The Special Function of History

“Now the special function of history, particularly in relation to speeches, is first of all to discover the words actually used, whatever they were, and next to establish the reason why a particular action or argument failed or succeeded.  The mere statement of a fact, though it may excite our interest, is of no benefit to us, but when the knowledge of the cause is added, then the study of history becomes fruitful.  For it is the ability to draw analogies between parallel circumstances of the past and of our own times which enables us to make forecasts as to what is to happen: thus in some cases where a given course of action has failed, we are impelled to take precautions so as to avoid a recurrence, while in others we can deal more confidently with the problems that confront us by repeating a solution which has previously succeeded.  On the other hand, a writer who passes over in silence the speeches which were actually made and the causes of what actually happened and introduces fictitious rhetorical exercises and discursive speeches in their place destroys the peculiar virtue of history.” Polybius, The Histories XII. 25b, trans. Ian Scott-Kilvert (London: Penguin, 1979), p. 440.

Polybius wrote a history of the Roman Republic’s rise to becoming the greatest power in the Mediterranean world from 264 to 146 BC.  He was a Greek noble who spent seventeen years as a hostage among the Romans.  In Rome he became close to some of the most powerful Roman leaders including Scipio Aemilianus, who oversaw the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC.  Polybius traveled with Scipio to North Africa and most likely Spain also.

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A Virgin Shall Conceive

“Perhaps at the time the angel came, she was holding [the text of] Isaiah in her hands; perhaps she was then studying the prophecy which declares: Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and his name will be called Emmanuel.* I think that at this moment these [words of the] Scriptures were producing a very appealing conflict in her heart.  I think that when she read that it was to come to pass that a certain virgin would give birth to the Son of God, secretly and with some fear she longed that she might be that virgin. But at the same time she considered herself utterly unworthy of being granted such a privilege.” Aelred of Rievaulx, “Sermon 9: For the Annunciation of the Lord,” in Aelred of Rievaulx: The Liturgical Sermons, trans. Theodore Berkeley and M. Basil Pennington (Kalamazoo 2001), p. 162. [Italics in original]

Aelred of Rievaulx preached on the Annunciation of the Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary here.  As a Cistercian abbot in the twelfth century, Aelred focused on the Incarnation on Christ in his preaching and devotional texts.  Notice how he imagines that Mary was reading the text of Isaiah that prophesied Virgin’s conception and birth of Christ.  Gabriel brings God’s word to Mary but she was also reading text of holy Scripture. Later  medieval artists often depicted Mary as reading this text when Gabriel appeared to her as depicted in the Isenheim Altarpiece painting to the right (Photo taken by Matthew Phillips).  Medieval theologians emphasized Mary’s virtues.  Aelred did not differ as he concluded:

“Charity conflicted with fear, devotion with humility.  At one moment she almost despaired through overwhelming fear; at the next, through the overwhelming desire she drew from it, she could not but hope.  First, devotion moved her to presume to it, but then her great humility moved her to hesitate.  It was then, when she was in this [moment of] hesitation, this wavering, this longing, that the angel came to her and said: Hail, full of grace.”** Ibid.

*Isaiah 7:14

**Luke 1:28

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How Students Deceive Themselves

“For the first step in learning is the capacity to doubt, nor is there anything so inimical to learning as the presumption of one’s own erudition or excessive reliance upon one’s own wits: the one takes away our interest in learning, while the other diminishes it, and in this way students unnecessarily deceive themselves.  The easiest person to deceive is one’s self, and there is no one our deceit damages more than ourselves.  This comes about because inexperienced students have not yet been permitted to assess the byways, bends and precipices which lie hidden in the sciences;* hence they either mistakenly correct many things in books which they are unable to understand well on their own, or they blame the ignorance and carelessness of scribes, passing deliberately over the numerous things they do not understand.  Effort and perseverance will shrug off such attitudes, however.” Piero Paolo Vergerio, “Character and Studies Befitting a Free-Born Youth,” in The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be An Educated Human Being, ed. Richard M. Gamble. Wilmington 2007, p. 323. [Emphasis added]

Vergerio wrote this pedagogical work around 1400.  His writing represents the epitome of Renaissance learning and teaching.  Here, he points out how students often deceive themselves through presumption or ignorance.

*This word means all areas of knowledge

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The Perversity and Ingratitude of the World

“For the perversity and ingratitude of the world is so great that it often repays evil to those who have deserved good from it and sometimes even treats them very rudely; on the other hand, it elevates and honors the wicked.  So David, a holy man and very good king, was driven out of his kingdom; the prophets, Christ, and the apostles were killed.  The histories of all nations attest that many men who deserved the best from their country were driven into exile by their own fellow citizens, that they had a miserable life there, and that some of them came to a bitter end in prison.” Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians 4:6, LW 26:387.

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Delusion Makes You Happy

If Folly is any judge, that man is the happiest who is most thoroughly deluded.  May he remain in that state which comes from me alone and is so widespread that I doubt whether there can be found one person in the whole race of man who has been wise for every moment of his life and has never been touched by some madness or other. The reason a person who believes he sees a woman when in reality he is looking at a gourd is called crazy is because this is something beyond usual experience.  However, when a person thinks his wife, who is enjoyed by many, to be a an ever-faithful Penelope, he is not called insane at all because people know that this is a common thing in marriage.” Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, in The Essential Erasmus, trans. John P. Dolan (New York, 1964), 128.

In this famous satire, Erasmus gives folly a voice.  Here he explains how those who are the most deluded seem the happiest in this temporal life.

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Burning the Bull

“Greetings.  On December 10, 1520, at nine o’clock in the morning, all the following papal books were burned in Wittenberg at the eastern gate near the Church of the Holy Cross: the Decretum, the Decretals, the [Liber] Sextus, the Clementines, the Extravagantes, and the most recent bull of Leo X; likewise the Summa Angelica, Eck’s Chrysopassus and other books by this author, writings of Emser, and certain books that were added by different people.  This was done so that the incendiary papists may see that it doesn’t take much to burn books they cannot refute.  This is the news here.” Martin Luther, Letter 67 to George Spalatin, Luther’s Works 48: 186-87. 

Martin Luther wrote these words to George Spalatin, the court chaplain and secretary to Frederick III the Wise of Electoral Saxony on December 10, 1520.   Luther wanted him and others to know that he and his colleagues had defied Pope Leo X’s condemnation of his teachings in the Papal Bull, Exsurge Domine.  Luther had received reports that some authorities had burned some of his writings in other parts of Germany.

Luther’s colleagues, Philip Melanchthon and Johann Agricola organized the event and some students attended.  Luther personally threw a printed copy of Leo’s bull into the fire.  However, the other works that Luther identified held great significance. The Decretum through the Extravagentes contained the full collection of the medieval papal canon law reaching from the mid-twelfth through the mid-fifteenth centuries.  These texts were the legal basis for papal authority and burning them was an incredible act of defiance against the papacy.  The other books included a handbook to guide priests hearing confession (Summa Angelica) and the works by two of Luther’s early papal opponents: Johannes Eck and Jerome Emser. 

If Luther’s publications were a theological turning away from the late medieval papacy in 1520, then the public burning of the bull and the canon law represented a public display of that reality.  Before the end of the year, Luther published an explanation for these actions.*  Since evil books should be burned, Luther reasoned, then destroying these false works of canon law and papal theology was the proper action.  He then listed thirty articles of errors from the papal works including the pope’s grandiose claims to authority in church and world and the confusion of papal law and the gospel.**        

*Martin Luther, Why the Books of the Pope and His Disciples Were Burned by Doctor Martin Luther, Luther’s Works 31:383-95.

**On this entire post see Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation: 1483-1521, trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis 1985), 423-26


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The Origin of Indulgences

A close reading of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses demonstrates that he was calling into question not only the doctrine of indulgences but also the late medieval sacrament of penance. Luther focused on the interior nature of repentance instead of sacramental penance administered by a priest. For instance, he wrote that truly repentant Christians already have complete remission of the penalty and guilt of sin without written indulgences (Thesis 36). Christians should not even seek to lessen the true penalty of sin through obtaining indulgences, but rather embrace the tribulation and the cross that characterized the outward form of true, inward repentance until death (Theses 3, 4, 40, 94, 95). Luther was asking a basic theological question: why would a truly repentant sinner want to receive an indulgence in place of fully participating in Christ’s passion through inner and outward repentance?*

In writing these things, Luther’s emphasis on interior repentance as the foundation of the outward act was similar to twelfth-century theologians’ focus on contrition as the inward part of penance and therefore, more significant. A great proponent of this emphasis on contrition and inner conversion, Peter Abelard (d.1142) criticized greedy bishops for granting partial indulgences at the dedication of churches and altars. These theologians questioned how giving a few coins as alms could remit or replace the outward acts of penance that resulted from a truly penitent soul. These criticisms led scholastic theologians in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries to significantly refine the doctrine of indulgences in relation to the sacrament of penance.**

These theological developments related to the doctrine of penance and indulgences emerged at the same time as a very significant religious and social movement in Western Europe known as the Crusades. While early forms of indulgences existed before the First Crusade, this movement stimulated the papacy’s expansion of the use of indulgences and the theological refinement of the doctrine of penance in the twelfth century. Pope Urban II’s plenary indulgence for the First Crusade reflected an earlier tradition of penitential practice. In the eleventh century after someone confessed a sin, a confessor imposed a penance, such as, fasting or a pilgrimage depending on the severity of the sinful action. Then, only after the sinner had fulfilled his or her penance, the confessor gave absolution.***

Based on the average layman’s inability to fully satisfy the debt of his sin through acts of penance, the Church offered the commutation of penance. This meant that the penitent could commute or exchange the completion of his or her sin through a lesser act that benefited the Church or others, such as, giving a donation to a monastery or specific church. Urban II’s indulgence went beyond a mere commutation and rather offered an armed pilgrimage to reconquer Jerusalem and pray at the Holy Sepulcher as a super-satisfactory act that completed all penance owed for all confessed sins. The burden of penances weighed heavily on a Christian knight’s soul and Urban offered an incredible opportunity to lift it.****

During the twelfth century the understanding of indulgences shifted to reflect a new theology of penance that emphasized contrition for sin and confession to a priest followed by absolution. Having received the forgiveness of sin’s guilt, the penitent then performed acts of satisfaction to pay for the penalty of sin. The notion of purgatory as a place where a sinner fulfilled his or her satisfaction through suffering became more precisely defined. An indulgence granted by the proper ecclesiastical authority (i.e., the pope) remitted the debt of the temporal punishment of sin. The papacy’s plenary indulgences remained limited to participants in various crusades, but bishops also expanded their offering of partial indulgences for confessed sins in the twelfth century. While some indulgences required attendance at churches or the veneration of relics, others allowed the penitent to give alms, donations for the building of churches, monasteries, hospitals, or even bridges without a specific requirement of attendance. During this century all indulgences began to emphasize the connection with contrition and oral confession. Instead of discouraging the practice of confession among laity, it seemed to increase lay participation in religious life or at least the bishops hoped it would do so. Additionally, indulgence promoters (questors) operated in the twelfth century and some unscrupulously absconded with the money raised through donations.*****

In the early thirteenth century the use of the indulgences expanded to include those who not only participated in a crusade, but also those who supported a crusade through prayer or financial support. Innocent III (1198-1216), who had been trained by scholastic theologians in Paris, sought to include all of Christian society in the crusading movement by arranging liturgical processions and appointing specific times for crusade preaching. Those who participated in these events could at the very least receive partial indulgences for contritely confessed sins. He also appointed preachers who promoted the more refined view of the sacrament of penance and combined crusade preaching with social and moral reform. At this same time Innocent approved the practice of indiscriminately allowing people to take the cross. Then, those who could not fulfill their crusader vow could later redeem or commute them and receive the plenary indulgence. This practice of vow redemption led to many individuals supporting the cause of crusading through financial support and prayer in thirteenth century.******

Late medieval popes expanded the availability of plenary indulgences to all penitents in the fourteenth century. Boniface VIII introduced the jubilee indulgence associated with a pilgrimage to Rome in 1300. Additionally, the bishops and popes continued to offer indulgences for deathbed confessions and other religious acts of devotion. By the fifteenth century the complete doctrine and practice of indulgences, which Martin Luther later attacked in 1517, had become commonplace. As the successors of St Peter, the Roman popes claimed that they held the power to a heavenly treasury filled with the merit earned by Christ’s Passion. Lastly, in the late fifteenth century, Pope Sixtus IV proclaimed that souls in purgatory could benefit from the papal granting of indulgences from that treasury of merit. Thereby, he only affirmed a practice that had existed for some time.*******

*Ninety-Five Theses see Luther’s Works, vol. 31 (Philadelphia 1957), 25-33.

**Matthew Phillips, “The Thief’s Cross: Crusade and Penance in Alan of Lille’s Sermo de cruce domini,” Crusades 5 (2006): 151-53; Nicholas Vincent, ‘Some Pardoners’ Tales: The Earliest English Indulgences’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 12 (2002), 23-58.

***Martin Luther referred to this practice in Thesis 12 which reads, “In former times canonical penalties were imposed, not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.”

****Ibid, 28-29; Marcus Bull, Knightly Piety and the Lay Response to the First Crusade (Oxford 1993), 166-71. For a general overview of the relationship between the Crusades and indulgences see Jessalynn Bird, “Indulgences and Penance,” ed. Alan V. Murray, The Crusades: An Encyclopedia, vol. 2 (Oxford 2006), 633-37.

*****Vincent, “Some Pardoners’ Tales,” 38-50; Mary C. Mansfield, The Humiliation of Sinners (Ithaca 1995), 34-35.

******Jessalynn Bird, “Innocent III, Peter the Chanter’s Circle, and the Crusade Indulgence: Theory, Implementation, and Aftermath,” in Innocenzo III: Urbs et Orbis, Atti del Congresso Internazionale (Rome, 9-15 September 1998), ed. Andrea Sommerlechner (2003), 501-24.

*******R.W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (London 1970), 136-43.

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Defy Everything: Martin Luther in 1520

“Let us…commit the affairs of men to God in faithful prayer, and be calm.  What can they do? Will they kill [me]?  Will they revive [me] again in order to kill [me] again? Will they brand me [me] a heretic?  Christ was condemned with the wicked, with the seducers and the cursed men.  Whenever I meditate on the Lord’s Passion, I really burn to think that my tribulation is not only considered to be ‘something’ by such prominent people, and so many, but even a most important ‘something,’ when it reality it is just nothing. We are completely unaccustomed to suffering and evil, that is, to the Christian life.  Therefore let it be; the more powerfully they rise up, the more securely I laugh at them.  I am determined to fear nothing in this and defy everything.” Martin Luther, Letter 50 to George Spalatin (January 14, 1520), Luther’s Works 48:147-48.

This statement displayed the beginning of a shift in Luther’s attitude that would conclude in a theological turning point for the Western Christian world in 1520.  In this year, Dr. Martin Luther published a number of significant texts that demonstrated that theologically he had turned a metaphorical corner and was not looking back.  The papacy reopened Luther’s case about the same time as he wrote that letter to Spalatin.  Pope Leo X condemned 41 theological errors in Luther’s writings in the papal bull: Exsurge Domine on June 15, 1520.  After his reception of this document in early October, Martin Luther would have the choice to recent or face punishment as a heretic. 

By the time he received the papal bull, Luther had written two definitive works that demonstrated his decision to defy everything:   The first work, To The Christian Nobility of the German Nation, appeared in August.  It represented a definitive break with the late medieval papacy and a direct attack on the authority of the “Romanists,” as Luther now referred to his main theological opponents.  The entire treatise was quite long and addressed theological, ecclesiastical, and social reform. 

Martin Luther published the second work, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, in early October.  Luther began the work with the bold assertion that the Church had only three sacraments: baptism, penance, and the Lord’s Supper. And he stated at the end of the treatise that penance lacked a divinely-instituted sign.  He rejected confirmation, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction as sacraments. To be clear, he did not reject these as practices, but he rejected them as divinely-ordained signs that give the forgiveness of sins.  The Western Church had accepted seven sacraments since the 12th century.  This was a momentous change.

Luther followed his intention expressed in the letter to Spalatin.  In 1520, he definitively and publicly rejected papal authority in the church and refined sacramental theology based on his study of Scripture.  The papal bull arrived in Wittenberg in early October.  While Luther agreed to write a conciliatory letter to the pope, he would never agree at this point to recent his teachings. 

On October 30, 1520, he wrote a letter to the young Duke John Frederick (later Elector of Saxony).  In this letter he expressed the same attitude that he had in January.  He explained in the following manner: “As the bull in no way frightened me, I intend to preach, lecture, and write in spite of it.”*  Luther did exactly this until he went to the Diet of Worms in April 1521 to plead his case before Emperor Charles V. 

*Letter 65 to Duke John Frederick, LW 48:183.  


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Fortune Grows Cruel

Fortune began to grow cruel and confuse everything.  Men who had easily endured hard work, dangers, uncertainty and adversity found that leisure and wealth, things desirable at other times, were a burden and the cause of misery.  And so, at first, greed for money grew, then greed for power.  Ambition forced many men to become liars, to hide one thing in their heart and have something else ready on their tongue, to value friendship and enmity according to convenience, not substance, and to put up a good face rather than have a good heart.  At first, these things grew gradually, they were  punished occasionally; afterwards, when this contagion invaded like a plague, the state changed, and the political power which had been most just and best became cruel and intolerable.’ Sallust, Catiline’s Conspiracy 10, trans. William W. Batstone (Oxford 2010), 15. [Emphasis added]

Here Sallust describes society in the breakdown of social virtue in the late Roman Republic.  The Romans had conquered much of Mediterranean world by the end of the 2nd century BC.  The blessings of wealth and leisure led to misery instead of happiness.  Ambition created liars and transformed society from just to cruel and evil.  If one examines the actions of the Roman Senatorial class during the late Republic then Sallust’s words give an apt description.  Roman Senators promoted Roman State’s actions to enrich themselves particularly in the area of foreign policy.   

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Love and Rewards

“God is not loved without a reward, although he should be loved without regard for one.  True charity cannot be worthless, still, as ‘it does not seek its own advantage,’ it cannot be termed mercenary.  Love pertains to the will, it is not a transaction; it cannot acquire or be acquired by a pact.  Moving us freely, it makes up spontaneous.  True love is content with itself; it has its own reward, the object of its love.  Whatever you seem to love because of something else, you do not really love; you really love the end pursued and not that by which it is pursued…True love merits its reward, it does not seek it.” Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God VII. 17. trans. Emero Steigman (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1995), 20. [Emphasis added]

Bernard focuses on the spontaneous nature of love.  Divine charity transforms the soul.  True love (verus amor) does not seek a reward.  It is not an contractual agreement.  A lover’s desire reshapes her affectus (the word translated as ‘will’ above) and redirects it toward a new object.  Therefore, she seeks no reward from a human lover or God.       


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