A Brief Review of the Fifteenth Century.
1 HE most remarkable events, which distinguish this period in general history, appear to have been directed by divine providence with a particular subserviency to the reformation. Only in this view they will deserve the notice of the historian of the church of Christ. In the year 1453 Constantinople was taken by the Turkish emperor Mahomet II. From the year 1299 when the four angels were loosed, which had been bound in the river Euphrates,* that is to say, when four Turkish sultanies were established in the east, the Turks had gradually increased their power, and filled the world with carnage and confusion. In the mean time the princes of Europe, absorbed in the vortex of narrow and contracted politics, indolently beheld these ferocious barbarians advancing further and further to the west, and formed no generous plan of defensive combination. It was in vain that the distressed emperors of the east implored the aid of the western princes. The common enemy Overflowed And Passed ovER,to use the prophetic language of Daniel, and having once gained a footing in Europe, he continued to domineer over a large part of christendom, and to desolate the nations. The same unerring spirit of prophecy which foretold these amazing scenes by St. John, foretold also the continued obduracy and impenitence of the nominal christians. They repented not of their idolatry and practical wickedness- f
There cannot be a more melancholy contemplation, than to observe the infatuation of nations, who have provoked God to forsake them. Though the voice of providence is addressed to their senses, they consider
•Rev. ix. 14 fRev. ix. 21.
not the works of the Lord, and at the same time seem to be as destitute of political sagacity, as they are of religious principle. This fifteenth century affords an awful instance of these things. The Turks oppressed Europe with persevering cruelty; but Europe neither humbled itself before God, nor took any measures to check the ambition of the mahometans. The Sovereign of the universe, however, was bringing order out of confusion, and light out of darkness. The learned men, who emigrated from Greece, revived the study of letters in Europe, and paved the way for that light of classical erudition, which was one of the most powerful of all those subordinate means, which were employed in the demolition of idolatry and superstition. By a surprising concurrence of circumstances, the noble art of printing was invented about the year 1440.* Learning was cultivated with incredible ardour: the family of the Medici was raised up to patronize science; and toward the end of this same century, Erasmus arose, whose good sense, taste and industry, were uncommonly serviceable to the reformation. By his labours, monastic superstition received a wound which has never since been healed; and learned men were furnished with critical skill and ingenuity, of which they failed not to avail themselves in the instruction of mankind to a degree beyond what Erasmus himself had ever conceived.
Thus, under the care of divine providence, materials were collected, for that beautiful edifice, which began to be erected in the next century. In the fifteenth century the great value and benefit of these materials scarcely appeared; the same corruptions both of faith and of practice, which have so often been described, still prevailed in all their horrors.
In the mean time there was some individuals, who, though not connected with any particular christian societies, evidenced the power of godliness. Among these Thomas Rhedon, a Frenchman and a carmelite friar was distinguished.* This man came to Rome with the Venetian ambassadors, having undertaken this journey in the hope of improving his understanding in religious concerns. He had hitherto no conception of the enormous corruptions of that venal city, and was therefore astonished to find that even the habitation of St. Peter was become a den of thieves. His zealous spirit was stirred up in him, to give an open testimony to evangelical truth; and at length by continual preaching he incurred the hatred of the ruling powers. In fine, he was degraded from the priesthood, and was burnt four years after his arrival at Rome, in the year 1436, during the pontificate of Eugenius, the successor of that same Martin who was raised to the popedom by the council of Constance. Several others, who like him were enlightened, and like him were faithful to their God, though unconnected with any particular church, were executed in Germany, not long after the burning of John Huss.
* Mosheim, vol. i. p. 764.
Jerom Savanarola, an Italian monk, by his zeal, learning, and piety, incurred in an eminent manner the hatred of the court of Rome. Notwithstanding the repeated menaces of the pope, he continued to preach the word of God with great vehemence, and with a degree of light and knowledge, which seems superior to that of most, if not of all men, in that age. In 1496 he upheld the standard of the gospel at Florence, though many warned him of the danger, to which he was exposed by his great boldness. At length, in the year 1498,f he and two other friars, named Dominic and Silvester, were imprisoned. During his confinement, he wrote a spiritual meditation on the thirty-first psalm, in which he described the conflict between the flesh and the spirit, a subject peculiarly evangelical, and which needs some real exercise of practical godliness, in order to be duly understood and relished by mankind. The pope's legates arriving at Florence, Jerom and his two companions were charged with maintain
* Fox, vol. i. p. 758 + Fox, p. 830
Vol. IV. 33
ing various heretical opinions, one of which will deserve to be distinctly mentioned as characteristic of the times in which they lived. For example, they were accused in explicit terms of having preached the doctrine of free justification through faith in Christ; and after they had persevered in what was called an obstinate heresy, they were degraded, delivered to the secular power at Florence, and burnt to death in the year 1499.
There were also some souls who, in secret, served God in the gospel of his Son; and who knew what spirituality in religion meant, though from some particular circumstances they never were exposed to suffer in any considerable degree for righteousness' sake. Among these was the famous Thomas a Kempis, who died in 1471.* Instead of entering into the tedious dispute concerning the author of the well known book of the imitation of Jesus Christ, let us be content with ascribing it to this monk, its reputed author. It would be impertinent in me to enter into any detail of a performance, so familiar to religious readers: and let it suffice to say, that it abounds with the most pious and devotional sentiments, and could not have been written but by one well versed in christian experience, though it partakes of the common defect of monastic writers; thiit is to say, it does not sufficiently illustrate the doctrine of justification by faith.
Vincent Ferrer, though bred in the midst of darkness, and connected with the worst of ecclesiastical characters, was a shining model of piety.f He was born at Valentia in Spain, became a dominican friar, and what was far better, a zealous preacher of the word of God. A quotation from his book on spiritual life will deserve the attention of students. " Do you desire to study to advantage? Consult God more than books, and ask him humbly to make you understand what you read. Study drains the mind and heart. Go from time to time to be refreshed at the feet of Christ under his eross. Some moments of repose there give fresh vigour and new light: interrupt your study by short, but fervent ejaculations. Science is the gift of the Father of lights. Do not consider it as attainable, merely by the work of your own mind or industry." This holy person was retained in the service of Peter de Luna, who, as pope, took the name of Benedict XIII., and was one of those three popes, that were deposed by the council of Constance. Very few men are represented in history to have been of a more proud and deceitful character than Peter de Luna. Vincent intreated his master to resign his dignity. Benedict rather artfully eluded than directly refused the request. Bishoprics and a cardinal's hat were then offered to Vincent; but his heart was insensible to the charms of worldly honours and dignities. He very earnestly wished to become an apostolic missionary; and, in this respect, he was at length gratified by Benedict. At the age of forty-two he began to preach with great fervour in every town from Avignon towards Valentia. His word is said to have been powerful among the Jews, the Mahometans, and others. After he had laboured in Spain, France, and Italy, he then, at the desire of Henry IV. king of England, exerted himself in the same manner throughout the chief towns of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Still finding Peter de Luna entirely obstinate in his ambition, he renounced his service, and, by the desire of king Henry V., made Normandy, and Britanny, the theatre of his labours during the last two years of his life. He died at the age of sixty-two.
* Du Pin. f Butler, vol. iv.
How truly humble this man was, appears from the whole of this little account which I can collect concerning him; and particularly, from his own confession; " my whole life is a sink of iniquity: I am all infection: I am corruption throughout. I feel this to be so more and more. Whoever is proud, shall stand without. Christ manifests his truth to the lowly, and hides himself from the proud."
Antoninus, archbishop of Florence, born in the year 1389, seems to have been a similar character.* Great things are related of his pastoral labours and services. His secretary, observing his indefatigable exertions, once said to him, " The life of a bishop is truly pitiable, if he is doomed to live in such a constant hurry as you live." " To enjoy inward peace," replied he, " we must, amidst all our affairs, ever reserve a closet as it were in our hearts, where we are to remain retired within ourselves and where no worldly business can enter." He died aged seventy; and is said to have frequently repeated, in his last moments, words which he had been accustomed to use in the time of his health; namely, " To serve God is to reign."
Let Bernardinf of the republic of Sienna, close this concise review of the fifteenth century. He was born in the year 1380, and on account of his uncommon zeal in preaching, was called " the burning coal." He gave this advice to clergymen, " Seek first the kingdom of God, and the Holyghost will give you a wisdom, which no adversary can withstand." This excellent man expressed an earnest wish to be able to cry out with a trumpet through the world, " How long will ye love simplicity?" He died aged sixty-three years.
* Butler, vol v. -j Id.