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Women in the reformation era

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The reformation era occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but the roots were found much earlier. While the definitive date historians assign was October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenburg Church door to initiate a debate on indulgences, in the decades before and after the universal or Catholic church was attacked and torn asunder. Christendom in the West was severed in two. Today we have Protestants and Catholics, but prior to 1517 for 1500 years there was basically only one church. Why this happened has been the subject of much research and debate. Initially religious reasons were espoused for the breakup. Next the social, economic and political historians did their research. Now scholars are exploring what roles women played in this momentous religious transformation.

Throughout the Middle Ages the church was always subject to criticism. Any institutions that directly impact people's lives are vetted for their indiscretions and problems. Famous literary works like the Decameron, Divine Comedy and the Canterbury Tales delved into the foibles and frustrations of living up to the religious tenets of Christianity. With the inception of the printing press and the increased literacy of the Renaissance period, more people became aware of the ills of the church. Through the centuries the laity and clergy had worked actively for reform. People like Marsilius of Padua, who were the first to outline the separation of church and state in his Defense of the Peace, the Bohemian John Hus, the Englishman John Wycliffe, and the Dutch Desiderius Erasmus all, criticized the church, but offered suggestions and solutions to rectify what they saw as Christendom adrift. These people and other critics of the church by the early sixteenth century concentrated their attacks on four major problems: clerical immorality, clerical ignorance, clerical pluralism, and clerical wealth. Celibacy was institutionalized legally in the twelfth century although for the preceding eight hundred years it was required of priests, monks and nuns to be celibate. This legalization of celibacy for the clergy had tremendous repercussions on women because marriage was not looked at favorably as the number one choice for men. Additionally, many priests maintained concubines and "housekeepers". In Holland it is estimated that about one-fourth of the clergy lived with a common law wife or concubine. Gambling and drunkenness were also sins of the priesthood as well as the rest of society. By now, however, people expected their clergy to maintain a more pristine morality - to set the example for moral behavior. Illegitimacy had even extended to the highest ranking clergyman, the Pope. Monasteries and nunneries were numerous. Most were involved in the daily religious rituals that had been operating for centuries, but the famous literature mentioned earlier, and other printed material, fanned the flames of scandal. By the sixteenth century many convents had often become convenient repositories for superfluous daughters of the aristocracy and wealthy urban classes. While many nuns were examples of spiritual dedication, others were not. Reform movements such as the Lollards and Waldensians were being accused of heretical ideas such as: printing the Bible in the vernacular language so more could read it, allowing priests to marry, and increased local non-hierarchical personal control. Women were prominent in these movements because most of them advocated more equality for women than the Catholic Church did. Such movements also appealed strongly to middle class women, like female merchants in Bristol, England, who were not entering convents to become nuns.

A series of events transpired after Luther's debate on indulgences that meant there was no turning back to a universal church. When Luther was called before the Papal Legate to answer questions about his actions, Luther challenged the infallibility of the Pope and Church Councils. He then wrote and published widely three pamphlets where he formulated his theological and social ideas of: "justification by faith alone," "primacy of scriptures," and "the priesthood of all believers" where there was no distinction between clergy and laity. Both the church and Luther's supporters unleashed attacks against each other, and then Luther was excommunicated. When he was asked to recant he replied: "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of scripture or plain reasons...I neither can nor will revoke I stand...God help me." The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who was his overlord, replied: "I am descended from a long line of rulers who were all faithful to Rome...and I will proceed against Luther as a heretic - one thousands years versus one monk." Now Luther was legally an outlaw. His local German Lord, Frederic the Wise of Saxony, sequestered him away. Germany at the time was politically fragmented, and local princes then decided whether to support Luther or the Catholic Church in Rome. Financially it was favorable for the princes to separate themselves from Rome. As the church probably owned about one-third of the real estate in Germany, this land reverted to the state, and could be sold to generate funds while the cessation of tithing to Rome added also to the coffers of the local lords. Then the independent towns with their local councils decided whether to become Protestant or stay Catholic. Together with political fragmentation was now religious fracturing. Luther and his followers discarded such formalized practices as fasts, pilgrimages, veneration of saints and relics, and Latin in the church services. Only baptism and the Eucharist remained for Protestants out of the seven sacraments. Monasticism was abolished and clerical celibacy was no longer mandatory.

A generation later than Martin Luther, under John Calvin, a French lawyer who suddenly converted to Protestantism, the reformation spread. Calvin was invited to Geneva, Switzerland to set up the religious rules. He formalized them in his Institutes of the Christian Religion and his Geneva Catechism, a Protestant instructional manual to guide children and adults. John Calvin used the idea of predestination to instill in his followers that God arbitrarily chooses to save some, "the Elect", not because of their own merits, but for unfathomable reasons of his own. Calvin presumed "the Elect" were to be found among those who lived righteous lives, so that meant daily sermons and thrice that number on Sundays. Austere living, no fashionable clothing, dancing, card playing or heavy drinking were allowed. For Calvin, whatever was not commanded in the Bible was not acceptable, whereas for Luther what was not forbidden in the Bible was acceptable. Calvinism became the foundation for the Presbyterians in Scotland, the Dutch Reformed Church in Holland, the Puritans in England, the Pilgrims in America, and the Huguenots in France. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin together with their momentous changes within Christianity greatly impacted women's lives.

In the early years of Protestantism women were welcomed, but excluded as the movement triumphed and became institutionalized. Individual women rarely converted to Protestantism during the sixteenth century. They usually joined only in company with their male kinfolk. Natalie Davis has noted that while a large number of widows and self-employed women converted to Calvinism, few of the highly educated did. Like the men, Calvinist women belonged neither to the bottom nor the top of society. Women preached from the pulpit, but most Protestant areas were alarmed at this change. Katherine Zell, the wife of Strasbourg Protestant preacher, Matthias Zell, was one of these preachers. Other women claimed direct illumination from God when city councilmen admonished them for their preaching. Since women still could not receive formal theological training, many educated women wrote polemical as well as devotional works like hymns and poems. Education was now open to middle class women in Protestant areas, and Protestants encouraged education for young girls too. Research shows that the overall literacy rate of Protestant women was higher than of Catholic women aside from their nunneries.

While changing women's role in society was not the original intent of the Protestant Reformers like Luther and Calvin, the changes they advocated and made had great significance for women. Now that marriage, not the celibate life, became the ideal pattern, it was permissible for the clergy to marry because the reformers stated that celibacy was not supported by the scriptures. Luther stated: "Celibacy is the foil of Satan. If the Pope had brought about no other calamity than this prohibition of marriage, it would be sufficient to stamp him as the anti-Christ." Thus almost all Protestant reformers married, and like Luther, many married former nuns. With the closing of convents the number of marriage-age women increased, and so did their dilemmas, since not all had the opportunity to marry. In England, statistics show nearly 30% of nuns married and 25% of monks did. Many former nuns, especially the older women, had to resort to domestic servitude or even day laboring. Under these circumstances it is not strange that illegal prostitution increased, since public brothels were also closed by the Protestants. Martin Luther married the former nun, Katherine Bora, and fathered six children. He wrote: "imagine what it would be like without women. The home, cities, economic life, and government would virtually disappear. Men cannot do without women. Even if it were possible for men to beget and bear children, they still could not do without women." Adding a caveat though, Luther said "there was truth to the proverb that it takes a brave man to wed a wife." Calvin's remarks on the death of his wife reinforced Luther's: “I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life...during her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry."

When the Protestants removed marriage as a sacrament, divorce was now possible. Reformers said that St. Jerome, the fifth century writer of the Vulgate Bible had translated mysterion as a sacrament not as a mystery. As Calvin observed: "It was hardly consistent for Catholic theologians to maintain that marriage was a sacrament and then to vilify marital sex as unclean pollution and carnal filth. This was absurd; indeed it verged on the grotesque." The Protestant reformers viewed marriage as a cooperative relationship of mutual responsibility, but sermons on the subject told husbands how to keep wives in their place. Women were actively praised now especially in their biblical vocation as mothers and housewives. There were no longer relegated to the two extremes that the Catholic Church espoused either a virgin mother or a temptress like Eve.

For the Catholics intercourse was for procreation only. Both Luther and Calvin rejected this teaching, but it was hard for them to completely do away with the idea that intercourse in marriage was sinless. Now, the use of contraceptions in marriage was acceptable. St. Augustine's views no longer counted. There was no double standard legally for fornication and adultery, but in reality, the double standard did prevail for Protestants until recently. In some Calvinist areas only the wife was executed for adultery not her husband for his indiscretions. The husband and not the wife could obtain a divorce for adultery in some areas, while in other places both spouses could divorce for an adulterous affair. Overall the divorce rate remained low, around 2%, and did not change until the twentieth century.

Protestantism did abolish the traditional festivities where women had played active roles. While they destroyed the worship of both male and female saints, their dethroning of the Virgin Mary as the mother of God and protector of women in childbirth, had lasting effects that were deeply felt. Luther said that he had trouble breaking his wife of saying her Ave Marias or hail Marys. Overall, though, the idea of inferiority of women remained and the reformers never ceased to exclaim on this point. Women were equal to men in the presence of God according to the Bible, but naturally inferior to men on Earth: "Women remained the weaker sex, frail, vain and lightheaded, more prone than men to succumb to sexual temptation. Hence women must be guided and controlled by their fathers and husbands lest they stray into foolishness and sin." Women were to be obedient to their husbands and to keep silent in public. Calvin rejoined: “Let the woman be satisfied with her state of subjection and not take it ill that she is made inferior to the more distinguished sex." At the same time he chastised women for their vanity in dress, adornments and immodest behavior. He even blamed them for many of the sins of men: "There have been too many examples of how men, otherwise inclined to behave virtuously have been debauched and turned from the right way by women."

As the Reformation and then the Counter-Reformation took hold in Europe, tragic consequences for women occurred. Zealous enforcement of laws against witchcraft and infanticide were the most cataclysmic for women.

The English Reformation

The Reformation came to England as a practical policy or "Great Matter" as the English referred to it. Henry VIII, as the ruling sovereign, wanted a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon. As the Catholic Church did not allow this, Henry went through the various political and religious machinations to achieve one, and by doing so the Pope's authority was invalidated in England, and Henry became the "Defender of the Faith" for the English. Catherine was the daughter of Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon, partners in the ruling of most of Spain. Catherine was first married to Henry's older brother, but when he died and Henry assumed the throne, Catherine became Henry's wife. They were married for eighteen years and had one daughter, Mary, when Henry decided time was running out to secure a male heir. Catherine was in her forties, and had suffered many still births when Henry began his divorce proceedings. Henry's infatuation with Anne Boleyn was concurrent with his concern for a legitimate son (he had an illegitimate one already). While Henry was in favor of another dalliance, Anne held out for a long time for marriage before a sexual relationship. Henry's legal thrust was that his wife Catherine was first married to his brother Arthur, and that marriage to the wife of one's brother was prohibited both by canon and biblical law, Leviticus 18:16, 20:21: "You must not uncover the nakedness of your brother's wife, for it is your brother's nakedness...the man who takes to wife the wife of his brother that is impurity; he has uncovered his brother's nakedness and they shall be childless." Catherine and her supporters used another biblical verse to counteract Henry. Found in Deuteronomy GET VERSE NUMBER "When brethren dwell together and one of them dieth without children, the wife of the deceased shall not marry to another, but his brother shall take her and raise up seed for his brother." Henry's lawyers and English humanists resolved the problem by explaining Latin for brother frater had been used to denote both brother and brother-in-law. A special dispensation had been required from the Pope Julius II for the marriage in the first place and now Henry wanted another dispensation for an annulment. Pope Julius was walking a fine line though. The Holy Roman Emperor was Charles V, Catherine's nephew. When the Pope became a prisoner of Charles after his attack on Rome, the Pope urged Henry to go ahead and marry Anne, and they would sort it out later. Henry selected numerous royal officials to engineer his divorce. Many lost their lives when they failed, but eventually Parliament became Henry's pawn and the divorce was accomplished. When Henry wed Anne in 1533 she was pregnant, giving birth four months later to Elizabeth. Within three years Anne was convicted of witchcraft and adultery, losing her head on the famous chopping block at the Tower of London. It was always puzzling why Anne had such a sudden downfall. Retha Warnicke believes it was due to a miscarriage Anne had where the fetus was deformed. It was widely held at that time that deformed children were the product of illicit sexual acts. Henry would not allow him to be the father of this evil omen, so Anne was charged with incest with her brother. "Sing a song of Sixpence, pocket full of rye, four and twenty black birds baked in a pie, etc.," the famous words of the nursery rhyme, refer to Anne and her beheading, when the blackbird (a.k.a. the executioner) pecked off her nose, [head]. Henry's additional four wives were as well-educated as his first two. By the time the Reformation came to England, it was in tandem with the Renaissance.

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