It’s easy to overlook, when diving into the details of the Reformation, that a lot of other very important things were happening at the same time. There’s the Renaissance, of course, whose capital—Florence—we’ve just visited. Boticelli died the same year Luther walked to Rome; Leonardo da Vinci began his training in anatomy. The same rebirth of classical learning that spawned this artistic renewal came to take a great part in the Reformation in the form of Humanism—which was developed by theologians in a particular way and was dedicated to simple virtues and a return to the pure, written sources of the faith.
But for those with a more revolutionary sensibility, an even greater event was fomenting, not in Europe but on the other side of the Atlantic: the Christianization of the Americas. I say revolutionary because that’s what the friars who participated in it would have said. The discovery of all those people, formerly unknown and uncountably abundant, meant for thinkers like the Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas that a new apostolic age was upon us. The twelve Franciscans who went into Mexico later in the 1520s were numbered with a purpose, seeing themselves as the new apostles for the New World.
The habit of breaking the world into ages is as old as history itself; but it took a new fervency in the period leading up to and around 1500. The discovery of the Americas fueled an already burning fire. Martin Luther later constructed a sequence that went Greeks, Latins, Germans—and saw his own reforming activity as part of the perambulations of an uncontrollable Spirit.
The coincidence of the Reformation with the discovery of the Americas did not go unnoticed. Late in the 16th century, reflecting on 80 years of religious conflict, Gerónimo de Mendieta in his Historia eclesiástica indiana compares Luther with Mexico’s conqueror Cortés, both of whom were born in the same year: “[God] chose as his instrument this valiant captain, Hernán Cortés, in order to open the door and prepare the way for the preaching of His Gospel in this New World, thus compensating the Catholic Church with the conversion of many souls, and undoing the great loss and evil that would be done by accursed Martin Luther.”