In the mid 1450s, about 30% of the population (mostly males) were literate (it was only around 5-10% who received formal education; some learned to read by other means). This figure was a small increase on previous populations.
The cultivating of new ideas via printed material during the Renaissance birthed a movement called Humanism, an outlook that gave appreciation of what it means to be human based on observations and inquiry, as opposed to looking at religion or theology for answers. Its focus on ancient philosophy centred on human ingenuity and creativity, therefore provided a basis for rejecting the rigidity of scholastic (and Aristotelian) education protocols.
Martin Luther (1483–1546) was an older member of the Humanist movement, nonetheless, he made an impact in regards to rejecting Aristotle’s ethics and challenged the Catholic church’s values, like the exchange of payment for the forgiveness of sins in indulgences and the creation of lavish architecture that housed expensive paintings and artefacts. Luther pinned a thesis outlining all his grievances against the Catholic Church to the door of a little church in Germany and in doing so gave rise to the Reformation of the Church. For over a thousand years the Roman Catholic Church had been the only denomination of Christianity, now slowly at first, many people began rejecting the Pope’s authority. After Lutherism came Church of England, Protestants, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and more.
Luther’s impact on the Church was mammoth, he did not, however, push the envelope on gender equality. A Humanist who did speak up for the plights of so-called inferior women was Sir Thomas Elyot (1490-1546). Elyot challenged the Aristotelian attitude of the feminine in a publication titled: In Defence of Good Women.
Holbein, Portrait of Sir Thomas Elyot, 1532–34
Within this melting pot of change were alterations to the Bible (for full details see History of Christian Bible Publications with References to Media Codes and Conventions). From the 400s through to the 1500s, the Bible was primarily available was the Latin, the Vulgate. The first English translation is credited to William Tyndale (1494 – 1536). Because English , as language, was still forming Tyndale had to invent some words to express ideas, like scapegoat and passover.
By the time the Kind James version of the Bible was printed in 1611, many aspects of the Bible had changed. For example, Moses lost his horns.
The image of Moses coming down from the Mount Sinai with horns on his head, was immortalised by Michaelangelo’s sculpture that was commissioned for the Tomb of Pope Julius II. For thousands of years, most Christians and Jews believed that speaking to God created this fascinating physical transformation, as per the description in the Vulgate that was written by Jerome (c.345 – 420 CE) in the fourth century. However, when renaissance scholars referenced Hebrew manuscripts, they decided this was a mistranslation. Rather than horns, it was concluded Moses came down from Mount Sinai with radiance (Exodus 34:29). The cause of this apparent error was the that in Hebrew word for “horn” was similar to the word for “radiant”.
Michelangelo, Moses, Tomb, 1505-1545
With the benefit of hindsight, the bigger picture of occultism emerging while the Christianity was moving the goal posts of Biblical language is an interesting thing to contemplate. The environment was ripe for wanna be gurus to declare their translations were right and all others wrong, however, it was not that simple. The Roman Catholics (as they became known in order to differentiate them from newer denominations) still held a significant seat of power, and through laws and inquisitions, so-called heretical beliefs could result in a person being imprisoned or put to death. Given this reality of the consequences of disagreeing with the Pope, it’s not surprising that if anyone wanted to explore an alternative belief system they had to do so in secret. Occultism’s tentacles stretched out far into realms of Christian mysticism, the Jewish Kabbalah, the Islamic Sufism, Ancient Religions, Alchemy, and more. Were there groups who turned the Christian cross upside down and prayed to Lucifer? Yes, there probably were. Were there groups who venerated Christ as a being of love and prayed for world peace? Yes, there probably were.
There is little doubt cults of all sorts emerged, led by charismatic leaders, who claimed their interpretations of symbolism, or knowledge of the ancients, or whatever angle they chose to take, was more correct than others. We have plenty of examples of such cults from antiquity through to today. The nuances of human nature include a hardwire desire to belong, and cults achieve this very well.
There is also very little doubt in my mind that one of the approaches the Catholic Church used to suppress more splintering of the Church was to label alternative philosophies as evil or heretical, thus occultism became derogatory. In my opinion, the degree to which any of these were truly evil or true, cannot be measured by doctrines alone. As described in part 2: My personal view is that if a cult prescribes any form of abusive, controlling, or trauma-inducing practices (physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually), then it can rightly be defined as a destructive cult. Alternatively, if a group of people who prescribe to a shared belief system encourage positive behaviours like love, non-judgment, kindness, inclusiveness, and trauma-formed healing practices, then it is a positive cult. Within this definition is the capacity for varying degrees of negative and positive traits within cults.
A casual observation of Christianity between about 1450 and 1650 is that men were more likely to be demonised by the Church for their thoughts and beliefs, whereas women more likely to be accused of being witches.
Allegations of witchcraft basically consisted of someone being accused of being involved with supernatural activities that were not approved of by the Church. Ironically, Church history is full of stories about brave men who fought demons and dragons (like St George). But if a woman used their knowledge of herbs to heal, then they were demonised, especially if there was a tragedy like a death in childbirth. Heck, all a woman had to do was give a look of distain and they could be accused of murder, because, you know, a woman eyesight can tarnish mirrors so it’s only logical that their glance could kill someone (see Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Fairest Gender of Them All?). In order to avoid being accused of giving an evil eye, all women needed to do was stay in a perpetual state of happiness and be content in knowledge that their souls were innately inferior to men. To achieve this aim, aspiring to the impossible perfection of the Virgin Mary was encouraged.
By the end of the 1600s, the percentage of people who were literate had risen to about 47% (still mostly males).