WE have seen in the previous section how during the fourteenth century the prestige of the Papacy fell almost to zero. A great many concluded that Rome's claims to supremacy were baseless, and that celibacy, transubstantiation, the power to hear confession and give absolution for sin, and, above all, the wealth and worldliness of prelates had no authority in Scripture.
In Italy many cardinals and even several of the Popes adopted the New Learning and devoted their energies to art, literature, and more sensual amusements. Italy went over to a pagan culture which at its best was elegantly un-Christian and, at its worst, rather diabolical. The former type is portrayed vividly in Browning's poem, The Bishop orders his Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church. The latter type produced the Borgia family, whose interest in poison was perhaps exaggerated by tradition, but whose vice and ambition were certainly not compatible with the Christian religion of which the father, Rodrigo, was, as Pope, the titular head. Italian political morality was expounded by Machiavelli in his handbook The Prince.
In theory the Pope was the spiritual and the Emperor the temporal head of Europe. After the destruction of the Imperial power by the Papacy in the thirteenth century the growing young kingdoms became independent and the kings beat down the nobles, assisted by cannon, which battered down baronial castles. Communications improved within each geographical area, so that men of Kent could think of Yorkshiremen as fellow-countrymen. Their speech might still be mutually unintelligible, but national tongues were evolved in all the chief states, usually from a mixture of Latin and the native tribal languages. .Most of the little kingdoms possessed some kind of representative assembly- Parliament, Cortes, or States General-in which the nobles and clergy, and a few inarticulate townsmen, obstructed the king's business. Their credit, never very high, sank considerably during the fifteenth century and the time was coming in most countries for their suppression.
The long wars of England against France, and of the Spanish kingdoms and Portugal against the Moors, helped to crystallise national sentiment. Internationalism in Europe was weaker at the beginning of the sixteenth century than ever before or since.
The New Learning unsettled priests and poets, and even the lawyers remodelled their local law in the spirit of the Roman legal system which, under its despotism, had legal conceptions quite alien to those of the oligarchic Middle Ages. Quod principi placuit, legis habet vigorem-" What pleases the prince has the force of law." The process was least active in England, which had been inoculated with a small dose of Roman principles four hundred years before. In England the strongest force tending to exalt the king was the intense disgust of all industrious people with the baronial unruliness which had given the country so many years of chaos during the Wars of the Roses (1455-85).
The least united states were those which were the seats of " universal" sovereigns-Italy, where the Pope resided, and Germany, the home of the Emperor. Italy was divided among a dozen kingdoms, duchies, and city republics. Germany, or the Empire, was divided among seven Electors, several dukes and ecclesiastical princes, city-states, and three hundred very small counts and knights. Disunion meant a pitiful contrast with the peace of orderly despotisms like that established by Henry VII. of England. The Emperor had no powers as such, but from 1438 to 1806 the head of the House of Habsburg was regularly elected Emperor; he was Archduke of Austria by hereditary right, and the energetic, moody, gluttonous man who was Emperor from 1519 to 1556 -Charles V.-was also ruler of Spain, the Netherlands (Belgium and Holland), the Spanish New World, Burgundy, and most of Italy.