Church History : the German Church, ca. 1500

In Germany, to a higher degree than in other countries, bishops and archbishops as well as a number of abbots were not only occupying a high position in church hierarchy, but at the same time were heads of a state(let). The Archbishops of Cologne, Mainz and Trier were among the 7 electors who were to elect the King. Each of them ruled over considerable territories, often split up in several patches. Basically every bishop was a secular ruler, ruled over a smaller version of the papal state himself. In historical literature, these rulers are called PRINCE BISHOPS.
For centuries, the church had cooperated closely with the state, as their expertise (they could read and write) was revered and they were regarded more loyal than the worldly princes (for these had families and thus dynastic interests). Thus the church had been donated many territories. Over time, royal influence diminished and the regional dynasties succeeded in getting their relatives elected bishop, abbot or even archbishop. High positions in the church administration were virtually reserved for members of the higher aristocracy. These aristocratic church leaders were, more often than not, interested in living a luxurious lifestyle than in administrating the church according to the rules stipulated in the bible or elsewhere. University education was not necessarily a requirement for top church positions; family connections (and wealth) were more important.
The condition of the church, i.e. of individual parishes, monasteries etc., was characterized by a lack of supervision, a lack of rules inforced. As the church language was LATIN, the parishioners were mostly not able to determine if the priest could even read the bible, they did not understand it anyway. Thus, there were many things to be improved, priests who were analphabets or only partially familiar with Latin, priests and monks neglecting their duties and oaths, most notably having sexual relations.
The church, as a major landowner, was held responsible by many of the peasants for their miserable living conditions - the church as a landowner was called DIE TOTE HAND - the dead hand (because it's landholdings were never to be passed to inheritors).
In addition, to answer the pope's wish to raise money, wandering priests sold LETTERS OF INDULGENCE, a matter which was vehemently rejected by MARTIN LUTHER and others, and may have triggered the reformation.

REFERENCE Heinrich Lutz, Reformation und Gegenreformation (Reformation and Counterreformation), Grundriss der Geschichte Vol.10, Muenchen : Oldenbourg 1979

This page is part of World History at KMLA
Last revised on February 20th 2002