Steven Pfaff on the World of 1517
Date: June 4th, 2017

Martin Luther’s theological challenge to the Catholic Church that began with an inauspicious posting of 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral set off a major schismatic movement within Christianity that still reverberates to this day.  And yet, there were many “reformers” who had come before Luther that didn’t have the same impact as he did in the early decades of the 16th century.  Dr. Steven Pfaff, professor of sociology at the University of Washington, joins us for the second installment in our Protestant Reformation Series to review what European society looked like in the century leading up to the events of 1517.  Prof. Pfaff discusses the state-of-the-art social science research on the economic, political, and social changes that were washing over the continent in the late medieval period.  We begin first with the political and economic trends of the 15th century.  Europe remained largely an agrarian society, but new advances in mining and incipient manufacturing were giving rise to new independent cities and the rise of a new middle class based upon the success of craft guilds and expanding trade routes.  Princes were becoming more powerful in certain areas, more universities were being created, and literacy was beginning to spread.  While all of these changes look small by today’s standards, they were reshaping the landscape upon which religious change would play out.  Prof. Pfaff details a number of developments within the institutional Catholic Church that, to many, looked venal.  We cover the expanding trade and monetization of indulgences, the commercialization of pilgrimages, the expanding veneration of saints, and the practice of simony (i.e., the sale of religious offices).  Both Steve and Tony note that many of these institutional innovations were part and parcel of the need for a large hierarchical organization to fund and hold itself together in a Europe that was increasingly fragmented during the early and middle medieval period.  Social Scientists must be careful in looking back at history with 21st century norms and values, and instead place oneself within the often difficult situations faced by clergy and bishops in centuries gone by.  Prof. Pfaff then examines how this variety of social change allowed a particular moment to become a movement.  He reminds us that structural conditions alone do not a revolution make, and that many statistical analyses of such factors overlook the relational nature (e.g., interpersonal networks) of social movements.  Luther had at his disposal not only the printing press, but a cadre of dedicated students who were motivated to press for reform and schism.  Steve also shares his interesting and updated findings about how the Hanseatic League — a dense network of trading partners in central and western Europe — helped to provide a conduit for Reform ideas.  Finally, Prof. Pfaff shares what he thinks is the biggest lesson from this historical era, one that still resonates strongly today.  Recorded: May 10, 2017.



Prof. Steven Pfaff’s bio at the Dept. of Sociology, University of Washington.

The Spiritual Virtuoso: Personal Faith and Social Transformation, by Marion Goldman and Steven Pfaff (pre-orders available).

Exit-Voice Dynamics and the Collapse of East Germany: The Crisis of Leninism and the Revolution of 1989, by Steven Pfaff.

The Institute for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Society  (Chapman University) – graduate student workshop opportunities.

Sacred Trust: The Medieval Church as an Economic Firm, by Robert Ekelund, et al. (mentioned in podcast).

Brand Luther, by Andrew Pettegree (mentioned in podcast).

The 95 Theses, by Martin Luther (mentioned in podcast).

Sermon on Indulgences and Grace, by Martin Luther (mentioned in podcast).


Marion Goldman on Martin Luther & Spiritual Virtuosity (Protestant Reformation Series)

Steven Pfaff on the Protestant Reformation (one of our very first recorded episodes!)

Steven Pfaff on Denominationalism, Sin, and Other Stuff.

Oliver Crisp on Calvin and Reformed Theology.

Rod Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part II.

Russell Kleckley on Religion, Science, and Kepler.

Gary Richardson on Religion & Craft Guilds in the Middle Ages.

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