Background to ‘The Secret Of Systems’.
Now, this will be more of a personal reflection rather than any detailed historical analysis. If you have an observation or an objection, please use the comment form below as I am more than interested in other people’s ideas – just as long as they are intelligent and well formed.
For myself, what I am interested in here is the way people thought at the time, in this case, the late mediaeval period. The point of this is to say that people simply didn’t think as we do today, and for very good reasons: the world around them, the society around them was so utterly different from ours that it formed the minds of the youngsters in a manner quintessentially different from our own. If this aspect of history is overlooked, then can one call it history at all? Wouldn’t it be fairer to call it a regurgitation of facts?
In a way one can look at the “human animal” of the time, the genius that lived in all people of a society, geography and period of time. Their individuality would live within this, and express itself through it. Whilst such things cannot be specific – one can nevertheless discern something that lived in Germans that did not live in, for example, the English. The Germans of Martin Luther’s time lived in practically every country in Europe, including distant Russia. That they lived in small communities isolated from the main stream of the German culture did not dissipate the essential spark of Germanness that they possessed by virtue of their being, well, German. By contrast, the English were by no means as dispersed; albeit they had their traders in cities like Amsterdam, Hamburg and Danzig. Their essential spark being more individual, led them to seek the new world, and it would be a generation after Luther died that Drake would circumnavigate the world.
So much for the background: it has to be said that Martin Luther wasn’t the first Protestant reformer. One need only think of Jan Hus, whose followers became the Hussites – and many cities in and around Bohemia celebrate him, Naumburg included. The problem for Hus – if problem one can call it – was that whilst he had the energy and passion to spread his view of Christianity, he could only do it through word of mouth. Books at the time were still hand written, made from hand-made vellum. No small undertaking, even in our day and age; back then a book was beyond being expensive. Thus the Church had their precious books and the understanding they contained – usually in that pan-cultural language, Latin. Thus it was that a figure such as Geert Groote from Deventer in Holland (a major city in those days, and part of the Hansa) could travel to Paris in 1355 and study there, whilst not knowing a word of French. There are more, of course, most of whom paid for their sins with the forgiveness that the Church had for such people. That is to say, none at all: they were burned at the stake. Groote himself was no reformer though, and died a natural death.
King Wenceslaus decreed (in Kutná Hora) that the “Bohemian nation” would have three votes (instead of one) in University affairs, while the Bavarian, Saxon, and Polish “nations” would have only one vote in total. As a consequence, between five thousand and twenty thousand foreign doctors, masters, and students left Prague in 1409. This exodus resulted in the founding of the University of Leipzig, among others. Thus Charles University lost its international importance and became a strictly Czech school. The emigrants also spread news of the Bohemian “heresies” throughout the rest of Europe.
Wikipedia, Jan Hus
Thus it was that Protestantism was spread without books. The people themselves spread the word through this exodus.
Erasmus And Our Modern Times.
What is important to note here is the work of Erasmus as key to many of the modern Bible translations – for Luther did not translate his bible from the common Vulgate, the Testaments as translated by Jerome – the guy with the lion. The Vulgate was the Latin Bible that the Catholics used in their Christian ceremonies, services and teachings. Erasmus took the Greek bible and in comparing Jerome’s works with the texts from the Greeks, said:
“But one thing the facts cry out, and it can be clear, as they say, even to a blind man, that often through the translator’s clumsiness or inattention the Greek has been wrongly rendered; often the true and genuine reading has been corrupted by ignorant scribes, which we see happen every day, or altered by scribes who are half-taught and half-asleep.”
Epistle 337 From Wikipedia.
Which brings up the difference between the Classical mind expressed by the Greeks and the Mediaeval mind. The Classical mind was able to remember vast tracts of spoken language. Indeed, even today there are societies that are illiterate, yet their holy works are remembered by several members of their society – and they are remembered exactly. To the letter. So to speak. The ability to write changed all this: one didn’t need to remember these things any longer, one could write them down and forget them – and I must admit that I am no exception to this rule. In writing my own book, I look back to passages written some eighteen months ago with wonder that I ever thought such things.
In the Mediaeval world, though, the things Erasmus said were true: people thought more of the written word than their own capacities to think. This laziness – now a plague in today’s Holland – led to the mistranslations. Erasmus, whilst Dutch, had that core of the modern mind: a conscience. He said to himself, ‘this is no good, for it is not the truth. What I seek is the truth, and nothing short of the truth. I will do my best to give the world the truth as I can understand it.’ Thus with the differences between the two versions of the Testaments, he judged for himself what the better translation was. But he did so on the basis of the truth, and that for any Christian, is expressed through the words that Jesus spoke during his ministry on earth. Being the dutiful type – the type that doesn’t get burned at the stake – should this post form part of my series ‘The Secret Of Systems’? For to be burned at the stake is to be told that you are not part of the system…
So we come to the time of Martin Luther. He was a monk and a priest, an academic too – such as they weren’t in those days. What with the flowering of the universities in the early modern (late Mediaeval) times, he found himself a professor at the newly founded university of Wittenberg. At the early age of 29. With its libraries and the communication system that was also dawning, he was at one of the many centres of intellectual thinking at the time. Thus the works of Erasmus would have been brought to his attention in one way or another.
Not only this, but they would have been printed on a press, not laboriously – and occasionally erroneously – on vellum. The press cannot lie: again, the press is a system, it is only as good as the stuff you put in. Thus if the writing is good, the printed material is good. The printing press itself can do nothing to improve this – albeit an ignorant typesetter can make a mockery of the most intelligent thought. But again, the typesetter is human, and thus stands in this case, before the system itself. Put intelligence in, and you will have the best use of a system. That is the main topic of my next post in that series, where stupidity costs.
Luther had a passion for the truth; indeed his very name in old German means ‘truth’. Add to this intelligence and an ability to communicate – and a conscience for the truth – and you have the stuff of social explosion. Luther’s problem was that his truth didn’t match the things the Catholic Church were doing at the time. His 95 theses nailed to the door of the church at Wittenberg only made the situation the more difficult.
Since the representatives of the Catholic Church had been handed the right to do these things, they could not be wrong. If you are part of a system, a conscience will be a hinderance to you, for it will make you feel uncomfortable. That is the nature of a conscience: it will prick you. Systems, whilst perfect for those within it, are not usually right in the broader context of societ, or its future. Whilst people loved the idea of being able to buy their loved ones security in heaven, the very idea enraged the enragable Luther. In this, he is very close to my own soul.
On account of his conscience he could not stand this peddling of indulgences – he would have called them lies, and so do I. With good reason! They did not accord with the words of Jesus. Add Luther’s passion for the written word, add Erasmus’ Greek Testaments and add the fact that most cities had a printing press – and the foundations were now present for Luther to light the blue touchpaper.
Which he duly did.
Irrespective of cost to himself, I will add. If one has a conscience, it matters not what conscienceless people think. If one has a conscience, there is only one thing that matters, and that is the truth. Luther was no exception and thus stood firm. The Catholic Church required him to recant his Theses, he refused.
His response to this was:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Friends spirited him away to the Wartburg at Eisenach. Here Luther had the time and the peace – not to mention the peace of mind that is the result of a searched conscience – to translate the Testaments into common German. Now it has to be said that this was not academic German: Luther was, if nothing else, a communicator. Standing on the back of a hay waggon, he would proclaim the Gospels to any and all who would gather to hear him. The more he spoke their language, the more they would hear of the truths he spoke. Thus it was that his translations were aimed at the common man, and it was this which gave Luther’s words their power.
Luther was no Tyndale, for Luther’s passion lay not in the beauty of the prose, which would endear Tyndale to the English; but in its immediacy, which would set the German soul alight. The masses could understand Luther’s words in print just as they had when hearing him. Either way, they could understand the truth for themselves: Jesus forgives your sins, and does so without any thought of payment. Your joy at being forgiven is for Him thanks enough.
It will come as no surprise that the Catholic Church had wanted to silence this kind of talk. Well, that’s how many people think even now. For the truth hurts those for whom words or the system stand as more important. This isn’t to say that there aren’t good Catholic Christians, people who accept a truth that they have sought in their own conscience – the point here is that those who have not searched their consciences will always be pricked by those who have. Their response across the ages has been to gag the offenders. I pity those poor people. For they put their faith in the words that are written on paper before the unseen realities they represent. Unseen realities that are buried in their own consciences, their own hearts.
Martin Luther had shown them the reality of our modern times and shown them that now, authority was but hoarded selfishness. A selfishness that hoarded to itself greedily, and in wanting to protect others, now took from them the very thing they needed most. Who remembers the selfish? Who but the learned scholar knows the names of the council that excommunicated him? Do you? I doubt it. Yet the name of Luther is known in every house in Northern Europe. Who remembers those who put Socrates to death? Not one of you, I should think! Yet we all know who Socrates was. The point is that the truth will out, and the likes of Martin Luther were not concerned about their own individual fate: they had done as their conscience demanded of them. They spoke the truth, and if they were to be punished for it by those who knew it not, so be it. That is the truth of our modern society.
Either you know what it is to search your own conscience, or you will stand against those who do.