Excerpt from From Dawn To Decadence by Jacques Barzun, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

From Dawn To Decadence

500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present

by Jacques Barzun

From Dawn To Decadence
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    May 2000, 896 pages
    May 2001, 896 pages

  • Rate this book

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt

Many of the Protestant tracts were illustrated with woodcuts, by Cranach, Dürer, and other leading artists, which helped propaganda by attracting the illiterate: their friends read them the text. No longer always in Latin for clerics only, but in one of the common tongues, the 16C literature of biblical argument and foul invective began what we now call the popularization of ideas through the first of the mass media.

Some notion of the force wielded by this new artifact, "the book," may be gathered from the estimate that by the first year of the 16C, 40,000 separate editions of all kinds of works had been issued - roughly nine million volumes from more than a hundred presses. During the Protestant struggle some towns had half a dozen firms working day and night, their messengers leaving every few hours with batches of sheets under their cloaks, the ink hardly dry, for delivery to safe distributors - the first underground press. [The book to browse in is: The Coming of the Book by Lucien Febvre and Jean Martin.]

If Luther had no thought of setting off a revolution, what was his aim? He "only wanted to elicit the truth about the sacrament of penance." An innocent question, but timely, because of the current sale of "indulgences." These were a sort of certified check drawn by the pope on the "treasury of merit accumulated by the saints." In popular belief, buying one enabled the holder to finesse penance and shorten his or her time in Purgatory -- or that of a friend or relative. Luther wanted to know whether any substitute for true remorse and active penance could be bought in the open market. He thought the only treasure of the church was the gospel.

Many besides Luther had felt true piety and wanted to worship sincerely, not buy their way into heaven. One form of awakened faith was significantly called devotio moderna. The formation of groups like the Brothers of the Common Life, the founding of new grammar schools, works such as The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis, and the spontaneous attitude of ordinary folk showed that the work of earlier reformers was bearing fruit.

These reformers had been many. From Wycliff in 14th-century England to John Huss in Bohemia in the 15th, heroic attempts had been made to "go back to the primitive church," the humble early Christians, whose only church was their elected overseers. For them the gospel had been enough and so it should still be.

  • 1
  • 2

Copyright © 1999 by Jacques Barzun. All rights reserved. Published by permission of the publisher, Harper Collins. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member
and discover your next great read!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket
    Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
    by Mario Giordano
    Munich matron and self-described worldly sophisticate, Isolde Oberreiter, has decided to retire to a...
  • Book Jacket: Of Arms and Artists
    Of Arms and Artists
    by Paul Staiti
    In the late eighteenth-century, the United States of America was still an emerging country, ...
  • Book Jacket: So Say the Fallen
    So Say the Fallen
    by Stuart Neville
    Noir crime fiction – Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett anyone? – is an American invention...
Book Discussions
Book Jacket
The Bone Tree
by Greg Iles

An epic trilogy of blood and race, family and justice.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Les Parisiennes
    by Anne Sebba

    How the women of Paris lived, loved, and died under Nazi occupation.

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    The Next
    by Stephanie Gangi

    Fast-paced, wickedly observant, and haunting in the best sense of the word.

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    The Comet Seekers
    by Helen Sedgwick

    A magical, intoxicating debut novel, both intimate and epic.

    Read Member Reviews

Win this book!
Win The World of Poldark

Win the book & DVD

Enter to win The World of Poldark and the full first series on DVD.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

One S D N M A S

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.


Free Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with what's happening in the world of books:
Reviews, previews, interviews and more!

Spam Free: Your email is never shared with anyone; opt out any time.