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Henry VIII’s break with Rome was an act of state, promptly primarily by political motives, but many of those who supported Henry were appalled at the abuses rife in the Catholic Church and at the corruption of the Papacy.
Some of these went further and sympathized with the growing Protestant movement.
The late Medieval Church
- A poorly educated and underpaid clergy provided most people’s pastoral care, while a small minority of prelates grew wealthy on the profits of pluralism, simony, and nepotism. The sale of indulgences – which remitted the punishment of sin in Purgatory after death to those willing to pay in life – particularly offended reformers.
- Monasteries were in a sad state of decline. Created for those inspired to a life of work and prayer, they had become dumping grounds for inconvenient relatives. A few orders – Franciscan Observants, Carthusians, Bridgettine nuns – still maintained high standards, but most were lukewarm at best.
- Renaissance popes (for example the Borgia, Alexander VI and the Medici, Leo X) led lives of greed, corruption and sensuality, and the small taxes to Rome (annates, Peter’s pence) were accordingly resented. Cardinal Wolsey offered a home-town example of the same patterns of conduct.
- Nonetheless, the Church’s problems should not be exaggerated. Before the Reformation began, many English parishes were still vibrant centers of worship – guilds, fraternities and sororities flourished; and much money was voluntarily left for funerals and chantries (i.e. endowment of priests to say masses for the dead).
- Medieval universities were dominated by clergymen debating theology and philosophy in barbarous Latin. These academics were the mediocre heirs of the great medieval philosophers Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, and Duns Scotus.
- Italian universities never became as immersed in scholasticism as their Northern counterparts. Instead, the study of medicine, law, and rhetoric/eloquence played an important part in their curricula; these studies were based on the texts of classical antiquity.
- In this milieu was born- a movement that wanted to restore original, uncorrupted classical texts and pure language (Latin and Greek).
- The Christian humanists, Desiderius Erasmus, John Colet, and Thomas More applied these ideas to Scripture, and strove to understand the Bible’s real message as a basis for leading truly Christian lives. They exposed clerical ignorance and promoted educational reform.
- The Christian humanists’ influence was limited to the small literate intellectual elite, but they did influence reformers such as Martin Luther, whose message was broadcast more widely.