Imagine for a moment that we are able to climb into one of those fabulous time machines of science fiction fable, set the clock back five centuries, and travel across half a millennium to Europe in 1489.

We arrive on a hill overlooking a village, amid green grass and yellow daisies. Before us we can see the red-tiled roofs of houses in the town, their steep slopes broken up by small windowed dormers. Our eyes are almost immediately drawn to the church and its high bell tower, which seems to form the center of the town, and which stands above all the other buildings, as if to direct and draw them up, as it were, into the heavens.

Our initial view is shaped by the romantic illusions we have brought with us from our more complicated technological world of rabid schedules and interminable rush-hour traffic.

The village we see before us is “picturesque”; a village, we imagine, bustling with friendly, healthy, hard-working people, who will surely welcome respectful strangers into their integrated community. These fortunate folk have no need for words like pollution, economic decline, ecological disaster, social despair, or nuclear winter.

The idyllic image, however, passes quickly. Even from a distance, we begin to focus on the dirt houses and the thatch roofs scattered without order around and within the village. (Those quaint red roofs are on the houses owned by the most prosperous inhabitants.) As we wander down from our pleasant, grassy knoll and enter this charming little village, our romantic curiosity turns to shock.

Everything stinks! We alone seem to notice the garbage floating in the rough-cut canals. Our breath is taken away by the mingled odors of smoke, refuse, and cooked cabbage.

The people we see have obviously not bathed. Indeed, they are filthy, and appear never to have washed. The result is only too evident. Their hair is unkempt; they are missing teeth. (They have never heard of nylon combs, toothbrushes, disposable razors, fingernail clippers, steam irons, deodorant, or Kleenex tissues.)

We cannot mistake the rich who appear in the streets. They are dressed in finery—deliberately chosen to mark themselves off from their inferiors; though their clothes, like those of the less-fortunate folk around them, have a somewhat wrinkled look. They travel with a retinue, begetting both fear and contempt in the eyes of the lower classes. However, they are as feeble as anyone before Fortune, who is close to being considered a deity by both rich and poor.

In the thatched roofs we can now and then hear the squeaking and scampering of rats. If the people only knew, as we know, that those rats carry fleas that can transfer the bubonic bacillus to human beings: the black plague.

There appear to be many more crippled people around than in the comfortable society we have left. In this world a broken limb can easily result in death, and if it does not, its mark will always remain; for a broken bone cannot be set properly. In this world, what we consider simple, easily cured diseases, kill or maim permanently.

Everyone is in the narrow streets. It is here where business is done, gossip is exchanged, visiting occurs, fights break out, games are played, news is announced.

And there is much news in 1489. The Turks are moving ever closer. There is almost always a public execution to be spoken of, acts of revenge to be commented upon, warnings that since December 28 (the anniversary of the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem) fell on a Thursday last year, all the Thursdays in the coming year will be ill-omened. Even more are there warnings about the imminent end of the world.

No one has reason to mention the insignificant birth of a son, three years earlier, to a Saxon miner named Luther, but the church bells (often affectionately given personal names) are always clanging to announce the beginning or conclusion of a life, dangers to come or joys to behold, a religious procession, a pilgrimage, a traveling preacher with a particularly entertaining style.

News of Change

Other great news can be told as well. A new method of printing books is sweeping Europe, and it is said that in a very few years affordable bound volumes will be available on almost every subject imaginable. Talk abounds about new discoveries everywhere. Intelligent youths excitedly discuss the system of “humanistic” learning, and dreams of traveling to Italy where a whole new world of artistic expression is breaking forth in literature, music, architecture, sculpture and painting.

Mention is made of the great possibilities for the study of Greek, since many precious Greek manuscripts are now in Italy, brought by scholars who were forced to flee Constantinople after its capture by the Turks 30 years before.

Also, in spite of the cynicism among a large part of the laity concerning clerical offices, and the decadence of many clerics themselves, there are signs of hope for the reform of a church burdened by weariness and despair.

New orders of dedicated clergy and laity are being formed in Italy and elsewhere. Renewal movements are stirring in most monastic orders. Possibilities for reform exist as never before. But whether reform will remain merely potential or tip forward into reality, few can say for certain.

These hopes which reach forward to a new world are raised up and cast down at almost the same time. This paradox is perhaps best exemplified in the person of Giovanni Battista Cibo, the son of a Roman senator, and the man elected Pope Innocent VIII in August 1484.

The State of Rome

Before entering the priesthood Giovanni had fathered three illegitimate children. After entering the ecclesiastical world he made use of his earlier training at the Court of Naples to win himself influential friends and to secure a bishopric and become a cardinal.

He was a friend of the violent and ruthless Cardinal delta Rovere (the nephew of Pope Sixtus IV). When Rovere, who wanted to be Pope himself, realised he could not win in the election in 1484, he used power and bribery to secure the papacy for Innocent VIII. This way he could control the papacy, by controlling Innocent VIII, until he could get the position himself. (Rovere was elected Pope Julius II in 1503.)

A weak and ineffective leader, Innocent VIII found himself in an impossible situation. The tool of delta Rovere, he was forced to enter quarrels and wars not of his own making. To pay the costs, he expanded the papal bureaucracy and sold the new posts to the highest bidders. In 1489 he planned a meeting of major European states, hoping to form a united crusade against the Turks.

However, Innocent was not a mere pawn of those politically more aggressive. Although nothing came of his meeting in 1490 for a crusade, he did arrange a sort of truce with the Sultan.

He was also deeply concerned with church reform. He continually attempted to improve clerical morals, and moved firmly against ecclesiastics who made use of their offices for personal gain. But he vacillated between corruption and reform, offering no clear signs to those about him who were willing to play a role in ecclesiastical renewal.

It is said that on his deathbed, he begged the cardinals to choose a person of stronger moral fiber than he had been. Unfortunately, they did not heed his advice, and less than 25 years later a more violent form of social and religious change proved tragically necessary.

Schwenckfeld’s Early Years

Into this troubled, expectant world of Innocent VIII, Caspar Schwenckfeld was born at his parents’ estate of Ossig in Silesia.

Now a part of Poland, Silesia was then and remained until the end of the second world war, predominantly German-speaking.

We know little of Schwenckfeld’s early life, a fact which seems to suggest that it was for the most part normal for his day. (Those who write the lives of persons they consider great, tend not to report the obvious.) In all likelihood he was born in 1489, but we do not know the day or the month.

No one saw fit to report the pattern of his education and although he studied at university for a time, he seems not to have felt it necessary to complete a degree. His life was, in all likelihood, fairly well pre-planned. As the intelligent and socially well-adjusted son of a “good” family, he could gain a reasonable position at one of the courts of Silesia or elsewhere.

It is, thus, not surprising that we find him serving as an advisor to Duke Karl I of Munsterberg-Oels from 1511 to 1515, and undertaking a similar position with Duke George I of Brieg in 1515. In 1518, after this seven-year “apprenticeship” and being almost thirty years old, he raised his status significantly with a move to the Court of Duke Friedrich II of Liegnitz.

It was here at Liegnitz, in the very year of his move, that all the normal expectations that a young and talented civil servant might have had, ended.