The Reformation emerged against a background of growing criticism of the temporal power and wealth of the Roman Catholic Church. This perceived corruption was epitomized by practices such as the selling of indulgences by the clergy, which absolved penitents and promised remission of their sins. In 1517 Martin Luther (1483–1546), a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, published his Ninety-Five Theses, arguing that the Church’s corruption was only a symptom of a much deeper problem – a small hierarchy was using invented doctrinal complexities to effectively fleece the faithful. All that was needed was the ‘pure gospel’, the Bible itself, which was soon to be widely disseminated, thanks to the new printing presses. Luther was condemned as a heretic in 1521 but his mass movement was already growing, and a small group of German cities and princes lodged a formal ‘Protestation’ against the condemnation of his movement by the Holy Roman Empire. His supporters were henceforth known as ‘Protestants’. Luther’s reformation was well under way; Emperor Charles V did not launch his campaign against the Protestants until 1546, the year of Luther’s death. Meanwhile, the Reformation had spread well beyond the Empire’s borders, to Sweden and Denmark, with substantial Lutheran minorities in Poland and the Netherlands.
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