At the start of the C16, the Roman Catholic Church was all powerful in western Europe. There was no legal alternative. The Catholic Church jealously guarded its position and anybody who was deemed to have gone against the Catholic Church was labelled a heretic and burnt at the stake. The Catholic Church did not tolerate any deviance from its teachings as any appearance of ‘going soft’ might have been interpreted as a sign of weakness which would be exploited.
Why was the Roman Catholic Church so powerful?
Its power had been built up over the centuries and relied on ignorance and superstition on the part of the populace. It had been indoctrinated into the people that they could only get to heaven via the church.
This gave a priest enormous power at a local level on behalf of the Catholic Church. The local population viewed the local priest as their ‘passport’ to heaven as they knew no different and had been taught this from birth by the local priest. Such a message was constantly being repeated to ignorant people in church service after church service. Hence keeping your priest happy was seen as a prerequisite to going to heaven.
This relationship between people and church was essentially based on money – hence the huge wealth of the Catholic Church. Rich families could buy high positions for their sons in the Catholic Church and this satisfied their belief that they would go to heaven and attain salvation. However, a peasant had to pay for a child to be christened (this had to be done as a first step to getting to heaven as the people were told that a non-baptised child could not go to heaven); you had to pay to get married and you had to pay to bury someone from your family in holy ground.
To go with this, you would pay a sum to the church via the collection at the end of each service (as God was omnipresent he would see if anyone cheated on him), you had to pay tithes (a tenth of your annual income had to be paid to the church which could be either in money or in kind such as seed, animals etc.) and you were expected to work on church land for free for a specified number of days per week. The days required varied from region to region but if you were working on church land you could not be working on your own land growing food etc. and this could be more than just an irritant to a peasant as he would not be producing for his family or preparing for the next year.
However, unfair and absurd this might appear to someone in the 1990’s it was the accepted way of life in 1500 as this was how it had always been and no-one knew any different and very few were willing to speak out against the Catholic Church as the consequences were too appalling to contemplate.
Do note, if you did not go to heaven then the likelihood was that your soul had been condemned to Hell. Heresy was visibly punished with public burnings which you were expected to attend. John Huss was accused of heresy and granted a safe passage to Constance in modern Switzerland to defend himself at trial. He never got his trial as he was arrested regardless of his guarantee of a safe passage by the Catholic Church and burnt in public.
The Catholic Church also had a three other ways of raising revenue.
Relics: These were officially sanctioned by the Vatican. They were pieces of straw, hay, white feathers from a dove, pieces of the cross etc. that could be sold to people as the things that had been the nearest to Jesus on Earth. The money raised went straight to the church and to the Vatican. These holy relics were keenly sought after as the people saw their purchase as a way of pleasing God. It also showed that you had honoured Him by spending your money on relics associated with his son.
Indulgences: These were ‘certificates’ produced in bulk that had been pre-signed by the pope which pardoned a person’s sins and gave you access to heaven. Basically if you knew that you had sinned you would wait until a pardoner was in your region selling an indulgence and purchase one as the pope, being God’s representative on Earth, would forgive your sins and you would be pardoned. This industry was later expanded to allow people to buy an indulgence for a dead relative who might be in purgatory or Hell and relieve that relative of his sins. By doing this you would be seen by the Catholic Church of committing a Christian act and this would elevate your status in the eyes of God.
Pilgrimages: These were very much supported by the Catholic Church as a pilgrim would end up at a place of worship that was owned by the Catholic Church and money could be made by the sale of badges, holy water, certificates to prove you had been etc. and completed your journey.
It was the issue of indulgences that angered Martin Luther into speaking out against them – potentially a very dangerous thing to do.