In 1453, medieval Europeans were reeling. The great Christian city of Constantinople, which had stood as the capital of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire for over a thousand years, was conquered by the Muslim Ottoman Turks. The militarily superior Turks had been expanding into the Christian territories for more than a century. It was almost inevitable that they would take Constantinople. But few in the West expected this blow. Constantinople was a symbol of Christian (and Roman) strength and continuity. Hence, the Muslim conquest of this city was met in the West with shock and anguish. While we might not agree, medieval Europeans were convinced that the inconceivable had occurred, and that evil had triumphed.
This followed upon another shock—a political one. A number of individuals had spent the previous decades attempting to change the political structure of the Christian Church. They hoped to combat the absolutism of the Roman pope by insisting that the pope should not act as a sole monarch, but rather should rule in cooperation with a council of Church leaders. They summoned councils dedicated to reforming financial abuses within the Church and to overturning a corrupt status quo. These “conciliarists” were soundly defeated. Their ideological opponents destroyed attempts by Church councils to limit the power of the pope and crushed the efforts of these councils to introduce reform.
These two blows—the conquest of Constantinople and the defeat of the “conciliarists”—appeared to medieval Europeans to be connected. Many concluded that corruption in Christendom had prompted God to abandon Constantinople, and that the End Times must be at hand.
Can you imagine how these defeated individuals felt? The entity to which they were entirely devoted, to which they owed their greatest loyalty, their hope, and their support was the Church. They now had to face a future in which the leaders of the Church would not represent their values, and the Church itself would not function for the good of the Christian community (as they saw it). And directly as a result of the Church’s failed reform, “infidels” had successfully taken one of Christendom’s most holy cities.
What were their options? They could not, and would not, abandon the Church, which for them represented the only chance of salvation. Instead they turned to deep and agonized soul searching. They sought the source of their misery within their own society. They wrote treatises with chapters titled “On the sins which caused the affliction of the Church,” and “On how the present affliction is worse than any that came before.”
Their afflictions were the result of sin, they concluded. But to say that they blamed “sin” is misleading, because they saw specific human actions as the causes of God’s wrath. It was the powerful Church leaders whom protest writers held responsible, citing their resistance to reform and their pursuit of self-interest.
One frightened monk experienced a vision in which he spoke with God. The monk begged God to explain why he chastised the Church. God replied that he punished the Church so severely in order to provoke change. God informed the weeping monk that the Christian Church “has reached such a state of extreme deformation, ruin, perversity, and ingratitude that it cannot reform itself, because its highest officials are in fact its most depraved, and they lie without blushing.”
The leadership of the Church were meant to protect their flocks and lead them to salvation. Instead, they had abandoned their flocks to chase gold and power. One author railed that reform had been thwarted by the resistance of “those of the highest rank,” i.e. the wealthy and powerful. Another pointed out that corruption was “principally carried out by those who ought to remove and cure such vices, not participate in them.” Yet another asserted, “This is how things now stand in the Church. Its leaders do not burn with the fever of charity. They are not even warm!”
Some explained their dramatic losses as precursors of the End Times. They saw their current times reflected in what Paul had described when he wrote, “In the Last Days perilous times will come. For men will be lovers of themselves … lovers of pleasure rather than God.” One writer concluded with a warning: “Perhaps the amassing of evil deeds by the holy pope – who should be striving for reform – prepares the way for the son of perdition, … namely the Antichrist.”
Some concluded that the corruption was so deeply rooted that reform was no longer possible. There was nothing left to do but await the End: “The world descends daily into deeper depravity… to the deepest degradation, until the time that the son of perdition should come…”
Can medieval apocalypse commentary help us feel better? Is it useful to see that others have struggled with gut-wrenching disappointment, with the recognition that they have been beaten by their opposition, that injustice has triumphed? In the doleful rhetoric of 600 years ago, I see myself and my political allies. It is the same heartache, the same defeat of dearly held values and fear for the future.
I will add, though, that there was no ultimate solution, no happy ending. I wish that studying the reaction of disappointed individuals in the fifteenth century resulted in lessons about how to wisely move forward and heal, but it does not. The discouraged dealt with their losses in their own ways—they retreated into prayer, into visions and mysticism, or they placed their hopes in the arrival of the Last Judgment. How many died in bitterness? How many in despair? How many in acceptance? In hope? It is impossible to say.
The monk who spoke with God, at least, seemed to have found hope. In spite of the afflictions around him, God assured him, “The greater the adversities, the darker the times are, the more prosperous will be what follows, and after these will be golden times. I would not permit my people to be pressed down, excepted that I wish for the occasion to raise them up.”
Headline image credit: Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.