Steven Ozment’s Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution

In this excerpt of Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution, Steven Ozment discusses the reasoning behind the reformation movement in the 1520s, why lay people were angry with the Roman church, why they converted to Protestantism, and why German magistrates and princes picked up the movement and made it successful.

Many Germans were angry with the Catholic church for the corruption that ran so rampantly throughout the clergy. Some of the common complaints include:

  • The papacy was conducting frequent lawsuits against lay people with the threat of excommunication
  • High church positions were being sold by the Pope to the highest bidder
  • The Pope reserved high sins and crimes. Meaning they could only be absolved if one would go to Rome and pay in gold; thus ensuring that the poor were stuck with sins while the rich could do whatever they wanted and get away with it
  • The clergy were sworn to celibacy, yet many lived with women and fathered children (This complaint was controversial, as some despised the priests and women while others believed it humanized the priests and made them more relatable)
  • The largest complaint was the sale of indulgences, where one would pay to absolve sins after death so that they would not be stuck in purgatory.

Ozment claims that the protestant movement was as political as it was spiritual. He goes on to tell us that there were two opposing forces, the emerging territorial states of Europe, and the small, self-governing towns and villages. The reason the reformation gained its initial popularity was because the lay people in these small self-governing communes saw the protestant movement as a way to remain free and independent from the rising powers around them. Those who were strong opponents of government authority advocated for the reformation, such as the printers’ guild, who printed much of the protestant propaganda.

The major reformers knew that their movement was political as well as spiritual, yet they did not support the lay peoples’ actions such as the peasant revolt of 1525. Rather, they knew that in order for their movement to be successful, they would have to win over the hearts of the magistrates and princes. Many of which soon converted to Protestantism because they believed the reforms would strengthen their power and ensure their independence from other authorities. With the support of the princes and magistrates, the protestant reformation began to appear in the political ordinances of the 1530s and 1540s: Service was done in the vernacular, people read the new testament in their own homes, the clergy could marry, people were not to venerate saints in public, and indulgences were no longer sold.

“The Virgin of the Carmine and the Revolt of Masaniello” – Peter Burke


The story of the Revolt of Masaniello in 17th century Naples blurs the line between a religious revolt and a revolt based on grievances. The people of Naples were ruled by a Spanish viceroy who levied high taxes on the population, especially on foodstuffs causing mass discontent. The poor people of the city who participated in the revolt were sparked by an increase in the fruit tax, which caused a riot among local merchants and vendors.


The revolt was led by Masaniello, a fisherman who was participating in the Feast of the Virgin Mary on the public square. He is the tragic hero of his own revolt, since he led it unwittingly. The revolt started during a mock battle staged by the residence of the Naples on the feast. Masaniello was in charge of one of the stage armies, but as soon as he and the public heard about the rise in food prices and the dispute over the tax spilled out into the streets, the threat of the stage army became a physical mob. The crowd of people marched on the palace, destroying property and stealing from stores and the houses of wealthy Neapolitans.


What is most interesting about this rebellion was the use of religion by both the rioters and the authorities. Masaniello, who had attempted to stop the rampant looting and destruction of the riot, had become “a man sent from God” and the rioters shouted the name of the Virgin Mary as they raided the city. The authorities however, also invoked the religious imagery by carrying crucifixes and praying. The authorities were literally trying to exercise the demons out of the rioters, because it seemed like the crowd had been possessed by the devil himself.


Earlier in the semester, I brought up a war of greed versus a war of grievance. This is a good example of how a war (or 10 day rebellion) was fought over greed, but was attempted to be turned into a religious crusade, a war on grievance. This heightened religious imagery no doubt contributed to the madness of the crowd, so it makes sense that Masaniello finally went mad after being compared to a divine prophet.

Common Themes

Thanks for such productive discussions and questions this week, everyone. As I mentioned on Monday, I think that there are several relatively obvious themes overlapping between your projects, and a couple of topics that you could all usefully incorporate more into your project proposals/contracts as you start to get them finalized.

To turn this into a quick list, firstly with the themes that came up in class discussion:

  • Self-government and governmental control
  • Inclusion or exclusion under the law
  • Access to and control of natural resources
  • Economic opportunity
  • Cultural identity
  • Relations with the federal government

Areas that you might like to focus particular research, as a means of adding more wide interest to your website projects:

  • Individual leaders
    • Where did they come from?
    • Why did they identify with their movement?
    • How long/how intensely did their involvement last?
  • Iconography of the movement
  • Geographical dimensions and claims

I’m really looking forward to seeing you flesh out the projects as you develop your contracts – do remember to check out to see what previous project contracts have looked like. Best of luck!