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The Walls Come Tumbling Down 1300-1415

IN THE MIDDLE AGES, when knights fought wars in Europe’s fields, robbers roamed the roads and the dark forests seemed filled with unknown dangers, men put their trust in walls. Around each little town rose ramparts of massive stonework, a strong defense against the evils outside. Within the safety of the wall was a crowded little world, complete in itself — a castle‚ a church, a monastery or two, a marketplace and a tangle of cobbled streets lined with the thatch-roofed houses of townsmen.

In such a town a man knew his place. He was a nobleman or a knight, a churchman, a craftsman, or a farmer and there were ancient invisible walls that marked off the little world in which each kind of person belonged. For a lord there was the realm of chivalry. He lived according to the code of knights and in time of war, put on his armour and defended the town against its enemies. In peacetime, he amused himself with hunting, banquets, poetry, music, dancing and wooing ladies in the complicated fashion called courtly love. Religion and scholarship were the territory of monks, priests and bishops. They were men who had learned to read the Bible and other books and who understood the Latin of church services. For commoners, there was work on land owned by the nobles and in shops that served the castle. It was an orderly system and it seemed as if it would never change. No peasant dreamed of becoming a knight or questioned the wisdom of the churchmen. The invisible walls, like the walls of stone around the town, were strong and old and within them a man felt safe.



The world of Europe also had its walls in the Middle Ages. To the east and south, along the edge of Asia and the top of Africa, Europe was hemmed in by a chain of towns and fortresses, the strongholds of fierce Turks who did not welcome visitors. On the north and west there was the Ocean Sea, a vast body of water that some men said was endless. Monsters lived in this sea, they said — huge serpents, sea dragons and perhaps devils. No one cared to sail out to make certain. When mapmakers drew this mysterious area of ocean, they put in a few islands — imaginary ones — and filled the rest of the space with pictures of the monsters. Their charts of southern Africa trailed off into blurred‚ uncertain lines and patches of land labeled: “Here be savage beasts.” Their maps of Asia were not much better. They were content with the lands they knew, the world bound in by enemies and ocean. It was a world that was crowded, familiar and safe.

Christendom was the name most men used when they spoke of this world. All of its people belonged to one religion, the Christian Church, whose leader was the pope in Rome. Priests who lived among the townsmen, bishops who supped with lords and scholars who taught at universities were all representatives of the pope. Kings bowed to his commands, for it was he who proclaimed that God had chosen the kings to rule. All men and women ordered their lives according to the doctrines of his Church. On Sundays, in every town of Europe, people heard mass said in the same way, saw the same sacred ceremonies performed and spoke the same prayers. They obeyed the orders of the pope and his representatives without question, certain that if they kept the rules of the Church they would enter heaven when they died. For centuries, these things, like life in the walled towns and the shape of the world men knew, went unchanged.


Then, at the turn of the fifteenth century there was a restless stirring in Europe. Men began to peer beyond the walls they had hidden behind for so long. A century later, the old boundaries seemed to crumble and disappear. Townsmen competed with nobles for fortunes and fame. Sea captains in search of foreign gold braved the unknown ocean. Men and women searched for a way of worship that was more than rules and ceremonies. They learned to read the Bible, prayed for God’s blessing in their own ways and called for the pope to reform his Church.


It was a time of change, a time for adventurous men, for explorers and scholars‚ gold-seekers and scientists, men who dared to think for themselves and to act on their thoughts. In the Church, it would be called the Age of Reformation. It was also an Age of Exploration, a time for roaming the sea, learning the true shape of the earth, solving the mysteries of unknown lands and over coming monsters by proving they were not there at all.

It was a time of revolution and afterward nothing seemed to be as it had been in the Middle Ages. There were many Christian churches where there had been just one. The world men knew was twice as large as the greatest world their ancestors had ever imagined, for the captains had discovered a second vast sea and between the two oceans they had come upon a mass of land that they called the New World.


Adventurers, dreamers and rebels played their parts in the revolutions of discovery and reform. The first stirrings were the work of practical‚ quiet men who set out to earn a living and had no thought of changing the world.


In Italy, Germany, the Lowlands and England, merchants cautiously began to explore long forgotten trade routes that led through the hills and plains outside their towns. They came home with handsome goods — soft woolen cloth, velvets, brocades and fine steel armour. Noblemen rushed to buy, the merchants went in search of more wares and profits and with each trip they ventured a bit farther away from home. Of course it could be dangerous along the roads haunted by highwaymen, robber bands and wolves. For the sake of gold, a man was willing to take a risk and often he found that the dangers were not so great as he had imagined.

The knights also ventured beyond their towns and castles. At the urging of the pope, they donned their armour, joined crusades, and rode off to batter at the Turkish wall and teach the heathen the ways of Christianity. They won few converts with their swords and conquered little land. Indeed, the furious Turks tightened their chain around Europe and attacked the last free cities of Asia. In the East the crusaders discovered markets overflowing with the luxuries of the Indies. They returned to their castles laden with silks, delicate jeweled baubles and their most exciting discovery, spices – -nutmeg and cinnamon, pepper, ginger and cloves. Kings and noblemen were willing to pay well to obtain these savory flavourings and before long, more merchants than crusaders were traveling east.

It was difficult, however, to do business in Asia. The Turks hated Christians. They refused to deal with European traders, or else invited them into their cities only to imprison them. The few Turks who did trade charged such high prices that few customers could afford to buy. When the last of the market-cities of Asia fell to Turkish warriors‚ Europe’s supply of Indian delicacies was cut off almost altogether. Meals in the castles were once more plain and tasteless, the price of pearls went up and ladies of the courts had to make do with scarves of wool instead of Silk.

The merchants, anxious to make money again, took a sudden, deep interest in geography. They knew that the goods in the Asian markets came from lands far beyond the territory of the Turks. They studied maps, plotted out the old trade routes to India and the Islands of Spice and tried to find a gap in the wall of Turkish settlements. Every route, every caravan trail across Persia, Arabia and Egypt, was blocked. The merchants were determined men. If they could not get through the Turkish barrier, they would go around it. If they could not go by land, they would go by sea.

They began to hound mapmakers and sea captains with questions. What was the shape of southern Africa? Was there a way around it to the Indian Sea that led to the lands of spice and pearls? How big was the Ocean Sea? What lay beyond it? Were there actually monsters there or was that merely a sailors’ tale?

The mapmakers shrugged pointed to their charts and said that they had drawn in everything that they knew was there. Some ancient geographers, they added, had held that the world was round. If that was true, the Ocean Sea must eventually touch the shores of Asia, but probably it was only a wild theory.

Some seamen were embarrassed and some were annoyed by the merchants’ questions. No captain with any sense at all, they said ever sailed out of sight of the coasts he knew. It was inviting death to voyage on the open sea.

Perhaps so, the merchants replied, but men had once been afraid to travel the open roads of Europe. The sea traders who found a way to the Indies would win a fortune; surely it was worth risking dangers that might not even exist. Of course, it would be a great service to Christendom to carry missionaries to preach to the heathen who lived on the other side of the Turks.

This last argument caught the interest of the pope, the talk of fortunes impressed Europe’s kings and a few sea captains began to think timidly about plans to explore the unknown ocean, at least the near-by areas.


While the captains thought, the merchants were busy raising questions of another kind, questions that caused a much greater stir in the little towns of Europe. The new traders owned thriving businesses and had purses well filled with gold. They were impatient with lords who called them commoners and reminded them to keep their places. “What places?” the merchants asked. What was a lord‚ after all? He was merely a man who had been born in a castle and raised to be a gentleman. Well, anyone with enough money could build a mansion as grand as a castle and with the proper education, he could behave like a gentleman.


To prove their point, the merchants built huge, handsomely decorated houses and hired the services of tutors, dancing masters and music teachers. They went hunting and practiced writing verses. They sent their sons to the universities, where they learned to read Latin as well as any scholarly churchman could.

To the distress of their professors, the new students developed the habit of thinking as well as reading for themselves. They discovered old books that the instructors seemed to have forgotten — volumes of philosophy, science and poetry written in the great days of ancient Greece and Rome. The churchmen’s wisdom seemed pale and old-fashioned beside these brilliant books. The ancients seemed to have been as adventurous and as practical as an up-to-date merchant and just as willing to give up safety for the sake of fame, gold, honour, or an idea that no one else quite dared to believe. Indeed, it appeared that the ancients and the new merchants had much in common and as the students read of the magnificent accomplishments of the Romans and Greeks, they talked excitedly of a new age in which the ancient greatness would live again.

When the young men came home with their new ideas, they looked with questioning eyes at the old towns, the old customs and unchanging ways of the Church. On Sundays, at mass, they would understand the Latin spoken by the priests and they noticed that often it was mumbled, as though the meaning of the words had been forgotten. They saw monks, who had vowed to give up all worldly pleasures, gorging themselves at banquets. They saw men given high offices in the Church, not because they were good men, but because they were relatives of a cardinal or the pope. There were bishops and cardinals, princes of the Church, who were only fourteen years old. Such officers were useless to the Church. Appointed to serve in one town, they wandered off to some other city or to a court where life was more comfortable or gay and they were never seen again by the people they were supposed to guide on the road to heaven.

At the same time, collections were taken for these bishops’ and cardinals’ treasuries. Gold was also collected for local churches, feast days, marriages, christenings, burials, special funds for good works, funds for new buildings, crusades and the pope. Monasteries claimed great tracts of fine land in the name of the Church. Indeed, it often seemed that wealth, not goodness, was the key to the gates of heaven. For a gift of gold to the Church, a man could be granted forgiveness and pardon for his sins.

It was sinful to question the ways of the Church. But the merchants’ sons found it difficult to go on believing that the Church could never be wrong, that churchmen were always wise and holy. Then, in 1378, a dispute divided the Church and its bishops. Instead of one pope, there were two, each claiming to be the leader of Christendom. Many men began to have doubts about the rulers of religion. In England, a scholar-priest in Oxford, John Wyclif, dared to speak aloud the troubling questions. He also suggested answers that sharply disagreed with age-old customs of Christendom. The Church and all the clergy, said Wyclif, must give up their wealth. No man could be both rich and holy. If churchmen refused to free themselves of their lands and gold, then the kings should take their riches from them.


From bishops, priests and monks in every corner of England came howls of protest and appeals were sent to both popes to command Wyclif to be silent. Wyclif replied that there was no pope at all at present. If the pope is not a good man, he explained, then he is not actually pope. When the bishops objected to this reasoning, Wyclif said that it seemed to him that every man, including the pope, could have his “dominion,” his place in life, granted by God. If he is sinful, if he does not deserve his place, then he has no God-given right to it and no one need respect him, though he call himself nobleman, king, bishop or pope.


The English churchmen did their best to answer Wyclif’s arguments, but he was the most brilliant priest in England and made fools of the men who attacked him. He also had the support of many commoners, for he told them that it was their right — and their duty — to seek God for themselves. Priests, he said, were only guides, not the gatekeepers of heaven. It was pointless to fear their wrath and useless to pay for their prayers. No one, not even a good pope, could reserve a man a place in paradise.

Wyclif wrote an English translation of the Bible so that ordinary Englishmen might read God’s word themselves. The Scriptures did little good, he said, locked away in Latin that only churchmen and nobles could understand. The bishops were shocked and furious. To them, the Church’s Latin was as sacred as its doctrines. Of course, men and women who could not read had to depend on priests to tell them what the Bible said and meant. The bishops met at Canterbury and attacked Wyclif the Bible translator. He was a heretic, they said, a man who denied the true doctrines of Christianity. They voted, in Latin, to order him to leave his church post and Oxford.

Wyclif did as he was commanded, but his Bible was read and his ideas were not forgotten. For years his followers, the commoners, made England uncomfortable for priests and for noblemen, who feared that men who questioned a bishop’s right to be a bishop might also begin to wonder about a lord’s right to be a Lord. When the stir died down in England, about 1400, it began again in central Europe, in the little country that was then called Bohemia.

“I declare to you that I have read and studied the works of Master John Wyclif, and that I have learned from them much that is good,” said Jan Hus to a crowd of people gathered in a church in Prague, the chief city of Bohemia. Hus, a fiery priest, was the most popular preacher in the city and Sunday after Sunday he cried out against the evils he saw in the Church. Hus called for the bishops and cardinals to reform the Church, to sweep it clean of men who made a mockery of the house of God. He repeated the heresies of Wyclif and said the pope could make mistakes like other men. Indeed, be added, if the pope lived sinfully, he was no true pope at all.

The merchants and craftsmen flocking to Hus’ church nodded in agreement with his words. From Prague, the cry for church reforms spread across Bohemia, for in no other country did the Church own more land or were churchmen more worldly.

The leaders of the Church, angry and frightened, tried to put a stop to this dangerous talk. In 1410, Bohemia’s archbishop made a bonfire of 200 copies of Wyclif’s writings. He commanded Hus never to mention the English priest or his theories again. Hus refused and went to the people. “Behold, I have appealed the archbishop’s decree,” he shouted. “Will you stand by me?” The people shouted in return, “We will and do stand by you.”


There were now three popes who claimed the leadership of Christendom. From one of them came a bull of excommunication, a decree denying Hus membership in the Church and condemning him to eternal damnation.

Hus ignored the papal bull and went on preaching. “To rebel against an erring pope,” he said, “is to obey the commands of Christ.”


Never before had a man dared to defy the Church so openly. In 1415, when a council of bishops and priests met to settle the matter of too many popes, it was decided that the heresies of Jan Hus should also be discussed. Hus was commanded to appear before the council. He refused at first, for he was certain that the churchmen meant to punish him. Then the Holy Roman Ernperor, the overlord of Bohemia, offered him a “safe conduct,” a promise that he would not be harmed while he was in Constance, the German city where the council was meeting. Hus left Bohemia, rode to Constance, presented himself to the bishops and was promptly arrested. It was not necessary, the churchmen said‚ to keep a promise made to a heretic.

While Hus sat in his cell, the council discussed John Wyclif. He was labeled a heretic and condemned to be burned. Wyclif had long been dead, of course, but his body was dug up and the sentence carried out all the same.

Then it was Hus’ turn. Dragged into the council hall, he was ordered to renounce the theories of Wyclif and his own beliefs that did not agree with the doctrines of the Church and the commands of the pope.

“I cannot,” Hus answered, though he knew his words condemned him to death. To his followers in Bohemia he wrote, “It is better to die well than to live ill. A man should not flinch before a sentence of death . . . for . . . the truth triumphs over all.”

On July 6, 1415, Jan Hus was burned at the stake. One of his friends, writing home to Prague from Constance, pointed out that in the Bohemian language hus means “goose” and he wrote, “Our goose is not cooked yet.”

These words became the rallying cry of Bohemians who believed in Jan Hus’ ideas. The merchants and craftsmen kept those ideas alive, despite the angry opposition of noblemen and churchmen and gradually the talk of reform spread to other countries throughout Europe. A century after Jan Hus’ death, an outspoken German monk, Martin Luther, cried out against the evils in the Church. Thousands of Europeans took courage from his example and raised their voices in a call for reform. They also demanded the right to seek God for themselves through faith and prayer, not through the old ceremonies. When the pope ignored their demands and threatened those who opposed him, the call for reform swelled into a roar of rebellion — the rebellion that is called the Reformation. New translations of the Bible were published, new worship services were invented and the ancient ceremonies of the Church were set aside. There were stirrings, too, in the Church of Rome. The pope called a council to study church reforms and began to favour honest, hard-working priests who won the loyalty of their congregations by their goodness and strong sermons.

Now preachers of the old religion and of the new, tried to win the loyalty of the people in their towns. Their followers, aroused by furious sermons, settled religious disputes in street riots. The one church of Christendom split into many rival churches, so numerous that it seemed Europe could not hold them all.

The world had become much larger than Europe. In 1415, the year in which Jan Hus faced the bishops at Constance, a Portuguese prince founded a school of navigation and taught courage to the cautious sea captains. The old boundaries of the world were crossed. Portuguese ships set out to explore the Ocean Sea and returned with tales of wonderful discoveries — of flower-filled tropical forests, of curious beasts and animals, of strange Arabian ports and of a route around Africa to the Indies. The great age of exploration and foreign conquest had begun.

Men of faith seeking peace with God had little in common with adventurers seeking fortunes and empires. Yet both shared the courage of an age that dared to look beyond the boundaries of the old. Both were practical men with impractical dreams that came true. As they searched for new lands and new ideas, the thick walls of the Middle Ages came tumbling down.

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