The German Reformation had its unique beginnings. Germany before the Reformation was prospering. All classes, except for the knights, were enjoying a better standard of living than ever before. Population throughout Germany had risen, education had spread, literacy was growing, and the princes, bishops and the Holy Roman Emperors were patrons of scholarship and the arts. The humanist movement in Germany was welcomed by the aristocracy, the intellectual community, and the German church.
Enea Silvio Piccolomini, the future Pius II, wrote in 1457 that “Never had Germany been richer, or more resplendent, than today…Without exaggeration it may be said that no country in Europe has better or more beautiful cities.” Nuremberg with its sculptures, churches, and architecture represented this growing German cultural spirit. Augsburg was Germany’s financial and commercial center and the hub of trade with Italy.
Humanism and the simplification of the Faith. German humanism, however, contrary to its Italian counterpart, was more conservative in theology. Germany’s Renaissance, apart from cultural differences, had no classical past. German humanism was a revival of its early Christian roots rather than of classical Roman and Greek antiquity. In religious matters it sought to simplify Catholic faith. The very issues of the Reformation, which included sale of indulgences, worship of relics, immorality of clerics, the authority of the pope, were denounced by the German humanists before Luther.
“If I am not mistaken,” argued Wimpheling, “the conciliar fathers wished to see the true Gospel of Christ preached everywhere…if every priest…were to serve God and celebrate the Eucharist, if popes and emperors, if the whole Church were to draw rich benefit from this holy work, the most efficacious office of them all.” Desiderus Erasmus, who profoundly influenced the German humanists, further denounced ecclesiastical abuses in his In Praise of Folly when he wrote, “What shall I say of such as cry up and maintain the cheat of pardons and indulgences?…Or what can be said bad enough of others, who pretend that by force of such magical charms…they shall procure riches, honor, pleasure…after death a sitting at the right hand of our Savior and His Kingdom.” Humanists, like Erasmus and Wimpheling, therefore, helped to ready the mind of Germany to take up Luther’s challenge against Tetzel and the popes. Humanism, with its extension of literacy and education, contributed to the questioning of traditional beliefs. In addition, educated people disliked the superstitions connected with pilgrimages, relics, indulgences, and other practices. Unfortunately, the German humanist movement became lost in the upheaval of the Reformation that centered its teachings of personal salvation in heaven and discouraged classical studies and human fulfillment on earth. In promoting the Reformation, Germany reverted to intolerance and prejudice.
Pathway to Independence: Banking, Commerce and Mining. A major growth, meanwhile, was proceeding in German industry and commerce. Although industry was still in handicrafts, it was controlled by new entrepreneurs who were to comprise a rising merchant class, which came to power in Germany as it had in the rest of Europe. The social structure was changing. A new class of men were looking to trade and manufacturing instead of land to improve their livelihood. Money, rather than the aristocracy of birth, controlled the economy. The business class, with this new money economy, soon dominated the cities, and expanding trade provided new opportunities to the emerging burgher middle class. The mining industry was also making progress. Great profits were made from the mining of silver, copper, and gold, and the royalties paid from mining to the territorial princes gave them the financial independence that they needed to resist both the pope and the emperor. These economic changes transformed German society and the national spirit reflected these changes. As a result of this growing money economy, a new class of financiers became a major political power. Christian family firms, primarily the Fuggers, were controlling the flow of money within and without Germany, and with this money came power. Centered in Augsburg, which became the financial capital of Europe, the Fuggers raised their firm to supreme status by loaning money to the princes of Germany, Austria, Hungary, and to the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. They were described as the financiers of the Habsburgs. The Fuggers now surpassed the Medicis, the Italian banking family, and had more funds at their disposal than any other banker in Europe. When loans defaulted, the Fuggers received revenues of mines, lands, or cities. From these investments, the Fuggers became the richest and most influential family in Europe, and a major political force. Jakob II was the culminating financial genius of the family, and from him the free-market era in Germany is dated. So powerful had the Fuggers become that in 1519, when Charles V borrowed 543,000 florins from them to become emperor and delayed repayment, Jakob Fugger II did not hesitate to send him a clear reminder.
These financiers knew who had the power and these men who financed princes, popes, and emperors would not be dictated to by a foreign power located in Rome.
Changing Geo-Politic. There was a changing geo-politic in play within Germany Many cities, not under the territorial jurisdiction of the princes, prospered from the growth of unimpeded trade. These imperial free cities included Strasbourg, Metz, Augsburg, and Worms, among many others. These free cities became thriving centers of industry, commerce, and the arts. They were labeled “free” because they were governed by guilds controlled by the new business class, the burghers. These cities made their own laws, sent representatives to the provincial and imperial diets, and acknowledged no political obedience except to an emperor who was too indebted to them for financial and military help to restrict their activities. These cities were developing centralizing governments, in which the guild representatives played important roles, and emerged as virtually independent states. Like the princes, these free cities cherished their independence and sought to preserve their secular interests. Economics more than religion was their primary concern. They were to play an important role in the Reformation. Population was concentrated in these centers, and the dissemination of ideas by the printing press could be more effective in an urban setting. These free cities would be the first to side with Luther against the Church to protect their economy and secular interests.
German Independence from All the Old Ways. It was against this background that the German Reformation began. This growth of trade and commerce brought about a new awareness of being German. Germans were becoming too vigorous and prosperous to tolerate the medieval restraints of feudalism and the demands imposed by Rome. With this prosperity came a new confidence and a proud sense of German nationality. German cities were flourishing, German ideas were thriving, and German princes were relishing their new financial and political independence. Previously fragmented territories suddenly became proudly independent states interdependent upon one another as never before and bound together economically. As the Roman pope and Holy Roman Emperor sought to maintain their authority, the new German spirit resisted. It was this new political and economic climate that fostered Lutheranism.