The precursors to the Reformation

This article is the twenty-second of an ongoing series from EuroClio providing teachers with ideas and practical resources for teaching a range of topics in their classrooms. You can find a wealth of additional resources including units, source collections and eLearning activities on the Historiana website and you can read the other articles in the series here.

Five centuries of reformist dissent within the Roman Catholic Church

Although Western European countries seem to experience a increasing secularisation, globally religion is still a significant part of human societies and culture. Western Europe itself experienced devastating religious wars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. To understand why religion was deemed important enough to wage war for, what was at stake for contemporary actors, one could study the dissent and the reforms with the Late Medieval Church. This might help students also to understand (though not condone!) religious violence in our own times.

Historiana has recently developed a new source collection entitled ‘The precursors to the Reformation: Five centuries of reformist dissent within the Roman Catholic Church’. This collection discusses the major reforms as well as a number of dissenters in the Medieval church. The collection begins with an examination of the background of these reforms and the reforms themselves. It then continues with describing the aforementioned reformists, both people usually considered to be precursors to the Reformation and people who are still regarded as ‘Catholic’, like Francis of Assisi for example. The collection explores their ideas and their relationship with the medieval ecclesiastic authorities.

Francis of Assisi
Source: St Francis blesses the birds, one of 25 scenes painted by
Giotto in a fresco at the Upper Church of St Francis in Assisi.
University of Bologna via Europeana, #64486.

Ideas for Teaching Historical Thinking with this Source Collection

There are several ways in which this source collection might be used to promote students’ historical thinking:

  • Continuity and Change: Examine the ideas of all the reformists in the source collection and describe which criticisms to the medieval church developed towards of the Middle Ages (and how they changed) and which points of critique were repeated by several reformists.
  • Cause and Consequence: Investigate the social en political developments from 1100 CE onward and how they might have created different religious needs, thereby causing a need for church reform.
  • Perspective-taking: Investigate the perspectives of various reformist on the true Christian life and church and why a significant number of medieval people took great interests in this subject.
  • Significance: Draw conclusions about the relative significance of
    reformists and their ideas.
John Hus
Illustration in Gerardus Outhof, Philosophy of Life, Netherlands 1731. VU University
Amsterdam Library via Europeana.

The precursors to the Reformation: Who was the first true Medieval Reformator?

The example eLearning Activity provided on Historiana entitled: ‘The precursors to the Reformation: Who was the first true Medieval Reformator?’ presents a lesson idea which uses an online mode of teaching and learning. The lesson aims to develop students’ skills in drawing justified conclusions about historical change and continuity as well as significance.

After a brief introduction, students are provided with a number of factsheets on several reformers, combining historical images with
background knowledge. First, they are asked to study the factsheets
and place the reformists in the correct chronological order on a time line. Then they are instructed to compare the ideas in order to describe which points of criticism did they have in common and on which issues do their ideas seem to differ. They could move the reformist up and down vertically relative to the horizontal time line, to indicate their relative significance. The ideas of which reformist are understood to be the most significant development. Finally they are asked to review their analysis to ascertain which of these reformers had the greatest impact on the Reformation.

Of course, the results of this elearning activity could be used as a starting point for a real-life discussion, either in groups or with the entire class. Relevant points of discussion might be: ‘What criteria did students use to decide the relative significance of every reformist?’,
‘Why did the reformist deemed most significant best meet these criteria?’ and ‘Why do you think lay people in Late Medieval times were engaged in these reforms?’

As with all Historiana eLearning Activities, this activity can be saved to ‘My Historiana’ and then edited and adapted for use in your specific classroom context.


Historiana would not be possible without the efforts and generous contributions of historians and educators from Europe and beyondand the support of the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union.


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