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The Protestant Reformation: Causes and Events during Pope Leo X’s Reign

The Protestant Reformation was a major upheaval against the Roman Catholic Church in

16th century Europe. Although religious in nature, the Reformation left a legacy that still shapes

present day society. It fundamentally changed Christian doctrine and organization, but also

paved the way for other significant structural occurrences to take place, such as the improved

quality of education and the secularization of law across nations. The Protestant Reformation

was incited during Pope Leo X’s reign as a culmination of pre-existing resentment towards the

Roman Catholic Church, a cultural awakening that strengthened Reformation ideals, the

impactful message of famous reformers, and the revolutionary abilities of the newly invented

printing press.

The reformation began with public concern over corruption within the Roman Catholic

Church. The Church had been steadily gaining a reputation for being an exploitative organization

in society that preyed on people to advance its own agenda, and this bred anticlerical discontent

and unrest among the common people. Before the Reformation, the Church was enabled by

certain socio-political conditions to exploit the public by gaining their trust. It operated like a

profit-seeking firm in a market, manipulating the demand for spiritual goods and monopolizing

the supply of them (Ekelund, Hebert and Tollison, 2002). This corruption remained deep-seated

in European society for centuries while feudalism was the ruling social and economic system, in

which the centralization of power was part and parcel of a nation’s governance. This hierarchical

distribution of land and wealth kept most people poor, illiterate and reliant on superstition as a

source of moral guidance, something that was highly sought out for during a time when plagues,

sickness and natural disaster ravaged Europe (Iordache, 2017). These social conditions were
instrumental to the Church as it amassed power and enforced itself as a supreme authority in

society, leveraging the public’s grievances to establish absolute control. Assuming the role of

God’s designated middlemen, priests and bishops under the leadership of Pope Leo X effectively

manipulated these circumstances by convincing the public their suffering was due to sin and

ungodliness that could only be resolved through the intervention of the Church. Redemption

could be purchased from the clergy through the sale of indulgences, tithing was a compulsory act

that was claimed to be pleasing to God, and positions of high power in the church could be

bought for a place in heaven (George, 2017). These were strategies implemented by the Catholic

Church to maintain control over the supply of spiritual goods to a disempowered, and therefore,

guaranteed customer base for a price. Moreover, clergymen were looked upon with disdain due

to their irreverent lifestyles of gambling wastefully, drinking and having mistresses (Ferrero,

2014). This gained them a reputation for being depraved hypocrites, behaving against the very

teachings they preached and misusing funds for their enjoyment and pleasure. Over time, the

Catholic Church and the papacy lost public favour as their offences accumulated and people

became collectively angered by the unscrupulous ways in which the Church ignored their needs

and leeched off of their livelihoods. By the turn of the 15th century, the fabric of the Catholic

institution had begun to wear itself down and public resentment led to a building urgency for

change that peaked during the reign of Pope Leo X.

The Reformation was further propelled by the changing economic and cultural landscape

in the 15th and 16th century that paved way for reformation to occur. In the 15th century, Europe

experienced a significant turning point that saw the structure of the economy shift as trade and

commerce expanded rapidly. Feudalism gradually dissolved after the Black Death when the

population dramatically declined and wealth was more evenly distributed. As a result, labour
became scarcer and land-owning nobles were forced to respond by offering higher wages and

greater benefits to peasants to keep them in employment (Peschke, 2007). This change gave

peasants the freedom and mobility to seek out higher sources of income and better lives

elsewhere. This initiated the shift from a land-based hierarchical system to an early capitalist

economy in which people supported themselves independently by participating in the market

through private business (Ekelund, Hebert and Tollison, 2002). Consequently, this new growing,

self-sufficient middle class enjoyed increased wealth and a better overall quality of life

(Dillenberger, 1961). This had a huge impact on the public’s propensity to think about their lives

beyond day-to-day survival, and this included a greater interest towards matters of the spiritual,

existential and political. This influenced the wave of humanist thinking that defined the

Renaissance which, later on, played a role in eliminating ideological resistance towards ideas of

reformation that might have otherwise existed. The Reformation reflected and embodied the

fundamental spirit of humanism in its emphasis of greater personal autonomy and abolishing the

status quo. These sentiments had already been prevalent in society due to the intellectual

developments of the Renaissance that broke society away from dogma and superstition in

exchange for human agency and rationalism instead. People’s beliefs about God and the

supernatural opened up as they began thinking more critically about the institution of religion

and their relationship to it. Moreover, theologians and intellectuals who had been proponents of

humanist thought supported the ideas of the Reformation or became reformers themselves, which

further added to the impact of the Reformation. The reformers Jean Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli

were both educated within a framework of humanism before they joined the Reformation and led

movements in their own cities; Calvin was a humanist lawyer and Zwingli attended the

University of Basel, which was regarded as a centre of humanism (Iordache, 2017). The
intellectual developments during Pope Leo X’s reign were integral in giving credence to the

objective of the Protestant Reformation.

Against the backdrop of anti-papal sentiment and growing humanist thought came the

definitive push for change by determined reformers. Before the events of the Reformation, the

demand for reform had already existed for centuries. Oxford scholar and theologist John

Wycliffe was a strong critic of the Catholic Church in the 14th century and he had produced

several works in which he attacked the hegemony of the Church. In his 1380 book “Objection of

Friars”, Wycliffe condemned the corruption within the papacy and the clergy claiming that their

actions were antithetical to scripture (Murray, 1829). Jan Hus and the Christian humanist

Erasmus, two other important predecessors to the Reformation, both challenged the Church in

their own right and called for the replacement of the monastic hierarchy for the rule of Biblical

divine law instead (Becker, Pfaff and Rubin, 2016). These reformers had published a series of

works before Martin Luther that focused on the individual spiritual experience informed by the

Bible as opposed to empty ceremonies and rituals conducted by the Church. Erasmus was also

the first to publish the New Testament in Greek, which Martin Luther used in writing the famous

95 Theses that sparked revolution (George, 2017). The ideas of these reformers were evidently

integral for reformation to occur but it was not until Martin Luther’s message emerged that these

ideas could come to fruition. While Luther was lecturing at the University of Wittenberg, Pope

Leo X launched the sale of indulgences to raise revenue for the construction of Saint Peter’s

Cathedral. Luther was appalled at this decision as it emphasized salvation through works, not

faith, and this was an alarming sign of the increasing commercialization of church. In response,

Luther wrote and posted his famous 95 Theses on the door of Wittenburg’s castle church. Due to

the public and controversial nature of this act, the 95 Theses incited debate amongst other
scholars and theologists while garnering attention from the masses. After centuries of feeling

disempowered in hands of the Church, the public saw the opportunity to make their frustrations

known by standing behind Luther’s call for change. His 95 Theses gave a concrete, audible voice

to their growing disgruntlement. Even though Luther was placed under a papal ban and

excommunicated by the church in 1520, he was steadfast in his beliefs and used the Church’s

attempts to thwart him as further fuel to undermine the power of the papacy. In another act of

defiance, he burned the papal order in front of his supporters (Howard, 2005) and it was this

bravery in standing against the church that inspired support. As opposed to the reformers before

him, the Church could not successfully stifle his efforts to bring about change due to the

overwhelming attention and support his message had. He stirred the pot of brewing frustration

and converted centuries of discontent into action. His determination was rewarded with

widespread public acceptance and this was crucial for reform to occur during Pope Leo X’s


Furthermore, Martin Luther’s message was spread rapidly through Europe due to the

emergence of the printing press. Invented in 1450 by Johann Gutenberg, the printing press was

being used in almost every city in Europe by the end of the 15th century (Rubin, 2014). Literacy

rates rose as a result of this and the masses had easier access to religious books at a lesser cost

(Howard, 2005), but no one wielded the power of the printing press quite like Martin Luther did.

After pinning his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s church, there was an outburst of support

from Luther’s peers and other clerics for the points he brought attention to. They began

discussing these points amongst themselves and soon after, this spilled over into the public eye.

Capitalizing on the public’s growing interest, Luther began distributing printed editions of the 95

Theses and publishing other books which spread very quickly throughout Germany and then
Northern Europe. By 1520, Luther had written 30 publications which sold over 300 000 copies

(Rubin, 2014). He had gained himself a large following within the span of three years and went

from living in obscurity to being the most published author in Europe, solely responsible for over

half of pamphlet printing before 1550 (Terpstra, Nicholas, and Oberman, 1996). By providing

the public individual access to texts and books that the Catholic Church was previously

gatekeeping, this phenomenon did not just undermine the church but also empowered the

common people, giving them unprecedented autonomy in the way they practiced their faith. The

open accessibility effectively provided by the printing press brought theological discourse out

from monasteries and universities and into the streets and homes of ordinary people (Terpstra,

Nicholas, and Oberman, 1996). This was a historically significant change due to the heavily

guarded, secretive nature of theological discussion prior to the Reformation. It successfully

fulfilled the vision that Luther and the reformers before him had which characterized the spirit of

Protestantism: man having a direct, unmediated relationship to God, based on faith informed by

God’s divine law. By the time the Church chose to intervene and undo the storm that was the

Reformation, it was too late. Luther’s message had spread all around Europe, and other

reformers had already taken up the mantle of change by organizing action against the Catholic

institution in their own cities. John Calvin began implementing the reformation in Geneva, and

Zwingli began the Protestant revolt in Zurich, with many Swiss and Southern German cities

following suit (Iordache, 2017). By combining his message with the technology of the printing

press, Martin Luther’s message was unstoppable, creating ripple effects in countries surrounding

Germany. Luther’s ability to harness the power of the printing press was a pivotal aspect to why

the Reformation occurred when it did.

Although the timeline of events causing the Reformation are debated amongst historians,

they agree it was a consequence of several key events that gradually altered the social climate,

until it was ripe for reform during Pope Leo X’s reign. The history of abuse by those in power

within the Roman Catholic Church eventually caught up with them, and public discontent peaked

as humanist values of the Renaissance were becoming increasingly popular. These period-

specific changes were instrumental in creating widespread public support for the message of

Martin Luther and his fellow reformers, and utilizing the printing press boosted that support

exponentially throughout Europe, successfully creating the movement that became the Protestant

Reformation. These intersecting factors made the ground fertile for reformation to occur during

Pope Leo X’s reign.

Works Cited

Becker, Sascha O., Steven Pfaff, and Jared Rubin. "Causes and Consequences of the
Protestant Reformation." Explorations in Economic History 62 (2016): 1-25.

Dillenberger, John. Martin Luther: Selections From His Writing. New York: Anchor
Books, 1961.

Ekelund, Jr, Robert B., Robert F. Hebert, and Robert D. Tollison. "An Economic
Analysis of the Protestant Reformation." Joumal of Political Economy110, no. 3 (2002).

Ferrero, Mario. "Competition between Judaism and Christianity: Pauls Galatians as Entry
Deterrence." Kyklos67, no. 2 (2014): 204-26.

George, Timothy. "What the Reformers Thought They Were Doing." Modern Age, 2017.

Howard, R. G. "The Double Bind of the Protestant Reformation: The Birth of

Fundamentalism and the Necessity of Pluralism." Journal of Church and State47, no. 1 (2005):

Iordache, Mihai. "Causes of the Protestant Reformation and the Concept of Freedom
Viewed by the Great Reformers: Martin Luther, Jean Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. An Orthodox
Vision." Revista Teologica99, no. 3 (2017).

Murray, Thomas. The Life of John Wycliffe. Edinburgh: J. Boyd, 1829.

Peschke, Zachary. "The Impact of the Black Death." ESSAI5, no. 32 (2007).

Rubin, Jared. "Printing and Protestants: An Empirical Test of the Role of Printing in the
Reformation." Review of Economics and Statistics96, no. 2 (2014): 270-86.

Terpstra, Nicholas, and Heiko Oberman. "The Reformation: Roots and

Ramifications." Sixteenth Century Journal27, no. 1 (1996): 202.