FOR the next two centuries, the thought and the religious and political life of Europe were deeply marked by the classics, and by a new joy in living, to which was added energy in questioning old things and looking forward to new. First Italy, then France, Germany, and Spain, and, at last, the England of Elizabeth were stirred by them. Barely five per cent. of the population of any of the countries affected can have had any direct contact with the new scholarship, but they were the men whose influence was strongest.
The Revival of Learning perhaps accelerated Europe's natural progress too violently. Its effect on literature was, whenever it took the form of slavish imitation, one of sterility. In England it was a strong stimulus to native instincts, and its literary results were wholly good. In religion it led directly to the great religious rebellion or Reformation. Our modern Europe, good and bad, has been essentially the child of the Renaissance.
The Christian Church had now been for a thousand years the permanent factor in European life. The Popes at one time were virtually overlords of emperors and kings. The princes of the Church ranked above the greatest nobles, and the humblest parish priest feared no layman. His use of the Latin church service and of the Latin New Testament, his performance of the Communion rite, at which, according to the Roman doctrine the bread and wine were transformed without visible change into the body and blood of Christ, and his duties as confessor, as well as his unmarried state, the vows he took, and the whole style of the Roman service, all tended to make the priest appear as the one intermediary between man and his Maker, and to exalt him accordingly.
But during the later Middle Ages the Papacy fell into the control of the French kings, while local rulers organised strong independent states. The great prelates and the monasteries kept the trappings of power, but the nobles, who had always disliked them, now feared them less. Priestly types, and their defects, are well described in the Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The clergy were themselves divided, and each section joined in the agitation against the others.
The state of the Church called for reform, but not necessarily for violent revolution. Any claim by the Pope to be, in effect, the worldly as well as the spiritual ruler of Europe was certainly anomalous. The prestige of the greater bishops, too, could no longer be maintained undiminished. The monasteries needed reform, as the ablest bishops knew well, and a reforming movement was beginning in England in the early sixteenth century. As for the parish priests and monks, there was a strong case for reducing their numbers, improving their education and suppressing laxity in morals.