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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 1 of 2)

Burnt brightest among the Augustinian Eremites


This

revival of religion, crude as it was, and based on fear, had a distinct effect for good on a portion of the clergy, and led to a great reformation of morals among those who came under its influence. The papal Schism, which had lasted till 1449, had for one of its results the weakening of all ecclesiastical discipline, and its consequences were seen in the growing immorality which pervaded all classes of the clergy. So far as one can judge, the revival of religion described above had not very much effect on the secular clergy. Whether we take the evidence from the chronicles of the time or from visitations of the bishops, the morals of the parish priests were extremely low, and the private lives of the higher clergy in Germany notoriously corrupt. The occupants of episcopal sees were for the most part the younger brothers of the great princes, and had been placed in the religious life for the sake of the ecclesiastical revenues. The author of the _Chronicles of the Zimmer Family_ tells us that at the festive gatherings which accompanied the meetings of the Diet, the young nobles, lay and clerical, spent most of their time at dice and cards. As he passed through the halls, picking his way among groups of young nobles lying on the floor (for tables and chairs were rare in these days), he continually heard the young count call out to the young bishop, "Play up, parson; it is your turn." The same writer describes the retinue of a great prelate, who was always accompanied to the Diet
by a concubine dressed in man's clothes. Nor were the older Orders of monks, the Benedictines and their offshoots, greatly influenced by the revival. It was different, however, with those Orders of monks who came into close contact with the people, and caught from them the new fervour. The Dominicans, the great preaching Order, were permeated by reform. The Franciscans, who had degenerated sadly from their earlier lives of self-denial, partook of a new life. Convent after convent reformed itself, and the inmates began to lead again the lives their founder had contemplated. The fire of the revival, however, burnt brightest among the Augustinian Eremites, the Order which Luther joined, and they represented, as none of the others did, all the characteristics of the new movement.

These Augustinian Eremites had a somewhat curious history. They had nothing in common with St. Augustine save the name, and the fact that a Pope had given them the rule of St. Augustine as a basis for their monastic constitution. They had originally been hermits, living solitary lives in mountainous parts of Italy and of Germany. Many Popes had desired to bring them under conventual rule, and this was at last successfully done. They shared as no other Order had done in the revival of the second half of the fifteenth century, and exhibited in their lives all its religious characteristics. No Order of monks contained such devoted servants of the Virgin Mother. She was the patron along with St. Augustine. Her image stood in the chapter-house of every convent. The theologians of the Augustinian Eremites vied with those of the Franciscans in spreading the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. They did much to spread the cult of the "Blessed Anna." They were devoted to the Papacy. One of their learned men, John of Palz, one of the two professors of theology in the Erfurt Convent when Luther entered it as a novice, was the most strenuous defender of the doctrine of Attrition and of the religious value of Indulgences. With all this their lives were more self-denying than those of most monks. They cultivated theological learning, and few Universities in Germany were without an Augustinian Eremite who acted as professor of philosophy or of theology. They also paid great attention to the art of preaching, and every large monastery had a special preacher who attracted crowds of the laity to the convent chapel. Their monasteries were usually placed in large towns; and their devout lives, their learning, and the popular gifts of their preachers, made them favourites with the townspeople. They were the most esteemed Order in Germany.


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