In Leviathan, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) characterized the life of man as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. He was referring to the trials of his own day, as well as those of the decades preceding him, the time of the Reformation.
European life in the late 15th century certainly fit Hobbes description. Under the feudal system, the poor lived hand to mouth, with much of what they produced going to their feudal lord who protected them. Disease was rampant, childbirth was dangerous, and living conditions harsh.
The church, ostensibly there to bring man to God, often discouraged him with its villainy, impoverished him with its larceny, and humiliated him with its arrogance. Indulgences, sold to deliver men from agony in purgatory, and the ignorance and immorality of religious leaders, were especially burdensome. Numerous reform efforts, including the monastic and various other movements, had produced less than the hoped for effect. Common people and honest nobles and clergy alike agreed that it was time for a change. Those who benefited most from the current system resisted every possibility, but the world was changing in ways far beyond their ability to stem the tide. During the Babylonian captivity of the Papacy (1305-1377), there were multiple popes competing for allegiance, damaging the prestige of the highest office in the church.
Life in the late 15th century was changing more than it had in the previous two millennia. Scholasticism in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries promoted dialectical reasoning, the resolution of disagreements through rational argument and the search for ultimate truth. The Crusades in the Middle East (1095-1291) exposed Europe to foreign cultures and ideas and greatly enhanced trade. They also reintroduced Greek and Latin learning from Arabic manuscripts. The Black Death (1348-1351 and returning every generation until 1800) regularly depopulated and rocked the social structures in Europe.
The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 was terrifying to Europeans. The Roman Empire, which had existed for over two millennia and formed the Eastern bulwark of Christendom against the infidels, was suddenly gone. Byzantine Orthodox scholars fleeing the Ottoman Muslim onslaught scattered throughout Western Europe, bringing their writings and their ideas and calling the Roman Catholic way of life into question.
Science and technology were also accelerating. The compass became practical to Europeans for navigation at sea in the 13th century and dead reckoning improved. The work of Copernicus demonstrated that the earth revolved around the sun, improving navigation. Combined, these advances enabled the Portuguese to explore the African coast (1418) and reach the Indian ocean (1488). Ultimately, it allowed Columbus to discover the New World and Magellan to circumnavigate the globe (1519-1522).
One of the greatest advances was gunpowder. The matchlock musket enabled a common farmer to kill an armored and mounted knight, and the cannon that finally defeated the 5th century Theodosian walls of Constantinople could also defeat the walls of any castle. Feudal lords, finding that they could no longer defy kings with their knights and castles gladly took colonelcies in and raise regiments for their king’s army, and feudalism finally collapsed. These developments also strengthened the monarchy at the expense of the church.
As the church lost credibility and a host of new influences impacted contemporary man, Latin lost importance outside of ecclesiastical and academic circles, and the vernacular languages gained importance. Nationalism grew as competing feudal estates merged into nations and local languages blossomed. Finally, Gutenberg’s movable type (1450) made printing practical, and ideas in writing poured off his and other’s presses all over Europe. The powder was ready, and Luther was about to provide the spark.