Money and the Reformation

In 1971 German author Dieter Forte had some international success with a play, Martin Luther and Thomas Munzer, or the Introduction of Bookkeeping, portraying the Reformation as a battle between the people and capital, with unfortunate consequences. Munzer is the Reformation preacher who split from Luther, leading radical reformers in attacking the feudal system. He was executed for his role in the disastrous German Peasant’s War.

Medieval banking magnate Jacob Fugger lectures Luther’s protector, the Duke of Saxony:

Do you know we have over one hundred church holidays a year? Over a hundred, my dear prince. Church masses, pilgrimages, I don’t know what. The people eat and drink themselves full and don’t give a thought to work… And then these fast days! I’m always having to petition for new exceptions for my workers. A worker should work and not fast! This has finally got to be regulated. Daily work should be sanctified. People should thank God that they can work at all. They can receive their reward in heaven. Then they won’t need so much on earth, and we shall finally have cheaper labor costs. So much for your Luther.

Pagan religious observations provided the peasantry with relief from toil before there was such a thing as “days off”. The Church’s maintenance of them created an authority interfering with exploitation of labor where before there had been only custom.

It long ago become a cliche to find capitalism’s very roots in Protestantism. But we are now in Protestantism’s dotage, its optimism gone, its authority gone–done in by its own materialism, I say.
 Those days once consecrated to rest are now dedicated to consumption–and the work to pay for it. Protestantism probably made inevitable religious holidays’ present role–you no longer sacrifice, to propitiate God, but indulge, to assist the economy. An economy based on indulgence–is a funny thing to find at the end of a road that began with a revolt against indulgences.

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