From Abelard's day to the late 1400s, more than seventy-five universities started. By 1490, seventy of these were still functioning. 1 The Roman Catholic Church had passed its highwater mark and was in many respects in a slow decline. There were still many pious believers, but every level of the church had dark corners needing reform. The papacy had always had its highs and lows. There were more downs than ups in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Discipline was lax in many monasteries. The functions of priests were often performed by vicars (substitutes) who had to charge fees for baptism, marriages, and other church functions because the titular priest kept most of the salary for himself. That the church had become for some an avenue to privilege and a way of avoiding grinding toil was evident even in Abelard's time. Special canon courts in which professional churchpeople were tried for civil offenses gave them a decided edge over the rest of the population. The only crime usually punishable by death for a member of the religious establishment was heresy. Murder or lesser crimes by a cleric against a non-Church person usually provoked only a fine.
The taxes paid by peasants, merchants, and small farmers helped support the relatively luxurious lives of professional churchpeople. Many ordinary folks resented the mockery of students and other clerics who had the protection of canon law but felt little need to observe the Church's obligations. When economic and social resentment combined with feelings of thwarted nationalism, the stage was set for what historians call the Reformation.