138. DISPUTE ABOUT THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION
Wherein first cometh to our hands a turbulent tragedy, and a fierce contention, which long before had troubled the church, and now this present year, 1509, was renewed afresh between two certain orders of Begging Friars, to wit, the Dominic Friars and the Franciscans, about the conception of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ.
The Franciscans were they which did hold of St. Francis, and followed the rule of his testament, commonly called Grey Friars, or Minorites. Their opinion was this; that the Virgin Mary, prevented by the grace of the Holy Ghost, was so sanctified, that she was never subject one moment in her conception to original sin. The Dominic Friars were they which, holding of Dominic, were commonly called Black Friars, or Preaching Friars. Their opinion was, that the Virgin Mary was conceived as all other children of Adam be; so that this privilege only belongeth to Christ, to be conceived without original sin: notwithstanding, the said blessed Virgin was sanctified in her mother's womb, and purged from her original sin, so as was John Baptist, Jeremiah, or any other privileged person. This frivolous question kindling and gendering between these two sects of friars, burst out in such a flame of parts and sides-taking, that it occupied the heads and wits, schools and universities, almost through the whole church, some holding one part with Scotus, some the other part with Thomas Aquinas. The Minorites, holding with Scotus their master, disputed and concluded, that she was conceived without all spot or note of original sin, and thereupon caused the feast and service of the Conception of St. Mary the Virgin to be celebrated and solemnized in the church. Contrary, the Dominic Friars, taking side with Aquinas, preached that it was heresy to affirm that the blessed Virgin was conceived without the guilt of original sin; and that they which did celebrate the feast of her Conception, or said any masses thereof, did sin grievously and mortally.
In the mean time, as this fantasy waxed hot in the church, the one side preaching against the other, came Pope Sixtus the Fourth, A.D. 1476, who, joining side with the Minorites, or Franciscans, first sent forth his decree by authority apostolic, willing, ordaining, and commanding all men to solemnize this new-found feast of the Conception in holy church for evermore; offering to all men and women, which, devoutly frequenting the church, would hear mass and service from the first even-song of the said feast, to the octaves of the same, as many days of pardon, as Pope Urban the Fourth, and Pope Martin the Fifth, did grant for hearing the service of Corpus Christi day, &c. And this decree was given and dated at Rome, A.D. 1476.
Moreover, the same pope, to the intent that the devotion of the people might be the more encouraged to the celebration of this conception, added a clause more to the Ave Maria, granting great indulgence and release of sins to all such as would invocate the blessed Virgin with the same addition, saying thus; "Hail Mary! full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus Christ; and blessed is Anna thy mother, of whom thy virgin's flesh hath proceeded without blot of original sin. Amen."
Wherein thou mayest note, gentle reader, for thy learning three things: First, how the pope turneth that improperly into a prayer, which properly was sent of God for a message or tidings. Secondly, how the pope addeth to the words of the Scripture, contrary to the express precept of the Lord. Thirdly, how the pope exempteth Mary, the blessed Virgin, not only from the seed of Abraham and Adam, but also from the condition of a mortal creature. For if there be in her no original sin, then she beareth not the image of Adam, neither doth she descend of that seed, of whose seed evil proceedeth upon all men and women to condemnation, as St. Paul doth teach, Rom. v. Wherefore, if she descend of that seed, then the infection of original evil must necessarily proceed unto her. If she descend not thereof, then cometh she not of the seed of Abraham, nor of the seed of David, &c. Again, seeing that death is the effect and stipend of sin, by the doctrine of St. Paul, Rom. vi., then had her flesh injury by the law (as Christ himself had) to suffer the malediction and punishment of death, and so should never have died, if original sin had no place in her, &c. But to return unto our story: This constitution of the pope being set forth for the conception of the blessed Virgin, which was A.D. 1476, it was not long after, but the said Pope Sixtus, perceiving that the Dominic Friars with their accomplices would not conform themselves hereunto, directed forth by the authority apostolic a bull in effect as followeth:
"Whereas the holy Church of Rome hath ordained a special and proper service for the public solemnizing of the feast of the Conception of the blessed Virgin Mary; certain orders of the Black Friars in their public sermons to the people in divers places, have not ceased hitherto to preach, and yet daily do, that all they which hold or affirm the said glorious Virgin to have been conceived without original sin, be heretics; and they which celebrate the service of the said her conception, or do hear the sermons of them which do so affirm, do sin grievously; also not contented herewith, do write and set forth books moreover, maintaining their assertions, to the great offence and ruin of godly minds. We, therefore, to prevent and withstand such presumptuous and perverse assertions, which have risen, and more hereafter may arise, by such opinions and preachings aforesaid, in the minds of the faithful; by the authority apostolical, do condemn and reprove the same, and by the motion, knowledge, and authority aforesaid, decree and ordain, that the preachers of God's word, and all other persons, of what state, degree, order, or condition soever they be, which shall presume to dare affirm or preach to the people these aforesaid opinions and assertions to be true, or shall read, hold, or maintain any such books for true, having before intelligence hereof, shall incur thereby the sentence of excommunication; from which they shall not be absolved otherwise than by the bishop of Rome, except only in the time of death."
This bull, being dated A.D. 1483, gave no little heart and encouragement to the Grey Friars Franciscans, which defended the pure conception of the holy Virgin against the Black Dominic Friars, with their confederates, holding the contrary side. By the vigour of which bull, the Grey order had got such a conquest of the black guard of the Dominics, that the said Dominics were compelled at length, for a perpetual memorial of the triumph, both to give to the glorious Virgin, every night, an anthem in praise of her conception, and also to subscribe unto their doctrine; in which doctrine these, with divers other points, be contained:
"1. That blessed Mary the Virgin suffered the griefs and adversities in this life, not for any necessity inflicted for punishment of original sin, but only because she would conform herself to the imitation of Christ.
"2. That the said Virgin, as she was not obliged to any punishment due for sin, as neither was Christ her Son, so she had no need of remission of sins; but instead thereof, had the Divine preservation of God's help, keeping her from all sin; which grace only she needed, and also had it.
"3. Item, That where the body of the Virgin Mary was subject to death, and died; this is to be understood to come, not for any penalty due for sin, but either for imitation and conformity unto Christ, or else for the natural constitution of her body being elemental, as were the bodies of our first parents; who, if they had not tasted of the forbidden fruit, should have been preserved from death, not by nature, but by grace and strength of other fruits and meats in Paradise; which meats, because Mary had not, but did eat our common meats, therefore she died, and not for any necessity of original sin.
"4. The universal proposition of St. Paul, which saith, that the Scripture hath concluded all men under sin, is to be understood thus, as speaking of all them which be not exempted by the special privilege of God, as is the blessed Virgin Mary.
"5. If justification be taken for reconciliation of him that was unrighteous before, and now is made righteous; then the blessed Virgin is to be taken, not for justified by Christ, but just from her beginning, by preservation.
"6. If a Saviour be taken for him which saveth men fallen into perdition and condemnation, so is not Christ the Saviour of Mary, but is her Saviour only in this respect, for sustaining her from not falling into condemnation, &c.
"7. Neither did the Virgin Mary give thanks to God, nor ought so to do, for expiation of her sins, but for her conservation from case of sinning.
"8. Neither did she pray to God at any time for remission of her sins, but only for remission of other men's sins she prayed many times, and counted their sins for hers.
"9. If the blessed Virgin had deceased before the passion of her Son, God would have reposed her soul not in the place among the patriarchs, or among the just, but in the same most pleasant place of Paradise, where Adam and Eve were before they transgressed."
These were the doting dreams and fantasies of the Franciscans, and of other papists, commonly then holden in the schools, written in their books, preached in their sermons, taught in churches, and set forth in pictures. So that the people were taught nothing else almost in the pulpits all this while, but how the Virgin Mary was conceived immaculate and holy, without original sin, and how they ought to call to her for help, whom they with special terms do call, "the way of mercy, the mother of grace, the lover of piety, the comforter of mankind, the continual intercessor for the salvation of the faithful, and an advocate to the King, her Son, which never ceaseth," &c. And although the greatest number of the school doctors were of the contrary faction, as Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, Bernard, Bonaventure, and other, yet these new papists shifted off their objections with frivolous distinctions and blind evasions, as thus: "Peter Lombard," they said, "is not received nor holden in the schools, as touching this article, but is rejected."
Bernard, although he seemeth to deny the conception of the blessed Virgin to be void of original sin, saying that she could not be holy when she was not, and lived not; to this they answer, "That albeit she was not yet in essence, yet she was holy in her conception, and before conception in the Divine prescience of God, which had chosen and pre-elected her before the worlds, to be the mother of the Lord."
Again, where Bernard doth argue, that she was not without original sin conceived, because she was not conceived by the Holy Ghost, to this they answer, "That the Holy Ghost may work two ways in conception; either without company of man, and so was Christ only conceived; or else with company and help of man, and thus was the blessed Virgin conceived."
"Bonaventure," say they, "was a holy father, but he spake then after the custom and manner of his time, when the solemnity and purity of this conception was not yet decreed nor received by the public consent and authority of the church; now seeing the authority of the Church of Rome hath established the same, it ought not to be contraried, nor can, without dangerous disobedience. In all men's actions, diligent respect of time must be had. That which bindeth not at one time, afterward the same by law being ratified, may bind at another."
Finally, for the number and multitude on the contrary side, thus they answer for themselves, as we now in these our days likewise in defence of the truth may well answer against the pope, and all his popish friars, turning their own weapons against themselves: "Multitude," say they, "ought not to move us. Victory consisteth not in number and heaps, but in fortitude and hearts of soldiers; yea, rather fortitude and stomach cometh from heaven, and not of man. Judas Maccabeus with a little handful overthrew the great army of Antioch. Strong Samson with a poor ass's bone slew a thousand Philistines. David had no more but a silly sling, and a few stones, and with these struck down terrible Goliath the giant," &c.
With these and such other like reasons the Grey Franciscans avoided their adversaries, defending the conception of the Virgin Mary to be unblemished, and pure from all contagion of original sin. Contrariwise, the black guard of the Dominic Friars, for their parts were not all mute, but laid lustily from them again, having great authorities, and also the Scripture on their side. But yet the other having the see apostolical with them, had the better hand, and in fine, gat the victory triumphantly over the other, to the high exaltation of their order. For Pope Sixtus, (as I said,) by the authority apostolical, after he had decreed the conception day of the Virgin perpetually to be sanctified, and also with his terrible bull had condemned for heretics all them which withstood the same; the Dominic Friars, with authority oppressed, were driven to two inconveniences; the one was, to keep silence; the other was, to give place to their adversaries the Franciscans. Albeit, where the mouth durst not speak, yet the heart would work; and though the tongue were tied, yet their good will was ready by all means possible to maintain their quarrel and their estimation.
Whereupon it happened the same year of our Lord, 1509, after this dissension between the Dominic Friars and the Franciscans, that certain of the Dominics thinking by subtle sleight to work in the people's heads that which they durst not achieve with open preaching, devised a certain image of the Virgin, so artificially wrought, that the friars by privy gins made it to stir, and to make gestures, to lament, to complain, to weep, to groan, and to give answers to them that asked; insomuch that the people therewith were brought in a marvellous persuasion, till at length the fraud being espied, the friars were taken, condemned, and burned at Berne, the year above mentioned.
In the story of John Stumsius, this story aforesaid doth partly appear; but in the registers and records of the city of Berne, the order and circumstance thereof is more fully expressed and set forth both in metre and prose, and is thus declared:
In the city of Berne there were certain Dominic Friars, to the number chiefly of four principal doers and chieftains of that order, who had inveigled a certain simple, poor friar, who had newly planted himself in the cloister: whom the aforesaid friars had so infatuated with sundry superstitions, and feigned apparitions of St. Mary, St. Barbara, and St. Katharine, and with their enchantments, and imprinting moreover in him the wounds of St. Francis, that he believed plainly, that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him, and had offered to him a red host consecrated, with the blood also of Christ miraculous; which blessed Virgin also had sent him to the senators of Berne, with instructions, declaring unto them, from the mouth of the Virgin, that she was conceived in sin, and that the Franciscan Friars were not to be credited nor suffered in the city, which were not yet reformed from that erroneous opinion of her conception. He added moreover, that they should resort to a certain image there of the Virgin Mary, (which image the friars by engines had made to sweat,) and should do their worship, and make their oblations to the same, &c.
This feigned device was not so soon forged by the friars, but it was as soon believed of the people; so that a great while the red-coloured host was taken undoubtedly for the true body and blood of Christ, and certain coloured drops thereof sent abroad to divers noble personages and states for a great relic, and that not without great recompence. Thus the deceived people in great number came flocking to the image, and to the red host, and coloured blood, with manifold gifts and oblations. In brief, the Dominic Friars so had wrought the matter, and had so swept all the fat to their own beards, from the order of the Franciscans, that all the alms came to their box. The Franciscans seeing their estimation to decay, and their kitchen to wax cold, and their paunches to be pinched, not able to abide that contumely, and being not ignorant or unacquainted with such counterfeited doings, for as the proverb saith, "It is ill halting before a cripple," eftsoons espied their crafty juggling, and detected their fraudulent miracles. Whereupon the four chief captains abovenamed were apprehended, and put to the fire, of whom the provincial of that order was one.
And thus much touching the beginning and end of this tumultuous and popish tragedy; wherein evidently it may appear to the reader, how neither these turbulent friars could agree among themselves, and yet in what frivolous trifles they wrangled together. But to let these ridiculous friars pass, with their trifling fantasies, most worthy to be derided of all wise men; in the mean time this is to be lamented, to behold the miserable times of the church, in which the devil kept the minds of Christ's people so attentive and occupied in such friarly toys, that nothing else almost was taught or heard in the church, but only the commendation and exaltation of the Virgin Mary. But of our justification by faith, of grace and the promises of God in Christ, of the strength of the law, of the horror of sin, of difference between the law and the gospel, of the true liberty of conscience, &c., no mention or very little was heard. Wherefore in this so blind time of darkness, it was much needful and requisite, that the Lord of his mercy should look upon his church, and send down his gracious reformation; which also he did. For shortly upon the same, through the gracious excitation of God, came Martin Luther; of whom the order of story now requireth that we should and will treat, (Christ willing,) after the story of Richard Hunne, and a few other things premised, for the better opening of the story to follow.