 6,455 masses, 3,550 whole psalters, 200,000 rosaries, 11,000 prayers to St. Ursula, 630 times 11,000 Paternosters and Ave Marias, &c. &c. &c. All these were available to wipe out the sins of the individual members of the brotherhood. But in one respect this association was one of the best: a man could become a member by the mere repeating of a certain number of prayers, and it was therefore open to the poor; where payment of money was required, as was frequently the case, of course the poor man was excluded.

It is easy to understand how in a country where such societies already existed, Tetzel, the German Dominican, to whom Leo X. had confided the sale of indulgences in Germany, should have found there a good market for his wares. He rode from town to town, everywhere received with great pomp and ceremony by the clergy. His great red cross was set up in the nave of the parish church, and day by day he preached and exhorted the people not to lose such an opportunity of securing heaven, resorting often to the coarsest and most profane expressions and devices. On his way he came to a village near Wittenberg, where the sale of indulgences was to begin on All Saints Day, the festival of the dedication of the church; but the night before, another monk of the Augustine order had affixed to the church-doors his famous 103 "Ninety-five theses on the power of indulgences," and henceforward their sale was to be checked.

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