[Note: I have merely recorded what Uncle Dave said. Any blame should be sent to him. He says he can be reached at Shaddupyourfatface DOT com.]
Hello boys and girls. This is your Uncle Dave here, presenting today’s history talk. There’s a lot of things that happened on this day in history. For example, the Austro-Hungarian empire officially ended its existence, but I can tell all of you about it next year on its hundreth anniversary. Hunredth, hundredth, that d-t-h is hard to say.
Let’s see. Nevada became a state today. Uncle Dave can tell you some horror stories about all the money he lost in Reno once. Maybe not. Oh, here’s a good one.
Imagine five hundred years ago today. There’s a small town of Wittenberg, which had about three thousand people at that time. Do you know how many three thousand people is? It’s about the number of L.A. Charger fans who show up for one of their home games. The move was a stupid idea. Los Angeles is only capable of supporting two pro teams at a time, and they already had Southern Cal and UCLA. Anyhow, Wittenberg’s in Germany, and there was this cathedral there. And on this fall morning, five hundred years ago today, we see a monk nailing something to the door. That’s Brother Victor Frankenguber, nailing up the notice of the weekend’s upcoming bingo games.
Now the game of bingo was helped by the printing press, created by Gutenberg about a century or two beforehand. It also helped that Europe finally had paper. Beforehand, they used parchment instead of paper. Parchment is made from the skin of a goat, which meant it was very rare. You can only write so much on the skin of a single goat, even a big goat, and Uncle Dave knows this because he tried to do that in college, but the goat ran away first. And imagine creating every single bingo card by hand. The printing press made things much easier. All you need is one thingamajiggy for each number, what’s that thing you put in the press? You put the stamps for twenty-five numbers in the press, stamp a card, then remove them and put in another twenty-five numbers. You don’t have to write down “17” on the paper each time you create a card. Of course, the literacy rate was very low then, so you had to have some drawings for each number. For example, B-1 would be a dog, N-43 could be an ox, and G-62 would be Durer’s image of a rhinoceros. So Brother Victor would draw I-10, and yell out “I-10, cabbage,” and half the people there would look for the cabbage.
So, as I was saying, Brother Victor was nailing the bingo announcement on the cathedral doors so people could read it, except for the illiterate people, who could at least see the pictures of a rhinoceros with a cabbage and say, “BINGO.” Then another monk, Brother Martin Luther comes along an hour or two later, and nails ninety-five theses to the door.
You in the back want to know what a thesis is? It’s a big report that you write to graduate from college. Uncle Dave wrote one once, and it went on for eighty pages, without a single picture. Imagine writing ninety-five of the dang things. There’s no way you’ll get that on a single goat, so you’re going to need paper to write everything down. You’re going to need a whole lot of paper. Forget covering the door. With that many reports, Brother Martin could cover the entire cathedral. So of course, he’s got to cover up Brother Victor’s announcements with his theses.
Martin’s not only a monk, he’s a professor at the local university. Back then, professors would write everything in Latin, which is the language of ancient Rome. If you look at a map, do we have a map?
Good. Now, here’s Rome down in Italy, and now I’ll point out Wittenberg up in Germany. Wittenberg is a long way from Rome, so only a few people there knew Roman, most of them spoke German. Uncle Dave can speak a little German. In German, a tomcat is female, while, how can Uncle Dave say this without getting yelled at, a mama dog is male. A girl isn’t a “she,” but an “it.” Eventually the Germans get all frustrated and angry at having to call mama dogs male, and they express their rage by invading Belgium or Poland or wherever. Say what you will about French, at least even they can call mama dogs female.
Anyway, the good people of Wittenberg are going to see what’s on the cathedral door, and, instead of the bingo notice, they see all this Latin. Bingo is the high point of the weekend, because, even though there’s a local university, college football won’t be invented for another couple centuries, and there isn’t much to do in a town of three thousand people back in 1517 except die of the plague, which is enough to ruin your weekend, so they go to bingo instead. But, because they can’t see the notice, they don’t go to bingo night, and this bothers Brother Victor a whole lot.
But bingo didn’t cause Brother Martin to cover a cathedral in paper. It was something called indulgences.
You see, a few decades earlier, the Pope decided to tear down old St. Peter’s and build a brand new church.
Oh, you in the back wants to know which Pope. It was the Pope of Rome. We call him that because there’s also a Pope of Greenwich Village, which was an old book. There’s also an old opera called the Saint of Bleecker Street. You’d think Manhattan is the most religious place in the United States. It’s not. I’ve heard more prayer in Atlantic City.
You want the name? Something something de Medici from Florence, but he called himself Leo the Tenth. Never confuse “X” and “tenth.” Otherwise, you’ll say “Malcolm the Tenth” on a oral history test and they’ll say you’re wrong.
Anyway, they’re busy building a new St. Peter’s in Rome, and the bigwigs there want to decorate it as much as possible. They even hire some guy to draw pictures on the ceiling. Now, whenever Uncle Dave enters a room, he looks straight ahead, unless it’s a movie theater, when I look straight down to avoid stepping in used bubble gum and spilled coke. I don’t look up at the ceiling. Nobody looks up at a ceiling, so drawing on it is a big waste of time.
Alright, if your parents don’t like you drawing on the walls, you could get away with drawing on the ceiling. But the ceiling in Rome was so high that Michelangelo, who was making these pictures, had to put up scaffolding so he could reach the ceiling. Good luck trying to hide that. But, as I was saying, they’re paying him to make pictures on the ceiling. That’s a big waste of money because who on earth would want to look up there?
So Leo the Tenth and the church leaders in Rome, which led all the churches in Europe then except Russia and the Balkans, need to get money so they can waste it. Sort of like Congress. So they decide to sell indulgences.
According to Rome, indulgences will shorten the time in purgatory before they get to heaven. The Catholics believed that believers get into heaven, but they have to be cleaned or purged of sin, so purgatory is like a doctor’s office where the sins are removed like gallstones, except that they don’t give you anesthesia, so it hurts a real lot. The difference between purgatory and hell is that purgatory is temporary and you’ll get to heaven in the end, but hell is permanent and you’re always going to be without the anesthesia to knock you out. Imagine a root canal that never ends.
Selling these indulgences is a pretty good scam, because what happens if they don’t shorten the time in purgatory? The people who bought them can’t complain, because they’re dead. People are going to realize that after a while.
Enter Brother Johann Tetzel. He’s going to tell people that these indulgences will let them do bad things and they won’t get punished for them. Want to tell a lie? Buy an indulgence. Want to drop a water balloon on someone? Buy an indulgence. Want to shave the neighbor’s dog and dress it up like David Bowie from his [i]Life on Mars[/i] period, complete with makeup? Buy an indulgence. According to the people in Rome, Brother Johann is doing something bad, because indulgences don’t let you do bad things without permission. But that doesn’t bother Brother Johann. He bought an indulgence.
Eventually, someone in Leipzig named Friedrich wises up. Friedrich asks Brother Johann if he can buy an indulgence for a future sin. Brother Johann says yes. Then Friedrich punches Brother Johann in the face, takes back his money, and says Brother Johann can’t do anything to him because the sin was punching Brother Johann in the face and getting his money back. Serves Brother Johann right.
But Brother Johann still goes on selling his pieces of paper, and most of the money goes to Rome. Now, as I said earlier, Rome is a long way from Wittenberg. It’s a day’s drive by car, but people didn’t have cars then, so the wealthier people had to ride horses, and the poorer people had to go by foot. Some of them had mules, but mules are so stubborn that they won’t go over hundreds of miles of mountains for you, so you end up walking instead.
Also, back then, Germany and Italy weren’t countries. They were made up of little city-states, where each city was an independent country. Imagine if you wanted to go to the next town, but it’s its own little country, and you have to go through customs to do it. It’s like getting on an airplane, even worse. Then, to go to the next town after that, you have to go through customs or the guards at the airport again. Well, to get from Wittenberg to Rome, you had to go through customs a hundred times, which meant that the trip would take forever.
So these Germans are handing their money over to Brother Johann, and nobody gets anything out of it except Albrecht the face-puncher, because all of the money is going to build a great big building they’re never going to see in their lives. This makes Brother Martin mad, but he doesn’t bother buying an indulgence to punch Brother Johann in the face. Instead, he comes up with ninety-five theses condemning indulgences in general and Brother Johann in particular, and sticks them all over the cathedral, which makes Brother Victor angry because nobody shows up for bingo night.
Remember Brother Victor? He needs people to show up for bingo night, because the alternative is dying from the plague, but, even if nobody showed up, he still survives. This confuses him. Also, Brother Martin has just made a powerful enemy in Frau Schwartzentruver, the cathedral’s cleaning lady. Never get into a war with a cleaning lady. She can collect dead cockroaches and put them in your sock drawer. Anyhow, Frau Schwartzentruver was happy that she didn’t have to mop up senior citizen’s drool after bingo night, because none of them showed up, but her mood changed when she had to remove all ninety-five theses. Nails work well on wooden doors, but they don’t work too well on stone, so Brother Martin had hung them up his reports with glue, and Frau Schwartzentruver had to spend a whole night getting the glue and pieces of paper off of the cathedral, and she was only half done by sunrise. Putting cockroaches in Brother Martin’s sock drawer didn’t seem like a good enough revenge.
Cleaning ladies form a network, which is why, when one of them puts dead cockroaches in your sock drawer, another one will put used bubblegum in your pants pocket when you’re busy working out at the gym. This is basically what happened. Frau Schwartzentruver had a friend in Coswig, who had a friend in Rosslau, who had another friend in Aken, who sent the news on to Calbe, who carried it to Schonebeck, who relayed it to Frau Schornsteinfeger, who’s the cleaning lady for Albrecht von Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Magdeburg. Albrecht is also the Archbishop of Mainz, which means he has a lot of expenses from paying custom duties for the seventy-eight different cities he has to go through when traveling between Magdeburg and Mainz.
Frau Schwartzentruver, Frau Schornsteinfeger, and every cleaning lady in between thought that Albrecht would get mad over the costs of cathedral cleaning. What they don’t know is that good old Archbishop Albrecht was skimming off half the money from Brother Johann’s sales of indulgences in order to pay his travel expenses. He could have been archbishop of just one place, but then it would have been hard for him to escape town whenever the ordinary bishops wanted to talk with him. This way, when one showed up at Mainz, Albrecht could say, “I’m in Magdeburg instead,” and the bishop would have to go all the way to eastern Germany, when Albrecht was hiding out in Zürich the whole time. Unfortunately for Brother Martin, this was one of the times when Albrecht was actually in Magdeburg, and he decided to declare war on Brother Martin, so he asked him for copies of all ninety-five theses.
Albrecht’s decree gets back to Wittenberg, where Brother Martin starts writing his reports again. Then he realizes something. Gutenberg had invented the printing press decades earlier, so he doesn’t have to write all ninety-five theses down by hand. He can go down to the 1517 equivalent of Kinko’s, get them to print out a lot of copies of those theses, and have them available to print out. Fortunately for him, Brother Martin is also a professor, so he sent the bill to the university, which is due to pay the printer any decade now.
You there say that isn’t how it really happened. Well, were you there?
Just how old do you think Uncle Dave is?
Seven hundred million? Then Uncle Dave would have been around just five hundred years ago, and he could have been in Wittenberg then.
How do you know he wasn’t? You said you weren’t there!
Back to our story. Archbishop Albrecht realizes that, with that many reports, there must be something there that can be used against Brother Martin. Albrecht got through several paragraphs of the first report before he fell asleep from sheer boredom, which could happen to any of us who reads academic writing. When he wakes up, he knows that it’s going to take a long time to for him to go through all of those books, so he does what any bigwig would do: shift the problem to someone else.