In 1415, the Roman Catholic faith had sunk into complete moral and political collapse. With no answers for more than a century of famine, plague, pestilence, and nonstop warfare, the church authorities instead exhausted themselves fighting over the meagre spoils of a civilization gone rotten.
Three different Popes claimed the Throne of St. Peter—Gregory XII, Benedict XIII, and John XXIII—with a viciousness that would make a modern politician blush. Sodomy, simony, extortion, all manner of thuggery were alleged, and only because they actually happened. Priests squeezed the increasingly impoverished peasantry for phony indulgences none could afford. Papal Bulls and Crusades were spat out with all the cynical abandon of a modern Imam’s Fatwas and Jihads.
So in 1415, when the church fathers arrived here on the German-Swiss Bodensee for the Council of Constance, they knew they had to do something. The European world held its breath while the Popes were dismissed—the Frenchman and the Italian resigning, the Spaniard putting it all on the Jews until he was excommunicated anyway. But this left the question of what to do with the growing chorus of cries for fundamental reform.
Here the fathers made a fatal error. They guaranteed the great Czech priest Jan Hus safe passage to come to Konstanz and explain himself, but then changed their minds and burned him at the stake. Naturally, they gave Hus a chance to recant—or, in modern terms, to sell out—but with an obstinacy that might sound foreign to our timid sensibilities, he turned them down.
It would take another 100 years for the ensuing outcry to grow into the Protestant Reformation, and several centuries of riot, civil warfare, and mayhem before the new churches emerged as we know them today. But everything has to start somewhere, and if you’re a Protestant Christian, your faith might as well have been born in the flames spiraling heavenward from this square.